I’m drowning in laundry that’s 90% superhero underwear, trying to remember whether I’ve had an adult conversation in the last 24 hours. I can’t help but wonder, “Were office politics really that frustrating?” I miss them.
It’s not the politics so much as having a voice and decision-making power that extends beyond home life and my son’s needs. Before him, I traveled extensively and experimented in fields ranging from banking and economic development to marketing and communications. I worked on every continent except Australia and I absorbed various languages, identities and roles. I had a fairly selfish existence: I chose what I did and where I did it.
Then I met my husband in Africa. We courted one another via safaris and sexy beach holidays, hiked with the gorillas, submerged ourselves in cultural wonders and drank our way through many vineyards. It all sounds very romantic and it was. Back then, I didn’t realize bringing a child into our union would eventually shift the direction of my career in unanticipated and uncontrollable ways.
Fast forward to our life in China. I left a promising career in private sector investment in Africa to follow my new husband to Shanghai. I didn’t consider myself a trailing spouse and shuddered at the term. Other women trailed but I would naturally re-create myself in this new environment—as I’d done time and time again since my itinerant childhood. I assumed my skill set would easily translate into a new market. I returned to the private sector and worked for an investment group, launching and developing e-commerce companies. The irony: I was underpaid, under-appreciated and under-understood in this company. But I had power and I loved it. My stamina started to slow once I got pregnant, but I saw no reason for the dynamics of my life to change. I didn’t even consider how to navigate any transitions. What transitions?
But when our son was born, my identity suffered a huge blow. He is my most precious treasure (I’m already subtly blackmailing him into never moving out and leaving his mama), but his birth diluted my freedom and power. Like all new moms, I was exhausted and overwhelmed by the emotional and physical costs of parenting a wee thing. But I was so deeply and unconditionally in love that I ignored the signs of my impending depression and failed to take care of myself. My career was still manageable since I could often work from home and I had an amazing community of friends. As expats in Shanghai, we created a sturdy support network that included a bevy of employed helpers. What a luxury, I know.
In fall of 2012, my husband was transferred to Paris and we relocated with our 2.5-year old son. I had negotiated a virtual role with my company to continue managing a portfolio of e-commerce businesses, albeit in a different capacity. I was frustrated but relieved to have something, anything—my son was small, my French mediocre and my husband lived in an airplane.
One morning, I was on a Skype conference call when my half-naked son barged in my office shouting, “Poo-poo mama!” I jumped up from my chair and my clients and the firm partners saw that while the upper half of me was coiffed, dressed and lipsticked, the lower half was wearing torn, filthy sweatpants. I thought it was funny, but the partners didn’t. I was immediately and definitively repositioned as Mommy. And everyone knows a woman can’t be simultaneously and constructively committed to her family and her career, right?
When we moved to Paris, I needed to travel frequently but my husband wasn’t there to co-parent. So I had to find other childcare solutions. When he traveled, it was simply assumed I would be there and that was so damn irksome. All of a sudden, my definition of independence, self worth, and power was being questioned. I fought to get back to myself, but I woke up feeling lost. None of the fragments made sense, nothing added up.
I raged and bellowed about the inequality in my marriage, against my growing insecurities and resentments, against the new ideas and limitations of who I was and wasn’t. This couldn’t be my life. I had been the smug one, the committed feminist who judged other working mothers struggling to balance their lives.
You can’t have it all. You can’t be perfect. Yawn, you’ve heard this story. You’ve heard how relationships are stronger when they’re equitable, how companies with a friendly parenting policy have a better bottom line. Yet most women still find themselves running on a treadmill, trying to be perfect.
Men don’t try to be perfect. I’m fairly certain my husband would feed our son Doritos for dinner. He hid in the bathroom with his cellphone and a glass of wine during our son’s 5th birthday party. He’s called our son by the wrong name on a number of occasions and he’s never booked a doctor’s appointment for him. He was genuinely confused when he phoned from a business trip, extolling the brilliant 5-star accommodations and masseuse services—and I wasn’t thrilled for him. Meanwhile, I was typing a work email with one hand, chopping and prepping (organic and seasonal) meals for our son, folding laundry with my toes and cleaning up our son’s room. Sound familiar to the other multitasking supermoms? Just because my womb carried this child doesn’t make my husband any less a parent. Just because I do more doesn’t make our son love me more.
Why do we women impose this unbelievable burden on ourselves?
I recently resigned from my job so I could consult on a part-time basis. I have the luxury of choosing to be home with my son. I want to take him to swimming class and accompany him on school trips. I want to be panting at his school gate, waving like a madly-infatuated teenage girl when he emerges. I want to be there physically and emotionally. This set-up works for me. But not always.
Some days, I am so unbelievably resentful. So unfulfilled. Do you ever feel like you’ve lost your power, energy and determination? Do you feel like you’re the sniffling-whining-lifeless flop of a person who no one wants to talk to at a cocktail party? Maybe one of the reasons I hold onto my consulting job is because I can’t bear the dreaded question, “What do you do?” and face the raised-eyebrow-flippant-rebuff if I answer, “I am a mom.” I have a job, but have lost my career. I shout at my reflection in the mirror, ‘Why can’t you do it all, Dominica, why can’t you be smart enough and focused enough to do it all?”
Other days, I am simply grateful I am not a bad parent. In small children’s minds, our main job is mama, whether we’re CEO of a company or not. And isn’t that ok? This holds true for our husbands, too. My job is to teach my son that if a job contributes to the wellbeing of the family, it is worthwhile. Sometimes a parent’s job is valued with a fixed salary and sometimes the value of a parent’s job is measured by a child’s success at school or an extra-strong hug at bedtime.
We women have to be more vocal. We have to be less ashamed. We have to stop judging other women. We have to support women who have kids as well as women who don’t. How many times have you heard a working mom snub a “non-working” mom? How many times has a SAHM mom criticized a working mom for not being a present (read: good) parent? And about the woman without kids, have you whispered, “I imagine she can’t have them, poor thing.” Too many of us judge. Until we women are a united front, why should we expect or even hope for men to regard us differently?
I drop my son off to school wearing my pajamas and a baseball cap. No heels, no stockings. No makeup. Sometimes it’s liberating but sometimes it makes me feel like a middle-aged woman neglecting her appearance. We all need to feel appreciated on many levels, even if some of them are superficial. I was walking to a meeting last week when a man—handsome, silver at the temples, flaring green eyes—stopped me and said, “I just want to tell you that you are ravishing. Extremely elegant.” Isn’t it silly? At first I gasped, watching him walk away and then I smiled and found a bit more sashay to my walk.
I am me. Not the wife of, nor the mother of. Just me.
How did you handle the transition to motherhood, especially as an expat? Did you struggle with it like Dominica? Tell us about it here or on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. And please do sign up for our newsletter to keep up with the best of Paris.