For the past two years I’ve been lying to myself about how great I am at balancing work and family. Up until 2013, I was self-employed and working maybe three hours a day, in between yoga and browsing the toddler clothing aisle at Target. You see, I went to grad school before becoming a mother. I first became a lawyer, and two years ago I snagged a job as general counsel of a corporation. I wasn’t going to let my education go to waste, and I wanted to model for my daughter what a successful working mother looks like. She too could have it all one day.
The truth was that I hated my full-time job, and I was shortchanging my family. I needed at least three reminders to bring supplies for any special event at school. Twice this year I forgot that it was my daughter’s week to provide snacks for her preschool class, even though snacks are only required twice a year. I missed every parent event at my son’s kindergarten, and heard from other mothers that they sat with my child and wiped away his tears. Just last month I dropped off my daughter, only to be told there was no school that day—didn’t I get the message?
I was failing at having it all. Big time. I was yelling at them every morning, “Go downstairs and get your shoes on! We’re going to be late! March! Do you want Mommy to get fired?” Day after day after day.
They never got breakfast, their socks never matched, and their teeth were never brushed. I tried to untangle my daughter’s thin curls every morning as she cried. I never chatted with their teachers and never got to see any projects they were working on at school. A nanny picked them up every day.
Not once in the last two years did I volunteer for their schools, because as an executive, I was exempt from the state laws that entitle parents to that time, and my president sure wasn’t going to give it to me.
This past Monday morning I dropped my daughter off and realized I was the only parent to forget to bring in a shoebox to decorate for Valentine’s Day, and no, they didn’t have any extras. My daughter would have to work on something else.
I arrived at work with a chai in one hand and my makeup bag in the other and was greeted in the lobby by the new passive-aggressive president, who was scared to death of me. He invited me into the conference room, where my things were already boxed up, and he said, “We’re going in a different direction.”
I went home and took a shower, then went to my lawyer’s office for a meeting. This day had been a long time coming.
When I came home later to the kids and the nanny, I let them know that mommy was going to have more time now; I didn’t have a job to go to anymore.
I was scared to death. They were overjoyed.
Tuesday morning I stayed in my yoga pants and zipped up a fleece to take the kids to school. Once again, I’d forgotten the damn shoebox. I tried talking my daughter into substituting a different kind of box that we might already have at home, like maybe a cookie box or the one with bunny crackers? She wasn’t having it. What about the big rain boot shoebox she had scribbled on the other night? “That one is already decorated!” she screamed.
She wanted a pink and white striped shoebox from the Target gift-wrapping aisle just like two other little girls had. Off I went to Target.
I wandered around, somewhat bewildered about being in Target at 8:30 a.m. on a Tuesday, and made my way to the gift-wrapping aisle. Sitting alone on a shelf was their very last pink and white striped shoebox.
I almost did a dance. I hadn’t felt this accomplished in too long to remember. This is what winning at motherhood must feel like! I stopped myself from texting my husband, because he wouldn’t even know what I was talking about.
Oh! You know what else I should do while I’m here? BUY VALENTINES. SEVERAL DAYS EARLY. This wasn’t like me at all; I’m not used to having my pick of seasonal merchandise.
Twenty minutes later I walked into the preschool with the striped shoebox hidden behind my back. My daughter’s priceless smile at seeing me reappear in her classroom was reward enough; when she saw the shoebox I thought I might cry. I am not accustomed to surprising her like that.
That afternoon I was picking up my son from kindergarten and one of my mom friends asked how I was doing since being fired. “Oh, it sucks, but I’m winning at motherhood this week,” I said. She smiled. She knows.
On Wednesday morning I dropped off my daughter, and her teacher asked if I was returning at 9 or 9:30 for Parents’ Day? Of course! Never mind that I didn’t calendar it because I had no intention of coming—now I am unemployed! Count on me!
At 9:30 I returned to a war zone—kids everywhere were crying because their parents had just left the 9:00 Parents’ Day shift. Sweaty hands on windows, snot dribbling out of noses. One girl was in tears because her mother was five minutes late for the 9:30 shift.
Suddenly I panicked, thinking of all the pain I’d inflicted on my own daughter for the past year. “Miss Kenly? Does my daughter cry like this when I miss parent events?” Miss Kenly stifled a laugh and smiled. “No. Your daughter doesn’t have that kind of anxiety about being separated from you.”
That afternoon my son was in hysterics over losing the red string for the paper kite he’d made in art class. We traced his steps back to his classroom, where we found three tiny pieces of red string that he made me tie together to make one longer one. Then we went to the park with his sister and we flew that kite like we had nowhere else to be.
This morning we held hands walking toward kindergarten, and he asked if I had time to look at the rain forest painting his class is working on. “Of course I do, Bub. I’m not in a hurry.”
“Because you don’t have a job to be at anymore?” he asked.
“I have a job, Bub. Being your mommy is my job.”
He squeezed my hand a little harder.
So yeah, I’m scared. I’ve got to figure out what I’m going to do to help support my family, but at the same time, my heart is fuller than it’s been in a long time. I’ve got to rewrite my resume and start looking at jobs, but it can wait a little while today. I’ve got a Valentine’s Day party to attend.