Teenagers, Chronic Illness, & Career Stability

A PR professional looks back on 18 years of motherhood and the support systems that helped her survive.
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Working mom. “WORKING” mom.  What exactly does that mean?  All moms work – right?  In fact, we all work multiple jobs—chef, transportation director, athletic instructor, entertainment coordinator, fashion consultant, seamstress, nurse, teacher and housekeeper to name a few.

Oh wait – “working mom” means being in a job you get paid for, right?  The job that requires us to be dedicated to one area of work for several hours a day on top of the other jobs for which we don’t get paid (calculated by the New York Times to actually cost around $1.5 trillion annually)? Yeah, I guess I’m one of those.

I’m currently a “working mom” who is married with an 18-year-old son. You know, that point where he’s considered a legal adult but is still a teenager.  The perfect age where they know absolutely everything and don’t have a clue about anything.  What has it been like?  Well, I’ll tell you. Hard.  Crazy hard. The best job ever.  But the hardest job ever.  It’s pressure to feel like you have to do everything right or else you’ll mess your kid up for life.  But often you do not know if what you’ve done is right until days, weeks, months or even years later.  You think you’ve finally figured out the rules and the rules change.

I have worked in various industries throughout my adult life but have always worked a traditional ‘9-5’ desk job.  Several months after meeting my husband, I had switched to my current career, working in public relations for a medical association where I’ve been for more than 21 years. I never intended to stay there that long, but sometimes a stable career takes precedent over an advancing career (you’ll understand what I mean as you read through).  My husband and I married after I’d been there about five months, and I got pregnant about two and one-half years later.  We named our en-utero baby BITO short for “Bun in the Oven.”  It was our way to refer to the baby because we elected not to find out the gender.  We talked about what our lives would be after BITO was born—and specifically—whether or not I would return to work. The thought of being a stay-at-home mom (SAHM) never really crossed my mind.  It wasn’t in my nature, and to be honest, it wasn’t really feasible for our long-term financial goals.  My husband had (and currently has) lifelong chronic health issues and we needed to be as financially stable as possible in case his health ever got worse. So that meant securing daycare and me continuing to work after BITO was born.

WORKING WHILE PREGNANT

Having a supportive workplace is the single biggest and best advantage for any pregnant working woman.

I was very blessed in that regard. I had all the flexibility I needed in regard to doctors appointments, etc.  It was also helpful that I was very lucky to have a very easy pregnancy.

My office had a pretty decent maternity leave policy.  I could take up to 12 weeks of family medical leave (because I’d been there over a year) and I was eligible for short-term disability after using my sick leave.  [Helpful hint: If your company will allow it AND you can afford it, try not to use vacation leave as you’ll need to and want to have some time available to take after your baby is born – trust me on that one].   In addition, my husband’s company had a PATERNITY leave policy where he got a month off with pay.  It was the best of all possible scenarios – My husband and I would both be home during the first month, we’d settle into a schedule, my husband would go back to work and everything was going to be golden – right?

I stopped working about two weeks prior to my due date because frankly, my commute was too hard and sitting at my desk for extended periods of time was just too difficult.  Again, my office was very supportive of my decision, but that also meant using two weeks of maternity leave before BITO was born.  At that point, I didn’t care.  I was feeling 11 months pregnant and I needed to stop. 

BITO decided to appear right on time mid-November.  But our golden plans very quickly turned ‘not so golden.’  A difficult birth left BITO and me with serious complications and landed him (now called “M”) in the NICU for a month (he’s now healthy but we decided then/there we were stopping at one kid).  So, my husband’s paternity leave was spent with daily and sometimes twice-daily back-and-forth trips to the hospital.  That also meant that by the time M came home mid-December, my husband needed to return to work.  So, our master plan of being a happy threesome for a month went completely off the rails because while we could afford for me to be out of work without pay for a few weeks, we could not afford both of us not working.  That left me at home alone with M with very little help.  I was petrified.  I can’t keep a plant alive for more than a week, and now I was home alone with a little human whose every waking moment depended on me for support.  Because my husband was working full time (remember, the kind of work one gets paid for), we collectively decided that I would take all night feedings. It was important he got more sleep so he could function during the day. He certainly helped in many other ways, but nighttime was on me. 

My original goal was to return to work full time at the end of February.  But because of M’s birth issues and the need for several follow-up doctor’s appointments, my employer graciously allowed me to extend my leave a couple weeks and then allow me to go back part time.  Again, a supportive employer is an advantage and a blessing.  I loved M like no one else, I loved the bonding time, I loved watching him change, I loved everything about being a mom.  But as we neared the end of February, I’d had enough.  I’d re-affirmed my belief that I was not meant to be a SAHM.  M was ok and needed fewer doctor’s appointments. My husband had been back at work and we’d settled into our routine at home.  But honestly? As much as I loved M and my husband, I needed to see other people – I needed to get back to work.  I needed more adult conversation that didn’t revolve around poopy diapers, cleaning bottles, endless laundry and sleepless nights. 

I returned to work.  And my M started daycare. Before M was born, we had had found this fabulous woman who had an in-home daycare with only a couple kids and a very short distance from our house.  She was perfect, treated M as if he were her own, and I had no reservations leaving M with her. Days turned into weeks, which turned into months which turned into years.  We were grateful for a very small daycare because M didn’t get sick very often and so we didn’t have the added issue of who got to stay home from work.

Until M turned 3.

ICKS-NAY in the Pre-K

At that point we decided it was in M’s best interest to transition to a formal pre-K setting with teachers and more kids his age so that he was better socialized and prepared for kindergarten.  It was great! The pre-k was around the corner from our house, and eventually, the bus for his elementary school would pick him up and drop him off there.  But with more kids comes—wait for it—more ICKS. You would think M didn’t have an immune system.  I started using the phrase ‘ick-of-the-month’ because literally, that’s what it was – a constant revolving door in and out of the pediatrician.  I felt like I should have punch card – for every ten visits, I got one free, right?  My husband and I were to the point of flipping coins to see who would stay home. Again, the benefits of a supportive workplace. 

Aside from the onslaught of icks, being in pre-k brought another significant issue called SUMMER. Luckily, his pre-K doubled as a summer camp.  But it was now another new reality that we were going to have to face for several years, in addition to worrying about before/after care.  Luckily, his pre-K doubled as before/after care until kids were 8 years old. 

SCHOOL DAZE!

School.  Real honest-to-God school.  My baby is growing up!  A whole new chapter that lasts for 13 years and every decision goes in his permanent record and determines where he goes to college, what kind of job he has and affects him for the rest of his life.  Will my son thrive? Will he make friends? Will he be bullied?  Is he on level for his age and grade? Will he behave? Will he like his teachers? Will he get on and off the right bus?  STANDARDIZED TESTS!  It’s truly daunting. Homework, teacher conferences, school projects, class performances, bake sales, parties.  And that means more hours dedicated to my ‘unpaid work jobs’ in addition to my ‘paid work job.’  It also means after-school activities. Not after-dinner activities.  After SCHOOL activities.  Wait – husband and I both have paying work jobs. Now how do we do this?

This is where I found it came in handy to make school mom friends from the get-go because if your kid is anything like M, scheduling will be a huge long-term problem.  Your goal is to find the perfect SAHM or flexible working parent who is more than happy to pick up your darling and take them with their darling to whatever event you’ve signed them up for.  And then you figure out how to configure your work schedule so you can pick them up and take home.  Again, the benefits of a supportive workplace.

‘LIFE’ HAPPENS

Remember the part earlier about my husband having lifelong chronic health issues?  Well, they reared their ugly head. BIG TIME.  And they reared their ugly head just as M was in the middle of kindergarten.  The details of his illness aren’t important, except for the fact it caused multiple hospitalizations a year for the next several years.  So now this ‘working’ mom is adding caregiver to her list of other jobs, and therefore, more work missed.  But rather than missing work because of a typical kid-ick AND being able to rotate taking time off with my husband, this time it was all me. My husband usually did the grocery shopping. My husband usually cooked dinner.  My husband usually picked M up from after-care.  And now my husband was out of commission – for multiple days on end, multiple times a year.  The stress was off the charts.  It occurred to my husband and me that this could be our life for an indeterminate amount of time.  My primary goal (aside from caring for husband) was to make sure M stayed on track—emotionally, socially and academically.  I got into the yearly habit of writing each of M’s teachers to keep them informed, in case he needed additional support. 

It was also important to make sure I had an understanding with my employer to ensure my job wasn’t in jeopardy.  Until the COVID pandemic hit, my employer did not have a work-from-home policy.  That was fine for the occasional day or two when M had his standard case of ‘icks’, but this was a whole new level.  I was able to arrange permission to unofficially work from home on a limited basis – mainly so I could keep control of my paid time off which was dwindling at a very quick rate.  Again, the benefits of a supportive workplace.

IT TAKES A VILLAGE

Help. A four-letter word for something we always offer but hardly ever ask for.

Who needs help?  We’re ‘working moms!’  We have our super-powers to be able to keep ourselves together and juggle everything on our own, right?  Maybe some do.  Maybe most do.  I certainly don’t.  I learned to ask for help. It took a long time, but I did it.  It’s among the hardest things to do, but it’s among the most necessary things to do.  At some point in every ‘working mom’s’ career, “LIFE” will happen. And when “LIFE” happens to someone else, you then have the opportunity to return the favor.   My mom friends combined with my other friends and my family literally became the lifeline my family needed to survive.  They became my village.  Every ‘working mom’ needs a village. 

 

PARTING WORDS

Several years have now passed.  M has successfully navigated grade after grade and the varying after-school activities. He now has his driver’s license (best day ever!), is getting ready to graduate high school and is preparing to go away to college this fall. My husband’s health issues have been nothing short of a roller coaster ride.  However, with my village and most importantly, a supportive workplace, we’ve managed to keep going with our sanity relatively in-tact.

I realize it seems the only thing I mention as being important throughout this article is the benefit of a supportive workplace.  But it’s not just one thing – it’s EVERYTHING.  Knowing my co-workers have my back. Knowing I can pick up and leave at a moment’s notice if an emergency arises.  Knowing I can take off for a couple days without prior approval.  It’s a result of several years of a solid work-ethic and a trusting employee/employer relationship.  It’s a result of offering to put in extra time when you’re able.  It’s a result of offering to help with work that’s not typically your own.  It’s a result of not taking advantage of the flexibility your workplace affords to you

I’ve thought about what would have happened if I ever decided to leave.  And I decided that although advances in my career may have been limited because of life’s circumstances, nothing compares to job stability.  For this working mom who also has so many other jobs besides her ‘paid job,’ there’s was nothing better. And there is certainly no shame.

 

Elaine Salter

Elaine Salter

Elaine is a Public Relations professional in a large medical association. She is a devoted wife of more than 20 years, mother to a teen adult and a ‘working mom’ who is striving to keep it all together and firmly takes her own personal mantra to heart – “fake it until you make it”. Because eventually, you will make it.  

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