News & Politics

First Person: Mommy Goes Back to Work

Flip-flops at the office—since when?

For nearly a decade, I’ve worked at home, having quit the office life and embarked on a career as a freelance writer. I have six kids—ages 18, 17, 16, 15, 14, and 6. Don’t ask. It’s all chaos all the time.

I wasn’t looking for a 9-to-5 job, but I found it by chance when I replied to an ad for a writer with a company whose public-health work matched my experience. Two interviews later, I was offered a job with good pay and benefits. From there, it was a waltz to a department store where my teenage daughters outfitted me in coordinates that made me look, as they put it, “not like Mommy.”

I was a nervous wreck as I boarded the commuter bus that would take me from Annapolis to downtown DC. Quiet in a house of eight is scarce, and I settled into the bus’s silence with what felt like joy.

Ninety minutes later, I was in the office, where I eventually learned all of the things that had changed during my Rip Van Winkle years. Copy machines, for instance, no longer operate with the push of a single button but offer multiple choices for size, color, collation. It took me ten minutes to figure out how to press start.

Women’s attire has changed, too. Pantyhose? Gone. Pumps? Replaced by flip-flops. Blue jeans are almost de rigueur.

The last time I had a job in DC, Ronald Reagan was president, all the women wore red, and no one, but no one, wore open-toe shoes. A world without pantyhose seemed like something only European women had mastered.

After a decade of mommy jeans and T-shirts, these developments are actually a little disappointing. It turns out my wardrobe would have been fine for my new job.

My sister, an at-home mom, agreed to take my youngest two kids after school. When I came home, they announced they would be quite happy to stay at her house with their cousins. I had looked forward to getting a joyful kiss from my six-year-old son; instead I got a kiss-off: “I don’t want to come home. I’m playing.”

By the time I had him in bed, I was in tears, convinced I’d destroyed my life for a job I hadn’t really needed but did want.

The next day, I awoke in tears over the prospect of another bus ride to DC. Even the quiet held no appeal. I felt like a kid on the first day of school, longing to stay home in the lazy embrace of summer. When I told this to one of my daughters, she said it was time to get back on the bus.

I remembered my husband’s advice: I was going on safari to the world of work, checking out the wild animals and scenery. I could always come home—“if the lions don’t get you while you’re gone,” he added, trying to make me laugh.

The second day, I e-mailed another sister, who has worked full-time for more than 20 years, with my back-to-work woes. “I’ll try to stick it out for one day,” I whined.

She e-mailed me: “Welcome to the world of adults. You’ll get used to it.”

Four months later, I’ve stopped crying, though I still miss my life at home. I’ve grown used to the commute and traffic, the run to the bus, the worry about getting a seat. All those grownups shuttling from one place to another with their briefcases and cell phones, their coffee and hurry. I’m one of them now—ready for the ride or not.

This article first appeared in the September 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles like it, click here.