I had finished graduate school when I had my first child, and my partner was an over the road delivery driver. We'd decided he would stay home with the kids, since I was working toward a career I loved and he was "just paying the bills." Plus, child care costs were unquestionably unsustainable. No matter the arrangement, though, parenting is difficult. I'm sure he could say the same thing about me and staying at home, but after all these years it's clear there are certain things my partner just can't understand about being a working parent.
I've been a working parent in a variety of settings, each of which have provided me with a unique list of challenges. The first, working grueling hours for limited compensation for an emotionally burdensome non-profit. The second, working for better compensation but doing less meaningful work in a stifling cubicle corporate environment. The third, working from home for that same corporation. The fourth, working for myself in a myriad of positions that I love equally and for different reasons. The things my partner doesn't get about being a working parent have definitely changed throughout these segments, but one thing has remained: there are just some things about your experience that no one, including your partner, can 100 percent understand.
So while there are undoubtably things I couldn't understand about my partner staying at home with our children while I went to work for 8-12 hours a day, there are things he couldn't possibly understand about being a working mom, too. Here's just a tip of the iceberg, because a little understanding and empathy can go a long way:
I Miss My Kids All Day
No matter how hard my partner's day was with the kids, I still miss them.
I Constantly Wonder If I'm Doing The Right Thing
I always wanted kids, but I never had any desire to stay home. I'd always imagined having a partner that would do that, instead. However, I was also adamant that I wouldn't be the so-called workaholic that I perceived my mother to be when I was growing up. When I had kids of my own I finally realized that my mother didn't ever care more about her work than she did about us. She likely felt torn all the time.
Since becoming a working mother, I realized my own mom did love her work but that wasn't the only reason why it seemed like she was always working. She was also trying to get all the work done so she could spend more quality time with us. It's just that, well, the work is never done. Plus, kids don't understand that work isn't a choice for most people. We don't work to get away from our kids. We work to survive.
I constantly wonder if I'm doing the right thing as a working parent. I know I don't really have a choice, but I hope I can do a better job of helping my kids understand that it really is all for them.
I think my partner gets it, but he can't understand how deep and consistently impactful this constant struggle is for me.
Focus Is Non-Existent
Whether at home or at work, focus is hard to come by. At work, I just wanted to see my sweet munchkins' faces. When I was in an office all day, I would get anxious if my partner didn't send once-a-day check -n photos. At home, I'd be thinking about how little time I had with them and was so absorbed in how to make it quality time.
I know my partner gets frustrated when he thinks I'm not listening to him. What he doesn't understand, though, is that I'm listening to all the things. That makes focus incredibly difficult.
It's Really Hard To Listen To My Partner's Frustrations
For the seven years that I was the primary breadwinner, it was incredibly difficult to be present for my partner's needs as stay at home parent. I know that makes me a complete asshole, but it's true.
Understandably, after an 8-12 hour day alone with two kids, my partner wanted to voice his frustrations. He wanted to tell the only other adult he has seen for a week what he's been going through parenting toddlers, one of whom was struggling with as-yet undiagnosed autism. If I'm honest, some days I tried harder than others to be empathetic and each of his words broke my heart a little more. It was hard not to resent his complaints as a lack of gratitude for getting so much time with our kids, though.
When I was gone all day, every day, I only saw my kids right before bed or first thing in the morning. I missed everything: the good, the bad, the ugly, and the mundane. I thought I would've been so grateful to deal with tantrums because that would mean I was more a part of their every day lives.
No Matter How Good My Partner Is, I'll Always Wonder If I'd Be Better
This is a hard one for me to admit. I know my partner is a good parent. I'm not proud of having this thought back when he was alone most of the time with our first two kids. But hey, I can admit I'm a product of the misogynist idealism of "mom-as-nurturer-equals-mom-as-better-parent" trope just as anyone else. Even when I'm trying to fight against it.
Our first child struggled with autism before we knew how to deal with it. I'd agonize day after day, sitting in my cubicle, wondering if because of the mother-bond I might have an easier time dealing with their (my child uses gender neutral pronouns) meltdowns. I wondered if they were having such a difficult time because my partner is also autistic and they trigger each other. I wondered, even though the evidence told me I was wrong, if what my child really needed was their mother. If they had their mother all the time, maybe some of their difficulties would go away. Even though the evidence didn't validate my concerns, it's so hard not to blame myself.
It's so hard not to think I could have been doing more to help them, to attune with them, to understand them.
The Grocery Store Run Is Unbearable
When my partner would text me to make a quick grocery stop on the way home from work ,a part of me would die inside. I know what you must be thinking, "What a privileged cry baby!" but, seriously, you guys. What happened in my head upon hearing we needed milk and chicken was a frantic calculation of which store on the 30-minute commute home would take the least amount of time. I only had a precious 1-2 hours between getting home and bedtime for the babies. How much time with my babies before bed would this milk run cost me?
Work Doesn't Count As Alone Time
This is a common challenge for all families with one working parent and one parent staying at home. The stay at home parent needs a freaking break from crying, clinging, and poop diapers. This parent might even look enviously at the working parent for the adult time we get at work and see it as a "break."
What my partner doesn't understand, though, is that work was never a break. It's not like I got to be my uncensored, pre-baby self at work. I had to be the professional, focused, conscientious me. It's not parenting time, but it's a whole other exhausted part of my brain.
Taking Care Of Myself Feels Impossible
When I was working outside of the house in an office (side note: barf) I literally had zero alone time. Well, unless you count the occasional poop I took at work, because lord knows home poops are never private when a toddler is around.
On the weekends I wanted to give my partner some kid-free time to himself, and I couldn't take any myself because that would mean even more time away from my kids. Even if I was in dire need of some mama-self-care time, it was hard to justify leaving my children by choice when I had to leave them all week for survival.
I Always Feel Guilty
Thankfully, this feeling has dissipated since my unexpected lay-off from corporate America in November 2016. Though I work more now, I am doing enjoyable work for myself so it truly does feel like building something instead of the constant treading water of trading time for money in wage bondage.
Something my partner can't understand, though, is that no matter what I do I feel guilty. When I'm with my kids I feel guilty I'm not making more money for the family. When I'm with my clients I feel guilty I'm not spending more time with my kids. When I'm writing I feel guilty for splitting my attention, knowing if I didn't my writing would be better. When I'm in training I feel guilty for taking additional time from my kids. When I'm with my kids I feel guilty for not spending more focused time studying for training. Neurotic? Sure, but this is the constant drama of the mind of the working parent. Just as I'm sure there are things my partner thinks I can never understand, I know he can't understand this. Even when I tell him.
It's All Worth It
What I've found, however, is that all of these things are part of life. My life. Greeting them with gentleness and acceptance as opposed to harsh resistance helps to calm the guilty storm and enjoy the time I do have, both with my kids and at work.
Thankfully, even when I was schlepping for challenging non-profits or toxic corporations, my work has always been very meaningful to me. Whether I'm doing direct client work, case management for the chronically mentally ill, or advocacy for sexual trauma survivors, I know that in various ways my work makes the world a better place for my kids to grow up. So regardless of our partners' understanding ,or lack thereof, I hope we can all find peace in doing meaningful work while still being parents. #LifeGoals