I was determined to adore Reva Seth's new book, The MomShift: Women Share Their Stories of Career Success After Having Children.
I've read Alison Wolf's The XX Factor on how working women have created a less equal world; Judith Warner's anxiety-inducing Perfect Madness; Gaby Hinsliff's Half a Wife; and Sheryl Sandberg's tough-talking contribution to the oeuvre.
Like Seth, I concluded that women need more positive stories about the possibilities of combining career and family life, and that the current debate over work/life balance is irritatingly reductive. I was also attracted to her notion that a fulfilling job might actually enhance a woman's experience of motherhood, and that more responsibility – not less – is in fact the key to a happy life.
And then I actually read the book.
So there I was, tucked in bed at 11 p.m. after a long day of child care and screwing around on my laptop when I got to the chapter entitled Reinvention, in which she interviews various successful mothers on how they made the identity shift from worker to working mom. In it, Seth devotes several pages to a woman named Michelle, who in addition to being a mother of four is also the director of a successful consultancy. Michelle enthuses about how the secret to her success is that she's never seen any of her children as "obstacles or burdens."
Really? Even when you were tripping over them on the stairs or hoisting them wailing out of their cribs at 4 a.m.? All bloody four of them?
The truth is, I rarely think of my children as anything but burdens and obstacles – because when they are small, that's exactly what they are. I'm not saying burdens and obstacles can't be wonderfully engaging and fulfilling – just think of the joy a climber gets from summitting a mountain, or how the responsibility of paying a mortgage can result in a deep pride of ownership. But any parent who tells you kids aren't hard work is hormonal or delusional or both.
I decided to push on with The MomShift, determined to cleave to Seth's encouraging vision. So on I pressed – until, that is, I read the sample of Michelle's "average day." Here it is:
5 a.m. – Up.
5:30 a.m. – Start creative writing (3 pages).
6:30 a.m. – Social-media updates and e-mail.
7:30 a.m. – Children wake up and ready for school.
8:30 a.m. – Walk children to school.
8:40 a.m. – Breakfast and action planning.
9:30 a.m. – Work.
3:30 p.m. – Stop work.
4:30 p.m. – Children home and evening activities begin, dinner, homework, showers etc.
8 p.m. – Gym (3-4 times per week).
10 p.m. – Bed.
I was so staggered by Michelle's day ("Action planning" at breakfast? Clocking off at 3:30? Creative writing when you could be sleeping?) that I felt compelled to take stock of my own average day. Now, given that I consider myself exactly Seth's target audience (an educated, working mom who enjoys reading books about the predicament of modern life) I was surprised to see how much the reality of my day diverged from Michelle's.
Here it is:
4 a.m. – Woken by five-year-old asking if he can play an "educational game" on the iPad. Send him back to bed.
4:15 a.m. – Give him iPad.
6 a.m. – Woken by wimpering baby. Pull pillow over head.
6:15 a.m. – Elbow husband and make passive-aggressive joke about father-baby bonding.
7 a.m. – Woken by bleeding husband demanding to know if I've used his razor to shave my legs. Again.
7:15 a.m. – Up. Put on gym clothes.
8 a.m. – Five-year-old off to school, husband to office.
9 a.m. – Nanny arrives.
9:30 a.m. – Help nanny clean up breakfast dishes while engaging in thoughtful small talk so she doesn't quit and ruin my life.
10 a.m. – Go to café, where WiFi is faster, and work while wearing noise-reduction headphones to block sound of stay-at-home moms shouting at their horrible children.
3:30 p.m. – Return home to play Itsy Bitsy Spider with baby while nanny collects five-year-old from school.
4 p.m. – Hide from children in home office and consider going to gym.
4:30 p.m. – Check Facebook and make a pretty good joke on Twitter.
5 p.m. – Send nanny home. Console crying baby as she leaves.
5:15 p.m. – Change out of gym clothes.
5:30 p.m. – Make kids' dinner.
6:30 p.m. – Put baby to bed.
7:30 p.m. – Coax, bribe and finally wrestle five-year-old to bed.
8 p.m. – Work while drinking wine, eating dry-roasted peanuts from jar and intermittently checking retweets on Twitter.
10 p.m. – Husband arrives home. Try not to fall asleep as he talks about his day.
10:30 p.m. – Fall asleep on couch.
11 p.m. – Wake up, brush teeth, check Twitter, fall asleep.
I lay this out before you, not to make you think less of me but to illustrate that there are many different ways of doing the so-called mom shift. While Michelle's average day would actually leave me unconscious with misery, mine would surely fill her with a disgust so deep she'd be forced to churn out an extra three pages of predawn creative writing.
But commentators who gloss over the realities of working motherhood are just as frustrating as those who proclaim how impossible it is. Here's my radical solution: Let's all be just a little more honest and a little less hard on ourselves. In other words, don't be a Michelle. Unless, of course, you already are her. In which case, hooray for you.