Freaky Fortnight

The Stereotype of the Jangled New Mother
Watch as a husband and wife switch places.
Oct. 12 2009 7:01 PM

Freaky Fortnight

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The stereotype of the jangled new mother.

The weekend started with Beer Friday at the Slate offices. Everyone gathered around a table that held six-packs and an opener. Someone handed me a Brooklyn Lager—it must have been pulled from the back of the bodega refrigerator, because it was nice and cold—and I leaned against a desk. I was chatting with three women, all of whom I presumed to be in their 20s, and at some point I realized, I am an old person to them.

I did some math. For them, talking to me equaled me talking to someone who graduated from college in 1985: a historical era in which young women wore blouses with floppy ties to their jobs in Midtown buildings and ate, as suggested in The Official Preppy Handbook, a strawberry yogurt for lunch. The summer I graduated—1995—everyone wore slip dresses with T-shirts underneath and ate Tasti D-LitePinkberry didn't exist. Yet despite the vast difference in the yogurts that had shaped our palates—one sweet, one tangy—I had gravitated toward the twentysomething girls. Why? Because my office self related to them.

My office self is like a girl who's just awoken from a coma. The last time I worked in an office, I was 26: ambitious, precocious, full of ideas about pop culture. A big part of who I was involved looking around the room and ascertaining I was the youngest one in it. But that was 10 years ago, and that workplace persona no longer fits.

Since having children, I've often tried to remember details about the mothers from the workplaces of my past. There was a mother who used a breast pump; only now do I realize, with personal outrage, that she had to operate the pump in a bathroom stall. There was a mother whose pregnancy I barely noticed; yet it must have been enormously taxing, because she gave birth to twins. And there was a father, too, who left with manuscripts in his leather briefcase just before 6 each evening. All the parents went home early, and the office became our clubhouse once they were gone.

The conceit of this experiment depends on my identity as the mother of young children; in these two weeks here, I don't think I can really expect to transcend that role. But were this more than a game, I think I'd find this characterization dangerously limiting. One challenge of returning to the workplace as a mother is a change in the way you are perceived. There's a section about this in one of my favorite contemporary novels about motherhood, Meg Wolitzer's The Ten-Year Nap:

Amy had observed the way lawyers treated other lawyers who had recently returned from maternity leave: They didn't hide their impatience or their occasional distaste. She'd seen a jangled new mother on the phone with a pediatrician right before a meeting, whispering tightly into the receiver, "Last night his fever was 100.1, and before I left for work this morning it was down to 99.9, but our sitter just told me it's back up again and that he's crying a lot. …" The other people in the room glanced at their watches, and someone came to the doorway and tried to look casual, smiling in a friendly manner, then mouthed, "Anytime you're ready."

On one hand, I love this paragraph because it's so well-observed. On the other, it contributes to the image of the working mother as a nervous wreck. On Beer Friday, if I'd had a couple more Brooklyn Lagers, perhaps I could have dispelled that high-strung image—both of working women in general and of me specifically. Yes, at times I feel as "jangled" as Wolitzer's new mother, but at others I'm able to deactivate the region of my brain that worries about the kids. I'm sure that most mothers experience the same thing. I wrote last week about the notion that a mother loses confidence when she stays home; I said this was an idea that resonated with me. Yet there's a bedrock confidence that underlies the decisions I've made about work since having children. I'm confident that even if, for the time being, I take on less or different kinds of work, as my children get older and I have more time and freedom, I'll be able to do more.

On the other hand, it's pretty easy to be confident when "cutting back" means finding stories that don't require tons of travel or writing a book in four years instead of two. Not everybody's field is so flexible. Last fall, for a magazine story that ended up not working out, I spoke with many suburban women who had left demanding jobs in law or finance to stay home with young children. They simply didn't have the option of doing some of both. Mike and I have never had to make an all-or-nothing choice. Everybody's circumstances are unique, but ours are uniquely fortunate.

I ducked out of Beer Friday early enough that when I came out of the subway in Brooklyn, the sky still held some light, and the kids were still awake.

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