On Going Back To Work | By Sarah Ann Noel

There’s a huge blank in my life, wherein I ceased to be much else, other than Mom. At the time, those days felt like forever, the seconds of my days ticking away with joy and exhaustion, in the alternate reality I was sure was to be my permanent universe. 

This conundrum is a privilege, of course, made more privileged because it was my choice. My experience with motherhood before becoming a mother myself was a mom whose work was me, my siblings, our home. It was an experience I cherished and therefore wanted to recreate for my own children. My husband, recognizing the decision as mine, supported me as I processed and ultimately chose to leave my career in NPO’s and communications and stay home with our daughter. 

Being surprised into motherhood, and therefore surprised into the end of my very novice career, I was aware of what I was giving up, probably more so than I was aware of what I was getting in return. I decided on the name Mom but I still struggled with a loss of identity, even feelings of guilt for trying to be or wanting to be anything other than that. It was the beginning of the blog boom, and suddenly, where I was once a side-hustlin’ freelancer, I was now a gigging writer. It served many purposes, because not only was I able to process in a medium that means something to me, writing for digital magazines and blogging peers gave me a greater sense of Who I Am. I was Mom and a I was a Writer. 

Every personality test I’ve ever taken has suggested that my work holds great importance for me and how I see myself and the world. This is what I cling to when motherhood doesn’t feel like enough. I need that sense of purpose to feel fully myself. So, when my youngest went to kindergarten, and my days were wide open, and I would drive away from the school parking feeling fully free, I was also fully terrified. I was terrified to face myself and that blank where Career should go but wasn’t. 

Because writing, as a profession, is tricky business. It’s something that I love and it’s something that I do, but it honestly doesn’t fill up all day every day. I can make up work for weeks at a time, typing page after page until my carpal tunnel flares up—but that doesn’t mean those words are going anywhere. Writing, as a profession, and Publishing are two very different things. It turns out, for now, the former is part of my identity, but that latter, well, not yet. 

I beat myself up for a year. I tried to be Writer and Mom at the same time, as I’d done when my kids were at home. I’d scribble away while they were gone, and try to trade hats when they returned. Except those roles were fuzzy. There were no clear lines. When my babies were babies, writing was just part of mothering them. What was it separate from nap schedules and early motherhood upon which to reflect? Declaring both roles with no clear direction was just a half-assed attempt at each; and I was failing miserably—at each. 

Around this same time, my husband bought out his business partner. Wander Unlimited was fully ours (though it felt like his), and he went about the task of growing it from the ground up once more. I resented his sense of purpose while also feeling fiercely possessive of my own empty hours. In that protected, sterile space, I would sit at my blue screen, watching the cursor flashing or scrolling lists of literary agents I knew didn’t want my book or, worst of all, would mindlessly flip through my Instagram feed. It was a dark time. 

Then one day, my husband told me he was thinking of hiring someone, which would be a stretch for the business, but a risk that needed to be taken in order to continue growing. Trying to get on board, I asked him what needed to be done, what role he was trying to fill. He ticked off the needed skill set, and all I could think was, “Well, I can do that.” 

That’s not true. I thought, “I can do that better than any person you’d hire and pay to do that.” My competitive edge sliced through the fuzzy fog of my aimless self, and I agreed to on-board as Wander Unlimited’s managing partner, my first official title since Mom. I approached the role with trepidation, probably because I viewed myself through a similarly tentative lens. Sure, I could cough up confidence in a conversation, pronouncing past achievements and accolades; but as I was flailing through my sense of self, so was my inner confidence grasping at footholds. 

Despite this, I did what I know to do: the work. I did the work. I went back to work, in a very real sense; and that meant, each morning, I got up and dressed, and when I kissed my kids goodbye, instead of clutching at my coffee mug with two hands and a woebegone attitude about not being a real writer, I sat down at my computer and I did something else. I project managed. I designed things. I wrote copy and built Squarespace sites. A few weeks in, I started talking. Suddenly I had things to say—about clients, about the business, about brainstorms I’d had while staring at what should have been a boring spreadsheet, but it had instead infused me with inspiration. 

You want to know why mothers lose themselves to motherhood? It’s a measure of self-sacrifice, sure; but mostly, they disappear into the work. Motherhood is work—hard work. And when you work hard, you move through the motions with superhuman strength. You want something done efficiently? I submit, ask a mom. They’ll get the job done without blinking. They can do it without blinking because it becomes automatic. There is no choice but to get the job done. 

When my daughters went to school, and the day-in, day-out portion of motherhood seemed to come to an end (which, ha! Has there ever been more pressure than having children in school? But that’s an issue for a different time), I thought I was sad because I’d lost myself. I didn’t go anywhere though—I wasn’t gone. I was on auto-pilot; parts of me were dormant and they just needed to be revived. 

Often, in this space included, I’ve written about rest, which is a message we need in this time in the world. Women, and especially mothers, need to be encouraged to rest, especially when we are functioning at that zombie-level where things get done and we don’t even know how. At the same time, we can’t discount that humans need purpose. I believe purpose can be found anywhere if we look for it—in cleaning the bathroom well, in running a Fortune 500 company, in soothing a fussy baby, in remembering your skills have value and a place. You just have to decide to get back to work. 

(Illustration by Franco Matticchio . Words by Sarah Ann Noel)

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