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I Admit It. I Put My Career Before My Family

And I'm tired of being judged for it.

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illustration of mother between home and office
Marta Monteiro
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As I sat poolside with a group of moms on a hot summer day recently, our conversation turned to the usual topics: our kids, how much we hate the back-to-school rush, and neighborhood gossip. And, of course, we talked about work. A few years ago I switched gears from being a stay-at-home parent to pursue a new career, so when the chatter turned to our job stress, I was happy to commiserate.

One of the moms took a sip of wine and asked how my new career was going. I smiled and detailed how much I love the chaos of my second-act career and about how — even though I barely manage to stay on top of laundry, grocery shopping and kid-rearing most days — I love every minute of expressing myself both creatively and professionally.

The mom smiled at me ruefully over her wine glass and said, “Wow. You are really brave to just leave your family behind so often. I mean, I could never give up being a stay-at-home parent to pursue my career again. But, good for you, that you feel comfortable working such long hours.”

I was gobsmacked at her blatantly rude comments about my work.

In a matter of a few sentences, she had managed to not only make me feel bad, but also boost her ego about her choice to stay home with her kids.

She had politely listened to me as I excitedly talked about my work projects, and she instantly made a judgment about the kind of parent I am, simply because I’ve “chosen” to work.

What she couldn’t possibly know is that my choice to go back to work full time stems not from a selfish need to have something of my own beyond my kids.

My choice to work full time has nothing to do with feeling bored with the tedium of a stay-at-home parent’s day. I’m not looking for a hobby or a job to fill my boredom at home, I assure you.

My choice to spend long hours traveling for my job has nothing to do with climbing the corporate ladder all over again at the age of 44.

And, my choice to give up volunteering at my kids’ schools to instead become the hot-mess mom in business clothes who can’t seem to manage her life anymore is not about proving that I can have it all.

Rather, my choice to work is because I almost lost it all a few years ago.

Once upon a time, I was the mom who couldn’t imagine being anywhere other than present and available for my family.

I was the mom who volunteered, who bake-saled, who organized the school carnival year after year.

I was the mom who was always able to pitch in for carpool, and I never had a shortage of kids in my house when other moms were in a childcare bind.

At social functions when people asked me how I was, I sanctimoniously said I was busy. So very busy, thank you very much. A job outside the home just simply didn’t fit into my PTA schedule.

Slowly and insidiously, though, my marriage hit the rocks. My husband and I were on vastly different pages when it came to our marriage playbook and, after 20 years together, we didn’t recognize each other as partners. Turns out, years of living parallel lives as he worked and I volunteered and raised our kids took a crushing toll.

And on the day I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to stay in a marriage with the trajectory we’d created, I also realized that I was in no position to support myself if I left.

I was busy, yes.

But I had no money of my own, and no way to provide for myself if my marriage really did fall apart.

It terrified me.

I’d lie awake at night, listening to my husband softly snoring next to me and wonder how I’d let this happen. How had I managed to find myself in a position where I’d be forever dependent on my husband, whether for his income or his alimony check, for the rest of my life?

Those months when our marriage was in crisis were the hardest of my life.

But I’m grateful every day that our marriage almost ended in divorce.

Because of that crisis, because I forced myself to face the hard truths about my financial dependence, I made choices about my career. I made the decision that I’d never be in that situation ever again.

I would never be the woman who couldn’t support herself financially, even if it means having to put my career before my family some days.

So yes, to the judgy moms who see me careening into my driveway because my commuter bus dropped me off later than I expected and we have to make a mad dash to track practice, I have “bravely” left my family for a 14-hour workday.

Yes, I spend more time than I ever thought possible connecting with my kids and husband via FaceTime, texts and direct messages because of my career.

And yes, through several years of hard work and therapy, my husband and I have found a life balance that allows me to be financially independent of him. My husband understands the terror I felt when I realized I needed to be able to stand on my own. And so he has made changes, too: He’s the reason we have clean underwear these days, and I haven’t seen the inside of a grocery store for months.

It works for us, thank God.

In the aftermath of almost losing it all, I try to let judgy moms and their hurtful comments about my working-mom status slide. With the perspective gained from a major life crisis, I never comment on another mom’s work struggles except to say, “You are brave. You are awesome. You are doing everything right for your family.”