working moms and narrow margins

As a working mom, there is very little (if any) room for error or variation from the norm.  I already have more on my plate than is probably realistic with four children – I work as a college professor, I write for a number of websites, and I edit and manage a staff of writers for another.  If everything worked out exactly as planned in any given day, I still probably wouldn’t have enough time to do everything, but I could manage.  However, then there are the weeks (or months) when a volcano of chaos crops up, and things just pile up and fall down and life becomes insane.

This has definitely been one of those weeks. Inside of one of those months. It seems like every single week there is a new crisis – a new sucker-punch that leaves me wondering how I will get done all of the things I need to get done.  First, we had a babysitter quit, after only a month with us.  I tried to me congenial about it, but the truth is that it really put our family in a bind.  It was a giant bummer, in a lot of ways.  Fortunately, we found an amazing girl who took her place – but the catch is that she is graduating in May.  So we gave her the job because we really like her, but she has yet to be able to work a full work-week.  Which is still only part time.  Which is still probably less childcare than I really need.  So you can imagine how little I’m getting done and how late I’m staying up trying to pull off three jobs with no childcare.

*And this is probably a post for another time, but when our childcare falls through?  It always falls on me.  In part because I can work from home more easily than Mark can (IN THEORY, because I maintain that it is impossible to write around small children) and in part because Mark makes more than I do, so he trumps.  I think there is some gender stuff at play here, too.  All I know is that it sucks, because I am always the default, and my work days get defaulted A LOT.  And then I watch my husband get to do his work in a quiet office while I try to answer phone calls and emails and grade papers in the middle of a sea of loud and needy children.  (It’s almost a converse relationship, the way they get louder and needier the more work I need to get done. And phone calls? They just double the volume when the phone goes up to my ear).

Even if I had the childcare running smoothly, there is still inevitable work stuff that pops up and takes more time than I’ve allocated. Right now there is a syllabus to write and finals to grade . . . one of my writers quit so I have to hire and train a new one . . .I wrote a sponsored post on the wrong site . . . . I’m having technical difficulties since the redesign . . . I need to change the text on a product I featured and the PR person wants me to do it NOW NOW NOW.   It’s something new every day, and it all feels urgent.  Sometimes it feels like every minute.  Email is this brilliant technology that somehow gives priority to each new thing that comes in, pushing down the things I should probably be attending to.  Remember that clean inbox I had that one time?  Yeah.  Not so much anymore.

Then we’ve just been hit with the crazy stuff that comes  along with kids.  Two weeks ago India came home from preschool with lice. And as much as I know that lice is not a reflection of cleanliness, I was determined to rid our house of any living, crawling creature. I cannot even tell you what it was like to  try to wash every single soft item in a home of four children.  But one day, I spent EIGHT HOURS in front of the tv, combing out each Howerton head of hair with a nit comb until every single one was removed. Eight hours that I had allotted to working, that I am still trying to catch up on.

Then, there are the doctor’s appointments.  Kembe is having extensive medical exams to apply for citizenship.  All of the kids had dentist appointments this week.  India had a filling, and while her mouth was numb from novcaine she basically gnawed the skin off of her lip, which then got infected.  Which meant a trip to the doctor.  All of these things, again, pushing at the narrow margins I’ve allotted myself for working.  I often feel like bystander in my schedule, just watching different things knock away at my best laid plans.  Not a day goes by that I think to myself, “Well, I guess I’ll finish my to-do list at midnight while I deal with this unforeseen thing.”

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“Look, mom! Remember how you thought you could grade papers this afternoon?  Well, once we’re back from filling the prescription for my trenchmouth infection, I’m gonna quietly paint all over the backyard so you can spend that time pressure-washing the patio instead.”

Then there are just the daily things that push at the margins.  Like Karis taking my business cards and spreading them out in the backyard.  Or today, when she decided to remove her poopy diaper during her nap and fling it across a pile of books that I then got to disinfect.  Always, watching my time get sucked away by minutia, and watching my windows of productive time grow smaller and smaller as I’m sidelined with random things.

And then the school stuff.  Oh my word, the school stuff.  The carnival. The class parties. The preschool snack I perpetually forget.  The homework.  The teacher appreciation week that involves the kids bringing in something different each day.  The weekly show-and-tell that is letter themed.  The muffins with moms.  Again, all of this good stuff, but all of it just one more thing I need to remember to do and often forget.

I try to act like everything is not a big deal, because I want to seem like I am flexible, and helpful, and involved.  When the sitter asks for a day off, I say sure, even though it leaves me in a huge bind.  When the teacher asks if I can switch to bringing muffins to the party instead of paper goods, I give an emphatic YES!  Even though, as I’m walking away, my throat is constricting a bit because I know I bought the paper goods over the weekend during my one big store run, and I can’t think of a single time between now and the party when I could possibly get to the store even with all the kids in tow, and I had already set the paper goods in a bag marked “to go to party on Friday” in the front of the pantry just so I wouldn’t forget and now I have to start all over and I feel like my world is tilted off of it’s axis and I might just cry from the overwhelm.  Because of paper goods. And my inability to say, you know, I’m sorry, I just can’t do that because I cannot make spontaneous trips to the store with four small children.  It is outside of my abilities right now.  I have a million other things on my plate and this small thing here is the thing that is going to send me over the edge..

Because really, it’s a million small things sending me over the edge.  It’s a daily renegotiation of how I think the day will go, and how it actually goes.  And for working moms, it’s knowing that no matter what commitments you make or how professional you are trying to present yourself, it is all subject to change without notice, based on a sick kid or a school function or a diaper blow-out as you are walking out the door.

I love being a mom, and I love being a working mom, but I can’t help feeling like somewhere along the lines I was sold a bill of goods that anyone could adequately do them both. Someone is gonna lose, and right now it feels like we are all losing.  I’m working non-stop, foregoing sleep, and just wondering what new thing will crop up tomorrow to keep me from finishing the deadlines I needed to make yesterday, before my time got way-laid.  I’m tired and grumpy and not eating or sleeping well.  My kids are watching me stressed and I am disappointing people right and left because I just need 10 more hours in each day to do everything I need to do.

And I really don’t think I’m alone.  I think I’m describing every working mom, on some level. 

Anyways, I’m really needing to widen the margins.  I’m hopeful that next week, our regularly-schedule childcare can resume, but I’m also mindful of the fact that I can’t pack things in without the assumption that 50% of my day will be spent doing something I didn’t plan for, and probably won’t remember later.


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