By Laura Henry
Every morning, I leave the house with my computer bag, my purse, my lunch bag, my bag of papers to grade, a bag of library books to return, a bag full of things to return to others or take to and from work, and usually a bag of miscellaneous. Not one of these bags is organized the way that it should be, and so I take them all for fear of losing or forgetting something. I pack all of these into the trunk of my economical Toyota and leave before my children are awake. I don’t carry around little trucks, or dolls, or mittens. No diaper bag. No book bags. No bags of extra clothes or snacks or drawing tablets. The only sign of my children is the set of car seats in the back of my car, littered with so many goldfish snacks that I could own an aquarium if they were alive. It is my husband who will drag the children and their array of necessities out the door in the morning.
I leave every morning, in the dark and alone. I leave my husband who is making lunches, feeding the pets and ironing his shirt—often while watching Sports Center, the weather or Tom and Jerry. I leave without kissing my children goodbye and I leave without a hug, or a smile or a sticky Cheerio on my face from them. My mom-side leaves. My work-side comes out.
My job requires me to be there early—to teach, instruct, and care for the children of others. I squelch periodic thoughts of what my own kids are doing. Is it nap time for my three-year-old? Is it circle time for my daughter’s kindergarten class? Occasionally, I get to take a Mommy-break during work—to schedule a doctor’s appointment, or order pictures or shoes or a ballet tutu, or a bike or a prescription. Sometimes, in order to make a connection to my children, I email my daughter’s teacher, to shamelessly find out about her day. I can’t be there, so I want to know what someone else can see—to be my eyes and ears.
After work, I load up my bags in my economical car and travel not home, not to daycare, but to another job, another place where I have to be.
On my drive, I often think of my own eleventh grade students. When did their parents stop feeling guilty about working? When did they feel okay giving up a sense of control? I had to give up that control when both kids were eight weeks old, but is it the same for everyone? I look at my students and think that their parents are giving me the best they have—all of them sitting in front of me.
“Your folders are on your desk, did you need anything else?” my manager at the tutoring center asks. It is bright here with a lot of organized files, drawers and compartments.
There are so many responses that I want to give. There are many things I need. I need time, money, patience, a snow day, my children. But for this question, I respond, “No.”
A text from my husband arrives asking where the kids’ Valentine’s money is. I quickly respond that it is in the glass jars tucked away. The kids are going to a local restaurant for a PTA fundraiser. It’s the end of a pay week and there is no cash around. I want to eat a cheeseburger and look at my kids putting French fries in their mouth to pretend that they are walruses. I put my head down and keep working. I tutor, and explain and instruct and enjoy what is around me. I have a warm and inviting job with great people. It helps.
I leave this job and drive my economical car home quickly. It’s thirty minutes until bedtime.
Bedtime is the same in most homes—the end of the day after pickup, playing, dinner, crying, bathing, snacking and resting. All of those compartmentalized sections of a child and parent afternoon and evening are gone before I can even blink. I miss those times four days a week, and I often find my mind running through the thoughts of how to change this. But, for now it can’t. I’ve been told that I’m selling my children. I’m selling their childhood for money.
I know all of this. But the questions from the concerned pour in like scrapes and scratches:
“Don’t you think you are missing their lives?”
“Don’t you think that you should be home?”
“Don’t you think that your kids miss you?”
To all of these, I would respond, “Yes.” My husband and I know what I miss, but we quietly don’t mention it—the elephant in the room. In fact, he is the most supportive person I know. He has seamlessly taken over the household duties during the week so I can go back to work at night.
We look at the plan. We have a plan. We follow the plan. In a few years it will be different. In a few years, we will have saved enough money to get a bigger house. In a few years, we will have the ability to take our kids on better trips. In a few years—it’s always a few more years until the elephant in the room will be gone. It will be long gone and I will then be able to live my life like a mother should—attentive, entertaining, creative, present. Present. It’s something that I strive to be. But that can’t happen now. Mommy has to work a lot. Mommy has to be somewhere else.
Sometimes I cry in the shower and I hide how I feel. I’ve been doing this for three years—since my youngest was four months old and we couldn’t pay a round of bills. I will buy them unnecessary things to “make up for” what I can’t give them of myself—presence. Mommy is great at bringing home cookies and treats and books and new crayons. She is a master of all holidays and never misses a beat with birthdays. But on a day-to-day basis, Mommy is something different. I miss things. I miss them. But, this morning when I opened up my workbag (one of the seven strapped to me in the morning) I found a hand-drawn Valentine. On the front it said, “Mommy, you are the best. I love you.” It was scrawled in six-year-old writing, with a smattering of odd spaces and misspellings. On the inside was a picture of me in blue pants, a yellow skirt, and big red earrings. I was holding hands with a little girl and there was a heart in between us. I blinked and saw the picture for what it was. Admiration. Gratitude. Love.
To have a sense of peace as a working mother, I pack up my bags every morning, look at the sleeping faces, kiss my husband and stick to the plan. Our plan.
Laura Henry is a working mother of two, and teaches high school. She lives outside of Baltimore with her husband, two kids, dog and cat.