(Photo courtesy of CocinaGratis.net)
Several years ago I was getting ready for work when my then-7-year-old son began a conversation with me I will never forget.
"Aha," I responded as I glopped thick velvet-black mascara on my lashes—my war paint—with my mouth wide open.
"Why do you work?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Can't you be a stay-at-home mom like the other moms."
I stopped, held my mascara in midair, and looked at him pointedly.
"Look. Someday you'll be proud you had a mom who was a professional."
"You wrestle people?"
Over the past 33 years, I've worked on nearly every side of the Mommy Wars equation. As the mother of two children separated by 17 years, I’ve navigated in and out of the job market as needed, as a single mom and a married mom.
I’ve done what I’ve had to do to contribute to my family’s income, and to fulfill lifelong goals while I cared for my children. I grew up with a working mom and a working grandmother, so being a mom and having a career seemed perfectly normal to me. In a blue-collar family, work is not a choice.
Over the years, I’ve worked, stayed home, and worked from home alternately. It hasn’t always been easy, but that’s what you get when your body is the one equipped to do the heavy lifting of bringing children into the world.
Here is a selection of my mommy war stories:
As a working mother I endured “mommy shame” and separation anxiety after dropping off my children with strangers I’ve had to believe in (or I’d go insane) at daycare centers, private homes, preschools, and elementary schools.
Once, some 28 years ago, I had to yank my daughter out of a home-based daycare after learning that the husband of the woman who ran it was fondling little girls. “Tío Lucho” later died of a heart attack in jail after parents reported him to authorities. He seemed so kind, so docile, so harmless. His wife made a good milhojas or thousand-layer cake. He was a monster in disguise.
I’ve anguished through epic snowstorms that turned my normally one-hour commute into a five-hour nightmare on gridlocked highways as I tried in vain to reach my child’s after-care program so staff could inch home on icy roads. I got no sympathy from my employers, other commuters, daycare providers, or stay-at-home mom friends who never offered to help.
I’ve pulled up to schools and daycares, the last mom to retrieve my son or daughter, my heart skipping beats when their little faces expressed betrayal at my late arrival, but ultimately, relief and happiness that mommy was there.
I’ve received emergency calls from teachers telling me that my son or daughter had been injured, been bitten, had bitten, or were in the nurse’s office vomiting because of a high fever. I’ve had to call boss after boss to apologize and ask if I could stay home to take sick children to doctors, and nurse them at home. I’ve worked at home as they barfed, choked down antibiotics through tears, barfed some more, and passed out with glassy eyes and scarlet cheeks.
I’ve put up with ribbing and caustic remarks from other women about being on “the mommy track,” a career-limiting decision, they warned, that would hamper any efforts to climb the career ladder. I held my tongue, knowing that most would face the same decision one day: to work or not to work? They couldn’t possibly know then what it was like to give birth, gaze into your child’s eyes, and know that all of your priorities had shifted seismically ...
... which played me right into the hands of employers. I sat through a job interview with a newspaper editor who actually asked, “You have a small child at home. How are you going to do this job?” Isn’t it illegal to ask a woman that question? Never mind. I didn't get the night reporting job anyway.
I’ve seen co-workers without children roll their eyes and complain about working parents who get time off to attend special events or parent-teacher conferences, or get family leave time. Yet, if anything happens to children, woman are the first to be raked over the coals.
As a stay-at-home mom following the births of my children, I felt isolated, alone, unattractive, alienated, bored and intellectually unchallenged as I spent endless hours engaged in mind-numbing housework, diaper changing, cooking, breast pumping, and lonely stroller walks through abandoned parks and city streets, pooping geese our only company. As it turns out, postpartum depression is a bitch, and mommy groups aren’t always as supportive as they should be.
As a freelance writer, I’ve had to interview corporate executives over the phone while my son crawled under my desk and unplugged my computer, deleting a half hour’s worth of notes. The awkwardness and embarrassment of having to ask a busy executive to consent to another interview was an ego-compromising, pride-swallowing experience, but I had to make my deadline, no excuses accepted.
In the end, the choices women have to make to balance our lives aren’t always easy. I suppose some will find these war stories good fodder for arguing against motherhood, or against mothers who work, or against our “anti-child” and “anti-family” society. Whatever.
As many have noted over the past few days, most men and women can't opt out of the job market. Single parents, especially, have to work to support themselves and their children. And what about parents with special-needs children? What are their options? Anyone who questions anyone's place in the work world really is sorely out of touch with reality. I can't believe we're even having this conversation in 2012. For those who don't have to work, more power to you, if that's what you truly want.
Right now, I’m not working, but not by choice. This economy has idled me and sidelined my career, but I’m lucky I’ve had a career at all, and even luckier it was in the profession I chose for myself when I was a little girl.
No one can take that away from me, and I’ll always be proud of what I’ve accomplished, however modest. I’ve worked and raised a family. I’ve had it all, and I proffer no apologies and have only a few regrets.
To paraphrase former Colorado Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, “I have a brain and a uterus, and use both,” both at home and in the work world.
And, for a lot of people, that is still a difficult proposition to accept.
More great Pat Schroeder quotes:
• When people ask me why I am running as a woman, I always answer, "What choice do I have?"
• Nobody ever says to men, how can you be a Congressman and a father.
• You can't wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time.
• The Pledge of Allegiance says "...with liberty and justice for all." What part of "all" don't you understand?
• Many women have more power than they recognize, and they're very hesitant to use it, for they fear they won't be loved.
• When men talk about defense, they always claim to be protecting women and children, but they never ask the women and children what they think.
• Women have been an island in the military, getting little support from the inside or the outside.