By Rachel Pieh Jones
Minnesota winters are brutal on stay-at-home mothers with young children. It is so hard to get outside. Slippery sidewalks, slushy roads, kids who take twenty minutes to get bundled up and only then announce, “I have to pee!”
The winter my twins were infants, I felt nearly suffocated by the early darkness, the cold, the isolation. I needed to exercise and to get out of the house. I started taking the twins to the Mall of America. It was a thirty minute drive on a non-snowy day and the mall had four floors, each an entire mile in circumference.
I never shopped, we couldn’t afford anything but diapers and the basic groceries that supplemented our WIC coupons. I walked. The mall was free, warm, and not my house. It had that white noise background that can (sometimes) soothe anxious babies. In the middle of the day it was filled with two kinds of people: other stay at home moms who were empathetic and equally desperate, and elderly people also out for a non-slippery walk. The elderly were my favorite because they loved seeing infant twins. Their comments and smiles would remind me, in the haze of those sleepless months, that my children were precious and cute and treasures.
So we walked. My double stroller that was so hard to manoeuver and my massive diaper bag that knocked into other walkers and my weary spirit, thankful for a few hours out of the house, pretending we were real people with money to spend and friends to meet and not just a mom and two babies hoping to make it through another day.
One of the best things about the Mall of America was the nursing mother’s room at Nordstrom’s. I could time my walk to end up there just at feeding time and we would wander through the beautiful clothes to the bathroom.
Inside this bathroom were several beige couches, big clean mirrors, flowers, calming music piped in, a changing table, and privacy and quiet where my babies could eat in peace. I could rest one in my lap and prop one up on the couch pillows, much easier than trying to accomplish feeding both on a mall bench or fast food restaurant plastic chair.
One day, while in the nursing room, a woman came in. She looked to be in her upper sixties. She wore a raggedy faux-fur coat, a pearl necklace, and hot pink lipstick that had smeared outside the lines and snagged on dried skin on her lips. Her hair was ashy blond with streaks of gray, dry and cracking at the ends. She walked briskly past us, into the bathroom part of the room.
There was a phone on the table next to me and when she came back out, she picked up the phone. There wasn’t a dial tone and she slammed it down.
My babies jerked their bodies at the sound but continued eating.
She picked up the phone again, yelled into it, and slammed it down again. She turned and glared at me. I offered a half-smile, hoping it came across as neutral or sympathetic. She started at the babies, my stroller, the diaper bag, back at my face.
“Get a real job,” she shouted, and then she ran out the door.
Her words echoed in the nursing mother’s room. Get a real job. Get a real job.
I’d had a real job, before these babies were born. I had a university degree, albeit a fairly useless one for earning a decent salary. I was twenty-two years old. I had ambition, albeit on hold for now. Was strolling through the Mall of America on a crisp winter day not enough?
I looked at my babies. They were done now and needed to be burped, needed their diapers changed.
Day care for infant twins cost almost more than I could earn at all the real jobs I’d had or applied for and qualified for. Already, I struggled to get through the day and to keep my family clean, clothed, and fed – both financially and physically. Maybe a real job would be in my future, maybe when I slept more than two hours straight at night, I could be useful in a real job. Maybe I was wasting my skills or time and they would be better spent at a real job. Maybe…
I stopped myself. Real job?
What could be more real than keeping two human beings healthy and loved? No one paid me for it but that didn’t make it less of a job. I would have different jobs in the future, I know that now, fifteen years later, but they haven’t felt any more real than those early parenting years. The opposite of real would be fake or imagined and I certainly wasn’t faking. The stretch marks, c-section scar, sleepless nights, breast milk stained shirts, Bob the Builder lyrics running through my head ad nauseum, endless rounds of patty-cake, I imagined none of it.
When both babies started crying at the same time and I still had to clean up burp rags and dirty diapers and settle them into the stroller, I knew. This was as real as jobs get and I didn’t want a different one.
Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.