The Ballad of the Working Mother

This year my youngest child turns 18. I can almost see the finish line. I no longer rush anyone to the doctor with ear infections, or stay home with kids who are sick. Of course, there is still the need to support the family, to keep us insured, to keep up with the college bills. But compared with the old days, it's a piece of cake.

I am lucky. I love being a mother and I love the work I do. My oldest son was born in 1977. Every morning, returning to work after a short maternity leave, I would put my little baby, screaming, into the arms of my neighbor, Rosalyn. She would call me later and tell me he was fine. Then I could work.

When my youngest child was a baby, I took him to another neighbor, Janice, whose voice overflowed with softness. She knew I missed being home with my baby, and one day she called me at work to tell me he was standing up in his crib for the first time. I sat at my desk and wept.

Over the years I used every child-care arrangement known to woman. I missed a lot of milestones. Day-care workers toilet-trained my babies and wrote me notes about their days. During some of those years I was married, but I always worked to pay the bills.

By 1989 I had been a single parent for a few years, trying to go back to school, trying to support my family, feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. A minister helped me put things in perspective. She told me cheerfully, "Nowadays, bread winner, bread maker, it's all the same thing." I began to see myself as a mother who supported her family. I began to be proud of myself.

Money was always a problem. Like most working women, I was underpaid and so were the women who cared for my children. When I was finally able to put my youngest child in a preschool, it took a quarter of my monthly take-home salary. But the program was good, and the workers there had health insurance. Most of them were working moms like me, carrying the family benefits package.

Once, during a job interview, the men interviewing me asked if there was anything I wanted to add. From somewhere came the courage to be blunt. "I have school-age children," I said. "When they are sick, I stay home with them." Nonetheless, I was offered the job.

For several years I worked in a county agency with about 30 other people, most of us working mothers. Summers were the hardest. We were at work and the kids were running loose doing God knows what. Several times a day, a child or teen would call and say, "Can I talk to my mom?" We learned the voices of each other's kids. We dropped what we were doing to find the right moms for them. They called about broken eggs and broken legs and brushes with the police. We were all relieved when school started again in the fall.

Fortunately, my salary usually covered the basics, but extra things were hard sometimes. One year, I lost my job. I quickly took another, but at a much lower salary. My son was a talented soccer player, and I could no longer afford the fee for him to play. Some of the men who managed the league were noble enough to take care of the fee for me. They hatched their plan to keep my son on the team in such a way that my pride allowed me to accept their generosity. And they didn't do it for the kudos; to this day, I don't know who actually paid.

For almost three decades I have been a working mother, managing to support my family in a society that routinely underpays women, undervalues child care and ties family health-care access to employment level. There are millions like me. Yet we are practically invisible.

I have been blessed with a 1-year-old granddaughter. I don't doubt that she too will one day be a working mom, like her mother and her grandmother before her. I wish for her success, and a career that thrills her heart. I wish her wage equity. I wish her adequate family health benefits. It's essential that working mothers have better tools and more support for coping with the responsibilities of supporting a family.

But I have to be realistic. I do not see mothers being relieved of bread-winning to concentrate on child-rearing any time soon. So what can we do? Plan as if for a marathon. Pace ourselves. Drink plenty of fluids and try to get enough rest. Notice the flowers. And hand off a water bottle to another working mother as she runs by.

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