Looking at My Working Mom Guilt, a Decade LaterDeb Rox
I had a rare weekend dinner with my sons. Now that they are in their early 20s (well, almost, my younger son is 19-and-a-half, though they don’t emphasize the “and-a-half” anymore) that doesn’t happen often. It’s also lovelier than I could have imagined years ago. They have table manners, for example.
I was just back from a business trip to Atlanta, and as I told my stories from that trip my older son mentioned a similar trip more than a decade earlier.
“Remember that time we went on a business trip with you to Atlanta? The crazy babysitter? The zoo?”
And my heart sank. We’ve never reminisced about that trip, probably because it was from such a dark time in my life, so I’ve never brought it up. I’ve always been a little scared about what the boys felt about that time in our lives. I steeled myself for what might come, for what they might need to say.
Back then, I was the portrait of a conflicted working mother in the middle of life changes. They must have been about 7- and 10-years-old, living for soccer fields and hours of taking apart machines and bike riding. I was immersed in a challenging career, working hard to make up for time spent checked out of the workforce when they were babies. I was a single mom, and I was quite alone in their care, experiencing family system breakdowns at the foundational level including their father’s alcoholism and my own family’s retreat from any semblance of help. I worked non-stop, didn’t sleep, craved time with my children and felt continually like the rough, muddy rope in a massive tug-of-war between the banks of motherhood and career.
They don’t make a scrapbook page template for those memories.
The Atlanta trip my son mentioned? That trip was emblematic of that time. I was due in Atlanta to present a big project, the first rape crisis medical screening of its kind, at a medical conference. It was one of those special, triumphant career moments, and it was not an option to miss it. Of course that important conference was scheduled in the middle of the kid’s spring break from school.
So first I planned to go alone, fly up and back as quickly as possible. I packed my bags to glum faces, offering promises of a beach weekend at my return. But then the day before my flight, the only overnight sitter I trusted with them cancelled on us. With my only possible known alternatives all out-of-town or inaccessible in some way, I was painted into a typical working mother’s corner. Hire an unknown sitter to stay with them, leaving them feeling more glum about spring break, with me too far away to handle something that might go wrong with the new sitter? Cancel the event, which would be be a major problem at work, not to mention a professional loss to me? Or, go with what’s behind number 3.
We grabbed backpacks, threw ourselves in the minivan and tore up the highway the six hours drive to Atlanta. “There’s a pool on the roof, you guys!” I cheered, somehow convincing all of us that the best plan had emerged, that this would be the ideal spring break of everyone’s dreams.
When we arrived I worked with the concierge to find a bonded babysitting service to cover the boys while I worked. Was bonding enough, I agonized? Was this a normal thing to do, leave your children in a hotel room with a complete stranger? The boys themselves seemed dubious, as this was something we had never done. But it was just for a few hours here and there, a small price to pay for a trip together, right?
It turned out the whole trip was a compromised flop. The promised pool? Closed. It was pouring rain in the city. Primarily stuck in a hotel room, it didn’t help that the boys hated the sitter, who was apparently distracted by her own personal crises and was on the phone the entire time (racking up a massive pre-cellphone, old-fashioned hotel room billionity-dollar-per-minute bill for me as a bonus at checkout) while they were parked in front of the television. My older son wouldn’t eat any of the expensive room service or restaurant food, either, and all the kids wanted to do was roam the halls of the massive downtown hotel, without me or the sitter. You can imagine how those discussions went. I needed to be busier at the conference than I had envisioned.
This was the spring break I gave them, I berated myself, where hotel room Stockholm Syndrome would be a best case scenario while their other friends were at beach houses and ski trips carefully planned by their SAHMs. Ugh, it was a bad, bad trip showing up everything wrong with my life choices, showing I was failing in both domains that were so important to me.
On the way home, the clouds finally parted so we captured a little vacation fun, going to Atlanta’s great zoo, where an orangutan promptly took a dump in his own hand and threw it at the plexiglas partition that separated us. Perfect. Same to you, buddy, same to you. And then we had a long ride home.
So, yeah, that trip didn’t make it into the scrapbook. I don’t think we even have a photo to show for it. I took a deep breath when the boys started to remember it.
But you know what? It was all good. First of all, they didn’t remember any tortured details, or many of the good ones either, for that matter, aside from the elevator to the top of the hotel. They laughed trying to remember the wacky sitter. They laughed remembering the orangutan.
My younger son reminded me that his brother ate an entire bag of dried apricots on the way home (probably starving from his room service boycott I thought) and had some sort of rank gas attack. I had remembered it all too well.
“Having him gas bomb us after that orangutan thing, I still can’t stand the smell of apricots,” he said.
“That’s why you don’t like apricots?” I said.
“Sorry, dude, but it’s time you got over that, bro,” he brother, the sulfur offender, laughed.
So all told, one of my worst moments as a parent, my dark example of my ineptitude, my tough choices as a single, working mother, the costs of no support systems, all of that? Didn’t result in any dire consequences — no kidnapping, no lifelong trauma, no hard feelings, no job loss, no judgment of me as a parent — the only thing that remains is some family jokes and one lone apricot aversion. That’s something we can all live with.
Being a single working mother of young children was the hardest thing I’ve even done. I wish I could go back and tell that harried, busy, ambitious mom who was so hard on herself that it was all going to be okay, and that someday we would laugh about it all, even the hard parts. That each individual decision point or activity wasn’t worthy of so much agony, that even instances of of lack didn’t matter in the aggregate, that much is forgotten but what remains remembered is love. Somehow, miraculously, we got through it all, car farts notwithstanding.
I think that even now that they are busy with their own hectic lives, I’ll try to gather us for family dinners more often.
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