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Going back to work, supermom image intact

August 30, 2010

At some point during my first pregnancy 12 years ago, I was swept up by the idea that I needed to be the world’s perfect mother.

I left a demanding job that I loved to take 14 months of maternity leave for two kids, and then spent the next decade working part-time or not at all.

That demanding job nourished me, and it pained me to stay home. But I didn’t want to leave my daughter’s side and I got used to the novelty of not being at the office at 10 a.m. And I eventually stopped asking myself, “Who are all these people in the coffee shop — don’t they have jobs?”

Recently, it became clear it was time to go back, but I wondered: Would I leave the Perfect Mom title behind?

Working part-time had been stressful. My schedule-juggling wrought havoc on my colleagues, and I felt guilty for working less than they did.

But I loved being home with my daughter, and later my son, who arrived 20 months later. I liked carting them around to the grocery store. I liked taking them for runs in the jogger and singing them to sleep for their naps. I wasn’t crazy about story hour at the library, but the joys of being home still far outweighed the pains of being a part-timer at work.

Things went on much this way for a decade. But this past May I decided to take a full-time job. My daughter was 11; my son, 10. I was tired of the marginal life of the part-timer. My husband wanted to go back to school. And we had to get better health insurance.

But I worried, of course. What effect would this have on the kids?

Stephanie Coontz, an oft-quoted academic who monitors the torrent of national news and commentary on working and parenting, says kids are happiest when parents are leading balanced and satisfying lives, whether that means working outside the home or not.

“The worst thing you can do as a parent, mother or father, is beat yourself up about the decisions you’re making,” said Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

“That’s a really important thing to remember,” said Coontz. “We actually make it worse when we feel guilty. The kids just want us to relax and have fun with the time we do have.”

So, what has happened?

In three months, little has changed. I dropped my role as a Girl Scout co-leader, but my daughter was ready to move on anyway. I stopped putting away the laundry and started piling it on the air hockey table. The kids put it away themselves. I’m not home in the morning to help the kids find their clothes, homework, and lunches; my husband gets them to school. No one seems to mind.

A few things have made this transition easier. I like the job and have an easy commute, plus I can work 7 am to 4 pm, enabling me to arrive home when the kids do.

Recently I asked my daughter what she made of my transition from part-time to full-time. The conversation surprised both of us. She knew I’d gotten a new job, but she hadn’t realized, until I asked her, that I was working full-time. In fact, she hadn’t noticed a difference. As far as the kids are concerned, as long as I’m home when they get home from school, or shortly thereafter, nothing’s changed.

The lesson in all this for the working mother? Find a job you enjoy that allows you to work reasonable hours. That’s not simple, of course. It comes through good planning and good luck.

I asked some newly working mothers what it was like to make the transition.

“It’s not smooth and easy,” said Christine Beinhacker, an IT worker in Washington, D.C., who returned to work in June when her daughter was six. “It was rough at first.”

“I wanted to be home with my girl, and I didn’t know if I liked the job or the people or the commute,” she said. But after a few weeks, “I realized the people are nice and the job is good.”

If it hadn’t been, “I probably wouldn’t have stood for it, because I didn’t have a financial crunch that has forced me back to work,” said Beinhacker, whose husband owns a small business in northern Virginia.

“I’m feeling pretty lucky right now,” she said.

So am I.

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