Last night, my three-year-old daughter wanted to pretend she was the mommy and I was the little girl. She wanted me to go to bed, and then wake up to get ready for school. She walked me to school and kissed me good-bye: “I gotta go to work!”
A moment later, she'd come back in the room, and we'd act super excited to see each other, reenacting our after-work routine as she played the mommy. We ran to each other for hugs. We said, "I missed you!" and "I love you!" And then she'd say, "Let's talk about your day."
It was adorable, but after about the fifteenth time, I started to think it was kind of disturbing. This play-acting is all about us being apart. Is this how she makes sense of her life? Saying goodbye to me every morning? I go to work and we miss each other all day? Why does she want to act this out? Is that normal? Is that healthy?
I got shamed at the post office last week.
My youngest daughter was with me. I was mailing a gift. The older woman behind the counter asked me how old my baby was (thirteen months), commented on how cute she is (very), and then asked me if I stayed home with her.
"No," I said, "I'm a college professor, so I'm back at work this fall."
"Oh," she said, clearly disappointed. "Well, does she stay with family?"
"No," I said, with a forced smile. "She's in a wonderful daycare that we really like."
The woman shook her head sadly. "She misses you."
The thing is, I am reluctant to join the conversation about working moms. It makes me profoundly uncomfortable, and not just because of the way we throw around arguments about gender and privilege and parenthood.
For me, there’s another factor that amps up the discussion: I feel guilty about choosing to be a working mom because I am making that choice even though my first baby died.
My daughter Eliza was suddenly and unexpectedly stillborn in December 2010, when I was eight months pregnant. Nine months later, I was still in a fog of grief, desperately trying to get pregnant again, needing a reason to get out of bed, and not knowing what else to do with myself. I started my first full-time job as a college professor. My second daughter was born the following summer. I stayed home one semester, worked part-time another semester, spent a summer at home, and then went back full-time. Two years later, I had another baby girl and did it all again.
Now I’m back at work full-time, with two children in daycare and one dead baby.
After experiencing the loss of a child, some women give up careers or put them on hold to stay home with their living kids. These women say things like, "I just can't imagine missing a moment of this when I had to miss a lifetime with my other child."
I get where they are coming from. I do.
And statements like that kick me in the teeth.
I constantly grieve that I'm missing a lifetime with Eliza, and yet I choose on purpose to miss all kinds of moments with my living children.
I suspect people judge me for that choice. And that bothers me because I want people to see how much I love all three of my daughters. The pressure of motherhood feels amplified. One of my children died, and I really don’t want to screw up the other two.
Even though my living kids are safe, healthy, and (apparently) happy.
Even though I worked hard to earn a graduate degree and (for the most part) I enjoy my job.
Even though my girls spend their days finger painting, socializing, arranging flowers, and singing songs to guinea pigs.
Even though I get irritable and bored when I'm home all day every day (to be fair, I get irritable and bored at work sometimes, too).
I worry that I will regret this choice, or what it means about my motherhood if I don’t.
On a recent commute to work, I listened to a podcast interview with a Harvard business professor. As I merged onto the highway, where I’ve spent so much drive-time wondering how my choice to work might be affecting my children, I heard her explain that having a mom who works has no effect whatsoever on a child's happiness.
I hit cruise control and let that idea settle for a moment.
My job helped me climb out of the pit of grief. It gave me an identity outside that of bereaved parent. I’m confident that, had Eliza lived, I would have gone back to work and experienced much less angst about it.
If I trust this research that my girls’ happiness is not at stake here—something I’ve always believed, but never knew there was research to confirm it—then my decision to work becomes less a matter of good and bad, or right or wrong, and simply an issue of personal preference.
When I get home tonight, my daughter will pretend to be the mommy going to work, just so we can race into each other’s arms when reunited. And we’ll do it all again the next day.
Of course, I still fret some about our time apart. Yes, I miss them in the hours we’re not together. The fleeting and fragile nature of life is not lost on me. It helps to remember, though, the research that says that no one’s current or future happiness is at stake here (except, perhaps, mine).
I hope that what my daughters remember from growing up with a working mama who has lost a child is that I don’t take for granted our moments together. Each night, I return home with arms open to their hugs and kisses—and that ritual brings me a level of joy that they can hardly match.
Written by Brooke Taylor Duckworth. Brooke is a working mother, bereaved mother, and Mommy to two wild and hilarious little girls. She lives in the Midwest with her daughters, one sweet and stinky old dog, and her most favorite husband. When she's not reading, grading papers, or play-acting at home, she's writing about all the things that make her laugh and cry on her blog, by the brooke.
Photo by Rebecca Hansen.