“I don’t feel so good, mommy,” my seven-year-old whimpers over her cereal. I look up from cutting the crusts off her sister’s sandwich and notice the dark rings under her eyes, her pale complexion. Great, I think. Here we go again.
“What hurts?” I sigh. She points to her ear. My hand registers her warm forehead. “Oh honey,” I say. “Go lie down and I’ll bring you juice in bed.”
Looks like it’s going to be another day of getting nothing done.
The whole week is already shot. Monday starts with a marathon dentist appointment for my anxious five-year-old – one she’s been dreading for months. Just getting her in the chair requires the work of a psychiatrist, life coach, and drill sergeant, all played by me. Her grip on my hand relaxes as the dentist administers the nitrous. My phone dings from my purse. Could that be the editor getting back to me? I wonder, my chest tightening.
My husband is traveling for work, and covering two shifts means bedtime is behind schedule that night. I glance out my girls’ window, horrified at what I see: snow. The calendar says it’s almost spring, but Michigan isn’t done with us yet. Not this week, I think. “Sing raindrops on roses, mommy,” my five-year-old requests. She interrupts me halfway though. “No, sing it the funny way!” Okay, I sigh, starting from the middle. “FROM THE BEGINNING!” she demands.
Fine, I say, jaw clenched. “Like silver white winters and armpits with wings,” I sing, tickling her and her sister. Their giggles turn ecstatic when they notice our own silver white scene outside. “Snow day tomorrow!” they squeal.
The e-mail comes through at 6 a.m. the next morning, granting their wish. It was supposed to be a quiet writing day; now I’ve got messy kid-made pancakes, girl fights, and wet snow clothes on my hands. That afternoon, the snow turns to ice, resulting in another 6 a.m. e-mail on Wednesday, another writing day derailed by care work.
I’m the lead parent in our household, as Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter suggests we call it. That means that whenever there’s a sickness, a snow day, or a doctor’s appointment, I’m the one who drops everything and handles it. It’s not that my husband doesn’t help out when he can, but his isn’t a flexible career. It involves frequent travel and long days at the office. Like many families today, we moved across the country for that career, a move that allowed me to opt out of work but also displaced me from my village of family and friends.
My role is a complicated one, born of privilege and obligation, history and economics, geography and guilt. And yes, choice. In the early years, I chose it. Now while my kids are in school, I write.
I bring my daughter toast and juice, a warm compress for her ear. We watch Mister Rogers in bed together. I consider leaving her glued to the screen for the hours before her doctor’s appointment so I can finally get some writing done. But it’s too late. I’m defeated; I’ve lost the thread. We read Magic Treehouse. We watch another Mister Rogers.
My mind counts down to summer vacation, its date darkly looming like a cloud on the horizon, aiming to blot out my writing life. Three months of full-time child care means I’ll squeeze in writing during the dog-tired hours after bedtime. I can’t afford this week off, I scold myself. I can’t afford to be getting nothing done.
I’ve bought into it, you see. I’ve swallowed the message hook, line, and sinker. Remember how I just wrote that I “opted out” of work? Right then, I was buying into it. I worked, of course. I raised three girls. Which is the real work; the care work or the writing?
A decade ago, I learned which one our culture holds more valuable. “I was afraid this would happen,” my boss said after I broke the news that I was pregnant with my first child. (At least his reaction was better than the one my husband got from his boss at the time: “I certainly hope this won’t interfere with the corporate golf event.”) During my job interview the year before, he’d silently tallied the years I’d been married. Hmmm, he said, cocking his head, did I plan on starting a family soon? It never occurred to me to tell him it was none of his business – the job was competitive and I needed it. I envisioned all the qualified single women and men I was up against, looked him squarely in the eye, and lied.
We stood in his office a year later, his annoyance with me visible as I assured him that little would change. That turned out to be a lie too, but at least this one was unintentional. How could I know that motherhood would overtake me like an avalanche, reconfigure me on a cellular level? He shook his head, afraid this would happen. He’d had my number from the start. My eventual replacement was a single man.
You’ve likely had a similar experience if you’ve ever missed a meeting to tend to a sick child, or negotiated for longer unpaid parental leave. Our culture makes it crystal clear what kind of work matters, and what kind doesn’t. But what about me? What do I believe?
It doesn’t take much introspection to know the answer. I’ve steadily devalued my mothering life over the years until I reduced it to nothing. Getting nothing done. But I didn’t do it alone. I had a lot of help along the way.
Today, I flip the script. My new inner monologue goes something like this: parenting is not nothing. It’s something, maybe even transcendental, to throw yourself into an activity that won't reap an immediate attagirl or promotion or Facebook following. I don’t know if I’ll ever see the returns on my effort, or what those returns would even look like. Maybe we devalue parenting because it’s invaluable, because it defies figures and pie charts, because sometimes the only reward you get is the knowledge that you showed up. You bore witness. You gave of yourself when the only person looking was a child.
In lieu of a revolution, that’s what I have today: a new script to tell myself as I cradle my daughter’s head against the warm compress, getting everything done that I need to in this moment.