Monday, April 11, 2005

A Former WAHM Speaks Out

A Former WAHM Speaks Out
Andria Brown

I thought I had it all figured out - which, as any parent knows, is the first step on the path to certain childrearing disaster. When I decided to get pregnant, I was working from my home in Memphis and telecommuting to an office in Chicago where I'd worked in-person before getting married and moving to the confederacy. It was, quite simply, the best job ever. I was actually using my English degree in a corporate setting, plus I had great relationships with my co-workers, most of whom didn't even resent the fact that I was attending meetings in my pajamas. The Chicago paycheck on a Memphis cost of living was a nice perk, too. I loved telecommuting; it helped me realize that it wasn't office jobs that I despised so much, but the actual office. Given my own environment and my own schedule, I was perfectly happy to sit at a desk and crank out whatever needed cranking. And what could be a better scenario for a new mother? I looked forward to taking my eight weeks of maternity leave, but I knew that my transition back into working would be so much easier than it is for most breastfeeding, co-sleeping mothers. I didn't have to worry about pumping. I could take a mid-day nap if we'd had a rough night. I could get complicated tasks done in the evenings when my husband was home. It was perfect.

You can see where this is heading, can't you? Too bad I couldn't. I was completely taken by surprise when I got a call from my boss - my mentor and mother-figure, the woman who had hired me on the spot after a 20-minute interview - telling me that my job had been eliminated. Our company was growing, which apparently meant that a bunch of people needed to get fired, including me and, eventually, almost all of the Chicago office. I could hear my boss's voice cracking as she told me the news, but I kept quiet, wanting to avoid the sound of my own breakdown echoed over the speakerphone in our HR rep's office. I tried to pay attention as they gave me the details of my severance, but it was hard to listen over the panicked chanting in the back of my head: "Whatnowwhatnowwhatnowwhatnow?"

The job market wasn't great by anyone's definition, let alone someone trying to job hunt with an infant in tow. Not to mention that I didn't have a single piece of professional clothing left in my post-partum wardrobe. The good news was, I would continue getting paid for nearly five more months. That seemed like a lifetime, considering how exhausting the last (and first) four months of mothering had been. I figured I could defer my anxiety for a few weeks, get over the sting of being fired for the first time, and then start exploring my options.

Once I got through the sucky, self-pitying part, being laid off actually started to seem like a great opportunity. Now I had a chance to do all those things I'd always wanted to try: actively pursuing freelance writing assignments, working on a book, developing my web design business. I even put together a to-do list that included designing cool baby clothes and hitting open mic night at the local comedy club.

Everything was open to me, and I had the financial freedom to venture down new paths. It was liberating, exciting, and ultimately, totally unrealistic. Because of course, what I forgot to factor into my grand plans was the full-time job of parenting and its pull on my time, energy and enthusiasm for the unknown.

My last twenty weeks of regular paychecks sped by in a blur of playgroups, zoo trips and lunches with dad. Before you could say "under-developed query," my exploration phase was finished and none of my projects had moved from to-do to got-done. This fact alone would have depressed me if I hadn't been so worried about what to do next. I needed a job. And I needed to be home with my baby. If I'd planned on going back to an office, I would have made some different parenting choices from the start - like not waiting until she was three months old to give my daughter a bottle she would never take - but as it was, we were set up for a full-time, at-home parent. I had sent out resumes throughout my severance period and had even been asked to interview a few times, but whenever I mentioned that I was interested in working from home, I got a sympathetic but unwavering reply: we're just not able to manage that right now.

There are stay-at-home moms and there are work-outside-the-home moms and there are work-at-home moms. I didn't feel like I fit any of those categories. I was an unemployed-at-home mom. I wasn't jobless by choice, and each day that passed made me more frantic about finding a source of income. But how much income could I even expect to find? I sat down and figured out the costs of childcare, gas, wardrobe, lunches out - everything I could think of that would reduce my take-home pay. By the time I got through adding it up, I realized that there was very little chance of me finding a job that would bring in more than it was taking out, assuming an MBA didn't magically grow out of my body some night. It was a pretty depressing observation, but also somewhat freeing. If working a regular 9-to-5 job wouldn't bring in significantly more money than staying at home, then what was the point of having one? If I could find a way to employ myself, anything that I could take in would be pure profit, relatively speaking.

And thus began the hustle. I'm not especially crafty and I don't have any revolutionary ideas in the realm of cloth diapering, so that erased some of the typical work-at-home options. I've never been much of a networker, but I began to realize that my friends were my best work leads. I've taken on web work for upstart companies, booked gigs for musician friends, and was fortuitously introduced to a local editor interested in my hippie parenting stories. Twenty-five years after my mother left Mary Kay behind, I became an independent consultant for The Body Shop at Home (who needs body butter? anyone?). It all seems a bit ironic, really - I went to college to avoid scrambling for work and juggling multiple jobs, and now I'm taking on three, four and five different tasks at once ... just to afford my monthly student loan payment.

Even with all those hats in the air, though, I'm still not bringing in much in the way of salary. We did some budget adjusting, and then some re-adjusting, and we've made things work, but it's still hard to accept that my financial contribution isn't anywhere near the level it had been. And as many women who've left full-time jobs discover, mothering's rewards are far less tangible (and frequent) than the validation provided by career competence. I miss the money for sure, but more than that, I miss feeling like an equal partner in our family's economic well-being, and I definitely miss getting regular phone calls telling me that I'm doing a good job (not to mention the lunches out with actual grown-ups).

I'd like this to be the part where I say that seeing my daughter grow and learn and become a gorgeous and capable human being makes up for all of that, and while it does provide a large amount of solace, I'd be lying if I said I was fully content with my role of full-time, at-home, still-attempting-to-work parent. I feel like I could be significantly more successful at any one of my 37 jobs if I had the ability to concentrate and follow-through on higher-level tasks, but as it is, I'm flailing to keep up the minimum required effort for any given project. By the time I've wrapped up a full day of toddler-chasing, it's hard to get motivated by large, vague goals with non-existent deadlines, especially when the only time to face them down is 11:30 at night.

Because I've always been a little thick, I've decided that the best solution to this issue is starting my own company. My theory is that consolidation will help me gain focus and enable me to tie down my various skills into one presentable package. Or maybe I just got really excited about thinking up a company name and couldn't wait to use it. I forget exactly how it all happened; I'm really tired, you know?

Regardless, my desire for career legitimacy has led me here, and my desire for personal legitimacy may just be high enough to make it work. (How's that for a mission statement?) I never expected to be a business owner, but I never foresaw how strongly I would be pulled by both my child and my craving for professional interaction. And fancy lunches.

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