When I was in elementary school I always loved career day. I loved when my mother, a writer, would come in because she was the only writer among the parents. She would bring pens and paper to hand out, and would try to do in 15 minutes what my English teachers couldn’t manage to do the entire school year–teach us how to write a decent story. I knew my mom was more than just a writer, she was a full-time mom to six kids, but she never went into detail about that job on career day.
Whenever the other parents asked us what we wanted to be, I always said, “I want to be a mommy.” The parents would laugh and say no really, what do you want to grow up to be? Their reaction always confused me. What job or role could have been better? As a child, I didn’t appreciate what it really meant to be a mother, I just knew that I loved mine and she loved me and that’s what I wanted. I always believed that if she could do something, I could do it too. (Halfway through my first pregnancy I’m beginning to see that she’s actually a saint for having six children and that perhaps I can’t do everything the way she did it.)
Looking back at 22, I see now career day was a good indicator of what the future held for me. I wish I had paid more attention to the opportunities the parents described, but I did not. Instead, I just enjoyed not having to sit through math class. But now, I also think about how I remember there were always more fathers than mothers who came in. In fact, my mother was one of the only mothers who ever did. I saw my friend’s mothers helping at the school all the time and I always wondered why they hadn’t been invited to career day. The fathers came in wearing expensive-looking suits or military uniforms and brought in toys for us with corporate logos printed on them. They were lawyers and doctors, businessmen, officers, and engineers. They gave the boys in class some image for the future—but where were the models for the girls? Thinking about it now, I realize that the working moms were likely saving vacation days for times they would need to take care of sick kids. My mom was a freelance writer, so she did not have to work to an employer’s requirements.
Then in 2001, just as my youngest sister was leaving elementary school, my mother got pregnant. I didn’t understand what it meant to get pregnant at 39 then, I just knew that I was getting a little brother.
Now that I myself am pregnant, I feel for her. Among all the challenges and adversity she would face (there were five of us in a blended family, all under her roof, ages 8, 10, 10, 11 and 12), she also had to endure another six years of career days, class parties, Halloween parades, and all the other joys of another 18 years of motherhood.
I asked my mother recently what she thought had changed for working moms since I was in 4th grade in 2000. She told me not much as far as career day went. It was still mostly fathers who came in because most of the mothers of young children in our suburban community were able to be stay-at-home moms. And those women probably faced the same issues I do now. They put their careers on hold indefinitely. They look at the cost of day care and see that their entire paycheck would go to that expense. And they see their partners’ careers take off while they put their own dreams on a back burner. Some may even try to re-enter the work force after their children start elementary or middle school, only to be discouraged by the lack of family friendly companies that offer the flexibility they need.
In the not-so-distant future, my daughter will start elementary school. Where will I be? Where will this country be? Will we have elected a woman president? Will maternity leave policies have changed? Will I myself still be struggling to make ends meet because of the soaring costs of living? Will I come in for my daughter’s career days? Will I stand at the head of the class to talk to the children? Or will my life as a working-class single mother keep me quiet in the back of the room. I have hopes and dreams—but I have worries and fears.
Contributed by Meredith Fowler – Twitter @mfowler323