The Unexpected Primary Caretaker

This piece originally appeared on The Salt Collective, a now-defunct online magazine about culture, faith, and politics.

“I just love being with Spencer all the time,” she said as she crawled up the play structure, on the heels of the child in question.

I was at a neighborhood playground with a new mom-friend, our toddlers happily ignoring each other.  We had met at a preschool open house the weekend before.  Our sons were less than 3 months apart, we lived mere blocks from each other, she had an engineering degree from the prestigious university down the street, and she was a full-time parent.  Excited to find another high-achieving mom who spent a lot of time taking care of her kid, I got her number immediately.  I had so many questions for her:  I wanted to know how she made the decision not to work.  I wanted to know if she still had professional ambitions and, if so, how she was keeping them at bay while she raised her child.  I wanted to know if the same drive and intellectual curiosity that had gotten her that degree ever made it frustrating to read the same Elephant and Piggie book eight times in a row.  I wanted to ask her all the questions I’d been wrestling with for the last 21 months, questions that neither my working-mom friends nor my stay-at-home friends could answer.

Five days later, we were having our first playdate, and I was quickly learning that we might have less in common than I thought.

“I can’t imagine having another kid for at least three and a half more years,” she continued. “We’re just having so much fun.”

I looked at her as she animatedly chatted with her son.  Then I looked down at mine, furiously turning the steering wheel of the plastic car he was sitting in, and sighed.  I was in my eleventh hour of the day with him, and there were still two more to go before bedtime.

So much for a friend in a similar situation, I thought.  I could not relate to anything she was saying.

***

Until I had a child myself, I knew virtually no stay-at-home parents.  Both of my parents worked, as did all the parents of my childhood friends.  When they had children, the high-achieving folks with whom I went to high school, college, and grad school all took as much parental leave as they could before returning to the full-time jobs their educations had earned them.  I did not expect to be any different.

But when my husband and I started talking about having kids, I found myself considering a different path.  I was trying to start a second career (really a fourth and fifth career, but who’s counting these days), building a caseload of career consulting clients and starting to write in earnest.  It wasn’t the best time professionally to have a child, but my circumstances did offer the possibility of caring for a baby by day and working by night.  Not to mention that our nearest relatives were 2,000 miles away and I was not, at that point, making enough to justify the cost of child care — which, in the San Francisco Bay Area, rivals the coronary-inducing cost of housing.

On top of the practical concerns, I was curious about what it was like to be a primary caretaker.  When I was three, I told my parents that I wanted to do every job in the world for 10 days — doctor, McDonald’s cashier, mother — and that statement had proved surprisingly prescient.  Even after working in three different fields and dipping my toes into two more, I wanted to know what it was like to be a full-time parent, at least for a little while.  And frankly, it sounded refreshing to go from juggling too many things for, oh, my entire life to having only one focus every day.  So I decided that I would be the primary caretaker, and after taking a month or two off, I would start writing again and seeing a few clients in the evening and on weekends.  No big deal.  I didn’t know anyone else who had this kind of arrangement, but it seemed like it could work for me.

Not surprisingly, things turned out to be far more complicated in reality.  The first year was a blur of naps, feeds, and diaper changes — one in which I ended up getting very little work done at all.  After the one-year mark, though, my energy started to return.  I started writing again.  I started speaking again.  I got a job teaching about race and sexuality.  One of the pieces I wrote helped spawn an organization into which I was excited to pour my limited time and energy.  The little mental space I’d been able to clear out after a year of parenting was quickly filled — and then some — by work.

The remarkable thing about this transition is how much better I felt after I resumed working.  To no one’s surprise but mine, I loved working again.  I was energized in a way I hadn’t been in more than a year, and not just because I was sleeping more; I was buzzed from checking things off my to-do list and making things happen.  I was less bored when my son and I went to the playground for the second time that day or read There Is a Bird on Your Head! nine times in succession, because I had other ideas percolating in the back of my mind and other things to look forward to.  Paradoxically, I was a better parent now that I had other things going on in my life; I was more satisfied overall, and when I was with my kid, I was more present and more intentional.

Not to say that life was perfect.  For all the energy and meaning it gave me, having more things to do meant more stress and less sleep.  There were moments, like when my son initiated a fifth lap around the block, when I wished I could be using that time to write instead.  He was constantly changing, and whenever one of these changes took place — in his nap schedule, in his activity level, in the sudden advent of tantrums — my work life had to be reorganized in turn.  And the boundaries between work and childrearing were hazy at best; I went from chasing him through the house in the morning to writing emails during his naps to chasing him around the block in the afternoon to grading papers when he went down for the night.  My weekdays were sometimes 18 hours long, and my weekends — time when I would ideally be resting more and spending more time with my family — were often no different.  When working only evenings and weekends started to feel unsustainable, I had to decide if and when to start child care; then I had to decide how much, weighing how much I could justify on my variable income against how desperate I was for relief.  Two mornings of daycare a week soon became three, which soon became four.  The balance between work and childrearing was, and still is, constantly being reassessed and renegotiated.

***

I’ve looked for other parents — mothers especially — who can relate to these struggles, whose experiences I can learn from.  But they’ve been hard to find.  Nearly all the mothers I know who also love work returned to their full-time jobs after a few months of maternity leave.  They have offices to go to, set work hours, regular interaction with adult coworkers.  Their situations aren’t perfect either — they have to deal with leaving their kids with caretakers before they feel ready to, in many cases; guilt for not spending more time with their children; sadness that they miss milestones; the sense that their kids are growing up too quickly.  They have their own set of parenting baggage, one that’s entirely different from mine.

Meanwhile, most of the mothers I meet during the week have chosen not to work.  They do not have the same professional angst that I have, the stress of pent-up ambition, a constant longing for more time and space to work.  They wrestle with isolation and boredom, and if they have any qualms about not working, it’s guilt for not getting more out of their education.  But, as my new mom-friend illustrated, that guilt is usually dwarfed by the satisfaction they get out of being with their children all day.

I can’t relate to that either.  Make no mistake:  I love my son more than life itself, and he’s filled my life with more love and unbridled joy than I ever thought possible.  But being with him 24/7 is not my dream.  I am not creative when it comes to finding things for us to do.  I do not enjoy scouring mom groups for fun outings or Pinterest for new crafts and projects; I do not get excited about finding new storytimes or playgrounds to visit.  His toddler tantrums are more exhausting than anything I’ve ever experienced, including anything that happened in his first year.  I love that he wants to hold my hand and spend time with me, and I love that I get to spend hours of every day within tickling distance of him.  But I also love the work I do and the meaning and purpose it gives me.

So I find myself in an unusual situation:  I’m a parent who loves to work but spends much of her time childrearing, without a traditional job, an office, or consistent work hours.  I’m a mother who does not feel like time is going too fast or that her child is growing up too quickly because I get more than enough time with him.  I feel like mothers like me are out there, especially in the economy we live in, where freelancing and gigging are (for better and for worse) on the rise.  But so far, these parents have been hard to find.

I understand that I’m lucky to have this set of problems.  Having flexible work hours is a gift.  Having the option of not working full-time is a gift.  Feeling like you have too much time with your child is a gift, because it means that you’ve gotten enough, and plenty of parents would kill for that.  I am lucky.

But I also wish I had a few parents in my life who are in the same boat, who fit in neither with traditional working parents nor the stay-at-home crowd.  Who’ve had to constantly negotiate and re-negotiate the lines between work and childrearing.  Who know what it’s like to have the unusual wish that they had a little less time with their kid and a little more time to work.

***

A few weeks later, my new mom-friend and I were texting each other, trying to schedule our second playdate.

“Are you free Thursday or Friday?” I asked.

“Possibly Thursday. I have a job interview!” she replied.

I laughed.  My first reaction was cynical:  What happened to the emphatic claim that she loved being with her son all the time?  Did she get an opportunity that she had never considered before, one so perfect that she was willing to disrupt all the fun they were having?  Had she been she trying to convince me?  Had she been trying to convince herself?

Then came a more gracious thought:  Maybe she and I have something in common after all.

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