When I found out I was pregnant, I was working about sixty hours a week for a very nice Jewish non-profit that paid in big karma but small dollars. Math has never been my strong suit, but when I crunched the numbers, I realized that if I stayed at my job, I’d be spending eighty percent of my paycheck on a babysitter, and the other twenty percent on last-minute pizzas. This made no sense, so instead my husband and I decided to downsize our lives, and I quit.
I wasn’t someone who’d ever thought of staying home with my kids, not really. I’d always had a job, for as long as I could remember. In high school, college, and grad school, I’d worked as a waitress, an editorial assistant, a prep cook. Then I’d started doing grant-writing and program direction. I’d never considered not having a job. I liked working. But still I quit.
Almost immediately I got bored. Don’t get me wrong—I loved my son more than anything, but mostly he didn’t do much. He slept and he rolled around on the ground chewing his foot, and meanwhile I stared at the wall or the television, and went quietly insane. So after a few weeks, I got busy.
See, I’d always been a writer. I’d never supported myself that way, but I’d always written. I’d gone to school to write. And suddenly, for the first time in my life, I had these big empty swaths of time to fill. It didn’t take me too long to open up a drawer full of old manuscripts and rejection letters, and begin to reconsider my previous failures.
So, while my son grew into his excersaucer, I wrote. We started out lounging in bed, me on my laptop and him between my legs. Once he could sit up, I set up the kitchen table as a desk, and filled the room with his toys. I remember typing in sync with his bouncy seat. My foot nestled beside him, my hands on my computer. Both of us puttering along.
It was a good preparation (and metaphor) for parenting. A lesson that a person could, in fact, be in two places at once. I was completely with my child, and yet, entirely inside my own head.
The duality of that realization served another purpose too. “Staying home with baby” justified a decision would otherwise have felt selfish and lazy to me—the decision to devote a year to myself and my writing. I focused, really concentrated on my own dream. A dream I’d never been willing to put before the need for a paycheck.
Now, looking back, that unwillingness, or fear, seems ridiculous. Now, with three novels and two picture books about to be published, with a salary (no less meager, but far more fun) of sorts, and the luxury of only needing about twenty hours of childcare a week, not to mention getting to spend my afternoons with my kids—I consider that year of writing the very best investment I ever made. It wasn’t selfish to give myself a year. In retrospect it was smart! And I have my son to thank for that. I never would have taken that risk without him.
Children challenge us in so many ways. Most of all, they force us to redefine ourselves. I was ready for that, but I had always assumed that the new me would be somehow less me. Isn’t that sad? I’d been assuming that becoming a mom meant giving up part of my identity as an individual. That giving up my interior self was the price I’d pay for getting to belong to someone else.
In fact, the opposite happened. My child gave me the power to find an interior, independent self I’d always been too chicken to let out. My son’s physical need for me gave me the tools to discover a satisfying career, an intellectual life, and a creative outlet.
And I feel like the luckiest woman on earth. Most days, I’m the mom-me. I wear scruffy jeans. There’s a gob of peanut butter in my hair. I make Mac and cheese and do the dishes and fold laundry and pick up toys over and over and over. If we’ve got good weather, I go to the playground. And that all makes me amazingly happy.
But every now and then, I get to put on a fancy outfit, and fly to New York, to sip wine with my editor or my agent. And as the plane lifts off, each time, I sit back in my chair, close my eyes, and say a little prayer of thanks—for the baby that brought me two amazing careers.