But it was our home, at least for a few years, and my mom tried to make it as comfortable as possible. Her effort was especially noticeable on winter mornings. Texas doesn’t have cold winters — until it does. Then it gets ice storms that cause highway pileups and nighttime temperatures that drop below freezing, making a house without heat feel bone-achingly cold everywhere except under a pile of covers.
On those mornings, without fail, my mom would get up before me and place our one space heater in the bathroom, so that it would provide a warm refuge when I got up. She would do that every day, whether she felt tired or ached from her job as a code enforcement officer or felt sick. (She got her first of three cancer diagnoses while we lived in that house.)
It was a small sacrifice of her comfort for mine, but that memory is one I hold close. Within that gesture was a reassuring reminder that no matter how tough things got for us, my mom would look out for me.
This has been a hard year for everyone, but especially working mothers.
That’s not an opinion. The numbers show it. Women have dropped out of the workforce at significantly higher rates than men. Not surprisingly, in September, when schools started up again, women left the labor force at four times the rate of men, according to the National Women’s Law Center. The numbers look even more stark when it comes to trends among women of color.
Experts have also warned that moms who have stayed in the workforce, and are doing all they can to keep that work-life balance while the ground shifts under them, are more likely to experience exhaustion and burnout.
In other words, moms are not all right.
But if, on Mother’s Day, it helps pluck a worry from those trying to hold it all together, here’s what my own childhood and the pandemic have shown me: It’s all right if children happen to see some of that struggle.
I have spent this pandemic talking to moms who are struggling because of their economic situations but who have children who are thriving, despite those same economic situations. One teenager I recently wrote about won an essay contest, and opened adult minds, while worrying about whether her family would end up homeless. Another teenager, the daughter of a single mom, spent this turbulent year fighting county and school officials about compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, a subject many adults don’t even understand.
I’m not suggesting that moms (or dads) should pile their worries on their children. I’m suggesting that they might have one less worry in their pile.
Before the pandemic, I tried to shield my two young sons from any stress or exhaustion that I felt. They didn’t even know fully what I did for a living. I just told them that I wrote stories for a newspaper, fearing that if I said too much, I’d have to explain the heartbreaking scenarios I often witnessed.
Knowing journalism requires long, unpredictable hours, I made it a goal early on in their lives to try to make it home for as many of their bedtimes as possible. Eventually, that hour became our hour, something they and I looked forward to. The problem was that on the rare occasions I couldn’t make it home in time, and my husband would put them to bed, they would fall asleep crying, and I would feel that whole work-home balance tumble out of reach.
They were 5 and 7 when the pandemic started, and I tried to maintain that wall between work and family, even though both were shoved together in the space of our house, all day, every day. My husband was an incredible help and took on half of their schooling. Even so, there were days when interviewing, researching, writing, cooking, teaching, cooking again, and trying to play with them slammed into one another like a messy blob of different color Play-Doh.
Eventually, I decided to stop trying to keep from them every speck of ugly. When my sons asked whether I felt tired or stressed, I started telling them I did. And when they asked what I was working on, I started explaining the subject in ways that they could understand.
Then one night, this happened: I had to appear on a nighttime panel that coincided with their bedtime. I expected protests and maybe even tears when I told them. But my older son asked me what the panel was about, and as I explained, I realized that he now felt invested.
“Don’t worry, Mama,” he said. “I can put us to sleep.” And he did. He read to his brother and hugged him as he drifted off that night — and he has since offered to do it again on other nights.
When people describe their parents, they often use the cliche one of the strongest people I know. But I saw my mom’s strength firsthand growing up. I saw her putting on her uniform every morning, so she could go inspect properties that most people would want to avoid. I saw her sacrifice her own comforts so she could save money and eventually buy us a nicer home with central air and heating. (My family stays there every time we visit her. The last time we did, I hugged her at the door and told her we would see her soon. Because of the pandemic, that was a year and a half ago.)
I saw her survive cancer three times, and while feeling her worst, still take care of her children and grandchildren.
In a photo I keep in my home office, my mom’s usually wild mane of dark hair is white fuzz. I took the photo right after her third surgery for cancer and final rounds of treatment. In her arms, she carries my infant son, comforting him despite her own discomfort.
In another photo in my office, she and I are standing in front of a sink, washing dishes together. Paint is peeling from the wall above her head, and her eyes look tired. I’m about 2 years old and smiling.
A bottle of dishwashing soap appears near my head. The label fittingly reads “Joy.”
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