Expecting the Unexpected


Being a mother with two sons (aged 3 and 6) who works 4 days a week, married to a (5-day) working (Ph.D.) husband, guarantees a busy life.

Some days--bad days--it seems like total war, and you seem to be doomed to have a stroke by 50. On other days--the good days--you get to have it all: the gift of being able to raise children and the fulfillment of business success. What keeps me going is an overall positive result: more good days than bad days. And for as long as the good days continue to outnumber the bad, I am willing to accept the obstacles.

Let's start at the beginning. My husband and I met during our Ph.D. research. He was 2 years ahead of me. After my second year, he finished his Ph.D. and took off for a 2-year job in Italy. When I finished my Ph.D., he came back to the Netherlands, we married, and he got a temporary job at a university while I worked as a freelancer for a while. From the beginning of our relationship, it was clear that we both wanted children. It was also clear that we both wanted to work. It was clear from the beginning that the one who would work only part-time while the children were young would be me.

Still, we never made strict plans for how our life would be with children. We are both familiar with the second law of thermodynamics, so we expected the chaos to increase, and that it would not be limited to the children's rooms. We always tried to keep an open mind about the problems of every member of the family. We also tried to organise our lives in a way that keeps us flexible; that allows us to change when necessary. That is, I believe, essential for survival.

When our first son was born, we did not immediately need day care. We were able to manage it on our own. This situation changed when he was about a year old, and, as we have no families around, we had to take him to day care 4 days a week. We took him there at about 800 and picked him up at 1800 . In the beginning, this was very hard for me, more even than for him, as I struggled very much with my double role as a mother and a working woman. It took me quite a long time to accept that there is no perfect mother and that it is OK to have wishes for yourself even when you are a parent.

One thing that may be important to mention is that outside work, almost all of my time is reserved for the children as long as they are awake. So I try to do things for myself when they are sleeping. This helps me feel that I do the best I can for them; and it assures them that when they come back from school or day care mom is there for them.

By the way, parenthood does not start with birth. Pregnancy also has its moments. Let me state that most people are very happy for you. But there are others who do not understand why you went to university for so long to "only" become a mother. (These are the people who are not at all used to the concept of working mothers.) In normal life, it is not easy to make clear that you are not the secretary while visiting a client with a male colleague. And you can forget even while you're pregnant that being taken seriously is so much harder when you have a big belly and tend to waddle like an elderly duck.

When our second son was born, I had a permanent job and had to get back to work in only 10 weeks. That was a completely different situation for me. It was much harder to leave such a young child in day care. Society, too, reacted strongly to that. Many people around me were critical of my decision. It took me some time to become strong enough to leave this behind me. It showed me that it is still not considered normal in this society for women to be mothers and to work. Even other women of my age did not react positively, and that was not always easy.

Being both--working Ph.D.s and parents--means a very busy life for both my husband and me. We do not have much free time, either together or alone, as we are always either working or with the children. Besides that we both try to do some volunteer work for people who are not as fortunate as we feel we are.

One condition that is absolutely necessary to survive lives such as ours is having employers who are flexible. My husband works for the government, so, although his salary is not as high as it could be in industry, his job is relatively safe and the other conditions such as days off, flexibility in working hours, and the like are excellent. I work under almost the same conditions, although not in a government job. I once had a job in industry that was sales related, with varying working hours and other obstacles, and it was almost impossible to manage. Because I had to travel a lot and was not always sure about my working hours, my husband had to be on standby for the children almost every day of the week, which was also not possible with his job. So I decided to look for another job with conditions that fit better with our overall situation. Fortunately, I found one.

The most important lesson I learned in the last 6 years is that things don't always work out as you planned, and that you have to be flexible enough to deal with problems when they appear. We are gifted with two very healthy, social boys who enjoy day care and play with other children. It was always clear that if the children would suffer from our chosen way of life, then we would adjust our lives so that they would enjoy theirs as much as possible.

Being a working parent, you also have to be able to put things into perspective. Children have their bad days, and it is normal that they sometimes want to stay with you and not go to school or day care. That does not mean that you are a bad parent or that you have to change things immediately.

Good organisation and communication skills are also necessary, not only for the family but also for the relationship of the parents, which is often neglected in the discussions about working parents. You have to keep talking and be patient if things are not perfect for a while. Tolerance and the ability to be satisfied with less than 100% are very important.

Have I reached any conclusions about all this? I don't think so. I have survived up to now. I hope it stays that way, but I know it will be hard work at least for a while longer. A few weeks ago, I met a woman about 15 years older than I am, the CEO of a large company. She asked me some personal questions, and when I told her that I was a working parent, she looked at me and said "I know what that is like and, looking back, I am happy I survived and did not drown."

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