I made school lunch for the last time, ever.
“This is the last time I’m ever going to make lunch for you to take to school,” I said to my daughter, as I folded a chicken and rice burrito and wrapped it up tight.
“You’re free!” she whooped. “Aren’t you glad?”
Seven years ago, I wrote “A List from the Working Mother Battlefield,” a response, of sorts, to Devon Corneal’s 2013, “What Not to Say to a Working Mom,” as that essay made a fresh round of appearances on social media feeds. (Side note: feels kind of quaint, doesn’t it? Social media, a decade ago? Pfffttt.)
I was deep in the thick of it at the time. Both children were in middle school, neither of them driving. Morning carpool duty was at 6:30 a.m. for a 7:15 school start time. Afternoon pick-up was at 2:15 — nicely timed for a late lunch break, I thought at the time, on the days when it was my turn to drive.
We carpooled with two other families that year, leaving home in the dark, waving to a photographer friend and his therapist wife who walked the neighborhood every morning. Aside from being entirely too early, it was an otherwise lovely routine.
The afternoons were more of a scramble, especially when after-school activities factored in. Leave work. Get back to work. Leave again.
What was for dinner? Depended upon how organized I was in any given week. And dinner mattered because leftovers made for easy lunch preparation. The more organized I was, the better things went, for everyone.
So that’s how things were, in those days: Rise early; make fried eggs; drive carpool; come home to make coffee and get ready for work; work; drive; work; drive; maybe stop at the grocery on the way home; cook; make the children’s lunches; go to bed.
Sometimes I got those last two reversed. I would get settled in bed, turn off the light, drift almost into sleep, and then realize, oh goddammit, I forgot to make lunch….
“I spent the past 10 years telling girls to storm the corporate board room, to girl-boss their way to the top, to lean in and take that express train to the corner office. What we’ve realized is that having it all is just a euphemism for doing it all. And it didn’t matter how many leadership courses you took, how many mentors you had, how much you leaned in, you were never going to get there, because until we get to equality in the home, you’re never gonna get to equality in the workplace.
“You have companies like Goldman Sachs celebrating women’s month, having people come in and talk about how to color code your calendar, how to get a mentor or a sponsor, how to raise your hand and speak up in meetings. The reality is they should be having talks on how to get men to do the laundry and do more care-taking. We need corporate policies like paid leave. Corporations play a huge role in creating gender inequality at home.”“What Do Companies Owe Working Mothers?” An interview with Reshma Saujani; Clara Ferreira Marques; Bloomberg, March 2022
Was I glad to have made the last-ever school lunch? Kind of. It was never my favorite chore. Some years I was more creative with it than others, but on the whole making school lunch wasn’t really my strong suit.
But no way in hell was I going to buy Lunchables or some other crap “food” to make things easier. And since the cafeteria food, in those middle school years, was deemed inedible by both children, making lunch was a non-negotiable part of the school year.
Did I try having the children help make their own lunches? Of course. Did my husband sometimes step in and fill those containers with carrot sticks and hummus? Indeed. But for all the attempts at more progressive balance and distribution of work, the task remained primarily mine.
In April of 2020 I was on a Zoom call with a group of colleagues, giving an update on how we were handling the pandemic by offering telehealth, remote learning, and remote work. About 10 minutes before the call started my son, a high school senior at the time, called out from his bedroom, where he was attending school on Microsoft Teams, to ask if I would make him lunch. His specific request was for cheese toast and fruit, which I figured I could whip together before my call started, no problem.
But the call started a few minutes early, and I was clanging a baking sheet and shuffling dishes when my colleagues signed on. When they asked what I was doing, I explained that I was making lunch for my son.
“Isn’t he old enough to make it for himself?” one man asked.
“Of course,” I replied, “but he asked me to do it, and I thought I could squeeze it in before we started.”
“Nothing like when mom makes lunch,” another man said, and they all laughed in agreement.
What I’d thought, and what I’ve advocated for, is that women should be able to choose how we construct our lives – whether we work or don’t work, have children or don’t have children, cook or don’t cook, and so on – without judgment or criticism about whether our choices are “true” to modern womanhood and gender equality.
What I’d thought, and what I’ve written about, in that “Working Mother Battlefield” piece, among others, is that there is no universally right answer.
What I’d thought was that we were making progress.
But I was wrong about that last one. I see that now. The pandemic may have exposed the truth, but it didn’t create it.
I know a woman who has three young children. To her I am the Woman Who Has Done the Hard Things. I’ve had a career and raised children at the same time. I’ve juggled board meetings and school performances, written presentation decks in between taking temperatures, helping with homework, and making dinner. For 21 years I have done that.
My younger friend is still in the early phase of her working mother life. Her oldest child will start kindergarten in the fall. My friend has two advanced degrees and is a highly accomplished professional woman with growth aspirations. She is poised and brilliant and caring and self-aware.
I heard her talking on the phone to her partner about picking up the children from childcare, and my heart sank. The way she was negotiating with him, explaining to him that she had some things she needed to do and could he please, just today, pick them up.
“Sorry about that,” she said to me after the call ended. I asked if she were apologizing for having to take the call or for having the conversation, explaining that she needn’t apologize for either. I asked because I was curious.
“Sorry that I had to take the call, sorry that you had to hear our business, sorry that I had to interrupt the conversation you and I were having,” she said.
“I hoped things would be different for your generation,” I said, in response. “I remember having that same conversation, negotiating that same situation. I hoped my generation would change things, for the better, for your generation. But I think we failed.”
“It’s just so hard,” she said. “It’s so, so hard.”
In the years since I wrote the working mother battlefield piece I’ve done a bit of work on myself.
The pandemic made that inner work easier in some ways. The time I didn’t spend getting ready to go to an office, driving to work, and getting settled at my desk became time I could use to take care of myself — to exercise, meditate, go for a leisurely walk and clear my head.
I also had the benefit of working with outside help to strengthen my inside self. Those outside helpers included both coach and counselor — two very different kinds of work with two very different professionals, but all of the work focused inward. I realized, in the early days of the pandemic, that getting through the brewing storm would require a stronger, sturdier, more balanced version of me.
I was able to do all of these things thanks to a combination of hard work, privilege, luck, and timing. Those last two must never be discounted for their importance. There is no accounting for luck. It was lucky, for me, that my children were old enough to go to remote school by themselves, without my help, that they did not need me in the same way younger children would have needed a parent. So the extra time I got, during the pandemic, for myself, was mostly luck. I write this, now, in the spirit of not squandering that good luck and the learning that came as a result.
What I learned, mostly, were things about myself, as a mother, as a woman, as a human being.
“Spend time” I wrote, in 2015, “figuring out who YOU are and what YOU want. You, just you. Not mommy-you or wife-you or career-you. Just you. Writing will help. If you are not certain – absolutely sure – about who you are as a person, then people will say stupid things to you because they’ll see that you’re still searching and try to figure things out for you, probably by saying things like ‘why did you have children if you’re not going to raise them yourself?’ Seriously, it’s like being on an airplane; secure your own mask first before assisting others, and before someone tries to assist you, thinking you’re incapable.”
That would still be my number one suggestion, were I writing a list like that one, for the first time. And it will be my first recommendation, as you’ll see.
Because I want to start over, on this same idea. I want a fresh crack at it. I want to amend the record, start to set things straight from the legacy of learning. I want to do better for my young friend, for my children’s generation, for the future.
I’ll make this version a little shorter, and only somewhat modified, but in an important way:
A List from the Working Parent Battlefield
- Spend time figuring out who YOU are and what YOU want. People who work as parents and also work in workforce economy at the same time will have the best chance at managing the duality if they take time to explore, understand, and be present with their own individual aspirations, dreams, feelings, and behavior. Doing the inside work improves every outside relationship. Secure your own mask first.
- Parenting is a partnership. Whether you’re married, unmarried, divorced, or separated, if you embarked on the parenting journey with another adult as a spouse or partner, then you are in that partnership for the child’s whole life. Figuring out how to make that partnership function in support your child, even when (especially when) the partnership fails or ends will make an irreplaceable positive difference for your child. Share in the work; make a plan for the work; consider the share work the most important career decision you’ll ever make, ever. NOTE: If the partnership ended because of abuse or violence, then dealing with that truth — doing the work — is essential for you and for your child. Put that past to rest, with great and careful intention.
- There is no universally-right answer. Every parent’s path is different, and the only expert on your individual situation is you.
- Surround yourself with people who truly support you and the choices you make. Ask them for help. These people may or may not have made the same choices as you. In fact, you may find that some of the people best suited to supporting you have led different lives from your own, have made different choices about work and family. Do not go through this life alone, Ophelia (and although that advice is written for and about women, it applys equally to men. It does.)
- You cannot have it all, unless you change your definition of “all.” Parenting is work. Work is work. Excelling at both the work of parenting and the work of work at the exact same time is an almost-impossible goal, even for people with infinite resources but especially for people with fewer resources. This is where corporate policies and cultural norms are heavily skewed against parents. School ends at 3:00; traditional workdays end at 5 or 6 o’clock. Until we fix that functional problem, no parent can “have it all.”
- When you have a conflict and have to choose between parent-you and career-you, pick whichever one only you can do. Sometimes being there for your children will win this contest; other times work will win.
- Parenting — the active, hands-on part — is a temporary job. Yes, you’ll always be Tommy’s parent; he’ll always be your baby. But if things go the way they’re supposed to go, then Tommy is going to move out of your house, out from under your wing to fly on his own. Your job is to help get him there, to independence. Barring tragedy, active parenthood is a temporary assignment. Once you see it that way, it changes your perspective; it also sharpens your focus and helps you prioritize.
- The hardest part is toward the end of the active parenting stage. When children look old enough to take care of themselves, they need parents the most. Yes, the early childhood years are when brain architecture is built, when children learn to trust, when they develop the basic building blocks for lifelong success. Early childhood is a time when children need a particular kind of care and nurturing — not all of which has to come specifically from parents. But regrets over not driving that Pre-K field trip to the petting zoo will pale in comparison to your not being in the kitchen one afternoon when your teenage child screws up the courage to ask you if you ever got drunk at a party in high school because, well, a friend was asking about it. If you have to choose one period of time to work long hours and another to have flexibility, be flexible when your children really need you. You want them when they’re little, but they need you when they’re big. They really, really do.
See what I did there?
It’s a start, I think.