“We Were Working Moms.”
By Colleen Curran
We were always running around. Packing school lunches while trying to get dressed for work. Digging through the closet, looking for a blouse without the dusting of spit on the shoulders, a skirt without egg on it. Searching the pantry, looking for something healthy to put in the kids’ lunches. Why didn’t we ever have anything healthy to put in the kids’ lunches?
We were juggling, constantly juggling, all these wants and worries, above our heads. All we wanted was to get the kids out of the house without yelling at them. Was that too much to ask? We dropped the ball, constantly. And then we picked it up again. To begin the elaborate game. Of working motherhood.
We got to work and read mom blogs at the office, on the sneak, bleary-eyed with our cup of morning coffee. It was a bad habit, as self-destructive as smoking, but we couldn’t stop. It was our office black tar, our morning ritual, to read the mom blogs by these stay-at-home moms, or SAHMs, who spent their entire lives bragging on social media.
We scrolled through photos of their latest outfits, their five-hundred-dollar jeans, their fresh flowers, their new pajama sets with their feet sticking whimsically out the bottom, propped up on some leather pouf, which was the latest trend. We read about their weekly date nights, their play dates complete with afternoon champagne, their lady lunches, their new kitchens and new bathrooms and fur vests.
They never photographed their nannies or their babysitters. They never photographed their hired help. The help was invisible, cropped out of the photographs of their perfect families and perfect lives. Instead, they had gripes about lines at the grocery store and other moms who brought their sick kids to preschool. They wrote wine recommendations and the latest recipe they tested from some celebrity cookbook, which were surprisingly helpful. But mostly they wrote about their weekend getaways and their new suede booties and how they spent afternoons in the park with their children.
We fumed, reading their posts, filled with a black, bottomless desire.
We would love to spend the afternoon in the park with our children. We would love to spend the day with our kids, smelling their yeasty warm-bodied smell. We missed them. We yearned for them. We thought about them all the time. Their little fingers and arms and toes and breath. But first, we had to get through the work day. And for some reason, it helped to read the mom blogs. To be swelled with a powerful and damning jealousy that felt like fury.
In real life, we saw the stay-at-home moms at the preschool dropoff or the grocery store. They drove minivans and caravans and were always talking on their phone, whipping around the preschool parking lot to get first in line at the dropoff.
The working moms weren’t allowed to use the car dropoff. We had to park and physically carry our children into school. “It’s the law,” the preschool director said. By some arcane rule, this was because our kids stayed all day, while the SAHMs swept back into the car-drop lane and picked up their kids at lunchtime and brought them home for a nap.
The SAHMs never even had to step outside. They picked up their children easy as a valet service. Meanwhile, we working moms had to park, get out, and carry our kids into school. Sometimes, our kids were crying and it pulled us apart, like a thousand little knives. It didn’t matter if we were still recovering from a blistering C-section scar or it was raining or snowing or a million freaking degrees outside, we still had to do it.
Those were the rules. And we abided by them. There was no other way. Because who would pay the bills if we didn’t work? Who would feed the children? So we struggled into preschool, watching the SAHMs, happily warm, safe in their cars, yakking on the phone about god-knows-what. Vacations, nail polish, yoga workouts. We didn’t know. SAHMs were another world, another species, practically, and all we could do was look at them and wonder.
We seethed. Why them? Why not us? What did they have that we didn’t? Some of them were prettier than we were, yes, it was true. Even though we hated to admit it. They had better bodies, fuller hair; they went to the gym and exercised and drank kale juice for breakfast.
The situation went against what we had been told in school. It went against every bone in our feminist bodies. But it was a tale as old as time.
Our biggest accomplishment was getting the kids fed, dressed, and out the door for daycare or, later, the bus, without screaming at someone.
People who were not mothers did not know that this was a Herculean effort, a massive undertaking that WE DID EVERY DAY. Without fail. The whining, the complaining, the loss of homework, the making of lunches, the combing of hair, the brushing of teeth, the tying of shoelaces, the buttoning of shirts.
No one knew how hard it was. Except other working mothers. The fact that we showed up to the office at all, fully dressed, seemed like a minor miracle.
We left our houses dirty, with breakfast dishes piled in the sink, syrup spilled on the floor. We went to work. We had husbands or if we didn’t, we worked twice as hard without one. We made a little bit of money, not a lot, but enough to keep a roof over our kids’ heads and to keep them fed and to drive a working vehicle with a rusted-out steering system that we knew we had to get looked at but we didn’t know when.
We were managers and secretaries and designers. Writers and waitresses and low-level lawyers. Some of us were paid better than others. But we all worked: We went to meetings and came out of them. We were doing our jobs.
We were providing for our families. We were good moms, we knew that. We just didn’t have anything to show for it. No glasses of champagne, no fancy footwear, no selfies on our husband’s yacht in midwinter. Just our offices, cold and gray, with pictures of our kids as the only color.
Oh, we knew there were women in third-world countries picking flies out of their children’s eyes. And if we had been born a hundred years earlier, our lot would have been worse, a hundred thousand times worse. We would be washerwomen who slept in the street in a pile of shit. We would work for half a shilling or whatever the Middle Age equivalent of a working mom’s salary would be and never see our children because we would be working all the time while our children would be off, playing in the street somewhere with knives or gasoline or something equally dangerous.
We knew that was our story. Our history. The timeline of working women.
We considered the alternative. To live off someone else. To not have any autonomy, any independence. And we didn’t like the thought of that either. Sure, it was easy to look at the stay-at-home moms on Instagram and the pictures of the crap they bought on the internet, but it was another thing entirely to be one of them. Without independence. Without your own money.
And besides, nobody’s life looked like it did on Instagram anyway.
We were still feminists, after all, even if we felt, deep down, that feminism had failed us. We would be feminists until the end, until it worked for the next generation of women or the next. For our daughters or granddaughters or great-granddaughters.
Or maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe it wasn’t about feminism after all. Maybe it was just the curse of the middle class. Of rich people grabbing everything for themselves and then patting themselves on the back for getting it. Maybe that’s what this was about after all.
These were the things we thought about, late at night, when we couldn’t sleep. When we catalogued all the tasks we had to do in the morning and the order in which we had to do them: Pack lunches. Put a sweater in our son’s backpack. Hats and gloves. An extra set of clothes for our youngest. A check in the daycare folder. Get dressed. Pack our own lunch. Don’t forget to bring our work computers like we did last week.
We hoped that if we thought about these things long enough, if we came up with a plan, if we got up earlier, if we established some order, we wouldn’t always be running around, telling the children to get dressed, to put on their shoes, to put on their jackets, to get ready for the bus. We wouldn’t have to tell them once, then twice, then again and again and again and again, until we screamed, “Get ready for the fucking bus!”
When that happened, everyone was aghast, ourselves included. We wouldn’t have to take a deep breath. To apologize. To the children and to ourselves.
Instead we would help them with their jackets, we would help them with their shoes; we would walk them to the bus without incident. We would drive them to day care and drop them off, even though the little one always cried. We would hold him for a long time in the day care room, swinging his legs from side to side, to try to console him.
But there was no consoling him, not then. He wouldn’t be consoled until we left. We knew that. It was just separation anxiety.
We wouldn’t have to drive to work afterward, cursing ourselves the whole way. For our many failures, for falling short, for dropping the ball, it seemed, all the time, in one way or another.
Our only comfort was knowing that we were doing our best. That we were trying. And that was all we could do.
There was no way to photograph it or make it pretty. Our lives. No one would aspire to them. But these were our lives, whether we had chosen them or not. And there was a certain amount of pride in that. In the chaos and mess, the fact that we could do it. That we were doing it. And that we would continue to do it, every day. For as long as we could.
Colleen Curran is the author of Whores on the Hill (a Vintage Original novel) and the editor of the literary anthology Altared: Bridezillas, Bewilderment, Big Love, Breakups, and What Women Really Think About Contemporary Weddings (Anchor). Her short stories have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Glimmer Train, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. She is a working mom and a staff writer at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where she writes about arts and entertainment.