Three and a half years ago, the night before I went back to work as an English teacher after seven months of maternity leave, I registered the name “Haveitallmom” on Blogger. My idea was to share my own trials and successes as a working mother with others and maybe resuscitate the passion for writing that had wilted under the demands of a burgeoning teaching career.
During my pregnancy, my mother had been clear: “You won’t want to go back to work,” she said. “When you were born, I couldn’t imagine leaving you to go back to a job.”
But for me, staying home had been hard. I’d felt cocooned with my first child. At first, this seemed natural and protective, but as Teddy grew, I began to feel trapped, tucked into a space too small for me. The routine of changing diapers, feeding every few hours, and trying to “get something done” while my son napped left me exhausted and unsatisfied at the end of the day. I’d imagined myself reading, writing, and planning lessons in “free time” that never materialized. Lists of unaccomplished tasks swirled in my head as I tried to focus on my son.
I missed the interaction with other teachers, the liveliness of the hallways, the energy of my students, and the challenges of teaching. I reveled in the moments of play and laughter with Teddy, especially in the morning, when the light was new and the air was fresh. But by 4 p.m., I was restless. I’d try to corral him into some small space so that I could prepare dinner or fold laundry. When that didn’t work, I’d begin calling my husband to ask when he’d be home. By the time my son was six months old, I knew I wasn’t cut out for stay-at-home motherhood.
On the eve of my return to teaching in 2008, I felt a mix of relief and uncertainty. On the one hand, going back to work proved that I wasn’t going to be swallowed up by motherhood the way my mom had been; on the other, I wasn’t sure what kind of mother didn’t love spending her days with her beautiful and brilliant infant son.
As I struggled with these feelings, two competing memories of my own mother surfaced again and again. In the first, I’m 5 years old and have just trudged into the house after a cold walk home from school. Inside, I feel the pleasurable sting of warm air against my frozen cheeks as my mother helps me take off my coat. I follow her to the kitchen table, where my favorite orange mug steams with tomato soup. I wrap my hands around the warm cup. She sits with me while I tell her about my morning.
In the second memory, I’m 13, riding in the front seat as my dad drives me to a friend’s house. My mom and I have been fighting again; my dad is looking for the root of it. “Why can’t you get along with her? Why are you treating her so badly?”
“I just don’t respect her,” I say.
Even in memory, the words sting my tongue. Yet, in that moment, they were true. In my eighth-grade eyes, what did my mom do but shuttle my sister and me around, wash our clothes, and prepare our food? I sensed her resentment in the edge of her voice when she asked me to put away my books or hang up my coat, and in the silence of the car rides when she shuttled me from a friend’s house to basketball or tennis practice and home again. “I’m not your chauffeur,” she’d say, though it was never clear to us what else she might do.
Though I didn’t fully understand it, her resentment made me angry. Her own soft, considerate nature wore on her—allowed us to wear on her. Aside from attending an aerobics class three mornings a week, she never seemed to do anything that was just for her. Even when we asked her what she wanted to do, she chose things that she knew we liked: skiing, where she was always cold, or shopping, where she’d buy us clothes. It was as though she couldn’t remember herself before motherhood.
It was this specter of my mother as a kind of shadow that effectively killed the question of whether I’d return to work. I would. When my seven months of leave was up, I put together my “Haveitallmom” blog and prepared for reentry.
Perhaps it was an apt harbinger of the next three years that within 24 hours of its creation, my blog disappeared into oblivion. I never found time to write even one entry.
At school, opportunity after opportunity opened up, and I found myself wanting to seize them all. I took over as adviser of the school’s newspaper and literary magazine. Then I agreed to teach two new classes. Before I knew it, I was preparing lessons for three different courses each day and running two extracurricular activities.
By the fall of 2009, life had become a complex juggling act, featuring me as star bungler. Too often, I resorted to “doorknob” lesson planning. It took me weeks to correct and return papers to students. I missed meetings. Back at home, mold grew in half-a-dozen containers in my refrigerator, while towers of to-do’s swayed on our dining room table. After playing with Teddy until his 7 p.m. bedtime, cooking and cleaning up dinner, rinsing out Teddy’s lunch box and mine, and then repacking our food for the next day, I hauled myself upstairs and collapsed into bed.
I was five months pregnant with our second child on Christmas morning 2009 when my husband presented me with a white envelope. Gift certificate, I thought. A day at the spa? A minivacation? I slid the flap out of the pocket, pulled out a single sheet of paper and unfolded it. “Greater Philadelphia Wordshop Studio,” it said. I looked at my grinning husband. “It’s a 10-week writing workshop,” he said. “Three hours, once a week.”
Does he really think I can squeeze another second out of my life, let alone three hours a week? I wondered as I hugged him thank you. What I need is a massage.
But my husband is persistent. The following summer, as I was home on maternity leave with my infant daughter, he found an open spot in the writing course. So in the six-month space created by the birth of our daughter, I enrolled in the class. Before long, I found myself looking forward to it.
In addition to offering me three delicious hours a week that belonged only to me the workshop brought me back to my 16-year-old self who dreamed of being a writer—the playful, reflective me that existed before I’d had children, a husband, or a grown-up job, and before someone told me that writing was no way to make a living. In a life that felt ever more crammed, the workshop meeting place—a small room with a yellow shag carpet on the second floor of a church—became the one space where time opened up. When my 10 weeks were up, I signed up again. And then again.
Some nights I dragged myself to class, spent 20 minutes staring at a blank page, and then another 20 dumping the day’s mundane details into my notebook. But on good nights, I felt like Peter Pan. Writing made me feel whole and free in a way that I hadn’t thought possible in adulthood.
Still, life continued at a gallop. By the fall of 2010, my husband and I were each working 55 to 60 hours a week, struggling to make it work with the help of an au pair and our parents. During the school year, I began to imagine myself standing in a tight hallway, ever more dimly lit and packed with heavy objects that were constantly tumbling down. It was my job to catch them before they hit me or, worse, fell to the floor and shattered.
At the same time, I was keenly aware of time flipping past. Pencil marks marched up my son’s and then my daughter’s doorframe as we ticked off inches over months and years. But what choice did I have? We needed my income (didn’t we?), and my job still seemed the best defense against disappearing into motherhood.
Then last spring, as I finished a Skype interview with the girl who would have become our next au pair, I noticed the date on the computer file that held our interview questions. It had been exactly one year and one day since we’d last opened the file to interview our current au pair. In that moment, I glimpsed our future. I saw myself opening the file again next year, and again the year after that, all to bring 19-year-old girls from faraway places to care for our children. I was the one who kept opening the file; I was the one perpetuating the cycle that kept me in my dark hallway.
Two sleepless nights later, I brought it up with my husband, “What if I didn’t teach next year?’ I said. Two months after that, when Anne Marie Slaughter’s now-famous Atlantic cover story “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” arrived in my mailbox, I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or cry. I already knew why. I’d resigned my teaching position two weeks earlier.
Now, six months later, I wonder whether I can redefine the term “have it all.” I’m seeking balance. I’m looking for a place where the me who’s a mother can cohabitate with all the other me’s—the writer, reader, wife, friend, sister, daughter, outdoor-lover, fitness-enthusiast, and novice cook.
Perhaps there’ll never be enough hours in a day or days in a life, but my hours bring more joy now. I eat breakfast with my children each morning before dropping them off at preschool. I use the mornings to write and early afternoons to take care of the household. A few days a week, I squeeze in some exercise. When I pick up my kids at 3 p.m., we have time to go to the park, build Lego towers, or read books before it’s time to make dinner.
To help balance the loss of my income, we’ve quit our pricey gym, organic grocer, and Starbucks habits, but the whole experience feels luxurious anyway.
The place in that dark hallway where I’d found myself living the past few years wasn’t far, I expect, from the place where my 13-year-old self had seen my mother standing. Without even noticing, I’d lost myself among things that weren’t mine.
I take great pleasure and pride in nurturing our children. I’ve discovered that, for them to learn to protect their happiness, I must protect mine. I hope to model the joy and fulfillment that I want my children to experience.
And so, a few months into my new life, I’m beginning to step beyond the floorboards of my old, cramped hallway and build a perch outside of it, a spot from which I can share the world with our children while maintaining my own place in it.
It’s a reach. Some days, the space feels scary and precarious. What if I fail at this? Other days, it seems merely mundane. But for the first time in a long time, I feel myself reaching for what I want. Here I am, arms up in the air like a kid—ecstatic, stretching, joyful me.
Illustration © Adam Niklewicz
Jenny Williams is a freelance writer and former English teacher. She lives in Havertown, Pennsylvania.