He pointed at me as I walked out of the coffee shop and said, his eyes stern: “Don’t go back to work.”
I was repulsed.
A few minutes before, I had walked in and ordered a chai. The man was sitting at the counter, alone, staring straight ahead, his mouth set in a straight line.
He looked over at me. I tried not to make eye contact, but I couldn’t help it.
“Oh, well, I have to see the baby,” he said with great fanfare, even though I had looked away immediately. He heaved his body up, sidled over to C.’s stroller and peeked in.
“He’s beautiful,” he said, as he made eyes at C.
C. stared him down.
“Are you the mother?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, taken aback.
“In this city, you never see the mothers with their babies,” he said, shaking his head with mock sorrow. “It’s a shame.”
“Are you going to work?” he asked.
I faltered. One pause, and he seized the opportunity to lecture me.
I was annoyed. I was annoyed that this man judges women who choose to work: smart, powerful, amazing women. I was annoyed that he judges women who don’t have a choice: those who have mortgages, single moms.
Most of all, I was annoyed because he hit a nerve. I was in the midst of making a very hard decision.
When I got the offer to work at NPR four years ago, I was ecstatic. I was in the hallway at my last job and I actually jumped up and down and felt like my heart would explode. It was a dream come true.
The night before my first day, I got a spasm in my eyelid that lasted more than two months — every day, every five minutes. It was stress. I wanted to make an impression. I didn’t want to make any mistakes.
I worked hard. I always worked overtime when asked. I worked the conventions. I worked the presidential race and congressional races, crawling into bed at 5 a.m. I led projects. I attended the All Things Considered meetings. I wrote stories and essays I was proud of. I filled in for editing positions. I co-hosted and helped create a short-term blog. I won awards. And I looked forward to going to work everyday — with hilarious, inspiring coworkers.
Then, last year, I got pregnant. I was nervous to tell my boss. I emailed him on a Friday afternoon, “Do you have time for a quick chat?” “Only if it’s good news,” he wrote back. I walked into this office. “Well, I think it’s good news, you may not,” I said.
He asked me if I wanted six months’ leave. I said yes. Two months before I went on leave he fished about whether I’d come back. I looked him in the eye and said I was committed to my job. And I was.
C. was born in December. In March, I had lunch with a coworker who asked if I was going to come back. I told her yes, definitely.
But then, five months into my leave, A. was offered a two-year post in the California desert. We would go in November.
So I had to decide: Do I go back to work for five months, only to quit? Money wasn’t an issue. The issue was quitting a job I love, and leaving a community that inspires me. The issue was taking myself out of the workforce after investing so much to get to where I am.
The man in the coffee shop haunted me as I made the decision. I hated that I felt he was right (in my case). I’ve always thought I could have it all. But I realized that I wouldn’t get much done in five months and that I wanted more than anything to spend the rest of my baby’s first year with him.
So I decided, in the end, not to go back.
It felt bold and brave. Lonely and scary. Exhilarating and freeing.
The stress around making that decision was similar to the stress I felt when I started the job. I still feel a bit sick to my stomach when I think about it. When I’m ready to re-enter the workforce, I worry I’ll have to start over (though I know that’s not true.)
But I also have other dreams to pursue — including writing creatively. And now I have the time.
And, I keep reminding myself: There is always time for work. Babies only stay tiny for a short amount of time. And I plan on savoring every moment possible.
Soon after I sent the staff-wide email to share my news, the responses rolled in, second after second. I sat at my kitchen table and was overcome — tears spilled down my face. “Nooooo!” “We’re going to miss you!” “The California desert?” “I wish I had done that.” One woman wrote, “You’ll be back I’m sure. We all eventually wander back.”