Dear Lily June,
Conversations tend to acknowledge two kinds of acceptable–even noble–modern mothers.
There are the endlessly creative, tirelessly crafty SAH moms who make fully functional butterfly wings out of papier-mâché and use them to fly their LO/DD/DS to the land where acronyms are always spelled out in macaroni noodles and glitter and are captured on picture perfect ornaments, baubles and trinkets ready to display on the competitive contact sport that is Pinterest.
OR there are the endlessly professional, jack-hammer-to-the-glass-ceiling working mothers who coordinate wedding-style catering for their toddlers’ first teething parties in between legal briefs, all while “leaning in” to demonstrate for their daughters (and sons, mind you!) the inexhaustible power and energy of the feminist female in the corporate workplace.
And amen to both fantasies.
But I have to believe, in order to survive without sinking into an emotional quicksand each grain of which is built of shame and doubt, that both of these “types” are largely stereo-, that they’re as crafted as the seven tier tooth fairy cakes these “supposed” mothers home-bake or order out, that they’re as actually really real-real as Mama Unicorns nuzzling their darling toddlercorns with the tips of their bedazzled horns.
I have to believe that I’m not alone as the third, untalked-about type. The mother who is working not because she has some political agenda to disassemble the patriarchy brick by phallic brick (though, amen, sister friend!) but because her child (you, Lily!) has gotten strangely used to sustenance in her belly.
I have to believe that, especially in my Millennial Generation, there are other mothers who could fill whole bassinets with student loan debt–whose first children were their educations and who, not through lack of hard work but a collapsing economic situation, weren’t able to find positions that reflected their talent and abilities.
In other words, I have to believe there are mothers like me who put in crappy 9-5’s (or, in my case, 7-4’s) and whose children won’t suffer from the glitterless, glamourlessness of it.
I hate nothing worse than when I hear (again) that my generation represents the pinnacle (or pit?) of entitlement. Lily June, you have to know that your family’s tenuous financial situation is not a result of your mother’s lack of effort. You have to know that I earned a 3.95+ GPA from my undergraduate institution and was its department’s graduation speaker, even while commuting an hour + each way on a city bus so that I could afford to live at home, all while taking 15-21 credits per semester while working 2-3 jobs, taking internships, and co-teaching in my field as an undergrad.
You have to know that in grad school, I walked (no exaggeration! srsly!), sometimes in 100+ degree heat, to school a mile each way because I couldn’t afford to live on the “right side” of campus (or the tracks), the side where you didn’t get shootings and rapes and peeping tom’s and not-for-fun dumpster divers and panhandlers walking door-to-door in each apartment of your complex. You have to know that, to afford our wedding, your dad and I each took on second (and third and fourth and fifth) jobs one summer, covering each stitch of my dress and his cufflinks on our own dime. And I still ended up with a 4.0 from my graduate institution.
I have a work ethic like a pack mule, and today, it’s earned me another failure: a “promotion” in my job to a position that requires three times the effort FOR THE EXACT SAME PAY. The woman in that position now will move to where I’m at (a lower-stress, more flexible job) because she’s essentially proven herself about as incompetent as butter in NOT melting down. I will enter a position driven by high stakes and stress–in an office that controls degree progress and where mistakes can cost students not just time and money but sometimes, in worst case scenarios, their future employment or even their visas.
If I mess up there, I could get someone deported, Lily, an anxiety your already anxious mother is looking forward to about as much as donning the fashionable thumbscrews and laying out for a refreshing stretch on the rack.
My hard work is being recognized, in other words, with more work, work that may take me away from your letters, this blog, the routine I’ve settled into in my office after spending the first couple of years panting like a dog from rebuilding my part of the department from scratch. If this position were a tree, Lily, the last person in it had reduced it to kindling, and it was up to me to keep it from catching on fire.
And I dutifully did my job. I only have the time to write to you at work now because I made it so this office runs efficiently.
I am bitter to learn I’ll now be displaced from it. I am bitter that I have to work this hard for so little because working as a student didn’t get me further than a non-tenured position as a non-professor who taught twice the amount of students as the higher-ups for less than half the pay. I am bitter because I followed my dreams, and they led me astray.
I am crestfallen because, in deciding I didn’t have any fight left in me to keep competing against those who were better socially-connected even when they were less academically-invested, I thought, settling into my 7-4, that I was going into a job that would have a clearly defined border between my work and my home life, and that I could devote the energy I reserved from not sending emails all night or conferencing with students all week or grading all weekend, into first writing (which didn’t really happen) and then motherhood (which really did).
Now, I’m being thrust by the universe again into a position where the borders disintegrate, where the worries will come home with me like the tupperware full of lunch I’ll bring home, that I was too stressed during my unpaid lunch hour to eat. And I am so bitter that there’s a possibility, to keep my job, I’ll lose my ability to give you the best of me.
Someday, Lily June, you may ask where I was for school plays, doctor’s visits, birthday breakfasts, etc. etc., and I want to be able to not have to say, I was “with you in spirit.” I want you to get more from me than my words, and maybe not even those if my time is eaten up with meaningless memos and bureaucratic email messages. I want you to get that I did all this for you, not paving some great new way, but because I loved you, and sucked it up, and did what I had to do.
I’m not the mom who is inspiring. I’m not the mom who’s reinventing parenting, nor am I the mom who has broken down barriers to earn women equal work for equal pay. I am not a mom in an occupational position of respectability. I’m a secretary, an old-fashioned female cliché, the kind who took a hard-earned vacation day yesterday just so I could get a bath and shave my legs and bake cookies, ironically for the birthday of the very secretary who’s going to be displacing me. I am Woman. (Please don’t fire me.)
All I want is to be able to buy you braces when and if your mouth doesn’t close quite right (even while my teeth are practically rotting out of mine). All I want is to be able to take you on a vacation without having to sell a major organ. All I want is for you to see that you’re worth more than what you do for a “living.” And all I want is to not be punished for the hard work I do, banished to the place where effort is rewarded with more responsibility without additional recognition.
All I want, Lily June, is for you to look back and not be ashamed of the woman who was your mother. All I want, Lily June, is for you to never read, let alone live, this letter.
- U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16573169