Ambivalence and regret roll into my heart like thunder

I had a professional conversation yesterday morning that triggered a landslide of self-doubt. I realized anew, sitting in a conference room as snow drifted down outside, how little I feel I have accomplished in the 10 years since I graduated from business school. I have very clearly chosen a path of a foot in both worlds (“career” and “home,” both in quotations because I think these definitions are simplistic) and as a result I have a home in neither. In being unwilling to give up active participation in either world, did I just end up doing a poor job at both?

What does it mean to have a foot in both worlds? I think it can be wonderful and it can be tormented, depending on the person and the situation. I’m just not sure which it is for me. I’ve always straddled the gulf of the mommy wars, always worked part-time, always spent part of my week in office buildings and part in the sandbox. I have adamantly insisted on keeping a “foot in the door” professionally because I was sure I’d want to “ramp back up” someday. All of these phrases seem foreign on my tongue now, like a language I used to speak but have lost.

I made an active decision to scale back my professional aspirations and involvement in order to have more flexibility to be home with Grace and Whit. And yet I have such an ache about having missed the babyhood of my children. It’s easy to blame that on the fact that I was at work some of the time, but when I’m really honest I don’t think that is the reason at all. I think it’s about my wiring, my frantic restlessness, the way I struggle to be fully engaged in one thing at a time. Still, I wonder if I had chosen to be home full-time I would feel better about my childrens’ infancies, if I would feel I had caught more of the swollen moments of feeling that are what it’s all about.

And yet I also feel frustrated by what feels like wasted years, spent only partially engaged in jobs which, in retrospect, did not mean very much to me. In order to keep the flexibility I prize so highly (to allow, among other things, time for writing) I have had to take jobs that are often peripheral and not core to a company’s function. This has eroded both my sense of real contribution and my feeling part of a cohesive team. What was the point of having missed hours with my faintly baby-powdered scented babies, for something that feels so insubstantial and inconsequential now?

Of course, the dirty truth is that I didn’t really want to be there every single second. I hate admitting that, because now I wish so devoutly that I had every single one of those seconds back. But, still. I know I needed the perspective of time away. I guess I just wish that I felt better about what I had accomplished in the hours I was away. I wish I didn’t feel like a fraud who is hiding the fact that she doesn’t know anything real.

There are two things that people tell me all the time about the way I have navigated the complicated territory of work/home. One is that I am lucky to have flexible, part-time work. This infuriates me because while I am deeply, firmly aware of my tremendous good fortune, I think calling my professional situation lucky trivializes the amount of work and forethought that went into it. And then, of course, my gerbil brain goes off on the wheel of: oh my God, I spent all of that time planning … this??? Anyway. The second is how well I’ve figured out how to have both. And when people tell me that, I always smile and nod and express my satisfaction with my situation. But I haven’t figured anything out, and those comments always make ambivalence and regret roll into my heart like thunder. They remind me of all of the anxieties and misgivings I have about the trade-offs and choices I have made.

Aidan at Ivy League Insecurities wrote a couple of weeks ago about how she frets that she has wasted her education. I relate to this, though my reasons are slightly different. I worry that I am letting down my parents, for their enormous financial and emotional investment in my education. I worry that I am failing the special teachers who took a particular interest in me, made me believe I was not stupid, helped open my mind. And I don’t feel that I am letting those people down because of my specific choices but because of who I am: that I am not more curious, ambitious, intelligent.

Days like today I feel that I’m the epitome of that trite and critical saying, “a mile wide and an inch deep.” I feel as though I’ve skimmed the surface of many worlds but not had the courage to really pick one and immerse myself in it. On other days I think that, as I wrote at Kelly’s blog, Cleavage, I am simply more kaleidoscope than laser. On those days, when I am feeling kinder towards myself, I think a life splintered into myriad pieces just fits me. I think that I could never commit to one place because I never found one that felt like home. I don’t know. I just know that today ten years of frantic effort has left me with a handful of dust and a heart full of questions.

24 thoughts on “Ambivalence and regret roll into my heart like thunder”

  1. Lindsey – I so understand what you mean. I have done this parenting thing both ways. I went back to work after my first when he was 3 months old. I worked full time. With the twins, I went back to work full time at eight weeks because I had been on bed rest from week 26. By the time baby #4 rolled into my life, I was a stay at home mom. I remained that way until baby six was a little more than 2 and then I went back to work part time, retail, just because.

    I have often felt that I short changed my children with my jobs – none were what I considered careers. I often felt, as I was working, I short changed my job because of my family. This tug of war is so hard to find an even pull in.

  2. Lindsey, I’m afraid if I start commenting, I will never stop. I have so much to say in response, I might do a whole post on it.
    But since the morning routine calls, I’ll keep it brief.
    I so GET THIS. I know the feeling of toggling between two worlds and feeling as though you don’t fit neatly in either. I know the feeling of working my ass off for 10 years to “get where I am” career-wise, to EARN the privilege to be part-time, just to be told I’m “lucky”.
    The one thing I will say is this. It is clear from your writing that you, if you had to choose (and sometimes we do), you would rather Be Very Important to Someone than to Be Someone Very Important (by society’s standards). I’ve been both (though necessarily at the same time), and my life is 100% more meaningful when I make relationship and not accomplishment, the highest priority.
    You probably haven’t heard the last of me on this. 🙂
    (Have I told you lately that I love your writing?)

  3. We’re similar enough in character, I think, that I can say this with some measure of confidence: Even if you’d stayed home full-time, you’d think you were sucking. Because being home with babies is kinda boring. There, I said it.

    I was “there” the whole time but I certainly wasn’t “tuned-in” all the time. Hardly. You escaped to work while I escaped into the Food Network or a good book or buying shoes on I missed plenty of their babyhood, truly. Which of course, I beat myself up about.

  4. Well, I made the mistake of reading this on my iphone as I waited to drop my kids off at school (cause, you know, I’m always super present). So I walked them to their respective classrooms with a face awash in tears.
    As I’ve written before, I sometimes get confused about what I actually want – who I actually am! – in the cacophony of voices opining on those things. So to hear you say that you hear a clear theme emerging … well, that’s really, really helpful. Thank you.
    And I certainly hope I haven’t heard the last of you on this!

  5. So very much came up for me as I read this and actually had some flittering in my chest…”handful of dust and a heart full of questions”. You have named something so very universal.

    My momma instincts are kicking in to high gear here. Like I can’t stop wanting so badly for you to lean in to hear what the questions are being asked in your noisy heart and head (cacaphony…oh yes). The way you would REALLY listen intently if Whit or Grace wanted you to hear them.

    You are such an unbelievable beacon of light, love and wisdom. Yes indeed.

  6. You mean I’m not the only one???? I am so surprised! I have worked full time most of the time I’ve been a mom and have been torn between the two worlds. When I was at home with them, like Kitchen Witch says: I thought “I sucked” there too. Half the time at work, I resent being there because I’m not “taking care” of my kids. I sometimes resent my sisters who are SAH moms because I don’t get to do that. Yet when I am home, I sometimes wish I was at work!

    SOOOO many times (ask my husband) I feel that I am a failure at BOTH! I am not fully present in BOTH! Yet I want BOTH!

    A failure is the exact word to represent how I feel. Which, I know, is ridiculous. My children are happy and healthy. They know I love them. My job, is just a job and does not define me. I am not a failure at it either because I do the best I can when I am there.

    Why do we do this to ourselves? I think it is because we care SOOO DEEPLY that we want to everything to everyone. That is a very hard thing to do. In the end though, I think women like us are what makes the world a much better place. We are better moms because we try so hard to be, and we are better workers because we try so hard to be!

    I’m not making much sense because I’ve only had one cup of coffee! Basically, I am so glad I read this because I have felt this so many times too and it lifts my spirits to know that I’m not the only one. I hope it helps you too to know that you are not alone either.

    Thank you, once again my friend.

  7. True, all of it true. And yet all anyone is left with is dust no matter how many sandcastles they build in a lifetime. Better to tend to the heart than quibble over paper and sawdust. You are doing beautifully. I can see it with my own eyes.

  8. Lindsey, I know what you mean. When I was in school full-time with Emily, I felt, and still feel, so guilty. I was sure that I had wasted away her baby hood with something that wasn’t nearly as important. Now that I’m home with Andrew I STILL feel guilty. I feel like I have ignored him too often. Why? Why do we hurt ourselves in this manner?

    Being present is a challenge.

    I am with you on this one.

  9. Hmm. A kaleidoscope still has a never ending fascination. Vibrant, colorful, never repeatable design, creative, elegant, simple, interesting, satisfying, doesn’t break, adds beauty, can be shared, packed, stored, taken and provides hours of delight for curious minds.

    You give the world more than merely a laser….

  10. As always a beautifully written post. Through reading your blog I would venture to say you have gone deeper in many more areas than you think. Your relationship with your kids and your depth of exploration with both yourself and your writing is inspiring.

  11. As I am sure that you can tell from the rich comments that precede mine, you are tapping into something impossibly universal and universally impossible here. As I write this, I think this: As long as there are “two worlds” in which to fit, we will never feel wholly immersed in life or self. When will begin to see all of this – parenthood, professionhood, personhood – as one? What will it take?

    Thanks for the link love. We are in this together, kid.

  12. This is a difficult predicament for those of us with perfectionistic tendencies, for I think we naturally want to do it all – well, perfectly. The trouble develops when our perception of what perfect means doesn’t align well with what we’re actually doing. Naturally, this results in feeling like a failure to some degree. I find myself struggling with the same work v. motherhood dilemma; I call it a dilemma because I feel I must decide which one I want to be ‘best’ at, and somehow choosing Mommy means that I’m a failure in the work department, which must mean then I somehow am wasting a valuable part of myself and all of those who invested in me, right? Perhaps, though, such a view is all wrong. Perhaps we should be happy to look at the sum total of what we accomplish, feel proud of all it is that we do simultaneously.

    I heard once in a yoga class, “Nothing is perfect but perfectly balanced.” Another commonly heard bit of advice usually addresses the end of life and what matters most is who we loved, how we loved. Yet why the persistent dilemma?

  13. It bugs the heck out of me when people who are not in your situation say that you are lucky. Because the grass is always greener… as well as what you said – work goes into decisions, planning, etc. This isn’t a great comparison, but it’s kind of like “you lucked out with your children.” I like to think my husband and I had something to do with them being well behaved in certain situations {though not always…} or the fact that they have an interest in reading or whatever the question may be. I don’t know how much luck plays into it, and how much it’s a nice way of coating a slight bit of jealousy. But I digress…
    I think those of us who struggle to stay present, who wonder and daydream about possibilities, will always have a little more self doubt. I can tell you – I was there for every moment of my children’s babyhood, but I was not always present. In many ways. I hold a lot of regret about that, about the escape route I took while being there.
    I’m rambling… forgive me! This obviously touched on a lot of issues that run through my mind. You did a wonderful job presenting them!

  14. Lindsey, Our infinite spirits will never fit into the cookie cutter boxes society tries to get us to fit into. In reality, there is no such thing as work/life balance. It’s a farce and a lie. I discovered that myself, as I raised my daughters. Now I watch them making the choices they need to make to make their spirits happy, which in turn models the same to their babies. When I was an older non-traditional student at Stanford, a much-younger undergrad, upon hearing of my most unusual life trajectory, told me, “There is no right way to do life.” I have never forgotten her wisdom. The only way to do life is YOUR way. No one else can know what that is…only you. You are doing it your way. Trust that. IN the end, that’s all that matters.

  15. Once again, you’ve struck a beautiful, deeply vibrating chord within so many of us. I’ve chosen to be home more than at work but the straddling often feels like my first days on ice skates. Scary, painful and exhilerating. I don’t think any choice we make as mamas is right (or wrong), easy or perfect. We are all in this great big messy journey of discovery. The most I can hope for is to continue to grow into myself more fully each day. Oh – and to connect with kindred souls who are doing the same – which I always feel when I come here 🙂

  16. Having a foot in both worlds is a feeling of half-completeness, hearing half the story at the office water cooler and then coming home to the aftermath of your first & oldest child’s first taste of real food: a mashed banana. (missing the latter steamed me mad for weeks)

    I was there, once, for 5 years, with a foot in both professional and mama worlds.

    After baby #4 came, I knew it wasn’t in me to do it anymore.

    While I sometimes mourn losing my position at work, I try and remind myself that, like a wave rushing in and flowing out, I may find myself back there again, at work, some day.

  17. This post has stuck with me since I read it yesterday morning. Lindsey, you very clearly articulate a concern on my mind and in my heart. The heart-wrenching choice between two alternatives, two worlds. Right now, my husband and I are asking the first question: Do we want to have children? But looming on the horizon is the question: How do we make that happen? What tradeoffs will we make?

    Unfortunately, there is no answer. There is no perfect balance here. And I wonder if mothers who say they are perfectly happy with their decision (to work, to stay home, or some combination) still harbor uncertainty deep in their hearts.

    It seems like many moments in life where two paths diverge. Which college should I go to? Which job should I accept? Which man should I date? We make the best decision we could at the time, and bravely go forward. There is no way we will know what the other path held. The ambiguity of life – it is uncomfortable but unavoidable.

  18. I think this is one of the most important lines in the whole post: “And I don’t feel that I am letting those people down because of my specific choices but because of who I am: that I am not more curious, ambitious, intelligent.”

    And in that I understand more than you know. And probably more than you would ever think I do.

    And I see change in the near future. And it tastes good. And it sparks curiosity and ambition alike. Keep writing.

  19. Wow. You posses such raw, insightful writing talent that I find myself feeling a tad bit jealous when I read. I aspire to inspire people the way you reach me with your writing. You expertly weave and fold me into your innermost thoughts and I admire your honesty. I recently realized I’ve been struggling with a decision about my “career”–and I beat myself up for wanting more work and less stay-at-home time. Thankfully I’ve released that and moved on, but the struggle left me tired.

    I look forward to your next posts. Thank you.

  20. Lindsey: Though the cliche might apply in this situation, you are anything but “an inch deep.” Rather, I’d say that you have put deep and significant roots into many realms of life: motherhood, marriage, work, writing, learning, questioning, loving, hoping. The seeds may not yet have all germinated and emerged from the dark and fertile soil, but they will. And they do. You continue to astound me with your beauty, your fragrance, your garden of words/emotions/truths. Thank you.

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