The Unexpected Primary Caretaker

“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.

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On Careers, Kids, and Living Up to Mom

A little bit about my mom: She went to the best girls’ high school in Taipei and the best university in Taiwan, and then she moved to the US and got her PhD in 5 years – in a language she could barely speak at the start of her program. She got a faculty position at her alma mater and earned tenure in 4 years. (Most professors take 6 or 7.) She would go on to become a full professor and the chair of her department while co-founding a business on the side. Meanwhile, she cooked dinner every night, drove my brother and I to nearly all of our after-school activities, and attended all of our recitals and concerts. She and my father also had an active social life, hosting elaborate dinner parties and hanging out with friends multiple times a weekend. And she managed to do all of these things while being a warm, lovely, hospitable person, with nary a complaint about stress or her myriad responsibilities. In some ways, my mom is a bit of a machine: She doesn’t eat much or need a lot of sleep; she loves her work and thrives on being busy. She’s one of those people who seems to have a limitless capacity for work.

Thus, when I was growing up, this was my prototype of a successful woman. It wasn’t consequence-free – I was doing full days in preschool by the time I was 18 months old (my brother started even younger); I spent many an afternoon in elementary school latchkey, which I loathed; I had recurring nightmares where I’d be chasing my mom but never able to catch her, dreams that were ripe for even the most amateur analysis. But all told, I think I gained far more than I lost from this upbringing. I learned to read and write very early, I was socialized young – but most importantly, my model for womanhood was strong, capable, and ambitious. I cannot overstate the impact that this model has had on my life, on everything from my academic and professional achievement to my sense of self-efficacy to my identity.

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