Allison Winn Scotch: Balancing Motherhood and Career

What if I took a break from my career?

Posted May 12, 2012

By guest blogger Allison Winn Scotch

About a week ago, I thought I might be having a mid-life crisis. At 38, I’m a few years early from mid-life, but who’s to say these things have to be exact? Because a crisis it certainly was.

I was at the tail-end of an exhausting cycle of a book release, and as I slogged through (and through, and through) the marketing and the travel and the palpable sense of anxiety, I reached a breaking point. I sat down with my husband and tearfully told him that I wasn't sure how much of a writer I wanted to be anymore. That maybe I wanted to step back, to slow down, to release that tangled stress knot that has set up shop in my right shoulder blade for the better part of a decade. And I also told him -– and this surprised us both -– that maybe I just wanted to focus on being a mom, something I’ve obviously always enjoyed but never really wanted to be my sole focus.

This announcement came during the most pressured time in a writer's career: immediately after a book release, when your future and fate feel tied to mercurial and intangible factors that feel wildly out of your control. So certainly, part of it was timing. My all-important People magazine review had just been bumped to make way for Brangelina wedding news (just get married already! No one cares!), and the stress of constant promotion and the expectations that came along with that promotion had worn me down.

But also, it was more than that. For the first time since my children had been born – seven and five years ago, respectively -– I stepped back and thought, "what would happen if I opted out my career?" Which then raised an even more important question, "Who would I then be?" And the answer was (and is) both murky and scary, but one worth exploring all the same.

I'm not the first mother to wrestle with this question (I'm not even the millionth mother), to stare down the barrel of an identity crisis and wonder if being a full-time mother would be enough for me; if I wouldn’t get terribly bored doing pick-ups and drop-offs and lunch-packing and laundry exclusively; if I'd be okay with the fact that when people asked, I could no longer say that "I'm a writer," and then when they inquired further (because often times, no one really believes you when you tell them that you're a writer, as if this is code for sitting around watching cat videos on YouTube), I could then say that my fourth novel was just published and see them nod their heads approvingly. But it felt time to wrestle with these questions all the same. My kids are old enough now that spending time with them is more about them, less about taking care of them – there’s no diaper changing, no unintelligible words. Instead, we have lengthy discussions about our days, sports, friendships, ethics, who knows what? But they’re always hilarious (both the kids and the discussions), and too often during this haze of book promotion, I found myself half-listening, checking my phone for emails, cranky because stress had kept me awake the night before.

So I sat at the dinner table with my husband, and I pushed away my tears, and I asked myself (and him) this: Who did I want to be now? After being one person, on one path for so long, is it possible to change that path and find greater happiness? And even if it is, who’s to say which path ultimately would make me happier? I've never been one to take a side in the inane stay-at-home vs. working-mom debate because I think women should choose what makes them happy, and there isn't a right or wrong way to be a mother or to have a career. And it’s important to remember (and remind myself) that I take great pride in my work -– and so do my kids. We walk into a bookstore and they'll ask everyone in there if they've read my books. They'll scan my acknowledgments to see their own names in print. I also know that kids don't need (and shouldn't require) 100 percent attention all the time, and if their mom is distracted over a dinner or two, well that's life.

So will full-time carpools and laundry and after-school sports make me happy? Probably not. But what I’m doing now doesn’t necessarily make me happy either.

And herein lies the catch that so many women wrestle with: we want lives with our children, but we want lives outside of them too. And sure, we were told that we can have it all, but maybe the truth is that we can only have bits of it at time or if we do have it all, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to be happy all the time. Maybe that’s really it. You can work and you can be a full-time mom and you can deal with the pressures and stresses of each. But you can expect that all of this is going to be easy or necessarily enjoyable. But what if I’m at the age when I want it to be enjoyable? Is that childish or actually enlightened? What if I want to say screw you, stress, I’m going to go make brownies for the bake sale with my kids and not care! Okay, actually, I'm never going to be that mom who makes homemade brownies, so I'll toss that idea out right now, but still. It would be nice to know that I could if I wanted to.

For decades and decades, mothers have struggled with this push and pull: who are we outside of our careers? Who are we outside of our kids? This isn't new territory, and yet, surprisingly, it still feels new to me. That at my age and at this point in my work, I'm considering redefining myself…I thought I was past that, got through that phase when I ironed out the kinks of my life in my 20s, but maybe life surprises you that way. Maybe you have to look at life as constant ebb and flow, a constant reassessment of happiness, of contentedness, of how we view ambition and success. My ambition, which once felt urgent and hot and important, no longer does. Maybe that is me getting older, but maybe that is me being okay with what I've already achieved. And now I just want to savor that for a bit while I make brownies with the kids.

Allison Winn Scotch is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels, including the newly-released The Song Remains the Same. She lives in New York with her family and their dog.