I made a decision to not work the first year of Oliver's life. It was a decision driven by my emotional need to be near my newborn as much as it was finances and logistics -- the job I left just before he was born was a long-ish commute away, and didn't pay nearly enough to justify the daycare expenses -- and besides, do you know how hard it is to find daycare for an infant in the Los Angeles area?! Selling a screenplay is easier.
When it came time to look for a job, I went on several interviews, one of which was a second interview at a restaurant at the top of a hill that overlooked a canyon, the kind of place where the view is ten times better than the food. Against my better judgement and my mother's advice, I explained my year-long gap in employment truthfully: I had a baby, and now I was returning to work.
My potential employer point blank asked me during that lunch: "So where is your baby now? Do you have childcare?" I was surprised by this question -- so I made some joke about "Oh you know, he's just hanging out in the car waiting for me." We all chuckled and settled into sort of an uncomfortable silence. I think I even made a follow-up joke about how the cat was babysitting, NBD. I was offered the job, but after that exchange I knew it was a job I probably didn't want.
Welcome to the world of being a woman with a child and also being a woman with a job. I spent the next several years either feeling guilty that I wasn't home with my son, or guilty that I had to take time off to take my son to the doctor, or guilty that I actually enjoyed being in an office and not at home with a baby -- while simultaneously longing to be home with my baby.
I was a victim of the Maternal Guilt Complex, this societal agreement we’ve created that dictates what mothers should or shouldn’t be doing or should or shouldn’t be feeling. My son is about to turn 10 years old and I’m still trying to break free from it.
Because no matter what we do, it is assumed we must make a choice between professional fulfillment and motherhood. And these are choices we never ask fathers to make.
Of course, I am saying nothing that hasn't been said before, in a million different, more eloquent ways. And frankly, it’s a thought process and conversation that I’m sick of having. But for me, this wound has been opened afresh with the publication of Katharine Zaleski’s piece in Fortune, "Female Company President: ‘I’m sorry to all the mothers I worked with’" -- perhaps you've read it?
In it, Zaleski admits that until she had a child of her own, she harbored secret thoughts about her colleagues who were mothers -- they weren’t as committed to their jobs as their childless counterparts. It is a difficult thing to admit you were wrong, and it is an even more difficult thing to admit you were wrong to, potentially, thousands or millions of people on the internet. So bravo to Zaleski for doing that (though apologizing might get a whole lot easier when you have a new business to promote that’s made for the very demographic at which that apology is aimed).
My first thought upon reading Zaleski’s post was that I was angry, sad, and frustrated. Sad that not only do I have to face this presumption of my commitment to my professional life from men such as that once-potential employer, but from women as well. Frustrated that this is even a thing. And angry: Because really, is this what people think of me?
And none of these generalizations about mothers happen to be true, in my experience. The mothers I’ve worked with in my career have been some of the most dedicated, hardworking people I’ve known. In fact, a recent study found that parents are actually more productive in the workplace than their childless counterparts. Not only that, but the more kids one has, the more productive they become. And while I’m sure there are plenty of people with kids who are spending their days reading a million Buzzfeed listicles instead of getting things done, this idea of having kids and enjoying increased productivity is 100% true for me.
When I look back on my life pre-child, I honestly can’t remember what I did with all that free time. Updated my LiveJournal, I guess? (Sorry, we are talking like 2000-2004, it’s what we did.) Tried out a bunch of different hairstyles and makeup looks while drinking a cocktail? I most definitely went shopping a lot. I spent more time socializing. I was committed to my job, but I also didn’t feel much of a sense of urgency about anything, really.
For me, having a child gave me the focus I needed to step it up in all areas of my life. My house is cleaner than it was when I was childless. My bills are paid on time. I find time now and then to fit in a workout, as long as I put it on my calendar. I schedule my day to not only accomplish key tasks at work, but to accomplish key tasks at home as well.
I guess some of us are lost until we have a reason to not be lost anymore. Having a child gave me the experience and maturity I needed to become a full-fledged adult and a valuable employee -- I honestly could not be doing the job I do now without having made the journey into parenthood first. This is not everyone’s experience, of course, but it is mine.
Fortunately, I do not work for that potential employer who questioned my childcare arrangements. That interview happened nine years ago, and I had honestly forgotten about it until I read Zaleski’s Fortune piece.
It is times like these that I’m especially grateful that I work for an employer who views me as a capable employee instead of a ticking time bomb who might get pregnant at any moment, or a mother who can’t hack it at work. But not everyone is so lucky, and it is exhausting that we still must have this conversation.