The Plight of the (Young) Working Mother
In the wise words of Blink-182, “Work sucks, I know.” Really, though, I said this to my husband, Ryan, the other night when I was dreading having to wake up the next morning just to start another eight-hour work day, which was further lengthened by my commute and that pesky half-hour lunch break I’m legally required to take. I’m not alone in thinking that work is kind of an annoying necessity. There are the lucky few that are able to pursue creative jobs without the weight of loan interest rates burdening their backs, but for those of us that have around $40,000 in student debt to pay off (and that’s just my number, my husband’s brings our household student loan total to about $90,000), taking the time to write that novel we’ve always dreamed of writing isn’t at all feasible. And now that, in my own personal situation, there’s a little bubby in the mix, there is absolutely no way I could diverge from the corporate herd and its wealth of health benefits just to pursue my own passion.
This fact tears me apart inside. I almost wrote, “literally tears me apart inside” because I feel a literal pain in my stomach every time I walk out my front door to go to work, but all of my organs are intact as far as I know. Nevertheless, the pain I feel is real. I described it to coworkers the other day as a constant ache in my uterus, probably in the exact spot that Lorelei favored when she lived inside of me for those nine months before I gave birth to her. The connection between a mother and her baby, toddler, child, pre-teen, teenager, etc. is real, ladies. We hear about it all the time, so much so that its importance and seriousness have been belittled to a cliché commonly used in greeting cards. But this connection is both physical, spiritual and mental, and for women like me who don’t view work as an “escape” from the exhausting responsibilities motherhood brings, it’s really hard to allow our career (something we’ve always wanted to pursue) to get in the way of our ability to be a good mother.
There are many books dedicated to refuting that last statement. Their goal is to convince women that it’s possible, fun and worthwhile to continue working while you learn how to raise a baby. What most don’t thoroughly discuss is that America is one of only eight countries worldwide that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave (this fact can be found in so many articles I’m not going to bother choosing one over the other, but check out the September 2013 issue of Elle for this and a variety of other statistics about women and the workplace). On top of that, in many of those mom-friendly countries, the paid maternity leave is one year long! Many people say the only reason this happens is because taxes are higher in those countries and women get paid less, but I personally could care less about the comparisons of taxes and job equality. The message I get from this statistic is that America seems to care more about its corporations and economic successes than the people that make this country as great as it is.
Why do I care so much about this? Because it is so important developmentally for mothers and babies to spend as much of that first year of life together as possible. While it’s great for babies to spend time with people other than mom, it’s not so great for moms to have stress levels as high as the sky rise they work in. Babies pick up on those stress levels, and it’s very unnatural for a mother spend most of that year away from her baby, especially when that’s when a baby needs its mother most.
So, rather than articles about how to help my baby cope with separation anxiety during the first year, I’d like to be able to take a mommy-and-me music class on a Thursday morning. Rather than read articles about how to convince my employer that I’m still valuable to the company despite the fact I have a baby, I’d like to be able to put “gave birth after laboring for 36 hours” on my resume because, you know, it’s my greatest accomplishment thus far in life, and pregnancy took a lot more self-discipline than say, contributing articles to a publication on an as-needed basis. But the corporate world within our country sees having children (a baby specifically) as a weakness, as something that could interfere with the “bottom line.” It’s very upsetting, and makes moving up in a company nearly impossible. I am 24 years old, which is really a totally acceptable age to start a family. But because I graduated when I did (2011) and had to accept a paid internship after a year of looking for a job that actually matched my qualifications, I now find myself in an entry-level position that doesn’t pay anywhere near what I need to make in order to support my family, and the cost of good childcare in this country is a joke, so I rely on my mother to watch my baby during the week (which I love, love, love, thanks mom!).
I’m sorry if I sound bitter, but these feelings stem from the time I was told by a female manger (who looked down on my need to have family take care of my baby for me while I was at work) that I need to suck it up and put all of my income toward “real” childcare if I want to be successful at my job, and that if I don’t understand this maybe I’m not ready for a full-time position. Hearing her say this absolutely broke my heart, which was already fractured from the time a prominent (childless) woman at my company told me that I’d be able to work from home when emergencies come up (like a sick baby who only wants to nurse all day) once I have “paid my dues.”
I’m sorry, but I must respectfully disagree. No mother should have to “pay dues” at her place of employment to earn the same right afforded to other mothers who have higher-paying positions. My job is just as important to the company (why else would it exist), and my baby is just as in need of a mother as theirs are. In a time where the cost of living and low wages make it financially impossible to take an unpaid sick day, a lack of flex time for (young) parents is a huge, huge problem.
This is especially sad for me because, when I was pregnant, I was under the impression that the company I work for is very family friendly and does whatever they can to make it easy for its employees to maintain an admirable work-life balance. What I learned soon after I returned from maternity leave is that they only do this for those in specific positions at the company, and mine is most definitely not one of them.
If anyone over the age of 40 is reading this, I’m sure they’re saying to themselves, “That dumb millennial. Get over it and be grateful you have a job! Wanting to be a writer is one of those rainbow and unicorn dreams the internet is buzzing about. Just put your kid in daycare and work harder.”
But, I am working hard. I’m working an eight-hour day on no sleep and inadequate nutrition (can’t afford very much of the healthy food), with two 20-minute pumping breaks in the mix (can’t afford formula so breastfeeding is my only option, which I don’t mind at all, but still). Do you know how exhausting that is? Do you know what it’s like to have the weight of a $90,000 student loan debt on your shoulders, all the while carrying a 20-pound baby in your arms, literally being the primary source of nutrition for said baby and trying my best to balance the barrage of tasks thrown at me from a variety of departments within my company? Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful to have a job at all, I’m no martyr, and I know there are PLENTY of women that have it harder than me, but that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to wish my situation was a little easier to accept on a daily basis. And I think it’s important for other women in their twenties, especially those who would like to start a family but aren’t sure that’s the best idea when the only job they could get after graduating was an unpaid internship, to know what it’s like for one of their peers.
This, all of this, needs to change. Being a parent should not make it harder for you to accomplish your career goals, and being in an entry-level position should not make it harder to be a parent.
So, what’s my plan? Well, I’ve already pursued three better-paying job opportunities within my company that didn’t pan out, so for my own sanity and to maintain my sense of self-worth I’m postponing any more internal applications for the next few weeks. I know that I’m ready for some new challenges, but I guess the universe (or the people who saw pictures of my baby at my cubicle) disagrees. What I really need to do is find a mentor of sorts, but to be honest, I don’t know if that’s possible. I don’t know any women in the generation before mine who have as much student loan debt as me, or who had a baby when they were just starting their careers. It was a different time then, and I have yet to find anyone I can relate to. I wish I had done things differently. But to be clear, I don’t wish I had waited to have a baby. Having Lorelei at 23 years old was the best decision I’ve ever made. But I do wish I had gone to a less expensive college. I mean, people who spent half as much on their college education as I did on mine have the exact same job as me, and they are the ones getting the promotions. But I, like many other people I graduated with, was under the impression that going to an expensive private college would better my chances of getting a high-paying job right after college. What was an inevitable truth in 2007, the year I graduated high school, is now a fairytale, and the economy is Cruella de Ville.
Maybe one day, if the people of my generation actually are that change in the world that previous generations said we would be (before they started calling us worthless millennials, that is), American mothers will be able to take a one-year-long paid maternity leave; their college education and jam-packed resumes will not be overshadowed by the fact that they have parenting responsibilities at home; companies will work with their young, entry-level employees who are also parents to help them find a schedule that will allow them to perform at their best, 100% of the time; and maybe, just maybe, college will be affordable instead of a financial death sentence. We better start trying to make this change, because Lorelei will graduate high school in 18 years, and I’ll be damned if she faces the same struggles as her dad and me.
In happier news, my baby girl is crawling and dancing and waving and taking a nice long nap right now, which is why, after eight months, I finally had a chance to write a HelloGiggles post. As you can see, life has been challenging as of late, but it’s certainly provided a lot of material for me to write about. For more baby-specific stuff, you can check out my blog, Be Always Blooming. I started it in hopes of inspiring and motivating other young working moms, because I personally don’t know very many, and it’s good to get the word out that pursuing a career while learning how to be a mom is very, very challenging, but doable. As frustrating as the whole working mom thing is, jobs are necessary, and we, as parents, have to make it work for the benefit of our children. Please share your experiences and thoughts in the comment section, it would be wonderful to hear from you all.
Oh, and read this if that Huffington Post stick figure article I mentioned earlier kind of pissed you off, too.