As a child, I envied the kids whose mothers participated in school events, stopped by in the middle of the day to help with an art project, chaperoned a school trip, stopped by at lunch time to add extra cookies to their lunches (or so I imagined).
My mother was a single mom. If she could have, she would have done all those things, but her sick days were reserved for just that—when her children were sick. My mother worked all day as a special education teacher, and then spent all afternoon caring for her two passionate, sensitive, creative, needful daughters. She didn’t have a sick day—or a moment—to spare.
This was not how she planned things. As a child, she would proclaim that she wanted eight children! That fantasy abated, but she still anticipated motherhood with a sparkle in her eye. She was a child at heart, and imagined endless days of play, art projects, book reading, merry-making. She expected things would go as they had in her ’50s childhood: a father who worked to support the family, and a mother who stayed home with the kids.
My father was a kind, tender-hearted father, but he could not be the husband or breadwinner my mother wanted him to be. In my early years, my father cobbled together a living wage and my mother did most of the childcare. But it became clear as the years went on that they wanted very different things in terms of a family set-up. My father wanted to pursue his left-leaning political aspirations, and he wanted my mother to work to support the family.
My parents split up the year my younger sister was born. I only learned later—when I became a mother myself—that my mother spent the first 18 months of my sister’s life living off the profit of the condo she’d sold, that she’d slipped by with government aid and help from her parents. She wanted to stay home with my sister in her early years, just as she had with me. Even after she returned to work, money was always tight, and it took her a decade to become entirely self-sufficient. We always had what we needed, but not much more.
As I enter my eighth year as a (mostly) full-time mom to my two sons, I feel blessed. However long, tedious, tiresome, and sometimes terrifyingly lonely the life of a full-time mother can be, it feels like a miracle to be here with them. I don’t take it for granted when my husband walks through the door at the end of his long working days. I am lucky to have found someone who shares my vision of a family life, and who is able to fulfill it. Money is also tight for us, but we make it work. Growing up the way I did, I know that what children need most is the presence of their parents.
Not all families want the type of traditional family we have. I know that many women desire a career outside the home. I know that for some families it just isn’t financially possible for one parent to stay at home. And I am, of course, keenly aware that not all homes are made up of two loving, capable parents. I am eternally grateful to have the choice to stay home or work outside the home.
But most of all, I am grateful for my mother. Though finances were always stressful, and her energy was often shot at the end of the day, she was my rock. She did her best with what she had and made me the woman and the mother I am today. I knew that my mother would be there for me. Always, without a doubt. That was my stability despite the instability of my childhood.
Now, retired after over 20 years of teaching, she continues to support me. She will drop anything she is doing to rush over to my house and help me with my children. Sometimes I feel ashamed that I even have to ask for help—after all, there was very little help for her when we were kids. But she is glad to do so. Being with us gives her great pleasure.
I am glad my children get to grow up with her. I want them to see her in the most relaxed and unencumbered years of her life. I want them to remember the lilt of her voice as she strums “Skip to My Lou” on her guitar. I want them to remember how she could get on the floor with them and roll around laughing with abandon like no other grown-up could. I want them to know her strength, her resilience. I want them to be encased in her bright, unwavering love.