Dani Shapiro
June 12, 2007

On Being a Working Mom

In an hour a car is coming to pick me up and take me into the city, where I am taping a radio show — part of the slow and steady trickle of book publicity that I continue to do two months after Black & White’s publication. And this evening, I’m giving a reading at a Barnes & Noble in New York with ten (you read that right, ten) other writers for the anthology The Other Woman, in which an excerpt of my memoir Slow Motion is included. These are two non-negotiable things that I have to show up for, for a variety of reasons, all having to do with my career.

And so, early this morning, I sat down with my eight year old son on the bottom step of our staircase, and–after wrestling his “twenty questions sports trivia” game away from him–told him that I would be going to New York today. That I would be sleeping over in the city tonight, since I have no way of getting back to our home in the country at night. (There are no trains, one of the things I like about living here on most days– except for today.) And, worst of all, I told him that I will not be able to attend the Montessori School’s second grade performance of “The Terrible Leak” at nine o’clock tomorrow morning.

His little face fell. There is nothing sadder than an eight year old boy’s little face falling, crumbling into momentary crushing disappointment. And I’m not even sure I should be writing about this, since it is my policy not to write about him — but really, right now I’m writing about myself, and about the dilemmas that face working mothers everywhere.

“Why?” he asked.
“Because I have to work, honey.”
“This book publication is taking a long time.”
“I know.”

I thought I had “The Terrible Leak” nailed. I had called his second grade teacher a week ago to ask when the performance would be, so that I could do everything I could to work my schedule around it. She told me the date, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief because I realized (so I thought) that I would not have to miss the performance. The delicate balance between my life as a mother and my life as a working woman would remain exactly that: balanced. Everything getting somehow accomplished, no one or nothing getting lost in the shuffle. And so, when the little slip of paper appeared in our school mailbox announcing that the performance of “The Terrible Leak” would be at nine in the morning–the very morning I would still be in New York– I felt it like a physical blow. That voice that I am convinced visits all mothers at least once in a while, that voice screamed: see–you’re failing, you’re not getting it right, you’re a Bad Mother.

But here is my question, and I know it’s an inflammatory one, my small contribution to a term I deplore, the Mommy Wars: why would a performance of a school play be scheduled for nine o’clock in the morning? Where does the assumption come from that parents would be able to arrange their lives in order to be there when most people are at work? Granted, my family and I live in an unusual community where a lot of people make their own hours and have an inordinate amount of flexibility — but what about those who don’t? Why are we penalized — and much worse, why are our children penalized — by the notion that the stuff of real life (in other words, working to make a living) can be dropped at a moment’s notice?

Fortunately for us, my husband is able to go to tomorrow’s performance of “The Terrible Leak”. As a screenwriter who is, at the moment, not on a crushing deadline, he’s able to take the morning off. In fact, he’s taking three mornings off in a row: this morning, as I write this, he is at the Montessori School, showing the first-through-third graders slides from his years spent in Africa, first as a Peace Corps volunteer, then as a foreign correspondent. And the day after the play is the last day of school, which means the school picnic, which takes place at eleven in the morning. And of course I will be there.

I know this isn’t a problem limited to my son’s school, or to the community I live in. I hear these stories from my friends in New York and LA. But this blind spot seems to be spreading, rather than diminishing, and I found myself wishing that the people who make these decisions–the teachers, school administrators, even the stay-at-home moms who arrange some of the school events–had been able to see that little face crumbling this morning, that child’s voice piercing the air, asking why?

Why, indeed.