"Marisa," Esther breathed, clutching my arm and sinking into the seat beside me. We were at a Mexican restaurant celebrating a fellow mom's birthday. "I have to ask you something."
"Shoot," I said. We'd only met a handful of times, linked by our mutual connection to the birthday girl and our 2-year-olds, so I was flattered by her sudden interest in me.
"You've worked part-time. You've worked full-time. You've been a stay-at-home mom. Which is better?"
Her question made me laugh out loud. From the little I knew of Esther, it seemed like she was the one who had it all figured out. The fact that she thought that I of all people had the answer — ha! I felt, at once, all-powerful and all-fraud.
My feelings of fraud ran deep. How could I speak to Esther about being a stay-at-home mom? She'd done it full-time for two years; I'd done a mere stint. Three months of maternity leave to my infant son and three months this past Summer to him as a toddler. Compare this to any mom who does it day in, day out, for years at a time, and it's unfair to put myself in her shoes.
My work experience was different, too. For most of my friends, the job decision was binary: go back full-time or stay home full-time. That's it. After maternity leave, I'd returned to work part-time: two-and-a-half days at work, two-and-a-half days at home. One foot in the work world, one foot in the mom world. I appreciated the balance but often felt like I lacked solid footing in either, unsure where I belonged.
Full-time work came during the most delicious age: 18 months. Reluctantly, I swapped my son's giggles and toddles for the camaraderie of coworkers. And, oh my, the independence. Reading a book on the subway commute! Popping into H&M on my lunch break! Using my somewhat-moldy brain! But my parenting suffered. Pre and post day care, my brief hours with my son felt all discipline, no delight. I feared our bond had a permanent rift.
Four months of full-time work was all I could muster, but jumping straight into full-time mom mode for the Summer was not the reunion I envisioned. I struggled with my identity daily, hourly. I worried I forgot how to enjoy my son or that he'd prefer to be back at day care. By the end of the Summer, we found our groove, but by then, it was time to return to part-time work — which is what I've settled on for now.
That all the roles were impossible. That all the roles were OK. That we were all just trying to make it work each day, whatever that meant for each of us. That I admired her, and that I hope she admired me.
"They're all hard!" I finally sputtered to Esther, making her laugh.
But there was so much more I wanted to tell Esther — so much I wanted to convey about our silly and serious mommy wars. That all the roles were impossible. That all the roles were OK. That we were all just trying to make it work each day, whatever that meant for each of us. That I admired her, and that I hope she admired me.
In truth, here are the three things I've learned having tried it all:
- Us part-time moms, we get dizzy in the double life. We fear that we're not as valuable or committed or just plain present as our full-time coworkers. We wonder if moms on the playground are judging us, not really letting us into their circles because it's hard to remember when we're available — is it Monday/Tuesday or Thursday/Friday? We can barely keep up with our schedules. Why should they?
- Us full-time moms, we worry we're missing "the best years" of our children's lives. At work, we compete with child-free coworkers who can stay late while we run to relieve nannies or do daycare pickup. When we finally get time with our kids, we forget how to truly be with them, how to walk at their glacial pace while they collect acorns, how to play pretend with trains and trucks. Or playing is lost to logistics of packing lunches and sorting out schedules. Because Monday through Friday feels like one big to-do list that only continues after tucking them in and tethering ourselves back to our tech devices.
- Us stay-at-home moms, we get lonely and question our identities. The same playground can look different if you go on a happy day or a day of self-doubt. On a happy day, pushing your child on a swing can feel downright euphoric. On a self-doubt day, you feel foolish (and full of static cling) as your child insists you go down the slide — again. You half-hope, half-don't that you see a mom you know, because maybe she'll judge your inner Oscar the Grouch. You chose this, you wanted it so badly, so why aren't you enjoying every minute?
Honestly, I haven't witnessed the mommy wars. Not first-hand. I've been lucky enough to meet moms who wish me well when I work and welcome me back when I don't. I've met moms like Esther, who share the same questions I do. Which role is best for me? Which is best for my kid(s)? Which one makes me happy?
If only these questions were so easy to answer.
The truth is, after tucking in our kids at night, the moms I know all do the same thing; we all have this one thing in common. After a day of counting down the hours till bedtime to some much-needed alone time, what do we do? Like Stockholm syndrome victims, we return to our captors, taking out our phones and swiping through photos of our babies, gushing over the little people they've become.
And perhaps, more often, we should be picking up the phone to call each other and commend the jobs we're each doing. To acknowledge that we're all trying our asses off. And that we're all doing OK.