“You CAN have it all. You just can’t have it all at once,” Oprah Winfrey once opined.
Most women interpret this quote as having concocted the perfect brew: a lucrative and fulfilling career, well adjusted and happy offspring, and an über love-life. For me, “having it all” means something quite different. For me, it means having had the choice to stay home and care for my children, rather than “outsourcing” this most important job. Like so many other American women, that decision was made for me, not by me. I have struggled to come to terms with being a working mom, or a “Power Betty,” as my cousin calls us, for the past nineteen years. As I approach my fiftieth decade though, I’m finally ready to forgive me.
Over the years, I have blamed many for my predicament. I have resented my husband for putting me in the position of having had to contribute to the family income. I have been livid at the talk radio hosts who applaud stay at home mothers, (STAYs” as I refer to them) without a single accolade for working moms. I felt betrayed by the feminists for spinning the lie that women can do and have it all. I have been irate at the politicians who provide benefits to those able, but not willing to work. My primary wrath though, was reserved for STAYs. I was jealous because they were doing what I coveted. I was hurt by their seemingly judgmental comments. And, I felt guilty for being resentful, livid, betrayed, and hurt.
Before I reveal my newfound freedom from guilt, I must first explain it.
I rarely played with dolls as a young girl, nor did I devour bridal magazines as a young woman. Although I assumed I would one day marry and have kids, I was not obsessed with the notion. When the time came, I “knew” I would raise my own children, just as my mother and most of her generation had done. Who wouldn’t want to?
I was married at twenty-eight. My first pregnancy occurred soon thereafter, and was unexpected. From the beginning, I knew I would want to spend every minute with this yet to be met being. I also knew that I would not have that chance, at least not right away. My husband had just started a business, and we needed the steady income and benefits my job provided. My only solace was that it was “temporary.” Guilt is born.
At eleven and one and one half pounds, my son was nicknamed “The Guard” by the nurses in the maternity ward. Knowing I must eventually return to work, I enjoyed every single minute of my sixteen-week maternity leave. OK, that is a slight exaggeration. I was not immune to the dark, sleepless nights, fog filled days, oodles of insecure moments, and ample love handles. However, I tried to cherish each moment, pleasant or not, because I knew the clock was ticking. My last night as a STAY was one of my worst. I barely slept, starting to doze only as dawn approached. Alas, it was time to start this new nightmare—uh life, as a Power Betty. I somehow managed to nurse my son, pack our bags, slap on the war paint, and bundle him up that frigid December morning without being late for work. I thought, ‘If this is the prize for equality, what is the penalty?’ Little did I know how much more difficult navigating the guilt ridden life of a Power Betty would be. I took solace in the fact that my parents were thrilled to watch their first grandchild three of the five days I worked. This was a huge relief, primarily because my son was being cared for by “the next best thing.” And, after many a long day, I arrived to a piping hot home cooked meal, which helped ease me into mommy mode. Still, it broke my heart to leave him every day.
It seemed like whenever I managed to keep self-imposed guilt at bay, insensitive comments such as these jolted me back to reality. “I loved my job too (I don’t ever recall saying that I loved MY job), but taking care of him/her was more important to me.” Or, “How can you leave him? He’s so young.” This happened on numerous occasions, and it cut like a knife each time.
My guilt was vast and had many tentacles. Most revolved around the exciting and sweet moments I missed. While toiling in the corporate jungle I missed first steps and words, cuddle time in the middle of the day, nursing a bad fall, field trips, and lazy summer days frolicking in the waves. This was coupled with a ton of ancillary guilt. Here are some doozys!
- Sending the kids to school or daycare sick, hoping the Tylenol would last
- Being angry at my husband
- “Spinning” my Power Betty status
- Neglecting work
- Neglecting my husband
- My short fuse and even shorter sex drive
- Wanting time for myself
- Betraying the feminist movement by not wanting it all
- On occasion, having been over-served “mommy juice,” aka red wine
Days turned to weeks, then months. On Friday nights, my small family collapsed into bed almost immediately. Many of my STAY friends used Friday nights or Saturdays as “me time.” They had earned it from a long week spending time with their kids and managing household responsibilities. Hadn’t I too earned it by working AND playing mommy? How selfish of me to even think about sacrificing the already scarce and oh so precious time with my son!
Four years later my beautiful daughter had joined our small family, and the “temporary” work situation had become rather permanent. My days went something like this: Arise at the crack of dawn, fluff and buff, feed and dress kids, get kids to their respective destinations, battle the morning commute, play the corporate bull!!$$ game for eight-plus hours, battle the evening commute, feed and clean kids, read obligatory stories (that’s what good moms do), try to avoid sex, prepare for the next day’s adventure and collapse, book in tow. Quite frequently, I was able to spend some “quality” time with the kids—in the wee hours of the night. Now, my husband did help me—a lot, but a man is still but a man. So, can you imagine my resentment when a STAY would say, “I’m so exhausted.” They’re tired? Sorry, that was mean—guilt grows.
Summer is a Power Betty’s worst nightmare. Babies become “real people.” Emerging from their cocoons, they become acutely aware that many kids don’t go “to school” all year long. Instead, they spend summers at the beach and play hockey on the streets! “Why can’t you stay home like everyone else?” “Is your job more important than me?” “I hate camp!” “Don’t you want to spend time with me? “I’ll never make my kid do this.” Guilt, straight from the mouths of babes, is the worst guilt of all!
During those early years as a Power Betty with young children STAY friends of mine would often say, “You’re so lucky to be working, at least you’re appreciated.” Or, “I’d love to have a lunch hour, like you.” Yeah, right! I rarely sugar coated my responses. I wasn’t playing nice—more guilt.
Snuffing the guilt and finding ways to be the best mom I could be was always front and center. I worked hard to craft a flexible work schedule, threw my kids the best parties, attended all of their games, and never took a vacation without them. Still, I never felt like it was good enough. And, every time I stole more than a day for myself, the guilt would gurgle.
The comments continued over the years. “I chose my children over material possessions.” “Maybe that child would be better behaved if his mother spent more time raising him than she did working.” “If she didn’t spend so much money, maybe she could afford to stay home with her kids.” Really? Who wouldn’t feel guilty?
As I approach fifty, I feel less guilt, resentment, betrayal, anger and hurt. My husband has been my partner, not the enemy. Together, we rode the wild ride of raising good kids and taught them the value of teamwork. I realize that feminists were trying to help women become all they could be, but still believe they over estimated our desire and ability to be and have it all. I still wish I had been a STAY, but respect women who feel differently. I urge my daughter to position herself to be able to choose—life is so much easier that way.
As I’ve grown and matured I’ve had many conversations with STAYs. I learned a lot. I learned that many of the comments I heard from STAYs were not intended to hurt, but were a manifestation of their own frustrations. Although most would not swap lives with a Power Betty (wisely so in my opinion), many felt frustrated by the monotony of day to day child rearing. They felt unappreciated and undervalued by their spouses. They felt pressure to be perfect because they were not “working,” in the traditional sense. They too, felt guilty for coveting the “freedom” they associated with working. Understanding them better has helped to alleviate my guilt. As for the STAYs and others who really do judge Power Betty’s—I forgive you, for you know not what you say.
My two babies are now sophomores, one in high school and the other in college. Both are healthy, well adjusted, happy young people on the right track. Our family is extremely close and I am so grateful for all that I have. Instead of guilt, I feel pride in how my kids turned out and that I succeeded in the most important job ever, in my own Power Betty way.
I no longer feel guilty for being a Power Betty. Well, that is not entirely true. Remnants of guilt will always remain, but I know I did the best I could. I forgive me.