When I was seven years old, and my sister was ten, my mother went back to work.
But it wasn’t like she hadn’t been working. In addition to being a phenomenal mother who was home with us every day since birth, she had also worked from home. She typed, she did resumes, she hustled from the comfort of our home office.
Eventually, she and our neighbor bought a Printing franchise 2 miles from our house.
I’m not sure my sister and I saw a big difference in our lives in the beginning. Dad still left for work before we got up. Mom was still there to get us ready for school, make sure we ate breakfast, and paste down our cowlicks with hairspray. But now after we left for school, she left for work.
While I know it took a toll on my mother, while she would complain of being tired or stressed, she just moved forward, onward. Both my parents did. They were and are providers unafraid of hard work. They played the lottery, they talked about retiring one day, and then they put their heads down and did what needed to be done. Our parents largely sheltered us from adult worries.
The biggest difference for us was that mom wasn’t in the house when we got home from school. We would walk the half-mile home, use our keys to get in the side door, take off our shoes, and call our mother to tell her we were home. It was weird at first. The house being so quiet. My sister and I the new temporary rulers of this suburban kingdom. Free to watch cartoons and eat cookies for 90 minutes before our mother came home. At which we would scramble to turn off the TV and pretend we had been doing our homework all along.
My mother would drop off her stuff, check the mail, and then start preparing dinner. The third act in a day full of never-ending tasks. No breaks. No respite. Mornings spent getting us ready, days running a business, evenings taking care of the family again. Oftentimes, those evenings involved more work she had to take home in order to get it finished in time for a client. Typesetting and collating, the latter of which we would sometimes be recruited to help with.
Wash, rinse, repeat. The thankless job of being a working mother to a family, a loving family yes, but one whose needs were everpresent and never-ending.
We always a homecooked meal except for the rare trip to Burger King on a Monday night when my dad had a board meeting and our mother didn’t feel like cooking. Even then I knew Burger King was too loud on “Kids Night.” Children’s shrieks echoing off every plastic surface. My poor mother standing at the register, telling the man behind counter the chicken sandwich had to be plain, no mayo, no pickles, nothing, just plain. Because up until my teenage years, anything that wasn’t plain was gross.
I don’t think I knew how hard going back to work was for my mother until the weeknight she took my sister and me to Toys R’ Us.
She’d only had the business for a few months at that point. While our family had adapted to the new reality, it weighed on her. I think my mom felt some guilt for going back to work. She told us she was grateful for how much we were helping out. She took us to Toys R Us and told us we could each pick a toy as her way of saying thank you. We had wonderful childhoods where we wanted for nothing. But things came at appropriate times. Christmases were incredible. Our Birthdays were great. But a toy, just randomly? That was rare.
I remember taking too long as I stared at the myriad of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle toys on the shelf. Perhaps my penchant for analysis paralysis goes back further than I realized. My mother, trying to remain patient as I took too long to pick out the toy she was buying for me, for being so well behaved. The irony of it.
I think back on that now, the significance of it. Driving to the mall (an hour round trip on a weeknight) another half hour in a toy store full of crying children, just to show your kids you appreciate them.
I know nothing about being a parent yet. But I do know a lot about being a child to great parents, what it was like to watch them work their asses off and sacrifice, what it felt like to be on the receiving end of that. And how it feels for me now, today, still resonating with the memory of plain chicken sandwiches and Toys R Us.
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