"You look ... happy," she says to me, sizing me up one last time before she heads home. My friend, who had come to see my new office, is standing in the middle of the walkway, framed by the contrast of modern and Collegiate Gothic architecture, dappled light playing on the walkway around her.
"I'm ..." I begin, trying to find the words, "it's complicated ..." I hesitate again, a little bit surprised at what I'm about to say. "... I guess I am happy."
It's a thought that's crossed my mind more than once during my drive home from work over the Sourland Mountain and down into the valley, as I take stock of my day and plot the next one, passing fields of grazing cows. I try this "happy" on in the car, like a hat, adjusting it this way and that. Am I really? What if I think about it this way? Isn't it complicated?
Happy is word I dare not use. How could I be happy to leave my children, getting home barely in time for dinner, spending so much time away from them? What kind of a parent is happy that way? And how could I be happy making just a little more than the cost of day care, and probably breaking even after I add in clothes and a commute? How could I be happy having to rebuild my career from the ground up? What kind of self-respecting professional could be happy with that?
And yet, that's exactly what it is.
In the years to come, I will likely count going back to work as one of the hardest decisions I've made, next to leaving. I need to work for financial reasons. I couldn't have stayed home forever anyway. But transitions are always difficult, aren't they? Deciding to move across the country for graduate school. Deciding to leave said graduate program, giving up two years of fellowship money because the program didn't "feel" right. Deciding to move back across the country to my parents' basement and take a job at my alma mater. Deciding to leave the job at my alma mater, because I felt like I was worth more than the way I was treated. And now, deciding to take this position.
But as I drove home the other day, the thought entered my mind, unsolicited, and crystallized: yes. This is right for me.
It's not often I get moments of complete clarity. In that moment, wearing my work clothes, driving in my stockinged feet, heels kicked off to the side, I felt like my identity and my work were aligned again. I am a parent who works outside the home, I said to myself.
I wonder if it would have been this clear to me if I hadn't ended up staying home for a while. After all, being at work was all I'd ever known. But seeing it from the other perspective, knowing that I am capable of staying home, but that I'm in a better place when I am not at home, and when my children and I go our separate ways, reconnecting at the end of the day, has helped me to appreciate who I really am. And I can accept that it might change, but that for now, this is where I need to be.
It's not easy. Getting a second grader and a toddler out the door by 7:15 is no picnic, nor is a long commute that gets me home at 6. In order to make this work for me and for my family, and have enough time to spend with them when I am home, I have given up pretty much all of my extracurricular activities. No more yoga or other exercise right now. No more volunteer commitments at night.
And there are certainly other sacrifices: last night, as I
stood making my kids' lunches after dinner, I thought, yes, this is the
way it will be, every day, ad infinitum, until they go to college.
Studying my son's award from day camp, I thought about how brave he is
to be alone, how independent he is, despite the fact that we still can't trust him to wash behind his ears. And my daughter is a little clingy when I walk through the door at 6pm, but she is also excited to see me, to tell me her stories, which mitigates the clingy a bit.
It's not perfect. There will be hiccups, adjustments. But yes, I think, this is right. And finally, isn't that, with all of its flaws and imperfections, what happy is?