I was raised in New York City, with a proverbial silver spoon in my mouth. My parents only had one child, and they were both very career-driven. We lived very well, and employed a revolving door of nannies and babysitters. My parents, although loving, were mostly driven by other pursuits. They wanted me to be happy, of course, but ultimately they put things—their jobs, travel, intellectual pursuits—before me. They loved each other and enjoyed each other’s company; their marriage was first and foremost. And so, when I said my first word—“mamma”—it was to my nanny.
I never consciously rebelled against this way of being. I grew up and went to a great university, and then a better graduate school, where I met and married my husband. I cultivated a career in my twenties and then abandoned it in favor of a different one. My husband was supportive and patient.
When I turned the corner into my thirties, though, my priorities shifted. I’d always thought of myself as very career-oriented. I defined myself by my work and was proud of what I’d achieved. I think the pressure from basing my identity on my job caught up with me and I found myself often indulging a harmless escape fantasy—“Would it be so bad if I defined myself as a mother and wife? Would it be the worst thing if I put my family first?” Those are leading questions.
But that thought, of putting my family first, really resonated with me on a deeper level. I thought of my parents and how they’d been—selfish, I felt—and said to myself that my hypothetical children would be better off raised by their own mother instead of a stranger picked on the basis of a couple of recommendations. I wanted to feed them, to hold them, to teach them things. I didn’t want them to confuse a stranger for their mother.
Still, when my husband and I discussed our plans post-baby, the decision was that I’d go back to work after my maternity leave expired. The first couple of months after my daughter was born were brutal. I was a mess. I felt so attached and responsible for her, and the thought of “abandoning” her for work was unbearable. My husband and I talked about it and, after checking in at work, we decided to extend my leave by a month. That month came and went, and so did the next year, and the next decade, and three kids.
I think about this decision now, and I feel as though perhaps it made itself. Strangely enough, I didn’t realize what I was doing until recently. The opportunity cost of raising my own children was losing my career. One way or another, we define ourselves. The myth of having it all, of having a fulfilling career, and being a great mother, and a good wife, and using your gym membership, and occasionally having some time left over to get a haircut is just that: a myth. Something’s gotta draw the short straw.
I thought I didn’t want to be defined by my work, so I became defined by my role as a mother, instead. My therapist brought up a curious concept—the Cinderella complex, based on a book by the same name—which posits that women fear independence and seek male saviors. The author says that oftentimes motherhood is an escape hatch utilized when the pressure of work, self-sufficiency, and independence become too overwhelming. Is that what I had done: had I gotten pregnant to escape the pressure of self sufficiency?
Of course, the idea seems laughable, especially to anyone who knows how difficult it is to be a mother. But you could also argue, as I do with myself whenever I give the topic any consideration, that I had no idea what I was getting myself into, that first foray into motherhood. And it bothers me that my thoughts so often turn back to the idea that I picked motherhood as a self-sabotage, to avoid contending with difficult questions about my identity.
The ultimate question, though, is whether I’d be thinking these thoughts had I gone back to work after I had my first baby. Would I lament having missed her first giggle, her first words? Would I feel more fulfilled, having retained an identity other than that of mother and wife? There’s no way to know with certainty. The only thing that is certain is that, whether you pick motherhood or career, something’s gotta give.