Neither Here nor There
People often ask how I found this book’s contributors. In truth I could have stood outside my house and flagged down the first twenty-six minivans driving by; every mom has a unique story about why and how she combines work and family. But I found our first contributor via one of womankind’s most tried-and-true methods of connecting with other women—an old boyfriend. I asked one about his favorite female writers, and he recommended Sandy Hingston.
Sandy lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two teenage children. She is a senior editor at Philadelphia magazine and the author of nineteen historical romance novels, including The Suitor and The Affair. In 2004 and 2005, her parenting column, “Loco Parentis,” was recognized with the Gold Award from the City and Regional Magazine Association; it has also won the Clarion Award from the Association of Women in Communications.
Some of us working moms find ourselves caught in a gray zone between work and home. We are working but have scaled back our ambitions. Our employers, our colleagues, even our husbands, may not comprehend what we’ve given up in order to have more time and energy to devote to our children. But we know. Sandy’s essay brings to life the pros, the cons, and the frustrations of having it all and ending up in the middle of nowhere.
Eight years ago, when my son had just turned three, I went for the first job interview I’d had since quitting work the week before he was born. The woman who conducted the interview was funny and charming. I felt an instant bond. I aced the copyediting test she gave me. We spoke about the magazine I’d be working for if I got the job, and she pumped me up. We went to lunch in the company cafeteria and discovered that we both loved egg salad and were Lithuanian American (which doesn’t happen often). Things were moving right along.
Then, over cups of herbal tea, the woman said, “You say your son is three. What makes you sure you’re ready to go back to work now?”
I was prepared for the question. I’d practiced my answer. I held my hand up and ticked off my fingers: “Jake’s in prenursery school two mornings a week now, and doing fine there. The same school has full-time day care, so that transition should be smooth. His sister just started kindergarten, and he’s jealous of her ‘big-kid school’ anyway. He’s very verbal, so he’ll be able to express himself if something at day care is making him unhappy. And—well, this job just seems perfect for me. It’s time to go back.”
That was all five fingers.
But the woman wasn’t looking at my hand. She was staring at my face. Because right from the word prenursery, I’d been crying, silently crying, great fat slobbery tears rolling down my cheeks and throat and onto my neatly pressed blouse.
She handed me a tissue. I dried my eyes.
We both knew it was the end of the interview.
Two years later, different interview, different magazine, different job offer—one I could say yes to without sobbing. For one thing, my male predecessor had structured the position to accommodate his novel-writing aspirations: He was in the office the first two weeks of every month, when the magazine was in the throes of production; the last two weeks, when things were slower, he worked from home, via computer—a setup that sounded heavenly compared with conventional full-time. And no one could say I’d asked for special consideration because I was a mother; I was simply inheriting the status quo.
For another thing, Jake had finally begun kindergarten. My husband’s work as a musician could be arranged so he’d be there for the kids after school. I would have it all: a real job, a great job, decent money, terrific people to work with, plus those two weeks a month when I would be a full-time mom. I sat Jake and his sister, Marcy, down and explained how wonderful life was going to be from now on.
And it was a wonderful life. While I was at the office, I never thought much about what the kids were doing. When I was home, the office seemed very far away. I had more patience for playing Legos or leading the Brownie troop when I knew that in only two weeks I’d be dealing with adults who respected my talents again. True, the commute was a bear—an hour and a half each way. In the weeks I was working, I dropped Marcy and Jake at school in the morning and didn’t get back until it was time to tuck them in. But—though it took me a long while to admit this to anyone, even myself—I loved my time alone in the car, alone in the silence, or in noise, if there was noise, of my own choice and making, in contrast to the unending tumult that was Marcy and Jake.
And oh, how I loved the homecomings, turning the key in the front door in the violet glow of evening and being greeted like the Allies liberating Paris, by the kids, yes, who threw themselves at me in delirious adulation, but also by my husband, Doug, passing the child-care baton with weary gratitude. Then it was upstairs—“Up the blue waterfall!”—to the pleasures of the tub, and into jammies that I had washed and folded on the weekends, and bouncing into Mom and Dad’s big bed for half an hour of The Boxcar Children or Little House on the Prairie or Winnie-the-Pooh.
Part-time parenting was pleasurable, and I was good at it, as good as I was at fixing dangling participles and sorting out faulty parallelism and conjugating lie and lay. I was the Selkie Girl, sleek as a seal in my dual roles, better than anyone else because there were two of me.
It took some time for the fragility of the construct Doug and I had created to manifest itself. There were foreshadowings, ghostly intimations that all was not well in Toyland. That first year in kindergarten, Jake pushed a fellow student hard enough that we got to meet the principal. In the autumn of first grade, he hurled his lunch across the room and then hit a girl named Enjoli with a chair. The spring after Columbine, he took a nail clipper to school and damn near got expelled. (“It’s not a weapon,” he said scornfully when we attempted to explain how the world had changed. “It’s a nail clipper.”) The following year, when a teacher suggested that Jake hadn’t done his best at a task, he locked himself into a bathroom stall and refused to come out, announcing his intention to “just kill myself.” This tripped a school-district alert process that landed him in anger-management therapy. All this time, Doug and I presented the perfect concerned-parent front, siding with the school in every instance, promising disciplinary action on our end, doing our best to impress everyone involved with how dedicated we were to putting things right.
What was needed, the therapist and Jake’s teachers and the principal and Doug and I agreed, was consistency and follow-through: consequences laid out in advance, punishments doled out as threatened. It sounded great in theory. But what it ran up against was my deep conviction that Jake’s problems were at heart my problems—that if I was a real mom, there for him every day at pickup and not just half the time, he wouldn’t be hostile and impatient and sarcastic and rude. I felt this way even though I loved my job—maybe because I loved my job. Instead of coming down harder on Jake, I came down harder on myself, and doubled up the perfection: perfect Christmases, birthdays, summer vacations. The Halloween costumes I sewed were museum-worthy. Cupcakes for class parties were Martha Stewart fantasies of fondant and flowers.
And I justified the hours I was away with the money I was making. New Nikes? You got ’em. Another Barbie? You betcha. A $120 collectible Star Wars helmet? Little man, nothing’s too good for you.
Somehow, it wasn’t helping. Jake just got angrier. I felt so lucky to have Marcy, solid and sensitive Marcy, with her straight A’s and goody-two-shoes ways. She was her brother’s perfect foil. I’d fallen into writing a parenting column for the magazine, producing gritty, drawn-from-life portrayals of child rearing as it really is. Only—they weren’t, really. I skated on the side streets of Jake’s problems, riffed drolly on Marcy’s entrée into the teen years, each column neatly tying up the issue of the month—racism, Britney wannabes, attention deficit disorder. I heard from lots of parents who said they loved my stuff. My mistake was taking praise for the columns as praise for me: What a good, wise mother! And all the time we as a family were devolving, heading into a tailspin, catalog-shopping for the emperor’s new clothes.
My daughter, in the summer before she began high school, took all the willpower she had hitherto directed at earning good grades, excelling at trombone, and making varsity in three sports and turned it to one purpose: getting very thin. It is proof of just how far my head was stuck in sand that Marcy dropped nearly forty pounds before I noticed how odd her eating habits had become.
I knew she was dieting, but I’d dieted when I was her age. I had just never done it so obsessively—or successfully. Holding herself to less than a thousand calories a day, sobbing when circumstances forced her to consume foods with uncertain nutritional values, working out feverishly at the gym, my daughter reduced herself to a wisp, convinced that in radically altering herself, she would change her world.
Shylock never paid more dearly. For her meticulous troubles, for her painstaking efforts, Marcy began her freshman year at high school and discovered . . . that nothing had changed. That the boys she idolized still preferred girls she considered idiots. That though she was rail-thin, she was still agonizingly self-conscious and shy. Instead of coming to what seemed to Doug and me the logical conclusion—might as well start eating again!—she curled up on our sofa and fell into what Jake’s therapist (we were all seeing her now) diagnosed as depression.
My perfect family had become a perfect mess.
Like Alice down the rabbit hole, I was plunged into a new world, one with its own vocabulary and rules of order. Therapy was as foreign to me, the child of parents who’d never admitted there were problems, let alone discussed them, as the Cyrillic alphabet. It took all my concentration, in the face of our therapist’s gentle questioning, to keep my good-mother persona intact. Now and then I flubbed it big-time; on one memorable visit, in my daughter’s presence, I referred to her as a “whack job.” The therapist stared in shock, then asked me to repeat what I’d said: “I’m sure I must have misheard you.”
“No, she called me a whack job,” Marcy confirmed. “But it really didn’t bother me. She says things like that all the time.”
In the therapist’s narrowed eyes, I read something no one had ever, ever, accused me of before: I was a bad mom.
We didn’t dive into quarry-deep psychological waters in our family therapy; we only dabbled our toes. But it was a strange and different way of thinking about our relationships to one another, brought into focus by a woman who knew only what we showed her about ourselves. What I learned from it was that the more I showed her, the more I felt we were getting somewhere.
As a mom, I came to see, I was pretty bad. Failure was new to me, and I found it liberating. The key to what had gone awry at home—what fed my daughter’s unfeeding, and my son’s fits of temper—was precisely what made me so good at my job. Each month, it was my responsibility to see that the magazine was perfect: no typos, no grammatical mistakes, no errors of logic or omission. When you spend your days aggressively seeking out imperfection, you begin to see it everywhere: in the bedspread that’s askew, in the lawn that’s mowed haphazardly, in the A-minus that could have been an A.
Before we could heal, I would have to learn to turn off my relentless drive for finding flaws. I would have to understand the truth in those weary platitudes: “It’s not the end of the world.” “Everyone makes mistakes.” I strove to loosen up. Occasionally, we did something on the spur of the moment—and it turned out okay. I became braver in dealing with situations that had once made me panic: asking directions, making reservations, packing for vacations, all those control-freak moments that filled our daily lives with high anxiety. I had a responsibility to my children to try to become, in my late forties, a grown-up at last. And part of growing up was figuring out how I felt about the decisions I’d made when it came to my job.
Conventional mother wisdom tells me I’m right to work because my family won’t be happy unless I’m happy. What does it mean, then, if my work makes me unhappy—but maybe less unhappy than staying home would? Conventional mother wisdom says that the best, the finest, gift I can give my children is to be interesting and involved, and that I can’t have that without a career. Maybe not. I’ll never know what our lives would be like if I’d stayed home full-time, been there for all the concerts and parent-teacher conferences and hockey games. Maybe Jake wouldn’t be so angry. Maybe Marcy wouldn’t be so thin. Or maybe they would.
What I do know is this. We women, we’re supposed to be the ones making the choices these days, calling the shots, controlling our destinies. And despite my desperate efforts to keep it all together, I’m really not in control of anything—not my family, not my career, not my relationship with my husband, not who becomes president of the United States. I’m not even in control of me. When I’m at work, I wish I were home. Tending to my children. When I’m home, I think longingly of work—where I have space, can breathe. The only time I feel as if I know who I am anymore is in the car, when I ride bareheaded between my two hats, neither here nor there.
This realization, the recognition that having it all is the same as having nothing, has had the effect of making me softer, more tolerant. Childless women, the ones who’ve made or been forced into that choice—I’ve stopped seeing them as doppelgängers, my thinner, richer, infinitely more leisured lost self, what I would be if my womb had never come through. And where once I pursed my mouth when prospective mothers announced their intention to return to work full-time in six weeks, now I tell them how much I admire them, how sure I am they’ll cope, thrive, be fine. When I wheel my grocery cart into the checkout line behind a woman whose toddler is screaming for candy, I smile at her, thinking, “Bad day” instead of “Bad mother.”
We are all good mothers, the best we know how to be.