I've always been a working woman and my segue to becoming a working mom was easy. I never even considered an alternative. When my husband and I adopted our two children from China -- they were 5 and 4 years old at the time -- I took the barest minimum of unpaid family leave and returned to work.
It was a necessity, I told myself. A financial necessity and a personal one. We certainly needed my salary. And while I was absolutely ready to be a mother, I wasn't ready to give up the job that I loved dearly, the career success that I had painstakingly sought and achieved.
I felt confident that with a supportive spouse, I could do it all. I deposited my kids in preschool and went back to work. My husband became the stay-at-home parent who attended daytime school events, drove the kids to soccer practice and fixed them their after-school snacks. And with a few notable exceptions -- Dads are lousy hair braiders for ballet rehearsals -- everything was chugging along smoothly until I watched my son's 5th grade graduation video, a professionally produced 45-minute "documentary" made by one of the school dads.
The video showed me what I've been missing, which is everything.
The video completely captured my son's school experience from kindergarten through fifth grade. Beautifully set to music with happy, smiling kids in every frame, there was only one thing wrong: It was mostly all news to me.
While the other parents in the audience watched, hoping to catch a shot of their children, I was busy asking my husband things like, "When did he dress up like a penguin?" That happened in kindergarten when they were studying the Arctic, he told me. All I knew at the time was that I had to make sure he had a white shirt and black pants to wear to school that day. I don't think I ever knew what it was for.
I missed the school jogathon two years in a row. I missed the 2009 and 2010 school Halloween parades and the 2011 holiday concert. I have missed every Thanksgiving class party since second grade. I can't count how many colonial re-enactments, oral book reports, teacher appreciation days, computer class powerpoint presentations, art shows, annual makings of gingerbread houses, field trips, science projects, morning concerts and class plays that I've missed. It's fair to say many of them. I also haven't been a classroom volunteer since my now high school-aged daughter was in second grade; I relinquished my weekly 45 minutes in the classroom to a stay-at-home mom who could be counted on to show up more faithfully.
The events I did manage to attend each required scheduling acrobatics. Early work starts, late finishes, skipping lunch, calling in favors of colleagues to cover for me. I call them my deals with the devil: If you let me go watch my son play his cello, I promise to work at home until midnight and never ask again -- or at least not again this month. And so it's been for the six years of my son's academic life and the nine years of my daughter's.
Working moms, we are a hardy lot. We function on little sleep and begin our second fulltime job when the closing bell for the first one sounds. We hope that our bosses don't notice when we dash out the door abruptly to watch our sons pitch in Little League or when we need to meet the school bus. We live in a perpetual state of guilt: Guilty when we are work because we aren't with the kids, and guilty when we are with the kids instead of being at work.
Truth is, the school day and the work day collide and working parents miss stuff. We try our best -- and in our family's case, my husband was the constant attendee. We make up for what we miss the best we can; oral book reports, concerts and first-dives off the high board are taped so Mom can watch them after work. But let's face it: It's not the same as being there. Not for the kids and, as the 5th grade graduation video showed me, not for me.
Maybe this is how suburban dads felt in the 1950s and 1960s: They left for work in the early morning on the commuter train and came home long after the kids were fed and put to bed. They were the breadwinners and there was little time for anything else. Relationships with their kids were built on weekends and they frequently didn't even know the names of their children's teachers.
Maybe they got used to it. It's clear to me I haven't.