I was half naked, covered in a thin hospital gown, rolled onto my left side on the exam table. The tech spread cold, sticky gel over my chest and began circling the wand.
My heart appeared on the screen, silver and grey, the chambers exposed, beating, beating, beating. The mysteries and wonder of the human body on display. I was at the cardiologist’s to determine why I suffered shortness of breath, why it felt like my heart was skipping a beat dozens of times a day.
The tech had curtly summoned me into the exam room and spent the first few minutes grumbling that people kept moving her stool, before she launched into a monologue about the poor showing by the San Francisco 49ers in the new football stadium and how the cable company always mixed up her address.
I didn’t feel much like chatting. To her every discontent, I murmured in sympathy, and wished she could have explained the echocardiogram images: the scrolling moonscape, the wiggle of the aortic valve, the blue and red of blood pumping in and out of my heart. The universe that I held within me.
I glanced at the tech, trying to detect her frown, her furrowed brow if she found a troubling irregularity. While pregnant with twin boys, I had frequent sonograms and each time the silvery image had leaped onto the screen, I caught my breath, worried at what the tech might find.
At 39, I was decades younger than the patients in the waiting room, where I’d overheard an elderly woman sigh to her companion, “How did we get so old?” Before kids, I’d been active and fit, hiked mountains, ran and swam. Now their cries interrupted my sleep night after night, and every playground illness battered my immune system. I breathed deeply, evenly, to will myself into a state of relaxation – despite the awkward position of my body and the chill of the examination room.
“I assume you’re a stay-at-home mother?” the tech asked. At that moment, I should have set off the machine, launching klaxons of cardiac distress. Why did she ask? Because I mentioned having toddlers? Because I walked in wearing yoga pants and sneakers? Because I was at an 8:30 a.m. appointment on a weekday?
And why did I care?
“I’m a freelance journalist,” I said. “I write for different publications. My schedule is flexible.”
She pursed her lips. “Anywhere I might have heard of?” she asked.
For many years, I’d worked at the San Francisco Chronicle, I said, and cited a few national publications I’d recently written for, but each name drew a blank stare.
In truth, she didn’t care what I said. She was making small talk, the sort of advice her supervisor might have given her in an evaluation. (“Work on your bedside manner.”)
I felt like a fraud, and all at once I remembered a day in elementary school, when the teacher introduced a visitor who would work on an art project with us. I immediately had her pegged. “You’re not an artist. You’re just a mom!”
I kept my thoughts to myself.
Somehow, I’d known that she didn’t work out of the home – and if she didn’t go to an office, didn’t draw a regular salary from an employer, then it didn’t seem like work to me.
My mother, a scientist, never denigrated the stay-at-home mothers who were the majority in my hometown, who were responsible for the smooth operation of the enrichment programs and extracurricular activities that benefited all students. But from an early age, I valued my mother’s work, because I could tell no one at home questioned it or expected her to give up her career. My maternal grandmother helped raise us while my parents pursued their American dreams.
“Do you know why I married your mother?” my father once asked me. “Because she was smart. And I wanted smart children.”
I believed that work – real work – involved leaving the house for hours each day. I became a journalist, working long hours in the office and out exploring and interviewing. Longer even, when I reported from abroad, when I excused myself from dinner to take questions from editors and cancelled plans to cover a big story – apologetically, yet with a bit of self-importance and pride in those front-page bylines.
I left daily news to attend graduate school in creative writing. I also edited and wrote for a variety of publications and clients, spending a lot of time alone in my home office – an ideal setup but for the people who suspected I was goofing off, available for errands and social engagements during the day.
After becoming a mother, my identity blurred. My life scheduled around the care, feeding, and development of the twins. I’ve grown used to the unintended slights, at which I can’t help but wince and can’t help but laugh. The receptionist at an urgent care clinic once asked if I was employed.
“Self-employed,” I said.
She looked at her screen. “So – no.”
Another Rodney Dangerfield, can’t-get-no-respect moment. Most likely, she only had two options, yes or no, with no box to note that I write, edit, and teach. I freelance, just like 53 million Americans, or a third of the workforce, according to a recent survey commissioned by the Freelancers Union and Elance-oDesk. About 48 percent are women, but among professional freelance writers, the percentage may be higher. American Society of Journalists and Authors’ membership is 70 percent women.
I am fortunate to have a supportive husband, and to be able to choose how and where I work. I earn less than what I did as a staff writer, but as a family, we can manage. Though I try to remind myself of what I have achieved – the fellowships, the journalism assignments, the editing gigs, the awards, the stories I’ve sold – it’s not what I could tell a stranger. They don’t want to hear it. Or maybe, they think they already know. At my high school reunion, my husband and another man chatted about their jobs. The question didn’t come up for myself or my female classmate, though we did talk about our children.
We were just moms.
When I’m working from home, often the twins call for me. “Mama! Mama!” With a twinge of guilt, I ignore them. The sitter shushes them, and my youngest says solemnly, “Mama’s workin’ at the computer.” With each interview I make, with each paragraph I write, I am missing out on moments of their laughter, of their discoveries, of their quarrels and their cries.
In time, my symptoms abated, and the cardiologist said my heart was functioning normally. He had no explanation for the cause of my affliction, but I had my suspicions.
That day at the clinic, the sonogram tech couldn’t have known she’d struck at my deepest fears. Am I devoted enough to my family and my career? Or am I doing a mediocre job at both? The endless questions, of the kind that keep me up at night, of the kind that make my heart flutter and skip.
Vanessa Hua is a recent Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing and the recipient of the 2014 James D. Phelan Award in Fiction. She blogs about living with her husband, twin sons, and widowed mother at Three Under One. Connect with her on Twitter @vanessa_hua.
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