I always thought that my choice to be a working mother was the right one, both for me and for my family. But my daughter recently recounted a story to me that made me question that decision.
A long time ago, when I was a teenager in fact, I decided to be a career woman. My father died of cancer when I was 14 and I watched my stay-at-home mother go through a lot of personal struggles trying to establish her independence afterwards. I made a resolution that I would never be in that position. Life holds too many unknown factors and you have to plan for the worst. In my mind, financial independence meant freedom, security and survival.
After college, I established myself in public relations and marketing and had a pretty good career going. I flew on private jets sometimes, had dinners in some of the finest establishments, and worked for executives in the Bay Area placing stories in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, for example.
Then I had Mackenzie. I went back to work in marketing about four months after my daughter was born. Despite negative snipes from some of my male colleagues, I needed to help support our family and I genuinely liked the work. It was emotionally excruciating leaving her every day at daycare, but I tried to remind myself of the positives: she will learn to be more social, they will give her stimulating activities, and she will have a stronger immune system from being immersed in a petri dish on a daily basis.
I always took a lot of care making dinner for my family, often putting in quite a bit of time making something both nutritious and delicious for the three of us. But I stubbornly drew that line at school lunches. I was NOT going to make lunch for Mackenzie. Period. I was too exhausted from working. Once she hit elementary school, I felt Mackenzie could buy lunch.
Personally, I always looked forward to buying lunch at school when I was a kid. That thick focaccia-like pizza cut into large squares and lightly brushed with sauce. If it was a good day, the cheese wouldn’t stick to the aluminum foil covering. And those chocolate chip cookies! The oversized, brown sugar heavy crunchy cookies that cost $.10 and were awesome alongside those tiny cartons of cold, Vitamin D milk. It was fun, and I thought Kenz might like it too. Wouldn’t a hot meal be better than the lunches in my memory: a baloney and butter sandwich, flattened by an extra heavy navel orange?
My daughter is in middle school now and as much as I encourage her to make her own lunch, she doesn’t have the energy or desire after studying until 10pm some nights.
Currently, I work from home, and I thought I might finally change my ways. On Tuesday I decided to make her lunch. I made a honey ham and salami sandwich on Dave’s Killer White Bread with some high-quality mayo from Whole Foods, a Ziploc baggy of red and yellow grape tomatoes, a maple white chocolate Think Thin bar and a stroopwafel cookie I brought home from Amsterdam. She had a week of school district testing ahead of her, so I also included a notecard with some over-the-top affirmations of love just to elicit that teenage-eyeroll. And it was all kinda fun.
When I picked up Kenzie from the bus, I asked her what she thought of her lunch.
“Oh yeah, that was great Mom,” she said sarcastically. “I went to go get some water and my friends went through my lunch bag and they found your notecard. Real hilarious. They bugged me about that the whole day.”
“You didn’t like my card?” I laughed. “I knew you were in testing and I just wanted to brighten your day.”
“Yeah, don’t do that.”
She got deep in thought for a few minutes and said, “I remember back in elementary school all my friends’ mothers used to make them these great lunches every day. They would have their little sandwiches, cut into perfect rectangles, and their mothers would all write them little notes and put them in their lunch bags. I always had to buy my lunch so I never had that. One day, I actually took a paper towel, and wrote my own note from you. I even put a piece of candy with it. Just so I could be like the rest of them.”
Insert knife into heart….
I had no idea. I think I was one of the few moms at Wilder Elementary in the Seattle suburb who had a full-time job. The other moms volunteered at the school together, hung out together, knew each other. They were all really nice ladies who were acquaintances that I might run into at a soccer game, or at a school play. This was a Microsoft-heavy community, and I was not one of them. My life was made up of meetings, and tradeshows and working with industry editors.
The role of the working mother is something that is pretty hotly debated. Some women don’t have a choice in this matter; they have to work. I did choose, and this story from my daughter brought up a lot of regret for me. It wasn’t the first time I had had those feelings, but I always quickly resolved them in my mind. This time really affected me though. Maybe because it was about food, and nurturing, and a sense of belonging?
Yesterday I told my daughter that I was going to write about this, and I told her how I was feeling.
“Mom,” she said, “I like that you work. I think that’s why I’m such an independent person. I know I can take care of myself. I wouldn’t be this way if you stayed home. I’m pretty sure about that. And when dad lost his job, you supported us. What would we have done if you didn’t have a job?”
The thing is, she is really independent. She always has been. She gets herself up at 6am every morning whether I’m up or not. She is the most punctual person I have ever encountered. She studies every night without me ever saying anything. I think maybe this was her way of surviving. She became this way out of necessity? And I don’t think that is such a bad thing.
I’m a working mom, and I’m not able to change that. I’m just going to press on, and continue to try to grow my business. But I think I’m going to be making lunches for her from now on. And I might just slip a notecard with over-the-top affirmations in every now and then. Even if it’s just to elicit the teenage eyeroll.