It's Working Project

“You just f---- your career, girl.” Words like these just warm my heart when I remember the day that I told my General Manager that I was 4 months pregnant.

“You just f—- your career, girl.”  Words like these just warm my heart when I remember the day that I told my General Manager that I was 4 months pregnant.  I was working for a national restaurant group in the area.  I was a thirty-six year old restaurant manager; the de facto second in command at this restaurant.  And, those were the colorful words that escaped the lips of my boss; the person that the Director of Human Resources had referred to as the person who emulated the company and its’ policies better than anyone and who could be my mentor.

He never became my mentor and I left that company within the year.  To be fair, they had exceptional health insurance.  I had nothing to worry about when it came to paying for my pregnancy and birth.  Unlike many other women in my industry, my company covered the majority of my hospital costs.  I had my own birthing suite, access to great care, and no worry about the final bill.

I had almost three months of maternity leave, mostly paid.   By most standards, I was set as a new mother.  These are thoughts that ran through my head during my pregnancy and my time at home with my new son.  It almost seemed ungrateful for me to hold negative thoughts about my employer and some carelessly spoken words, I kept telling myself, would not define my relationship with my company.  I was also a new mother and thoughts of trying to find another job scared me.  Who would want a restaurant manager who had just had a baby?

Coming back from maternity only proved how unresponsive my company was towards working women.  I had to pump in the employee bathroom that did not lock properly.  I remember several moments, cradling my pump in one hand, while keeping the door secure with the other hand and foot, yelling that I would be out in twenty minutes.  I had to keep my milk in the keg cooler, hoping that during the shift, a dedicated busser wouldn’t throw out the cooler in a fit of inspired cleaning.  

But, I was miserable.  Miserable because I was not home with my new son.  Miserable that I worked in an industry that demanded that I work 80+ hour weeks.  Miserable because the benefits that allowed me to stay at home for three months with my son came with the expectation that I would go back to being the workaholic that I was before I became pregnant.  My husband and I had decided that he would become the stay at home parent as my salary was more than enough to uphold our lifestyle, with some adjustment, and allow someone to be with our newborn.  That and we lived in Washington, D.C., where the cost of daycare for our new son was more than what my husband brought home in a year.   He made the sacrifice to hold his career, also in the hospitality industry, for the sake of our new family. But, he was getting less supportive of my career, as it was clear that I would not be able to manage both being a mother and being a restaurant manager.

I used those earlier colorful words from my boss as emotional leverage.  Even though I had stayed for almost another year, they were obviously not ready to accept a working mother.  This thought ate at every interaction.  I recognize now that a lot of my anger toward my job should have been directed at myself, for trying to make the two worlds meet.  I knew what type of work ethos my company expected from their employees.  I knew that I had tacitly agreed to work under those terms.  And, I reminded myself that I had stayed with the company because their benefits perfectly fit what I needed at the time.  

One day, I called my husband crying from work, and told him that I needed to stop.  To his credit, he listened.  By this time, our son was almost eight months old and I had missed most of the milestones of the baby phase.  I had missed the first smile.  The first giggle.  The first rollover.  To this day, I don’t have any specific memories of my infant son that don’t involve him in his stroller navigating the aisles of Whole Foods.

I made the decision to leave the work force, as the primary earner in the family, and move to Philadelphia to be closer to my family.  For several reasons, this made sense to me.  My parents were aging and needed help.  They lived there, unlike in D.C., where we had no family to lean on when we needed support.  The cost of living was much lower than in D.C.  And, I needed a place far away from the life that I had created before the baby was born.  I was running away.

I could talk about the bonding that my son and I finally had together.  I could talk about the meaning that I found as a stay at home mother. I could talk about all the things that I am supposed to talk about as a person who chose to leave their career for their family.  But, to be quite honest, I found no meaning in being at home.   I love my son more than I ever knew was possible.  I celebrated his first step, his first words, all the milestones that I had missed as a baby, I cherished them like jewels.  But, I was bored.  I was alone at home with a little one and I had no purpose.  During this time, I baked, I cooked, and I even considered starting my own blog.  But, these all seemed pointless, as I was just not happy.  I took a part time job bartending at a friend’s bar during the day.  I was, in my mind, a complete failure.

All my ambition, my five year plan, my sense of self……all gone.  I played the part of the dutiful mother who made all of my child’s food from scratch, who used adult words instead of baby talk, looked with disdain at other children who watched television and ate sugary things.  I explain this period of my life as the time I judged when I had no one to manage.  I was used to being the person who made decisions, who was critical to operations.  I filled the gap superimposing my mandates onto others, albeit quietly and to only myself.  No other mother could be as focused and as on it as me, as no one else was making scones and sandwich breads daily.  My husband finally broke this bubble, by informing me, thankfully, that he was not part of my staff but my partner.  He informed me that I had to stop treating him and everyone else around me like restaurant employees.  I was not the General Manager of anything.

It was during this time that I realized that I needed to find myself again.  Our son was three by this time and I was still miserable.  I could not take him to enough children’s performances, readings, outdoor events, to stave off me feeling of emptiness.  I would look into the beautiful hazel eyes of my son and cry as I apologized for not being a better mother.  But, as a lovely friend reminded me, I had been a great actress and had played the part of stay at home earth mother very well.  My son was happy and was none the wiser.   I was the only person who hated me.  

When an old acquaintance from D.C. reached out and asked if I was interested in running a restaurant again, I knew what my answer would be, no matter what their offer.  I had already decided that I was “unhireable,” as I had left my industry for almost two years.  When I met the owners of a local restaurant group, I used my family as an excuse for my hesitation to rejoin the industry, but it was really my insecurity, as I was immersed in my role as “Mommy.”  I did not know if I could be good at my job again.  I did not believe in my ability as I had spent two years not believing in any of my decisions.  My family was an easy shield.  But, I really wanted to rejoin the workforce.  I wanted to spend time with adults again.  I wanted to find meaning in something that did not involve my own child.  The guilt started flowing in.

It has been three years since I made the honest decision to return to work.  I am conflicted every day, even though my son is now six and can make his own lunches.  I am conflicted every time he cries for me at night, every time he asks why I am not around as much, every time I hear that he is sick and I can’t be with him.  I chose an industry that does not easily accommodate families and I remember that I am the person that brought this on my family.  My hope is that my son remembers that his mother worked hard, worked in places that she valued, and was someone important.  My compromise for missing moments now is knowing that he sees his mother as a strong person with purpose, not as a shell of a person acting well.

As far as I am concerned, there is no right decision.  Each road that we mothers choose is fraught with remorse, guilt, and indecision.  My mother, who I think of as the strongest person I have ever met, still apologizes to me for “not being there.”  Nothing that I say to her will take away her guilt.  Take away the pain that she feels for missing moments in my childhood.  This is why that person who judged other families is gone.  My choices, many of them wrong, were my choices to make.  There was a reason behind them and a plan for them.  Even when wrong, they were mine to make.  I have had the pleasure of talking to several new parents during their journey, in my field.  The issues that plagued me have not gone away.

How does one work daily while pregnant, when the typical day is eight-ten hours on your feet?  It is almost impossible to make bread while seated.  How does one pay for childcare when even salaried employees make close to minimum wage?   How does a new parent justify working 60+ hours a week when there is a new person to get to know at home?  I am now the General Manager.  I am the person that establishes the tone.  I have welcomed each announcement with open arms and hugs and I have accepted each decision to leave the workforce with compassion and empathy.  There are no right choices.