June -- Cleave Her?
"My mother works," my sister Amber and I bragged to our Tartan-skirted classmates at St. Edmund’s Parochial School. It was the early 1970s, and after a short stint as a housewife, Mommy answered the clarion call sounded by women who marched the streets and set their bras ablaze in garbage cans.
"You need to get me something," was her ironically anti-feminist demand to my father upon choosing to reclaim her career. That "something" turned out to be a secretarial service – my mom’s very own two-room office in a musty building with dingy skylights.
I liked being the daughter of an entrepreneur, not a docile, housecoat wearing, kitchen-bound frump, which is how I envisioned my friends’ homemaker mothers. But at school day’s end when all the students filed out the forest green gates surrounding the yard, Amber and I were often the last ones left, looking fearfully into the distance and crying.
By 1999, my derogatory view of at-home mothers hadn’t changed much, as I steered my cart around groups of them chatting idly in the aisles of Tops, thinking to myself, Get a life, will you? I hid behind the accouterments of my business success: pure silk pants, both a Nextel walkie-talkie phone and pager clipped to my waist. The truth was that those women already possessed something I wanted desperately: children.
Cut to a labor and delivery room two years later. On April 29, 2001, at 7:24 p.m., my son was suction-vacuumed into the world, gaining me entry into the exclusive and theretofore elusive club of motherhood. My husband and I spent the first two heady and exhausting weeks doting on our baby – then Chris returned to work without me. In the shower, I dropped my face into my palms and sobbed at the thought of not immediately going back to corporate America, my daytime home for the previous decade.
As my scheduled time off drew to a close, I bristled at turning over my precious newborn to the leather-jacketed girl at the day care we visited, so instead I walked into my boss’s office and announced that I wasn’t coming back.
"You’re going to have to return all the maternity leave pay," she said, furious, her disappointment going beyond monies owed and my abrupt departure. Sitting in her corner office, I felt a new barrier besides her hulking brown desk erected between us.
I had just defected to the enemy’s side in the so-called Mommy Wars, what some claim is media-hyped enmity between moms who work outside the home and those who don’t. Yet I became living proof of its existence, lobbing holier-than-thou thoughts toward all working mothers – Amber included – that said, "I’m doing the right thing and you’re not."
Just keep living, the old folks say. I did, and after the birth of my daughter in the winter of 2002, I tossed out a bottle of painkillers (so as not to swallow the whole thing in my loneliness and despair) and with it, my staunch ideas about what makes a good mother.
I felt as schizophrenic as the word "cleave," which all at once means to separate or adhere to a thing. That was me – some days Mrs. Uber-mom, tucking the fitted corners of freshly laundered sheets onto the beds with glee, while others, a screaming lunatic plotting her escape, murmuring incessantly, "Is this what I gave up a $72,000 a year job for?"
God, if I should have a job, drop it in my lap, I prayed, and out of the blue I got an e-mail from my old boss asking me to come back.
"I’m kind of afraid to tell you all," I announced to my group of homemaker buddies, "but I’m going back to work." One asked plainly, "It’s for the money, isn’t it?"
Returning to cubicle land after a three-year absence was great – I enjoyed lunches unencumbered by kids, big fat checks with my name on them, and the fact that some other overworked soul was in charge of my little ones. But after eight months, I grew weary not pursuing my life’s calling, and returned home with newfound determination to pursue it when my contract ended on the last day of 2004.
Nearing the close of 2005, I’m thriving in the neutral territory between the two extremes of martyr mom and corporate dynamo. It’s a world that makes room for 2 a.m. writing sessions and 2 p.m. naps. I am June Cleaver, tidying the house and swiping on lip gloss before "Ward" comes home. I’m also Barbara Billingsley – the actress and real-life mother of two who played the iconic character – occasionally fleeing "More juice!" commands in order to fulfill a part of myself that motherhood cannot usurp.
Paula Mooney is a freelancer writer who lives in Akron with her husband and two young children. Write to her at email@example.com.
This essay originally appeared in the December 2005 issue of Akron Family magazine.