For the past two and a half years, my family has lived on one salary: my husband's. But in a few days, that's going to change. I'm going back to work full time. With three children — the oldest of whom will be applying to college in just six years — a mom's gotta do what a mom's gotta do. In my case that means bringing home more bacon.
I've been down this road before. Like many professional women, I spent years juggling my marriage, my career, my kids and my sanity.
The woman in the daycare parking lot dosing her toddler with Children's Tylenol so she could get in a few hours at the office before his fever spiked? That was me.
The little girl who was crying because her mother missed her field trip? She was mine.
And were those my kids standing forlorn and alone in the lobby after school? You betcha.
It didn't help that my patient, wonderfully supportive husband worked more than an hour's drive from the kids' schools and my office. If someone felt sick or forgot their lunch, that phone call was all mine. One memorable day, I was buried up to my eyeballs in paperwork, taking a breath between conference calls, when my cellphone rang:
"Hello, Mrs. Kinney. This is Joe White."
"I'm sorry, who?"
"This is your son Liam's teacher calling. You need to come to the school right away."
Yes, this really happened. And, yes, I'm still embarrassed that I didn't immediately recognize the name of my son's third-grade teacher two weeks into the school year. I mean, what kind of mother does that?
I spent nine years striving to be the best at everything, only to realize that, most of the time, it was all I could do to summit pinnacles of mediocrity. So I did something drastic. I left my well-paying job with the federal government to focus on my family.
I was fortunate. Not everyone has that option. Still, it wasn't an easy transition. We tightened our belt and duct-taped the buckle. We stayed in the house we had meant to flip and ignored the unfinished list of home repairs. We swore to eat our leftovers and then scolded ourselves when we threw them out. I was prepared for all of that.
But I never expected to feel bereft. I gave up a part of myself when I stopped being a professional working woman. I didn't know how to identify myself without my armor of business suits and high heels. At work, I was a human resources specialist. I had significant responsibilities and clients who sought my counsel and valued my opinions.
At home, I'm a harried, sometimes haggard woman who consults friends and combs the internet for parenting advice.
Although my responsibilities are no less significant, my children tend to be selective listeners and have no shortage of their own opinions. "But I don't need a bath!" "Johnny's mom doesn't limit his video game time!" And my favorite: "You're the meanest mom, ever!" During these moments, my old office appears in my mind's eye like an oasis.
For a while, I worried about being labeled a stay-at-home mom, and fretted when someone asked me that casually loaded question: "So, what do you do?" I'd tell people I was a mother, a writer, a volunteer, and then I'd watch with irritation as their eyes glazed over as soon as I used the "M" word. You think you know me, I silently seethed, but you don't.
I heard myself asking other mothers, "What did you used to do?" and heard myself saying, "I used to work for the government." As if being a mother weren't enough.
And then, last fall, when my youngest child started kindergarten, I realized I felt whole again. It dawned on me that I was content with my life and my choices and I was — dare I say it? — happy. My identity crisis was over. Perfect timing.
It is, actually. I'm glad to be starting a new job feeling confident about myself and my abilities. And I'm very grateful for this gift of time I've had. My children are now 6, 7 and 11 years old. They're bright, self-assured kids with varied interests. They probably won't recall later in life how they helped their mother redefine herself in the everyday moments of the life we shared.
But I'll try to remember the lessons I learned when I was home with them. That life is full of changes. That whether I'm a working woman or a stay-at-home mom, the only labels that matter are the ones I give myself. That I need to enjoy where I am, and not worry about how much better I think things could be.
The grass isn't always greener somewhere else. I'm standing on the greenest grass. I just need to spread my toes and breathe.