When I was a freshman in college, about a decade after immigrating to the U.S., a dorm-mate shared with me the move that had always guilt-tripped her working mom. “I’d say, ‘I wish you were home with me!’ ” she told me, miming tearfulness. “And she’d just crumple.” Sitting there, I was awed by her craftiness—and by its success. We both had 1970s moms—middle-class, suburban—whose work had been a choice rather than a necessity. But that move would have never worked for me.
OTHER MOM ESSAYS IN THIS SERIES:
- My Mom Had Me at 18 and When My Daughter Was 18, I Got It
- Why My Old Journals Make Me a Better Mom
- Notes from a Proud Mom and Her Teen Drag Queen
- Here Is a List of All the Ways I’ve Turned into My Mom
- Confessions of a Hypocrite Mom
- Mom to College Kid: Text Me, Maybe
- My Mom Was a Sex Therapist But Don’t Ask Me to Have the Talk
- What Mom Got Right—Even When She Messed Up
- Anger Management, Mom Edition
- And Now My Kids Are Moms
In Nicaragua, my mom had been a secretary for a government official. Every morning, as my father was being chauffeured to his job, she’d race her little car across the bustling city to hers, trying to make it to her desk before her boss got in. Her friends, she said, didn’t understand why she worked at all. Most of them had given it up when they married and had kids. But on days when she took me with her, sitting me down to draw at her typing table, I’d watch her coolly dispatch the day’s challenges—an unscheduled visitor, a report threatening to be late—and she’d seem bigger than she was at home.
Photo courtesy of Sandy M. Fernández
Then, when the civil war launched us—Mom, Dad, two kids and a grandmother—into immigrant life in the U.S., the equation changed. We needed that second income. I saw her come home late from months of community college classes: shorthand, business English, accounting. The day she signed her contract for a new job, I made her a “Congratulations!” sign and blew up balloons.
It’s not as if Mom loved every second of work. One Christmas when I was in high school, she asked me if it would be acceptable to give a fractious coworker a bottle of Stresstabs as a Secret Santa gift. (No, Mom.) But she never complained about working itself. And I couldn’t imagine her without it. It was who she was. My dad had the advanced degrees and the bigger title, but my mom had the ganas—hunger. And as I started my career, I was always aware that I had been seamlessly delivered to a life—a distant university, a career instead of a job—that she had craved for herself. A study last summer said that daughters of working moms are more likely to advance in their careers, and I believe it. Mom would have killed me if I hadn’t.
I’m a mom now myself. I have a son. And this past summer, after a few years of making our kitchen table my office, I took a job in an office again, doing a long commute into the city. My preteen isn’t exactly Mr. Emotive, but he seems to have taken it in stride. I hope he grows up to understand, like I did, that there can be rich meaning in work. That the right kind of labor can add to, not detract from, family life. I miss him sometimes. I wish we had a little more time together. But feel guilty? Not a chance.