I sat in traffic on Pyramid Highway in Sparks at 3:15 yesterday afternoon, desperately blinking back tears and trying to swallow around the enormous lump in my throat. My headache was raging and I couldn’t get rid of it because the remaining two ibuprofens in my pill case were wedged at the bottom and even jamming a pencil down inside it wouldn’t dislodge them.
I had just dropped my daughter off at her after-school daycare. As I sat at a red light, I texted my husband: “I feel like the world’s worst mommy.”
It was the lowest point of my week, and certainly my lowest 24-hour period as a mother.
Let me explain. See, I’ve been busy. And I really hate that phrase because it’s so overused. But really, you don’t understand, I have been BUSY. As John Cusack would say, “Monumentally busy.”
I run a business that has been blessed with work, which has come with deadlines that have all seemed to collide in October. On top of that, I’m teaching a freshman English class at UNR on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. And I am in the middle of teaching a five-week, 400-level media class at University of Phoenix on Wednesday nights. Actually, the class is probably over my own head, let alone my students’. Just preparing for one week’s four-hour class takes a full day.
Meanwhile, my daughter’s kindergarten schedule, which I’m still adjusting to, means that rather than the eight or nine hours she had had each day while in daycare, she now goes to school later, at 9 a.m. instead of 8, and must be picked up earlier, cutting my workday down to six hours. To compensate for the lost time—10 hours a week—I must grade papers in the evening, prep classes on the weekends, plop my daughter in front of the television so I can squeeze in an hour of work here or two hours there.
Three afternoons a week, I pick her up at 3:00, race over to the after-school daycare, drop her off, and run over to school to complete my workday, which ends either at 7 p.m. or 10 p.m., depending on the class I’m teaching. My husband and I do this complicated dance of drop-offs and pick-ups and hand-overs, quick kisses and fleeting hugs.
My family and I are ships passing in the night.
Trust me, I know how spoiled I sound: “Ohhh, I’m just SO busy! I have SO much work to do!” I know I’m lucky to have it. I chose this life, and I do love it, mostly. I also don’t, and never did, have the desire to be a stay-at-home, full-time mom. I admire the heck out of women who do, and in many ways I believe that’s harder than anything I do.
But how do I express this desire to work to my 5-year-old daughter, who from one minute to the next lately doesn’t know who’s picking her up or where she’s going, and who is constantly saying goodbye to one parent (usually me) or another?
My worst 24 hours of this very tough October started Wednesday. It was the day of my daughter’s very first school field trip, and because I had to leave for class and my husband was bringing her home from school, I missed getting to see her and hearing about the field trip. It was my long night of teaching—I’d be at school until 10—and I reluctantly left home for the very long evening ahead. They, meanwhile, would be headed to Grandpa’s house for dinner and visits with family—something else I’d be missing.
“When do you think you’ll take your break?” my husband texted me later—a message I didn’t find until my class break later that evening.
“I’m about to show an hour-long documentary,” I responded, gearing up for my next class activity.
“Are you able to step away during the hour?” he asked.
And then this, the heartbreaker…my daughter typed out a text on his phone: “Can you watt a seckint bekuz I mad a leder.” (Can you wait a second, because I made a letter.”)
My daughter had written me a letter at Grandpa’s house and wanted to hand-deliver it.
Next thing I knew, my husband and daughter were standing outside my classroom door. I popped quietly outside, taking what had become four separate letters, and hugged her. “Open them, Mama!” she told me. But they were sealed in envelopes. My students were staring at me. Administrators were standing in the hallway.
“You know what, honey? I’ll read them later, when I’m done with my class and can really read them carefully, OK?” I said.
She nodded. “Can I come in your class, Mama?”
It was already 8:30, past her bedtime, and having her there would have been a big distraction. “No, sweetie, I’m sorry, you need to get home to bed.”
“But I WANT to!” she whined, tears pooling in her eyes. “Just a minute … please???”
Now she was crying, and my husband had to pick her up, sad face and all, and take her out of the building.
I am a monster, I said to myself.
I finally read the letters, all written on separate Post-Its, in the car before driving home that night. They read as follows: “I Mis You Mamma”; “I Wish you wir hir”; “I luove you Mamma”; “I luove you. Olivia.”
Oh man. I am a terrible mother, I thought. And then I thought, It’s not fair. She was deeply asleep when I got home and kissed her cheek goodnight.
Fast forward to the next morning. Too burdened by stress, I’d hardly slept and had finally given up on getting any more at 5:30, and decided to get up and start my day. I showered, packed her lunch, made her breakfast and my coffee, and we were both done earlier than usual.
Which is why we had a few extra minutes before school. I suggested that we walk the long way through the park to school. My daughter embraced the idea enthusiastically. The fall colors on the leaves and cool, crisp air would have made it perfect, except for the fact that she immediately refused my offer of my hand, and proceeded to run, 50 yards ahead of me, all the way to school. When I finally caught up to her outside her classroom, she said, “Don’t look at me, Mommy!” as I went to kiss her goodbye. The bell rang, and without so much as a goodbye, she was gone.
I looked forward to 3:00 that afternoon when I’d pick her up from school, if only for the 10 minutes we’d have between school and daycare to get caught up with each other. But my day had been full of appointments and meetings. When the bell rang, I was running late from a meeting. Normally, I’m waiting outside her door when the bell rings. On this day, of course, I was a minute late. I received only the limpest of hugs when I reached her, and no response at all to my inquiry of “How was your day?”
“You were late, Mama,” she scolded me. “I was looking all over for you.”
Her sad face and lackluster demeanor continued as I apologized and tried to move past it. But they persisted, and were so unusual, I actually worried that she was sick. I felt her forehead. No fever.
“Do you feel okay?” I asked her.
“I’m just tired,” she said. Isn’t that what teenagers say? She’s five!!
“Are you sure?”
“YES!” she replied, irritated (teenager-like). Strike two.
We got in the car, and sat in the outside-school traffic for a few moments, in silence. “So what was the best part of your day today?” I asked, trying again to engage her in conversation.
“We got pizza today for lunch. You didn’t have to pack my lunch today.”
Right. It had been pizza party day at school, which I’d known about and had forgotten in the hubbub. I hadn’t even gotten to enjoy not packing lunch, plus I had saddled her with a lunchbox that was still full. Strike three, Mama.
I got nothing else out of her for the rest of our drive to daycare. I got an even limper hug goodbye when I dropped her off, regretfully, and left feeling a lot had gone unsaid. I waved and mouthed “I love you” at the daycare’s front window, which elicited only a stare from her. I pulled away with a lump in my throat.
Which is how I wound up crying on Pyramid Highway. It was too much. It was just all too much…too much work, too much time away from my family, too much lack of sleep, too much time missed doing anything fun or doing nothing at all. Too much growing distance between my 5-year-old and me. Too much still to do before I could call it a day. I was a lousy mother who didn’t know how to talk to my child and who couldn’t spend time with her, who kept dropping her off places and who was late and who screwed up lunch and here I was leaving AGAIN. And she now didn’t want me.
I know this story mirrors those of thousands of other moms who must work full time or go to school or have a myriad of other responsibilities. You might not even think it sounds so bad. My daughter and I didn’t fight, there was no drama. I mean, she writes me letters! What a gift! In fact, I am a lucky woman to have a supportive husband to carry this load we have equally, to share in keeping the family running. Trust me, I know.
But all I felt at that moment was robbed. Even knowing how good I’ve got it, what tore me up completely was that quiet shift— that feeling that even the few tiny moments I could grab with her couldn’t even be good ones, and that things were changing right before my eyes, and I had no ability to control it. Just like that, before I know it, she’ll be six, then seven, and on and on. And I’ll never get that 24 hours back. Life felt so cruel, and I felt utterly powerless to fix it. All I could do was keep on trudging through it. Would she understand, ever? Would she resent me for all my missed evenings and weekends? Would this month EVER end? Because it was feeling as if it never would. It had been the longest 24 hours ever.
The road blurred, but I blinked and blinked until the tears rolled quietly down my cheeks. I wiped them, swallowing furiously until the lump in my throat was gone. I turned up the radio. I had to switch gears now: Time to “clock in” for job #2. With a heavy heart, I pulled onto the highway. Hours to go before I would sleep.