Most days, when I was growing up, my mom was waiting for us in the kitchen when we got home from school. Occasionally, she wasn't.
"Mom?" I would call from the front hall.
"Yes?" She would answer back from somewhere deep in the bowels of the house.
This conversation happened over and over, with every kid in my family. We just needed to know she was there. And I have already participated in the same conversation, this time from the other side, in my own home.
I've been thinking of the meanings implicit in little, tiny statements and conversations like that one. My mom was more than just a presence somewhere in the house when I was growing up. Her "being there" meant so much more than just physical presence. It meant if we needed her, she was just a room away. It meant we had a full-time guardian who would patch up skinned knees and bake cookies and just talk if we needed it and pay close enough attention to keep us from even entertaining thoughts of getting into too much trouble. I cannot place a value on her constant presence in our lives.
I know she sacrificed a lot to be our mom. And I can scarcely express my gratitude.
Another common statement in our house: "I expect you home in time for dinner."
I've been reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It's mostly about food, but it's a bit about family, too. She says that most of her effective parenting has been done at the dinner table or in the time immediately before and after a family meal. The "family dinner" has just about been excused from the table of society: it's just too complicated to coordinate the busy lives and schedules of all the people in a family.
We had complicated schedules when I was growing up, too. I was the worst one -- even in high school, I played in three symphonies and a string quartet, took piano and viola lessons, had a viola student, and still went to early morning seminary and rarely missed Wednesday night YW activities. But evey night I could be home for dinner, I was expected to be home for dinner. No exceptions. No cellphones. Just expectations.
A few weeks ago, we went out for FHE dinner to our little hotdog joint downtown. Come visit me, and I will take you there. The all-beef chili slaw dog it outta sight. We sat outside at a picnic table to eat our yummy dawgs and fries and milkshakes. While we ate, I observed a little family a few tables away.
The family was composed of a mom and a dad and an 8 or 9 month old little boy. They all arrived in different cars. It was obvious that both parents had just left work. They met the babysitter at the restaurant, and she brought them their baby. The babysitter's husband eventually came, and they all sat down to a wonderful meal of hotdogs together.
And here is what I noticed. The babysitter played with the baby, and said things like, "Clap for Mama! Can you show Mama what you learned today?"
And, "Can you say, DA-DA-DA-DA-DA? Good boy!"
I looked at the mom . . . and I can hardly describe what I saw in her face. I wouldn't have been surprised to see tears in her eyes. It was as if she wanted to say, "But he's mine! I'm his mama!" And in that moment, she realized all she has already missed, and all the things he'll do for the first time when she's not around. My heart broke for her.
I make no assumptions about her situation. I pass no judgment about her decision to work instead of staying at home with her little one. But I have come to realize what a great luxury, a priceless privilege it is to just BE HERE.
I used to think that moms who "get" to work really have it pretty good. They get to have adult conversations, and use their brains for things that actually seem challenging, plus they get paid for it. I'm not so sure now. They also have to entrust their children to someone else for most of their waking hours. They have to miss so much of their little ones' lives. And they're still responsible for all of the things that aren't so fun, like laundry (the bane of my existence).
Here's what I know: My mom was spectacular then, and she still is now. She has never stopped BEING HERE, even when she's not physically in the same place as me.
Here's what else I know: No matter how hard it is, this job that I have now -- this mothering gig that seems to be so incredibly demanding and never-ending and usually thankless -- is the greatest, most rewarding job in the entire world. I tell myself that I should feel lucky, blessed, fortunate to be able to stay at home with my children. And I am all of those things. But I chose it. My husband and I carefully arranged our lives so that my choice to stay at home would be possible. And I feel for those mothers who don't even have that choice to make.