Just before he shuts the car door he looks me in the eye and says, “See you at the finish line, Mum!” He walks away and I beam. My little, wide-eyed grade three-er. In his black tights, showing off his spindly legs. Black tights with the etchings of the fibula and tibia in white relief. Like a ghostly ballerina. Or a tough cross country runner. This little man who seven years ago straddled the edge of existence until they cut him out of my belly in a mad race against the clock. Emerging with his perfect Apgar score, his 9lb girth heralding forward his health. I lay on my back in a teary fog knowing this babe was meant to be, would make a difference, would save the world! Or, perhaps, run in an autumn cross country race. I wasn’t going to miss this.
As a working mum, I miss a lot. I know it. Guilt. So much guilt. Even without all the stay-at-homers reminding me subtly and not so subtly what I’m missing. Always wondering how I do it. They are remarkably curious about how I manage. And I’m always curious about what they mean by manage. Well ladies. This time it’s going to be different. I’m coming to a school event. In the middle of the day! To watch those spindly legs tear across the finish line like he was meant to when those forceps pulled him into this world.
Until I get to work and open my calendar. In a shocking reveal I realize that somehow I have double-booked the day. Not realizing that he’d be running the last race (why would the pee-wees run last?) and thinking until now that the colour-coded block that was the meeting was his race. My stomach sinks. Later, when my male (emphasis on male) supervisor would question how this happened I had to hold back my working mom siloquay because I might just need that reference letter one day. But oh if I could:
How did this happen, you dare to ask with your furrowed brow? Well. I have three kids under 10. And a full time job. At a university where everyone is fucking remarkable. And a husband with a full time job and a long commute, that he does so I can work at this remarkable university. And I’m just trying to keep my shit together and not lose it on anyone, but mostly not lose it on you or your stupidness, or worse, on myself. And don’t forget about two weeks ago when you were struggling and our big boss was sniffing you down, your ass on the line, and I rescued you from the embarrassing scrutiny of not being able to manage it all; I piggy-backed you across deadlines, your arms flailing and your hold around my neck just a little too tight. Remember that? Remember that you asked me to help because I’m actually way better at your job than you but you’re that ubiquitous type A, ambitious male supervisor that seldom if ever has family conflicts and who rides on the coattails of way more competent female employees. And we just go the fuck along because we’re that remarkable and your problems are always a drop in the bucket compared to our own. And we know how hard it is to keep our shit together and we help others because we have kids and that basically makes us nicer. Well maybe, just maybe, amidst all that madness and bullshit I let the ball drop a little. I misunderstood my dizzying and maddening colour-coded life calendar. And fucked it all up. And now I’m trying to sort it all out. Make it all better. And no, not for you and this organization. But for my son.
But no. Instead I apologize in a firm, yet professional way. The edge in my voice the resentment of feeling like a school girl in the principal’s office. Head bowed, avoiding the finger wag. He has a stay at home wife.
About to pick up the phone and call the school and destroy his dreams of high-fiving me at the finish line. I imagine wee black tights skipping carefreely through the hallways, unaware that his heart is about to be broken. I hesitate. I see his wrinkly pink baby face crying next to the bloody blue sheet. Not today. Work would have to wait.
In that brilliant, analytical, I-can-do-it-all problem-solving mode that I fly into from time to time, I work out a strategy. There are algorithms and closed-door meetings, photocopies and google maps. I even call a colleague familiar with the cross country course to plot the best strategy for parking. I ask a team-member to run the meeting. She gets it, perhaps because she’s a mum, and at the end of the day we’re all in this together. She nods her head and does a subtle fist pump. Soli-fucking-darity. We got this she says. She’s piggy-backing me across this finish line but this time I’m keeping my arms tight and my neckhold loose. I won’t turn on her. And she knows it. And then I tell my supervisor. My male supervisor. I should have lied. I could have lied. Lying is always the best choice. But I didn’t. I told the truth. Because he had kids. And because I had helped him. He’d understand. But he didn’t. Instead, he pushes back and shames me, like he can. All I see is black tights, and know that I need to be brave. Black skeleton tights and a heart full of hope trump dumb work meeting every time. I immediately wish I lied. Lying always works.
“Drive safely,” he calls out to me as I coldly exit the office. Yeah, fuck you. You drive safely.
I make it to the track meet. And there are all my mommy friends. Working mums and stay-at-homers alike. Everyone is happy to see everyone. There is no judgement now as we line the course with pride and anticipation. We’re in this together. Soli-fucking-darity. I see one of the stay-at-homer’s kids. Her mum is a friend and I want to find her so I can bitch about my male supervisor. “Where’s your mum, hun?” “Oh she couldn’t make it.” What? But I just assumed. I snap her photo at the start line and instantly send it to her mum. She texts back, “Awesome! Thank you for this. I was so conflicted about going, but I had to get the other one to preschool.” And it hits me that it’s hard for all of us, stay-at-homers and working mums alike. All of us. And then spindly legs comes into view. He does great. Watching those skeleton legs roar through the grass, his little yellow pinny flapping in the autumn wind–I see all the trauma of 7 years ago melt away. And all the trauma of the last few hours also melt away. I cross my own finish line. We are all just trying to find the fucking balance in this mad modern world of parenting. We mess up. We double book. We misunderstand the dizzying calendars of our lives. But we make our choices and we own them. And in the end, black skeleton tights and heart full of hope trump dumb work meetings every time.
Kate Rooney is a working mother of three. She manages the demands of working with the demands of motherhood with the demands of her own passion for writing and outdoor pursuits.