When my daughter was born, I was unemployed in Tanzania.
At the time, I'd been a volunteer English teacher, and my husband, Frank, was a (paid) geography teacher. We were waiting for his visa, which came in the days proceeding Grace's birth, and meant I could no longer fly pregnant.
I never had official maternity leave, because I was unemployed. I'd looked into getting a work permit in Tanzania, but those can take over a year to obtain and are often fruitless due to endless red tape and bureaucracy. We were just waiting for my husband's (then fiancé) visa to come through and we were bound for the U.S.. I often joked how lucky I was to be unemployed at this time, since it meant I could be home with Grace for as many weeks or months or years as I desired. But in truth, every time I made the joke, I felt a sear of pain, not forgetting the job I'd been fired from due to budget cuts the year before. It was a job I loved, with people I loved, and when I worked there, I'd thought I'd be there forever. I had never thought about having kids back then, but if I had, that would have been the place I'd have thought I'd return to from maternity leave. Of course, I also am glad I was fired, for without that life-changing moment, I would never have traveled to Tanzania and met Frank.
I feel eternally grateful I didn't have to leave my babe at just a few weeks or months into her life, trying to teach middle school kids while worrying if my breasts were leaking or my stomach aching from my C-section. Now, although I do still breastfeed, it isn't often, just naps or bedtime or sick days. And spending time away from her, I'm told, promotes independence for her.
Here's the thing: I don't completely want to get back in the game. I want to spend every minute soaking up my daughter's sunshine. You miss stuff when you're gone. I missed my daughter's first step when I went to the bathroom. It was at an airport, and when I came back to where my family was waiting, everyone told me she'd walked. To a stranger. Oh, the irony.
But here's the other thing: I also like adventure and challenge and the feeling of tangible success. I also know that with my husband now in school and only working part-time, the burden of financial responsibility is shifting to my shoulders. I have a Master's degree. I should be able to find something, right? Although did you know that a Master's degree isn't that great anymore? Often, I am looking through job postings and they'd really like someone with a PhD, or with extensive experience that I, as a 29-year-old mother, do not have yet. It makes me feel out of date and yet wildly inexperienced. This vulnerability of applying for jobs and hoping that someone will call your name, of going on interviews and trying to look and perform your best, is not dissimilar to the stress I once had trying to date, hoping to find a partner. It is personal: it is you, take it or leave it, and rejection (or worse, silence) stings.
Immediately, I set limits. It has to be part-time, I decide, shuddering at the idea of being away from Grace all day. That day will come, I know, but I am not eager to rush it. Yet, many of the jobs I longingly bookmark are full-time ones, with not just benefits and perks and a swell location, but an interesting mission and creative staff. And, I think, maybe I should work from home, after I have started tutoring and feel timid at interacting with people who are not my family or friends or mommies on the playground. But then I fastidiously create exemplary personalized tutoring lesson plans, and I think, damn, I'm a good teacher. And I feel energized making a connection with students. I may love to write and dream of it as a career, but after two years away from the classroom, my confidence has been knocked down, and it is reinvigorating to feel that, yes, I'm good at something beyond breastfeeding and memorizing Dr. Sears' facts.
But how do women do this? How do we gather confidence when we've been told we're not good enough? How do we face the mind-numbing conundrum of supporting our family and challenging ourselves, while also spending time with our loved ones and supporting their emotional needs? It seems like a lot. I don't think I can lean in, though. I think I can say, this is what my family needs right now, this is what will make me happy, so this is how I'll make it work. Of course, in my dreams, I'd have a mysterious sponsor who paid me to travel all over the world with my family. Now that we have Grace, we'd probably skip the disreputable guesthouses for something quieter and safer, and we'd focus on more family-centered adventures. And I'd write about it, and photograph it, and years from now we'd laugh about that Christmas we spent in Singapore, or that Easter we spent in the Galapagos Islands.
As they say, dreams don't pay the rent. So that means I have to put myself back out there, to find shoes with heels and pants that aren't stretchy and I probably should start brushing my hair more often. It means putting my worth on a piece of paper and hoping people like me. It makes me question if I like me, if I'm proud of me, if Grace will be proud of me. And I have to keep moving forward until the answer to all those questions is: Yes.