By Adrienne So
In a feat of eerily perfect timing, my parents’ flight landed in town about six hours before my second child was born. A week later, after we all got our bearings back (sort of), we were finally able to celebrate his precipitous arrival with dinner on the deck of our house.
For once, both kids were asleep. Some friends had stopped by to visit the baby, and my mom cooked us all a Filipino feast of oxtail stew, rice and lumpia—fried egg rolls that she had frozen and toted in her suitcase all the way across the country. All the doors and windows were open to let in the sweet summer air, perfumed with the scent of ripening strawberries in our yard.
After dinner, my mom, my friend and I were standing in the kitchen. I was sipping a fizzy, chilled hard cider. Despite my sore, rumpled and exhausted state, I was beginning to feel more optimistic about life as a family of four. My friend made a joke. I hopped in with one of my favorite fun facts about my mom, which is that she was raised in a convent.
“Yes,” my mom agreed. “It was an orphanage.”
“What?!” I said. I didn’t know that part.
“My parents were both doctors and had residencies at the same time,” my mom explained to my friend, and also, apparently, to me. “They were both working over eighty hours a week. They’d come home, sleep six or eight hours, and head right back to the hospital. So, they put me in a Catholic orphanage and visited me on Sundays.”
My mom ruminated on this for a minute. “There are all these pictures of us at the orphanage,” she said. “And there are all these children in the background, watching us. At least I had parents, and they visited me and loved me. I felt bad for those other children.”
There are things you know about your parents, and things that you just think you know. I tell people that “my mom was raised in a convent” because it’s funny, and because it seems to explain so much about her.
Picture a Filipino Maria in The Sound of Music, if she had married the Captain at 23 and all the Von Trapp children were her own. My mom even wears her hair in Maria’s pert pixie cut. Her modest wardrobe is in shades of tasteful navy, cream, white and black. She once told me that nice girls never shave their legs above the knee. To this day, I still don’t.
When I pictured my mother being raised in a convent, I imagined my gentle, courtly grandparents sending their teenage daughter away to protect her from society’s worldly ways. Perhaps a forlorn suitor would have been strumming a guitar outside her window.
I did not picture a toddler having a dignified weekly Sunday tea with her parents. I was shocked, but after a moment, I thought—what were their alternatives? After all, millions of emigrants all over the world make similar choices and see their kids much less, for much less money.
My own mom made similar choices when it came to her job. Staying home wasn’t an option, not with a small daughter at home and four siblings overseas to support. Some of my earliest memories are of playing under her desk at work, earnestly unraveling reams of dot-matrix paper; or sitting in a chair with her at night school at community college, kept quiet with a book and a chocolate Frosty from Wendy’s.
Holding my mom’s hand and navigating the long, quiet hallways, lit with fluorescent white light against the dark backdrop of night, felt bold, intimate and adventurous. We were creeping quietly together into power and knowledge. I didn’t realize until I was grown, with kids of my own, that not every toddler is able to hang out in coffee shops and diners until midnight.
All my life, I’ve been reminded that I need to be able to earn my own money. Breadwinners can die; breadwinners can leave. Breadwinners can stay and be alive, but lose their jobs. When my spouse faced possible layoffs last year, our decision to remain a two-income family afforded us a small amount of relief. If it’s hard to be a homemaker, it’s also hard to be a sole breadwinner. “It’s a lot of pressure,” my dad delicately noted.
“You can calculate it, right? There’s data on this somewhere,” my husband asked after my parents returned home, leaving us to the standard modern American puzzle of one family, two kids, two dogs, two jobs, and finding a way to make it all work. “Even if we saved on childcare, there’s an economic impact from you leaving the workforce. There’s contributing to retirement, social security, being able to get a job when you do start work again full-time. Right?”
It can be hard to parse out. But truthfully, it’s not all about the money. It can’t be. Some women have high-powered careers and leave them without a qualm to spend time with their kids; others (me) doggedly pursue much less remunerative ones, even if it means making sacrifices. This is an especially difficult decision for creatives, who, without set hours or salaries, can find it difficult to justify the cost of childcare.
My spouse has a full-time job out of the home. We hire a nanny for twenty hours a week. Yesterday morning, she arrived at 8am and I handed her the baby. I packed a lunch and my breast pumping equipment; drove to work; wrote four articles in four hours, taking two 20-minute breaks to pump milk and eat lunch; drove back at 2pm, changed into shorts and immediately picked the baby back up again.
We—my husband, the baby, the toddler, and myself—all have had colds, so everyone sobbed and chortled with congestion, into the afternoon and all through the night. After three or four hours of semi-recumbent rest, I got up this morning and made coffee. The nanny arrived and I handed her the baby again. And so on, ad infinitum.
The pressure to give up on working is so intense. Every working parent that I know has too much to do and too little time to do it, and too little money to do it with. And yet I cannot let my work go. It’s a filament of fishing line, strung through the fog that is early parenthood. I cling to it. I have been a writer for much longer than I have been a mother, and I will pull myself on this line, hand over hand, day after day, until the fog lifts and I can come back to me.
Now a systems programmer for a major computer company, my mother seems to divide her time equally between big business trips to China and Brazil, and padding around the house in a flowered bathrobe while wearing a Bluetooth headset, teleconferencing and knitting. There was a price to pay and sacrifices to be made, and like her parents, she paid them and made them. She seems happy with the bargain.
“You know,” she said to me soon after my wedding, before the toddler was born, “your career is the only thing that you will ever have that is entirely your own.”
My dogs, my house, my children—everything else in my life will always be shared with someone else. This is why people want to become parents in the first place, to experience unconditional love that urges you to give and give with no hope of return, even if you find yourself giving well into the night, night after night after night, until you are brought to your knees and then even lower still.
But when I sit at the computer to write, I am—even just for a little bit—myself again. Even if that self is a bit bedraggled now, I can get some perspective and remember that this won’t be forever. I was this person before I had kids; I will be this person again. Your self is not a small thing to lose, and it’s worth paying a price to keep it. Maybe not an orphanage, but still. Yikes.
Adrienne So is a writer whose work has appeared in Slate, Cool Hunting and Wired.com; her beverage writing has appeared in All About Beer, Beer Advocate, Cidercraft and various online and print publications. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, daughter and two dogs.
This essay is part of a Motherwell original series on Motherhood and Ambition