We still don’t have a woman president, but nonetheless we appear to be living in an era that is focused on the accomplishments of the female half of society. While this is very good news, it is actually nothing new for me. I happened to grow up in a family headed by a woman going it alone. I was surrounded by strong female role models for all of my childhood, and they inspired. I married a man whose mother was brilliant and forward thinking, so he and I became coequal partners from day one. I’m an independent person who has always had my own thoughts and goals. Nonetheless I know for certain that being a woman who so-called “has it all” in terms of love, marriage, family and career is often a daunting task. In fact, there are many moments for women in the workplace that are wrought with major challenges that are not always met with understanding by bosses and even female coworkers.
My daughters will point to how lucky I was when I was immersing myself into my vocation of teaching. Whenever they became ill I only had to call my mother-in-law and she would come running across town to watch them while I went to work. I missed very few days because of a sick child, and never had to worry about their care when I was devoting my time to my students. My girls didn’t even have to be “latch key” children because that same mother-in-law met them each afternoon and stayed with them until I returned home. She often prepared dinner for my family as well. I would not have been able to afford a babysitter or nanny on my teaching salary, so having my mother-in-law as a backup was a godsend. She allowed me to be far more dedicated and reliable than I might otherwise have been. For most women who work, dealing with childcare related emergencies is a nightmare and an additional stress added to pursuing a career.
I was blessed with incredibly understanding bosses throughout my entire work life. It made a huge difference in my outlook because I also had to watch over my mother. There were times when her mental illness became so problematic that I would have to miss work days to get her the medical care that she needed and then monitor her progress with medications. I never felt that any of my principals lacked the empathy that I so needed from them on those occasions, but I beat up on myself and felt as though I was somehow shirking my duties to my students. It was a no win situation that always made me wonder if I was being fair by hanging onto my job even knowing that I might have to be absent more than I wanted to be.
I ended my career rather abruptly and at least three years before I had intended to retire. My mother was living with me, an arrangement that made caring for her a great deal easier than if she had still been in her own home. I worried less because I knew that she was safe, and my brothers did their parts in taking her to doctors’ appointments and entertaining her. Still, things became so uncertain in my final year of work. My boss announced that he would be leaving at the end of the school year, and at about the same time I learned that my mother had lung cancer. The future looked rather murky to me. I realized that I would not be able to depend on the compassion from my principal that had allowed me to balance my job with my home life. I had even reached an agreement with him to work a four day week by taking a twenty percent pay cut so that I might have more time for my mother. I worried that a new person would be more demanding of my time, and so I determined that I had finally reached an impasse and needed to retire. Such is often the fate of a working woman who also embraces the role of caretaker.
My school was in a state of fear in my finals days. There was great uncertainty among the members of the faculty as great changes loomed before them. At the same time the demands of my home life had gone into hyper drive. My mother was growing weaker and requiring more visits to doctors. I was glad to have the extra day to be with her each week, but I was still drowning in responsibilities from every possible corner of my world. I didn’t seem to have enough time to give to anyone and so there were those who criticized me and questioned by devotion to either my work or my family. I was like one of those circus acts in which the entertainer rides a unicycle on a plank teetering on top of a barrel while juggling balls, spinning rings, and holding a ball on a stick that is held between the teeth while keeping a tiny hat on the head. I felt as though I was responsible for the entire world and doing a rotten job of maintaining any semblance of order. I know for certain that many people thought that I was slacking off when in truth I was operating with little sleep and no down time whatsoever. I managed to get everything done but felt that my efforts were not up to par.
I recall a day when I had left my mom at home alone even though she appeared to be far too ill to fend for herself. It was near the end of the school year and a feeling of chaos reigned over every aspect of my world. I was one of those women who was attempting to make everyone happy and comfortable, but I felt as though I was doing a very poor job. I noticed late that night that a particular project was due by midnight, but I was so exhausted that I decided to get some much needed sleep and rise early to attempt to sneak in my work. I was successful in refreshing myself for a short time and I finished the assignment only six hours later than it should have been sent. I congratulated myself on averting a tragedy and went off to meet a new day.
Later that afternoon I received a frantic call from the head of the schools. He demanded to know why my work had been late. With a measured calm I explained my situation in detail and apologized with great sincerity. It was in fact the first time in all of my years of working that I had ever missed a deadline. Unfortunately the man reminded me that there were never good excuses for being irresponsible. He upbraided me mercilessly without even once expressing any kind of concern for my mother or the people at my school whom I had been working so hard to shelter from all of the worry. He even admitted that the actual last day for the district to submit all of the work I had turned in was two days away, and that nobody would ever know that mine had been six hours late. Nonetheless rules were rules and I would have to live with the fact that I had ruined a student’s changes at receiving a large scholarship for college.
My own experiences as a working woman are not at all that unusual. A woman balances so many responsibilities that weigh heavily on her and create stresses that her male counterparts often do not understand. It is not uncommon at all for a woman to be the glue of her family as well as in her workplace. The caretaker and maternal instincts are so often deeply embedded in women’s DNA. While they may want to be rockstars at work there is a tug and pull between their careers and their families. Our society has yet to design ways to smooth out the challenges, and for those whose salaries do not translate to enough income to provide nannies, housekeepers, baby sitters, or proper daycare the stresses become enormous.
I have witnessed so many women reduced to tears because their work life and home life clashed. They broke down in frustration and felt that few understood or even cared about their dilemmas. When a woman is a single parent without the kind of safety nets that I so enjoyed, the plight becomes even more difficult. So while we applaud the women who have found ways to lead us into a new kind of world we have to remember those who are all alone in carrying the weight of a thousand different problems. We need to support them and share their burdens when we can.