What Happens After You Lean Out

When I tucked Evie into her carseat one Monday morning she quietly said, “Daddy’s on the train to get to his work, right Mommy?”

“Yep. He’s probably at his office right now,” I answered.

"And you stay home cleaning the kitchen?” my 3-year-old asked as if she wasn’t sure if the missing puzzle piece fit into the correct spot.

The next few seconds happened in slow motion. My tiny toddler and I engaged in a stare down. She looked at me for an answer, a validation of her observation, while I struggled to respond. What she said was technically true — I was in the kitchen for what seemed like hours of my day (those researchers surely knew how many). So my daughter was correct. But I was still speechless. I wanted to correct her, but she wasn’t wrong. She doesn’t see the myriad of tasks and side jobs I do while she’s in preschool all day, so am I setting a good example, or any at all?

New research found moms clock in around 98 hours per week of momming. My husband is out of the house by 7:30 a.m. and home 12 hours later. That’s still only a fraction of the amount of hours experts say I spend taking care of our daughter, Evie, as a woman who "left" the workforce after having a baby.

It wasn’t too long ago that I wasn’t logging quite as many hours in front of the kitchen sink. When my date, Dino, and I spent the evening talking politics and our favorite flicks down at the Red Lion on Bleeker Street in Manhattan nine years ago, I told him, “Don’t get any ideas — I don’t want to get married or have kids — it would be a death sentence for my career.”

Mommy worked in the city before I met Daddy, you know.

At 24 years old, don't we all think we have our priorities in order? I was supposedly taking on the publishing world, paying my own rent (well, barely) and living in the best city in the world. I saw no benefit to settling down and getting tied up with the burdens of kids. Ambition bled through my body. The ordinary life of wedding bells and baby carriages wasn’t for me.

“Mommy worked in the city before I met Daddy, you know,” I told Evie. Was I convincing her I was actually worthy of more, or trying to show her a little more of me?

Her large eyes lit up with glee: “Wow!" she shrieked.

For a second it seemed as if I'd said I used to fly to the moon, versus hunching over a computer in a tiny cubicle nine hours a day for very little money. With that, Evie seemed content with our exchange, turning her attention to her Peppa Pig doll. I got into the front seat, straightened my rearview mirror and backed my SUV out of the driveway. The conversation with my daughter gnawed at me.

Photo courtesy of Jenna Autuori by AFM Photo

Since the publication of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which ironically debuted the month I quit my job, I’ve justified my choice to lean back instead of in. I was still working on my career, I told myself. Freelancing for publications I once worked for kept one foot in the game. Without relatives around, it made sense that our children had a parent at home, instead of spending time at a daycare or with a stranger for long hours every day. Since my husband made more money, and I could work part-time while at home, quitting my job was the best solution.

Had I gone back to work though, would Sandberg's claim that women do more leaning in — taking on even more responsibility to get ahead — have resonated with me?

Post-baby I identified more with the message of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article that said women couldn’t have it all. You just can’t balance work, family, and raising kids without suffering and sacrificing, somehow. My career goals died the day I gave birth to my daughter. A switch flipped when I became a mom. The pre-baby me didn’t exist anymore.

By Friday night, the research says I’ve spent the same amount of time as someone who clocks in two and a half full-time jobs.

The maternal script for so long made women who choose staying home over their careers to feel as if they had to compensate for this choice by being supermoms. (So much so that scientists actually conduct studies to prove women spend 98 hours a week doing it.) And if the latest candor in chat groups and playground circles is parental regret — where women are admitting they wished they never had kids if they could do it all over again — aren’t we all just women who actually don’t want to do it all?

Admitting to my daughter that Mommy chose home over the office was harder than I thought it should be. By Friday night, the research says I’ve spent the same amount of time as someone who clocks in two and a half full-time jobs. But the reality was that staying home and handling more of the parenting duties than my spouse was not some job that took the place of my former position. And I wasn’t going to pretend that it was. Being there for all those little things — nursery school drop off and pick up, and putting Band-aids on little boo-boos — were actually big life moments for me.

While the metaphorical umbilical cord seems to be tightly wrapped around some moms’ necks, I’ve embraced the duties of parenthood — all 98 hours of them. If Beyonce’s Instagram post announcing twins was the most liked ever on Instagram, my contentment with being a stay-at-home parent can be celebrated, too. Young women in the 21st century who are college-educated have been told for years they can do anything they want. Yet the pull between wanting the fruits of feminism and taking a career backseat puts today’s woman against the grain. When I chose to surrender how I thought I was supposed to live, I finally discovered this life was good enough, too.

Over dinner last week, my husband asked Evie about school. She gushed over the firefighter and veterinarian she met for career day.

“What are you going to be when you grow up?” my husband said.

“Just like mommy!”

And I knew I had no regrets at all.

Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.