Taking Time Off
By Faulkner Fox
"Taking time off" sounds balanced and peaceful, and that's certainly what I looked forward to when I was pregnant with my first child. I imagined long days snuggling with my baby, all work worries temporarily put aside. But for many women -- myself included -- childbearing happens just when we're launching our careers. This timing can make peace a real challenge.
When my oldest child, Joseph, was born, I'd just started graduate school. After several years as a nonprofit director, I was making a career shift to creative writing and teaching. I was 31, newly married, and thrilled to be a mom. I was also plagued with fears about my fledgling career. Could I finish two years of graduate work with a baby? After finishing, could I start up a new -- and anything but certain -- writing career with a toddler? These anxieties were with me as I took seven months off to care for Joseph. I felt incredibly fortunate to be home with my son. If he'd been born the prior year, when I was the primary breadwinner with a 70-hour-a-week job that provided only two weeks of maternity leave, time off wouldn't have been possible.
Still, I couldn't focus solely on my son and enjoy mothering the way I'd fantasized. Joseph was a baby who seemed to need near-constant entertainment. When I had exhausted all other options I'd sometimes wheel around the house on my blue office chair, Joseph sitting squatly on my lap.
As we rolled by, I would comment on the objects that caught his eye: a pink vase, the washing machine, a poster of crazy ladies -- over and over again. This is the chair I used to concentrate in, I would think longingly. Concentration -- and my dream of a writing career -- seemed many miles away.
When my second son was born, two and a half years later, I was so afraid of reliving the isolation and anxiety I'd felt after Joseph's birth that I started a part-time teaching job six days after delivering Benjamin. By the time Ben was 6 weeks old, I was also squeezing in 15 hours of freelance writing a week -- on top of my teaching. I'd had a fairly traumatic birth too -- Ben weighed more than 10 pounds, and the delivery was 37 hours long. I got a staph infection in the hospital, then two breast infections, and then strep throat -- all before Ben was 4 months old. Still, I kept working and taking care of a toddler and an infant every minute I wasn't at work.
Looking back, I don't regret working; the time I spent teaching was actually my least stressful day of the week. But I do feel sad that it's hard for me to recall many details from Ben's infancy. I had so many balls in the air before I could get my strength back that I rarely let myself simply enjoy being with my baby. The times I remember most vividly and fondly are Monday lunches when my husband, Duncan, would bring Ben to meet me at a Thai restaurant near my office. Ben would nurse the entire hour, and I would sip slowly on a delicious (and nutritious) bowl of chicken soup. Even though I was eating, nursing, and talking to my husband at the same time, this was much less than what I was usually doing. Those restaurant lunches stand out as rare, treasured moments of calm.
Now, eight months pregnant with my third child, I'm hoping for more frequent peaceful moments when my baby (a girl!) is born. At 41, I'm established professionally: I've been teaching for seven years, and I've published a book and many articles and poems. I feel confident that my career won't end if I take time off and that I'll be able to restart it when I'm ready.
So this time I'll be teaching only one afternoon a week and will do no writing for at least four months. During those months, my older sons will be in school, and Duncan will be on paternity leave. Because my husband and I will share the early care (making isolation much less of a fear) and because this will be my last time mothering an infant, I'm eager to be at home with my baby, with few work distractions. From experience, I know that caring for an infant is difficult -- and precious and fleeting.
Yet I'm expecting to still feel torn. I love my work. And loving a newborn isn't likely to change that. What I'm hoping for this time, though, is a temporary reprieve from work anxiety and the pressure on myself to do everything at once -- so I can finally get the peace and balance that "time off" seems to suggest.
Faulkner Fox is the author of Dispatches From a Not-So-Perfect Life: Or How I Learned to Love the House, the Man, the Child. She lives with her family in Durham, NC.