To work or not to work: a challenging decision for mothers

''How can you think of leaving that adorable child all day?'' ''Once you get away from the job routine, it's hard to get back in the groove again.''

''Take it from me, you'll regret not having been there when your children were small. They grow up so fast.''

''Set your career path and stick to it, no matter what.''

''Wait until he starts school. He won't need you so much then.''

''There'll be so many changes in your field that your training will be obsolete and you'll have trouble getting another job.''

Every new or expectant mother receives conflicting advice like this if she debates whether or not to work shortly after the birth of her child. Having been both a working and a ''stay-at-home'' mother of young children, I have heard every conceivable argument and agree that each is, in its own way, valid and well-intentioned.

My experiences, however, prompt me to add a corollary of my own. ''Beware! Youm might become so captivated by that new member of the family that you will be unable to make the break. Furthermore, the longer you stay home, the harder it becomes to leave.'' I know. It happened to me.

When I became pregnant with my first child early in my marriage, I was employed as a newsletter editor, a position I enjoyed and wanted to continue. At that time, working mothers were decidedly in the minority, and pressures to remain at home, particularly with an infant, were strong. Nevertheless, after weighing both sides of the working-mother issue carefully, I elected to take maternity leave and return to the job as soon as possible.

Naturally, I was concerned about entrusting my tiny son's care to someone else, but I found an excellent babysitter with years of experience who became like a second grandmother to him. Thus assured that he was being capably cared for, I concentrated on my job during office hours and reveled in the time I had to spend with him at home.

Our second son came along three years later. Although life became a bit more hectic, we still managed quite well. Our schedule, which seemed herculean to others at the time, was routine to us, and the children, unaccustomed to anything different, adjusted easily. Perhaps I overcompensated for my absence during the day by being a cookie-baking, story-reading, game-playing mommy in the evenings and on weekends, but I honestly felt I had not missed anything in my sons' lives. They were thriving - physically, emotionally, and intellectually.

When my younger son was six, changes in my job forced a reevaluation of my life. As a result, I decided to ''retire'' from the business world for a while. Both boys were in school and I devoted my spare time to writing children's stories, participating in school and Cub Scout activities, and taking adult education courses in subjects I had often wanted to pursue. I viewed this period as a sabbatical of sorts. I still planned to return to work sometime in the future.

Then I became pregnant again. When our daughter Karen was born, I discovered what it was like to spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with an infant. There is no way to glamorize the endless round of laundry and sleep-interrupted nights, unbroken by a challenging job assignment, and there were periods when I felt confined and frustrated.

Yet through it all, more often than not I found myself simply delighting in this unique little person. I examined each stage in her development like a scientist conducting laboratory research. Batting her mobile for the first time was a cause for celebration; scooting to the top of her crib on her tummy was a milestone equivalent to winning a marathon.

As infancy yielded to the early toddler stage, I adapted my work to fit her timetable. She frequently slept late, would only play in the playpen after breakfast, and enjoyed a walk through the neighborhood in her stroller before her afternoon nap. Accordingly, I wrote or did housework during her quiet periods so that my time was hers to be savored at our leisure when she was awake.

Still, I felt restless at times. There was a growing desire to be a part of the work force once again, to experience firsthand the excitement of the expanding opportunities for women. It seemed a supreme irony that I was now in the minority by staying home after having been in the minority as a working mother 14 years ago.

Yet because of what we shared, the thought of leaving Karen all day was distressing. All the special little moments with her took on new significance when I realized we would no longer be able to share them in that way again. I thought of the rituals we had established like reading three stories before naptime, after when she was rocked and ''shouldered,'' as she put. Then there were such times when for no apparent reason she would run to me, give me a tight squeeze, and merrily declare, ''Give me my kisses.''

To assuage my yearnings for a career, I began handling free-lance editorial work from home. Keeping active in my field helped, but it did not replace the camaraderie or sense of achievement gleaned from a career in the business world. Yet it was the first step along that career path once again, and Karen could still be with me, writing her ''paragraphs'' as I worked on mine.

Now Karen is four and getting ready to try her own wings. She attends nursery school and has her own friends and unique experiences. Each day she bounds into the house, brimming with enthusiasm and descriptions of all the things that have happened to her that day. She is slowly and surely creating a life of her own.

Perhaps the time is drawing near when I too can resume a working life of my own. It may not be tomorrow or even next year, but there will come a day when I can say, ''I am ready.'' The one certainty I can guarantee to any mother who is pondering the decision of working, thinking she will wait one or two years until her child is less vulnerable or less helpless, is this: It doesn't get any easier as the child grows. It only seems to get harder.

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