The dirty laundry that ended my career

This wardrobe malfunction not only scandalized my co-workers, but caused me to reassess my priorities

Topics: Mortifying Disclosures, Autism, Life stories, Real Families,

The dirty laundry that ended my career

I was under intense pressure at work. I was one of the few art directors to survive recent layoffs, and I suspected that I had made the cut merely because the creative director felt she could bully me into submission. She knew how hungry I was for a job with flexible hours — that had been our deal from the beginning. I needed to be available for my children, especially my son who is on the autism spectrum.

But, the way I saw it, the layoffs changed everything. I was no longer part-time, and flexible hours were out of the question. The deal was off: My only option now was to work week after week of overtime. And so, as I began to plan an important magazine cover shoot for a feature article about 10 overachieving teens, I was determined to effect a change. This shoot was an opportunity not only to prove myself to new colleagues but also to escape from the control of my manipulative creative director, and I hoped to make the most of it.

As it happened, my husband was going away on business that week, leaving me as a single parent for five days leading up to the photo shoot. Even though he traveled frequently, our household could never adjust to his absence. Any upset in my son’s routine would result in behavioral problems: He’d cling to me, he’d become cranky and he’d sometimes wet his bed on nights his dad was away.

Of course, at 7, he was long past the typical age for diapers. But for a child with autism, wearing pull-ups well past toddler years is something that could be expected … by parents of children with autism. It’s hard for other people to imagine the battles we face potty-training our children, even those who are considered high-functioning like my son. Mind you, my son was doing relatively well. He was out of pull-ups and was waking up dry more times than not. After seven years of diapers, we were almost in the clear. And this development gave me the unrealistic idea that I would now be able to juggle motherhood and a career the way I’d always expected to.

The week leading up to the shoot quickly extinguished any hope that mine would be a typical juggling act. Each day, I left work and raced to my children’s after-school program pleading I wouldn’t be the last parent to pick up because that upset my son terribly and he’d scream the minute I entered the room; I made dinner, actually two dinners, since my daughter now refused to eat according to my son’s restricted diet (like many autistic children, he has severe food intolerances); I helped the kids with their homework; I didn’t have time to walk the dog — an Australian shepherd that was getting crazier with every unwalked day; and then I pushed them through bedtime routines in a sprint to make a rigid 8:30 p.m. bedtime. But despite my vigilant adherence to diet and routine, the disruption of Dad being away combined with my increased anxiety meant my son was wetting his bed every night.

Four times already, I had to remake his bed at night with fresh sheets only to strip them in the morning after he had soaked it. After two nights, I was unable to keep up the laundry routine. After three, I was out of waterproof pads. I realized how premature my elation of not having to buy diapers was — I still needed a package handy. But there wasn’t a pull-up in the house and no time in our strict schedule that would allow me to run and get some.

Day of the shoot, 4 a.m.: My stark naked son crawled into bed with me, a clear sign that he’d wet his bed, again. Despite how exhausted I was from a week of solo parenting, I got up and stripped his mattress immediately because without a waterproof pad, I would have to soak it up with towels the best I could. After four nights of similar accidents, there was already a pile of clothes and sheets in front of the washing machine, so I dumped this latest set on top of my hamper.

By 6 a.m., I was already running late. I made my son’s lunch; I bathed him and helped him dress, trying to stay calm with him and stick to his routine, all the while barking impatiently at my daughter.

So I could leave earlier than usual, I had arranged to drop the children off at a neighbor’s, a disruption in my son’s routine that was causing more than the usual anxiety. He clung to me as I made breakfast. He wailed and pleaded and cried in frustration. I typed off an email to his teacher to let her know she might expect trouble today. And when I finally turned to get myself ready, I realized I didn’t have any clean pants. Even before I ended up devoting the whole week’s laundry cycle to nothing but sheets and blankets, I had few clothing choices. And so, I dug around my dirty clothes for the jeans I wore the day before. I looked in my hamper — the one under the pile of drenched sheets from earlier that morning.

I arrived, a little flustered, but still on time for the shoot. And then, as the photographer was unpacking his equipment after we’d finally decided on a location, I realized that the slight stench in the room, the one everyone was just beginning to notice and comment on, was coming from me. I quite honestly reeked of stale piss.

The sheets, the jeans … I realized the horrible mistake I had made but what could I do at that point? I had no choice but to accept mortification.

I went about my job and did the best I could. Thankfully the cover shot turned out beautifully as did the four other smaller group shots we took at different locations. From an art directing standpoint, my work was a success. But that reputation I had hoped to boost was destroyed.

I look back now at that moment as an important turning point. I realized what sort of abuse I was willing to accept and what I wasn’t. Later that same month, despite the pressure of a failing economy and without another salaried job to turn to, I quit.

Now, I’m available to my children full-time. I’ve also disclosed my son’s autism diagnosis to the world. I labeled him, something almost everyone warned me not to do. And I understand why they counseled me not to: because, by labeling him, I would be accepting the marginalization such a diagnosis threatens to inflict.

Well, we had already lived through all sorts of public embarrassments only autism can bring. His meltdowns in public places, his grabbing women’s boobs, his attempt to smell a man’s butt, my nervous sweats at the social snubs we faced — all this would kill any normal person’s self-esteem, but we weren’t a typical family.

Now, to anyone who’d ridicule me or him, I think piss off and smile at the pivotal moment I pissed everyone off, literally. That was the freedom that mortification gave me: to choose my children over just about everything.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>