Saturday, October 29, 2011

Have it all, do it all, dammit all: Aug. 4, 2002

One of my most humbling realizations as I navigated my 30s was the understanding that the "have it all, do it all" bullshit I had always believed was just that. I love my work. I love being a mother. But I was frankly lousy at having it all and doing it all. I'm truly glad this dilemma is now a decade behind me.

Motherhood and the art of compromise

    I hit a milestone of sorts this spring: One year of not being a newspaper reporter.

    I used to think I would always be a reporter. It was my job for nine years, if you count my stints at college papers. It was the only job I ever really wanted, and I loved it.

    Newspaper reporters get to see everything, from interstate pileups and murder trials to City Council meetings and ballgames. They take readers to places they would never go, show them what they might otherwise never see. They get to tell great stories, and they don’t even have to go to the trouble of making them up.

    Granted, the hours can be unpredictable and the pay generally ranges from pretty bad to decent. Deadlines can make your stomach hurt. Editors can make your head hurt. And sometimes, especially during the years I covered the crime beat, I saw and wrote about things that left me crying in an office bathroom stall.

    But I felt lucky most every day I was a newspaper reporter. I felt I was doing the job I was made for.

    Before my son was born, I had a plan. I would take a few months off, then return to work once he was old enough for day care. It sounded good at the time. I mean, I certainly wasn’t going to quit my job. Not me. No way.

    I worked through my pregnancy, right up to the Friday when I waddled over to my boss to say goodbye for the weekend.

    "See you Monday," I said, peering at her from behind my enormous belly.

    She laughed. "I don’t think so," she said.

    Jack was born on Sunday. I took a few months off. We got to know each other.

    I found out he liked his bouncy seat, but preferred to sleep on my chest. I learned that his laugh started with this little "nya" sound. I discovered our creaky porch swing was more soothing than any lullaby.

    I also realized what everyone had tried for months to tell me: Babies are the hardest work there is. You are on call every minute of every day, with no pay, at a stunning level of a sleep deprivation. Showers become a luxury. Days are a blur of feedings, diapers and naps.

    After a few months of hard labor with a baby, I missed my job. I missed my co-workers, the energy of the newsroom, the sounds of adults talking. I missed feeling competent. And my family certainly missed my paycheck.     
    I did not, however, feel ready to put Jack in day care.

    I returned to work when he was 4 months old, having cobbled together a compromise plan to work a three-day, 30-hour week. Family members rearranged their schedules to be with the baby on the days I was gone.

    We juggled Jack. On work days I came home at lunch to visit. In the evenings I tried not to feel sad when I heard reports of all the funny things he had done that day. When there was more work than there was time, I returned to the office at night and wrote while my family slept. I worked from home on my days off, doing phone interviews with a baby in my lap, taking notes as Jack yanked the phone cord, grabbed for my pen.

    After a few months, I was exhausted. I felt I was neglecting everything: my son, my job, my marriage. And seven months after I returned to the newsroom, I found myself sitting in front of my boss, trying to explain why I was quitting a job I loved.

    It turned out not much explanation was required. Everyone understood. I think the only one who was surprised was me.

    That was 16 months ago. Now I work part-time, nights, editing stories and filling in for vacationing co-workers. It’s flexible, it lets me spend some time in the newsroom. As long as my husband and I are excruciatingly careful with our money, it makes ends meet. Best of all, I get to spend my days with Jack.

    I still miss being a newspaper reporter, though. I miss it every single day.

    But my son is 2 now — old enough to bat away my hand when I offer it, independent enough to chant "no no no" when I try to steal a kiss. I’m glad I was there when all he wanted was to hold tight to me.

    Maybe my career will never be what it could have been if I had stuck it out, kept working, plowed my way through the hardest parts. I know I’ve done some compromising. And now I know better than to try and predict what my career will look like in two years, or in 10.

    But childhood is so short, and it happens only once. Careers, if you’re willing to revise your expectations, can be a bit more forgiving.

    Besides, my life usually feels a lot more like a gift than a compromise. Missing my job is difficult. But it is easier, it turns out, than missing my son.

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