I’ve recently discovered a female comedian who I love more than Tina Fey (…sorry, Tina). Her name is Ali Wong, a half-Chinese, half-Vietnamese hippie first-time mom. It’s accurate to say that she’s a louder, smarter and more sexually vulgar version of me.
(If you haven’t watched her comedy special “Baby Cobra“, you need to drop what you’re doing and watch it right now! If you just gave birth, stick on a sanitary napkin because you might tinkle from laughing so hard. Here’s a clip below.)
In “Baby Cobra”, she says many outrageous things about culture and feminism that I would never be brave enough to say out loud. I particularly love her commentary on her dream of being a housewife. She says exactly how I feel about the intersection between my career and motherhood right now:
“I’ve been reading that book by Cheryl Sandberg…she wrote that book that got women all riled up about their careers, talking about how we as women should challenge ourselves, to sit at the table and rise to the top. And her book is called ‘Lean In’….well, I don’t want to lean in, okay? I wanna lie down. I want to lie the fuck down!”
When I heard that line, my inside voice quietly shrieked,”YES! Someone understands how I feel!”
It’s true. My idea of a really good day is one where I’m able to plop down on my ashy gray carpet, stare up at the ceiling like a dead corpse, and have nothing waiting for me to do, even if it’s only for ten minutes. No milk to pump out of my body, no baby cries that need soothing, no dishes to be washed, no toys to pick up, no career milestone to work towards, no exercise to be exercised, no one to call back or text.
Did I mention that my all-time favorite activity is sleeping? Oh, and my second favorite is dreaming.
As for my career, I am in a line of work that provides great fulfillment and self-growth. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else, I really wouldn’t. But I just don’t have any aspirations to be “the best” like I did during my overachieving school-age years. I don’t have dreams of being a rising star in my field or to gain prestige in my work. I don’t want to work towards being a best-selling author or being invited to speak on Dr. Phil. I simply want to go to work, do what is expected, get paid and be able to forget about work when I am home.
I didn’t used to be this unambitious. From ages fifteen to twenty two, I had been president of four organizations, worked at notable jobs and for notable people, studied abroad, won a leadership award and was sent on a trip to Brazil, volunteered at many non-profits, and was actively working on my life goal of “saving the world”.
Perhaps the selfless toil of that life stage did me in, or motherhood sucked out all desire in me other than to sleep and to keep my child fed and alive, but the truth is that I don’t have lofty life goals anymore. I just want to have a job that I don’t hate and, most importantly, I want to spend the majority of my time with my family or by myself doing nothing.
Exactly a year ago, I ended my three month maternity leave and returned to my full-time job. In the weeks leading up to this, anxiety was seeping through my skin. In my heart, I felt that it was too early for me to return to work. My baby could barely hold her neck up and I was barely adjusted to being around grown-ups again. I knew I was not going to be able to handle working full-time while tending to a household of my baby, husband, dog and mother who was living with me at that time. But I wanted to attempt it to prove to myself and my husband that I could become one of those “how does she do it?” mother.
You know what I’m talking about. I’m talking about one of those SuperMoms who work 40-60 hours a week while raising multiple kids, cook three course organic meals every night and is able to train for a triathlon while functioning on 4 hours of sleep every night. All this, without any coffee or stimulants of any kind.
You may very well be one of those mothers. Don’t worry, I have no resentment towards you, only envy.
I surprised myself during my first week back at work. I was actually feeling optimistic about this whole work-all-day-and-mother-all-night routine. I enjoyed seeing my colleagues again. I didn’t cry every morning when I left my baby like I imagined I would.
But then the second week came, and the shit hit the fan. The fatigue that collected over many nights of interrupted sleep took over my brain like a white fog. I had trouble concentrating. I had trouble making coherent sentences or talking without the awkward, “Uhh, give me a minute…what is that called again? Hold on…oh yeah, a ______!”
And on top of that, I was actually expected to start working at my job–I couldn’t just spend the whole day talking to my co-workers about my baby–damn it! The three times a day pumping schedule was very stressful because my job required me to travel to different sites. It was hard to know if I would have a private place to pump or if I had to resort to pumping in my car or a bathroom. During my first few weeks, I had the experience of pumping in the bathroom of a police station and while driving…I know, exciting right?
I began to feel very sad not spending the day with my baby. My head filled with thoughts of, “I can’t believe I’m missing so many important moments with my baby. I’ll never have these moments again…” My family life was becoming tense and stressful. And as if you couldn’t add more rubble onto a crumbling foundation, my Siberian Husky, Julius, became very sick. Any free time that I had left were spent taking Julius to the vet, cooking a special diet for him, and shoving his medicine down his throat even thought he would spit it up every time.
I’m not sure I knew it at the time, but I believe I experienced postpartum anxiety after I returned to work. Anxiety is no stranger to me, but I’ve never felt it as intensely as I did during this time. I had chronic thoughts of worry about work when I was home with my baby and chronic thoughts of worry about baby when I was at work. I worried about my performance at my job and as a mother. I worried about how my husband was adjusting to all of the changes. I worried that my dog was about to die. The chain of worry thoughts slithered through my head and had no end.
I remember a distinct morning when I was sitting at my desk at work, and my body started getting hot just thinking about an extremely minor thing, like whether I put someone’s paperwork in the right envelope. I felt like I was on the verge of a panic attack.
That day, I fully accepted that I was not going to make it as a “how does she do it?” mom. I couldn’t live up to the expectation of other people wanted me to be, a full-time working mother who could maintain her sanity and a double-income household.
I had no qualms about bringing up my personal difficulties to my supervisor. As a mother herself, she was extremely supportive of my needs. She provided me the option of working three days a week at a position that required no traveling.
The hardest part was bringing this up to my husband. I didn’t want to disappoint him. I felt weak for not holding it together. Maintaining our current income was very important to him and I felt like I was holding us back in our financial goals. But with everything going on, I knew that there was no other choice for me. Despite my worries, my husband was supportive of the idea of my going down to working three days a week. We also decided to put our baby in daycare for part of the week which would increase our financial costs but it ultimately was for the best.
It took me a while to get my workload down so that I could officially work 3 days a week but once it happened, I felt like I could breathe again. I was able to practice being present again–no more worrying about work at home and home at work. I was able to savor every moment with my baby and soak in the joy of my baby’s every new word, gesture, or facial expression.
I still have those moments where I feel I have to prove my worth to myself and my husband. As archaic as this sounds, I hold the idea that because I’m not a full-time working SuperMom, I am of less value. I have to make up for that gap in value by the amount of housework that I do and number of homemade meals. I’m completely aware that it’s because I’ve internalized modern-day social ideas that shame stay-at-home moms. How ironic is that mothers who stay home to take care of their kids all day–which is often more exhausting than just going to work–have to prove their worth to society! I tell myself this all the time and yet, I haven’t quite figured out how to throw this belief out the window.
Thankfully these beliefs do not rule my life. I am grateful every day that I’m able to have balance in my life and have the option of working part-time. I am not a work horse and don’t have the physical or mental stamina right now to work full-time. Neither would I be able to make it as a full-time stay-at-home mom. Frankly my baby thrives from the diversity of caretakers throughout the week, and I enjoy still having my foot in the professional world.
Because of my reduced work load and the costs of having a baby (daycare, diapers, replacing socks that disappear into thin air, etc.), we have a very simple life. We don’t have a lot of material things, we don’t eat out often, and our weekend activities usually comprise of library visits, parks and long walks. But our life is full of joyful moments, together moments, and, now I occasionally have those lying-down-with-nothing-to-do moments.