How many times a year do I do this? I’ve lost count.
Bright and early, I march to the second-floor closet and vow that this is the day I will cull the boxes of family memories piled to the ceiling. I yank the door open and sigh with disgust: What a mess. I pull out a box, sit on the bed and push up my sleeves.
A half-hour later, I’m up to my elbows in my kids’ childhoods. Resolve evaporated. Tears guaranteed by noon.
“Next month,” I say, and I shut the door.
Earlier this week, I tried yet again. This time, I got as far as the bottom of the pretty cloth-covered box, where a pile of yellow and white sticky notes were holding on to one another as if for survival. Slowly, I peeled and started reading the two dozen notes my 7-year-old daughter left for me around the house in 1994.
Most of them read, “I love you.” But there were occasional attempts at humor, too. “Your hair looks fine,” read one that was stuck to the bathroom mirror. On her note wrapped around my deodorant: “Excusisme, but your arm pits spell good.”
At the very bottom, I found the note she’d pressed on my computer screen one night before going to bed: “You write to much.”
Translation: You work too much.
I was a single mother at the time, and a newspaper reporter. If I don’t work, we don’t eat. That’s what I told myself every time I felt guilty, which was pretty much every day. It took years for me to understand that it was OK to love what I do for a living — and to communicate that to my daughter, too.
On that night, her note was my heartache. Now I look back and feel sorry for both of us, the daughter who deserved more and the mother who was afraid of losing everything.
Voltaire said God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh. I’d add, if you don’t laugh at the first joke, God tries again. The morning after I unearthed that pile of my daughter’s notes, I woke up to an NPR report about the latest Pew Research Center study on working women. Something about how more mothers are primary providers and the public is “conflicted” about this.
Real knee-slapper, that one. Few things get my adrenaline pumping faster than this notion of working mothers and their disapproving public.
I looked up the Pew report, which is titled “Breadwinner Moms” and has this subhead: “Mothers Are the Sole or Primary Provider in Four-in-Ten Households with Children; Public Conflicted about the Growing Trend.”
Like most Pew studies, it’s rich with data:
— A record 40 percent — up from 1960’s 11 percent — of households with children younger than 18 include mothers who are “either the sole or primary source of income for the family.”
— These mothers split into “two very different groups: 5.1 million (37 percent) are married mothers who have a higher income than their husbands, and 8.6 million (63 percent) are single mothers.”
— Women make up 47 percent of the U.S. labor force today; married mothers’ employment rate has increased from 37 percent in 1968 to 65 percent in 2011.
Many news organizations also noted this tidbit: “About half (51 percent) of survey respondents say that children are better off if a mother is home and doesn’t hold a job, while just 8 percent say the same about a father.”
I don’t fault anyone for reporting that part of the study. I do wonder why Pew feels the need to keep asking how many people approve of women who exhaust themselves by raising and financing their families, but hey, it got me out of bed.
This time, I want to assure all you hardworking mothers out there that this latest round of mom-shaming will be over soon. Until the next round. If I could give you anything, it would be my hindsight. We get only so much energy each day, and any minute you spend on guilt over what you do to support your family is a wasted investment. You’re doing the best you can, and your children are better for it.
As for that 7-year-old daughter of mine who once wrote, “You write to much”: She’s 26 now, out on her own and doing her part to save the world. I know exactly what she’ll do if ever I show her that long-ago note.
First, she’ll correct her spelling.
Then she’ll say what she’s told me countless times before: “Keep writing, Mom. Whatever you do, just keep writing.”
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including …and His Lovely Wife, which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz (firstname.lastname@example.org) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.