Friday, October 24, 2008

Favorite Moment | The Mister

I never intended to be a stay at home mom. I went to one of the top ten colleges in the country. I had a master's degree in health care administration and ten years real world experience before I entered law school. My career path, while circuitous, promised to be fulfilling and financially rewarding. I had big fish to fry, so I wasn't going to waste my time baking fish sticks.

And then came Mikey. To say we had a rough beginning would be a heinous understatement, but we survived and bonded. The Mister and I were completely taken with our bald baby, and suddenly, after years of scoffing at "The Oprah Set," we realized perhaps there was more to staying at home than we previously imagined. But, it was too late. I had to finish my final year of law school and study for the bar. We had my student loans to repay. I had to live up to the expectations of my family, my professors, and myself.

And I did. I finished my classes. I studied for the bar and passed on the first attempt. I secured a job, thanks to a close friend, as a part-time research attorney for a small family practice/criminal law firm. My mom took care of Mikey and I made very good money. The Mister was relieved to no longer shoulder the weight of everything while I studied. We moved to our dream home: a mid-century fixer upper. We started a complete kitchen remodel and picked out fancy finishes and appliances. Everything was perfect; I was miserable.

There are a series of events I remember clearly leading me to the decision to stay at home. The first had to do with my mom taking care of Mikey during the day. My mom is wonderful with children. My dad frequently says, unprompted, that she was born to mother. And it's true. She is the consummate mother hen. No need goes unmet on her watch, and Mikey feasted on her tendency to dote. So much so, he often cried when it was time for me to take him home. This happens frequently with lots of babies and their daytime care providers, so I wasn't too worried. Somewhat annoyed and hurt, but not terribly so.

Then, one day, my mom called and asked if I could come home early. Mikey was clearly sick and running a fever. Of course, I left the office immediately. When I arrived, there was Mikey snuggled in my mom's arms. I walked up to greet him and take him home. I can't describe the hysteria that ensued when I tried to take him from my mom. He cried until he could no longer breathe. He screamed and scratched at me and clung to my mom desperately. He could not be consoled while he was in my arms. In the end, she had to put him in the car seat for me. He was about a year old. My mom laughed it off to break the tension. I didn't find it funny.

A month or two after that, when I got home from work, we went to order and pay for $20,000 worth of new kitchen cabinets. As we stood there waiting for someone to help us, the Mister held Mikey and occasionally tossed him in the air just to hear him giggle. I stood there holding the check book and smiled at them both. When it came time to pay for the cabinets, the Mister handed Mikey over to me. Again, he cried until he could no longer breathe. People started coming from different parts of the store to figure out what was wrong. The Mister asked the salesperson for the balance three times over Mikey's screams, before he finally turned the computer screen around and looked for himself. In the end, I had to write the check and hand Mikey to the Mister. He was scratching my eyes and hurting me and twice I almost dropped him.

When we drove away, I stared out the passenger window and said in the dark to no one in particular, "I think those cabinets cost me more than $20,000." The Mister knew better than to answer.

Although I was technically part-time, I worked constantly. When I was home, on my days off, I would often drop Mikey off with my mom so I could research and call clients. On the weekends, I did more of the same. I slept poorly, thinking about the latest stressful case and everything I had to do the next day. And always, I thought of Mikey and how we just didn't seem to connect.

Not long after the kitchen cabinet debacle, the owner of the law firm where I worked told me I needed to work the weekend and draft an emergency motion for a divorce client who wanted to increase his visitation with his kids. The client was an insufferable commercial photographer who had left his wife for his much younger photographer's assistant. The rub: he didn't actually want to spend more time with his children. He intended to pick them up and drop them off at his mother's house while he and the girlfriend partied in Las Vegas. He just knew it would piss off his ex-wife. He also knew if we had the visitation agreement amended permanently, he wouldn't have to pay as much in child support. In his words: "I piss her off and pay less. It's a win-win."

When I walked into my office and saw that 7 inch file in front of me it hit me: I was sacrificing my time, spending time away from my family, alienating myself even more from my child, so that some jerk could get more time with kids he didn't even want to see. I sat down, wrote the motion, and placed it on top of my boss's desk. On top of it, I placed a letter of resignation.

I came home and told the Mister. We canceled the cabinets and reordered much cheaper ones online. We eliminated many of the fancy finishes we spent so much time researching. To this day, three years later, we still don't have a back splash. Many of the items in our fixer-upper still need fixing. I decided to focus, instead, on repairing my relationship with Mikey.

This is a decision we made for us. This isn't something every family can do, or something every family wants to do. I understand that, and admire the families out there who can make it work. We--I--couldn't. I have never been good at balance, especially when it comes to work or school. The need to succeed and be at the top consumes me and, unfortunately, those around me suffer my tunnel vision. I realized if I was only capable of being good at one thing at a time, that one thing should be mothering.

It hasn't been easy. Although the decision to stay at home was, ultimately, an easy one, the actual practice has been difficult. After being so focused on my career for so long, it took me a while to adapt to the change in my identity. I would be lying if I said I didn't still struggle every now and then.

And, of course, we made a huge financial adjustment to our lifestyle. We had to scale back until we didn't think we could possibly scale back more. And then we scaled back again. There are times, like this week, where I wonder if I made a mistake staying home. If, maybe, I should be working in a firm instead of eating popcorn with boys, beagles, and dinosaurs. Maybe if I was worried about my billable hours, I wouldn't be worried that Mikey's feet grew an entire shoe size since I bought his school shoes last month. I wouldn't be looking in shock at the brand new jeans that barely graze his ankles when two months ago they dragged on the floor when he walked barefoot. I wouldn't, I moaned to the Mister, be putting all new clothes and shoes on a credit card because we have to pay the car and home insurance premiums this month.

We should be paying down our credit card, not putting more on it.

The Mister waited until I was done orating and then said, "Every second you spend with our boys has far more value than any dollar we can put towards our credit card."

And for once in my life I had nothing to say except, "Thank you." Thank you for putting such a high value on what I do everyday. Thank you for always putting your family first, even when it meant turning down promotions and jobs I know you really wanted. Thank you for being such a wonderful father that people in restaurants will stop me after you walk by to tell me they have never seen a better dad to his children. Thank you for being nothing but supportive when I said, "I want to be a lawyer!" and then, "Or not!" Thank you for always trying to grope me when I unload the dishwasher, even though I've gained 30 pounds since we got married. Thank you for telling me every morning before you leave to go to work, "Thank you for doing what you do," when it should be me thanking you.

Thank you for being my favorite everything, now and forever.