Of all the things to worry about on the first day of a new job—the dress code, the social hierarchy, impressing the boss, the lunch situation, the actual job performance—the most complicated, for me, came after having kids. All the usual worries remained, but now I had to contend with getting two additional humans ready for the day, wondering how daycare was going, slogging through days after sleepless nights, the nagging guilt that my choice to work outside the home made me a lesser mother, and, most surprising of all, figuring out how to answer the question, “Who is taking care of your children?”
It’s a question that comes after a lot of information has already been exchanged. I’ve been awarded the job, after all, so I’ve seemingly managed to prove my competence and character and track record. I’ve learned by now that getting interviewers to talk about their kids’ accomplishments tees up the opportunity for me to say, “Wow, you must be so proud,” and people almost always like a person who reminds them they should feel proud of something. I’ve learned how to make an interviewer laugh without ever discussing politics or religion, and I’ve learned that if I can pull that off in the beginning of the interview the rest will be a cakewalk. I’ve learned how to casually mention that I’ve run a couple marathons to demonstrate my work ethic, and how to immediately follow that up with a self deprecating joke about my snail’s pace to demonstrate that I don’t take myself too seriously.
By the time I show up for day one of a job, I have generally presented the best version of myself that I can curate over the course of a cover letter, resumé, phone screen, and two-to-five sit down interviews with whichever hiring managers and executives got to cast their vote about me. I arrive confident.
But when someone asks, as someone always does, who is taking care of my children while I am away at work, it inevitably gives me pause. It’s a seemingly simple question, and certainly one that can be satisfied with a simple answer. In that exact moment while I am filling out HR paperwork or leaning the new CRM software or reviewing past sales numbers, my children are under the care of their teachers or daycare providers or father or perhaps a grandparent if the day was tricky to schedule. I know that’s the answer I’m expected to give, and because the truth of what I’m thinking isn’t exactly First Day on The Job Fodder, it’s the answer I do give.
The truth is that I am indignant to be asked this question. It instantly galvanizes me to feel exponentially more feminist than I really am, biting my tongue not to answer the question with my own question: Do you ever ask the dads who is taking care of their children?
But the truth behind my indignation is that the question scratches at the door of my greatest insecurity: Am I letting my kids down?
Perhaps I will never arrive in my motherhood as confident as I do in my career. Perhaps the question of who is taking care of my children will always feel like it’s just barely stopping short from clarifying, “… since you aren’t.”
The demands of my job mean missed breakfasts and dinners sometimes, and FaceTime calls from hotel rooms instead of goodnight kisses at home sometimes. It means I don’t volunteer in their classrooms and they eat cafeteria lunches. It means the Halloween costumes are from Costco and the birthday party cupcakes are from a box and I’m not hosting after school playdates as often as the Good Moms are. It means, “be quiet I have to take this phone call,” and “yes you can watch another show while I finish up these emails.”
But the demands of my job also provide my family’s main source of income right now, and health care, and stock options that just might pay off the mortgage one day. It allows me to model hard work and sacrifice and time management. It allows me a sense of accomplishment that makes me care less about having an immaculate house which means I nag less than I used to. It offers me an opportunity to be a team player and feel proud of myself and be perpetually learning.
While the time and energy I devote to work can sometimes feel like it comes at the expense of what I should be devoting to motherhood, it is not without its own merits, both obvious and peripheral.
Who is taking care of my children, you ask?
I’m doing it with plenty of help from my husband and their teachers and their grandparents and some friends who always seem to have better snacks than I do, but I’d like the record to state that even as I fill out this paperwork or learn that software program or forecast that budget, this is all part of how I am taking care of my children.
I am providing for them and modeling for them and encouraging them. It may not look as homemade and precious and motherly as that impossible ideal that still comes scratching in my vulnerable moments, but motherhood cannot be curated in the same way a job interview can be.
Maybe one day I’ll be better at accepting that. Maybe one day I won’t feel so worried that surely I am letting my kids down, somehow, in some way. Also, maybe not.
In the meantime, though, I’ll be mothering and working and loving and continually trying to just do my best. In the meantime, I’ll be taking care of my children.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.