Leaning In, My Way

I dove back into work after my daughter was born. As a motherless mother, I soon realized I’d made the wrong choice.

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Shannon Sarna Goldberg and daughter

Shannon and her baby girl.

When I was 12 I had one of the most impactful conversations of my life with my mother. Though, as is often the case, I was clueless at the time.

She was an extremely talented classical pianist and teacher. On a drive back from one of her performances I asked why she didn’t try to go “big time.”

“Shannon,” she replied calmly, “one day when you are a mother, you will understand.”

The self-absorbed, all-knowing pre-teen that I was, I shrugged off the conversation and moved on to other topics, most likely my own imminent Broadway takeover.

A few years later, she was diagnosed with stage four Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. She died nine months later. My 13-year-old brother and six-year-old sister were left largely in my care while my father dealt with his grief and anger over losing his wife.

My entire life had been about performing until this point. There was a different after-school lesson each day: Dance, voice, piano, acting. My years were measured in musical performances rather than seasons. And my greatest joy had been harmonizing with my mother in the car.

Suddenly, caring for my siblings took priority, and my age-appropriate selfishness and ambition nearly vanished. At 16 I traded in a cute purse for a large “mommy bag” after my precocious sister declared, “if you’re going to be a mom, you need to carry juice boxes and snacks at all times.” So I did, and with it carried around the burden and guilt of motherhood far too early.

After securing enough support for my siblings, I went away to college, majoring in Comparative Government at Smith College. Then I moved to Washington, DC to work at a non-profit.

I became known as a smart and feisty feminist. I traveled the world, gained remarkable mentors and wrote about gender inequalities I’d experienced in my field. So throughout my pregnancy and maternity leave, when I was 30, everyone assumed I’d return to work full-time.

The first three months after my daughter was born were some of the most blissful and difficult of my life. I loved her but was consumed by anxiety over returning to work – an unfamiliar feeling. The lack of comfort, help and guidance from my own mother didn’t help. As the date approached to return to work I’d sit on the couch cry for hours while holding her, convinced I’d chosen poorly.

But back to the office I went, squeezing into a skirt that didn’t fit anymore, pumping four times a day, and sitting at my desk wondering: what the fuck am I doing here?

The thing, is I enjoyed my job. I had a supportive male supervisor and loved the content of my work. I worked from home once a week, but within a few months realized I needed more balance. So I cut back to working 4 days. Then cut back again. Still, I  sat wondering what my daughter was learning that day. What tiny moment I wasn’t there to witness.

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Enjoying a beach day whenever they like.

The tipping point came in the form of a disagreement with a new, younger female supervisor. So I quit.

My girlfriends were bewildered by the supposed complete reversal in my “work-life balance” views. Mentors decades my senior lectured me on why I should be working more, not less. “But you’re so smart,” they said, as if only “dumb” people choose to be home with their kids. Others asked, “do we need to have the ‘lean-in’ conversation?”

I was leaning in. But it was into my role as a mother.

Look, I recognize this is a privilege not many can afford. And I recognize my viewpoint may not be in vogue. But my husband and I made this decision together, knowing we’d have to make sacrifices for me to create a new professional path that allowed me the flexibility to be with my daughter.

Sure, now I make less money and get fewer benefits. But I feel freer and happier knowing I can spend as much time with my daughter as I like. Instead of outsourcing the role of caregiver, I get to bring her to school in a Batman outfit on pajama day. I get to bake cookies and dance to The Nutcracker with her on snow days. And instead responding to emails in the afternoon, I get to snuggle on the couch with her after naptime. Those are moments my mom didn’t get to experience with my youngest sister and won’t get to enjoy as a grandmother either.

At the end of my life, be it at 44 or 94, I don’t want to regret not having spent more time with my children. Nor do I want to regret delaying a professional life simply because I wanted to work from home. When I was in the office, at 4:45 pm I‘d wonder: If I die young like my mother will I regret not sending one last email, or will I regret not spending an extra 15 minutes with my daughter? For me the choice was clear. So I’m leaning into that.

Shannon Sarna is the editor of the popular food blog, The Nosher. Her writing and recipes have been featured in Tablet Magazine, JTA News, The Jewish Week, Joy of Kosher Magazine and Buzzfeed. She graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Mass. with a degree in Comparative Government and Spanish Language and Literature. She currently lives in Jersey City, N.J.

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