Finding Work/Life Balance in the Face of the Unexpected

Having a child with special needs made a flexible schedule necessary if I wanted to work at all.

On the last day of the “maternity leave” I had scraped together using several years’ worth of sick days and vacation time, my boss called me at home. It was the first time we had spoken since I had given birth eight weeks earlier, and we chatted pleasantly while my infant slept in her baby swing. Days from turning twenty-seven, I was a young first-time mom — but as the adopted daughter of infertile parents, I had wanted to try sooner rather than later. My job seemed secure, and with a part-time nanny and a staggered work schedule for both of us, my husband and I thought we could just manage.

As my boss and I talked, I didn’t burden him with my anxieties over having my newborn in another person’s care. Like all the men I worked with, he had a wife at home who handled most of the childcare; he had probably given very little thought to how I would achieve that elusive “work-life balance,” and as I still wasn’t entirely certain how I’d manage it myself, I wasn’t about to bring it up. After several minutes of chitchat, I got the distinct impression he was stalling. There had been one too many questions about the baby, and no mention of my return to work the following Monday.

“I don’t know how to say this,” he said at last, with a heavy sigh. “We just lost our biggest grant. I’ve had to make some very tough decisions.”

After being laid off on maternity leave, my first instinct (other than swearing a lot, crying a lot, and eating two pints of Ben & Jerry’s) was to run out and take the first job I could find. Any job I found outside the home would have to pay enough for us to afford full-time day care. My husband was willing to leave his program if necessary, but we’d already invested so much time in his education; it seemed like a waste for him to quit halfway through.

We decided to dip into our savings while I focused on being our child’s primary caregiver, at least until she was no longer nursing every two hours. It was an enormous and totally unplanned financial risk, and as I had grown up in a family that never quite made ends meet, it terrified me. Fortunately we were able to get decent health insurance through the university. In a town with a low cost of living, with the prospect of a salary jump once my husband graduated, we made enough to scrape by until I could return to work.

We had our second daughter three years after our first, and the timing was deliberate: My husband still had a flexible academic schedule, with only his dissertation to write, and we knew we would soon be moving. I didn’t want to get pregnant after that, as I’d made up my mind to go back to graduate school. my husband and I had agreed that my education and career goals should be weighted as we decided where to go next.

Just before the baby started walking, I was accepted into a Master’s program in writing. My husband’s new salary meant we could finally breathe a bit easier. I took care of the kids during the day, studied and wrote while they were in school or napping, and went to class at night. I eventually joined the editorial staff at Hyphen, a magazine geared toward Asian Americans, where I found that I genuinely loved editing and publishing other people’s work. When I heard that The Toast — my favorite site, one for which I had also written — was hiring an assistant editor, I threw my name in and got the job. Within a few months, I was bumped from half-time up to full-time and promoted to managing editor.

In many respects it was the ideal job at the ideal time: I was weeks away from completing my Master’s, my eldest was in school all day, and my youngest was starting half-day preschool. People kept asking what I was going to do with “all that spare time.” I suppose they expected I would either look for a “real job” after graduation or fully commit to stay-at-home parenting. “I’m going to work from home, for a website,” I said, to general surprise and confusion.

What I couldn’t easily explain at the time — except to those close to us — was that our youngest child had some developmental delays that had become increasingly apparent while I was in school, and we’d begun to suspect that she was on the autism spectrum. I could not imagine working full-time outside the home and lining up the support she needed, not with multiple speech and occupational therapy appointments every week. Like many parents, I had always hoped to find a flexible job. Now, the freedom to set my own hours seemed less like a luxury I could take or leave, and more of a necessity if I wanted to work at all.

I don’t think I was ever cut out for a life solely focused on family. It can be such a blessed relief to drop the kids at school, return home to my MacBook, and immerse myself in work. The pressures of managing a website often pale compared to the job of raising a neurodivergent kid in a neurotypical world, or finding ways to challenge a precocious and frequently bored second-grader. It’s not that my work prevents me from thinking and worrying about my kids; I am their mother, so it will be my privilege to do those things for the rest of my life. But work has always been my best distraction, as well as the thing that makes me feel most competent, in control. I love collaborating with the brilliant, funny people I work with, editing and planning for the site, talking with writers all day long. I love everything about this job, and I know that I sometimes hide in it as well.

At the same time, being with my kids as much as I am helps me keep my work and other ambitions in perspective. The other night, as we were driving to Girl Scouts, I mentioned to my seven-year-old that I had just interviewed an actor. “Is it on The Toast?” she wanted to know. No, I told her, it’s in The New York Times Magazine. “Oh,” she said, not even glancing up from Harry Potter. “Is that a good website?” Before I could respond, she asked me what we were having for snack.

It’s possible that I won’t always work from home, of course; one day my husband might be the one with the more flexible job. But for now, his job requires him to be physically present in the office, at the lab bench, around the conference table. When he recently changed companies, he had a frank conversation with his new boss about our family’s situation, explaining that at times he would need to leave early or come in late but would always make up the hours. While he can adjust his schedule to take our daughter to speech therapy once a week, or occasionally take a half-day off to join me at a meeting with her teachers, I am usually the one who carves out time for the school drop-offs and pick-ups and most of the private therapy appointments.

We have structured our lives so that work and childcare is almost all I do right now. We have an excellent babysitter who helps out, too, and while one of my four-year-old’s favorite phrases is “Mama’s not going to work!” both of the kids are frequently able to play independently and entertain themselves. My husband and I work together to try and keep the house picked up, and have also, with some embarrassment, outsourced some cleaning to a service. Cooking, meal planning, and many other day-to-day household tasks primarily fall to him; he is the one who wakes up early with the kids, makes their lunches, and gets them ready for school. The moment he walks in the door after work, he takes over, often getting dinner on the table and getting the kids ready for bed. After they go to sleep, he catches up on work, does laundry, or goes grocery shopping while I read submissions and edit late into the evening. We both work several hours every weekend in between soccer games, swimming lessons, and social obligations. “I should be doing more,” I say from time to time, feeling guilty, even though there aren’t enough hours in the day. “How?” he always asks. “How could you possibly do any more? You’re already doing everything you can, and then some.”

We do try to prioritize our relationship and make time for one another, but I worry that he is overextended — and I know he has the same worries for me. How long, I sometimes wonder, can we possibly keep this up? Yet in a way, even this mutual anxiety and exhaustion can feel like a means of support, of comfort. We look at each other with compassion every day and recognize that we are both human, often worn out and worn down, but still: doing the very best we can.

At times I do question some of the choices we made years ago, to forgo making as much money as possible in order to have children and pursue the jobs we knew we wanted. No doubt some things would be easier now if we’d skipped graduate school, if we’d saved more. Perhaps we both fell prey to the kind of myopia often found in the young, healthy, privileged, and optimistic. There were so many things we never foresaw, from my maternity-leave layoff to our younger daughter’s particular needs — the fact that things have worked out as well as they have in spite of our less-than-perfect planning must surely be a function of luck, far more of it than we deserve.

Yet I also recognize that we made so many of our choices because we found the capacity to feel hopeful, and trust in the future together, even when things were difficult. I still feel hopeful, most days — the exhaustion, worry, and lack of free time wears on me, but even these seem rather insignificant tolls to pay for the opportunity to provide for my daughters and do work that I love. I feel grateful every day for the job and the spouse and the kids that I have now, and for the long road of foolish hopes, missteps, and dashed plans that led me exactly where I am.

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