Have you ever done your kids’ homework?
Come on, I know you have. Sometimes you do it because the project is so clearly over the head of your child or any other child of his or her age on the planet that you question the teacher’s sanity in assigning it. My seventh grade science teacher is a prime example of this. She used to assign the most complicated engineering projects to us that they all essentially became grand competitions between all our fathers to build the best “Rat Mobile” (i.e. the fastest moving object powered by a mouse trap) or strongest structure made out of drinking straws and fishing line. That was when my builder father taught me the power of triangles….
However, I digress.
Last night was my turn to break the rules.
After having been delayed on a return from Chicago for more than 24 hours by bad weather, I finally arrived just barely awake at my daughter’s babysitter just before 10 p.m. I grabbed the already pajama-dressed darling and all her accoutrements, tossed her in the car, and dragged into our house 20 minutes later only to find her backpack full of instructions for school the next day:
“It’s the 100th day of school tomorrow!!!! Please make sure your child dresses like someone who is 100 years old and brings in 100 small items in to count in groups of 10 (like Skittles, buttons, or paperclips!). Also, we are making caterpillars this week. Please send in empty egg cartons for this project ASAP!!!!”
Am I the only one who wonders why kindergarten teachers employ so many exclamation points? Having worked in marketing and advertising for years, I’ve always lived by the anti-exclamation point rule: If you need to use an exclamation point, you’re not actually conveying information effectively. You cannot excite another human being about your product or service by simply employing the use of a line and a dot.
It is at this point in the evening that I realize following the rules is not going to benefit Heidi in the least. It is more than 3 hours past her bedtime, and I already know I’ll be up all night answering work e-mails and writing articles. I put the kid to bed and begin working on her homework myself.
A friend calls just as I am counting out 100 dried beans.
“Hey,” I say, “Can you stop talking for just a minute? I need to count beans.” There is an awkward pause and silence on the other end of the line.
After parceling them out in groups of 10 because even at age 38, I can’t count to 100 effectively at midnight after flying two hours, driving two more, and having about two dozen things on my brain that, awful mother as it may make me out to be, I find vastly more important than bean counting.
“Okay,” I say to my friend, “go ahead. Tell me about your date. Oh, wait, do you have any ideas for how you would dress if you were 100 years old??”
Together we come up with a shapeless sweater dress, shawl, string of pearls, and (courtesy of my friend) a grand idea to draw wrinkles on Heidi’s forehead and cheeks the next morning.
Now it’s time to empty the no doubt already past expiration date eggs in the fridge out of a carton, so Heidi can start making a caterpillar for a science project. For a moment, my brain drifts to the W-2s I’ve not yet sent into the IRS and the feature article I need to write on growing Forest Stewardship Council-certified lumber. “Stop it!” I counsel myself. “Focus on finding Heidi’s missing ‘Dick and Jane Jump’ book.”
“I didn’t realize the 100th day of school was such a big deal,” says my single working mother friend whose daughter is the same age as Heidi. She has called to tell me she must cancel our yoga/meditation retreat weekend because she’s too stressed out to go.
“Yes, the 100th school day thing is quite pervasive,” I remark as I zip up Heidi’s backpack, confident I have accomplished all requisite tasks…that is until I see a stack of permission slips and paperwork I’m supposed to fill out.
“You know, men couldn’t do this,” my friend says. I remember the last time I saw her. She was sitting in her home office in space alien pajama bottoms, hair in a ponytail, dark circles under her eyes, Disney Princess paraphernalia scattered about here and there, losing her shit on a conference call with colleagues after suffering through four hours of sleep the previous night.
“I am exhausted,” she tells me. “I get up every morning, fight with my daughter to eat her pancakes, tell her repeatedly she has six minutes to get out the door, drive her to school while I’ve got my headset on and am talking to a customer halfway around the world, drive back from school, sit on tele-cons for 8 hours, try to squeeze in a trip to the gym, not that I need it since I don’t have time to eat anyway, pick up my daughter, struggle to make something resembling a home-cooked meal with the help of a slow cooker, pull out hot glue guns and colored paper for the latest school project, play games, do storytime, bathe her, get her to bed, back to the office to catch up on e-mails until 2 a.m., then do it all over again the next day.”
This is the life of a working mother. And honestly, it often doesn’t matter if we’re single. I can’t recall my life looking all that different when I was married, despite my father’s injunction, “You need a husband….”
Maybe. What would he do? I suppose he might do a better job than I of reading Dr. Seuss’ What Was I Scared Of? (Though there is something disturbingly entertaining about recounting the story of the glowing green pants that run around all night in the woods.) And no doubt he’d do a better job of cooking dinner. It’s pretty easy to beat rice krispies served alongside raw broccoli and carrots.
But, as a rule, men just don’t take life as seriously as we do. Maybe it’s a gift that they’re okay with the little ones heading to school with homework undone and hair unbrushed. Society is more forgiving of men if they are 10 minutes late to pick up their daughters from ballet. They get accolades galore if they show up for Christmas concerts and school field trips. I show up for parent-teacher conferences, doctor’s appointments, and interviews with clients so that I can pay the bills that cover food, home, and, hopefully, college education. Forget retirement. That’s never going to happen.
And that’s what cuts to the core…when my daughter looks up at me tapping away on my laptop, as she builds castles from Legos on the floor at my feet. “Mommy, when are you going to retire so you will have more time to play with me?”
How does one answer a question like that? The only way I know how is by counting beans at midnight and caring whether or not she shows up at school with her requested Styrofoam egg carton. And sometimes I fail at these things. I drop the ball, fall asleep at the wheel, miss the deadline, forget to send tennis shoes for P.E.
But one thing I never forget is love. The morning hugs and tickles to draw her out of bed. The promises to be there no matter what, even when she’s grown. The good night tuck-ins and the sometimes blissful crawling into bed beside her to hold her sweet little sleeping body next to mine as she clutches stuffed bears and kittens and whispers in her dreams, “I love you. You’re the best Mommy ever.”
And I am. If you don’t measure it in miscounted beans and lost library books….