Maybe it would be different…

Ten years ago, I’d have given anything to be a librarian. I was in graduate school, working as a half-time circulation clerk and substitute teaching and I dreamt of the day that I could call myself by that title. I wanted to work full time at one job, helping people choose a new book, file for disability, fill out job applications and build resumes, find a safe place to live after their divorce. I would have been on cloud nine to be a teen librarian, giving kids a welcoming place to learn a new skill, make friends, feel respected and valued by an adult. I prayed for this job, every night, and when I got it, it was, in many ways, exactly as I’d hoped.

Over the last eight and a half years, I’ve done all of the above and more. I’ve rushed after an escaped toddler, to keep him from getting hit by a car in the parking lot. I’ve steered a developmentally disabled woman away from online dating, so she wouldn’t get stabbed in an IHOP parking lot. I’ve convinced someone to report her stalker to the police and watched her tear up, finally having her fears validated. I’ve built a resume from scratch for an ex-offender and celebrated when he got a job. I’ve called 911 after a drug overdose and confronted people for looking at porn on the public computers. I’ve comforted teens whose parents aren’t willing or able to do so. I’ve mourned the suicide of a 16-year-old boy. I’ve even gotten one of my teen volunteers hired as a library aide. I’ve been a manager and given references and helped people grow. I’ve moved one library and helped build another from the ground up. Being a librarian has been nearly as magical as I’d always dreamed… and today is my last day.

In December of 2018, Jake and I decided to stop preventing pregnancy. By June of 2019, we were trying in earnest. By September, I was tearfully asking him to get a semen analysis. In February of 2020, we discovered IVF was our only hope for children and I’d have given anything to be a mom. I dreamt of the day that I could call myself by that title. As you might know, despite the pandemic, we were pregnant by the end of 2020 and I gave birth to two healthy girls this past June. It almost killed me, literally, but I’m not sure it made me stronger.

I always planned to work full time when I had children, following in the footsteps of my mother, her mother, and my dad’s mother. Jake knew this from the beginning and we planned our life around this model. We thrived on two incomes and bought our home just 10 minutes from our workplaces, with City Hall just up the street from the library. We took out credit cards and cashed in investments to pay for our $30,000 worth of babies, knowing that we’d make six figures and could afford to pay it off. Throughout my pregnancy, this was our plan. Even after my terrifying birth story, we never discussed an alternative. I would stay home during my recovery and then I would go back, putting our girls in a church daycare just 12 minutes away. I’d get to be the career woman and the mom. Now, I’m here and it’s exactly as I’ve always planned… and it sucks.

For eight weeks, Jake and I have been waking at 6:00 to feed our girls, before getting them ready for daycare and ourselves ready for work. We leave the house by 7:30 and drop them off at 7:45, together. We each go home for lunch, where we do chores that we don’t want to do later, then finish the day at 5:00 exactly and head to pick them up. We get home around 5:30 and try to balance daily tasks with enjoying our babies while they’re awake. By 6:00, they’re asleep and we make dinner and eat before they have their final bottle at 8:00 and we put them down. Then, we do household chores and watch a show before bed or Jake plays videogames while I read. This is every night, until the weekend, when we run ourselves ragged catching up on the errands we couldn’t do during the week, because we didn’t want to miss out on time with our children. Instead of enjoying them at home, we drag them around while we shop for groceries, get the oil changed, and return packages and store purchases. Then, we usually share them with family or friends at some get-together, before returning home to put them to bed.

As a child, I had a handful of careers I wanted when I grew up, ranging from veterinarian to lawyer to nurse to teacher. Stay at Home Mom never made the list. All my life, I’ve pictured having an impactful career, where I work full time, and then come home to my family. I went to college and then grad school and worked two jobs while carving my professional path. Finally, I got a position I love with understanding managers, where I make good money and have a predictable schedule. I have as close to zero commute as possible and a clean, safe, nearby daycare minutes away. It’s the American dream… and it’s a lie. Why didn’t anyone tell me this? For all the complaining parents do, and it is endless, why has no one simplified it to not having enough time, in a dual income family? I have never really considered myself a modern feminist, but I still thought I could do this. This is the model most people follow. Of course we would, too.

Six weeks, y’all. I made it six weeks before handing in my notice to leave my dream job, the job I can’t seem to build any enthusiasm for anymore, while simultaneously remembering how good it once made me feel. Everyone keeps telling me that it gets better, but when I ask how much time they get with their children at night, they almost always answer less than an hour. This isn’t just parents of babies, but those with school-aged children, too. After two back-to-back rounds of Pandemic IVF, an emergency C-section due to extensive pneumonia and pregnancy-induced heart complications that impact .00001% of women, three blood transfusions, four days in the ICU and three more in labor and delivery… I get an hour with my girls each night. I have a cardiologist now and $9,000 in hospital bills, but I have an hour with my babies.

In a perfect world, I could just go half-time again, doing the same job for fewer hours, but my system doesn’t hire half-time librarians anymore. The only half-time positions don’t require an MLIS and pay $5 less an hour. While I’d be thrilled to take one of these and it’s a possibility that one might open in the next few months, if I do so as an internal candidate, I’ve been informed that my retirement will be frozen. If I’m no longer full time, but I haven’t terminated employment, I won’t be able to touch my retirement, not to add to it or roll it over or continue investing in it. Since Jake and I wouldn’t plan for me to return to full time or quit, for at least 15 years, $75,000 would sit in an account and be eaten by inflation. I was told, verbatim, that I do have a choice, though: I can terminate employment… and so I did.

Leaving my job has been one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make. I worked so hard for this. I spent years praying for this exact position, a teen librarian job on the outskirts of the county, where I could make big city money and lead a small town life. I feel like I’m losing a part of myself. Unlike other people’s dream jobs, it was more or less exactly as wonderful as I’d dreamt. Sure, there were frustrations with other departments and budgeting decisions and weird niche emphases in my specialization, but my day to day? It was awesome. I made a difference. I made good money. I made friends. I had fun

… then Covid-19 hit.

Maybe things would have been different, if it weren’t for the pandemic, the way we had to get pregnant, losing my mom the day after Mother’s Day, or almost dying when my girls were born. Maybe if my job had actually been enjoyable for the last two years, instead of a terrifying effort not to get sick during IVF, while trying to simultaneously appease the conflicting feelings of staff and the public… maybe I’d have been able to make the adjustment, like all other women seem to do. I remember loving my job. I looked forward to work… but I can’t do it anymore. I keep thinking that women do this all the time, but then I talk to them and realize that it doesn’t get better. They just get used to it and those aren’t the same thing. I don’t want to get used to feeling like I don’t know my daughters, to being exhausted and irritable, to constantly rushing and never having enough hours in the day. Maybe I’m weak or the last two years have broken something inside of me, because I don’t have it in me and I never thought I would feel this way. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It doesn’t feel right, though, far more than leaving my job doesn’t feel right.

I wish I could split myself in two, like Sabrina Spellman à la The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. I could send one Belle to the library, where she’d comfort a teenage boy who just came out to his mom, recommend some fitting YA books, and invite him to the next teen program. Then, I could stay home and care for my girls and my house, freeing up time to spend as a family later, never missing a milestone. That’s just it, though. Just as Sabrina sent her other self to rule Hell, I’d send my other self to work full time. Even in this fantasy, I stay home.

I’ve cried myself sick over the last few days, but it’s nothing compared to the tears I’ve cried over the last eight weeks. I want to be a librarian, but I want to be with my girls more. Maybe things would be different if it hadn’t all been so hard, but I’m not strong enough for this… literally. Jake and I would like to have another baby, transferring another embryo (singular) this summer, but it would be the kind of pregnancy that involves a team with a cardiologist on it. I can’t do that and have twins and work full time. I can’t even do this. For all I went through to get my dream job, I went through a lot more to get my girls. There’s still hope that a half-time position will open in the next six months or so, so perhaps I’ll be able to return to my role in a more manageable capacity… at least that’s what I tell myself, so I can keep it together as Grady, the teen volunteer I got hired on, thanks me for all I’ve done for him.

My heart is breaking for the career I’m giving up, but there’s a chance I can have it again later and there’s absolutely zero chance that my girls will ever be this small again. I keep thinking about my mother, what she’d have done differently. If she weren’t my age during the 90s, when it was just assumed that a woman would work, she’d have chosen to stay home or work part-time. I’m certain. I doubt that would have saved her relationship with my dad, but it might have literally saved her sanity and her relationship with her children. I don’t want to have regrets, but I seem to have no choice. As much as my heart is breaking to leave my library, it breaks more to think of missing these years. So for now, this chapter of my life has closed and I’ll just have to see what the future holds.

I don’t think I can do this.

When I was little, long before my parents’ marriage imploded, I was a daycare kid… always. I started in a home daycare and entered Kindercare, a chain, when I was three or four. My memory has always extended far further than most people’s, so I actually do recall both. I remember Kindercare best and those memories are reasonably happy and healthy ones. On an average day, I would get up at six o’clock and my mother would drive me to daycare, where she would hand me off to my teacher before heading to her nursing job. Sometimes I screamed and cried for her, but most of the time I didn’t. I spent my days playing with toys I didn’t have at home and socializing with other children my age. I felt cared for by my teachers, even when I was in trouble and had very few negative experiences. The ones I did have were normal, like the time I was punished for saying the F word, because another student had misunderstood me when I mentioned my dog Buck; or when I yelled at another girl for breathing too loudly, because I have always been me. What I don’t remember is abuse or feeling abandoned. I was close to my parents at the time, excited to see them when they’d pick me up. When our relationships eventually deteriorated, I hadn’t been in daycare for years, so it bears zero blame, as far as I’m concerned.

Both of my parents always worked and I thought little of it. I envied my friends whose mothers stayed home, who could go on random zoo trips or visits to the pool, but I wasn’t unhappy. I didn’t cry on my first day of kindergarten, long since used to being separated from my mom and I never begged to be picked up from sleepovers. As a child, I adored my mother. My dad could be fun, in the right mood, but my mother was almost always loving. She found a way to do special things for us, despite the time we spent under someone else’s care. She’d make us pancakes with candles on our birthday and bring us cupcakes at school. She took off work to chaperone field trips and taught Sunday school. She always stayed home with us if we were sick. I have always maintained that my mother loved my brother and I very much and just grew increasingly worse at it, but back then, she was good at it and daycare didn’t change that perception.

Growing up, my mom did as most 90s parents and told me that I could be anything I wanted to be, without exception. My dad, however, added the caveat that I could be anything I wanted to be, if I worked hard enough… and that’s what I did. Despite the fact that neither of my parents were involved in my academics after middle school, I graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA and immediately entered college. Regardless of my wretched mistake of a teenage marriage, I never gave up on my education. Through evictions and housefires and miscarriage and abuse, I persisted and graduated with my bachelor’s degree in four years. I finalized my divorce my first year of grad school and worked twenty hours a week as a circulation clerk in my system while substitute teaching for another thirty to forty, throughout. I graduated with my MLIS at 25 and was almost immediately promoted to half-time librarian. I continued to sub, saving my money to survive each summer and relying on Our Lord and Savior for health insurance. It was tough, but it wasn’t as tough as many other times in my life and it paid off. At 28, I was promoted to a management position and eventually stepped down to full time librarian, where I was mapped into a teen librarian position on the outskirts of the county. I’d accomplished my dream and had even managed to meet the love of my life along the way, marrying and buying a house. Life was perfect.

When Jake and I decided to start a family, we never even discussed an alternative plan to maintaining our status as a two-income household and that wasn’t just because Jake had left oil and started from the bottom with the City of Cherokee. I had been adamant, from the beginning, that I was not leaving my library system. I had no interest in staying home, for any period of time, for any reason. When we learned we’d have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to have children in the first place, it was just understood that I would continue to work full time after my maternity leave, only in small part to pay for it. When Jake received a promotion placing his income just a few hundred below mine, it still never came up. I always “joked” that I couldn’t stay home with my children, that I don’t like children, that I wanted to spend my days talking to adults and enjoying my life. I wanted my own kids, but I was heavily operating on the advice that it would be different with my children. In fact, throughout my entire pregnancy, I feared that I wouldn’t love my children, that I wouldn’t like them, that I’d meet them and they’d just be some random babies, that I’d be miserable as a mom, as my friends in my twenties always reported. The last thing I said to Jake, before they wheeled me away for my emergency c-section was “I’m scared. What if I don’t love them?” Then, there were Violet and Scarlett.

By the time I was lying on that operating table, trying not to choke to death on the fluid in my pneumonia-riddled lungs, as the doctors struggled to keep me from bleeding out, I wasn’t even thinking about my babies. I was kind of just terrified. When the nurse showed me Scarlett, I remember thinking sadly “It is just a baby.” I wouldn’t see them for two more days, when they were brought down to the ICU for a short visit, because I’d woken that day, high on morphine, screaming that they’d taken my babies, that I didn’t even get to hold them, as Jake comforted me. I suppose my instincts had finally taken over. My girls were wonderful and tiny and perfectly healthy (unlike their mama), but I felt ashamed that I didn’t have that moment where the world stops turning and there were only my babies and me. They were babies. They were mine. They didn’t entirely feel like it. Maybe it was the drugs, but my love story with my girls was a slower burn than I expected, as I handed them back, too sick to hold them for long.

Expectation

Reality

I’m not sure when my love for my daughters became all-consuming, as Jake and I woke every three hours to feed them and rushed to change their clothes, before they got too cold without a onesie, pajamas, a hat, and a swaddle. Perhaps it was when we were finally able to go home and I could feed, change, and snuggle them, without a nurse interrupting to take my blood pressure or hook me up to antibiotics or give me another blood transfusion. Maybe that’s when I started to realize they were really mine, my little bear and bunny who I’d been talking to for the last several months. Regardless, the love came and it was just as fierce as I’d been promised.

Due to the complications with my girls’ birth, I had no choice but to stay home for the entirety of my allotted 90 days. The silver lining was that I was so sick that my short-term disability paid out through the whole thing and I returned to work the day my babies were 13 weeks old. Although I’d originally planned to take the girls to daycare a couple of weeks early, so we could all get used to the new routine and I could have a bit of a break, I found myself entirely unwilling to give up more time with my babies and opted, instead, for a horrible first day back. Horrible it was, as I watched my little Violet give her first smile of the day to a stranger, while my little Scarlett rocked in someone else’s rocker. In fact, when I found out that I’d have to leave work, because my doctor’s note didn’t clearly state my restrictions, I was thrilled to have another day off and promptly picked up my girls, despite the fact that I wouldn’t be paid for the day and the daycare would.

The next morning, the drop-off went a bit more smoothly… and I still hated it… as I did the day after that and the day after that. Now, we’re three weeks in and… I don’t think I can do this. When I was four, I killed my favorite doll, a Waterbaby. Quite reasonably, my mother refused to keep refilling it with warm water, to create a more realistic mothering experience for me, so I figured I’d just pop it in the microwave. The Waterbaby didn’t survive and until June 22nd, that’s been my best reference point for my maternal instincts. Every year, during Summer Reading, I declared that I was never having children. I wasn’t even sure that was hyperbole, until Jake and I received the news that we wouldn’t be able to conceive naturally. Only then did I comprehend how very much I wanted a family, as I wept and mourned the possibility of never being the mother I only briefly had, during a pandemic where every day seemed the same. Now, here I am, a mother to twin girls that cost us $30,000 and nearly my life and all I want to be is their mom. I can’t find the passion I once had for my career, the one for which I worked so hard and it’s not getting any easier.

I used to love being a librarian and had this idealistic expectation that any problems would eventually be resolved in my system and the field at large, resulting in the ultimate utopian position. In time, I’ve accepted that all careers come with their ups and downs, but the downs of librarianship were wearing on me, even before Covid-19. I used to hold a title that prided itself on neutrality and fighting a war against censorship. Now the field, as a whole, is comprised of librarians who bully publishers to retire books, because they’ve aged poorly or don’t fit their personal worldviews. Some even advocate pulling them from the shelves, only to excitedly celebrate Banned Books Week a few months later. Neutrality has been replaced with a strong push toward the perceived “correct” viewpoint, to the level that even the most professional discussion isn’t allowed, lest one be branded with some undesirable adjective. Years ago, I’d receive emails reminding staff to leave their politics and personal opinions at the door. Today, I get them from powerful higher-ups, taking sides on divisive political issues. I’m sure the echo chamber that has resulted from extended closures and the rolling back of services has not helped, as we’ve distanced ourselves from our communities, but some of the bloom has gone off the rose in recent years. To be perfectly clear, I am not saying that I’m miserable in my position… at least no more so than anyone else weathering Covid-19, just that the field has shifted to a point with which I’m no longer entirely comfortable, independently of the pandemic. My present apathy is not wholly the fault of babies.

Regardless of the state of libraries, even when discussing the things that do make me happy, like my latest outdoor teen program, I’m no longer as invested. I just want to be home with the girls it cost me so much to make. My mother died while I was pregnant, at 60, and I can only imagine how many regrets she would have had if she allowed herself to admit to them. I remember her toying with the idea of getting alternatively certified to teach, when I was 9 or 10, so she could be home with us more often, but ultimately deciding she couldn’t afford the pay cut. My father has told me himself how much he wishes he could go back and do things differently, spend more time with his kids and enjoy us while we were young. My grandmother has dreams of when my brother and I were little and calls to tell me how those were the best years of her life. My brother, only three years my senior and the same age as Jake, has been particularly remorseful of the years he’s wasted working out of state, now that his children are 9 and 13. I don’t want to feel that way about my family. I never want to look back and realize that I wasted the best years of my kids’ lives splitting my attention with a career I could have had later, spending only a couple of hours with them each night after commuting and performing the duties of daily life.

I am at a crossroads in my life, choosing to stay in my field and remain the career woman I always assumed I would be or take the path I never thought I’d even consider and leave to stay home with my children. Jake and I have planned to send our kids to Catholic school from the beginning, even going so far as to buy a home nearer to the church for that very reason. Over the years, however, I’ve met many amazing homeschool kids through my job as a teen librarian. I’ve heard the stories of why their parents choose to forgo traditional schooling, which include everything from escaping bullying to having more time with their siblings. I have always insisted that I’d love to homeschool, myself, if a) we could afford it and b) I were willing to leave my position. While we can’t afford it now, we should be able to within the next six months to a year. Regardless, it would be about the same price as Catholic school, as it stands; and the field I once adored has changed to the point that I could leave without much remorse, even if it meant I could never return. All I ever really wanted to do was teach and here’s my chance. I can teach my own children. We can all learn together and have more time to play and master life skills.

Jake, although nearly as surprised by this change of heart as I am, has been nothing but supportive. A traditionalist, he’s content with being the sole breadwinner. His primary concern is just our financial well-being, but he likes the idea of my being home with our kids, of having the freedom that comes with homeschooling. He understands my feeling of disillusionment with libraries and just wants me to be sure that leaving is what I want and not just what I feel at the moment. I’m entirely aware that I’m still coping with both my mother’s death and my beyond traumatic birthing experience, but is that so wrong? Is acknowledging my own mortality a bad reason to reconsider my decisions, my future? I can’t help thinking that, when I’m 60 or 70, I’d rather look back and have career regrets than familial ones. While my own mother worked and my grandmothers both worked, many of the other women in my family took lengthy breaks from the workforce to stay home with their families. Several of them have thriving careers, now that their children are grown. I can have a career any time in my life, utilizing either my teaching certificate or my MLIS or neither and striking out in a completely unique direction. I can never be with my babies while they’re young again, though.

I fully understand that some women don’t have it in them to stay home, or that they love their career and while the Mom Guilt hits hard, they don’t want to give it up for a handful of years, only to find they’ve been blacklisted later. In fact, I always assumed I would be in one or both of these camps. Everyone has told me that it gets better, but each day, after I hand off the babies I almost died bringing into the world, so I can plan take-home kits and argue over whether or not we should have holiday book displays, I feel worse. I spend the entire day longing to be with my girls, changing diapers and soothing tantrums. So why am I fighting this? Am I really just pushing through the ever-increasing heartache to fit the mold of an intelligent and successful woman, as created by modern American society, to fulfill my own stereotyped vison of what it is to be female? Is that any better than staying home, because that’s what a woman “should” do? It doesn’t feel right to me, leaving my daughters at daycare, even though I’ve never thought negatively about working mothers, in general. No part of me thinks that women who work are letting other people raise their children or are choosing a job over their babies or any of the other hateful things people say about them. In fact, a part of me envies their ability to push through and do so. It just feels entirely unnatural to me to not be with them and as shocked as I am, I don’t think I can do this. Joan said it best, dad: “You’re the one who said I could do anything I wanted. This is what I want.”

Joan: “It was my choice… not to go. He would have supported it.”
Katherine: “But you don’t have to choose.”
Joan: “No, I have to. I want a home. I want a family. That’s not something I’ll sacrifice.”
Katherine: “No one’s asking you to sacrifice that, Joan. I just want you to understand that you can do both.”
Joan: “Do you think I’ll wake up one morning and regret not being a lawyer?”
Katherine: “Yes, I’m afraid that you will.”
Joan: “Not as much as I’d regret not having a family… not being there to raise them. I know exactly what I’m doing and it doesn’t make me any less smart. This must seem terrible to you.”
Katherine: “I didn’t say that, I…”
Joan: “Sure you did. You always do. You stand in class and tell us to look beyond the image, but you don’t. To you, a housewife is someone who sold her soul for a center hall colonial. She has no depth, no intellect, no interests. You’re the one who said I could do anything I wanted. This is what I want.”