At Large

Yesterday, the latest issue of Commonweal arrived at my door, and it startled me to realize that I hadn’t seen the cover before that moment. I was getting my first look at it like any other subscriber would. It was a reminder that I am now, officially and wistfully, an editor “at large.”

I’ve been working part-time in the Commonweal offices since my first child was born in 2011, and thriving on the balance of work and family I’m lucky enough to have carved out for myself thanks to a flexible employer and an extremely supportive husband (not to mention invaluable help from my in-laws and some other dedicated babysitters and friends). But—Pope Francis’s remarks about Catholics’ obligations vis-à-vis rabbits having come too late to be any help to me—I am due in a few weeks to give birth to my third child, and with three kids under four I have to admit I’ve met my match, at least for the short term.

So, I am now officially an associate editor “at large,” maintaining a foothold at the magazine I love while focusing on the family that, for now, demands the greater part of my attention and energy (and that, yes, I also love). I like the “at large” title because it makes my status sound exotic and mysterious. It suggests that I am hard to track down, when in fact on any given day I am almost certainly at home—especially these snowy, icy, late-third-trimester days—and that I am pursuing any number of exciting projects, when in reality I am most likely doing laundry. 

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years thinking and reading about how work and motherhood collide, for me personally as well as in society. One of the reasons I so admired Rebecca Traister’s recent article for the New Republic ("Labor Pains") is that, blending personal testimony and thoughtful social analysis, she captures how broad cultural trends and individual circumstances related to motherhood complicate each other and make it hard to say anything definitive about what women, or employers, should or should not do. I get bored with too-theoretical discussions of “having it all” and “leaning in,” and I roll my eyes when people like Elisabeth Badinter try to distill all the complex issues down to a simplistic (and/or contrarian) conclusion like “Maybe breastfeeding is the problem.” Traister is right, I think, that a satisfying resolution to the conflicts women face when their prime working years coincide with their childbearing years would require a major overhaul of the way our society thinks of things like gender roles and parental leave policies. The current “system” is not set up to allow workers to turn their attention to their young families without taking a significant hit in their careers, and it is not set up to allow men and women to share that burden more equitably. In the meantime, employers and employees have to work it out for themselves, and how successfully a woman can handle both work and motherhood depends to a great extent on her personal circumstances.

In my case, my frustrations fall decidedly into the category of “problems you want to have”—woe is me, I must step back from my fulfilling work to devote myself more fully to my healthy and generally very comfortable family. (Maybe having to deal with three kids under the age of four is not a problem you would want to have, but I brought that on myself, now didn’t I?) I have nothing to complain about. But I still identified with Traister’s honest account of how “it can be wildly discombobulating to find yourself suddenly tripped up by your own body,” and how it’s hard for women in particular to balance the very different and sometimes irreconcilable demands of family and career.

Anyway, I felt obliged to notify you all of my change in status, although I hope it won’t be all that noticeable outside the office (where I am sure my fellow editors will have no trouble picking up my slack). I will still be writing a column in the magazine and blogging here whenever I have the chance, even if it’s just to share tales of life with the preschool set. You can find me on Twitter, especially during late-night nursing sessions (all you journalists tweeting from Rome: thanks for keeping me company in the wee hours!). And while I’m already missing my days in the office, I have to say my situation is a good one: I can keep on taking credit for the great things Commonweal does, and I also get to just enjoy the magazine as a subscriber and a fan.

As for the baby, I promise to file an update when I have news to share.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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