“Honey, I can’t take you to the mall today, I’m at work,” I whispered into the phone. I sit in an open area and when my daughter calls, I try to keep our conversations quiet and short. That’s not always possible.
“But Mommy, I reallllllllllly want to go to the mall with Grace,” Sabrina said. She had the day off from school, and she’d told me she wanted to just chill at home. Except: mall!
“I’m at work, I can’t leave and take you,” I said, never mind the fact that I work in another state that entails a one-hour commute. “Maybe her mom can drive?”
A few minutes later, she grudgingly hung up, still not quite accepting the fact that I couldn’t be her Muber (mom-Uber).
I felt rattled. Not because I had working mom guilt; it’s a fact of life that I have a job. I was upset because she just didn’t seem to get it.
My own mom never worked until my sister and I were in high school, at which point we basically asked her to get a life that didn’t center around us. She obliged with a job at the local library doing programs for senior citizens, and I remember being so proud. Not once did I ever call her up and beg her to leave work and take me shopping. So what was up with my daughter?
For perspective, I turned to my go-to therapist (Facebook), where I posted: “Working parents, have you ever had to have a sit-down with your child and explain your working parent life to them?! What have you said that’s stuck?”
What followed was an outpouring of commiseration and advice.
“Connor doesn’t understand why he can’t have weekday playdates,” griped one friend.
“I have been going through this with my son and daughter, and have tried explaining why I need to work, that I like working, the importance of work, etc. I haven’t done a good enough job explaining, so if you figure it out, please let me know!” begged another mom.
People reminded me that I could tap at-home moms to pitch in, which I do at times. Someone else pointed out that the older kids get, the more they get it. But really, I wanted Sabrina to understand now, and I picked up some helpful tips.
“I remember my mom telling me that she was allowed to do something for herself — work — and that really stuck with me,” said my friend Cindy. Others noted that I could explain to Sabrina that my salary enables her to get the material comforts she adores. As Suki put it, “I review the cost of things to keep the family and our house running (including their sneakers!) and ask them if them if it would be better if I was around more but they had no stuff.”
I knew exactly how Sabrina would respond to that one, so that was my first approach.
We’d stopped by a store in town to pick up overpriced fuzzy emoji shorts. I let her get a pair every spring.
“You know, if I didn’t work, we wouldn’t be able to afford these shorts,” I told her.
“Really?!” she said, incredulously.
“Yes, really,” I responded.
“They’re just shorts!” she said.
“But they’re a luxury, not something you need to exist,” I explained. She looked dubious, because of course emoji shorts are a life essential when you’re a tween. I carried on: “Because Daddy and I have jobs, we have the money for occasional treats like this. If we didn’t both work, our money would have to go towards real needs like paying for the house, paying for food, paying for electricity and other bills.”
That seemed to give her pause. “Thank you, Mommy,” she said at the register, more sincerely than I’d ever heard before.
Another time, I heeded the wisdom of my friend Cara, who wrote: “The older my kids get, the more I love talking with them about my work … just little tidbits that I think they might be able to relate to … I think it makes them feel a bit more invested somehow in my life outside parenthood, and they get a sense of the fulfillment — and income — I get from it all.”
I’ve spoken with my children about the work I do as an editor and writer, but rarely rope them into it. So one evening, as Sabrina and I sat in the living room while she did homework and I brainstormed ideas for a project, I asked: “Honey, would you like to help me with something important I’m doing for work?”
“Yes!” she said enthusiastically. And for the next ten minutes, she offered up ideas and we talked them through. It was pretty awesome. (Also: I got good ideas.)
My friend Peggy had mentioned that when she’s been in my situation, she’s found that it’s worth encouraging kids’ interests — as she said, “Not much good comes from all the extra hangout time.” Ever since Sabrina got over the homemade slime trend, she hasn’t been into anything crafty; she spends entirely too much time taking selfies and chatting with friends. We visited a bookstore this weekend and picked up a few of those adult coloring books and a set of 100 percent non-tech colored pencils.
Another tactic I’m trying, courtesy of my friend Rebecca who noted that once Sabrina is old enough to work, she’d get how great it feels to have money in her control. I’ve been asking around our neighborhood to see if anyone could use a mother’s helper.
With school out this week, I’m hoping I won’t soon be fielding a barrage of Muber requests or “Mommy, I’m bored!” texts while I sit at my desk in the office. As with making anything stick with your kids, I need to keep hitting the I-have-a-job-for-a-reason message home.
A friend offered these reassuring words: “She is going to think you are a rock star when she’s in her twenties!” But maybe, just maybe, my daughter will realize sooner just how much of a rock star her working mom already is.