That's Lucy on our swing.

That's Lucy on our swing.

From the Ottawa Citizen, May 10, 2008

By Deborah Nobes

One Sunday in April, I found a rake in our garage and began pulling the blanket of wet dirty leaves off the gardens in the yard.  The sun warmed my skin for the first time in months.  Our four-year-old daughter Lucy played with bubbles and sidewalk chalk in the driveway. My old mutt Joey napped in the warm dirt.

Objects kept turning up on the ground. A small hand trowel discarded at the edge of the vegetable garden. A pair of gloves that lay forgotten, until now, next to the upturned wheelbarrow. Wooden clothespins littered the grass beneath the drying line, along with a lost sock, striped and muddy.

All around me was evidence of what a long, hard year it had been. I had left things where they fell. Didn’t clean up or put away. The melting snow revealed reminders of the lost pieces of my life.

I suppose I should have realized something was seriously wrong when my eyes began feeling like rubbery hard-boiled eggs, swollen and squeezed in their sockets.  I would blink and rub them, staring at my computer screen, trying to ignore the numbness and tingling in my arms, and the accompanying urge to dive under my desk where I could ride out the waves of dizziness and vague panic.

I am normally healthy. I’m tall and lean, eat well and exercise enough. I don’t smoke, or drink to excess.  My blood pressure is usually on the low side, so much that I can’t give blood without fear of fainting. So low that I have actually passed out while getting up from the dentist’s chair.

Then one day last February I went in for my allergy shot, which was three months overdue because of an extraordinarily busy and difficult stretch at work.

When the nurse asked where I’d been, I burst into tears. 

She took my blood pressure, and raised her eyebrows. It was 156/90. Shockingly high, for me.

“Do you ever get dizzy?’ she said. “Do you ever feel kind of faint?”

Yes, every day, usually between the hours of five and six. Doesn’t everybody?

The feelings only happened at work. For months I tried to ignore them, closing my eyes to the physical effects of stress just as a person living on a riverbank might turn her back on the rising waters of the spring flood. I should have been out sandbagging, lifting valuables off the ground and protecting my life. Instead, I pretended it wasn’t happening.

I had thrived on stress in my as 16 years as a newspaper and television journalist. I thought it would pass. Who wouldn’t get occasional flutters while putting a supper hour news program on the air every night? Hadn’t I always turned that energy into something creative, something constructive?

This strength made me believe I could live a balanced life as a journalist, mother and wife. I could kiss my daughter Lucy goodbye at her pre-school, go on to the office to slay the dragons of news, then scamper home for a well-balanced supper and happy stories at bedtime.

In a perfect world, that might happen. My world was not perfect. 

I kissed my girl goodbye all right, but then raced to the newsroom, set my lunch on my desk where it sat forgotten while I spent the next 10 or eleven hours or so coping with the near constant demands of television news. Serving the needs of a local program and national network with never enough staff, never enough support. I didn’t have time to eat. I didn’t have time to arrange the car swap with my husband. I didn’t even have time to pee.

On the rare days my husband couldn’t pick up our daughter from preschool, I would run out and grab her, feeling guilt and worry at leaving the newsroom in the hour before deadline. I’d finish the show with Lucy balanced on one knee, trying to keep her occupied with the collection of small television monitors on my desk, phone wedged between my shoulder and ear, typing in the last of the show production notes as the headlines rolled.

If I made it home before six for supper, I was distracted and pre-occupied, racing up the stairs to watch the show go to air, checking my email to make sure everything went as it should have. Mostly I stayed late, eating whatever was left as I ruminated alone in the kitchen.

My husband was cranky. My daughter wanted her Daddy, not me, to read her bedtime stories.  I spent my weekends knee-deep in laundry, trying to get ahead on chores and meals.

In her playtime, Lucy pretended to be either the busy mommy going off to work with cell phone and keys in hand, or the teacher singing ‘her kids’ to sleep at naptime.  At the time, we laughed and congratulated ourselves for raising such an independent kid.

Lucy was fine. Well cared for, happy and secure. But I was not. This was not the kind of mother I wanted to be. Stressed out, burned out, and nibbling at the edges of my child’s life.

My doctor ordered me off work for six weeks.  When she wrote it down on the little white prescription pad it seemed an insane length of time to be away from the office. Alice in Wonderland kind of crazy, like she might, at any moment, sprout rabbit ears and fur.  I felt both panicked and relieved. Panic about the fallout my absence would cause in the newsroom, and relief that it would all end for a while. I had never taken more than three days off for illness. Now I had six weeks and it somehow didn’t seem nearly long enough.

I recognize that motherhood self-obsession is all the rage. We’re not happy going to work. We’re not happy staying at home. If we are happy, we worry others might criticize us for it. We blog incessantly about ourselves, our husbands, our mothers, our children and step-children. Despite this incredible middle-class luxury of choice, we continue to be tormented about whether we’ve made the right one. It’s tiresome, I admit. Yet here we are.

I never wanted to stay home with Lucy full-time. Never had the idea that I was the best and only person to care for our child.  Some parents believe they are, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  I had always believed I could work at the career I love and have been educated for and be the kind of parent I need to be.

Though she has much older siblings, Lucy is being raised pretty much as an only child. She needs her preschool friends, teachers and activities. She’s happy to go and I’m happy to have her there.

What I want is both. I want to be able to work in the world and participate in my family life in meaningful ways. I’m sure other parents want the same. We want to work at our chosen profession in our twenties and thirties, and keep at it, but differently, when we become parents of young children. 

Stress leave isn’t part of anybody’s career plan, but the demands of difficult, more-than-full-time work and parenting can occasionally collide to make it inevitable.

Sick time is expensive for companies and can be demoralizing for their employees.  The sad part is, many employers seem blind to the fact that it is entirely avoidable.

So many mostly middle-aged male managers cannot see that giving ground to a parent who needs a four-day workweek or flex hours while his or her child is young will create a more productive and loyal employee later.  They don’t get that forcing mid-career parents to make the profound choice of opting out creates vast, expensive holes in their own workforce. That when a parent walks away from a high-stress, high-demand job to find something more family friendly, all the knowledge and expertise the company has spent years investing in walks away too.

My own respite is over. Six weeks stretched into nine. I feel much better, but am choosing not to go back to my newsroom, at least not right away.  I have asked for a leave of absence. I don’t want to compromise my health or my family again.

I feel torn about my decision, but I am trusting that something better suited for my life will come along. My daughter is only this little once.  I don’t want to miss it.

For now, Lucy and I are planning our garden, and I am trying not to think about my bank account.

She has her own rake and gloves, but she mostly watches me work. It’s a pleasure to clean up the yard and see what’s there. I never remember what I planted from one season to the next, and Lucy is as amazed as me at what emerges from the leaves. “Look Mommy,” she yells, marching to the edge of a huge muddy rectangle. “I found the GARDEN.”

The Greek oregano and lavender in the side border garden survived the snow.  Oh yes and the daylilies, reliably indestructible, sprouting at the back corner of the sun porch. In other parts of the gardens, nubby green and reddish purple shoots poke through the black earth, having come to life beneath the last snowy remnants of this long winter.

I have no idea what they will become. For some reason, their tenacity and mystery fills me with hope.