Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Working Mother

Son of a "working mother." He looks so neglected.

The title of this post is the title of a magazine that started showing up in my mail a couple years ago. I assume it came free with something I bought for my kids, like the horrible unwelcome issues of American Baby that only recently stopped polluting my mailbox with their claims that "cesarean babies are happiest!" and other such rot.

Working Mother.  Let's parse that.  Most mothers in this country work. Most women in this country work.  Yet there we have this appellation, like a working mother is some special breed of woman.  She's really quite common.  She's often amazing, but still quite common.  This reminds me of Drew Gilpin Faust's assertion: "I'm not the woman president of Harvard. I'm the president of Harvard."  Not quite the same thing, but something about "working mother" has that "woman president" ring to it.

Feminist gripes with mainstream magazine titles aside, Working Mother is not bad.  And in fact, in my mildly affluent neighborhood, where we are one of the very few families who don't contribute to that affluence, working mothers like me are the minority.  So sometimes it's good to have an ally, even if it is just a bunch of shiny paper stapled together.

When this month's issue showed up, I was in a mood where the title and article headlines rubbed me the wrong way.  I flipped through the pages to find something to rant about.  I'd been aching to do a social rant on something, anything.  But this time I was disappointed.  Yet even though I could not find an article to work my critical pincers upon, Working Mom still gave me something to write about.

In article entitled "Teacher, please," Abigail Green outlines the phenomenon of Teacher Appreciation Week and the toll it takes on a working mom.  She tells the story of her five days of failing to live up to many of the appreciation week "requirements." On flower day she hits the grocery store before the florist is there (because she has to drop the kids early to make it to work on time) and in desperation she snatches dripping tulips from behind the counter.  Kudos to her.  I sent my son in with a plastic flower I pulled out of a storage bin, telling him it would be more special because it won't die.

Funny stories of frantic mornings are good memories, in a way, but it's the public shame that is hardest to live down.  Something Green doesn't mention, something more important and more sinister than hectic schedules, is how working moms are often judged by their SAHM neighbors who can't understand how YOU DIDN'T KNOW IT WAS CUPCAKE DAY?

How are we supposed to remember which day is cupcake day?  Or even have time to make cupcakes?  (And here I remember a rich woman -- the mother of a friend of mine -- counting the storebought baked goods at a PTA function years ago.  And as my own working mother set down the tray of rice krispies treats, the woman sighed, saying "Ohhh look how many people brought rice krispies treats...")

The local moms stand around outside waiting to pick up their broods at the walker door.  They're all in gym garb and North Face. One of them wears tall fashion boots with her gym garb.  They talk about developmental milestones.  Sometimes, about the careers they gave up.  One of them loudly proclaims that it is irresponsible and thoughtless for a mom to go to grad school. (Yes, that happened.)

In come the PTO emails that imply that if you don't have the time, then you have to have the money.  Donate soft drinks and plates. Send money for gift cards.  Etc.

I pick my son up at that door three days a week, but they look at me like they don't know who I am or what shrubbery I just crawled out of. I only have one mom acquaintance -- our boys became friends after hers punched mine.  Her husband is an art professor. The other women's husbands are in sales.

The shame doesn't just come in the active SAHM hating on working mom (and grad mom) variety, but also in the blindness of the school district to the make-up of its student body.  It's kind of a passive shaming. Because the school district has tons of money, it operates like all its students are Richie Rich. And all of Richie's moms stay home and have nothing better to do than read emails from the school and pore over the calendar and pack two weeks of lunches in advance and stick them in the freezer.

The school does not send announcements for events, because I should know, somehow, that tomorrow is pajama day.  My son has cried more than once over missing pajama day.

My son's class operates on a four day schedule.  Not five.  So library day (when he needs to bring books back) is always on a different day than it was last week.  He never brings his books back on time.  And when there is a holiday, it is a complete crapshoot what day the next week will start on.  What the hell is this?  Yeah, high school students have different periods and sometimes rotating schedules, but they are responsible for that.  A second grader (or his mom) should not have to go online and check the calendar every single night to find out what new and different surprise is in store for him the next day at school.

Once I forgot to pay the lunch bill (the kids can run up to $10 in debt on their lunch cards, in case of forgotten lunches).  I owed $4.40.  The school sent me a stern note saying how "All of our parents make sure to pay their lunch balance on time." First of all, that's a bit stern for a balance of less than $5, when district policy allows him up to $10 before they give him a stale cheese sandwich and toss him out on his ear.  Secondly, and more important than my irritation at receiving debt collection-style notes from an elementary school -- shouldn't a school think to offer free or reduced lunches to a family who has been getting behind on their lunch payments?  I know you have to qualify for that (and we wouldn't qualify), but they don't know our situation.  For all they know I don't have $4.40 to spare.  Here's what they should send: a letter that asks for the balance to be settled and comes with a form and a nice handwritten note saying "We noticed Mikey hasn't had lunch money this week.  Do you want to apply for free lunch and see if you qualify?"  Aren't schools supposed to be on the front line of helping kids in poverty?  Again that's not us, I paid the $4.40.  But their approach seems completely blind to any other kind of student demographic than the ones whose moms they see hovering around the classrooms as "room parents" every day.

I complain about this all the time (mostly to myself, in the kitchen, while trying to figure out what all the uninformative papers in my son's backpack mean), and it was good to see similar angst (and not a shred of guilt!) in Green's article.

Did I mention they never send home notes? Unless you owe money. Then they want to break your working mom thumbs.

Now before the stay at home moms get mad at me, I know there are arguments on both sides.  I know that SAHMs get unfairly judged by "career women" just as often as SAHMs dish out criticism of working moms. But in the realm of kids-at-school, and getting-shit-done-for-the-PTO sorts of stuff, SAHMs are in charge.  No one is telling them that staying home is making them less involved in their kids' education or a less valuable member of the community.   Working mothers in conservative, affluent areas like mine not only deal with the passive shaming of a system that doesn't recognize their family or lifestyle as a component of the neighborhood, but their kids miss out because of that system too.  Information on the little things (pajama day, art fair, etc) is hard to get, and we're not on the "phone tree." And because we can't make social bonds with the North Facers at the walker door, they don't let their kids bond with ours.

I don't know who needs to step up here.  Why aren't the schools smart enough to realize that not all parents can be involved with school activities EVERY DAY?  Why can't parents in one-earner families realize that they are actually NOT the norm, and that we working moms appreciate what they do at the school, but we just absolutely can't contribute the same way?  Do the working moms need to start a club to call attention to ourselves?  To ask SAHMs and schools to stop making us feel like terrible parents? Or most importantly, to allow for kids of working moms to be involved in all of the activities they never find out about because NO ONE TOLD THEIR PARENTS.

A working mom club... Ain't nobody got time for that!

He'll make his own pajama day.


  1. The town I work in is also my hometown. We are flanked by some of the most affluent zip codes on the east coast and I can honestly say that I get this.

    There is this notion that you need to at least appear to be "keeping up with the Joneses" even if the Joneses don't live like real people. I remember being a child and hearing classmate's parents refer to my mother as a "bag lady" because she liked to didn't wear designer clothing and enjoyed planting in her own garden. And like you mentioned, the school seemed to assume that living in this district automatically meant you had endless funds. And we actually HAD a trailer park nestled secretly within the limits of our coveted school system. Imagine how they felt when the schools assumed that everyone was affluent.

    I imagine that in some areas like this sending out a letter offering aid for missing a payment could be met with, "How DARE you imply that WE cannot afford lunch!" It doesn't make it right that this isn't offered. As you know, I can tell even if just from observing parents at work, parenting is HARD. That said, that doesn't mean work or school for parents should end when they have a child. Most can't afford to be a SAHM and others don't want to be one. I consider myself to be the latter, but I feel the shaming when some people (some people also being my in-laws) imply that when you have kids you must decide "what kind of mother you are going to be" (meaning, are you going to quit work when you pop them out). I know that I will likely be missing cupcake days. I can't accept that this alone would make me a bad mother. It is up to the school to inform me and sometimes shit happens and you miss it.

    I admit there is a lot of guilt that I feel when I think about things I could miss out on if we have children. My mother was a nursery school teacher, so she had summers off. But we don't. I see a lot of mothers in with their kids in the summers and I sigh with a sense of loss for time I won't have with my imaginary children. But I feel such a sense of self at work. It is not just out of financial necessity but out of personal satisfaction. I think it is also important for a child to witness work ethic in their parents as well as job satisfaction and higher education. So why exactly is it "irresponsible" for a mother to go to graduate school? That is bull shit.

  2. Making sure I land a job in academia is part of my mom-plan! I go to grad school because I do want those summers off. But I know many moms who are no less dedicated to their littluns just because they work year round.

    Thanks for the comment -- this is one of those posts where I don't know if anyone will see where I'm coming from. I can hear a mother-in-law's voice spouting "I did all of it when my kids were little! Why can't you?" Well, when I get home from an 11 hour day of teaching and then studenting, I'm sorry but I just want to sit on the couch with my kids instead of preparing trays of baked goods.

    Since I did not respond to the Teacher Appreciation Week email, I actually did get a note in Mikey's backpack this week. The room parents were concerned that my email may not be working, because apparently I did not reply to offer my assistance with 49 different gifts and activities.


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