“Mom,” 9-year-old Ben says as we walk out the front door on the way to school, “do you like being home with us?” I am wearing yoga pants and a sweat shirt I snatched from my bedroom floor. Ben pulls at my spandex-encased thighs and playfully snaps the material against me. Even now, his fingers are still baby-chubby, his hair towheaded. I do not let a day pass without kissing his skin. I can tell he is still considering the shift in my style, the missing clack of low black heels and the absent swoosh of work pants. They disappeared, along with my job, my company and a good chunk of my self-worth, more than a year ago.
I answer, “Yes, I like being home with you.” Of course I say this. But do I mean it?
“Is your only job Room Parent now?” he asks. I close the door and turn the key to lock the door.
* * *
I worried I couldn’t do the job of Room Parent because, apparently, I couldn’t do my last job, which was to amplify the email subscriber base of the company I’d started, and my investors gave me the ax. I was fired from my own company.
Besides, Room Parent in our school district was no easy job. Family participation here was past the point of madness — forget helicopter parents, some of these parents were omnipresent combat aircraft practiced at homing in on potential bullies and sub-par teachers they demanded their child be “protected” from — and I worried both that I couldn’t live up to their expectations and, potentially worse, that I might realize I was failing as a mom and rectify this by emulating them.
In short, I should have known on Meet the Teacher night, when I rushed to sign up as Ben’s third grade Room Parent, that something was amiss.
But I’d been out of work too long. I’d suffered an entire school year of crisis. My hand, once a well-worn mitt my phone fit inside like a late summer spitball, had been freed up to write the great American novel, organize the house, cook inventive dinners, manage our finances, learn a new skill or, hell, I don’t know. Scrapbook? All of these things — especially and most painfully the novel or any semblance of productivity — seemed pathetically out of reach. I was not bored. I was idly frantic. From 9 to 3 I wondered: What purpose do I serve?
Room Parent, I decided, would partially validate me in Ben’s eyes, or at least please him. How tough could it be to cut and paste announcements the PTA president wanted disseminated? Plus, I would instantly be in the know about the only volunteer opportunities I considered worthy: parties and field trips. I hate museums, but Ben loves them, and he loves to look up at me from different displays and show me what he’s discovered. It’s the way he sees me — I imagine he views my presence as added proof of his joy — and the way I see myself through his admiration (even through my extravagant boredom) that makes me desperate to cut in line and ride the bus with him whenever his class leaves campus and buddies up to tour around. Also, I liked his teacher immediately. She spoke plainly and smiled when appropriate, without performance, and said that in addition to field trips, there’d be just two parties that year for me to arrange juice boxes for, and some emails to send. I didn’t feel any of the responsibilities threatened to smother Ben, or me. So I signed on, and Ben was thrilled.
Then suddenly the first email bulletin blast from the PTA to the parents was due, a task that should have taken me five minutes. Instead, I spent two concentrated hours crafting what I hoped was humorous prose with a theme of repression: repressing one’s urge to arrive three hours ahead of time at the upcoming Halloween parade (unless you’d purchased the $10,000 front row parade seats from last year’s auction and could show up at your leisure), and the common middle-aged mom desire to dress, one last time, as a sexy witch or cheerleader. Because I was very literary I even included a book recommendation. Incidentally, I wrote, the best book I’ve read lately is (still) The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Just in case you wanted to know. Surely, they wanted to know. I needed to tell them. And 24 hours later I was pleasantly surprised by the 42 percent positive response rate. With zero unsubscribes. “You’re too funny!” one mom said. “Want to be friends?” another proposed. Yes, I did. I felt emboldened.
The second email I rewrote was about the hidden benefits of purchasing tickets for, but skipping, the aforementioned school pancake breakfast — a Sedaris-like essay, really, on moderation and the practice of avoiding the school’s excessive push for donations without exhibiting bad form. (The previous year, our school foundation had raised $2 million and a Room Mom had whispered to me at the class holiday party, as we were decorating cardboard gingerbread houses no one could actually eat, “We could barely afford the special frosting from the bakery in San Carlos this year — it’s about $100 per classroom, but it’s organic,” thus ending my donations to the school indefinitely.) The work was well received: a 60 percent response rate, a few positive comments from actual dads, and the ultimate confirmation of my worth as Room Parent and beyond. “You should write a book!” one mom suggested. I almost responded that, in fact, I was.
On a Friday in January another stock email blast was delivered to my inbox for simple redistribution, and on Saturday morning I sat down to write my third piece. It was only after I hit “Compose,” and began to consider which metaphor might best be used in announcing the upcoming book fair that I realized I was re-crafting elementary school reminders into public pleas — Oh, but I’m not just Ben’s Mom! Look what I can do! — for praise. In a hot flash of recognition I saw that the emails had become avatars for the image I wanted to project — accomplished, self-deprecating, witty. And relevant.
Quickly, I sent out the stock form of the email. And then I sat back and wondered if my readership felt let down. I knew I did. So I let the boys watch two extra hours of TV, hunkered down, and wrote up a few great American emails consisting of information I knew I’d need to circulate in the upcoming months: holiday teacher’s gift money collection, Valentine’s Day protocol, end of year teacher’s gift money collection, and that sort of thing. When I finished I checked the calendar again in anticipation of the next likely message date. Gift collections would start early that year.
* * *
When Ben was 4, 5, 6 and 7, he liked telling his buddies his mom had started an Internet company. I heard his pride when he bragged about me: fierce, as if I’d invented Angry Birds or X-Box, though I’d only launched a Groupon-inspired daily deals site. He loved coming to “Mom’s office” and playing on different employees’ computers, being set up in a conference room all day if he was feeling good but not yet 24 hours past a fever, and so banished from school. He liked having his picture taken and seeing mine in the news.
Now, in third grade, I imagine he wants to tell his teacher, or coach, or friend’s mom something when they ask what I do. He wants to say something other than “nothing.” So do I. This is not because being predominantly a mom and staying home — not going to an office — is actually doing nothing, or is doing less than offering flash deals for massages at 50 percent off, or is shameful, or makes me less lovable to him. It’s because he is not yet accustomed to it. He’d grown used to me doing something definable and external to him, something that had nothing to do with producing his happiness and everything to do with producing my own. He liked that I had hundreds of employees to manage — not just him and his brother — and he liked seeing me happy and fulfilled. Or thinking I was.
I don’t like not working. Or maybe I’m not yet accustomed to it. This doesn’t mean I don’t like being with him, but in the past year Ben has seen me struggle. He’s heard me yell in sudden, irrational frustration, and say inappropriate things like, “What’s wrong with you?” to his older, more contentious brother. But more often he’s silently inhaled the secondhand gas of my shame over this creeping stagnation. I have walked around the house emitting what must be severely irritating sighs in response to my privileged daily life. This can’t have been good for him. In my grief over my livelihood I have sometimes been ridiculously self-centered. And judgmental.
* * *
These days I am more self-assured and perky but easily spooked, and Ben’s question — “Do you like being home with us?” — haunts me as I walk in a daze from the front door to the driveway.
Yes, I’ve said, I like being home with you. Although I could have said it in a truer way, like, “I have always loved being with you, but sometimes I don’t like being home,” or simply, “Yes and no.”
His second question — “Is your only job Room Parent now?” — plagues me, too. I won’t answer him, but that doesn’t mean I don’t consider it.
No one calls me a housewife. The term has been ousted from our vernacular for decades. This is good, because I am a terrible housekeeper. Everything in my house is broken or stained. The funky spotlights that clasp onto hip, modern wires in my family room, like tiny metal gymnasts, have no bulbs. The printer in the corner whirs and lights up but, jammed with dog hair, does not produce. There is a stubborn crumb in the power jack of my laptop that prevents reliable uptime. (But who cares? I am flush with downtime.) I ignore the stains on the stairs, the nicks on the walls, and the pile of future donations to Goodwill in the corner of the living room. I shove it behind the foosball table, which serves mostly to hold my rolled-up yoga mat. I can’t summon the motivation to fix anything. I had always said I didn’t have time. I have time now.
An acquaintance or two has referred to my new position as professional mom. As a woman with an engineering master's degree and nearly 20 years in the Silicon Valley tech industry, I don’t appreciate this label. Plus, I’m only slightly better at being a professional mom than I am at being a housewife. I insist on math study and reading time and no put-downs, but I don’t home-school or make them play instruments, and there is zero chance they’ll learn Mandarin. They won’t be baptized or bar mitzvahed. They won’t even be told there’s a God: Self-reliance and kindness is our family religion. Perhaps accomplishment has snuck its way into our doctrine as well.
I limit TV and video games, but take the kids on doughnut runs and generally discourage organic food. I let my boys play ball in the house because everything is in shambles anyway, and they are still living here. Someday they won’t be, and I will miss them. Am I failing them? Am I failing myself?
When I was running my company I had a job, and I was a mother. These were different, and neither caused guilt. As far as I knew I was always home when they needed me, and I had no desire to troll the mom pickup circuit when school let out. Where do these women find the time and energy to talk so much about so little? I used to think. I knew they were all, or mainly, intelligent and well meaning. The truth was in most cases they probably had me beat on both accounts, and I had no idea what they talked about. I just assumed it was trivial. I knew I could not get giddy about my kids’ arithmetic milestones or playground politics minutiae. Instead, I told myself, I came home for dinner fulfilled from my adult day of toil. I threw on some soccer shorts, and we all kicked balls around after eating together, as it should be. Mothering was my fiber, my heart: the peak joys and lows of me. It was hard work and exhausting play, but it was not an occupation. Entrepreneurship was my identity, the steady fulfillment of my being. Starting up companies was not as hard as raising children, nor did it replace it. It was ancillary to it. I made my company, not my child, in my image. And then I lost it.
I am no longer a founder, a CMO or an entrepreneur. I am not a professional mom and, much to my long suffering but tidy husband’s dismay, I am no kind of housewife. So what am I?
Aside from responses to my pithy Room Parent emails there are no accolades for what I do — no external validation from press and employees like I once enjoyed. Now that I have no job title or financial milestones, I flounder for recognition and testimony. When it doesn’t come, I feel apprehensive. I hear a fussy little voice in my head. Maybe, it says, I avoid school pickup time because I’m the one with nothing of value or interest to say.
* * *
I realize I am staring at the mailbox in my driveway, my hand on the minivan door. Ben is waiting for me.
“Mom!” he says. “Let’s go. ¡Vámanos!” He likes to get to school a half hour early for handball.
“Sorry, Bud,” I say. I push the button, slide open the automatic door, get in the van, and wait for him while I worry over commonplace things: when I can walk the dog, get my exercise in, or do some writing. I remember I need to make mammogram and brake inspection appointments, fill out paperwork for insurance reimbursements, and that we have no food in the fridge for tonight's dinner or tomorrow's bag lunches. Sometimes I still can’t believe what my life has become.
Ben climbs into the car and makes a music request: “Do CD six, track three please.” I oblige and Ben says, “Yahhhh,” and bobs his head in tune, smiling at me. He likes to belt out lyrics, without his brother there to tell him to shush. This is how he gets pumped up for school. His loves his public school, and benefits from all the fundraising I have, perhaps selfishly, refused to participate in. His enthusiasm is contagious. I smile back at him in the rearview mirror.
As I ease out of the driveway with “Pompeii” playing loudly, I am sure Ben has forgotten about his question. Do you like being home with us?
Still, I jut my chin in time to the bass, reach back to squeeze his calf, and give a new answer. “I’m so glad I get to drive you to school every day.” There is no truer way to say this. Despite the frequent drudgery of the middays that follow, I enjoy it.
"Me too, Mom" Ben says. "Thanks for taking me."
My spirits lift. I don't have a title, but I do have my sons, and I love being with them. The truth is, most of the time that’s still not enough for me. But in this moment it’s plenty. And it gives me hope that in the future — with more patience and time — I might eventually forgive myself for my failure, and find a more permanent, more personal acceptance.