Saturday, March 15, 2014

My Failed Attempt at a Real Simple Essay Contest

Last fall, I read about an essay contest in Real Simple magazine. The essay question was: What is the bravest thing you have ever done?

At the time, I was looking to write more, so I figured I would jump into the contest. How cool would it be to be published in Real Simple? I conveniently forgot I would probably be up against thousands of entries.

The winning essay (which is extremely touching and well done) was published in this month's issue. And while I didn't win first, second, or third place, I thought I'd share my submission here.

I'd like to say that, despite my serious initial struggles with becoming a mother, I'm really happy with where I am now, so please don't worry that I'm in a pit of parenting despair or anything!

As always, feel free to share any thoughts.
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I don’t consider myself brave. I’ve never run into a burning building to save a person or fought a life-threatening disease.

But if I had to nail bravery down to one act, I’d have to say that walking away from my career and becoming a stay-at-home-mom was by far the bravest thing I’ve ever done.

I became a parent at the age of 31. I’d been working full-time in non-profit communications and public affairs for a number of years in New York City and then Washington, D.C. My job took me all over the country and I felt blessed to have it.

Some come into parenthood easily. I am not one of those people. From the induced labor forward, I struggled desperately with motherhood. Looking back, it’s clear I suffered from some level of postpartum depression. I was getting no sleep, my baby girl was struggling with issues I couldn’t figure out (we know now that she suffers from severe food allergies), and I felt trapped. To say I was overwhelmed would be an understatement.

About two weeks after my daughter’s birth, we celebrated Christmas with my family (who had lovingly made the trek from Canada to D.C. to visit us for the holiday). The Ryan family loves Christmas. But as much as we tried, Christmas 2006 was not the same as years past.

I can vividly remember getting out of the shower right before for Christmas dinner (my Mom calling from downstairs that the food was ready) and breaking down in tears. My heavy breasts were leaking milk all over my stomach and blood was draining from the wounds of having given birth to a 9 pound 6.5 ounce baby only weeks before. At that moment, on one of my favorite days of the year, I imagined what it would be like to walk in front of a truck and put an end to the misery. Pretty dark stuff.

I dreaded every night. As much as my husband tried to help, he had to perform at work and needed to get some sleep. I felt so alone and scared when bed time would roll around. My child would not sleep, which meant I could not sleep. And I am one of those people who really need their sleep (as in eight hours a night). The cycle of sleepless nights and lonely days left me desperate, at times. I sadly never reached out for any help. Perhaps motherhood was supposed to be this hard? People had always told me you don’t know how hard it is until you do it. But this seemed extreme.

We lived in a small row house in a central neighborhood at the time. Every morning I would stand in front of our living room window watching all of the “worker bees” head towards their various workplaces. They looked so fresh and well dressed. They walked with such purpose. They were like I used to be, and what I still wanted to be.

The United States is the only industrialized country in the world without guaranteed paid maternity leave. I was lucky my place of employment offered eight weeks.

Before I knew it, those eight weeks had passed by in a foggy haze of depression, dirty diapers, constant breast feeding, swaddling, shooshing and exhaustion (I now understand why sleep deprivation is a form of torture). Most days, I couldn’t think straight. I had a lot of what I called “no drive” days because I would have been too much of a hazard on the road.

Clinging to the idea that I would go back to work, I took advantage of 12 weeks leave provided by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). I figured that would give me time to get my head screwed back on properly, or to magically snap back into the person I was before becoming a mother.

As the seasons shifted from Winter to Spring, I would day dream about how amazing it would be to sit at my desk and catch up on emails while drinking hot coffee. I would imagine how sweet it would feel to board a plane solo for meetings in another city. How I would be able to sleep all alone in a nice, quiet hotel room. How I would only have to worry about taking care of myself and my professional commitments. And to converse with intelligent adults? Oh, how divine. How could I have taken it all for granted?
As I slowly made my way out of the fog of new motherhood, I realized that having a small baby and a full-time career wasn’t going to blend as easily as I had first anticipated. If I was going back to work, I would need quality child care that would cover my travel schedule and allow my husband and I the flexibility to continue with our professional commitments (he’s in consulting and has an unreliable schedule).

Frankly, I wasn’t making the kind of money that would easily cover the additional expenses of child care, dry cleaning, daily lunches, etc. How far ahead financially would I need to come out to make going back to work worth it? Or should I be working simply because I was not cut out to be a full-time, at-home parent? What was best for me? And what was best for my little family?

The answers to those questions changed as rapidly as the diapers I was changing. One moment I would be sure I had to go back to the office. How could I have invested all those years in school to now sabotage everything I had worked so hard to build professionally? The next moment I would think of how fast my beautiful (and still extremely difficult and exhausting) daughter was growing and how it would be such a shame to miss out on all those “firsts.” I knew in my heart that as shaky a job as I was doing, no one else was going to try to soothe and comfort her like I was.  

I had become a mom and I was slowly realizing that my identity had profoundly shifted.

And here’s where the bravery part kicks in. About half way through my FMLA leave, I met my boss for a lunch date, ordered a glass of white wine, and quit my job. He knew it was coming...even if I hadn’t been willing to admit it to myself for months.

I had absolutely no plan. How long would I be home for? How would I fill our days? And what about all the other jobs I was taking on? I was now CEO of our family and that came with some serious responsibility.

I became the house cleaning, grocery shopping, laundry doing, dinner making, stay-at-home mom. I had to shake off my old “worker bee” identity and try to embrace this new, and frankly, much less glamorous identity. And I realized I was lucky to have the choice.

There were many bumps along the path to finding our family “groove.” Especially as we threw another baby into the mix two years after my daughter’s birth. I frequently questioned my parenting abilities (or lack thereof). I wondered why I still struggled while other moms made it look so easy (especially the moms working outside of the home! How did they do it?). I’m embarrassed to admit this, but it was a good five years before I felt like I (mostly) had a handle on everything.

On tough days, my old “worker bee” identity would pop out and reprimand my current “stay-at-home” identity for having given up my job. To this day, almost seven years into it, I can’t help but wonder how far I could have gone if I had stuck with my career. I’ll never know. While I’ve been doing some freelance writing, my old career path is dead.

It’s funny because I probably could have written the same essay if I had made the opposite choice. Going back to work, as the majority of new moms do, would have been extremely brave. But for me, walking away from my career was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. I’m proud of what I did and I’d like to think it was really brave.

1 comment:

Mamabeing said...

Beautiful honey! I knew you struggled but I guess I didn't realize how deeply. I had some very dark times too. Thanks for writing about it--also very brave! So glad we're coming over that hump now.