My 15 month-old son taught me a valuable lesson a few weeks ago at our local fair. He demonstrated, in living color, the profound truth of one of my favorite sayings: You can’t ride two horses with one ass.
We had just gotten to the front of the line for the big, beautiful circus carousel filled with glossy painted horses of every color. Long flowing manes cascaded down their necks, and fancy “saddles” beckoned, calling out “Pick me! Pick me!” to every little boy and girl who ran up onto the platform.
Hank meant business when they opened the gate, and he latched on to the first horse we came to, claiming it as his. I was just thrilled that he picked one on the outside row, as I had strategically placed his daddy on the other side of the fence with our good camera, hoping he would capture this magical mother and son moment.
Hank sat up proudly on his fiberglass saddle, gripping the golden pole for dear life as his horse started to rise and fall in those graceful waves around and around.
My little boy was in his element. And I was too, soaking up the sheer joy he exuded as he galloped slowly around in carousel circles while the tinny circus music played.
Once his toddler attention span ran out though, the novelty of his white horse wore off and he started considering his other options. Hank suddenly decided that he wanted to try out the horse galloping up and down right beside his. He started reaching for its golden pole with everything he had, squirming out of my tight hold on his chest.
I figured it would be easier to switch him over there for the rest of the ride than to fight with him about staying where he was. I scooped him up and plopped him down onto the middle horse’s saddle. This thrilled him for a bit, but the excitement from mounting his new steed quickly turned to wails of frustration.
Hank frantically pointed back to the first horse and tugged on my arm. He let out an angry squeal to convince me to listen, so I scooped him up again and plunked him right back where he started, on his original mount. But the tears kept coming.
The ride slowed to a stop, and as I carried him back towards his beaming crowd of fans (daddy and his grandparents) he proudly puffed out his chest and a big smile appeared on his face. He was already thinking about the next ride.
All through the rest of that fun-filled fair day, I couldn’t stop thinking about his carousel ride, and how I fight that very same battle. I completely understood his dilemma. Life often leaves us wanting to ride two horses at once, but once we choose, we often wish (mid-ride of course) that we were on the other one!
My two carousel horses these days are motherhood and my career. I am blessed by the fact that I have the best of both worlds: I have a fulfilling (and most importantly, flexible) job, and I also get to be somewhat of a stay-at-home mom. (Two days a week and on weekends.)
Sick baby? I can work from home, and snuggle him.
Emergency at work? I can drop him at grandma’s and run up to the office at almost a moment’s notice.
But-even with the amazing flexibility I have in my work/family life, I do often struggle with whether I am doing what I should be doing.
I always dreamed of being a wife and a mother, raising babies and making incredible home-cooked meals each day; my perfect little family all gathered around the dinner table at the same time each night like clockwork.
But in reality, my perfect little family is a big crazy blended family of SIX, and our schedule is sheer chaos. We bounce around daily; juggling shared custody of my husband’s three sons and his work-travel schedule and my three days a week at the office and a toddler and football and baseball and naps and school and doctors appointments. Somewhere in there we manage to buy groceries and cook meals, but it’s certainly never like clockwork!
In my craziest moments at home, when the baby refuses to nap and I have a long list of important voicemails I still haven’t gotten to yet and my checkbook needs balanced and dinner needs figured out and I can’t get the Tick Tock song to quit playing in my head–all I want to do is drop the baby off and head to my quiet office where I can actually get something accomplished.
But then there are days at the office when I am dealing with taxes or plumbing emergencies or unhappy tenants and I would give anything to be at home with my son, singing silly songs and reloading his t-ball tee for him 50 more times.
And if that doesn’t complicate things enough, there are also days when I drive by the little rural school Hank will go to in four short years, and I miss teaching. On those days I feel guilty for not using my Masters in Education that I worked so hard for. The one I earned proudly and then put on the shelf so I could be the best mom I could be in these important, formative years. (And selfishly, so I could savor this precious time with my one and only baby.)
On those very same days, I see my friends posting their first day of school pictures on Facebook and I actually cry tears because I don’t want to think about the day when Hank will be old enough to go to school; when I will have to give him up for seven hours a day. Five days a week.
Five days a week that will mean that I have all the time in the world to go to work, or teach again, or both–and I will be wishing I was home with my son.
I know this is going to happen. But if I can already guarantee that I will feel this way in four years, shouldn’t it be easy to be present, right now?
Shouldn’t it be easy to enjoy every second of playtime or mealtime or snuggle time with my baby, who–overnight–is no longer a baby?
Shouldn’t it be easy to move thoughts of work or responsibilities or dreams-on-pause to the back of my mind? And just be in the moment, fully present; a focused, relaxed, FUN mom?
And shouldn’t it also be easy to enjoy the fact that I have a job that I love, that I am good at, that makes me feel accomplished and helps keep our lights on and groceries in our fridge? Without feeling guilty for missing out on three days a week of Hank time?
The answer to all of those questions is yes. Yes, I should be able to do all of those things. But the problem is, I can’t.
I should be able to ride one horse at a time, because I only have one ass. I fully realize that I can’t ride two horses at once, but just like my little boy, I want to.
My answer to the ages-old motherhood struggle of stay home vs. go to work is this: There’s no right answer. Whichever you choose will still be hard. Because as mothers, no matter whether we are staying home, or working, or working from home, or some ever-changing random combination of the above, we will always feel like we aren’t doing enough. Like we should be riding two horses at once.
Being a mom and having a career aren’t mutually exclusive–but at times it can definitely feel like they are. Especially when you want to do an exceptional job at both of them.
Hank taught me in one short fair ride, that as long as you let your heart lead, and spend some time on each of those horses–you will come out smiling. (Even if you do regret your choice from time to time. Sometimes you simply have to ride it out.)
Just like those pretty fiberglass horses; sometimes you will be up and other times you will be down.
But no matter which horse you’re on, you will still keep moving forward.