It seems fitting, on the eve of the ninth annual Take Our Daughters to Work Day, that we're seeing a little uptick in working-mother news. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has released yet another chapter in its long-running study of the effect of child care on kids, ambiguously suggesting that too much time (amount unspecified, of course) in child care may make youngsters more aggressive. And Massachusetts is having a lively debate about whether it's good, or bad, or indeed anyone's business that its new acting governor is seven months pregnant with twins.
We batten on news stories like these, we working mothers, anxious for even a frightful communal mirror of our ceaseless internal debates. Yet none of our public language for debating these issues -- the antiseptic talk of "work-life balance," of quality time and flextime and part-time -- really touches or describes the persistent, private kernel of doubt and remorse that almost 40 years of social change have left pretty much intact.
So I write, today, in praise of maternal guilt.
After my first child, my son, was born, I thought that one day I would figure out The Answer: that once I had found the perfect child-care provider, and worked out the perfect schedule, and then got used to the perfect strangeness of this new life, it would all stop looking like conflict and begin to feel like fullness. It took me about two years to give up on finding the holy grail of perfect balance; for as long as I had both work and children, I finally realized, my task was not to figure out the one answer but to learn how to live with the knowledge that in pursuing my work, I am in some degree acting selfishly. Not in the high-stakes terms of how my children will turn out, or whether they will thrive, but in the intimate sense that they sometimes yearn for me when I am not there. Guilt, I now think, is the tribute that autonomy pays to love.
Today I think of working-mother ambivalence as a long, low corridor that we (at least those of us who have the luxury of choosing) walk down for as long as our children are young. Some women find exits from it: "I have to work" is the first exit, and for many women it's even true. "Something (Higher-quality child care? Government subsidies? More caring corporations?) should and shall be done to make this conflict subside," runs the legend over another exit door. "It's better (more stimulating, more socializing) for my child to be in day care," says a third. A fourth explains that this is all just politics and personal choices: Where is it written, outside the culture that indoctrinates us, that mothers are so essential to their children? The biggest, most alluring exit of all, of course, is the one that says you're a better mother for doing whatever it is that will fulfill you in the larger world.
But though I see partial relief behind some of these doors, none of them wholly works for me. I am with Nora Ephron, who summed it up with words to the effect that any child would rather have his or her mother in the next room undergoing a nervous breakdown than in Hawaii feeling ecstatic.
Last week my daughter came home with a "book" she'd written at preschool. It had only one page, which said, "This is my mommy at her desk," and showed a purple me superimposed on a yellow rectangle. Now the happy, affirming, Take-My-Daughter-to-Work response to this gift would be to think it wonderful that my 5-year-old has a picture of womanhood that incorporates a life at work. But most days I am more inclined to see this artwork pessimistically, as a protest: Here is Mommy, always at her desk. What I do at that desk feels as necessary to me as food or air, so I go on doing it, with the knowledge that some of the time spent there is time I could also have chosen to spend giving my children something they dearly wish for. All I know, eight years into motherhood, is that I have a better chance of not blowing it in the big ways if I make these incremental choices with my eyes open.
So by all means take your daughter to work. Show her how plausible it is that she could be a scientist, an architect, a marine biologist. But some day, when she's old enough, you must also tell her the truth, which is that, compared to the complexity of doing right by those you love, being a brain surgeon is the easy part.
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