When I was a new mother, I was away at a conference and called home to hear how my baby's check-up had gone. It went fine, my husband assured me; the pediatrician even cleared her starting solid foods. So that morning, he fed Jenna a banana.
I burst into tears. My baby had tasted her first solid food, and I missed it.
Much has been said about the myth of women "having it all." The prevailing new wisdom is that women can have it all, just not at the same time. Which is swell if you're Grandma Moses, who started painting at age 70, or Laura Ingalls Wilder, who first published the Little House books in her 60s, or Julia Child, who launched her first cooking show at age 50. But the harsh reality for most working women is that the peak years for both our careers and our fertility happen to be the same ones.
Mine is among the more than one in three households today where the mother is the primary bread earner. Joel's work is seasonal, and he is the one who stayed home to rear our daughter. When she was small, he did the laundry and the grocery shopping and made dinner during the week.
When they learned this, my colleagues would gasp-women with envy and men with horrified disbelief. "You are so lucky," women would say. Men at best shook their heads.
"Yes," I would reply with a tight smile. "He is wonderful." I didn't want my co-workers to think I didn't appreciate Joel, but wondered how many of them would have told him how lucky he was if I were the one who worked part-time and cooked dinner.
As a Mom Who Worked Outside The Home, I definitely overcompensated.
School bake sale? Of course! I whipped up batches of gourmet cookies and brownies, only to find that other moms had brought in Entenmann's mini-muffins.
Halloween costume? Heck, yeah! I was there with my hot glue gun, creating enormous monarch butterfly wings out of felt, only to find all the other kids wearing store-bought Disney costumes.
Softball games? I'd be Team Mom! Every year! Arriving for each game with a trunk full of snacks and ice packs-and, I might add, missing only two games in five seasons.
You get the picture. Funny, right? But there were also moments of true soul-searching.
"She has a very close relationship with her dad, and I believe this has been important for her self-esteem as a woman," I often intoned. I actually did (and do) believe this to be true, but when Jenna was small I agonized: What if she was closer to her Daddy than her Mommy? I cannot describe the unmitigated relief I felt when Jenna was three and scraped her knee at the playground. Both Joel and I were there-but she sobbed for her Mommy.
So yes, sometimes we fell into or deliberately assumed traditional roles. I baked her birthday cakes and took her shopping for her bat mitzvah dress; Joel taught her knock-knock jokes and helped her learn her Torah portion. But Joel taught Jenna how to throw, and I taught her how to hit. He taught her to ride a bike, and I taught her to drive a car. Both of us helped her with homework, brought her to work with us, and took her on college visits. So I always liked to think Jenna got the best of both worlds.
Of course, I was never sure what she would have to say about that. The opportunity to find out came her freshman year in college, when her Gender Studies class was assigned to write an essay about a personal experience confronting gender-based societal expectations. Jenna couldn't think of a topic so I finally suggested she tackle the obvious, the household in which she grew up.
She didn't know what I meant.
"You know," I said. "The whole me going to work, Dad staying at home thing."
"Oh," she said. "Is that not usual?"