Feminist ideals confront separation anxiety
By Sara Spielman
I used to believe in the working mom. As a student in an all womens college with feminist ideas, I never doubted its possibility. Grateful for the advancements Womens Liberation brought our way, I always believed I would have a family and career, juggling the two roles the way so many other women do.
That was before I had a baby.
Originally, I thought when my daughter turns three months Id be ready to start working. But by three months I felt she needed me too much. At six months she seemed to need me even more, because she now clearly understood the important role I played in her life. So, I began to accept that until shes old enough to join a playgroup or preschool, I should stay home with her. In the meantime, I would try freelance work.
The problem is she wont let me get anything done. Gone are the days when she actually slept. Now, Im lucky if she sneaks in a few catnaps, which is when I rush to get basic things done around the house.
Forget creative pursuits. During the day, I have to watch her every second or Ill find her underneath the infant swing pushing it back and forth, on the bottom shelf of the bookcase, or chewing on an old catalogue.
So I finally decided after seven-and-a-half months that it might be best if I worked a little outside of the house for a few hours a day. I found a few part-time job possibilities, but after taxes, transportation and babysitting costs, it didnt seem to be worth the sacrifice of leaving her every day.
In the past, Ive only left my baby with family. But when an opportunity arose to work part-time near my home on the Lower East Side, I considered taking it.
After making calls, I soon learned that the best babysitting option on an irregular or part time basis would be to leave her with a woman who watches a group of kids in my apartment buildings playroom.
The idea freaked me out. What if other kids hit her? What if she puts the wrong thing in her mouth? Will she more easily catch the hundreds of viruses out there? But what scared me the most was the thought of her being left to cry in a chaotic room of screaming children, where the overwhelmed babysitter cannot hear my sweet babys voice above the noise.
Despite the cutting of the umbilical cord, my baby feels as attached to me now as she was a year ago when I was pregnant with her. The difference is that now Im busy with her all day. I have become her entire world, so much so that if I dare leave the room, she gets hysterical. So, not only did I wonder how one woman could care for my baby in a room filled with other children, but also feared my baby would miss me too much.
The day before I was supposed to start working, I ran into the babysitter at the supermarket where I relayed my fears to her. She assured me that the toys and the floor were kept clean, the other children well behaved, and that she would not ignore my babys cries.
I decided to try it. The day I anxiously dropped my baby off, a toddler with a runny nose ran right up to the stroller, clutching the front bar and eagerly peering inside. My stomach tightened and I dreaded the next few hours at work.
I spent it glancing at my watch wondering what my baby was doing. When it was finally time to go home, I decided not to call the babysitter, so that Id have the chance to walk in unannounced and observe.
I hurried home and entered the playroom nervously. I scanned the room quickly, but didnt see my baby among the other children running around. Rushing over to the babysitter, I asked her where my daughter was, trying to hide the panic inside me. She casually pointed to a corner where my baby sat in a highchair playing with toys on the tray in front of her.
I almost didnt recognize her. She was calm, content, and at first didnt even notice me. The babysitter then told me she had been playing the entire time. I was shocked. She never plays for hours when Im with her. It must be she cries more when I am around for her to seek my attention. What she needs, I thought, is some time apart from me.
Glad the experience went well, I tried leaving her again. This time, as soon as I entered the babysitting room, my daughter began crying hysterically. Her power of association surprised me. She now realized what this room meant. I left reluctantly, after waiting for her to calm down. Feeling worried the entire time at work, I decided to run over and check on her.
A different sight greeted me that day. The babysitter was attempting to feed my baby, who unhappily sucked at the bottle with red and puffy eyes. The moment she saw me she let out a cry I was not used to hearing. I sensed relief and despair in her voice. I quickly took her, holding her close to my chest. Her body shook the way it does when recovering from crying hysterically after receiving shots at the doctors office. I knew, as any mother would, that I had just missed an episode of hysteria because she had wanted me.
And now I would have to leave her again. When I went back to work, I wondered how other mothers do it. Every minute away from my baby, my heart was breaking. I had no idea how I would be able to leave her there again.
Philosophically I support the idea of mothers leaving their children with caretakers in order to have a career. Women belong in the workplace just as much as men do. Mothers should have jobs other than changing diapers and breastfeeding. I wonder if I am failing as a post-modern woman in my inability to have it all. I fear I am becoming the old fashioned stereotype I swore as a co-ed I would never become.
My struggle has become mind versus heart. To advance intellectually, I need to get out there. Emotionally, though, I cant let go. Although my mind belongs in the workplace, my heart belongs at home.