What We Do For Love
and For Money: A View of Work from Home
Let me tell you about my mother. Or at least what I can see of her—that distorted and obscured view that a daughter has of her mother, like the glimpse of solar eclipse offered from a pinhole in cardboard.
Until I was ten, she was a single mother. She received a paltry fifty dollars a month in child support, not much even back then in the 1960’s. The checks came in blue envelopes too small for a letter, just the Wells Fargo check inside with its stagecoach and horses rumbling across my father’s scratchy signature. I was not startled by the smallness of the amount. I was surprised he sent anything at all. Why did money come from this man who was no closer to me than a distant uncle? What compelled him to keep signing these checks and dropping them into mailboxes?
With so little in terms of help from my father, of course she worked. She had to. Probably even back then, just like now, it was acceptable for a mother to work if dictated by economic necessity, if she had to.
No doubt, as a single mother and small business owner, she had a bundle of financial worries invisible to the child’s eye, not to mention that she probably faced truckloads of social stigma as a thirtysomething woman with two failed marriages already behind her in a time when Leave it to Beaver still aired each weekday afternoon.
But she made "had to" look so good. "Had to" drove a sparkling blue convertible. "Had to" carried a briefcase the color of caramel and clipped across our hardwood floors in strappy high heel shoes. "Had to" perched at a desk complete with a nibbed pen for dipping in real ink to sign payroll checks.
What I jotted down in my internal record on the way life is was this image of work as something beautiful, something that made you both chic and masterful. Work meant you always knew where you were and why. You were safe from confusion and paralysis; tasks would present themselves in a continuous and orderly fashion, one after one after one. Just like leaping from stepping stone to stepping stone. You would always know just what to do next.
I think that’s how my daughters, Elizabeth and Graciana, must see their dad. A client phones him, and he runs out to the porch to take the call to speak with great urgency, his whole attention focused on the call. You can almost see the speaker on the end leaning into the phone, waiting for his words. Dad has an office and when you’re there you must speak quietly and not bother the busy grown-up people who are very busy doing important things at computers and on the telephone.
Me they must see as someone who wipes the counter with great frequency. References to my life outside the family seem tangentially tacked on, like I’m bragging or making stuff up or dropping names.
"When I worked at the university…"
"What unibersity?" Elizabeth asks.
"Remember the brick building? We went there sometimes when you were still in preschool?"
"Oh yeah, what did you do there? I remember you were all scared of getting a parking ticket and we had to run in and out really quick."
"I taught writing," I said, a little annoyed with this portrayal of me as this toothless person without even parking spot reserved in her name.
"Riding? Like horseback riding?" she asks excited.
"No, wri-ting," I over enunciate, like a tightly strung librarian.
"Oh, when are we leaving for the park?"
There’s a lot of talk about choosing to stay at home and about having to work, but sometimes we call "want to" "have to" because we’re ashamed of what we want and sometimes a choice sneaks up on you. A maternity leave stretches to eternity or you move or a contract ends or you’re laid off. Or, in my case, my husband started to make more money and so we were no longer required to lead the tag-team life to keep our children out of daycare. Now, I work occasionally on a contract basis. I don’t work at a full-time job because I want to be at home with my kids while they're small and because I don’t have to.
But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when I want to. Even though I know I’m doing what I want to do, what I need to, what I believe is the right thing, even knowing all that, there are times I’ve fantasized about work, work that requires a change of clothes and a commute. I’ve dreamed of it like desert crossers think of water. I’ve sped up the years in my mind and felt this thirst for grown-up activity quenched. Slaked.
I’m at home, or mostly at home, with my kids by choice. I have the luxury my mother didn’t have for most of her parenting tenure. There are times I feel so lucky to have this opportunity I nearly tremble. The day my oldest daughter was reading a book that prompted her to ask one of her first questions about sex. Or, when my other daughter’s physical therapist showed me how to have her hold the scissors so she’ll really be able to cut with them. It’s these times that I stop and think: What if I weren’t here right now? Who would be here for them instead of me?
And then I think of the moms who are working to pay the rent while their children are having their defining moments with a poorly paid near stranger. For them, these moments will be lost, will dissipate into the atmosphere when Tammy or Patti moves to Austin or Tucson to take care of someone else's children for six, seven, or maybe eight dollars an hour. I think of how much the moms cashiering at Wal-Mart or answering the phone in a dentist's office must thirst for this luxury I have, this chance to care for my own children, to usher them through passages and teach them skills.
But because much of my days seem to be comprised of repetitive moments (into the car seat, out of the car seat) rather than crucial ones, I still worry about the message I’m giving my daughters about the trajectory of a woman’s life. Mama has spent many years and tens of thousands of dollars on her education, but the tasks of her day are essentially those of an unskilled laborer: loading and unloading washers, dryers, and dishwashers, driving small people from school to home.
Lately, I’ve been pointing out to my girls the other, hidden sides of the women around us, women whose major contribution to the world may seem to a seven-year-old to be her ability to guide a minivan down a narrow road or frost a chocolate cupcake. Petra’s mom’s an engineer, I might drop casually into a conversation.
One day I said to my youngest, "Mary Kay's a dancer, you know."
"But she’s Nicolas’ mom!" Gracie said, quite sure right then that she knew more about the world than her ill-informed mother.
"Yes," I said, in my patient teacher voice, "She’s a mom and a dancer."
"You can be both?" she asked, incredulous.
"You can be both. What do you want to be when you grow up?"
"A mom and a runner," she said, seeming anxious to take advantage of these new possibilities before they’re suddenly closed to her.
"How many kids you wanna have?"
"You’d better run fast then," I say.
"I can," she says, "I can run very fast."
After my mom remarried when I was ten, she didn’t have to work any longer. My stepfather had an important job with a good salary and could provide for all of us. This news was presented to me as a blessing that had been bestowed upon my mother. She had arrived at the holy promise land for single mothers, that hallowed resting place for which -- it was now implied -- she had been striving to arrive all along. She'd been, it turned out, invisibly toiling towards this end point during that whole sunny period of zooming off to work and late night phone calls. I was now to believe that she’d been thinking of marriage and home, of baking biscuits and sewing girl dresses all along. She had only worked because she had to.
Consider this credit card commercial: A new mother is on the phone with a girlfriend. The husband, unseen by the woman, is coming down the stairs behind her and stops to enjoy the pleasant moment, to listen to his wife gush about their new baby. "The baby is beautiful and we couldn’t be happier, but I don’t know…" The new mom swallows her words, looks out the window, hesitates like she’s about to admit to a string of convenience store heists, and then finally utters, "I guess I miss work." I nearly drop my bowl of popcorn scooting forward to hear what she’ll say next. This is just the secret, scary stuff that I’ve longed for others to say. But before hushed wistful can rise to a full bore lament, her voice fades out.
In the next scene, the husband is out charging feverishly. There is something about his excited gallop through the office supply story that suggests that this man of thirty-some years has never received in the mail the bill that follows such an afternoon of unbridled spending. But, it will be worth every cent, for in the final seconds of the ad, the woman comes downstairs with swaddled baby in arms, amazed and delighted to find a brand new home office complete with computer, filing cabinets and a fax machine behind the bow-wrapped den door.
I’m embarrassed to admit the impact this commercial had on me. First, there were the tears (he under-stands!). But then, after the crying had ended, I found that this woman began to occupy a primary place in my thoughts, a place that should normally be reserved for family, close friends and the Eastern European doctor on ER.
Suddenly, I was Einstein teasing out the last strands of a nearly untangled theory, except that the variables of my elusive equation weren’t mass, energy and time, but work, baby, woman. Baby, woman, work? Woman, work, baby? Just how was all this going to fall into place? Would baby sleep in a nearby bassinet and gently coo upon waking while mom faxes invoices and fires off emails, building up—I suppose—her little home business a la Diane Keaton in Baby Boom? Would that work? And if it did work for her, what was wrong with me that I couldn’t even dream of orchestrating a life quite that complex? I was more likely to pull a rabbit out of a hat than to juggle baby and work under one roof. But what if it didn't work for her either? Then, she would've merely traded in her perfectly comfortable den for a museum of office machines, a daily reminder of her limitations, like a half-finished jigsaw puzzle that one can’t quite break up and return to the box.
But let’s say x plus y do equal z. Let’s imagine for a moment that hypothetically such a thing could be done, that a lactating woman far from the industrial buzz of an office of coworkers would be able to create a career in the den and take care of an infant at the same time. Would that woman then be satisfied? Would she no longer look out the window like Ingrid Bergman in the last seconds of Casablanca? Would her longing for work be abated? My friend Laurie says she'd often fantasized about going back to work, but then she realized that she didn’t actually want to work. All she really wanted was to go somewhere on Monday morning and have everyone ask how her weekend was.
I wonder if this mom yearned for work or if she really just craved the water cooler, the low-level human contact that work can supply. Because work requires you to act "professional," you get to enjoy yourself on that level. At home you get to be "yourself," which of course sounds really great, but actually it’s tedious and fatiguing and sometimes you want a vacation from the real you. You would like to dress up in nice clothes and engage in meaningless banter.
But maybe it really was work she needed. Maybe she wanted to tumble headlong into uninterrupted thought like a child somersaulting down a grassy hillside. Maybe she ached for the purity of the completed mental task. She wants to let her brain plow through a problem that requires all her concentration, to submerge herself into thought for so long, she forgets to pee, to eat, to deflea the dog. She forgets -- just briefly -- how much depends on her. It is a cool drink, this forgetting. When she rises out of it and swims to the shores of her life, she retrieves her life piece by piece like a traveler coming home.
When she arrived at the promise land, this is what my mother found: the unrelenting routines of domesticity, marital strife, a ten-year-old daughter who’d almost grown past her need for a mother, resentful stepchildren and an unyielding desire for something more.
When the neighbor ladies visited our new fancy house, my mother spoke of "my business" in the present tense even though she’d sold it when she remarried and moved back to Canada. She’d talk about bids too high or bids too low and the men with boys' names who’d worked for her—Danny, Tommy and Johnny. But somehow these stories never sounded right in this elegant living room. The words seemed to bounce off the satiny chintz of the chesterfield and sink into the soft wool of the carpeting like she was making it all up.
The gritty world of the construction business she tried to evoke wouldn't take form in this soft-spoken Canadian suburb, "The British Properties." I was embarrassed for her. When I saw the confusion in the eyes of these smooth faced women, I was sure my mother was deluded and hanging on to all the wrong things. Couldn't she see that this new place, with its long driveways and moms in velour jogging suits, had everything we needed? I wanted her to focus on fitting in, but stubbornly she remained pathetically foreign, like a Russian in post-WWII Paris raving about the glories and riches of her life before the Revolution. She wasn’t enviable, like she seemed to think. These women had married the boy they met in college and moved to the suburbs and lived by the books. These women had covers for their blenders and toasters.
She had phases, my mother -- a passing interest in real estate sales, a stint as a volunteer coordinator, a business card printed up with just her name, no title for there wasn’t one. And she started to golf.
I’ve been through a few phases myself. Since I stopped working full time, I have enrolled in hiphop, yoga, watercolor painting and for a two weeks I trained for a marathon. I've dabbled in antidepressants and had two sessions of "spiritual coaching." I went through a phase of taking weekend trips on my own to fortify me for the coming mothering week at home, a chapter that ended in credit card debt. Next was my monster.com stage. At night after the children went to bed, I’d look up jobs and imagine how I might go back to work and still be the mother I wanted to be. But I could never manage to get x plus y to equal z, and so here I am, wipe counter, dress child, read story, drive, drive, drive.
I'm lying facedown on the floor of my daughters' bedroom. It's bedtime, and my husband is still working. It's a long workday to support this family of four, and I'm thinking now how I've never had that pressure. I've only worked when he too brought in an income too. How must work change when everything---the money for groceries, mortgage, purchases at the Disney store, and much, much more---depends on you. I wonder if he can still have those lovely moments, the idle ones at the cooler and the moments of pure concentration, or if the weight of our constant need evaporates work's pleasure. I wonder too if he's as tired as I am right now.
On top of our regular day of cooking, cleaning up after meals, and baths, and trips to the park and grocery store, I squeezed in a couple hours of housecleaning. While the children sat neatly in front of the television, I raced frantically through an obstacle course of cleaning: scrub tub, fold laundry, empty dishwasher, vacuum, vacuum.
Now, it's story time.
They don't want a read story either; they want a told story. I start a few recycled stories about princesses, but my girls know a used story when they hear one.
"We want something new," demands Graciana. "Something about a mouse."
"One time there was this mouse," I begin, rolling over so they can hear me.
"What was her name?"
"Her name was Suzy, and Suzy had a hard job," I feel just a little guilty about the self-pity, but not enough to stop so on I go. "She had to clean a big huge castle everyday. From morning to night, she cleaned and cleaned. She scrubbed the foyer, and dusted the chandeliers. She polished the king and queen's thrones and shampooed the red carpet. She would get very tired cleaning the castle, but that wasn't even the worst part."
"What was the worst part?" They both ask at once.
"The worst part was she spent so much time cleaning that she didn't have enough time to spend with her little mice who she loved very much."
"Oh!" They like this. They're no dumbies these kids. They see through my story, no problem.
"But one day Suzy had an idea. She went to the bank and told them her idea and they thought it was a good one so they lent her some money. With the money, she bought cleaning supplies and hired some of the other mice that lived in her neighborhood. She worked out a plan, and the mice she hired not only cleaned her castle but several other castles as well. And every time they cleaned a castle Suzy made money. Then, she didn't have to clean castles anymore. She answered the phone and made little mouse entries on the computer.
She enjoyed making these entries and chatting with the other mice she'd hired and now she could spend more time with her little mice and so she was happy."
If my life were a sitcom, I'm sure I'd have risen from the floor then with an idea sparking feverishly in my eyes. I'd look over, and both kids would be out, both with beautiful long hair sprayed against their fresh pillowcases. The canned laughter would leak through the scene. Mom has bored the children to sleep with her pitiful little story. Ha ha. But the laughter yields to triumphant music as the scene fades with me at the family computer, scouring spreadsheets, working out the details of my brilliant new scheme.
My life is not a sitcom. The children
have never fallen asleep during a story, no matter how dull or inane the
story may be. Even when I have told stories about exhausted children
whose limbs are thick and heavy with fatigue and whose eyes are
flickering with sleep, my children have remained alert enough to guide a
747 onto a landing strip. In real life, a solution to an adult problem
has never risen from my unconscious, bubbling like a delicious spring,
during story time. I have never slapped myself on the forehead and said:
Why, of course, the answer has been there all along.