Taking a road trip can either bring visions of the salt life ahead or the wild deer-in-the-headlights type of frantic stare for most travelers. Everyone needs some R&R on a frequent basis, especially when life in the fast lane of busy careers, parenting, social obligations and everyday life becomes more like speeding on the German Autobahn. It is very important to have work-life balance, but many times this balancing act seems more like an audition for the next performance of Cirque de Soliel. And for many professional women who were dutifully groomed by their parents to “get good grades, go to college, get a good (government) job and find a nice guy to marry”, the American dream of having it all has become a nightmare. As my dear friend Mary Griffin reminds me, “You can have it all, just not all at once,” the idea of being a superwoman who can bring home the bacon, fry it, feed the family, clean the pan and do it all again the next day, has become rather overwhelming as their biological clocks tick louder and louder and the voice of one’s mother on the other end of the phone is nagging about the birth of her future grandchildren becomes a deafening reminder that time is of the essence.
According to xxx nearly 60% of these professional women with advanced degrees who are caught between a rock and a hard place (excuse the pun), are deciding to “off-ramp” or exit their career path to raise a family or care for an aging parent or both. This is a very difficult and stressful decision for a woman to make, knowing that the likely hood of them returning to their former career life, once they change lanes to enter the on-ramp to “off-ramp”, could be a one-way street or worse, a dead-end street. The traditional path for most women who take maternity leave is to find a good day-care provider for their newborn and return to the workplace after about six to eight weeks of leave. The new world of navigating an infant carrier, stroller, diaper bag, laptop and work tote bag for some mothers proves to be child’s play but for others the thought of leaving their baby in the care of anyone is unfathomable and make the difficult choice of submitting their resignation letter in order to stay home and raise their family.
For most first-time parents, they are unaware that they are entering the dark “Tunnel of Parenthood: The First Five Years;” the season of parenting children under the age of five where life becomes a blur and it seems like the emergency flashers blink on and off forever while you can barely blink your own eyes for the life of you. And just when you are mentally ready for a tune-up at year five, the battery life is recharged and the youngster is ready for Kindergarten. It is at this point where some Moms have yet another major decision to make at this fork in the road, “Do I return to work now? Or start the process over and give the child a sibling?” And with each subsequent pregnancy, the reset button is selected and the journey back into the Tunnel begins again.
As I write this blog piece, I have completed one round-trip through the tunnel, and by the year’s end, my life odometer will read two complete round trips and the halfway mark through the third tunnel adventure. With a combined parenting experience, I have nearly 16 years worth of memories on this road trip of life and I would like to offer some of my observations and some words of wisdom that I wished had been imparted to me either as a pre-departure checklist or during a pit-stop of life.
- As an avid reader, I may devour five to ten books a week, when I am on a good reading clip and absorb every idea, every life lesson like a sponge. But nothing, and I mean nothing, not even the classic pregnancy book, “What to Expect When You Are Expecting,” could have prepared me for my customized pregnancy experience. I was aware that post-natal a newborn bonds with its mother through breastfeeding through the release of hormones including oxytocin XXX. But I was not aware of the profound, I mean P R O F O U N D experience of the bonding of mother and child in utero. The chemical, mental and physical changes indelibly marked my DNA with motherhood and almost overnight, I told my husband that I would not be returning to my career post birth and that he could not make me return. There was no way that I was going to be separated from this child. We would eat cereal or macaroni and cheese every night for dinner if that’s what it would take financially for me to stay home with my baby. I was not prepared for hitting the breaks on my career and parking the car in the garage at home after earning my Masters and enduring a grueling three hour Thesis defense. This was not on the travel itinerary and yet here I was unpacking my professional awards, certificates and framed degrees to hang not on the office wall but on the walls of my house.
- As a former flight attendant for Continental Airlines, Inc. (now United Airlines), I had the opportunity to travel to 11% of the world, according to an online calculator. My seed for my love of travel was planted as a little girl in taking the bi-annual trek from Florida to Maryland on I-95 to see my family. My parents would pack the cooler and the mini black and white television in our Dodge Conversion Van and we would hit the road and I loved every minute of it. I enjoyed the sites and sounds of people watching and looking for rare license plates on every make and model of vehicle on the road. When I became a flight attendant, the sense of freedom to explore new cultures and cuisine and experience the locales that I read about in history books was fascinating. But once I took the career off-ramp and downgraded to a one-income household, I was pulled over by the life police to move out of the fast lane and park the car. I didn’t know it at the time, but the feel of exhilaration of being in the driver’s seat of my life was about to crash into a lost and obscure vision for my life. Sure, I was now a Wife and a Mom and both of these roles had significant meaning, but my identity as a career woman had vanished into the dark night of winter as I blindly entered the Tunnel of Parenthood. Even with making nearly two roundtrips into this dark place of solitude, I still could not see the light at the end of the tunnel. I had tunnel-vision of depression and was running on empty and my engine was beginning to corrode. How could this happen to me? I was always about preventative maintenance of one’s physical, emotional and spiritual self. How did I get this far to feel like I was now a pile of rusted metal sitting in a junkyard of my own decisions? It wasn’t until after reading my own owner’s manual, that I realized it was time for a tune-up of my self-esteem and to map out a new plan of direction for my life. Don’t get me wrong, I love being a parent three times over, but I had lost my way, my sense of identity, my goals, my bucket list, my self-esteem — my roadmap to peace.
- In meeting other mothers who have taken the career off-ramp, I find that they too are lost in the tunnel and need to update their GPS device with the latest technology of thought processing to upgrade the value of their custom – made model that was once the envy of their unique show room. It seems that these lost mothers are found in three categories: (1) they are aware of their lost vision of life and want to change course but are unable to merge their life situation into the right lane (2) they are aware of their lost vision and do not mind if they are parked on the shoulder of the road (3) the are not even aware that they have lost their vision and are driving with no lights on and into oncoming traffic.
- For mothers who fall into the first category, they are aware of their lost vision of life and want to change course but are unable to merge their life situation into the right lane, they are driving in a construction zone with Men At Work signs posted and will get pulled over for unsafe driving. The obstacles in this zone include:
- Lack of physical energy
- Lack of childcare
- Lack of transportation
- Lack of spousal support to return to work
- Weak or non-existent support system
- Unavailable resources to assist life ( e.g. living in a rural area, no family living nearby)
- Limited finances to restart the process of returning to work ( buy a new wardrobe; professional fees; lack of flexibility in work hours/location; interview process, child(ren)’s school schedule; spouse’s work schedule, etc.)
- For mothers who fall into the second category, they are aware of their lost vision and do not mind if they are parked on the shoulder of the road, the road becomes a permanent Rest Stop and they decide to chill out here until if and when they decide to put the key back in the ignition.
- For mothers who fall into the third category, they are not even aware that they have lost their vision and are driving with no lights on and into oncoming traffic, this tragedy happens when:
- They are so caught up with the day-to-day activities of life, that time literally just passes right by them
- They are in denial of the lost glory years of when their car had that new car scent of leather seats and they settle down into the cares of child rearing, marital responsibilities and stress from all areas of life
- Some mothers have come to terms with the reality of not returning to the workforce and are content with the road less traveled.
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