When I look at my life, I see a tremendous amount of privilege. I am college-educated, married, employed, able-bodied, culturally assimilated, heterosexual and middle-class. At a glance, it looks like I “have it all:” marriage, kids, home, even a dog.
When my family immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador in 1980, this was my parents’ dream for me, for all of us.
Like so many of our friends, we are raising a family in Los Angeles with virtually no local family support. I was raised by a tribe of a family and never once cared for by a stranger until I was entrusted to my Kindergarten teacher. While money was, at times, a problem for my mother, who worked as a secretary and was the sole bread-winner, she never had to worry about who was taking care of the children.
My husband and I take care of our children by leveraging our flexible academic schedules. While that means we rarely get to see each other, except during the rushed “hand-off” of children as one of us gets home from work and the other readies to leave, it also means that our children are being raised primarily by us. We are there for the nap times and skinned knees.
This is one reason why being a successful working mother often feels like a paradox. Over and over again, when I talk with fellow working moms I hear, “I’m failing at work, as a mom, and as a wife.” These are successful professionals, wonderful mothers, and loving wives, but they feel insufficient. I feel this too.
Even as a unionized teacher, taking off 12 weeks for the birth of my second daughter cost us $20,000. It’s money that could have moved us out of our town home and into a house, but I prioritized being home with her. It was worth every penny, but it still seems like a penalty I had to pay for the privilege of being a mother.
Along with my mother’s legacy of tenacity and hard work, I inherited the idea that as a mother, my needs must be subjugated to the needs of the family. While my equal-parenting husband has dispelled this myth for me on an intellectual level, at a gut-level, my instinct is to sacrifice myself for my family. Making the simple choice to work out or go out with friends instead of caring for the kids, feels like a test of my mothering. In order to pass, I must be selfless.
Between the messages from society and employers that I must be a worker first and mother second, and the cultural message I inherited which places being a mother above all else, I am torn between the things I value. I have a little of everything I want, but it’s no victory; it’s much more a series of concessions and negotiations between the parts of me that want to be a good mother, a healthy woman, and a successful professional.
What I want for my girls is the opportunity to have a rich family life and rewarding work life, without the sense that having one cheapens the other.
Elsie Rivas Gomez is a writer and teacher in Pasadena, CA. You can find her blogging about parenting at www.mamafeminista.com