Career, diapers pale before the irresistibility of 'one short person'

On the days when Jonathan has plastered the kitchen cabinets with cherry pie filling, tossed his favorite teddy bear in the diaper pail, and eaten several generations of dust bunnies under the bed, I find myself wondering if I made a sane decision. Did I really give up a satisying, uncomplicated, 8-to-4 job to be at home with a young demolition expert?

Long before Jonathan arrived, my husband and I had come up with what we thought would be the ideal arrangement for his care. I would take a six-week maternity leave and then return to the office. While I was at work, we would leave our son in the hands of a loving, grandmotherly type who would look forward to caring for him in our home each day because she needed a little something to do - certainly not because she was dependent on a hefty salary.

After he was born, however, our carefully laid plans began to unravel faster than the hand-knit booties I threw in the washer after one dazed 3 a.m. feeding. Much to my surprise, and in spite of the sleepless nights and diaper-filled days , I was enjoying being at home. More precisely, I enjoyed being at home with Jonathan.

Instead of returning to the office in six weeks, I took an additional six-month leave of absence. I finally went back to work when our son was eight months old, expecting to pick up my previous pace.

We found our hoped-for grandmother after advertising in several newspapers, but at the hourly rate she charged, we could only afford to have her come three days a week. On the other days we dropped Jonathan off in time for breakfast at a family day-care home where he had several other little boys and a good-natured cat to play with.

Our grandmother-sitter had raised four children of her own, and the mother in the family day-care home was a former teacher who brimmed over with love and innovative ideas for play, so we felt we'd been fortunate to find such good care for our son. Still, I found myself wondering what he was up to during the day and wishing I were with him. I missed the first time he sat up by himself, and I missed the first time he proudly pulled himself to a standing position. Mostly, I missed his gooey grins and big bear hugs. After six weeks, I handed in my resignation and became a full-time mother.

The decision to stop working was a difficult one in many ways. My lack of experience with infants and toddlers left me with plenty of doubts about my ability to teach Jonathan as well as a trained professional could, but I decided he could tolerate a lot of mistakes, and together we'd make out all right. Living on one salary instead of two presented a more immediate challenge, but my husband and I felt that because we'd made our decision based on what we thought was best for Jonathan, somehow we'd find ways to make ends meet.

The hardest part of the decision, however, was leaving my job. I had always been a career-oriented person, and it wasn't easy to pack up my pencils after 15 years. I also felt an obligation to other mothers-to-be in our office, and I didn't want to fuel any misconceptions about the difficulties of combining motherhood and career, since I have many friends who are doing both successfully and happily.

But for me, the decision was ultimately a very personal one. For a long time we had looked forward to having a child, and once he arrived I wanted to be with him as much as I could. Taking a few years off to do that was the most exciting, most challenging work I could think of - and I felt that it just might help to broaden my professional background in the long run as well.

In the past few months, I've often thought about a conversation I had some time ago with the co-author of ''Sooner Or Later: The Timing of Parenthood in Adult Lives.'' It's a book about couples who had postponed having children until their late 30s or early 40s. The comment that has stayed with me from my chat with Pamela Daniels is this:

''It was the women who were perfectionists in their own lives, who planned their children with a lot of careful, serious, collaborative thinking with their husbands, who found themselves shocked with parenthood. (In their planning) they had left out the one thing which you can't include until you're on the spot - the possibility of falling in love with the baby, the pull and power of the tininess of an infant, its total dependency, its delicacy.''

Delicate and tiny he's not, and there are days when Jonathan makes television's Mr. T look like a freshly scrubbed cherub at a Norman Rockwell Sunday dinner. But for one short person, he packs a lot of irresistibility, and in a year and a half he's helped my husband and me to discover a capacity for love we'd only guessed at before. We have a feeling the discoveries to come will be even better.

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