I recently made the decision to step back a few steps from my job as an attorney. This was not a decision easily come by. I enjoy my job. I like to research and write. I like the mission of my organization. I like my colleagues. I like my office: it is tiny; it has no view; it is forever crowded with half-written notes and highlighted paragraphs. But it is, wholly, my space.
My mother worked full time as a professor. I didn’t always love that my mom worked. At some point in early elementary school I read the 1950s series Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. I don’t remember a lot about the books, other than that the kids would come home from school and their mothers would have something wonderful waiting for them to snack on. Something super evocative, something that just reading about would invoke envy. Fresh gingerbread and a shiny red apple. I remember – heartless as I was in my seven-year old confidence – saying to my mother that I wished she wouldn’t work so she could greet me with gingerbread and a shiny red apple when I came home from school. I also remember that one magic time, my mother did stay home from work unexpectedly, and greeted me with just what I asked for. What an unexpected gift to have my mother to myself for an afternoon – although the gingerbread couldn’t live up to the image it evoked.
I remember going to my mother’s office once, and being fascinated. So much of it was foreign. Maroon-backed books piled high. Sheaves of yellow-lined paper. Felt tip pens. A huge, bulking computer (upon which I happily played Minesweeper, just to date myself a bit). Her colleagues dropped in, saying hi and gushing over me, but mostly because they needed to talk to my mom about things having nothing to do with me. My mom sometimes worked form home too. Her red felt-tipped pen making occasional blots as she forgot to move it from the paper. But that felt different. Home was still about me. This foreign place, this workplace – this was not about me, even if I did sit smiling out at her from a frame on her desk.
My oldest son came to work with me a few months ago when he had a no-school day and I had something I had to get done from the office. I could see the same wonder in his eyes as he saw my desk, met my colleagues. He busily drew pictures for me to decorate my office with, imposing some more of himself onto this space that must have – to him – felt so different: Cases overflowing off the desk; scattered post-it notes with exclamation points and underlined case names.
I have always liked this differentness. This part of me that is not “mother.” I worked hard for it. And I think, to some extent, I’m nervous that my identity as “mother” will subsume the other parts of me now that I won’t be going into work regularly. I am a mother—gladly, blessedly so. Perhaps that is the biggest single part of who I am at this stage in my life, with three children ages five and under. But that is not all I am. I am a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend. I am also a lawyer, a writer, a knitter, a runner, a reader. I was a fully-formed human being before my kids were here. I want to remain so. And I want my kids to know that, while I am their mother, that is not all I am. I do not exist to bake them gingerbread and spit-shine apples.
Ultimately, the work decision was a necessary one. The commuting time with three kids in three different schools in three completely different parts of Portland would be untenable. And there weren’t enough hours in the day to make my current schedule work. I will be continuing to work for the organization I work for now, from home, on a more limited basis. But I will no longer have an office. I will no longer have a space that is not flanked on all sides by the evidence of motherhood. Going forward I will need to work harder to carve out a space for myself that is separate, that allows for some reflection upon myself. A space that is not just about whose mother I am, but that is about who I am.
In many ways, myself as “Mommy” and myself as “Ali” are intertwined. But there are some strands that are free. I need to tend to those strands. I need to be sure they don’t get swept into the messy knot of motherhood. I think that’s what will be best for my kids, but also – I think that’s what will be best for me.