When my older son was eight years old, I snapped at him for no reason whatsoever after a bad day at work.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I had a really bad day, and I didn’t mean to take it out on you.”
“That’s okay, Mom,” he said, looking up from the Star Wars figures he was playing with. “Just don’t take it out on yourself, either.”
I don’t know how my son came to that point of wisdom, but I carry those words with me every day, and I tell them to everyone I can. Because too many moms are taking out on themselves bad days over which they have no control—in this case, times they aren’t able to be there for a child because of no room to maneuver at work.
Sometimes what they miss is a moment of triumph—seeing their kid play third knight from the left in a school play, sing a solo line in the choir recital, or tear down the field in a championship soccer meet. Missing an event like that is hard enough. Much worse is when the mother’s absence comes during a time of great need.
I’m thinking of all the mothers forced to part from an infant only a few weeks—or even a few days—after giving birth, because they have no income during maternity leave, or are among the 40 percent of U.S. workers excluded from the Family and Medical Leave Act and its guarantee of job protection during leave.
Or they are moms who know that their employer’s leave policy amounts to: “If you leave, don’t come back.”
Hold your daughter’s hand during chemo or keep your health insurance? Sing your son a lullaby or keep a roof over his head?
For these mothers, doing the right thing as a parent when the school calls about a sick child translates into a pink slip on the job. I’ve seen the faces of dozens of moms as they recall the moment they discovered that their son or daughter was sending themselves to school sick so Mom wouldn’t get fired. As one of those children, now grown, told me, “When you’re a kid, you know everything. Whenever I was sick, I would ask myself, ‘Should I tell my mom? Will we have groceries this week?’ Whenever I could, I just dragged myself to school.”
I think of tiny kids in the hospital undergoing treatment or recovering from surgery, whose moms are represented during the day by a work number on a white board next to the bed. Hold your daughter’s hand during chemo or keep your health insurance? Sing your son a lullaby or keep a roof over his head?
Talk about a bad day. Some people are quite content to have moms blame themselves. Others urge them to buck up and develop better back-up systems—unaware of how the majority of folks live.
When my kids were very young, I hurt my back and my husband wasn’t allowed to take off work to care for us. The doctor ordered me to lie flat in bed for a week. As I freaked out about how to do this, the doctor said, “Get your mother or your housekeeper to step in.”
My mother had her own job in another state; my husband and I didn’t have a house, much less a housekeeper.
Such attitudes keep attention away from the real problem, which is that workplace rules are outdated and at odds with today’s reality: Most families don’t have anyone at home full time to take care of those too young or sick to care for themselves.
So this Mother’s Day, let’s give ourselves the gift my son gave me years ago. Let’s stop taking it out on ourselves. Above all, let’s put an end to bad days that force us to be away from our kids when they need us the most. Let’s fight for policies such as earned sick days and affordable family leave—because jobs that help us succeed as providers and as caregivers strengthen families and the economy.
Have you ever given up income to stay home with a sick child? Gone to school sick so your mom didn’t have to miss work? Share your story in COMMENTS.
Related Stories on TakePart:
Ellen Bravo is a longtime leader in the movement to advance family-friendly workplace policies. Ellen began working for 9to5, National Association of Working Women in 1982. She helped found the Milwaukee chapter and served until 2004 as the group’s national director. Now Ellen leads Family Values @ Work Consortium, a network of local campaigns that has been winning family leave insurance and earned sick days policies across the country. Family Values @ Work | @FmlyValuesWork