My house is kind of a mess. Not the kind where you’d walk in and want to call up one of those hoarder shows to nominate me, mind you. And not the kind where you hold in your pee rather than use one of my bathrooms*. Friends and family always tell me (and I presume they’re not just being kind) that my home is cozy and welcoming. I appreciate that. But friends may not critically notice that, to use one (to me) glaring example, we had new crown molding put up in the den two years ago and have yet to paint it (I have the paint, though!). They might not critically notice that my younger son’s room still has curtain brackets hanging, lonely and curtain-less and kind of bent, above his window, since the previous owners put them up (we have lived here ten years).
We’ve been busy.
I mention this because I read this post yesterday, on the New York Times’ Motherlode blog, called Being a Working Mother Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry. In it, Motherlode editor K.J. Dell’Antonia writes of a(nother) new book about the overtaxed, under-appreciated and — most important in my mind, unsupported — state of working motherhood today: Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink, by Katrina Alcorn. I have not yet read the book, but this post pointed up one problem Alcorn discusses, which is that working mothers, with so many balls in the air, inevitably drop one or three of them, and thus are constantly sorry for something: For not staying late for a meeting at work, for not being home on time, for not baking the cupcakes or seeing the school concert or making the lunch or whatever it is they didn’t do.
Here is a moment of Alcorn’s maxing out, as described in the post:
…while working five days a week as a web design executive and shuttling three children through their busy lives, she pulled off the road one day and, as a crushing panic attack settled over her, called her husband to declare that she couldn’t “do this anymore.”
That’s a terrible feeling to have, a terrible place to be — on the side of the road, panicky and dejected and sure you’ve hit a wall you can’t peel yourself off of. Trying to understand more without having read the book, I looked at Alcorn’s website, and realize that her maxed out moment led to a downward spiral of depression and anxiety. She left her career at that point and has been pulling herself back from the brink ever since. A pulling-back that, let’s not forget, included researching and writing, publishing, and now promoting a book — so it’s not like she pulled the covers over her head permanently, for which I applaud her. But that also helps make my point:
Let’s be honest with each other here: How many times have we all had those moments, and then backed off from them? All of us, no matter if we’re working or stay-at-home moms? Personally, me? Lots of times. I tell my husband I can’t “do this anymore” monthly. (I’m lucky, I know, in that I have a very patient and more-than-50%-involved husband, the kind who will tell me, when I have those moments, “Yes you can. You always do,” which soothes me because he’s right and because he usually follows that up with doing something to pick up even more of the slack.)
My point is this: Neither Alcorn nor any working mother should be sorry she feels that way sometimes. If she never ever took her child to the doctor she should be sorry. But if she never made a homemade birthday cake or, I dunno, took the stupid brackets off her son’s wall or did a wrapping-paper fundraiser for the school (mea culpa), she shouldn’t be sorry — she should shrug and say, “eh, doing the best I can.”
I wanted to write a whole long post about how families these days are, as Alcorn puts it, “maxed out,” to talk about sensible family-friendly workplace policy (like more paid sick time, because as my friend Annie put it, who wants restaurant workers handling your food while they’re sick, and while their own kids are home alone and sick?). I wanted to talk about a school schedule that isn’t following an archaic agrarian calendar, and that doesn’t assume that every parent can do the parent/teacher conference at 10 am on a Wednesday, when the kids have no school for said conferences. I wanted to talk about maternity and paternity leave.
But the “I’m sorry” thing kept pushing to front of mind. There are working moms who aren’t always sorry. I am one, and I know plenty of them. It’s not that we aren’t pulled and stretched and wishing for more family-friendly schedules, and it’s not as though the balls don’t come crashing down and we don’t have the pull-over-the-car moments when our breathing gets irregular and we’re sure we can’t “do it anymore.”
But apologize for what falls through the cracks? No.
This feeling of being maxed out, the nagging sense that we’re varying degrees of incompetent at nearly all the tasks we have to do at work, at home, with the kids — or even with our abs or our eyebrows or our foot calluses or our dental appointments or the unpainted moldings in the den and the un-raked leaves outside? This isn’t unique to 21st century working parents, or I’d wager to humans.
Just the language has changed.
And one bit of that language I wish we’d all get rid of is that plaintive “I’m sorry.” I mean, unless you’ve done something truly awful. But not showing up to the concert or not signing up your kids for more time-consuming and schedule-wrecking activities than anyone needs, even not buying shoes after the old ones literally leave your son’s toes flapping in the breeze (what me?) for a day or two (it was summer, he was fine) is not a sorry moment. It’s an “I’m doing the best I can” moment.
Alcorn, as quoted in the Motherlode post, expresses those apologies for her work “shortcomings,” too, giving herself mental lashings for dropping the ball, but read these and tell me, can you lop off the “I’m sorry…” from the beginning of them?
I’m sorry I’m late. I had to pump.
I’m sorry I can’t stay longer. It’s time to get my kids.
I’m sorry I have to skip the conference. I can’t afford more nights away.
I’m sorry I have to miss the pitch. Jake has a fever.
I think in most cases you can. Yes, I know many (if not most) workplaces these days are more crapshoot than cocoon, that everyone’s running scared. But be sorry if you didn’t do the work, not if you did the work after you pumped the milk or answered the nanny’s phone call. The sorry does none of us a favor — not our boss and colleagues, not our spouses and children.
So back to my house. The way I see it, I have a list of priorities in my life: my children and husband; my work; my self and self-care; and my home. See? The home is last, which is why, while my neighbor prioritizes leaf-blowing until I feel as though that horrible noise originates in my head, I don’t put a clean yard high enough on the list to matter. It’s why the moldings are as yet unpainted. It’s why there have been two sets of sheets in the clothes dryer since dinnertime yesterday (seriously, just remembered that now as I’m typing it). I’m not sorry.
Just doing the best I can.
* I probably used a Chlorox wipe on the toilet and the sink, and closed the shower curtain, before you came over.