A Recovering Perfectionist on Motherhood

Post by Lizzie


I’ve never considered myself a baby person. I’d always been the sort to say “I might not want kids,” sometimes just to see how people responded, but mostly because I really wasn’t sure. After my ideas about parenthood softened, however, and I observed that the flexibility I had as a PhD student could be advantageous, my partner and I decided to go for it.

I thought I had everything figured out: I was in the last year of my program and was a shoe-in for a prestigious post-doc position close to home. Tending toward the over-achiever-perfectionist side of the spectrum, my plan was simple: 1) finish writing my dissertation while pregnant, 2) have the baby in the spring, 3) start the post-doc at the end of the summer, 4) excel at said post-doc and advance in career, 5) balance motherhood in the mix during said career advancement.

You see how this is going to go, don’t you?

I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In when I was pregnant. I don’t remember much from it (I blame pregnancy brain. It’s real!), but I assumed I’d fall on the Sheryl Sandberg end of the career/motherhood spectrum (see: over-achiever and perfectionism). That is, I’d love my baby but not let him “get in the way” of my career. In fact, I was very clear with my partner when I found out that I was pregnant that I was willing to “make room” in my life’s pie chart for a baby by allotting a piece of the pie to him, but that was it. I didn’t want “drop out” after childbirth.

I didn’t realize that my analogy was entirely wrong. A baby doesn’t fit neatly into one slice… a baby is filling that flavors the whole pie.

pie charts

During my pregnancy, I mostly finished my dissertation and was doing clinical work one day a week. I assured my co-workers that I’d be back a month after the baby was born (“It’s only one day a week! Trust me, I’ll WANT the adult interaction!”). My partner and I joined a birth class where we met other couples, mostly in helping professions like ourselves. All of the women had plans to go back to work within three months after our babies were born. Being middle class in the Bay Area doesn’t afford much of a choice in the matter, but we always talked about our decision to go back to work in terms of moving our careers forward. Like me, these other women felt strongly that they would want to go back to work, that it was important.

Then, I had my baby and everything changed.

My heart doubled in size and I experienced a love like I never imagined. I knew I‘d love my baby, but I didn’t know what it would feel like to be so incredibly overcome and encapsulated by this powerful love and fierce attachment. In fact, I kept waiting for a post-partum depression to hit (it runs in my family). But it didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, that time was also messy and sometimes very hard, (hello sleep deprivation, nursing challenges, and crazy hormone fluctuations!) but I was filled with a joy I’d never known. I’m someone who has always been future focused, but all of a sudden I was totally alive in the present—attending to each need, in the moment. It was beautiful. I learned to accept the messy, the crazy, the non-linearity of it all. Our little family of three cozied up together in our small apartment. Everything felt right.

The days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, and soon enough I was supposed to start my post-doc. I pushed it back another month… I’m not ready to leave my baby. I quit my one day a week clinical job, too. The commute was too far.

Eventually, though, the realities of life steeped in. I had to start my post-doc work — we needed the money — but my heart wasn’t in it. Post-docs are great for perfectionists with a lot of time on their hands. They are meant to give recently anointed PhDs time to publish, engage in research, and do anything else to get a competitive edge on their career. It’s a launching pad. All of a sudden, though, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be launched anywhere. I wanted to be home with my baby.

Moreover, I didn’t want to be a perfectionist anymore, or more honestly: I couldn’t be. I was exhausted, I had to pump every two hours, and I missed my baby all the time. Even with the ability to work from home several days a week, every request for a meeting or assignment (which the old me would have jumped at) now seemed like a threat that I experienced as a physical sensation. Any time away from my baby felt wrong. How was I supposed to focus on “career training” when career meant time away from home? I went from perfectionist to good-enoughist. And it sparked a bit of an existential crisis.

I’d find myself thinking does being unhappy in my job mean that I actually want to be… gulp… a stay-at-home mom? And if so, what does that mean??? (Note: nothing against stay-at-home moms. I love them. I just never thought I’d come close to considering that as an option for myself).

With time, I’ve realized that I don’t want to be home all the time. I realized that I was trying to start a new job in a sector I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a part of in the first place (i.e., academia), while taking on my new role as a mother. It doesn’t take training as a therapist to know that two simultaneous big life changes is really, really hard! I’ve also realized that the idea of wanting to be a “stay-at-home mom” or a “working mom” is not binary. Part of me wants to do both, and I’m not alone.

As a trained researcher, I polled my support network of new mothers, a group of nine women mostly in their 30s, all with advanced degrees. Like me, they are mostly all in helping professions and mostly middle class. Everyone started out with a full-time job and everyone had plans to go back to that job post-maternity leave.

I asked this group of nine women what had changed for them since giving birth—how had it changed their relationship with work? I found a couple of common themes: everyone felt that three months leave was not enough and tried to push for more time with their baby. All but one or two did go back to work, but most made some changes—either switching jobs or working fewer hours. Those who didn’t change their schedules felt they couldn’t because of financial pressure. All of the women who are working described that they want to advance in their career, but also want more flexibility. No one predicted how having a baby would change her.

It took a really long time for me to regain my equilibrium; much longer than I expected, and certainly longer than anyone told me. I now have a 1.5 year old. I am finally beginning to feel able to focus on what I want my career (and life!) to look like.

Motherhood has profoundly shifted my priorities. I’ve moved away from traditional academia and embraced clinical work and consulting. I’m also getting certified in maternal mental health so I can work with other new moms around the multitude of issues that come up during pregnancy and post-partum. I’ve also created firm boundaries: I don’t work after I get home, I don’t work on the weekends, and I take one day off during the week to spend with my now toddler.

I’m also trying to keep my perfectionistic tendencies toward “needing to have it all figured out” at bay. I don’t know if I’ll always want (or be able) to work only four days a week. As time continues on, the balance may tip more towards one side than the other. I’m okay with that. I’ve learned the hard way that it is silly to try and anticipate how I’m going to feel or what I will want too far down the road. Instead of trying to live up to an unrealistic ideal of finding perfect work/life balance, I’m going for doing what feels right for right now.

Lizzie lives in Oakland with her husband and young son.

Image: First Steps, after Millet, by Vincent Van Gogh (1890)

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  1. Virginia Abbott

    I loved it too! As someone who still sees motherhood as a future development to balance against the other major pieces of my life, I found Lizzie’s story of how differently she felt about her career and life once her baby was born to be very enlightening. Glad to see a motherhood post on Small Answers!

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