Working motherhood is like swimming upstream
Many women my age grew up riding the coattails of second wave feminism that brought more women into the workforce and made significant gains for today’s working mothers. I however grew up in a rural, county in Texas in a conservative culture that thrived on the anti-feminism pushback of the late 80s and 90s. In fact, feminism might as well have been a swear word where I grew up. On the rare occasion it was ever used, I remember most spit it out distastefully, followed by diatribes against its proponents as being awful women who hated men and threatened the highest feminine calling – that of being a wife and mother.
As children we tend to move through the world observing, absorbing, and parroting the views and ideas of those we are most closely surrounded by. For me, my entire worldview, for the first 18 years of life, was largely formed in a conservative, Protestant church culture and an insular homeschooling community promoting very strictly defined roles for women.
It has taken me ten plus years of struggling to find my way as a woman, young adult, wife, and now a working mother to fully realize the deep impact that growing up in this culture had on me.
Despite everything I was raised to be, life instead has given me the opportunity to swim upstream.
Buck the norms
As a young girl, I once thought of my future only in terms of being a submissive wife and mother-at-home, convinced this was the only gender role and expression of womanhood permissible and worthy of pursuit.
But then I went and married a man, who held the best of feminist views to his core, though I doubt he would ever feel the need to claim the title. He never even had to really think through his views about women much until he got married to me. In contrast to my upbringing, he grew up in a home of working women and a family culture that valued female independence, female capability, and family teamwork.
As a young 21-year-old walking down the aisle to a handsome man in uniform I was full of love, naivety, and rather clueless as to what I wanted to be “when I grew up.”
It did not take long for my husband to realize that it was deeply ingrained in my nature to rely on an authority figure for everything in my life.
Our first several years of marriage consisted of fights that circled round and round this gap between our beliefs and differing childhood experiences. His disbelief and unfamiliarity at dealing with someone who viewed herself as so dependent and so incapable, and my stubborn belief that female deference was my lifeline to safety and confidence clashed over and over. It was these fights however that taught me to be the woman I am today.
By learning to listen less to my fear of what others would think and more to what he was actually saying, I have slowly taken to heart a new self-worth that I never knew was possible to have.
My husband was the first man in my life to ever buck the responsibility of the male norm I grew up with – namely doing his work and my work for me. This was true for every area of life, where I had grown so used to deferring to a male’s opinion and final say. Personal growth. Personal beliefs. Spiritual beliefs. Spiritual growth. Financial education and responsibility. The list of what I had abdicated in my own life to be taken care of by the man was endless.
Unlike any other man I had grown up with, he was the first one in my life to actually want my input. He was the first man to challenge me on how little I thought of myself. He was the first man to push me to learn to think and decide things for myself. He was the first man to tell me to stop asking him for permission. He was the first man to tell me a thousand times, over and over, that I could work and someday be a good mother too.
In the fall of 2013 I came across two books that would forever change my outlook on myself as a woman, my desire to work, and my vision for my marriage and the family we could build. These books were Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg and Getting to 50/50 by Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober. They inspired me to start crafting a career path for myself that would include meaningful work and taking ownership in contributing to my family’s financial success. Even more importantly they gave me an invaluable roadmap for how to build a marriage and a family around a model of teamwork, partnership, and purpose.
Finding my path and the faith to move ahead
My journey into finding my own career path and into motherhood has looked much different than I anticipated.
The last four years have been a winding path as I navigated many of the employment challenges all military spouses face. This has included numerous hours of volunteer work when paid employment was not an option due to our base locations. It has looked like taking part-time and minimum wage work wherever I could find it. It included accomplishing my masters’ degree from the University of Colorado completely online and negotiating with my department to be one of the first students to complete a third year thesis option remotely. Other common challenges have included navigating months of separation for both my husband’s job and my own education and career opportunities. Sometimes this has meant deployments or extended work trips on his part, while I kept myself and our household operating at home. Other times it has been me moving ahead to take advantage of an internship or to set up house and start job hunting once we received word of a new assignment.
Through this journey I have had to reckon with the harsh reality that the culture in which I was raised did very little to teach or promote skillsets in women like independence, self-reliance, or critical decision-making. In fact, it often discouraged them regardless of how desperately I would later come to need them. There have been more days than not, where I have felt ill prepared for the path life has taken me on. Strangely enough however,
it has been through facing those darkest moments of doubting myself and how I was raised, where I have found my own faith, my own value as a woman, and my path forward.
Motherhood: A beautiful crucible
My latest employment struggles have been deeply interwoven into my journey into motherhood. It started with completing my final year of graduate school and moving alone during the third trimester of my first pregnancy, followed by my graduation and the subsequent birth of my son literally hours after my husband returned. Then came maternity leave followed by a months long job search as I navigated first-time motherhood with a newborn in a difficult job market. Prior to my son’s birth, I had built up an internal confidence in my need to work and the value I could contribute, only to find myself birthing a child in a sea of unemployment.
I felt like my childhood understanding and picture of motherhood now loomed over me like a nightmare shadow – constantly whispering that my desire to work and to mother was for me, somehow impossible. The irony had not been lost on me that the military community I married into also has a large presence of stay-at-home parents.
Let me just say this here and now, I have nothing against mothers who choose being a full-time parent to be their life’s most meaningful work. Raising and loving our children is arguably some of the most important contributions we will make in a lifetime. I know this because I have one of the most loving and incredible mothers, who to this day sets the bar on how to be a loving and present mother. I have slowly learned though, as I have navigated my own adult path that choosing to stay at home and live solely on one income is a highly personal choice for any family and that it is not the only choice that allows one to be that loving, present parent.
Looking back on the time I had at home with my son, I see it now as a beautiful crucible that formed through exhaustion and a new mother’s torrential love.
Beyond my employment struggles, I was also internally wrestling through the loneliness, exhaustion, and mental fatigue that come with brand new motherhood and postpartum realities. I battled postpartum anxiety and postpartum OCD, and struggled to find adequate professional care for it until well over a year after my son’s birth. Amazingly it was my son and his endless need for my focused care and presence that helped me dig deep to find strength and resolve within like never before. I marveled over my son’s every movement in wide-eyed wonder. I breathed in his skin like it was a drug. I clung to his daily routines like they were a lifeline to sanity. I never knew someone could be so proud over the tiniest little signs of growth. I still am.
What I have learned as a working mother
The double standard for working moms is real.
I never realized until I was an unhappy, unemployed brand-new mother just how deeply I had once believed the debilitating double standard that a woman’s ability to contribute meaningful work to this world somehow lessens her ability to be a good mother.
Throughout this journey, I never have once doubted my husband’s innate ability to be good at his job and a good father. I never have once questioned his need to pursue his Air Force career, or his love for work and flying. I have, however, questioned and doubted mine a thousand times over.
Going to work as a new mom is stressful and exciting at the same time.
I started back to work when my son was nine months old. Navigating three sets of interviews, my first salary negotiation, and landing my current position felt like grabbing on to a life raft in a sea of doubt and angst. Despite knowing this to be the right decision for myself and my family, I still felt pressure to hide both my relief and excitement as I struggled with advice I heard from many around me warning that it would be really hard to leave my son and place him in full-time daycare.
Working can help to boost a new mom’s confidence.
In reality, after years of education, minimum wage jobs, part-time jobs, and countless hours of volunteer work, I had never been so happy to land a full-time salaried position in my life. The mental and emotional toll that both my postpartum experience and bout with unemployment had taken, left me desperate for something to change.
Working every day gave me instant relief and an intentional distraction from the constant barrage of self-doubt.
The right childcare makes all the difference!
As I navigated this transition, it was actually my son, again, who gave me the most confidence I had yet to ever feel as a mother. He responded to daycare with joy and delight. He loved all the new toys, activities, and playtime with new friends. He slept well. He ate well.
His caretakers gave me daily encouragement as they shared his discoveries, milestones met, and praised me for the good work I had done with him so far. I have found them not to be competitors for his time, but rather some of my most unexpected champions. They have fully supported my routines with him and they became invaluable resources of new advice and expertise for successful and customized care for my son.
I went to work when my son was nine months old, and I have been learning every day since that my work and my role as a mother both matter immensely.
Everyday is choice.
This is my past and my future. It is still an ongoing journey to reconcile my doubts and past with my new daily reality. I have found myself again in unchartered territory and am having to teach myself how to navigate it. Old habits and old beliefs die hard. In spite of this, I keep showing up every day to create a different future for myself and for my son.
Working is a great way I teach my child.
I want him to grow up in a world that values work from men and women. I want him to know that it is possible for men and women to make meaning in their lives through time spent in their homes with family and at work doing what they love. I want him to know that the best parenting experience we can give him is by being parents who are intentionally present, supportive, and loving towards themselves just as much as we are in our care of him. I want him to know that it is the quality of time spent with family that truly matters, not just the quantity.
Quality time and being present for our family looks like work and school for all of us during the week, bookended with evenings and weekends spent as a family doing all the things we love.
I am a brand new working mama, and I am just getting started!
Kallie Culver is a working mom, military spouse, volunteer addict, and a writer. She holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Colorado, and spent her graduate degree studying employment challenges for veterans and military spouses. Having started her blog Untold Stories About Us during a crisis of faith, she is now a recently converted Catholic trying to live meaningfully with both faith and doubt. Read more from Kallie at Untoldstoriesabout.us