I write you a letter each year on your birthdays and for big milestones – like the first days of preschool and when you became sisters. This letter memorializes a new milestone. I am going back to work full-time after five years staying home with you. I am standing at the threshold that all working mothers before me have crossed. A crossroads filled with mixed emotions – ambivalence, worry, heartbreak, excitement, relief. Many have no choice but to cross it as soon as their maternity leave ends. I’ve had the unexpected, good fortune of delaying it until the time was right. That time is now. I know this transition will be hard for all of us, but I also believe we will come out ahead in the end. I am excited about this new phase, yet wistful, worried, and grieving the role I am giving up.
I keep stopping myself from writing explanations of the reasons why I accepted a full-time job, wanting to justify this to you, to myself, to the world. But I will leave those explanations for another day, another letter. You aren’t old enough to understand them and they are not what will be important to you this week. What is important is that you know I made this decision with the best interests of you, myself, and our family in mind – even though it may not seem like it to you when I am not here to braid your hair or pour your cereal in the morning.
Being a stay-at-home parent was never a job I anticipated doing. I always imagined myself working outside of the home, even after having kids. But as all mothers know, becoming a parent is a game changer, in nearly every way. These past five years have been equally the most joyous and the most challenging of my life. I know I am incredibly lucky to have had this concentrated time with you and will truly miss it. We shared many wonderful experiences and made a lot of friends and priceless memories. But I also long for other things, some experiences of my own. That is why you will start seeing me put on work clothes and go to an office every day like daddy.
When daddy went back to work a few weeks after you were born, none of us questioned his return to full-time work. Yet the same decision has haunted me for the past five years. My inner conflict mirrors our culture’s competing messages about working and raising kids. I am confident in my decision to return to work and believe the time is right, but the change in our family structure is going to rock your little worlds. For that I am sorry and I wish it could be easier on you. I’m counting on you to prove my worries wrong. There will be new experiences and opportunities for you to thrive on in this deal. I am doing everything I can think of to make this transition as smooth as possible for you.
Unfortunately, my search for rewarding, financially feasible part time work came up short. I wish I could have found something with fewer hours so I could be more present for you. But the silver lining is that I successfully negotiated a flexible schedule when accepting this job, so I intend to do my best to be with you as much as possible and when you need me. And rather than accept a reality that doesn’t work for me and many other parents, I decided to do what I could to change it and created a new resource promoting flexibility and work/life/family integration (www.theflexfrontier.com). I want you to see the importance of advocating for ideas you believe in and I want things to change before you become mothers.
I know come Monday when I am sitting at my new desk, I will once again find myself longing for something else. This time it will be thoughts of you. Missing both of you. Wishing I was reading to you or watching you ride your bikes. Wishing I could be painting pictures with you, or that I could surprise you with a trip to the zoo for the day. Wishing you weren’t going to be sad when you see the babysitter and not me arrive to pick you up from preschool. Wishing you weren’t going to have to feel sad about mommy being gone so much. Wishing I could have made this transition more gradual somehow. Wishing that striking a balance between work, life, and family did not require so many painful sacrifices.
We live charmed lives compared to most women in the world. Yet the majority of women of my generation struggle deeply with the challenge of integrating family and career. I hope if and when you read this letter many years from now, you will find it hard to relate to these hard choices. I hope you will see women and men fulfilling their passions – both professional and familial – with flexibility and ease that has become commonplace. I hope the dilemma of work-life imbalance will be as shocking and hard for you to believe as are the stories your grandmother tells me about her experiences working as a secretary in the Mad Men era. And I sincerely hope that this five year investment we’ve made together will bring returns in the form of the confidence, intelligence, resilience, motivation, and happiness that I dream for you.
I love you and miss you, but I’ll be home soon.