why i hate to leave my babies (and why i do it anyway)

I love my boys. And I love my job.

And I hate the tension between them.

While my commute being only a walk downstairs can seem enviable, working from home brings its own struggles. Boundaries are blurred. Child care or housework can encroach on my work time if I’m not careful. Or work can seep into every hour of the day and corner of the house if I don’t make myself fully present to my children when work is done.

Yes, working from home means I’m closer to my kids when they need me. Yes, working part-time means I’m able to be with them for much of the day-to-day of their early years. But it also means that when they are wailing upstairs, I can’t run to them – there is work to be done. Likewise, when they burst out in peals of laughter with the babysitter, I miss out on their joy. And that kills me, too.

Both sounds – the cries and the delights – tear at me when I can’t be right there. The flip side of being only a door away is that I am only a door away. And no white noise or background music can mask a mother’s most immediate and instinctive desire to run to her child.

There are other frustrations, of course. Trying to explain to a toddler why he can’t barge in on his mama whenever he wants a read or a cuddle. Pumping milk for a baby in the room right above my head. Navigating the tricky balance between letting a responsible sitter take charge of their care and feeling tempted to micro-manage since I’m within earshot.

And I’ve learned that living in-between worlds – that of the working mother and the stay-at-home mother – means I’m not good at doing either 100%.

Not being a full-time stay-at-home mom means that on the days when I’m with both boys from dawn till dusk with no break for my work, we are all on each other’s nerves by bedtime. I struggle when I’m home with them full-time.

Not being a full-time working mother means that on the days when I have to leave all day (or week) for meetings or conferences, the whole household is turned upside down to prepare for my extended absence. I struggle to get everything organized – for me and for them – to be gone full-time. To say nothing of hating how it feels to slip out of the house before they wake and return late after they’re back in bed.

So my work and my mothering are decidedly a muddle in the middle. Both/and; neither/nor.

And yet somehow I make it work and find the back-and-forth to be life-giving, if exhausting. I make it work because I love my kids and I love my job. I love using my skills and my gifts and my education to help make a small difference in my corner of the world. I feel called to this work and want to give myself to it.

But even knowing that I am blessed to have choices, and choices between good things, I still feel deeply torn on some days. The tensions I feel between my work and my family will never be fully resolved. I simply have to learn to live as best I can within them and rejoice in the fullness of my life writ large, pulled back from the daily effort required to keep juggling all these balls in the air.

One truth I did not know when I started on this mothering journey was how deeply compromised I would sometimes feel about the choices I would make. How much I would envy moms on one side of the fence or the other. But it turns out that parenting is a much more complicated picture than the pretty pastels I painted it to be in my youth.

Motherhood is also about compromise. And ambivalence. And guilt. And fear that if you choose poorly, you may somehow fail the most precious people in your life.

And when we don’t talk about the shadow side of mothering – when we insist upon the illusions of loving-every-second and complete-and-utter bliss – we sell ourselves short. All of us.

Including the God who mothers. The God who works. And the God who calls all of us to become the people we were created to be: people who give ourselves to work and relationships and service and others.

So I share my struggles here, in this space, with you, because I think it is only in the honest claiming and sharing of our stories that we create a community where diverse decisions and situations can be understood. I stake none of my choices as normative: this is simply the path I carved for myself. But showing the truth of it – the good and the bad – and inviting you to share your own story in turn reveals the many ways in which we are called and create our life out of our many calls.

One wish I have is for better language to share our stories. No “stay-at-home mom” lounges in the comfort of her couch all day, and all moms are “working mothers.” Women are called and gifted to serve the world in a myriad of vocations and professions. And it is the goodness of the work we are each called to do that makes our sacrifices “worth it” in the broadest sense.

So how could we more truthfully and creatively share the stories of the work we do as parents: inside and outside the home, paid and unpaid, for our children and for others? And how might this help us to tell God’s story better, too?

Where do you live in this tension?

How is your parenting shaped by compromise or conflict?

How do you embrace the choices you’ve made?

14 thoughts on “why i hate to leave my babies (and why i do it anyway)

  1. Kansas Mom says:

    I was where you are a few years ago. I worked full time from home with regular business trips to New York City. I found as I had more children, the compromise was less fulfilling and more stressful over time. After my third, I started working two days a week and refused to travel. After a year, I started working just one day a week, then one half-day. Now, my fourth is 18 months old and I’m contemplating a new kind of work-relationship, a contract-based consultant. I have lost much of my desire for work, finding enough challenge and friendship in our homeschooling world and parish activities, but do feel a desire to keep one foot in the door. The extra money is nice, too. My husband is here while I work, which I like better than having a babysitter, but I feel a tension with the other things I’d like to be doing. I’d like to bake cupcakes with my daughter instead of work. I’d like to take them on a field trip instead of work. It’s a constantly changing balance, based on the needs of our family. Maybe that’s the hardest part; that I feel like the decision is always in the process of being made. Though I appreciate it’s a luxury I have, to decide whether and when and for whom I will work for money. I feel a great sadness and offer many prayers for mothers (and fathers) who sacrifice time with their family to earn money to meet the most basic needs.

    • mothering spirit says:

      Kansas Mom, I love how you describe the negotiation of work-family balance as “always in the process of being made.” That helps me to see this an an evolving, organic part of my life, rather than a once-and-for-all decision. Your story shows how situations change as families change and priorities/desires change. God’s call changes, too – it’s not static or “once and done.” Important for us to remember.

      And yes, the fact that my struggles and challenges with work-mothering are indeed a luxury (in that we do not depend on my income; rather I work because I want to – for a variety of reasons) can bring with it its own guilt. I’m constantly trying to stay mindful of the fact that this is an increasingly rare situation for a parent to be in, so though I may complain and stress, how can I remain grateful for blessedness in the midst of that?

      • Claire says:

        I think guilt is almost always a factor for any mother in any work/life arrangement. I feel guilty that I only work 15 hours/week, because my salary is much higher than my husband’s, and my family would be much better off financially if I were the primary breadwinner, as I was when my son was a baby. On the other hand, while my son was in great hands with my husband, there are some things that are easier for mothers (arranging playdates with other mothers, among other things) that make it preferable for me to be the one who is home more. We mothers always seem to second-guess ourselves!

  2. Leanne says:

    I actually worked full time outside the home for my son’s first three years. I first worked in higher education and then as a high school teacher. When we had my daughter last spring, I was even more conflicted than I was before, but went back to work teaching in August anyway.

    In November, after much prayer, many tears, lots of number crunching, I took a child care leave of absence from my position. I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back, but for now, it is nice to know I have that option “just in case.”

    Now, I tutor from my home about 5-6 hours a week in the afternoons and I know full well the conflicting feeling of hearing the kids upstairs. I recently reflected on my own blog about how I am glad I have the perspective of working and staying at home.

    I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be home with my kids, but I am still seeking guidance and direction from God about my vocation(s) and his plan(s) for me. I believe in my heart he has given me numerous gifts and many vehicles to use them, but I am still figuring out (or trying to hear) exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.

    Your words, as always, are so touching, raw, and moving. Thank you for sharing! And I have to say (while we’re speaking of envy), I am envious of your (seemingly) “perfect” work situation. Obviously that’s from the outside looking in! I have no way of knowing the reality, but in my mind, it does seem “ideal.”

    • mothering spirit says:

      I definitely know what it’s like to envy from outside looking in, Leanne! Just yesterday after I scrambled out of the house for an all-day meeting, I found myself enjoying a quiet cup of tea listening to my favorite radio station on the drive, with no screaming kids in the backseat, and I thought to myself, “I LOVE THIS. I ENVY MOTHERS WITH A COMMUTE.” And their own real office that is not a guest bedroom. Just like some days I envy moms who get to relax for two minutes while their children nap, rather than scurry to work on a zillion documents at once. Or get to every playdate rather than being the unreliable one who always seems to drop out at the last minute when something work-related comes up. Grass is always greener, eh?

      And I love your reflections on working/staying at home, your discernment about your vocations, etc. Glad we have connected in this online world!

    • mothering spirit says:

      Every time I read studies about how flex-time arrangements promote a greater sense of well-being at work, I find myself hoping that more employers will take this route. It can be an initial inconvenience to set up, and there are certainly speed-bumps along the way. But workers’ loyalty, productiveness, and all-around satisfaction with their work all generally increase with flexible arrangements – from what I’ve read.

      • Monce Abraham says:

        In agreement there. Would hate to see organizations lose out on great people because of ‘work-life balance’ conflicts.

        High time we all worked towards building a culture where work and life, both can be experienced. One life!

        Best, Monce

  3. Claire says:

    I work two evenings/week outside the home, and my husband works the opposite four evenings (we share one day off/week). The best thing about this arrangement is that we don’t need childcare. But it has its challenges. We only have one family dinner/week, but we try to make up for that by having family time during the day since we’re all home. It’s nice having my husband around during business hours to help out with appointments, auto and home repairs, etc. I miss bedtimes and dinnertime on the two evenings that I’m at work, but I’m thankful that I have a job that pays well enough to make a significant contribution to our household income even with me only working 15 hours/week. For me, the ideal scenario would be for my husband to have a 9-5 job that he loves and that pays well enough that I wouldn’t need to be employed at all. Since that’s not happening, our current situation is the next best thing. When my son was a baby I had to go back to work fulltime when he was 3 months old and wasn’t able to cut back to part-time till he was 18 months old, and that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life. It definitely gives me an appreciation for my current situation.

    • mothering spirit says:

      Isn’t it funny how all our arrangements have enviable elements? I read your description and found myself thinking how great it would be to have my husband around more during the day or to have him simply work more from home. But I remember you sharing in the past about your own longings to be home with your son all the time, so I know it’s not a perfect situation. Though the imperfections make us grateful for the parts that are working. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Erica says:

    Thanks for summing up the story of my life these past 11 years. At around 7 months pregnant with my first I knew I wanted to be a stay at home mom, whatever that meant. I felt a strong desire to be with my baby but a strong dedication to my other vocation as well. Over the years, and 5 babies later, I am still a full time mom and full time working mom. For me, it all comes down to Ora et Labora. My motherhood is my prayer and my job as a professor is my work. St. Benedict speaks of finding the balance and for me that is always changing with the wind. I have worked in the evening, I have taken a full school year off with number 4 and 5, I have have taken classes and worked 2 jobs, taught online, etc. Each school year I pray long and hard about what the next year or just the semester may bring. I have been blessed to teach at Catholic Universities that understand my desire to be a full-time mom and work. But, I must say that the number one factor, the only reason I can even sleep through one single night, is because of my husband. We are both in this ride of parenthood 100%. WIthout him I could not do a portion of either one of my vocations.
    Blessed to be a full-time mom!!

    • mothering spirit says:

      Such a beautiful and honest description of your discernment, Erica. Your story (and your presence, for those of us blessed to know you) is such a witness to how God calls us in many ways, throughout the changing seasons of our lives. I admire so much the way you have woven together your work and your motherhood – and I affirm what you say about having a strong marriage as the foundation. To have a committed partner share in the work and the call is the heart of it all! Thank you for sharing and for being an example for us as we have started our journey as a family!

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