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For Your Marriage

Josh and Stacey Noem have been married for almost 20 years and have three children in middle school and high school. They blog about parenting and their adventures as a family.

The Interior Conflict of Career and Motherhood

During Joshua’s absence the last couple of weeks, I find myself completely and solely responsible for caring for our children while still working my full-time job. Neither of these two significant responsibilities calls for the same approach and both can be legitimately all consuming. My own coping mechanism is to pretty severely compartmentalize the two realms — a strategy that was going fairly smoothly until last Thursday.

At home in the mornings I have been completely “on” as other-focused mom. I gently wake my children, coax them from bed to the breakfast table, then into school clothes and out the door. For our morning routine to be successful (read: children dressed, fed, at school on time, and not crying) everything about my behavior has to be nurturing.

As I arrive at work each day, I become completely “on” and in work mode. I focus on my job and professional areas of responsibility. To be successful in a limited amount of time I have to evaluate the most pressing tasks of the day and execute them in as orderly and expeditious a fashion as I possibly can.

All was going well with these approaches until late in the morning on Thursday. My phone rang: it was Oscar calling from school. He was sick and needed to come home.

Strange as it may seem, in 12 years this is the first time I have received this phone call from one of our children while I was at work. When these calls have come before, Joshua was available to field them. Not so this week. Joshua was out of town. There was just me…

In the October online addition of First Things, a helpful article by Elizabeth Corey addresses the recent popular literature about women and work, balancing professional interests and family. Corey notes that the solutions proposed by recent literature ultimately fail because they are almost exclusively focused on social or political reform. She suggests that this will never work because the problem is not, at root, sociopolitical.

Rather, the problem with reconciling career and motherhood is that “the personal qualities required by professional work are directly opposed to the qualities that childrearing demands. They are fundamentally different existential orientations (one to the self, one other-focused), and the conflict between them is permanent.”

Fascinating! And, in my lived experience, entirely true. Which returns us to Oscar’s call…

So there I was standing at my desk, living the “fundamentally different existential orientations” that Corey writes about.

On the one hand, my darling little boy was sick and needed me! I wanted to drop everything and get to him as soon as physically possible and do everything in my power to care for him.

On the other hand, I had a full day, mostly populated by meetings with other people, for which I was responsible. And the next meeting started in exactly 20 minutes! This fact made me want to tell Oscar that I would be there as soon as I could but it would probably take about an hour and a half – basically the equivalent of telling him to “gut it out.”

If you are cringing because that sounds nuts – I am, too, as I write this. It seriously makes me think: what kind of mother am I?! But the reality is that the divide inside of me was visceral. In that moment, I was completely conflicted.

Gratefully, my moment of hesitation and then conviction was instantaneous. I told Oscar not to worry, I was on my way. Then I booked it out of my office as quickly as possible.

But that wasn’t the end of the internal conflict.

I got to Oscar in enough time that I could still make it back for my meeting. But if I chose to do that, it would mean having him (poor sick, feverish, uncomfortable boy) wait for me during my hour-long session. Which I did: Oscar sat in a lounge reading and trying to get as comfortable as possible while I met in my office.

After the meeting, as I collected him from the lounge, I had that same visceral internal conflict again. Here I was in my professional environment, collecting my sick child. Should I be in full-on mother mode? Or should I be in professional demeanor mode? I am just being honest when I say that for me those two ways of operating are NOTHING alike. And trying to figure out which was appropriate was a zero sum game.

Corey concludes her article stating that: “We are limited, embodied creatures. These limits mean we cannot do everything to its fullest extent at once, and certain things we might not be able to do at all.” I am grateful to her for not trying to dismiss the challenges she raises with platitudes. All she does is name the problem and suggest that there is very possibly no solution.

On a significant level I find that helpful: the conflict I, and many other working mothers experience, is an internal contradiction. In work, I may strive and never reach perfection. At home, I may try to love and never reach perfection. Our faith affords me both the model and motivation to continue seeking perfection and the space to recognize that stumbling and falling short is not ultimately failure. It is my path to working out two aspects of my vocation. And hopefully growing in holiness along the way.

Related: “I Belong to You,” by Josh Noem