The Ankle Biters

We face one of the great issues of our time. We grew and cultivated millions of achievement-oriented females then set them loose on parenting. Schools, friendship circles, sports, activity groups—entire communities—have highly trained operatives completely focused on raising perfect children. Being a perfect mom is a career pursued by women, trained to attack projects and execute any game plan with a laser focus. We are an army of mom warriors who are battle ready and motivated on behalf of our ‘ankle biters’ (as my Australian friend calls them).

I should know. I’m one of them. A warrior, not an ankle biter.

Unlike the corporate world I’m a product of, the accepted code of conduct or workplace rules are vague, and if there were ever a situation where the ends might justify the means, it would be for the good of my child. My best defense is to fight alongside my mom friends. They have my back in this enormous arena filled with challenging children, supposedly unappreciated husbands, and other moms who sometimes act like jackals wearing designer scarves. And, the doors to the arena are sealed shut. There is no getting out, no giving up. Because the ankle biters are worth it. They are treasures; they are everything.

Before I became a working mom, I knew there would be balance issues and sacrifices. But no one told me I would be a sleep-deprived zombie whose new designer logo was a permanent drool mark on my left shoulder. Other women wore the same drool logo on their business suits, looking equally exhausted. One day a colleague whispered to me, “I’m wearing this jacket because I can’t zip up my skirts or button my pants. No one told me abut this.” Working moms in big demanding jobs have a lot in common. We worked so hard, overcoming endless obstacles to attain our positions. We nodded to each other in the office corridor, acknowledging that having balance was nothing more than an urban myth, and, a good night’s sleep was likely eighteen years away.

I had quick conversations with friends in the hallway because I didn’t want to appear unprofessional, talking about personal things at work. I had always talked about personal stuff before I was a mom, but it felt as if every moment I spent at the office had to be used wisely. I had to control my work hours. I could not risk an unhappy babysitter or nanny. At about 5:30-6, the working moms looked frantic because we shared the same thought. “Shit! I need to get home for the nanny or to pick up my kid at daycare.” My second job was waiting for me at home. My kids deserved that small, dedicated window every night. Bath time, story and song time, a dinner they would actually eat, endless laundry, midnight grocery runs and the inevitable tantrum were part of the nightly routine.

One day, I was worried about leaving work to take my little girl to Yale Hospital for an appointment. Since adopting her from China, she had endured three angioplasties and many other tests and procedures. I sat with a pediatric cardiologist to discuss our then 3-½ year old daughter. It was a follow-up to the latest angioplasty procedures that had not gone as well as we had hoped. I was in a power suit, leg jiggling up and down, phone—face down with the ringer off. This moment was all I wanted to focus on. The cardiologist told me that we needed to pursue a surgical solution or our daughter’s lungs would begin to atrophy. He looked at me earnestly. “Are you planning on taking leave?” His question took me completely by surprise. “I don't mean to pry. I’m just saying, it's a lot for a little girl and a family to absorb.”

I looked at him silently, not able to absorb the words. He said, “What I’m asking is, are you going to quit your job? The next months are going to involve a huge time and emotional commitment. And you can’t really have a nanny taking her to the tests and pre-op appointments. Honestly, the stress will be off the charts.”

For a moment, the room went black and I felt like I was falling. The cardiologist kept talking about breaking open her chest and how they would likely have to stop her heart. I felt like he was reaching down my throat, squeezing all the air out of my lungs. I had not anticipated this conversation when I woke up this morning and ate a bowl of cheerios. White noise roared through my head. I felt my cells violently rearranging themselves. I walked to the parking garage clutching my wonderful little girl, swiping at tears I couldn’t control, trying to project calmness while feeling wildly out of control. As I drove home on the Parkway, the lanes started to merge together. I had this horrible sensation I was going to veer off the road and crash. I pulled onto the shoulder and tried to get myself under control.

I didn’t say a word about the panic attack to my husband. I knew he would demand I see a doctor, and like most of my mom friends, my only doctor was an OB GYN. We had a short talk later that night, as there was really very little to say. The doctor had basically prodded me, in the nicest way possible, to reset my priorities.

I had not understood what prioritizing meant until then. Was my child my first priority? Well, yes of course she was, and there was a little brother at home too. Was my husband and our marriage my first priority? Well, of course. Was commitment to my job and delivering to my team a top priority? Well, of course. Could I manage all of these competing priorities with an ill child? No. So bottom line—my job went to the back of the queue on the car ride home.

As soon as I arrived at work the next morning, I called the secretary to my boss, who was the head of the Human Resources function. She greeted me warmly, then asked, “Can I ask what this is about?” All I could manage was, “My little girl is really sick.” She said, “Come right up.” I took the elevator up and walked resignedly along wooden floors, the sound of my clicking heels silenced as I crossed over rich Oriental rugs. I arrived at a beautiful entry with an impressive office behind it. The secretary came around, gave me a hug, and said, “I’m so sorry about your little girl. Let me get the big boss for you.”

I stood, looking at my surroundings, fighting to keep my breathing under control. I was so stressed about the situation and deeply anxious about what I was about to do. I had worked incredibly hard to get the position I had and was on the ‘big guns’ radar. Another Fortune 500 made me an aggressive offer to take the Head of HR job, based in NYC. I mentally crossed that off the list.

My boss came out, concern lining his face. I blurted out, “We’ve had three failed angioplasties, and now she has to have open heart surgery. I love this job, but I need to be with her. They are talking about percentage chances of her making it. I didn’t see this coming.” My tears embarrassed me. I cursed myself—I’m not a crier and never a crier at work. My boss pretended not to notice, “It’s okay. We’ll work it out. Whatever time off you need, you take. And promise me you’ll come back. You know you’re my rising star. I’ve got big plans for you.”

I walked back to my desk, packed my career ambitions in a box and walked out. I reassured everyone I’d be back in a few months and wondered if anyone picked up on the hollowness in my tone.