My two-year-old daughter looks at me with rain in her face: “Mama, I want to go with you.” I stand, hand on door, my body vibrating with the urgency of time, briefcase shoulder strap caught on the door knob. Keeping me here. I stop. I breathe. I kneel, look her in the eyes and say, “I love you. I will be back. I am sorry, but you can’t come with me . . .” The rain breaks into thunder.
I feel trapped in a never-ending corridor, the sound of thousands of footsteps behind me, in front of me, all around me, pushing on me, all moving forward in an unstoppable surge of struggling humanity. If I stop, I will be trampled. Maimed. Killed. I must go on, and not just lie down in exhaustion and let the feet cover me as I want to do. I must keep running with the others so our single-mom family will make it. Out the door, to the car, and to the classroom. Students wait for me as my daughter crumples in the doorway. The need for income pushing me away from her.
I am trying to get Sarah to go out with me, and she is hiding behind the chair. I go toward her, and she hits me, hard, in the face. I am stunned. This is a girl whose dolls only hug one another and who is offended when a boy wants their toys to fight. Even at two-and-a-half years old, my daughter is already a pacifist. I sit back and hold my face, an explosion of pain.
“You HURT mommy,” I say.
“I don’t love YOU,” she yells as she runs away.
I go after her, trying to catch her. She holds her palms up to me, signaling me to stop.
“I am sorry, but you can’t come with me. I am sorry, but you can’t come with me. I am sorry, but you can’t come with me,” she repeats in an echo of my own voice.
I sit down in front of her. And I just look at her. She is so angry. Matching her anger with mine will do no good. So I breathe. And breathe.
Then, in a small voice, I say, “You hurt mama’s feelings, Sarah.”
She replies, “I am sorry, but you can’t come with me,” again, in a perfect imitation of me. Then, when I don’t get it, she says, “Mama hurt MY feelings.”
I see, then, that she thought I was getting ready to leave her to go to work, and she was making a preemptive strike. Hurt me first before I can hurt her, and with my own words: “Sorry, but you can’t come with me . . .”
Anyone who says children adjust to the pain of separation isn’t looking closely enough.
I am at work on my computer, typing, typing, typing on an academic article that is due at the end of this month, but I am only partly here. I try to focus, to concentrate, to get this done so I can go back to my daughter. I keep being drawn back to her image, her smell, her touch, as I imagine she does with me.
I must do this work, but I have to call it as I see it in my own life. I won’t pretend that Sarah is not suffering. I won’t pretend that her pain doesn’t matter. I won’t try to justify it in terms of her well being, as in claiming that “she is learning to be more independent” or “a happy mother makes a happy home.” I won’t be pacified by the nanny’s comment that “she stops crying the minute you are out of sight.” Does my pain at a loss hurt any less because I can reconcile myself to it? No, of course not. Then, should I disregard her pain because she is learning to deal with it? Because it is short-lived? Is my child’s pain less important than mine? Even though she won’t consciously remember this later, if therapy has taught me anything, it’s that the unconscious forgets nothing.
I won’t deny the obvious truth: I am rebuilding my career on the back of her grief.
This is hard to admit. When working mothers are on the defensive, we can’t publicly admit the grief of our children. When we are fighting with each other and against those who demean us, we can’t be fully honest about our own grief. Conversations about motherhood are fraught with issues of self-esteem, value, and power. Like many moms, I want to feel right in whatever choices I have made. And, usually, we don’t naturally feel right because the work/child-care arrangements we have carved out are rarely completely emotionally and spiritually satisfying. So, mothers can sometimes talk about their choices more loudly because they are not only trying to convince others they have made the best choice, but also trying to convince themselves. I know I have made strong talk in favor of being a stay-at-home mom. I know I have spoken with equal force about how mothers need other stimuli and outlets than only their nurturing of others, about the significance of work. My voice has sounded loudly on all sides of the issue.
I hear so much in the media of the conflict between working mothers and stay-at-home mothers that doesn’t resonate with any of my experiences. I have been a stay-at-home mom and a working mom and a coordinator of a Women’s Studies program and a feminist activist; no one side matches my lived reality. So, I won’t takes sides in the current public debates between SAHM and working mothers because now I know that “sides” are an illusion.
We are not the stereotypes offered us by the media, or even inadvertently, by mothers ourselves. I have never met a mother who doesn’t think (contrary to what the book title Mothers Who Think suggests). I have met mothers who think differently than I do, and although it is tempting to dismiss them by saying “they don’t REALLY think — because if they did, they would think like me,” I have found, once I get beyond the stereotypes, that they ARE thinking about their children, their lives, and their positions in the world. They just think differently than I do. Perhaps realizing that we are not the stereotypes is what could help us understand each other better.
I think it is time that mothers and fathers start talking openly about the pain separation causes. We’ll never be able to stop performing childlessness to further our careers if we don’t admit who the real victims are. We’ll also not ever value stay-at-home parents for the valuable nurturing work they do if we don’t openly discuss the separation pain they are making financial and career sacrifices to limit. We’ll never encourage our culture to value the parent-child bond if working and stay-at-home mothers and fathers don’t all get into the debate together. And maybe, just maybe, the point of the mommy wars is to keep the issue appearing as a woman’s issue rather than a man’s. To encourage women to fight with each other. To distract us from demanding real change as parents. To keep parents of both genders and from all different perspectives from joining together as a voting block.
If mothers and fathers from all different sides of the debates could talk openly about the grief separation between children and parents causes, then maybe, just maybe we could force some changes in the way both men and women do work in this culture: more flex-time, telecommuting, paid maternity/paternity leave, benefits for stay-at-home parents, help for parents transitioning in and out of the work force, longer maternity/paternity leave, benefits to part-time employees, more part-time, career oriented jobs, better child care, more on-site child care, and more family-friendly corporate and academic cultures. But, society at large doesn’t want to know the reality of the lives of our children, because if they knew, and wanted to live up to ideals expressed in the phrase “family values,” they would have to change. And change is not what most people want. Because what children need is time, and in our culture, time is money, not love.