By Betty Christiansen
At first glance, Gwendolyn and I have little in common. She’s in her twenties; I’m in my forties. I have a house; she has an efficiency apartment with a shared bath. I work in publishing; she works in fast food. I am white; she is black. I drive a car that seats seven; she rides a bike. Yet she is a mom, just like me.
She has two small children; I have three. We have meals to make and homes to clean and staggering amounts of laundry. We both have husbands. We juggle everything around our jobs and their jobs.
Our common ground is the bus stop. Our mornings are the same: a scramble of rousing kids, feeding them, and rushing out the door by 7:45. She and her son are always on time; we are always running late. We take turns reminding the kids to stop running, to stop pushing, and to stand back when the bus pulls up. “Goodbye,” I tell my kids when they climb on the bus. “Have a good day! I love you!”
“You be good,” she commands her son. “Don’t disappoint me.”
Gwendolyn is a mom like me, except she doesn’t have a car. Some mornings, I’ll drive her to the bank or to Kwik Trip, the convenience store five blocks from our homes. She’ll get some cash and then buy milk and breakfast, or milk and beer. She asks me where I have to go that morning, and I tell her I have a meeting or a photo shoot or a press check. I’ll ask her if she’s working that day, and she’ll say yes, she’s got the closing shift at Taco Bell, or no, she’ll be home with her two-year-old, and she doesn’t know what she’ll do with her that day. I tell her I know; my youngest is finally in preschool and I remember those days.
She might ask if she can wash some clothes at my house, because there’s no laundry in her building. Sometimes, we’ll load up all her laundry when it reaches a critical mass and pile it into the back of my car, and I’ll take her to a Laundromat.
We are both protective of our children. Mine are old enough to walk the block back home from the bus stop by themselves in the afternoon, but still I watch out for them. Gwendolyn does not let her son do this; if she is home and not working a shift at Taco Bell, she will walk down and get him, or have her husband do so if he is not working a shift at Burger King. If neither one can, she’ll ask me if I’ll make sure he gets in their apartment okay, where his very frail granny is waiting for him.
“You know I will,” I say.
One morning, they’re not at the bus stop, and I ask her about it the next day.
“Anthony didn’t go to school,” she says. “He had a cough.” She then goes on to tell that he needs to go to the doctor, but not because of the cough. It turns out a woman from that damn Child Protective Services came over yesterday, eyeballing the house and following up on a police report. “My house is clean,” Gwendolyn declares. “I ain’t got nothin’ to hide.”
But apparently there were sores on her son’s arms, and a teacher saw them. A police officer came to the school, took photographs, and filed a report with CPS.
“They could’ve given me a heads-up,” spits Gwendolyn. “They said they tried to call, but my phone isn’t working. They could’ve sent me a note. They never asked me what happened.
“I could’ve told them he has these bumps on his arms, and he keeps scratching them,” she goes on. “I ain’t got nothing to hide. I make sure he has clean clothes, clean socks and drawers. I know they’re looking for that kind of thing.”
I don’t know what to say, so I just listen. It wouldn’t help to explain that the teacher is legally bound to report her fears, that everyone is just looking out for her child, that they’re doing what’s required to keep him out of harm’s way—even if that might be harm by a parent.
For all our mornings together, I don’t know Gwendolyn well enough to know if she would hurt her son, or if someone else in their house would. I have seen small, round scars on her son’s legs, and I’ve heard her threaten him for getting in trouble in school. I don’t know how seriously to take that. After all, I have threatened my children, too.
What I do know is that this would never happen to a mom like me. A professional mom, a well-spoken mom, the mom who volunteers in the classrooms because she can; she has the flexible schedule and the car. The mom who can be home for her kids, never uncertain of their safety. My own son has had eczema on his arms, and no one has questioned me.
I’m all for Child Protective Services—but how about a Mom Protective Services? Where is that agency, the one that makes sure a mom like Gwendolyn has a way to shuttle children, work without worrying about them, make sure they’re fed and dressed and on the bus on time? Who makes sure she can get her laundry done? Who makes sure that she has a way to wind down from all of this without needing the beer that might lead to arm sores and leg scars? Who’s looking out for the moms like her?
Because Gwendolyn doesn’t have a car, I drive her and her son to his doctor’s appointment. When I pick her up later, she seems relieved, even happy. It was eczema after all, and now everyone knows it. She also picked up her new glasses from the optometry department while she was there, and they look sharp. I tell her so. She looks at me, smiles, and says thanks.
Betty Christiansen is a writer and editor who lives with her husband and three children in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She is the author of two books—Knitting for Peace: Make the World a Better Place One Stitch at a Time and Girl Scouts: 100 Trailblazing Years—both published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang, a division of Harry Abrams. She’s also the editor of Coulee Region Women, the women’s magazine of the La Crosse area, and a graduate of the creative nonfiction MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College.