| It's A Jungle Out There and A Zoo in Here |
By Cheryl Demas
Genre: Business & Money
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My Life as a Working Mother
In between cheering for Billy Jean King and singing "I Am Woman," I went to college and graduated with a double major in math and computer science. In keeping with my feminist life course, I had chosen two of the more nontraditional female courses of study that I could find. However, I do have to admit that I had also calculated that I would find the most favorable boy/girl ratio in my math classes. How's that for sisterhood?
After graduation, I went to work in the avionics department of a large computer company. My main job while there was modeling no, not like Cindy CrawfordI did mathematical modeling of pressure transducers. The avionics group produced computers that are used on airplanesyou know, those black boxes you always hear about. Each transducer had slightly different characteristics over pressure and temperature ranges, so the flight computers were programmed to adjust for these differences. My job was to write software that would "fit" each transducer with an equation that matched its output. To collect data on each unit, we would run them through temperatures from minus forty degrees Fahrenheit to about two hundred degrees in huge industrial ovens. It was probably my most productive kitchen work to date.
I met my future husband my first week of work. I had had orthodontic surgery a few weeks before I started my new job, so my jaw was wired shut and I could only nod and smile. I was his dream girl.
By the time the wires came out and I could talk again, it was too late. We were in love. We were married the following year. We knew we wanted children right away, maybe two or three. I got pregnant and expected to continue working through my pregnancy and then search for day care. I honestly didn't think that I would even consider staying at home. I remember my mom saying to me, "Well of course you'll want to stay home with your babies." And I remember looking at her as if she had sprouted horns.
But life had different plans for us. My mother died of breast cancer that summer. When things were looking particularly bad for Mom, her doctor gave her some alternatives. She could cease treatment altogether, or they could do more surgery and extend her life for a short while longer, but the cancer had gone beyond any hope for a cure.
"Could you keep me alive long enough to see the baby, until October?" she asked the doctor.
The answer was no, and so with that prognosis, my mom decided that her fight was over. She died June 30. I was six months pregnant and at her side when she died. "You are going to be the best mom in the world" were among her last words to me.
A couple months later I went into labor. It was a little early, but my obstetrician didn't seem to be too concerned, even when she observed that the baby was breech. Everything switched into high gear. The staff became quiet and efficient, prepped me for surgery, and wheeled me in for an emergency C-section. Just before they put me under, the nurse asked, "What would you like us to tell your baby when he gets here?" "Just tell him to be healthy," I answered.
Mike arrived at the hospital just after the birth. He was armed with his video camera, ready to tape those first precious moments. The nurses met him in the hall with bad news. Our baby boy had just been born and he was going to die. There was nothing they could do to save him. His condition was what the medical community calls "incompatible with life."
There are times in life that you can't possibly be prepared for. The death of a baby is one of those times. They put Mike in scrubs and brought him into the delivery room. I was still under anesthesia, so he was alone. The nurses asked if he wanted to baptize the baby. He did, but we had decided to wait until we saw our baby before we made a final decision on his name. Since I was still asleep, Mike didn't want to make that decision without me. The nurses brought him a bowl of water and Mike baptized our baby, saying that we didn't have a name picked out for him yet but that God would know him when he got there.
I was awake by then and the doctor told me the news. I closed my eyes and tried to go back to sleep. It had to be a dream. "I don't think she heard you," the nurse said, "tell her again." So it wasn't a dream. "No, I heard."
Mike was holding our son, and I got a chance to hold him too before he died. Looking at his precious face and not being able to do anything for him was the hardest thing I've ever done. I was his mom. Aren't moms supposed to fix everything for their kids? Here I was, a brand-new mom, and I was already screwing up.
The nurses took Polaroids, our minister arrived, we held our baby a little longer, and then they took our son away. I guess my mom got to take care of her grandson after all.
Now, even on the craziest days, when the house is a wreck and I have way too much to do, I think back to that day. Having held my son as he drew his last breaths, it's pretty hard to get upset about crumbs in the car or fingerprint smudges on the windows.
I got pregnant again after several months, and at the end of a stressful, anxious pregnancy, our daughter Nicole was born. She was perfect and healthy. I knew then, after all we had been through to have her, that I didn't want to leave her to go back to work. But I didn't want to quit working either, so I started searching for alternatives. At first my husband and I worked split shifts, and then I did contract engineering work from home for my old employer. I hadn't quite reconciled myself to the idea that I might just quit work. I felt that I had invested so much in my education and career; I didn't want to just walk away from it all. But even with all our creative scheduling and solutions, I always felt torn. I liked working, and we enjoyed the things we could do with the extra income. But when we worked split shifts, my husband and I hardly ever saw each other, meeting just for a short baby handoff. I felt that neither one of us could completely devote ourselves to our careers, and we were always having to make compromises. When the baby was sick, one of us would take time off. Working overtime was out of the question. We were viewed at work as not being completely devoted to the company, and we couldn't completely devote ourselves to our home lives either. Mike's boss (who had a stay-at-home wife) even commented that he knew he couldn't count on Mike to do after-hours projects because Mike "always had to run off to day care."
When Nicki was about three, I returned to work full-time. Even after everything we had been through, I couldn't become "just" a mom. Whenever I thought about staying home, I could hear Helen Reddy and Billie Jean King in the back of my mind saying "After all we've done for you, this is the thanks we get?" I read all the books, the articles, the magazines; I watched the TV interviews. If other working mothers were successfully "having it all," then I wanted to have it all too. So we hired a nannyshe was a friend of the family and Nicki loved her. We then licensed our home for child care, and our nanny took care of a couple neighborhood children too. Nicki got to stay home every day, and she had her friends over every day to play too. But I still wasn't happy with someone other than me taking care of my daughter for the majority of her waking hours. We continued to try to have another child, but after more losses, a total of six pregnancies and only one living child, we just couldn't do it anymore. We decided that Nicki would be an only child.
In 1992 my husband got a job offer that moved us from Minnesota to California. Nicki started kindergarten that year, and then I found a job with a software company. With Nicki in school, I assumed that fitting a full-time work schedule into our daily routines would be easier. It wasn't. There were still sick days, school holidays- tons of school holidays-business trips. I learned the language of school calendars, minimum days, superminimum days, supersecret minimum days. It took a personal computer just to keep track of when I was supposed to do drop-offs and pickups. The stress of it all was hard on the three of us, and still neither Mike nor I could fully devote ourselves to either our careers or the family. We searched for balance, but it was elusive. Nicki was growing up so quickly, and I was sad that I was still missing so much of her life.
Living in California gave us a new appreciation for the natural lifestyle, and we decided to forgo chemical birth control in favor of a more natural calendar-watching method, using condoms during the "danger days." I decided I'd just pick some up where I always shop the warehouse shopping club. Of course, one can't buy just one or two of anything at the warehouse store, so my only choice was a case of condoms. Twelve boxes, 12 condoms in each. . . sounded about right to me! The young cashier couldn't believe I was buying 144 condoms and set them aside until everything else had been rung up. She held them up high for the entire line behind me to see and said, "These aren't-like-yours, are they?"
Yes, you little vixen, they were indeed mine. But I might as well have-like-given them to her, because a month later I was pregnant again. And after an anxious nine months, we prepared to deliver another beautiful, healthy little girl. I investigated the maternity policy at my new job and we checked out local child-care alternatives. We were so far away from our old friends and family, and I couldn't imagine leaving my new baby with a stranger. Maybe this time I would stay home for good.
But even though Mike had a good job, we had set up our household budget based on two incomes, and given the cost of living in California, it was difficult to see how we could possibly get by on just one. We put the decision on hold and agreed that we would decide for sure one way or another after the baby was born. Then the roller coaster began again. I had a C-section scheduled for a Friday morning, and Mike had to go out of town for work, but he was due to return Thursday. My mother-in-law was arriving from Florida on Wednesday.
Now, I love my mother-in-law as much as the next woman, but we are about as different as we can be. She is an old-world Greek mom-she takes great pride in caring for her family, and she's great at it. When she's visiting us, all Mike has to do is clear his throat and she leaps to her feet to get him a glass of water. His tummy rumbles and she's preparing a five-course meal. The two words I hear most often when she stays with us are "Poor Mike."
As usual, I had planned on transforming myself into a whirlwind cleaning machine the day before she arrived. So when I would normally have cleaned the bathroom on Saturday, I figured I'd leave it and clean everything on Tuesday. Then the whole house would be really fresh and clean on Wednesday when she arrived. Right? Wrong.
Nicki had a softball game that Monday night and she just wasn't herself. It was an incredibly hot day, so her extreme thirst didn't seem that unusual. But she had to go to the bathroom so often-before her softball game, during the third and fifth innings, and again after the game. Now, that was unusual.
My hypochondriac hobby was about to pay off. The late nights I'd spent reading over symptoms and diseases would finally be put to use. Extreme thirst and frequent urination sounded like diabetes to me. I stopped at the drugstore on our way home from the game and picked up some test strips that would check for sugar in her urine. Positive.
I called the doctor and was advised to bring her in to the office the next morning to confirm the test. Again, positive. "Go home and pack a bag, then go straight to the hospital," I was told. "She will have to be admitted, and she'll be there about a week."
"ButI'm going to have a baby on Friday-I have to clean today!" I wanted to say. The doctor didn't care, and of course I knew that we had no choice. Nicki had to be hospitalized, and our lives would never be the same. Just how much they would change, I had no idea.
What a week that was. I spent the last three nights of my pregnancy sleeping in a chair at Nicki's bedside. The whole family had to learn how to draw up insulin, give shots, and prick her little fingers for blood tests. We had to learn the complicated system of keeping her blood sugar in normal ranges: how to balance her diet, activity, and insulin, and walk the tightrope between high and low blood sugar-the routine that would be part of our lives from then on. Nicki did so well that her doctor agreed to release her from the hospital on Friday.
Of course our baby wasn't being delivered at the same hospital- that would have been too convenient. So before dawn on Friday morning, Mike and his mom came to the hospital, his mom stayed with Nicki, we drove back across town, had a baby, Mike drove back to get Nicki and his mom, and they all came back across town to meet our newest family member, Danielle. Nicki wasn't used to anyone but me giving her shots or doing her blood tests, so I was motivated to get home as soon as possible. Even after the C-section I was up and around the first night, and we were all home again by Sunday morning. I knew then that there was no way I would be able to go back to work. The decision had been made for us-I would stay home with the girls. I was determined to make "mom" my number one job. I was needed at home, and home is where I wanted to be.
Nicki was going to be all right. We would all be all right, I would see to it.
I had just one nagging question in the back of my mind. How would we pay the bills?
Excerpted from It's A Jungle Out There and A Zoo in Here , by Cheryl Demas . Copyright (c) 2003 by Cheryl Demas . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top