Why Work is Work No Matter What
A Mother’s Return-to-Work Story
Today’s post is one I originally wrote for the National Association of Mothers Centers new branding, “MOM-MENTUM.”
I was enormously flattered to be asked to pen this post for Mom-Mentum, hopeful that I could help and encourage other moms through sharing my story. And then, came an internal tug. After sitting with the struggle for a week or two, I realized that telling the story wasn’t the problem…
Telling the truth was.
The truth is…
I’ve never really stopped working, so telling my “return to work” story means acknowledging a bigger societal issue: After a woman gives birth, using the phrase “return to work” implies that she wasn’t working when she grew that new human being and birthed him or her– and that, marginalizes the work of mothering.
The truth is…
A woman’s body works overtime during pregnancy to create new life. Every cell and fiber of her being is taxed – hard. And then during birth, she works even harder. Then after giving birth, the hardest work of her life begins.
The truth is…
Cultural conditioning has taught us to inadvertently misuse the word “work” by reserving it for activity that only happens outside the home. That also marginalizes the great work of caregiving, whether for the young or old.
The nature of a woman’s work may shift, but don’t think for a second that growing and birthing a new human being ISN’T work. The truth is – It’s probably the most important work in the universe.
The point is – whether you say “poh-tay-toh” or “poh-tah-toh,” work is work no matter how you slice it.
“For me, “return to work” never existed.
I’ve always worked.”
Let’s reconsider how to use the phrase, “return to work,” because it implies caregiving and birthing babies isn’t work, and that is simply not true.
Semantics of work established, here is my story…
I had my first son in 2005, followed by a second son 20 months later. Those blessed births were a blur followed by a series of diagnoses that left my husband and I reeling. My oldest son had emergency cardiothoracic (read: heart) surgery the same month he was also diagnosed with severe developmental delays.
During that time, I never stopped working.
Five days after giving birth to my first son, after a tortuous 36-hour labor, I was back at my desk. I answered emails through massive hormonal shifts that left me wracked with guilt and tears, not to mention the typical physiological trauma from birth was so fresh it still hurt to sit.
During my second labor, I answered work emails all the way through hard contractions. Yes, I did.
Then, I took my babies on business trips cross country and gave educational presentations, all with my breastfeeding sons in tow, because I could “do it all,” I told myself.
Do I regret my “return to work” in that manner? Yes. Yes I do. But I had the wherewithal to regret it in the midst of doing it. I didn’t need to wait for “20/20 hindsight” to appreciate that growing and giving birth to a new human being is enough work in itself.
However, I am a small business owner. In the US, with no maternal leave policy and no family friendly social policy, I am on my own. I don’t get sick days, paid leave, or time off. I had no choice but to work during those critical early years of entrepreneurial investment. I knew that. But the situation would’ve been the same or maybe even worse had I been an employee. Many women lose their jobs or are demoted because they get pregnant. That is still an unfortunate reality in the US.
The compounding problem is that I had already given birth in 2000—to the audacious idea that I could improve healthcare in a profound and lasting way.
“My work wasn’t just a job,
it was a mission–my first love.”
I had a commitment to help people in need, in addition to raising a family. I felt all of these needs, acutely, every single day.
I also did all this without full time childcare. I begged for help, but I was the “strong, independent woman,” so some assumed I was “crying wolf.” And with time, I started to assume the same thing. I mean, was I really a strong and independent woman if I needed to ask for help?
And so… I worked around the clock.
I wrote new courses and pitched new ideas, developed organizational policy, forged new professional relationships at home and abroad. I developed and taught over 200 hours of new coursework in integrative medicine while also continuing to see patients and teach locally. I also moonlighted as a jazz musician, because hey, music is medicine too.
The Giving Tree
In 2011, I was expecting my third son. By then, experience (aka lots of mistakes) had taught me some tough lessons. So before my son was born, I made a 180-degree turn. I promised my unborn son that I would take time for him (despite being self-employed and scared out of my mind to take the risk). But, I was prepared to sacrifice my livelihood and financial stability—for my family’s sake.
“I promised my unborn son
that I would take time for him.”
At that time, the US was three years into the Great Recession and my business had suffered deeply. I sank a great deal of personal funds into my organization to keep it afloat. I was dangerously close to bankruptcy. However, I kept my promise to my son, my family, and myself. And like the “Giving Tree,” I was happy, despite large parts of myself being cut off.
I spent about a year “out of the office” during and after the pregnancy, allowing absolutely minimal intrusion by my business. In essence, I let it go and while I hoped for the best, I braced myself for the worst. I had detached myself from the outcome.
Shortly after making this pre-birth decision, my mantra of “nonattachment” was put to the test.
At 32 weeks pregnant I found myself on a life flight, in the back of a helicopter, being rushed to the closest trauma center for blood clots.
On oxygen and blood thinners, and strapped down to a gurney with my huge belly but still-too small-to-be-born-baby inside me, I knew I had made the right decision. No matter what happened, I would be at peace, doing the best I could for my family.
Everything ended up being fine. My third son was born naturally, healthy, and at full term.
But the lessons kept coming.
During that year “off”, I got to experience the full-tilt crash course on “Caretaking-three-young -children-while-also-treading-water-to-keep-my-career-afloat.”
Even though by society’s (and the GDP’s) definition I wasn’t “working,” I still had to read research, stay on top of educational trends, complete administrative duties, maintain professional contacts, schedule the following year’s work, and maintain my clinical licenses and certifications.
I also discovered that I had suffered a serious injury during my last labor – which took three years, major surgery, and another year of physical rehab, to overcome.
Today, I can stand and walk again without pain.
Today, my work in improving healthcare is flourishing.
Today, my family is thriving and happy.
But it came at a cost.
That cost is plural.
The costs were the consequences of never being able to take the break I should have with all of my pregnancies and children, of never being able to experience complete healing in the ways that a woman’s body and mind physiologically requires after giving birth, of carrying around a big fat suitcase packed full of guilt.
“If I stayed home, I felt guilty for not working.
If I worked, I felt guilty for not being at home with my children.”
The cost was also a high level of stress at home and at work—always feeling like someone’s best interests were being sacrificed on the altar of social conditioning and pressure to “lean in.”
However, there is a silver lining for me, and for all who mother.
I have found, in that enigmatic pursuit of work/balance, that love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, faithfulness, kindness, gentleness, and self-control, and a big ‘ole does of yoga, have sustained me.
I credit my work/life balance with/to:
- Learning how to set boundaries to value and protect my family time.
- Knowing when and how to ask for help. The help of other women, family and friends, as well as the support of a husband who is a feminist in his own right, is invaluable.
- Leaning on those “cloud of witnesses” who came before me as mothers’ rights advocates and mentors. Authors, groundbreaking social scientists, and big thinkers like Riane Eisler and Anne Crittenden (who inspired Mom-mentum’s public policy advocacy initiative years ago) elevate and broaden our minds – and encourage us to take steps toward partnership and gender equality – which elevates not only the status of mothers, but the status of the American family. Their philosophy has become the thrust of my own work in improving healthcare.
- Not being ashamed to admit it takes a village to raise a child. To maintain my organization’s public health mission and commitment (and my own sanity) to improving healthcare, I need a team to help me run my household. I need help to be able to do the work of creative caregiving in both medicine and mothering, just like my husband needs me in order to be be a father and an aerospace engineer. My husband should not be made to feel guilty for providing for his family, and as a mother, neither should I, nor should any mother.
My “return to work” story is, in many ways, every American mother’s story. It is only in the spirit of partnership and egalitarian justice that we can thrive, because what affects one of us, affects us all.
Does my story resonate with you, if so, please share or leave your comments or story below. Thank you!