Published on December 17th, 2019 | by Becky Fine-Firesheets0
It’s All Hard Work
“I’m going to see my students today,” my toddler says as he tosses random toys—a car, a frog, a ball—into a bag then hoists it over his shoulder. “I’m going now, okay?”
“Have a good class!” I call from the stove where I’m stirring beans and rice in one pot, broccoli in another.
Lew trots over to a stuffed animal propped against the table and pretends to place something in its lap. He does this with three more animals then turns back to me. “Okay, now I go work in a concert like Daddy.”
I watch him busily move around the kitchen, placing make-believe items here and there, as he imagines what happens in a classroom, a nightclub. As he imagines what it is to work.
Lew and I are sitting on the floor of our apartment dangling toy poles with magnetic tips over brightly colored fish. We have been playing this game for hours and I am bored. Not the banal boredom of too much downtime, but the stomach-stirring, skin-crawling boredom of dutiful parenthood.
“Mommy, get the green one!”
I breathe in deeply and try to be present. I lower my pole and watch it connect with the circular magnet in the green fish’s belly. Lew is thrilled, he squeals, “You did it, good job!” His kindness overwhelms me and I scoop him up in a hug, but he wiggles out of my arms and runs over to his bookshelf.
I’m glad for this time with him, this “break” from my work, yet I confess I’m eager for my new semester to begin. I think about how much I used to write during the summer, how I—
“Mommy, read this one!” Lew thrusts a book in my face and climbs onto my lap, refusing to give me a moment to my thoughts.
I don’t know how stay-at-home parents do it.
My husband often says that the performers he works with behave worse than his toddler. He wants to scream at them to grow up; he has a real kid at home, he doesn’t need their antics, too. Instead, he barks orders at them, things like, “Turn down your amp,” or, “Don’t grab the mic like that.”
Despite any tensions that may have arisen during soundcheck, once the lights are flashing and the band is roaring (just loud enough, though, never too loud), Dave will look around at the concert-goers dancing and singing and feel something stir deep within him. This transformation, this escape. This is why he works.
Lew is nonsensically rearranging my silverware drawer while I grade papers on the couch. Now that I’m back to teaching, I’m overwhelmed, exhausted, and missing those boring summer days. Why does it have to be all or nothing? Why can’t there be an in-between?
“I’m a working man!” Lew shouts as he moves spoons and forks around the drawer. I’m struck by how he equates household chores with being a “working man,” how he places these tasks in the same category as teaching or mixing a band. Most adults certainly don’t.
I think back to my own childhood playing with toys in the sewing room, the kitchen, the laundry room, while Mom and Granny sewed, cooked, or cleaned. My father, a postal carrier, was always working, yet this word “work” did not apply to the tasks these women did every day. Was it because they were women? Because their work took place in a home? Because it didn’t earn an income?
I imagine Lew isn’t the only child who naturally sees all of this for what it is: work. So at what point does greater society’s definitions come to overpower our own intrinsic understandings? And how can I stop it from happening to Lew?
“No, Mommy, I don’t want you to go!” Lew is clinging to me so tightly I can’t move, but it is 8:15 am and I have to move.
“Dave, help,” I call.
My husband stumbles up from the couch, eyes barely open, feet shuffling as if he’s still asleep. Which he basically is—last night’s shift went until one a.m. then his subway ride went until three.
“I don’t want Daddy!” Lew screams. I desperately wish I could stay and scoop him up in my arms, fly him like an airplane to his room where we would build tracks and push trains while Dave slept for a few more hours.
But this isn’t an option; today’s lesson is dependent upon the commented essays in my bag, and writing a sub plan is more work than going in, anyway. Besides, as an hourly employee, I don’t accrue vacation time and can’t use a sick day because my husband is tired and my kid is sad.
Dave pries Lew’s hands off my legs, who responds by kicking wildly, landing a heel in Dave’s stomach. He grimaces but manages to contain Lew in a tight hug even though he’s still thrashing and screaming. I stand there, staring.
“I want Mommy!” Lew yells.
“Go!” Dave commands.
“I love you all.” Then I turn around and slip out the door, Lew’s shrieks still audible from the sidewalk.
“Let’s practice having conversations,” Dave says later that night at the dinner table. “Lew, can you say, ‘Mommy, how was work today?’”
“Mommy, how was work today?” Lew asks in the exact same intonation.
“It was good. My students worked on revisions, which always makes me happy.” Except for Sasha, who has yet to hand in an essay despite the fact she’s near fluent and college ready. Though with a baby of her own at home, how could she focus on classwork? “And how was your day, Lew?”
“We went to the playground! Daddy and I played kick and went down the slide and he chased me like a scary dinosaur. RAR!” Lew holds up his hands and growls, pieces of lettuce poking out between his teeth.
“That sounds like fun.” He has no apparent recollection of the morning’s trauma, no lingering discontent that his mother abandoned him to go take care of other people instead. “And how are you? How’d it go today?” I ask my husband. “I’m impressed you found time to make dinner.”
“When I’m bigger, I’m gonna press buttons and make food like Daddy,” Lew says as he stuffs a handful of homemade pizza crust into his mouth.
Dave’s face changes, a mix of pride, love, a little concern (the entertainment industry is not a kind one). He reaches out and caresses Lew’s cheek. For a moment, everything feels just right.
I finish my food and walk to the sink with our dishes. It is already full from the day’s activities: saucers smeared with peanut butter, sippy cups dripping with milk, a coffee mug I’m sure was refilled many times. I set our plates on the counter then glance at the clock. 7:15. If I tackle the sink and Dave does bath and bedtime, maybe we can fit in some Netflix before passing out.
“Mommy, I want you to give me a bath!” Lew shouts (why is he always shouting?). I shush him gently as he wraps his arms around my legs.
“It’s okay, babe, I’ve got these,” Dave says.
“Nah, take a break. These can wait.” He nods, shuffles into the living room, collapses onto the couch.
“Let’s go!” Lew swings his arms in circles as he swims across the kitchen, checking over his shoulder to make sure I’m following behind.
“Yes, my little fish, let’s go,” I say, swimming my arms along with him.
And what am I trying to say with all of these moments? That I have a cool, feminist husband (who cooks!) and a healthy, cute kid (who loves me!), or that I work hard (even if I spend all day some days with my kid)? That all sounds easy.
But it’s not. It’s hard.
Being a stay-at-home parent is hard. Being a working parent is hard. Living in—much less parenting in—an inherently sexist and racist society that’s based on colonialism and doesn’t support women, families, nor men who actually give a shit about their kids, is hard. And I’m in a privileged position; I know that as a white, straight, cisgendered parent, I do not experience the depths of how hard it gets in this society. Capitalism, materialism, and greed have run amuck. Working a lot of hours for not enough money while also trying to raise my kid to be a better human than me feels impossible. It’s all really fucking hard, and it gets heavy. But then there are these moments when I’m with my family and things just click into place and I’m like, YES, THIS.
Through the work of marriage, pregnancy, birthing, parenting,
homemaking, cooking, cleaning, teaching, writing, all of it, I have created this beautiful space. The struggles, the boredom, the cuteness, the mental tangents, the fleeting moments of peace… for all the other mothers who are having a hard time in the thick of it, I hope you see this, and feel seen. It’s hard work.