because what we really need are more words about work/life balance

I excused myself from the meeting to step outside, pressing my phone to my ear.

“I’m sorry—

we’re still meeting, and there’s no way I can make it to daycare on time.”

I was embarrassed for Mike to have to pick up my slack yet again, embarrassed that there were four people who put a meeting on hold for me to step out to make that call, embarrassed every time my thoughts and words seemed to move too slowly, too heavily to be of use, embarrassed every time I started to mumble out the “I’m sorry” refrain.

I drove home that evening, winding through the southernmost bits of the Hudson Valley, golden-hour sunlight finding its way through leaves and branches.  My thoughts zipped around the curves of the road, and I tried to stay mindful, appreciate my surroundings, know that time would keep moving at a steady clip whether I felt hurried or not.  I felt guilty for soaking up so many hues, so saturated, all alone.  It felt luxurious, but the gross kind of luxurious, like edible gold leaf or Super Tuscans. I tried to think of some benefit I could offer my family in exchange for the time I spent listening to the news, not responsible for daycare pickup or playground interactions or dinner that evening.  I was breaking the deal, not holding up my end of the bargain,  the bargain being that in exchange for the wonderful family I’d been granted— the toothy grins, sloppy smooches, and the solid hand of a partner in mine through it all— I agreed to be the Mother, the Mom, the Grown-Ass Woman who leads and loves and models the roles, taking on half of everything or more, performing my gender as I see fit, scooping up challenges and bopping them on the head so that Winnie could move through life with at least the solid foundation of having learned a thing or two from That Mom.  Only, I’m failing miserably at being That Mom, That Partner, That Human.

Work-life balance is a lie.  There is only life, and you work through every moment of it— work that is valued at different rates, in different ways, but it’s all work, it’s all life.  We make a calculation, explicitly or not, about the utility of each bit of work— this bit provides money, this bit provides some sense of self-worth, this bit helps a friend, this bit gives me snuggles, this bit ensures we can go to the doctor when we need to, this bit is the part where you line up daycare/schedules/work-work/finances so you can go to the kind of doctor who helps you get those darned neurotransmitters in shape so that you can face the rest of the work left to do in that day and the next and the next.

When I was a kid, the phrase ‘working mom’ carried its own set of meanings for me.  It meant, first and foremost, that you were a kid with a couple of hours on your own at home, during which time you curl up in a chair and eat orange slices and read books, leaving your chores until 5:45, when you would furiously wash as many dishes as you could before you heard the car pull into the driveway.  It meant you had to ride the bus home or walk the half-mile, hoping no one noticed you, while you thought about how many points were on a circle and wrote that YA novel in your head.  It meant you ate more green beans out of cans and maybe Kid Cuisine tv dinners if you got lucky, that your mom wore blazers, and that a teenager was hired to drive you around and answer your questions about high school in the summer.

To me, though, it didn’t signify a constant state of wondering who you were, what your worth was and to whom.  I’m sure it did, to she who was the Working Mom, to any person who was in charge of the well being of another human being and of getting herself through life every day, as well.  I just didn’t expect to feel so utterly slain at the end of a day, knowing that there weren’t enough hours in the day to contribute to society, parent my baby, stand as a partner to my spouse, be a friend, neighbor, worker bee.  And there sure as hell isn’t a compensation structure to account for what goes into one day as a human.

Certainly, moving into a vocational space with more flexibility in location and schedule has helped me, but it isn’t the magic bullet.  With that move into the flexible, the freelance, the Master of My Fate/Captain of My Soul sphere, I’ve become increasingly aware of how very privileged that space is, how privileged I am to be in that space, and how much it exists within a much larger space of privilege in which I’m only passing.

And with that, I suppose, I realize that motherhood isn’t that much unlike anything else— clawing through any other career or navigating academia or whatever it is we call the struggle to find housing/get food on the table/build a foundation/find a faith community/love our partners/breathe our breaths.  It just is, and we work our way through it, and it isn’t fair or right or meet, but it all-caps IS.  I find comfort in the chalk scribbles on the wall, the emails I managed to send on time, in my library card and my parents’ group and public radio.  I noticed the same golden-hour light again last night, while Mike ran in to the grocery and I sat in the car with a sleeping Winnie.  We were there together, we were doing it, and we’ll do it today and tomorrow and the next.  We’re lucky.

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