It had been a while since I’d been to a networking event. After freelancing for eight years, I was back at work full-time, and I’d been invited to an evening industry event. I was a little worried I wouldn’t know anyone. Or that I’d be underdressed. Or spill wine on my business cards. But what actually happened blindsided me. The last thing I expected was to be shamed for being a working mother — and by a woman, too.
When I got to the party, I recognized plenty of familiar faces. A lot of my old coworkers were now scattered throughout the publishing world, and so I knew more people than I expected. Which was surprising, considering how long I’d been gone. I had left my full-time position after my daughter was born, working as a freelancer and building a writing career. My son entering kindergarten coincided with the realization that we needed more stability. And so, several interviews and multiple trips to Dress Barn later, I was back in my old field. While it’s been a transition for my family, it’s also been an exciting move and one that we needed. I feel blessed every day to be doing something I love while making a meaningful contribution to our finances.
And so I wasn’t prepared for someone to cast a shadow on my new life. When I ran into a former female colleague, the first thing she did was ask me how old the kids are. “Eight and five,” I responded innocently.
“Oh,” she replied, “how terrible that you have to work. That’s really so unfortunate.” Multiple variations on this theme followed. And then, in an accusatory tone, “Where are your kids now?”
“With their father,” I replied dryly. You know, I thought, their other parent, who, I was fairly certain, wasn’t turning them into juvenile delinquents while I snacked on goat cheese.
“Well,” she said, “hopefully you’ll only have to do this for a few years.”
I was perplexed. I had never said I was looking to go anywhere. In fact, I hadn’t had much of an opportunity to say anything at all. Looking around the room, I saw plenty of men. I wondered if she’d asked any of them if they had kids, if she’d directed her pity at them for having to be apart from their children. Somehow I doubted it.
I’m not sure why this woman I barely know, with whom I’d worked only tangentially years ago, chose to focus all her energy on the horrors of my having to leave my children to work all day. Maybe she assumed I didn’t want to be there because I had left when my daughter was a newborn. But careers aren’t always linear. People leave to go to graduate school. To take care of sick parents. To travel the world. I left and I came back. It’s not something I should have to defend.
And yet, for whatever reason, that night I found myself feeling something I hadn’t since returning to work — judged as a mother. Yes, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s hard. Sometimes my kids struggle with Mommy being gone all day, and there are days I feel the distance acutely, wishing I could pop over to their school for a math lab or to chaperone a school trip. But for the most part I feel proud: proud that I can help keep a roof over their heads. Proud that, when the letter from my son’s ENT arrived, telling us that they no longer accept our former insurance, my new insurance allows him to still see the doctor we trust. And proud of the work I do every day, that’s challenging and interesting and (I hope) a positive example for my kids of all that women can do — even if doing it all is, at times, exhausting.
And so, I politely thanked my former colleague for her thoughts and moved on to other, more supportive people at the event. As a mom, there are always going to be times I feel guilty for my choices, no matter what they are. But it won’t be because someone out there projects her own views onto me. Or because someone who doesn’t know me or my family wants me to feel bad. I don’t have time for that nonsense. I’ve got a train to catch, kids to get home to, and a sale at Dress Barn to attend. After all, if I’m gong to stick around awhile, I’m going to need more pants.