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“Do you stay home with him?” 

I was at the pool with a friend of mine and our respective children one day when an acquaintance asked me this regarding my 18-month-old son.

“Yeah,” I said. I smiled but didn’t elaborate.

“That’s nice,” the woman said. But after she left, my girlfriend looked at me, annoyed. “You always do that,” she bemoaned.

“I do stay home,” I said. I knew what she was getting at, though.

“You work a lot,” she said. "It’s so annoying when you just say you stay home. You always minimize the work you do. And you need to stop it.”

My friend was right. I did always minimize my work. For some reason explaining my work from home/work from a coffee shop/afternoon babysitters/squeeze in some writing at night routine to a stranger by the pool felt complicated. For some reason I felt the need to declare myself as my son’s primary caregiver, and in doing so, I discredited the other parts of my life.

I grew up in a fairly traditional household. My mother had a master’s degree, but she didn’t work outside the home until I was in high school. Education and personal growth were valued in my family, but my image of a successful and happy home was one that followed a more traditional 'dad works, mom stays home with the kids' model. 

As a result, I think I inadvertently learned the same conflicting message that many women of my generation heard: "You can do anything and be anything—also, good moms stay home full-time with their kids."

I’m certainly not blaming my parents for my internal conflict about working and staying home. This issue is nuanced. But because I’ve internalized this contradictory message so completely, I’ve attempted to accomplish what many women my age have: all of it. 

“Damn straight. I can do anything and be anything while also staying home full time with my kids,” I thought to myself. Except that I can’t because I’m one finite woman, and I’m pretty sure the phrase “sleep is for the weak” is an unhealthy life motto. 

So, troubled by my cocktail of feminist-guilt and mom-guilt, I determined that work-me needed to minimize her children while mom-me needed to minimize her work. If I minimized appropriately in the right contexts then I could satisfy both sides of the dichotomy. Turns out not. This was a bad plan; having it all does kind of suck, and trying to was a detrimental plan both for me and for my children, as evidenced by what transpired a few weeks ago.

My son and my husband were on a walk, and my husband pointed out my old office. My son promptly replied "Moms don't have offices." My husband corrected him, but it made me think about how my actions have directly affected the way my son thinks about rigid gender roles and the type of work that men and women do. He knows that I have a job, but he rarely sees me work. On the other hand, because my husband leaves for work every day, work is a critical component of my son’s understanding of "what dads do." 

So I asked my son if he thought I had a job, and he laughed and said: “Of course, Mom. You make snacks and text about playdates.” Yikes. No wonder he thinks I don’t need an office. 

It became clear to me in that moment that my husband and I had to change what we were modeling to our children. I began to wonder how I could find balance in my own life while also showing my children a complex and inclusive view of what moms and dads do.

I was inspired when I saw the #ShareTheLoad commercial, which made the rounds after Sheryl Sandberg shared it on her Facebook feed. In the voice over, the father reflects that he didn’t model a balanced share of housekeeping for his daughter: “Sorry on behalf of every dad who set a wrong example…I will make a conscious effort to help your mom with household chores.” If my husband and I are working to equally participate in household tasks and find a way to share the “unpaid work” of our household, I had to also let my children see what a shared partnership in paid work looks like.

So I’ve begun to reframe the way I talk about my work/life balance so that my commentary reflects the reality of my day-to-day. Last week my son emerged from his afternoon rest time and crawled onto my lap while I was working. Instead of pushing my computer to the side, I invited him in to my activities and explained what I was doing.

I’m also changing my playground rhetoric. I’m much more eager to share about my work now than I was when my son was a baby, and I’m learning more about the jobs that other women I meet are doing as well. Now I have the opportunity to say things like to my son like, “Do you know so-and-so? Their mommy is a doctor.” This opens up a new avenue of conversation for us as well. When they hear me share in this way not only are they learning more about me as a whole person, but they are learning more about the jobs that are available for both men and women. 

If I want my children to have a nuanced understanding of both working and stay-at-home parents—and of their parents in general—I need to do less minimizing my real story and more maximizing of what a balanced, "have-it-all life" looks like for us in our family. 

Photo Credit: Britt Rene