Life isn’t simple, and neither are its choices

There I was at Manhattan Bagel frantically tearing up bite-size pieces of my bagel so my then 9-month-old would stop trying to arch his way out of the high chair. Meanwhile, my 2-year-old stood wobbling on his own chair, licking butter off his toast while testing my patience.

Then she walked in — all professional in a pinstriped suit and the kind of heels I see only on mannequins.

I sat in my elastic-waist pants and slip-on sneakers watching with envy as she dashed in for coffee and dashed out effortlessly, carrying only a purse. No diaper bag. No double stroller. No container of fish crackers. And no blankies, rattles or toys that squeak. Only a purse.

And for a few minutes, I envied that working woman and thought … I bet she can take a potty break anytime she wants, alone. I bet she drinks her coffee while it’s hot. I bet she can make a phone call, uninterrupted. And I bet the anchor of her day isn’t a date singing nursery songs with an oversized, stuffed clown at Gymboree.

I questioned my place, my role, and longed for that “ideal” place for a parent. Going to work? Or spending days with your children? I’ve spent time working at home and in careers outside the home. And I still don’t know.

One thing is clear: Raising kids is rewarding but the hardest job yet. As a journalist, I’ve navigated minefields in Bosnia, dodged enemy fire in Kosovo and covered teen drug trades in the streets of Philadelphia. Yet nothing compares to the adventure or emotional highs and lows that come with being a stay-at-home parent.

I know. I’ve been there.

I’ve bribed. I’ve begged. It was a “Nanny 911” episode waiting to happen. I plunged to levels that attracted sneers at grocery stores. My crime: popping open a can of Pringles to buy me two more aisles of quiet kids. I’ve mediated minivan backseat-screaming fights that spawned from giving out the wrong color fruit roll-up. Worse, I’ve stomached the piercing “I hate yous” that comes after standing your ground.

I recall park-bench conversations, punctuated by dozens of demands for fish crackers and juice boxes. “Where was I?” seemed to be the way I started most conversations.

Not anymore.

Now, it is my husband dodging all things plastic, prying fossilized gummy bears from car seats, attending school orientations and bandaging scrapes and scratches.

Two years ago, my husband and I switched roles. Now, for the bulk of the day, he cares for our two boys (now ages 5 and 4), arranges play dates, packs snacks for the park, drives them to school and fields the dreaded “I’m-going-to-be-late” calls from me whenever a late story breaks. And he’s great at it – better than I was.

He’s good at what he does, though at the end of some days whenI see the glazed look in his eyes and hear the vocabulary loosening, I know it’s mommy time.

Do I wish I could reverse roles? Some days. Do I miss being home with my kids? Most days. But life isn’t simple. My husband is a carpenter, a furniture maker, a craftsman – a career that works well around my crazy job, which pays our mortgage, health benefits and the plastic mountain of toys that creeps up in nearly every room. Plus, I love my job and believe I can be a good parent and work too.

But it’s never ideal. Part of me is always home with them, missing them, wondering what silly things are filtering out of their mouths, what they’re learning and how they are reacting to the myriad of new experiences that mold their early days.

For now, for me, and for many working parents, we’ll have to make the most of the moments we have, strive for the “ideal place” in the quality of time, not quantity.

Still, now, when I stroll into a restaurant and see a disheveled mother hurriedly packing or unpacking baby gear to attend to the needs of her child, it is I who am envious.

I’ve learned that “ideal” is all a matter of perspective.