My Father Taught Me How to Be a Working Mother

When I was born, my mother quit her paying job so she could be home with me.  She did not take another job until I was almost twelve years old.

I resumed working outside the home when each of my children was twelve weeks old.  After Nicholas was born, I went back part-time and later gradually increased my working hours until I was back to 40 hours a week when he was four years old.  After Lydia was born (when Nicholas was nine years old), I returned to my job full-time.  It isn’t easy!  Forty hours, plus commuting time, is a long time to be away from home even when you’re only taking care of yourself; when you have young children, it’s a time-management struggle as well as an emotional struggle over being apart from the kids so much.  My mother–who’s been a great role model to me for things like breastfeeding, intelligent discipline, and making healthy food–was not much help as I figured out how to balance parenthood with employment.  It’s my father whose example has really helped me understand what’s important and where to cut myself some slack.

Oddly enough, it was an insensitive comment my father made that led me to realize his value as a role model for me.  A couple of years before I became a mother, my dad was talking about my cousin’s children and said, “They’re lucky to have a full-time mother.”  What he meant was that my cousin did not work outside the home on a regular basis (she was doing occasional freelance jobs, actually) and was with her kids most of the time.  I already knew that I did not plan to do this myself, so I felt insulted by my dad’s choice of words–as if I would be a part-time mother!  I took a deep breath and told my dad that I would never, ever say he had been “a part-time father” to me.  Throughout my childhood, he held a full-time job outside the home and sometimes worked a lot of overtime or had consulting jobs he did at home in the evening–but he was always my father!  He showed me that in so many ways, and in fact I’d say that earning money to support our family was one of the ways he took care of us.

There are many ways to say I Love You.

Mister Rogers sang this wonderful song about how each person can express love by doing things with or for loved ones.  We don’t all have to love in exactly the same way.  There’s the cooking way to say I love you, the earning-money way, the story-reading way, the bike-repairing way….  Different people are good at different things.  Only a very few of those things truly relate to being a man or a woman; most of them are about being the unique person you are and loving the unique people you love.

In many conversations about at-home mothers vs. employed mothers, I hear the opinion that a Good Mother is one who will not work outside the home unless she absolutely has no choice, because she cannot bear to be separated from her children, and that proves she really loves them.  It’s very rare to hear anyone say that this is a trait of a Good Father.  In fact, it’s rare to hear anyone imply in any way that, if an employed father is less involved with his kids than he should be, it’s because he has a job.  Partly this is because many people have lower expectations for fathers’ involvement than mothers’, but also it’s because we’re all used to the idea that a man can have a job and still be a Good Father.

My mother could do lots of things that my father didn’t do well, and she worked hard many hours a day doing those things for our family: cooking, gardening, laundry, sewing.  I felt her love through those things.  My father was an electrical and computer engineer who used his skills at work but also at home, keeping all our appliances and vehicles in working order and doing a lot of the machine-using tasks.  Yes, that’s a traditional gendered division of labor–but my dad also washed all the dishes, and he did the heavy cleaning chores, like vacuuming and scrubbing toilets, which my mom couldn’t do because of her back problems; those were ways to say he loved her.  He also spent a lot of his at-home time with my brother and me, which was a way of loving us but also a way of loving our mom, who frankly burned out on being with us and needed some time to herself by the end of the day and end of the week!

My partner Daniel and I have less typical gender roles, and at different stages we’ve divided the money-earning vs. the household tasks vs. the childcare in different ways.  Both of us are important.  Both of us are full-time parents.

What you do when you’re at home matters.

On a typical weeknight when I was little, my dad would come home and immediately check in with the kids.  He always seemed really happy to see us and interested in what we were doing.  Sometimes he’d play with us for a while until dinner was ready; sometimes he’d go into the kitchen and talk to our mom, but he always took a moment to connect with us.  After dinner and on weekends, he often involved us in his projects: computer programming, yard work, repairs, even building a television set from a kit!  As I got older, my dad spent many evenings helping me with my math homework, and eventually he taught me to drive a car.

It’s true that he spent fewer hours doing childcare tasks and fewer hours working on the house and yard than my mom did, but he did spend a lot of time on those things, often all his waking hours at home.  Meanwhile, my at-home mother spent much of the day doing her own thing and encouraging us to do ours, which is fine–it taught us that women have goals and interests too and deserve to have their needs respected–but it makes me skeptical about the argument that an at-home parent is inherently more involved and attached.  I think that the number of hours each of them spent fully engaged with us, in conversation or playing with us, was pretty close to equal.

Recent research shows that the average employed mother these days spends more time with her children than the average at-home mother in 1965.  Of course, it’s possible to “smother” children with too much attention, but I think twelve hours a week is a reasonable amount of time.  I have fond memories of times I spent with my dad and times I’ve spent with my kids so far.  I know that doing real work with my dad taught me both specific skills and a general sense that being responsible for things is doable and even kind of fun.  I have seen Nicholas learning that from me.  I don’t feel guilty that a lot of my “spending time with Nicholas” has been talking with him and/or having him help me as I cook and do dishes and laundry and so forth.  That’s life, and I am delighted to include my children in my life.  I hope I’m showing that I enjoy their company as well as my dad showed that to me.

Make time for the important times.

My dad supervised the bedtime routine and read our story every night until we were teenagers!  This was a warm and wonderful time of connecting with us, exploring our interests through the books we chose or sharing his childhood books (and comic books!) with us, talking about what we’d read and what we’d each done that day, and playing a game called Biggest Nose in which he’d ask us questions about our classmates (like, “Who has the biggest nose?”) and thus learn more about the world in which we spent our time away from the family.  Sometimes we played Biggest Nose about his co-workers, too, or he’d tell us about kids he knew when he was in school.  Now I have a special bedtime routine with Nicholas, as well as a routine for starting off the morning.  (You can read about both of them in this day in my life.)

That overtime my dad worked?  A lot of that time was late at night; he’d come home for dinner with the family and bedtime story, then go back to work.  I’ve done this, too–I’m lucky that my job has never required overtime on any consistent basis, but when I’ve had to put in extra hours to meet a deadline, I’ve often followed the usual routine, gone back to the office for several hours, and come home for a nap before beginning the usual morning routine.  (You know what really impresses me about my dad?  He doesn’t drink coffee!!)

My dad attended at least 90% of our school plays, awards ceremonies, recitals, parent-teacher conferences, etc.  If they were in the daytime, he’d rearrange his work schedule.  It meant a lot to me to file onto the stage with the rest of the second grade to sing astronomy songs, look out into the audience, and see my dad sitting there amid the mothers.  These days, at least at our local school, most of the special events are in the evening–but they often start at 5:00 or 6:00, and I leave work early to get to them.  Nicholas just finished fourth grade, and I haven’t missed a parent-teacher conference yet.

I got sick a lot as a child, and often the school couldn’t reach my mom because she was running errands or swimming at the YMCA or working in the garden where she couldn’t hear the phone . . . so they’d call my dad at work, and he’d drop everything to pick me up as soon as possible and stay with me until my mom got home.  When I was a teenager and my mom had started working, her job took her out of town for a week or more at a time; I could handle being home alone with yet another bout of strep throat, but my dad came home at lunchtime nearly every day to cook ramen noodles and watch “Perry Mason” with me.

Nicholas and Lydia both have been extraordinarily healthy so far (note: It isn’t true that every child who attends childcare will get a contagious illness every couple of weeks!) but when they do get sick or hurt, I’m there for them–unless Daniel’s on it.  Now that I’m a parent, I understand that it can be truly irritating to get a call saying that your dang kid’s got pinkeye again, just when you thought you were going to spend the afternoon writing a really interesting algorithm–but I try to recall my dad’s example and act gentle and caring, instead of resentful.

Bring the kids into your working world.

During school vacations, if my mom needed to go somewhere my brother and I couldn’t go or wouldn’t like going, she’d take us to have lunch with our dad at his office.  He’d introduce us to everyone and show us his latest projects and have us draw new pictures to decorate the place.  At least once, I spent a whole day at work with him when I was sick.  (At that point, he had a couch in his office.  I remember lying there reading while he and colleagues discussed circuit diagrams they were drawing on the chalkboard.)

When Nicholas has time off school and day camp, he’s often able to stay home with Daniel, who works from home.  However, Nicholas likes to spend at least one day of every break at work with me.  Recently he’s actually been a big help, sorting stuff we don’t need anymore into piles of recyclable paper, reusable things, and garbage.  He even entered a bunch of alphas into a spreadsheet for me!  When he was younger, he was more distracting–but even then, I was able to get almost as much done as I do on a typical day, through sheer determination.

I remember that whenever I walked with my dad through the hallways of the Research Center, we inevitably passed someone who said, “Gotcher helper here today, huh?”  That is exactly what the security guard in the lobby of my office building says when Nicholas walks in with me! 🙂

Daddies aren’t dumb and helpless.

On television, when a product is presented as good for children (nutritious, causes less rash, etc.) it’s always “moms know it’s best”, never dads–the only thing dads worry about is insurance, apparently.   That’s been getting on my nerves since I was a kid!  I knew that my own father, while not necessarily aware of every detail of what to buy in the supermarket, was a basically sensible and competent person.  On weekends, he often took my brother and me and a couple of our friends on an Adventure, exploring some woods or a creek or the sewage-treatment plant, and when something went wrong he always knew what to do.

This is helpful to recall when I find myself laboring under the assumption that I have to do everything child-related because I’m the mother.  The kids have two parents!  I can ask Daniel to do stuff.  In fact, there are some things that have become his special responsibilities, that he does perfectly well with no nagging so that I don’t have to think about them at all unless he’s very sick or out of town.  Letting him do some of the parenting keeps me from burning out!

Mothers do have some unique abilities, which deserve respect.

My father has always shown the highest regard for pregnancy and breastfeeding.  I grew up believing that growing and nurturing a baby would be an amazing experience for me and an achievement I could be proud of–and it has!  I never doubted that I would breastfeed while working outside the home.  My mother was worried that it might not work out (and did her best to connect me with helpful resources) but my father just seemed to believe in me.  Of course, his work experience hadn’t included any breast-pumping.  But when I remember seeing my drawings hanging in his office and knowing that he was always thinking about me, I feel better about turning my thoughts to my baby while I pump the milk.

My skills are worth sharing.

My dad showed me, from as early as I can remember, that he noticed and respected the things I did unusually well.  He also showed me that the things he did unusually well were not just for our family but needed to be shared with the wider world.  In addition to his paid job, he did a lot of volunteer work related to computers.  He often brought me along to someone’s house where he was helping to set up a computer system, so we were together although he was also getting something done for someone else.

I’m now the data manager of a social science research study.  I’m a big part of a project that is learning more about what makes some boys into criminals.  That’s useful work!  I didn’t want to give it up to focus only on my family.  I feel that in my career I am working toward a better society for my children and everyone else.  I can take care of my family and my work, like my father before me.

It’s kind of a crazy blur. That’s okay.

One of the most enlightening things I’ve done in the past few years is to ask each of my parents, separately, “What was it like when you were my age?”  My dad’s answer began, “It’s kind of a crazy blur.”  He said he remembers the projects he did at work more clearly than the things that happened at home, and his recollection of life in general is just busy-ness and time flying by!  Yet when my brother or I bring up something that happened during those years, our dad usually is able to remember it, sometimes even with details we’d forgotten.  The blur clears up when he focuses on one part, I guess.  At any rate, even though it was a stressful time, it was a time when a lot got done and there was a lot to be proud of.

I hope that when I look back on this era of my life, I’ll see it as a time when great things happened, both in my family and in my work.  I’ll remember being up really late and scrambling to cover lots of details, but I’ll also remember adventures in the daily commute and books we shared and funny moments.  I hope that when my kids look back, they’ll remember that Mama loved her interesting job and that Mama loved doing interesting things with them.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad!  Thanks for teaching me all these things and so many more!

Visit Works-for-Me Wednesday for more great tips on lots of topics.


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