I’m meeting an old lover today. He sounded great on the phone: successful, influential, professional. All the traits that attracted me to him in the first place. A string of “what-if’s” float through my mind.
No, it’s not a man that’s setting my pulse racing. It’s an office. The office I left to stay home with my son two years ago.
I’m here to discuss a consulting project with a department manager. I clutch my briefcase tighter as I step off the atrium elevator onto the third floor. It’s abuzz with action. Sales reps pound out memos, managers huddle in private conference rooms, secretaries in tailored business suits juggle blinking phone lines.
Instantly I’m caught up in the romance of it all. I feel again the sweet, heady intoxication of being at the center of the action, the thrill of being successful and important.
Only now I watch from outside, like a child with her nose pressed against the candy store window. Teresa has a private office now. A photo of her 6-month-old daughter—who spends the day with her grandmother—sits on her desk. As we chat, a woman rushes in with bad news from the printer. They’re out of purple ink. Will Tuesday be all right? Teresa pulls out a notebook. We need it by 2:30, she says. The woman rushes off again.
Farther down the hall, Judy slips me a copy of the confidential memo she’s writing. Enrollment is down. Again. As chair of the Disenrollment Task Force, she’s one of the few people in the company who knows why.
Eileen has been promoted to manager and supervises a dozen people. Thinner now, and with a new perm, she radiates self-confidence. I pull in my stomach to try to hide the 10 extra pounds I’m still carrying. I turn left four rows from the window to look for my old cubicle. It’s still there. Someone else’s name is on it now.
Back home, I wipe another cup of grape juice off the kitchen floor and read Little Duck’s Moving Day for the fifth time in a row. I’ve traded my business clothes for jeans and a rumpled sweat shirt. Here there are no promotions, no end-of-the-year bonuses. Not even the bathroom is private.
And I wonder: Have I thrown away my chance for success? A voice at my knees interrupts my thoughts. “Hug Mama,” says Lucas, wrapping his chubby arms around my legs. I lean down and squeeze him back. The infatuation fades. Suddenly the office seems as illusory as the false fronts of a Hollywood ghost town.
Here on the front lines of the Mommy Wars, it’s not hard to see where society has marshaled its heavy artillery. Money and prestige reward those who make the politically correct choice to rejoin the workforce. Yet the politically correct choice isn’t always the right choice, for us or our children. The bottom line is that there’s more to life than the bottom line.
Business is the opiate of the American people. The smell of fat paychecks dulls our senses and makes us incapable of listening to our best selves. Give me an office with my name on the door, and I’ll gladly sell my soul and throw in my first-born as well.
For women, the rewards of success are all the more seductive because they weren’t available just a generation ago. We’re eager to escape from lives of domestic drudgery and do something important. But, let’s face it, a company Blackberry is hardly a lasting contribution to world peace. Much of what happens in corporate offices is simply busy work—glamorous busy work to be sure, but busy work just the same. I could go back to my job and feel I hadn’t missed a beat. For all the STATs and ASAPs, nothing’s really changed.
I remember cleaning out my files after I resigned, tossing stacks of URGENT, CONFIDENTIAL and TOP PRIORITY correspondence into the recycling bin. One weighty file was devoted to the Communications Strategic Planning Task Force. Six months of meetings, memos and resolutions. Then the vice president who chaired the task force was laid off, and the project died. I had nothing to show for it but a file I couldn’t quite bear to throw out.
On the other hand, six months of rocking, nursing and changing diapers produces lasting and noticeable results. In six months, an infant sits up. Another six months, and he’s beginning to walk. Six months more, and he’s starting to talk. Suddenly he’s not a baby anymore.
My son is a different person than he was two years ago. And so am I. I’ve witnessed the everyday miracle of human development, been part of the wonder of discovering Lucas. I’ve fed and dressed, worried and laughed, comforted and cared. But most important of all, I was there.
The choices women face today are complex. But we can’t afford to let society define success for us. We must shake off our infatuation with the business world and learn to listen to our hearts.
After two years away, I still feel the lure of the conference rooms and business suits. But I can honestly say I’d rather talk to Lucas than meet with VIPs, rather read Humpty Dumpty than study a top-secret memo, rather eat peanut butter and jelly than dine in the company cafeteria.
So if you see my old lover, tell him this is good-bye. He wasn’t really my type anyway.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #31.
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