By Mary Laufer
The phrase "working mother" is redundant.
One night when I was a teenager, I walked by my parents' bedroom and saw my mother soaking her feet in a pan of water. Although it was only 7:30, she had already changed into her pajamas and bathrobe. Why was she always so tired at the end of the day? After all, my father went to work every morning, while Mom stayed home and did whatever she wanted.
I leaned against the doorframe, ignoring the box of Epsom salt on the dresser, not even bothering to ask my mother if her feet were sore. I was thinking about my best friend's mother, who worked as a secretary for a construction company. That afternoon I'd watched her answering telephones and typing contracts, and her job seemed so important. My mother had been a secretary before she married Dad, and I didn't see why having eight kids in the meantime kept her from working now.
I blurted out, "Why don't you get a job, Mom?"
In a matter-of-fact tone, she replied, "Because I have one."
I frowned. Then I realized she meant that her job was being a mother. "No," I said with a little sigh. "I mean a real job."
Mom's blue-gray eyes sparkled. "Wait until you have children of your own," she said with the hint of a smile. "You'll see!"
Just as she predicted, motherhood looked very different to me at twenty-one, when I brought my first baby home from the hospital. My days and nights turned into an endless cycle of feedings and diaper changes. I couldn't rely on my husband for much help because he was in an intensive military program and was gone fifteen hours a day. We'd just moved across the country to Idaho, over two thousand miles from our parents in New York, so I was on my own.
Late one morning when my son, Brian, was napping, I caught my reflection in the bathroom mirror. I was still in my nightgown, and my long hair wasn't combed. My eyes had dark circles under them. Now that Brian was sleeping, I had to quickly pick up the breakfast dishes and put a load of clothes in the washer. He'd woken me up four times during the night, and all I really wanted to do was climb back into bed and take a nap myself.
I multiplied my tribulations by eight and wailed, "How did Mom survive?" She'd had it even harder than I, because women of her time weren't encouraged to breastfeed. That meant bottles to wash and formula to mix. Some years she'd had three in diapers at once, and disposables didn't yet exist. The diaper pail was a permanent fixture in the bathroom, and it filled up daily.
As my son grew, so did my appreciation for my mother. There certainly was more to this motherhood business than I'd given her credit for! When Brian started crawling, he put everything in his mouth, and I had to be incredibly vigilant so he didn't choke on a dropped paperclip or chew on a dirty sneaker. Before long, he was yanking on electrical cords and almost toppling over lamps. Most of my time was spent following him around and keeping him out of trouble. In the evenings, I rocked him to sleep, kissed him on his forehead and whispered, "We got through another day."
I made friends with a few other mothers in our neighborhood who had babies the same age as my son, but for the most part I lived in isolation. Only a year before, I'd worked full-time at a public library and actually seen people every day! The hours seemed long then, but I had breaks and lunch hours, as well as evenings and weekends, to spend however I pleased. That library job looked easy now, compared to being on call twenty-four/seven.
At ten months, Brian learned to pull himself up to the edge of the couch and inch along. I knelt behind him with my hands out, ready to catch him should he fall. Sometimes when he looked at me with his blue-gray eyes, my mother's eyes looked back at me. The conversation I'd had with her that night long ago, the one about her work not being a "real" job, haunted me. She must have worked so hard, with no paycheck at the end of the week. And when she went on "vacation," we children went along, the potty chair tied to the top of the car.
How did Mom manage to keep the household running with so many kids? Every morning, she laid out our school clothes on her bed so that getting dressed was a snap. To make lunches, she lined up two rows of bread on the kitchen table like an assembly line. She remembered who liked mustard and who liked mayonnaise on their sandwiches. In the afternoons, when my sisters and I got off the bus, she had glasses of juice and homemade cookies waiting for us.
I found myself overwhelmed with the responsibility of feeding one child who was hungry every few hours. Yet night after night, Mom had cooked enough to feed an army. She always served two vegetables with every meal in case someone didn't care for one of them. After dinner, we kids took turns washing dishes, but she helped. She'd look at the mountains of dirty plates piled on the kitchen counters, roll up her sleeves and say cheerfully, "There's really not many here." This, after twelve hours of vacuuming, scrubbing floors and trying to reach the bottom of the laundry basket. No wonder Mom was always so worn out at the end of the day! How did she even find time to soak her feet?
Every day that passed, I understood her a little more, how she put us kids before herself and went above and beyond fulfilling our basic needs. She kept a box for each child, filled with a baby book, vaccination records, school papers, report cards and photographs of milestones of our lives. She searched for Christmas presents that took into account our individuality, and even though my birthday was two days after my sister's, Mom always made another cake for me.
Because of the distance between us, I didn't see my mother for an entire year. Finally, my husband was transferred to a duty station on the east coast, and before reporting, he took leave so we could visit our families.
Returning to my childhood home was like arriving in heaven. I could smell roast beef as I walked in carrying Brian. Mom was peeling potatoes at the kitchen sink, and when she heard us, she looked over her shoulder, her blue-gray eyes smiling. She wrapped her arms around both Brian and me, and hugged us tightly. Then she said, "I have a room ready for you, beds with clean sheets and fresh towels in the bathroom." Here she was, my supermom, still mothering me!