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Like many moms, I spend an inordinate amount of time scrolling through the photos on my phone, marveling at how much my kids have changed in just a matter of months. Look at my son’s chubby cheeks! What happened to those? Look at my daughter’s tiny newborn toes! Where’d they go?
It is both the deepest sorrow and biggest pleasure of parenthood: Babies grow up. Woefully. Thankfully. Quickly. Because babies don’t keep.
Although there have certainly been times when the prospect was tempting, I have never seriously contemplated staying home with my kids. I love my job, and I don’t take it for granted. But that doesn’t stop me from wishing I could clone myself and let each version live a parallel life, one as a stay-at-home mom, and one as a take-no-prisoners magazine journalist.
I long ago accepted that being a working mom came with compromises: that I’d miss some of my kids’ milestones; that life would be a bit more stressful; that I’d have less time for simple joys like walks in the park and blowing bubbles on the playground. I completely understand when moms decide these considerations override their career, at least for the moment. I know these years are fleeting, and that you’ll never get them back. I know babies don’t keep.
I’m so grateful I got a full maternity leave with my second child, a maternity leave that also allowed me to spend more time with my 4-year-old son. Every day, we hung out on the playground after school and slowly strolled home as the sun set over Manhattan. I accomplished approximately zero of the tasks I assigned myself, but it was a precious, unhurried time we all treasured.
But it was also stress-free because I made it so. In a strange twist of fate, not one, not two, but three recruiters reached out to me about job opportunities at the beginning of my maternity leave. (This is not a usual occurrence for me, alas.) All three of them would have required that I interview while on leave; two of them would have needed me to cut my leave short. A new job also would have likely meant longer hours, just as I was adjusting to becoming a mom of two. In the end I said thank you, but no thanks.
I made the decision to focus on my new daughter, but that decision came with an incalculable price. One of the jobs would have been a lateral move, but two of them came with a higher title, and presumably, salary. I don’t know what path those jobs would have taken me down, but they were tangible opportunities I passed up, because babies don’t keep.
Perhaps that’s why I was so peeved when I stumbled across a friend’s Facebook post with that friendly reminder: Babies don’t keep.
Yes, I know. Because while our culture often reminds us what moms miss when we go back to work, we don’t often enumerate what moms give up when we decide to stay home, for any period of time. And it’s a lot.
We miss out on jobs. Promotions. Raises. Contributing to our 401(K). Thousands, and sometimes even millions, of dollars. Client dinners. Networking. Learning new software. Staying atop office politics. Klatches with company leadership. Coffee with mentors. Industry gossip. Thousands of tiny moments that, taken together, push us towards a higher title, bigger role and more responsibility. And, perhaps, most heartbreakingly, the opportunity to fulfill our lifelong dreams, of making partner or getting tenure or landing the corner office.
Don’t believe the opportunity costs are so dire? Just look at how many dads are afraid to take paternity leave for even just a couple weeks. They understand what they might ultimately sacrifice.
Of course work shouldn’t be structured this way, where moms and dads are punished for prioritizing our children. But for now, it’s a false promise to assure moms that work will always be there for them—even for women who work in mom-friendly career fields. Hospitals close, industries shutter and layoffs happen all the time. There are several companies now dedicated to helping moms land “returnships” after a career break, because, yes, it’s that difficult to on-ramp right where your left off before you had kids.
Working moms are forever told that babies don’t keep as if our jobs do, and it’s simply not true. Research shows that maternity leaves longer than a year have a detrimental effect on moms’ careers. That might be a sacrifice some moms are willing to make so they can spend more time with their children, and I get it. Babies don’t keep. But it is a sacrifice. Because career opportunities don’t keep either.
In the end, I cut my maternity leave short by a few days, to join a company offsite for senior members of my team, and I’m excited about opportunities for growth at my current gig. I don’t regret my choices, and neither should other moms, no matter if they decide to stay home for a day or a decade. I just wish we’d give equal acknowledgement to what we miss on the path we didn’t take.