One of my oldest friends and I have built ourselves an oasis. Every Thursday night, after our impish toddlers have scampered off to bed, we call each other. We recap the week, revisit college days and our mutual interest in royal weddings, and delve into our latest challenges as career women and moms. It's an emotionally rejuvenating time when we escape life's fray. By analyzing and reflecting, we help each other through life's thorny patches and celebrate our joys. A recurring conversation we have focuses on how choices of early motherhood are so emotionally charged--particularly our decisions around how much time we devote to our children and careers. She works full-time as an attorney, while I work from home part-time, as a writer. For both of us, the choices have been difficult. While she utterly loves her work and excels at it, she also feels the tug of balancing everything at home, of wanting to spend more time with her family. I too face these conflicts. There's nothing I'd rather be doing than chasing a story, and I wonder if I'm working enough to stay relevant--though I believe my decision to scale down my work, for now, has been the right path for my family.
While musing over the juggling, we agree that, to some degree, it's emotionally easier to return to work full-time than it is to stay home. Why? Because our careers are known entities: comfortable arenas where we enjoy camaraderie, growth and a sense of accomplishment. Our children are akin to the Wild West--unknown, especially at first. They're always changing, often pushing us beyond our comfort zones, and testing our endurance and patience in ways that are sometimes maddening. Toddlers and infants make for strange companions, and caring for them is often thankless. Jill Savage, author, speaker, and chief executive of Hearts at Home, says that for women who launch into motherhood in their 30s and 40s, the identity shift is tricky:
"I think a woman who does have 10-15 years under her belt, where she’s identified as a journalist, teacher, etc., it's an even harder journey for her to make that transition to identifying herself as a mom--and find that as an acceptable, even a strong, identity. ... The simple act of the job of full-time motherhood is very thankless. It has no sense of accomplishment, and really everything a mom does gets undone [changing diapers, making beds, doing laundry]. Everything we do as moms never gets accomplished; that’s why there’s so much satisfaction for women in a job outside the home, because they get a sense of accomplishment from it."
In the first days after my son Noah was born, it seemed as if a door had slammed shut on my previous life. In the not-so-old days, I traveled on assignment and tackled tough stories, relished cozy dinners with my husband and long, inspiring chats with friends. I knew freedom and independence. My biggest responsibilities were to my husband, and I felt I was managing them well. My new life presented a stark and unfriendly contrast, echoing with the constant, tedious din of feedings, diaper changing and interrupted sleep. My biggest responsibility loomed like a goliath: A human being who was entirely reliant on me for everything, it seemed, except his breath. The mother-child tie binding me was every bit as terrifying as it was amazing. What if I failed? I could think only in 24-hour increments--wondering what he would be like as a 5-year-old, for example, overwhelmed me. I decided I wasn't comfortable with this brave new world of parenthood. I wanted to return to my old existence, because I could thrive there. My initiation into motherhood felt unnatural and unfriendly. Surely God had screwed up--what was he thinking by giving me the gift of a new life to shepherd? I didn't deserve it.
That was my outlook in the spring of 2009. Granted, it was a mindset muddled by immense sleep-deprivation and terribly imbalanced hormones, including a failing thyroid, and the aftershock of a physically grueling labor. But these were my thoughts and feelings. Our thoughts and feelings change, fortunately, and they're not always indicative of who we are. A week after Noah's birth my brother called to find me sobbing, and he reasoned with me, "This isn't who you are. It's where you are."
He was right--thank God. More than two years later, I'm no longer there, in the quagmire. Motherhood is a big part of my identity, to be sure, a part where I spend much of my time these days. I've grown to appreciate it more, but it doesn't entirely define me. I'm still the writer, the reporter, the wife and the friend, the sister and the aunt. I've come to believe that God doesn't intend for our circumstances to define us, though we easily get stuck in a rut of thinking that way. Our identities in Christ are far more dynamic than where we are. If we hand the reins over to him, he works everything out for good--even the very worst of times. He leads us beyond the valleys of "where" to much higher, more satisfying ground, and it's there that we clearly see "who" he intended us to be.
Motherhood is an emotional walk of faith. It's a great opportunity for handing our lives over to the one who gave his life for us--whether we're working in an office full-time, staying home full-time, or somewhere in between. He's the only one, I've learned, who can keep me sane in the wild-and-wonderful world of parenting.
Kristina Cowan has 14 years of experience as a journalist. While her primary areas of coverage have been education and business/careers, she’s covered everything from immigration, energy policy on Capitol Hill and Barcelona’s higher-education system, to women’s issues in the American workplace and cultural proficiency among K-12 educators.
After working as a full-time writer and editor in the D.C. area, she went to work for herself, as a freelance journalist, and she’s never looked back.
Her latest projects include writing about motherhood and women’s issues, and launching one of the first Christian writers groups in the Chicago area, Word Weavers Naperville. She currently resides in the Chicago area with her husband and two-year-old son, and she’s expecting a daughter sometime late in the summer of 2011.