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Working It Out

I am a working mother. It’s a mantle I assumed nearly six years ago, and yet sometimes it still surprises me. It may be that I always thought of a working mother as a woman who had it all figured out.

I’d had a 10-year career by the time my first child was born. My job was often stressful and all-consuming, demanding 100 percent of me—and I let it. I worked late, and on weekends. My mind wandered to thoughts of work even when I was on vacation. I was a perfectionist. I never said no to a task, never shirked a responsibility, never missed a deadline. My drive brought me a fair amount of career success, and a huge amount of stress.

I discovered I was pregnant at the beginning of one of the most demanding periods of my professional life. As always, I let my job overtake me, allowing the familiarity of pressure and deadlines and hard work eclipse the unfamiliarity of a first pregnancy: exhaustion, food aversions, that almost supernatural fluttering in the belly. My story, during those months, was all about work, with pregnancy as a footnote.

When a late sonogram revealed that my baby was over nine pounds and breech, my doctor scheduled a cesarean section for the next week. I worked until 8 o’clock the night before the procedure. It was only on the drive home that the reality of impending motherhood truly sank in.

The following day, I saw the face of my baby girl for the first time, and everything changed.

Fast forward three months. I returned to work, armed with a framed photo of my daughter and little else. In a daze, I looked around my office, still strewn with papers and other signs of my former life. And then I began to cry.

Granted, I was sleep-deprived. I was hormonal. I was 25 pounds overweight and still wearing maternity pants. But the main reason for my emotion was that when I stepped into my office, it didn’t feel like mine. I remembered the woman who used to work there, who devoted so much mental and emotional energy to her job, but she seemed like a stranger; I couldn’t fathom having that much to give anymore. Now motherhood also demanded 100 percent of me, and I found myself facing the task of figuring out how to do twice as much—and do it perfectly.

This is what today’s working mothers understand (with irony) as “having it all”: the brass ring our mothers’ generation fought so hard for as they skirted the housewife title and joined the work force. We’ve learned that having it all is impossible, and yet on some level we keep trying to get there, thinking if we just push harder, we can reach the brass ring.

So I pushed, and everything became a blur. At work, I thought about home. At home, I thought about work. I juggled the Boppy and the laptop while nursing; I surreptitiously jotted down lists of things to do (clean, laundry, pediatrician) during meetings. I never felt fully present in either place. And then there was the guilt, permeating everything.

I never did get my groove back. But I found a new one.

Slowly, steadily, out of the haze of those first few months, a new person emerged: a career woman who is also a mother, a mother who also has a career. There is a line between the two, but it’s a blurry one at times.

No one can give 200 percent. At first, this realization felt like failure, or at least, resignation. My habit was to give everything I had to my job, and my instinct was telling me to give everything I had to my child. But I couldn’t work any harder—so, as the cliché holds, I had to work smarter.

I’m still a perfectionist, but now I accept that perfect isn’t always achievable. I still don’t miss deadlines, but now I am more realistic about setting those deadlines. I still have dueling to-do lists (one for work, one for home) running in my head, but now I know how to prioritize. I still pour myself into my work, but I have also learned to say no when I need to.

And something else happened, too. Amazingly, despite the fact that becoming a working mother felt like taking on two jobs at once, I have discovered a better version of my professional self. Because just as the demands of home sometimes encroach on my work life, something else spills over as well: joy. Motherhood opened up a whole wellspring of happiness inside me that I never knew existed, and it put everything else, my career included, into context. After my daughter was born, life made sense.

Not long ago, a colleague who’d just had her first baby asked me for the secret to being a working mother. I told her she would get the hang of it. I told her to be kind to herself. I told her to focus on the important things. And I told her there is no secret: It’s really hard. But it’s also really wonderful.

Understanding that is the closest I’ve come to having it all figured out.

Wendy Loughlin is a mother of two living in Fayetteville.

Photo above: © Jonathan Ross | Dreamstime.com

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