“Going back to work?”

As if we stopped working in the interim.  As if carrying, growing, birthing, nursing, and raising a child are not work.  (Someone told me that the process of gestation and childbirth is equivalent, in terms of energy expended, to climbing Mount Everest.  Someone more reliable told me that the single most energy-intensive activity a mammal can undertake is gestation.  This seems obvious.)

But when you’ve had a professional career and you step away for a different kind of life, people always want to know if you’re going back to work.  By which they really mean one of two things: a) will you get paid again, or will you keep sponging off your husband (who must make a MINT)?, and/or b) will you do something that uses your vast experience and training or will you just keep changing diapers ad infinitum?  I’d be offended by these questions if I weren’t asking them myself.  (Except for the MINT part.  We wish.)  But I kind of want to know, too.  And I REALLY want to know if I’ll be able to go back to work in the ways that make best sense. Those are:

1. With limited hours so there is still time to spend with kids and so we don’t spend my whole paycheck on childcare.  You’d think in a tough economy and a social context where more parents want to parent more, that we’d see an increase in smart, flexible, responsible part-time positions.  No.  Instead, most organizations are forcing more on overworked, underpaid employees in the strange American all-or-nothing principle.  I don’t get it, nor do I like it.  The parents I know could change the world, and the lucky ones get to do it in both ways at once: through paid work AND raising the next generation of citizens and leaders.

2. With a passion for the field and an excellent match for my distinctive sets of skills and capacities.  Why aren’t there more (decently paying) jobs in the most creative and engaging fields of teaching and social change?  Don’t answer that.  I get it.  I just don’t like it.  Mostly, I can’t help thinking about how much positive change could happen if we actually embraced principles of prevention rather than treatment — if we made sure kids have what they need, and parents too.  If we got people interested in building things early, instead of teaching them to behave like a cog in a wheel or an arm in a factory.  The world is what we make it, friends.  Let’s make it something we want to inhabit.  That takes artists and engineers and organizers and teachers and doctors and environmentalists, and it takes cooperation and negotiation and the crafting of shared hope.

3. With a context and situation that permit and even encourage the recognition that all workers are human and deserving of dignity, flexibility, support, integrity, and engagement.  Being a parent has made me a better human and also, I believe, a better worker and supervisor.  And it has made me less patient with forms of interaction that are counterproductive.  Ask for people’s ideas.  Give them a chance to shine.  Be honest with them.  Encourage them to learn and grow.  Remind them that they’re not just laying brick upon brick, as the old story goes; they’re building a great cathedral.

This is all to say: I’m hopeful.  I’m hopeful that I can find ways to sustain us in the long haul, whether through writing or teaching or foundation work or crafting or consulting.  And for now, I’ve got a job I love with two tiny colleagues and one great big one and a shared vision of fun, love, and creativity.  Can’t beat that with a stick.

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