Robyn Rabbeth Leach: the Mommy Wars 5.31.2001

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COVERSTORY

Motherhood or Bust!
The toughest job you’ll ever love
By Robyn Rabbeth Leach

It recently occurred to me that I might be betraying my gender. What kind of example am I setting as a modern woman by walking away from a hard earned career to stay at home?

The thirty-something women I know didn’t struggle to put themselves through college, then work their way up the corporate ladder only to ditch it all, run home and wipe runny noses. I mean these are women who have it all. An accomplished career. A nice home. A solid marriage. But then the babies are born and the focus shifts from what a girl wants to what a child needs. What comes next is often an excruciating time of self-doubt.

I left my job in TV news at the pinnacle of my career. Something I never planned to do. Here’s why. My husband, Tom Leach, had landed his dream job as play-by-play announcer for UK football. A great gig but all consuming. Road trips to places like Starkville, endless hours watching the team practice, stacks of statistics to memorize. On top of that, he worked the morning drive shift on radio, then went back to the station to host a nightly sports call-in show from 6:00 to 7:00. I was also on the air from 6:00 to 7:00 anchoring the evening news. My day at WLEX began at 10:00.

Managing such a crazy schedule and raising a little boy required nothing short of a daily miracle.

A typical day went something like this:

Our son, Connor spent a few hours with me in the morning. On my way to work, I dropped him off at Montessori pre-school. At some point in the afternoon Tom would pick him up. Sometimes they’d spend a few hours at home, sometimes they’d go to football practice. Around 5:00 a babysitter would take over so Tom could go back to the radio station. By the time we both got home (7:30 on a good night) we barely had enough energy to give Connor a bath.

My mom and my mother -in -law filled the gaps in between. They saved our sanity by giving us much-needed breaks. When a winter storm dumped 22 inches of snow on Lexington, my mother stayed shut in the house with Connor for several days while Tom and I worked around the clock in our respective newsrooms. Our parents dropped everything and came running whenever we needed them, which was often. Despite all of their support, after years of skillful maneuvering, I was at my wit’s end.

So are many other working moms. I have a string of horror stories at my fingertips. A woman breaks down in front of her doctor when he asks how she’s doing. She sobs as she tells him she can’t handle the stress of a full-time job and two small children. Quitting her job isn’t an option, so the doctor prescribes Prozac. This happened to a friend of mine who is a banking executive. She says life is manageable now.

A highly respected female attorney gets stuck in a deposition and misses her daughter’s school function. The little girl sits alone in a room full of people, wondering why her mom’s job is more important than she is.

A toddler stays with his grandmother while his parents are away on lengthy business trips. One night he stands looking out the window for an unusually long time. Grandma asks, “Are you looking at the stars?” “No,” he replies, “I’m looking for my mommy.”

The boy in the latter incident was my son. My mother didn’t tell me about it until years later. She said she didn’t have the heart. Where were Mommy and Daddy? We were on the road, covering the UK basketball team in the NCAA tournament.

Then there was the storm. One afternoon as I prepared for the evening newscast, the sky turned purple and the rain pounded. I had the terrifying advantage of watching those bright red patches show up on the radar screen in our weather center. Conditions were right for a tornado in the vicinity of my son’s school. Connor was so afraid of storms. Who, if anyone, was comforting him, protecting him?

Not all of the stories are heart wrenching. Some are actually pretty funny. One night as I walked through the front door, balancing a styrofoam container on my briefcase, Connor came running to meet me. He was two years old. His eyes focused intently on the carton of leftovers from my lunch. He immediately shouted, “Oh boy, supper’s here!” Something’s not right when your toddler associates the evening meal with a polystyrene box.

Those are just a few of the reasons I’ve given up the so-called glamorous life. My power suits are collecting dust in the back of the closet. I haven’t worn heels, hose or heavy make-up in a long time. My family is happier and I’m healthier. I still work part-time at WLEX, about 12 hours a week. Mostly, I write scripts and schedule guests for the Let’s Do Lunch show. It’s a job I can do from home or at the television station and I’m grateful for the opportunity to stay connected in broadcasting while focusing on my family.

Connor is 8 years old. Nearly half the time he’ll spend at home with us is gone. Our children are with us such a short time. Ask an older woman to look back on her life. She’ll often say the best years were those when her children were small. They should be the best years.

A group of moms with pre-schoolers got together one morning at my house. We talked while the kids played. I didn’t know much about these women outside of their role as mothers. So, I asked. Turns out, we’d all made career sacrifices to be with our children. In the room, we had a registered nurse, a Russian intelligence expert, an occupational therapist, an accountant and a TV news anchor. Some think staying home is a luxury, some think it’s a necessity. Some plan to resume their careers, some do not. But we all agree that we have no regrets.

We also agree that we’re forfeiting prime wage-earning years and blowing a hole in our Social Security retirement benefits. Laws should be changed to remove some of the penalties for staying at home but that won’t happen until more women serve in Congress. And many women are reluctant to serve because of the havoc it would cause in their families.

But our generation is making progress. We have options that weren’t available to the women who helped clear the way for us. For instance, a highly successful female advertising executive who’s in her 50s told me she put off having children because she knew it would kill her career. When she entered the workforce in 1970, women who expected to be taken seriously had to match the boys in the boardroom drink for drink and hour for hour. Many times, she was the only woman at business dinners. If the men ordered three martinis and a slab of raw meat, she ordered the same and washed it down with a cigar. The years passed and her career flourished but she never had children. It’s the biggest regret of her life.

The previous generation, the original feminists, told us we could have it all. They didn’t tell us how we were supposed to handle it. We have to figure that out for ourselves. We have to decide what kind of legacy we’re going to leave our children. If women want to work or must work for financial reasons, they should. And they shouldn’t feel guilty about it. If mom is happy, chances are the family is happy. Plenty of kids with working moms are perfectly well adjusted. Good parents find a way to make it work but it isn’t easy. The people we should revere most in our society are the single parents who have to work but manage to raise wonderful children.

Connor weighs in

When I told Connor that I was writing about my decision to stay at home, he didn’t seem interested. But when I asked him if I could interview him for the article, he perked up considerably.

“How did you feel when Mommy worked?”

“I missed you. A lot.” he said.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”

I was stunned. Couldn’t breathe.

He didn’t want to hurt MY feelings

Now, we’re making up for lost time. I drive Connor to school every morning. (Despite my past experience with daily news deadlines, he’s racked up 9 tardy slips.) And I’m waiting for him when he gets off the school bus in the afternoon. In between, I am enjoying motherhood the second time around with my daughter Caroline, who is now 2.

As I write this, she is napping. Some days I put everything on hold and take a nap with her. It’s the most peaceful feeling I’ve ever known. When she wakes up, we’ll fix lunch and since it’s such a beautiful day, we’ll eat outside, on the back porch. I may even throw caution to the wind and put an extra scoop of sugar in the Kool-Aid. After lunch, we’ll go where the mood takes us. Fingerpainting, reading, watering the flowers. Not every day is like this.

Sometimes she’s whiny. Sometimes I’m whiny. Sometimes I think I’m going to lose my mind if I have to explain AGAIN why she can’t drink the bath water. But most days, it’s wonderful.

This is the best job I’ve ever had.

 

Sistas are doin’ it for themselves..

While women struggle to achieve the balance that makes life worthwhile, media myths make it seem like we have it made. It’s hip to be mom. And dad is quickly fading from the picture. A top fashion magazine recently exclaimed in a bold headline, “This Year’s Must-Have Accessory: A Baby.” The cover of Us Weekly’s April 2001 issue is dotted with close-ups of beautiful celebrity mothers. Katie Couric, Calista Flockhart, Jodie Foster. The banner reads “The New Single Moms And How They Do It.”

I know how they do it.

They have million dollar contracts, a fleet of nannies and a hair stylist who gives them the perfect shade of blonde. They’re probably great mothers but in the real world, moms are making mortgage payments, juggling baby sitters and trying to cover the gray with Clairol #9.

Still, women are CHOOSING to have children and raise them alone. According to the 2000 Census, single parent households have doubled since 1970. Of course, not all of them choose to be single but arguably, marriage is becoming obsolete. Single women can support themselves quite nicely. They can adopt, they can visit a sperm bank, they can even ask David Crosby to “father” their child with no strings attached. Did you ever in your wildest dreams think THAT would actually work?

Contemporary moms are in control. We have more options than the women who came before us. So why would we want to turn back the clock to the days of Leave It To Beaver? -RRL

 

 



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