Working Mother or SAHM? I Had Low Points in Both

I struggled with the same old debate of whether to stay at home full time or go back to work. Neither was perfect, and the biggest lesson I learned was to be kind to myself.

The basic root of happiness lies in our minds; outer circumstances are nothing more than adverse or favorable.
— Matthieu Ricard

Since becoming a mother, I’ve experienced what felt like two very distinct low points in my life. I like to think of them as my darkest hours.

The more recent one happened during a painful, lonely, and trying trip to New York. I was there on a business trip after deciding to go back to work full-time when my son was almost eighteen months old. I was still breastfeeding him, a decision that was very important to me at the time. We had just hired a part-time nanny to help prepare my son (and me) for the big transition of full-time daycare that would come in a few months.

The trip was fine. I made solid connections to help build my budding business, gained a few insights into the trade, and got some much-needed time away from my child. But at the time, it was hard for me to fully enjoy that alone time, because I was feeling the guilt that happens to some women when they willingly choose to spend extended periods of time away from their offspring. I was one of those women.

The real breaking point came when I was at JFK International Airport, ready to fly home to said son. With my nursing bra flapping over my still-separated postpartum tummy, I hovered over a filthy toilet with my rock-hard, milk-filled breasts in freezing hands  as I tied to self-express the “golden” liquid my poor baby was crying for at home. As I felt a fever creeping up my body, I could hear the announcement over the bathroom speaker that my flight home to California was cancelled due to a relentless snow storm. My husband, who was caring for our baby back home with the help of the nanny, told me that we were out of the milk I had expressed before the trip. I could practically hear my baby’s helpless cry in my mind’s ears.

At that moment, I felt guilt, defeat, embarrassment, and helplessness, just to name a few of the dark feelings and emotions that filled my mind. I felt like I had done this to myself by choosing to go back to work full-time.

I raced between counters at the crowded airport, trying to book the next available flight home. I managed to get on a red-eye flight that night, and I got home early next morning. I was exhausted and sick—I had gotten mastitis. Again, I questioned my decision to go back to work. I questioned my worthiness as a mom.

At that time, I had completely forgotten another, equally dark moment. One sunny afternoon a few months before that incident, there was what I thought for sure was the all-time darkest moment.

I remembered that staying at home proved just as challenging.

I was pushing my son, who was napping in his stroller, in San Diego’s beautiful Balboa Park during one of our family trips. It was one hour past his usual morning nap time, so he was irritable. I had just nursed him in my parked car for nearly thirty minutes, which seemed like an eternity, and I was exhausted from sleepless nights and constant care.

I wanted to enjoy the fragrant early summer air. I wanted to listen to the joyful singing of the birds; I wanted to maybe (just maybe!) muster enough energy to visit a few of the amazingly curated museums within the park. However, I was also irritable. I was exhausted and hungry because I had not eaten food—real food, other than two granola bars—since waking up that morning, and he was irritable, too, as babies on the verge of sleep usually are.

All at once, my son fell asleep as we strolled, so I decided to treat myself to lunch at one of my favorite restaurants in the park. Maybe I could even order one drink.

Of course, it couldn’t be so simple. As soon as I was seated at my table with the stroller by my side, my son woke up and started screaming. Not just any kind of scream. A blood-curdling scream. I tried to calm him down by gently rocking the stroller and offering him his favorite toys. He screamed even louder and threw the toys on the ground. Nothing worked. I frantically took him out of the stroller and tried to soothe him with my loving cuddles. That, it turned out, made him even more furious. And the next thing I knew, he bit me on my shoulder.

So there I was, with greasy and overly dry-shampooed hair, a milk-stained t-shirt and sweatpants, with bags for days under my eyes, panicking as I tried to pry my baby-turned-piranha off of my shoulder. There was blood. It was scary. And to add insult to injury, shocked onlookers gave me dirty looks instead of a hand or a few kind words. This was my experience as a full-time stay-at-home mom.

Guilt, defeat, embarrassment, helplessness—the same flood of dark feelings and emotions I felt  after my trip to New York—struck at that moment. In that moment, I questioned my decision to be a stay-at-home mom. I questioned my worthiness as a mom.

Fast-forward five years, as I’m sitting here in front of my computer, recounting what I felt at the time were my darkest hours, and, well... laughing about it. Beyond good party stories, I’m now even feeling grateful for those moments.

Those momentary “unbearable” experiences during motherhood are just that—momentary.

Maybe you’ve been there. Maybe you can relate. Maybe you’re in it right now, and it feels unbearable, as the weight and responsibility of motherhood oftentimes does. But I’m on the other side now, and I can report back that whatever it is, we will get through it. My hope—my real hope—is that we can be kinder to ourselves in the process.

Thinking back, I wish I could have paused and reflected for even five minutes during those dark moments. I wish I had taken my husband’s kind suggestion and re-booked a flight the next day so that I could have had enough time to rest and recharge at a hotel overnight. I wish I could have ignored the onlookers at that restaurant and enjoyed my lunch. I wish I could remind myself, no moment is forever—this, too, shall pass.

Being at the two seemingly opposite ends of my experience as a full-time, stay-at-home mom and full-time working mom has taught me a priceless lesson. All that talk about finding the balance and making the sacrifice only creates more stress, frustration, and imbalance. The grass is not actually much greener on the other side. Both have sacrifices and joys.

If I could go back in time to have a talk with myself, I’d tell myself that there’s never a worst moment, but there are many learning moments. The darkest hour is actually just before the dawn.

Now I choose to not wallow in the bad and try to celebrate the small victories—a yummy dinner made before 6 p.m., a full workday without a call from school or babysitter, an uninterrupted chat with a girlfriend, a quick run before everyone wakes up in the morning. The small victories add up to big happiness. And it will become a habit, a habit to celebrate yourself as a full-time mom, a working mom or, simply, a woman.

Work+HomeYunyi ZhangComment