October 27, 2021

Implant Glep

Baby Wanted

Leaving Work for Parenting Is My Progressive Act of Rebellion

The tense call from my husband came when I was on a break between panels during a US Special Operations conference in Washington, DC. My three-month-old daughter had gone on strike against the milk I’d taken great pains to pump late at night and store in the freezer. She hadn’t had a drop since I’d left the house seven hours before, and had now missed two feedings. I drove home in agony and sobbed as I nursed her, my hot tears falling on her fuzzy head.

It was the first of many clashes between my new dual identities as mother and full-time professional. I’d never let my baby suffer, but I also recoiled at the idea of giving anything less than my best effort to my reporting job. Something had to give, and in this case it was my resistance to store-bought formula. My emotional distress notwithstanding, I was back at work the next day to cover the rest of the conference.

I’ve spent the nearly six years since then striving to maintain the hair-fine balance between my identities through hard work and willpower. Getting that balance right can be euphoric. Before I became more comfortable pumping breast milk in the work environment, I’d complete tasks from home and then rush to a reporting event, the clock ticking on to my next feeding. One day, I attended a briefing at the Pentagon by the outgoing four-star commander of US Southern Command, sprinted to my desk in the building to file two 500-word stories, and then sped the 20-minute drive home, all before the next feeding was due. Motherhood, I marveled, had pushed me to peak efficiency.

At times, though, the urgency and obligation I feel to my career has taken priority, at the expense of my emotional health and my own parenting desires.

I’ve miscarried three times on the job, most recently last December while on a sleepless pre-Christmas trip to the UK and Afghanistan with the acting defense secretary. I’ve returned to work three days after a traumatic miscarriage, my lips and gums still white from blood loss.

My employers never rushed me back to work after my miscarriages, or forced me to take an assignment when I felt incapacitated by grief. My drive has always come from an internalized idea that allowing my personal needs to intrude on my work would make me less dedicated, and perhaps less worthy, as a journalist. Work made demands, and I met them. Stopping to give myself over to these losses felt like allowing my womanhood, and my motherhood, to define me more than my professional skill, and I hated that. Perhaps, I felt, this is the necessary corollary to having it all.

With both of my babies, my milk supply faltered, in part because I feared overlong nursing breaks, and in part because of deadline stress. They eventually needed supplemental formula and self-weaned early. And, paltry as corporate maternity leave allowances are in the US, I cut my own leave short both times I took it. Allowed 12 partially paid weeks, I took 10 with my daughter and seven with my son, although I began working uncredited half-days at the five-week mark. I’d become a managing editor by the time my son was born in 2018, and long mornings napping with and feeding my infant were marred by the knowledge that every hour I spent out of the office created work for my colleagues on top of their own responsibilities.

Stopping to give myself over to these losses felt like allowing my womanhood, and my motherhood, to define me more than my professional skill, and I hated that. Perhaps, I felt, this is the necessary corollary to having it all.

In the world of Washington professionals, I am nobody special. I have the traditional DC reporter accouterments of a verified Twitter account and a podcast; I’ve been selected to participate in a few national security career development cohorts and have won a handful of awards. I’m not a member of the celebrated cable news expert commentariat, and I’m not known outside of the fairly tiny defense journalism archipelago. Still, I believe my work reporting on the close-knit military community makes a difference to those inside of it; and my job has long been deeply entangled with my personal drive and my very identity. Its demands and urgency have dominated my time, taken the best of my energies and infused my bones with weariness.

But in July, I plan to leave it all.

As the world is emerging from the pandemic and planning tentative returns to the office, I’m making my exit. I’ll swap my 60-hour weeks behind a laptop for the ambiguity of full-time parenthood, with its playdates, art projects, diaper changes and bath times. I’ll homeschool, too: I was raised in the movement that has come into pandemic vogue, and I hope to impart the elements of home instruction that most encouraged my own creativity and passion for learning to my daughter and son.

I haven’t told many people about my plans. I’m somehow bashful about admitting to friends and colleagues, fellow working parents, that I’m abandoning my career for an undefined period of time. The responses I’ve gotten from the few I have told haven’t done much to allay my hesitancy.

Most people, after a moment of stunned confusion, helpfully start to fill in the blanks.

“That’s great,” they say. “You’ll be able to freelance. You can work on a big project. Maybe you can keep working part-time!”

One friend even proposed using new pandemic norms to my advantage and reducing my hours worked without bothering to announce a change.

“Who would know?” he said.

The idea that I’d make a clean break with the professional working world and a career I love right at its satisfying midpoint seems at best like poor planning, and at worst like self-sabotage. But stepping off without a designated landing point is the intent. I’m creating a space, and resolving, at least for a season, to leave it unfilled.

Experienced parents will rightly scoff at the idea that full-time child care leaves a void in terms of labor. My five-year-old daughter and two-year-old son demand attention, stimulation, feedback, learning activities and challenge, and they thrive because they do receive these things. If anything, parenting with purpose is more labor-intensive — and certainly fills more hours in the day — than even an office job with Washington, DC hours. But the tasks that will fill my waking day won’t be those I can easily check off as complete in my Bullet Journal or submit to my manager for praise and feedback.

When I take my daughter on weekend dates and watch her eat a gourmet Pop-Tart with the slow dedication of religious ritual, or put my son to bed and savor his delighted cackles to the same “Monkeys on the Bed” book every night, it’s impossible to watch a clock or cling to my achievement-oriented mentality without hitting a wall of frustration. It’s difficult now to do these things with my children without feeling compelled to check my phone for news alerts or free my mind from reflecting on the audio track that needs editing or the emails demanding responses.

Parenting is necessarily inefficient. It’s the toddler who insists on fastening his own Velcro sneakers and the preschooler who needs to smell every flower on a footpath. It’s answering questions that are at once naive and confounding — “If a shark is hungry and eats a hungry fish, does that make it hungrier?” — and pretending to be immune from embarrassment when an overtired child throws himself screaming onto the supermarket floor. The physical and emotional labor of parenting is, for the most part, unseen, uncredited, and unending. It’s also constantly evolving as children grow and develop, and infused, even in its moments of dark, lonely struggle, with a profound undercurrent of love.

It’s work I observed at close quarters as the eldest of seven children, cared for and taught by my mother. I grew up believing that my chosen career would give way to full-time parenting as soon as I started having children, just as hers had. That prospect, though, didn’t stop me from making the Dean’s List every college semester and snapping up internships and extracurriculars like Mario coins. Like most of the homeschooled girls I knew, I was ambitious, driven, and eager to have a big family, and none too concerned about how the logistics of it all would come together.

Six years after college, married and nearly nine months pregnant with my daughter, I was ready to make my early exit from the workforce. My husband, Ben, had a home remodeling job he tolerated; I made about as much as he did at a defense reporting job I loved. We were uncertain about how we’d make it work, but pretty sure our preferred option was for me to quit and take on full-time parenting. On my due date, however, as I watched my belly roil with my baby’s kicks, I got a call from a competing outlet offering me a position similar to my current one, but with a massive pay increase. It gradually dawned on us that, if I took the offer and Ben quit his job, we’d be able to achieve our most-valued goals: we could keep our baby at home with a parent, stay in our current home and pay off our remaining college loans. It was a remote work position to boot, meaning I could subtract commutes from my workday and spend more time in physical proximity to my child, even if otherwise occupied.

For more than a year, I worked warily, convinced Ben would find stay-at-home fatherhood too lonely, mundane or emasculating, and beg for the chance to go back to work. But instead, he was a sensational full-time father — even-keeled and patient, attentive and available. He didn’t mind sitting on the floor for an hour at a time to play a game, supervise the baby on the play mat, or read books; I, on the other hand, often found myself climbing the walls on the weekends and struggled to engage in playtime without keeping an eye on the clock or checking my phone again and again.

Our nontraditional family roles suited us excellently. But it was the partnership that flourished between us that truly began to change my perspective on the articles of faith I’d internalized as a child about “traditional” family gender roles and the exclusivity of work and motherhood. My being the primary breadwinner did not make me domineering or him insecure. Nor did it dictate our approach to family matters, where I often deferred to his calmness and wisdom, and he to my creativity and knack for long-range planning. My continued work even became a source of pride, and a small but pronounced rebellion against the norms I’d been raised with. The few other young mothers I knew who were able to manage the vigilance and punishing hours that DC journalism demands are extraordinary, and I felt honored and proud to be in their ranks.

As I entered management at my publication, I liked the idea that my daughter would see this as normal. When, one day, she grabbed an armful of stuffed animals and headed to her room, announcing she had called a meeting with her team, I was delighted.

As I entered management at my publication, I liked the idea that my daughter would see this as normal. When, one day, she grabbed an armful of stuffed animals and headed to her room, announcing she had called a meeting with her team, I was delighted.

Even in 2021, I’m still the exception: Some 60% of mothers in the US don’t work outside the home, and millions more have left the workplace in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, with its crushing economic effects and depletion of safe and reliable child care options. Even before then, most of the smart, driven women I’d grown up with had, after having children, poured their talents into teaching their kids and running entrepreneurial side hustles out of the home. I was allowed to continue in the all-consuming work I loved through a series of providential circumstances, including an extraordinary life partner who encouraged my career and embraced hands-on parenting and household tasks. After shaking off the traditionalist notions that placed artificial limits on what motherhood and work should look like, I felt like an ambassador for the possible. Why, after all I’d worked through to get comfortable in my own skin, would I give that up?

For me, the answer to that question is bigger than work and motherhood. It’s about forcibly reclaiming balance and rest in a working world with seemingly no use for those things.

“In the future, everyone will get to log off for 15 minutes,” recently tweeted a colleague in military reporting, Kelsey Atherton.

The observation highlights the incessancy of our work and necessary connectedness, and the fact that none of us see a break from it all in the offing. While certainly the concept of subjugating gainful labor to family, community, worship and rest has ancient roots — it’s as deeply ingrained in the teachings of my Christian faith as the Sabbath day of rest — I’m increasingly beginning to see the choice as a new act of rebellion. I’m not rejecting the notion that women, and mothers, belong in the workplace and deserve to thrive and advance there; I’m rejecting an insatiable economy of labor that demands our days, evenings and weekends, and infuses even leaves of absence and vacations with guilt and obligation.

In practical terms, my departure is prompted by my husband’s reentry into the full-time workforce. Within the last few years, he has finally found a side career he’s passionate about, in-home inspection, and now has a choice opportunity to purchase his retiring boss’s company and expand it. In our marriage partnership, he has now spent nearly six years as the primary care provider for our children. It is simply his turn to pursue the work of his choice, and he has more than earned the right to claim that chance.

Even though we’ve talked about this prospective career handoff for years, and still both feel, our resources permitting, that we’d like to have our children spend most of their waking hours in the care of a parent, Ben has been quick to assure me that he’d never insist on my leaving work against my desires to attain that goal. We know it’s an extraordinary privilege, not available to many, to sustain a family on a single income, and acknowledge that our kids would be just fine in daycare or with a nanny.

But here’s the thing: My perfect, charmed family-work arrangement has brought me to the end of myself. I “have it all,” but I don’t have margin.

I’m apprehensive about admitting just how overextended I feel. Some of the overachieving professionals I admire in this town work nearly double the hours I log, and appear to do so with grace and sanity. To some, despite my irregular hours and subjugation to the news cycle, my commute-less job, home with my two small children and a supportive husband, probably seems like a sinecure. But even if others could balance my load with grace, I feel I cannot. For years, my work, much as I love it and believe in it, has absorbed every ounce of spare energy I have to offer. There’s always another story to file, another call to make, another initiative to invest in for my team.

In his excellent, rebellious treatise, “The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry,” pastor John Mark Comer quotes Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han’s searing observation on burnout in the West: “They are too alive to die, and too dead to live.” I see myself in the statement. Often, I feel too exhausted to properly inhabit my own life.

In just the last year or so of parenthood, I’ve tried to become less tethered to my phone outside work hours — a change that has indeed paid dividends in attentiveness to my children and sense of presence in my own life. But it has certainly made me less vigilant, and somewhat less effective in my work. As a direct result, my sense of investment and satisfaction in my job has also decreased. I log off for 15 minutes at my own risk; a competitor is always standing ready to cover a story that my publication misses.

Beyond family, my margin for relationships is close to nil. On rare weekdays off, I cram my calendar with coffee dates, desperate to connect with friends for whom I’m typically a genial shadow — pleasant and liked, but deeply unavailable. I care for those in my social circle in bursts, whipping up a batch of meals for new mothers in my church or sending a stack of notes of encouragement when I feel a rare burst of energy and inspiration. More often, though, I observe friends’ personal crises and life events only from a distance, too busy and emotionally tapped out to offer anything. After all, I’ve barely had the bandwidth to process my own periods of grief.

I want to teach my children about the importance of serving their community and giving of their time and resources to help others in need, values I believe my generation never sufficiently embraced. But I don’t have two hours to spare each week to teach English as a Second Language in my wildly diverse community or to care for the children of my friend whose husband is in military training. Worse, my lack of margin has turned me into a time hoarder: Jealously guarding my free time, resentful of those who “squander” it, unable to relax into an afternoon sitting outside in my front yard without a plan or objective.

Certainly, my experience is not unique, or even novel. While many of the 2.2 million women who departed the American workforce in the course of the pandemic were forced to do so because of ramped-up child care demands and other family and economic pressures, workers of all genders and generations have had cause to reevaluate their priorities and stressors. Even for those fortunate enough to have not experienced unavoidable career reevaluation in the form of a layoff, 2020 had a way of emphasizing the harsh contours of our lives.

“The pandemic just kind of exacerbates all of those things that don’t work,” Leadership coach and consultant Shian Chuan told the Seattle Times last September. “Whether it’s your work-life balance, or career choices or lack of career progression, they’re all from habits and decisions that piled up. The pandemic has a way of magnifying things that need to be looked at and changed.”

My friend Caroline Baxter wrote graciously and poignantly about how the pandemic lockdown has altered the shape of her working life. Through a flexible arrangement with their respective employers, she and her husband divide up care of their toddler evenly, swapping out for six-hour remote work shifts and then making up extra work hours in the evening, after the baby has gone to bed. It’s a grueling example of how, at least for American workers, the brick quota has stayed the same, even as straw has become scarce in 2020.

“Our work is always in eyesight, shrinking the distance between work reading and pleasure reading; work computers and personal computers; work files and personal files. I’ve noticed that this lack of separation affects my brain chemistry,” Baxter writes. “I experience no surge of adrenaline upon getting to my office. I get no mental release from packing up at the end of the day and going home. Workdays and weekend days are in the same color family. It’s all twilight.”

I’ve been living in a version of this twilight for years.

While many employers have made efforts to create more work flexibility and offer support in the form of counseling services, meditation aids and even “self-care days” to help their workers weather the collective crisis, it doesn’t appear that we’ll be working fewer hours or facing less stringent production demands in the post-pandemic world. Then, as now, the task of creating personal margin and finding balance will fall to us.

In Jenny Odell’s excellent book “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” she writes about the significance of often-overlooked “maintenance work” — the necessary labor done to little acclaim by mothers and those beloved children’s TV icon Fred Rogers would call “the helpers” — and its necessity to the creation of strong, meaningful community. It’s work, I think she’d argue, that’s just as necessary to the wellbeing of a community and nation as the active, external elements of national security that I’ve spent my career covering.

I’m enslaved by my inbox. I pictured my friend walking casually in and out of a room in which I’d been hopelessly locked for years.

“I’m suggesting that we protect our spaces and our time for non-instrumental, noncommercial activity and thought, for maintenance, for care, for conviviality,” Odell writes. “And I’m suggesting that we fiercely protect our human animality against all technologies that actively ignore and disdain the body, the bodies of other beings, and the body of the landscape that we inhabit.”

In a meaningful way, stay-at-home parents — who make up about 18% of all US parents and are, statistically speaking, still overwhelmingly likely to be mothers — are a last line of resistance against what Odell calls “the attention economy:” the all-consuming busyness that holds us captive and menaces margin, reflection and the interior life. Though not all full-time parents come to their role by choice, they all contribute to a counterculture of life at a child’s pace; life in which productivity takes on a radically different meaning.

My mother, who had left a nursing career to raise and homeschool seven children, would take us to visit elderly friends in assisted living homes and to bring flowers to new moms in delivery rooms. We inhabited the weekdays, lingering for hours at the Boston Museum of Fine Art or the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow House. She never felt like the perfect parent or the ideal teacher, and life, as is typical in a household with seven children, was more chaotic than idyllic. But together, we resisted. I see this same measure of grace and life with margin in my friends who have already opted out of the workforce to be with children. Sometimes, I’ve felt frustrated and inconvenienced by the measured tempo of their lives. Why, I’ve wondered in annoyance, can’t they make it right on time to a playdate when all they have to do is wrangle their children out the door? The friction comes down to a difference in priorities. My life is dominated by meeting times and calendar dates. Theirs is not.

In the writing of this essay, I reached out to a brilliant friend who sidelined her career for her children seven years ago and is now planning her reentry into the workforce. I wanted her email address so I could send her a draft for edits.

“It hasn’t changed,” she said, “but I never check it.”

I’m enslaved by my inbox. I pictured my friend walking casually in and out of a room in which I’d been hopelessly locked for years.

My choice to withdraw from full-time paid work for a season, be it months or years, is a radical treatment for the imbalances in my life that I’ve struggled to correct with more moderate prescriptions. But it’s also a way of seizing a moment and staving off future regrets. My children are still so small. Like many kids, they’re bright, curious, playful, and charming. However much they stand to benefit from having their mother present and available during most of their waking hours, I believe I’ll benefit at least as much from being around for their milestones, triumphs, and discoveries. I no longer feel the burden of believing this choice imputes a certain morality or has implications for my Christian faith; the structure of work and family life is a deeply personal chain of choices, and pronouncements on the right or wrong way to parent should be avoided altogether, or made with utter humility. It’s simply helpful for me to frame my “no” to my job and career track in the context of the yeses it will allow. Yes to balance. Yes to simplicity. Yes to mental and emotional presence in my own life. Yes to margin.

Sheryl Sandberg writes in Lean In, her seminal book on women in the workplace, that “A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes.”

I’ve started to wonder if a healthier world would be one in which space exists for all participants in the workforce, regardless of gender or family situation, to take a sabbatical or scale back their paid labor for a season without fear of damaging future career prospects. I don’t really see that becoming a broad reality in my lifetime, though. As intimidated as I am at the prospect of leaving a workplace in which I know how to excel for the insecurity and ambiguity of parenting, I’m extraordinarily grateful to have the option at all. For many, such a shift never becomes possible.

There are many ways to fight burnout and build margin into a life that previously didn’t know it. Some people delete Twitter from their phones; others rebuild their work schedules to create a healthier balance, or dedicate time each week, such as a Sabbath day, for recharge and renewal. I don’t think it’s helpful to prescribe a single course of action for a problem that is deeply personal, with many possible solutions. It’s also clear to me that the work-oriented world we live in will not self-correct, even with the extreme stressors of the global pandemic. We all, as Odell writes, must find our own acts of refusal and resistance against an economy that demands every scrap of our attention and capacity.

So I’m being offered this rare opportunity: a hard reset on life’s margin and balance through the removal of the most unbalanced component, my job. And, though I’m terrified, I plan to take it. I’m joining the resistance.

Hope Hodge Seck is the outgoing managing editor of Military.com. She lives near Washington, DC with her husband and two children, and is expecting a third baby later this year.