Dispatches from a Cultural Guerrillera

De músico, poeta y loco todos tenemos un poco.

Deborah Méndez Wilson

Deborah Méndez Wilson
Denver Metro Area, Colorado, USA
August 24
Colorín Colorado Communications
I'm a fifth-generation Coloradan whose Spanish/Pueblo Indian family roots run hundreds of years deep in the U.S. Southwest. I am a Westerner, through and through, and can't imagine living anywhere else in the United States. The Colorado/New Mexico territory is my ancestral homeland. _______________________________ I am a mother of two and grandmother of one, but don't expect me to conform to anachronistic, enshrined stereotypes of what a woman is supposed to be or do in the autumn of her life. _______________________________ I am a professionally trained journalist who loves to blog, too. I earned my 10,000 hours while working as a daily journalist, and unabashedly worship at the altar of English. _______________________________ Though English is my native language and I adore it, I am fluent in Spanish because I lived in South America for a decade, and revel in the vibrant, haunting beauty of Castilian and Latin American cultures, histories and dialects. ¡Que viva el Español! _______________________________ Follow me on Twitter: @DebMendezWilson


Editor’s Pick
APRIL 13, 2012 12:41PM

The Thousand-Layer Cake of Motherhood

Rate: 42 Flag


(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.


Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
This is a fabulous piece. And the title couldn't be more perfect. ~r
Hits the nail on the head. Working moms just need solutions that work, acceptance and understanding. We are raising the next generation, that needs to count as pretty high on the list.
Most excellent... my wife will love it.
You told it like it is for those of us who have had to balance motherhood and the workplace. I especially can relate to the look of betrayal from the last kid picked up--mine. That didn't happen a lot. Still.
Joan: As soon as I mentioned the milhojas, I realized I had a theme. You should try this cake. It is divine.
Asia: Well said, and so true. Thanks for stopping by.
Miguela: I hated being late. That little look kills me.
Nicely done. I can't believe we're still having this conversation either. At home or at work, we all deserve a little more support and respect.
So many variables, none of them perfect. You certainly capture the dilemmas.
There seem to be alot of conversations we are having lately
that we believers in the progress of civilization
wouldn't have anticipated.

Things are changing at an ever-accelerating rate these days.
My mother, who was "not allowed" to work by my
1950's-mired father,
complained of being"isolated, alone, unattractive, alienated, bored and intellectually unchallenged ... endless hours engaged in mind-numbing housework."

In her later years she watched women enter the workforce
en masse , and felt ambivalent about it:
one day railing against working moms,
the next day professing deep jealousy
and a sense of a life stolen from her...

The bottom line is choice.
There is more choice these days, at least that's some progress.
There's also a plethora of new communication technology
we can use to criticize each others' choices
& make life even more miserable than the economic trainwreck
already has!! : )
This pretty much sums it up, Deborah...thanks for this great post! I love those quotes from Pat Schroeder. My favorite, though, is your son's "You wrestle people?" :)
Just like men, women should be able to do/wear/say whatever they want as long as they do not hurt the body or livelihood of another. To apologize for what women do/wear/say is most destructive to the feminist movement and women's rights. Women (and men) have worked hard for decades to win the women rights we have now. We should never GO BACK, even to discuss these rights. I also must add the women's worst enemies are those women who criticize other women's choices and freedoms and tell them what to wear, what job not to take, how to raise their children...

BTW, the Mille feuille/Napoleon is my favorite pastry. Excellent post, Deborah. R
I really liked how you talked about men, the subject that EVERYONE leaves out. It should be parenting wars, not mommy wars. Why does mommy get all the guilt?
Absolute AAA rating. This is a family choice. Whatever works. Whoever works. All of my daughters-in-law work. I didn't. Some of their moms worked. My mother stayed home. My mother-in-law worked. She had to raise her kids alone after their father died. She did a fine job. Stay at home moms are not necessarily synonymous with good mothers. No two situations are identical. Hooray for all of us who raised decent kids.
JL: Thank you. I know you know.

Lea: So right you are. Seems like we're screwed either way.

James: I know how your mother feels! And I thought things had gotten better.

Clay: Denver Post columnist Penny Parker once used that conversation between my son and me in the famous "eavesdropping" portion of her column. She loved it, too. It was just precious. Out of the mouths of babes. ... I once interviewed Schroeder in her Denver office. She is quite a formidable woman.

Thoth: Now that you mention it, the mihojas really is just a big Napoleon, isn't it? Totally agree with you.

Bernadine: I know! Truth be told, though, I know a lot of "sensitive new-age dads" who are the greatest, including my husband.
I met Pat Schroeder in the 1987 campaign trail...she was a great woman!!
Your opening paragraph made me tear up - my 4YO son asked me similar questions this week (no wrestling tho!) as I was rushing to get him ready for school.
We do what we can, as best as we can, for the ones we love.
We women have to stick together!
Wonderful piece.
Brazen: Wish she were still in office!!

Amber: Be brave. We've all been where you are. It's so hard to look into those big eyes and say, "Mama's got to go to work now." And, you are right, we do need to stick together!

Rennis: Thank you!

Ande: I think we can all agree. No matter what choice we have to make in life, it's not always easy. If we don't have a choice, that's not easy, either! Thanks ...
Thank you for sharing your stories and wisdom - as well as the excellent quotes at the end. An honest, and inspiring, take on motherhood - and womanhood.
Very moving. I love the example of your son unplugging the computer, and swallowing your pride to ask for another interview - wow, that must have been so hard!

Love the title the most. :)
Great exposition Deborah. It would be nice to think that that's the input Romney is getting. After my parents split, my mother had to work too so I can appreciate what you went through.
Work of the working mom is tougher than most know. But I have to say that many women are far tougher, resilient and just flat out better people, than most of the rest. I appreciate the solid post, the sense of how it is to manage family, career and the myriad priorities that rock your every day world. Thank you for sharing, educating us.
Alysa: Thanks. I think you are going about it the right way. Travel, work, have fun, and worry about being a mommy a little later on. Once you're ready, you'll have so much to offer your children. Oh the stories you'll tell!

Amy: It was embarrassing. That's just the sort of thing men expect from us, isn't it? But, what are we going to do?

Abra: I never looked at work as hard, just as a necessity. But, I've been really lucky. I've always had white-collar, professional jobs, and compared to my grandmother's life as a housekeeper and institutional cook, I had it easy.

InThisDeepCalm: Thank you for reading my stuff. I appreciate your feedback. Being a working mom is ... complex. It can be very complicated, but I'm grateful I had opportunities.

Thanks, Fusun! Where have you been??!
Wow. No simple answers, no easy choices, no one right pathm abd cirumcstances keep changing, sometimes requiring a major shift in our priorities and actions. Beautifully written and it covers so much ground---I guess I should say, many layers...[r]
The GOP seems to want to take women's choices about contraception away from us this year; but then, they enthusiastically vote against any bill that would improve the lives of parents and children. Not that government can or should solve all of everyone's problems, but can't we do anything to give working parents a break, now and then?

Thank you for identifying and stating what so many women think, experience and live. Rated.
This is a wonderful post, thank you very much for explaining so eloquently that the same woman may fill all those roles in sequence. This simplistic attempt at 'let's you and her fight' is just a distraction from what's really important to women, a government focused on helping them and their families instead of one obsessed with punishing them for not being perfect.
Great piece, thanks for sharing your story that personalizes the reality others are trying to exploit. Rated.
Donegal: No simple answers is right!

Shiral: You're preaching to the choir here. Touché.

Andrea: I know you know. And there's so much more that we could say, right?

Crow: Perfect. I totally agree with you. You can't punish women, and expect families to thrive.

Ted: Thank you. That is exactly what I was trying to convey. The realities behind the politics. And my story is pretty tame. My gosh, when I stop to think of the mothers who have endured even greater hardships: longer commutes, bad childcare, lower wages, multiple jobs, bad schools, children with disabilities, or dads who are gone, unavailable or abusive.

Estéban: Thanks. You're back in fine fashion!
You capture perfectly those of us who have been all over the map while raising children.
Yes! You wrestle people!

Great post.
Pat Shroeder was brave. We shouldn't have to talk about this today - but maybe it just needed an Exclamation Point!! R
Reinvented: Thank you. I've had to cobble together my so-called career over the past three and a half decades. I'm just grateful I managed to have a family and find meaningful professional work.
Myriad: Thanks for reading. My son is a lovely goof who still makes me laugh.

Marilyn: The same issues just go round and round, don't they? It's crazy. Our great-great-great granddaughters will be fighting the same battles years from now.
“I have a brain and a uterus, and use both,” both at home and in the work world. Thanks for sharing that quote.

I, too, know about being that woman and mother who was the last one to pick up her child day in and day out. One thing I found is if men in the meetings or the board room bring up their families or children, it is celebrated as an anomaly as in "isn't that great." When myself or other women talked about their children, it was business as usual or the subject was changed.
What a great piece.
Excellent! Reading about your son crawling under your desk brings back vivid memories for me. It's always nice to read about others going through the same thing to remind us that we're not the only ones. R
This was terrific. I have also experienced many of these layers. The issues are so complex and icing gets mixed up.
Scarlett: So true. So true. Also, ever notice how when people find out you're a mom, they start asking repeatedly, "How many kids do you have?" It's like they think if you have one, you must be popping 'em out like puppies.

Autumn: Thanks for your support. I've seen several other really good ones about the ups and downs of balancing work, life and motherhood, too. We have a strong group of women on this board.

Reflecting: That's all I ever aspire to do when I write these blog posts here at OS. I'm eager to share whatever knowledge I might have about a particular issue, or give people a new perspective on an old issue. It's the universality of our lives that is important.

Snarky: I love how you extended the analogy with the icing. If mother hood were a cake, it would definitely have tie-dyed frosting! :)
my heart is raising it's little fist in solidarity!

Damn this was good. I've done it...worked at home. Worked on the job and neither was much fun when I was raising kids, too. It soured me in some ways because I saw how at a loss we are, how we are always apologizing, asking for "favors", asking for this or that, when it should be a given. We should give a damb for our kids and the women and men who are their parents and caregivers.

And we don't. This Ann Romney strawman is bullshit. I know raising kids is hard. I'd love to know if she would have had them AND worked outside the home. I'd love to hear the song she'd be singing now. They're all so entirely self righteous and full of crap.
Thanks for this piece. I agree with all who say the title is perfect.
Well Deborah, I hadn't read this earlier because from the title I was worried it would be some sappy homage to "barefoot and pregnant". Obviously I hadn't ready your stuff before, under my radar...no longer.

The playground sniping really got to me from the beginning:

"Look at that one, Ms Career, she doesn't pick up her kids for lunch, they stay at school while she's off working--hmph! What'd she have kids for?"

and on the other side

"Can you believe Anneke? She used to be so smart. Now she's offered herself up to her children. Good Lord, does she ever wear anything that doesn't have baby drool on it?"

and all the hatred kind of made me sick.

There's no school lunch program at primary schools in the Netherlands. Kids are picked up to go home to lunch at noon and brought back after 12. This renders it impossible for most working mothers to function at their job. There's usually a "lunchroom" organized for those kids who can't go home. They have to pay for the "privilege" of eating their little sandwich at school. One of my first volunteer jobs was supervising the lunchroom at the Imps' school because it felt right to support the working parents this way.

Foolish Money: (love your handle!) Thank you. You made me laugh with the image of your heart raising a fist. It's so true about women always having to apologize for wanting, having and raising children while pursuing professional opportunities. If you think about it, it seems unsophisticated to think families can't, won't or shouldn't find ways to make it work for everyone. If only our laws and institutions followed suit ...

Mary: Thank you!

V. Corso: Yup. You got what I was trying to say. We just can't seem to win, no matter what option we choose.
Hear hear! Thanks so much for sharing your experience in such a nuanced, well-written piece. I need to go back and read those Pat Schroeder quotes again - they are fabulous. (And, by the way, it IS illegal to ask that question.)
Jennifer: Thank you. But, even when we are asked the illegal questions, we can't challenge them. After all, we're looking for work to sustain our families. It's hard to challenge people in the moment when you are so in need of sustenance.
Comments are now closed.