A few weeks ago I was in the middle of a big project at my go-to Starbucks when an older gentleman sat down next to me and started a conversation. Despite my internal frustration (these are precious and, expensive, childcare hours, dude!) I answered his questions. Am I married? Do I have children? Where are they? When I tell him my kids are at preschool he says how nice it must be to have time to rest and enjoy myself.
There is a long pause after his comment, when I’m unsure how to respond. Often, this time away from my very active and loud children does feel restful in comparison to my life as a mom. And yet on the other hand he hasn’t seen the sacrifices, schedule shuffling and internal struggles I battle to make it happen.
I decide to tell him the truth.
“Actually, I’m a part-time writer and editor,” I say, bracing myself for his curious questions. He responds in a way I’ve heard many times before, “That’s wonderful! It must be nice to have a job that’s so flexible.”
I nod, grasping for the right response. It’s all very complicated, isn’t it? On one hand, he’s right; my job is very flexible and that means I can pick my kids up from school, take them grocery shopping mid-day, and still have a reason to update my LinkedIn profile. But on the other hand, flexible feels hard.
Two mornings a week, I drop the kids off at preschool and then frantically drive to the nearest coffee shop, so I can maximize the 3.75 hours left of my workday.
There are many benefits to my “work-from-coffee-shops gig,” and while access to calorie laden baked goods is the most obvious perk, it’s not what keeps me returning every Tuesday and Thursday morning. Better than any pumpkin spice muffin and sugary drink is the feeling I get when I put the finishing touches on an essay, finalize an email newsletter for a client or find the perfect source to quote. For 7.5 uninterrupted hours every week, I get to do all these things, and for the other 158 hours I’m home with my kids doing interrupted business related tasks amongst the mundane and miraculous moments of motherhood.
I recognize that I’m in a very privileged minority of people who have a choice when it comes to how much I work, and where I do it. Knowing this makes it hard to talk about the downsides of the life I’ve chosen, and yet I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s all a lot more complicated than outside appearances make it out to be.
Flexible work comes without benefits like vacation days and sick days and healthcare options and consistent paychecks. It means we make some sacrifices when it comes to how much we save each month, and it means we say no to a lot of travel opportunities, kids’ activities or new purchases we’d love to buy.
Flexible work means that when babies have arrived every few years, my work suffers. I pare back commitments while adjusting to their schedules, then have to ramp up again a few months later, never knowing who will want to hire me or how I’ll squeeze commitments into inconsistent naptime hours.
Flexible means I don’t have reliable childcare because babysitters cancel and children get sick and everyone wants me to pay them a lot of money to watch my kids when I don’t make a whole lot of it myself.
Flexible means working at night, or on the weekend, and then not for three weeks because that really dependable contract suddenly ended, and the other company that said I could start on Tuesday is now avoiding my phone calls so I’m paying for childcare but don’t have the income to justify the expense.
Flexible means that, like so many other moms, I’m delicately making decisions that work for my current season of raising young children while also considering how the choices will affect me in a few years once they’re in school full time.
Flexible means putting some of my own dreams on hold, desiring to do more and be more, while also being grateful for what I have now.
Many days, I really don’t know if I’m making the right decisions when it comes to balancing motherhood and work. Are there right decisions?
But there is one thing I do know with 100% certainty and you do, too. Love is sacrifice, and no one knows sacrifice like mothers do. We’ve been practicing this art of sacrifice since moments after the first pregnancy test when diets change, and favorite wine gets temporarily shelved for nine months. For some of us, the sacrifice starts even earlier, with IVF needles and complicated medical procedures. We’ve given up our bodies to make homes for babies, and our skin and bones are never quite the same again. We’ve given aways thousands upon thousands of dollars to bring babies home through adoption, or to take care of children with challenging medical cirumstances. We’ve been sacrificing sleep every single night to keep newborns alive, and we’ve been drinking cold coffee every single morning because there are just so many needs between 6:00am and 8:00am. And, when it comes to work, many of us are temporarily or permanently giving up the ideal for this will do.
These years raising young kids—with all their great needs and unpredictability—means that I have to be okay with some sacrifices when it comes to my professional life. Some days, chasing kids and chasing my career dreams seem like opposing goals. But occasionally, and just often enough, I can see beyond the juggling, beyond the cancelled babysitters, beyond the stressful deadlines. I am making sacrifices—we all are—because we believe in the beautifully tough job of raising children.
Because there is nothing about parenting that’s a flexible arrangement.