Last week, I received a sweet email from a former colleague of mine. She and I met when I made my reluctant re-entry into the full-time work force just shy of a decade ago. I was the ketchup-splattered, sleep-deprived mother of four who was trying to reclaim her cobwebby corporate dreams. She was an energetic, smart-as-a-whip, young 20-something, fresh out of college and not only able to leap small buildings in a single bound, but also willing to work productive 14 hour days, one right after the other.
We could not have been more different.
In her recent email, my friend and former colleague — who now has two young children of her own — was reminiscing about our working days together. She said back then she’d listen to my stories and she never understood why I would choose to do laundry at 5:00 AM or midnight. And now she realizes it wasn’t a choice, but a necessity — a survival skill.
Those going-back-to-work days were all sweaty and weepy for me. Sweaty because the pace of re-entering the work force was fundamentally different than the pace of parenting four kids. I traded the bus stop frenzy for air conditioned training rooms in sleek, well-designed work spaces, but I was completely out of my element, simultaneously pretending I was a high-powered career woman while pining for my babies and my dirty kitchen. Weepy because that’s my go-to emotion.
And here’s what I can say to my friend now with some hindsight and perspective: It gets easier. Moms who work full-time have my utmost respect. Balancing work and home and hormones and lactation and toenails that always need to be clipped is a near-impossible task (at least in my own personal experience), and those who do it well are bona fide rock stars. Now that my kids are older, it’s easier to work. But when they were young, I was fairly certain that every single day was going to result in a cataclysmic end-of-the-world event.
As a Throwback Thursday tribute, here’s a little excerpt from Table for Six (edited, of course, because when I look at some of my past writings, I’m not even sure I’m the same person I was eight years ago). This story — titled Say Uncle — took place during what Chris and I refer to as the winter of The Willis Plague. Every single family member was leveled with flu that winter — but of course, not at the same time. One fell, then the next, then the next, then the next. The Willis Plague did not make juggling two full-time careers — or maintaining any semblance of sanity — even vaguely possible.
But Mamas of young ones, it does get easier. Beware, though, of yearning for these more manageable days. Because once you’re here on the other side, those babies have grown into teenagers who are itching to stretch their wings and fly.
So when I hear the term “Lean In,” I prefer this interpretation instead…
Lean in to the tailored jackets with the spit-up stains, lean in to leaving the office early to snuggle with a fevered baby, lean in to a dinner on the run so you can spend more time wrestling on the floor with your toddlers, lean in to one more bedtime story even though your body is crushed with fatigue and a slew of email emergencies await. (Because I’ll let you in on a little secret: There are no true email emergencies.)
It gets easier.
And then they fly.
~ ~ ~
My epiphany came on a cold March morning in Starbucks. As I stood waiting for Chris to bring the extra set of car keys, I had a silent breakdown, tears and snot coursing steadily down my face. I didn’t care about the people staring curiously — me, the one who invented self-consciousness. But at that moment in time, all I could think was: This isn’t working.
That’s it. That was the epiphany. My life is not working.
It was 6:30 AM when I stopped for gas upon my return from work. You might wonder why I was coming home from work at 6:30 AM when most 9-5ers are just leaving for work at 6:30 AM. Well, we’d just come off a long night that involved our seven-year-old, Mary Claire, and a great deal of vomiting. Chris and I drew straws at 4:30 AM to determine who was going to stay home from work with her this time. Suffice it to say this was not our first winter illness, not our first day home from work with sick kids. Because he had the Alpha Job, I lost — short straw or not. I begrudgingly loaded my sorry, tired, sweatsuit-clad self into my car and drove to my downtown Indy office to gather resource material for the whitepaper that was due by EOD. (That’s “end of day” for those of you who are not currently privy to corporate jargon. I’ve learned an entirely new vocabulary of acronyms since jumping into post-1990s employment.)
When I arrived at the office, I found that someone else had been using my desk and could, therefore, not find the edited hard copy document I was seeking. Not looking my personal best and clearly battling bedhead, I decided not to stick around long enough to ask anyone for assistance. So, I drove back home to the tune of a beeping low gas light, a trip wasted, anxiety building.
As I pulled into the Zionsville Marathon station, I reasoned that I should buy some lottery tickets as well as gas. We were due for some good fortune, and if good fortune meant an unearned, lucky windfall, then we’d take it. (Truth be told, I was also secretly dreaming of the life of leisure money would buy us. No more 5:00 AM wake-up calls to do laundry and iron shirts. No more worrying about robbing Peter to pay Paul. No more rationing sick days in an effort to meet both my kids’ and my employer’s needs.) I pulled my billfold out of my purse, turned the car off, locked the doors, and proceeded to swipe my debit card.
Have I mentioned how cold it was on this particular March morning? Our friend, Ben, would have called it a “lion” day. He learned about “lion” and “lamb” days in preschool. Turns out, it was a day I’d have been relieved to have actually been eaten by a lion.
My card was approved, I chose the unleaded variety, and the hose was not long enough to reach the gas tank. I unlocked the car, pulled forward a couple of feet, and proceeded to lock the keys in the car upon exiting.
Really, in retrospect, it was kind of funny. I mean, Lucille Ball would have made it entertaining. But at that moment in time, in the frigid early morning wind, I wasn’t laughing.
Because my mobile phone was also locked in the car, I ran into the station to make a call. The attendant pointed to the lonely phone all the way across the frozen tundra of the parking lot. I bought a couple of lottery tickets, zipped those sure-fire winners into my pocket (which, by the way, was very empty because my gloves were also locked in the car), and trudged across the icy lot. It was so cold that I’m sure if I’d stuck my tongue to the phone, it would have frozen. I would also have most likely died from some third world public-phone-licking disease.
I dialed our home number and Chris answered nervously on the second ring. As we’re all well aware, nothing good ever comes from 6:30 AM phone calls.
“Honey, I locked my keys in the car.”
“Oh, Katrina, you didn’t,” he sighed.
“Where are you?”
“The Marathon station.”
“What about OnStar?”
“Well, when Union Federal became Sky and then Sky became Huntington, our auto deduct numbers changed, and I never bothered to update them. We can try it, but I’m not sure it’s still active.”
“I know. I know. What are we going to do?”
“I’m going to drive the other set of keys to you.”
“With all the kids?”
“No, I’ll leave them here. They’ll be okay for 15 minutes.”
“Oh, Chris, are you sure?”
“Honey, what else do you think I should do? Mary Claire is back in bed. Do you want me to wake her up?”
“No, just hurry,” I said. “But be careful.”
I was so out of sorts that I stood shivering beside the Suburban for a while before I realized that Starbucks was open and that I did, indeed, have my billfold. So, I ordered my venti, two-pump peppermint mocha and a black coffee for Chris and stood impatiently by the door, sipping my fattening concoction, but not enjoying that first minty whipped cream slurp nearly as much as I should.
Two young men sat beside me talking passionately about their church and their ministry, and I eavesdropped shamelessly. As I listened in on their conversation about God and His plan for their lives and their congregation, I felt the nervous breakdown slowly working its way into my body. My hands began shaking, my breath became shallow, a lump formed in my throat.
A slideshow looped through my mind: Deadlines, bills, vomit, my pillow, school work, extra-curricular activities, Children’s Tylenol, laundry, carpet cleaner, homework…
Busy people came in and out of that Starbucks as I clutched my coffee in my hand and cried. And cried. And cried. I didn’t make any dramatic sobbing sounds to give myself away, but the few people who bothered to glance my way knew I was crying. The snot and the blotchy red patches on my face ratted me out.
When Chris’s Volvo sped into view, I stepped outside to meet him at the Suburban. I handed him his coffee, and he silently handed me the keys.
“Why is God punishing us?” I cried dramatically.
“Have a good day, Sweetie,” he said softly, ignoring my doomsday question. “I’m going to work. I’ll see you later.”
His face was pale, his upper lip, sweaty. He was handsome and white as a sheet in his suit and tie. It was 6:48 AM, we were operating on less than two solid hours of sleep, and I knew he wouldn’t last through the day. By 2:00 PM, he’d succumbed to The Willis Plague.
~ ~ ~