It is late, and again, I’m trying to wring a few last workable minutes out of my day.
Elle is a shadow standing at the periphery of the computer screen’s ghoulish glow.
“Are you finished now?” she asks quietly, expectantly.
Children of this age don’t forget promises made. I realize now my folly – I had promised I would tell Elle a story, “as soon as I’m finished with my work.” Making that promise knowing full well that these work tasks I’ve laid out for myself this evening would have me finishing far after my five-year-old should be asleep. Making that promise naively expecting my words to dissipate into the bedtime background, fading like a dream as she quietly falls asleep, waiting for my arrival and her story.
But drowsiness will not keep my daughter from remembering the promise I made to her.
“I’m sorry honey, I’m not done yet,” I say, not even turning away from the screen. Even as she speaks to me I feel compelled to continue working, not wanting to waste a minute since any minute spent elsewhere means a minute further from my own bedtime.
It is quiet behind me. “Can’t you, like, finish it tomorrow?” she asks earnestly.
I don’t answer her immediately, since it’s difficult to formulate my answer while simultaneously attempting to answer these other questions reaching out to me from cyber-world.
For a few moments the only sound is the muted tapping of fingers on keyboard. Elle waits.
The thing is, I want to tell her, tomorrow there will just be more – more tasks, more little projects, more things I’ll need to check off my to-do list. My day will be divided into neat segments, stacked like little wooden blocks, one on top of another, with the label “family time” written on one that fills up the 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. block.
This is how I’ve learned to live motherhood – wringing every last workable minute out of the day, rising before the sun and staying up late after my children have gone to bed. Stacking blocks of time into wobbly towers, arranging the obligations of three different jobs with the myriad duties of motherhood into the different compartmentalized units that together make up my day.
I am an ultra-scheduler, a perfectionist at accomplishing everything, and I am not alone.
It was a convergence of factors that lead to this new way of being, I think – sparked by some societal expectation that contemporary women should live a shockingly seamless existence. Have children, pay half the mortgage, exercise, cook healthy-local-organic-nonGMO meals, attend our children’s every recital and ballet performance and sports match, all the while waving around our hands absentmindedly and smiling graciously as if it’s nothing.
This way of life seems to be the new normal, not just for mothers but for most working American families. A study recently released by the Pew Foundation found that the number of women who are the sole breadwinners in their family or who outearn their husbands has risen dramatically since the 1990s, up to nearly 40 percent nationwide. This represents the biggest shift in women’s role as earners since the women’s rights movement of the 1960s; a shift that researchers indicate was sparked by the overall larger job losses experienced by men at the beginning of the Great Recession. Also, some women decided to work more hours or seek better jobs in response to their husbands’ job loss, potential loss, or declining wages, the study explains.
And so, the recession of the 2000s gave birth to this spirit of do more, be more, MAKE more, a spirit that has been accepted heartily by women with families who have no choice but to punch the time clock in order to help keep their families’ financial ship afloat.
Today, nearly 75 percent of mothers work, compared to when our mothers were born at which time only one in ten mothers earned an income. Women’s roles in the family have changed dramatically in just two generations, and will continue to change, because the economic contributions women make have become necessary for most American families.
I am proud to be a mother of this generation; a working mom whose contributions to my household are just as important as my husband’s. I happily stepped up to the workforce plate after the birth of my children, appreciating my ability to both be a mom and have a career.
But in my drive to do more, be more, and make more, I’ve realized that my time isn’t infinite. There is a threshold to what I can feasibly accomplish, a point at which adding that one last compartmentalized unit of time will cause the entire stack to come crashing down. I can continue stacking up blocks of my divided time, but I must find balance. Working is necessary and it’s fulfilling, but it isn’t everything.
Everything is waiting for me, patiently, to tell her a story.
It has been five years since I sat down to write my first Raising Elle, and throughout these last five years I have had the incredible opportunity to share the heartaches and the joys of motherhood through this column. I have been blessed to share my stories in this way, and blessed to have such an inspiring and compassionate community to share them with. But the time has come for this chapter of Raising Elle, and my work with the Watch, to come to an end. Thank you for reading; thank you for participating; thank you for making this journey through parenthood a shared experience.