My Life Works, but my Feelings About It Don’t by Emily Paster

This is the fifth entry in “I Don’t Know How She Does It,”  a series of guest posts about the working mom/stay-at-home dilemma.  It’s written by Emily Paster, editor and founder of WestoftheLoop.com.  Emily, a mother of two, teaches legal writing at Loyola University School of Law in Chicago. She writes about parenting, cooking and the struggle to stay cool in the suburbs at her blog West of the Loop.  

Emily is another blogger that I loved as soon as we met at BlogHer last summer, and she is someone I look up to. She tweeted recently that writing this post was “profound”.  Read it and find out why.


I don’t know how she does it.” Does anyone say that about me? I doubt it.  It’s pretty obvious how I do it: I don’t work.

Okay, admittedly it’s not as simple as that. It would be more accurate to say that I barely work. Instead of the full-time law firm or government job that I trained for when I went to law school, I teach one legal writing class a year at a local law school, blog, write the occasional freelance piece, volunteer in my community and, of course, take care of my two young children.

My husband is the law firm partner that he trained to be. He is a national expert in his field and travels at least one day a week for work. He’s an involved dad when he’s around and a supportive partner, but let’s be candid: He’s not going to miss a meeting or cancel a trip for a case of strep throat, a flaky babysitter, or any of the other things that wreak havoc in the lives of working parents.

Although I grew up in a family with two full-time working parents, and was a full-time working parent at one point, I deliberately chose a different kind of life after my second child was born. I didn’t want to outsource that much of the raising of my children to a nanny.  And the truth is, I enjoy the domestic sphere. I like to cook more than almost anything else. I like being able to volunteer in my children’s classes, get to the gym regularly, meet a friend for coffee and spend a summer afternoon at the pool. I feel it is important to be the one who takes my daughter to piano lessons and swim practice and supervises homework.

In short, the life of my family runs smoothly. I take care of errands and household tasks during the week so that weekends can be relaxed family time. I am just around the corner – not 45 minutes away in an office — when one of my kids gets sick in the middle of the day. My schedule is flexible enough to accommodate all the extracurricular activities and appointments and last-minute bake sales that make up the lives of school-aged children. The clothes are always clean and the fridge is always full.

Oh yes, my life works. So why am I so ambivalent about my choice? Why can’t I hear about a former classmate’s success without it feeling like a knife in the gut? Why I am ashamed to call my former boss and meet her for coffee? Why do I feel like a disappointment?

I worked hard at one time to put myself on a certain career path. I walked away from the path and chose a different one — one that prioritized other things above career success.  As a result, my husband, my children and I have relatively calm and manageable lives. That is a nice thing and I feel good about my choice, except when I don’t. I can’t seem to get over my inner feelings of discontent and my self-pity about my sacrificed career even while I enjoy all the benefits of that sacrifice.

Yes, this life works. But my attitude sucks.

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  1. Such an honest and important perspective. I work full time and I crave, desperately, the ability to do more for my family- volunteering at school, having time to cook instead of being rushed the minute I get home, and even gym and writing time. You made a choice, for your family, for your own balance–you gave yourself and your family the gift of you. xo

  2. I think Christie brings up a really important point – when your kids are growing, or grown, and they need ‘less’ of you…then what? I run into too many mothers who are now in the ‘mommy vortex’; kids in school all day and carpooling isnt quite doing it for them. Re-entering the workforce for these ‘vortex’ moms isn’t easy; confidence is low and uncertainty is high. Plus, many are looking for hours from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. I’ve had coffee with many a mommy who left a fulfilling career only to wonder how they are going to get back there…

  3. I have a lot of the same ambivalent feelings. I’m home because my husband makes more than a high school teacher, and it felt right to us at the time. My ambivalence, however, comes from not enjoying the domestic sphere and not feeling like I’m the greatest mom – when I should be. I mean, I am home!

    Lucky for me, at least I don’t have to get used to the feelings you mention when talking to classmates or former bosses. I was used to that while teaching public high school and talking to my Wharton graduate friends. I got the same glazed-eyed look sharing what I did and how my days looked in the classrom then that I get from some people now. Come to think of it, maybe it’s just me after all!

  4. I love this. I totally understand. I feel embarrassed by the fact that I’m content with my life as mostly-SAHM. It does work but I feel somehow as if I’ve failed-myself and the entire female gender.
    But, now that they’re growing and I’m embarking on a more full-time career with my own business, I’m terrified of handling it all. I am excited to have a career again, but I honestly can’t see how I’m going to do it without failing on all fronts.
    Man, I’m a positive gal huh?!?

    • I forgot to mention this in my response below, but as a feminist, I feel strongly that it is the ability to MAKE the choices – not the choices we make – that defines our commitment to each other. Witholding judgement and trusting that women can and do make the most of whichever situation they end up in is key.

      And I say that with some of the “I’m going to screw it all up” thoughts you talk about being terrified of as well.

  5. Emily, you are so brave for writing this, for telling the world how hard your decision has been for you. When I made the decision to stay home when my daughter was very small, I felt 100% about it. I remember leaving my office for the last time, which I had finally earned after returning from maternity leave – my first office ever, feeling great. But that feeling didn’t last long when I soon realized I’d be spending my days picking food off the floor, waiting for my daughter to wake up from naps and sitting in playgroup discussing how to fine tune the method of cutting a baby’s nails. I soon missed the interaction and stimulation from my job and became so depressed. If blogging had existed for me back then, I think the transition would have been so much easier, but I became unable to focus on what I needed for a long time. Thankfully, the decisions are getting easier as my family needs me less, but the balance is so difficult. It sounds like you made the right decision for you at this time in your life, and you are lucky that you have your position at the University to keep you busy. I think that you are amazing and you are certainly not alone in your struggle. That’s what this space is so good for, to sharing our feelings about motherhood and balance and self identity. Thank you so much for writing this.

  6. Oh Emily. Thank you for being so honest. I love your use of the word “sacrifice” because that’s really what it is. I’m not so sure that sacrifice ever feels good, but I’d really like to think that it brings up other feelings in us that are worthy and good. I wish for you the joy of making heartfelt and selfless decisions and that you can summon those when you feel sacrifice-crappy. I remember reading something on Her Bad Mother about our reluctance to say “I’m a mother”, instead saying “I’m JUST a mother” and she lamented that we can’t feel the pride of our extremely important and singular role. I struggle with this every day. You are so not alone. Thanks for writing this. xxoo

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