Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Good Mommy, Denial Mommy, Avoidance Mommy

This post originally ran in March 2009, and it's still one of my favorites.  Last weekend I was blessed with the presence of both of my sons, one home from law school and the other taking a break from his internship in a lab at UCLA.  Mom and Dad were here for a visit, too.  It was a lovely weekend, and validation of my twenty-five years as a Slacker Mom:

My sons are supposed to come home for the weekend. The oldest is driving up from Pasadena to take possession of his father's rarely used golf clubs because he (Number One) is about to accept an offer of admission to a top ten law school. Number Two wants to take possession of my antique Minolta SLR camera so that he can take actual photographs to develop in his girlfriend's dark room. (Whatever. He's 21). Ahh, for the good old days when parenting was simpler…

A couple of days ago a good friend of mine came by to lament the frustration she felt one evening when she planned to do an hour or so of work at home after a family dinner with her 9 month old and 4 year old. Unfortunately her 9 month old didn't get the memo, decided to poop in the tub, and caused a dramatic change in the evening work plan. Instead of cleaning up transaction docs, she bathed the baby, sterilized the tub, disinfected all the bath toys, and actually tried to stay cheerful through it all. Then, after sharing this news with me, she found out her best client had just moved all their legal work to another law firm.

Another colleague came by Wednesday to chat about the fact that she thinks she's ready to let the after-school nanny go this coming fall, since her son will be starting high school. We chatted about the logistics of high school schedules, latchkey kids, and the toll it takes on a working lawyer mom when the decision is made to send the kid home to an empty house, sans nanny.

I don't have any new or novel answers to these dilemmas, but I do like to pass on the wisdom from the many working moms that have traveled these paths before us. When I was young (long, long ago) I used to feel an acute amount of stress about these sorts of things. At the time I started practicing as an associate at a top notch law firm I was 27 years old, and had a 4 year old and a 9 month old. That was a decade before mom lawyers generally felt like they had a right to be respected as committed lawyers, and working moms were assured a place on the partnership track. There wasn't much support, but there was a pretty clear opinion divide about how good mommies behaved, and how bad mommies behaved. Good Mommy was expected to spend about 9 to 10 hours of daily face time with the darlings. Anything less, well, bad mommy, bad lawyer. I seriously worried for years about whether I would ever be nominated for the Mommy of The Year Award (I never won, and now I think I am too old to be considered).

When truly despondent, I'd remember my first heroines—my grandmothers. Working class moms in the 1930's and 40's (which was and is 99 percent of all moms) didn't spend all day in immaculate homes thinking up creative games for their beloved children, or providing them with the best of the best in sports, arts, spirituality, education, travel, electronic devices and entertainment. They just did the best the could with what they had to work with, and they were, by and large, very hard working women with 10 and 12 hour hard labor days. And they didn't have time for therapists, career coaches, or leisurely lunches with mentors.

Many lawyer moms today truly to like their legal work, but feel this acute pull between time at work, and time with the kids. Cleaning the bath toys vs. editing the memo. Preparing a bar association presentation vs. attending the soccer game. Taking Darling to gymnastics class or answering emails. Sneaking a peek at a blackberry vs. undivided attention to the sixth grade concert band performance. Preparing an organic free-range meal from her home grown garden produce and freshly gathered eggs vs. fast food. Dinner with clients vs. studying for the spelling test.

Denial Mommy copes by sweeping up the mess, but doesn't sterilize. So long as the kids put on clean clothes at bed time, it's fine if they just wear the same outfit to school the next day. She uses paper plates for every day meals to minimize the dishwashing duty. She uses all her vacation days for doctor, dentist and teacher conferences rather than a real vacation. Folding clothes is grossly overrated where children are concerned. Ditto sorting colors from whites (in college they'll dump EVERYTHING into one load anyway and live for years in shades of gray).

Avoidance Mommy, on the other hand, absents herself from the challenge—she lets Daddy or Nanny deal with the poopy tub however they like, just doesn't get into the details. Works late rather than confronting bath time. Leaves for work before Darling wakes in the morning to avoid the tearful goodbye, from the 9 month old, and the guilt trip, from the 8 year old. Works even though sick as a dog and infects the whole office, rather than staying home in bed where no one will leave her alone and she won't be able to sleep anyway.

Good Mommy, though, does what her grandmothers did: The best she can with what she has. She knows in her heart that love for the kids and commitment to good work are not mutually exclusive. She makes choices each day based on the relative demands of work, family, and community at that point in time, and then moves on. No one but Good Mommy knows which one is the best choice given the variables presented. In retrospect it may turn out that another decision might have worked out better, but Good Mommy knows that sometimes mistakes will be made, information won't be perfect, and someone will be disappointed. She also manages expectations where she can, so that all her constituencies and stakeholders will appreciate that she's doing her best. She knows that some days the best answer is to avoid one problem or another, some days the best answer is to deny that there is a problem. Only Good Mommy knows the best answer for the moment.

For some truly inspiring coping mechanisms, your best resource is Confessions of a Slacker Mom (see Amazon list). One final note: the exact same things can be said for working dads, except I am pretty sure that Confessions of a Slacker Dad was published about 3000 years ago. It's now out of print, because the guys figured this out a long time ago.

Cynthia

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