Physically, I'm standing in a tiny hallway plastered in primary colors and two dozen construction paper flowers. A sea of little heads bob up and down, excitedly greeting each other. Parents chat leisurely, yoga pants on and coffee in hand. We crowd around a heavy wooden door, waiting for it to open signaling the beginning of preschool. My two year old hugs my leg while my five year old chatters away with his friend.
I'm physically there, but just barely. My dark grey pencil skirt, smart patent leather heels, and blue blouse paint the illusion of someone who is put together. My outfit and carefully straightened dirty blonde hair are unintentionally deceiving. They hide the frustrations of trying to get three children out of bed, fed, dressed, and packed for school within a whirlwind of arguments, whining, crying, and back talking while also trying to pull together my own outfit, breakfast, lunch, and laptop. You wouldn't know that, earlier, I locked myself in the bathroom for two minutes to avoid punching a wall, or that I had to physically drag my two year old to the car, or that I had to run back into the house three times to grab forgotten items. (Side note: I simply don't understand how the urgency of mornings can be lost on people who believe that ranch Corn Nuts and marshmallows constitute an acceptable breakfast choice.)
While I'm there in the hallway in body, my mind is in an entirely different location. I'm miles away. Twenty miles. At my desk. Drafting emails and organizing my thoughts on the pressing litigation fires that sprung up over night. I check my phone and see five unread "urgent" messages. My head spins with all the deadlines I need to meet for the day. A notice pops up onto my screen to remind me that I have a meeting in 30 minutes. And here I am, still 20 miles away, waiting for that dang preschool door to open.
When the door finally creaks open, my attention jolts away from my mental to-do list. I hand a $60 bag of carefully selected "healthy" snacks to the teacher. I had painstakingly selected a snack for each day of the week, as required when it is your designated snack week. Paying $60 for preschool snacks nearly killed me. But I would have paid twice that to avoid the disapproving gaze I received last time. Last time I had snack duty, the teacher held up my large container of air-puffed cheese balls in front of all the other parents and loudly declared them "unhealthy." My explanation that the offending snack only contained 1 gram of sugar compared to the 25 grams of sugar in the raisins on the "approved" list was largely ignored in favor of the ambiguous and unilaterally set "school standards."
The teacher reviewed my snacks carefully. I anxiously looked down at my feet. "Is this all??" She finally asked. "This is for the entire week? We have 17 kids in our class. One bag of Veggie Straws is not going to be enough for all the kids." My blood boiled with both anger and embarrassment. "I can bring another bag in tomorrow," I assured. Sure, I thought. I'll just run into a store tonight after work...hmmm, right after I pick my kids up from the nanny's house. I think I can squeeze that in around 6:00 before I have to rush home and make dinner and meet my oldest son and my husband at a little league ball game. Yeah, no sweat.
The teacher smiled, apparently satisfied. "Don't forget that tomorrow is Disney dress-up day. And next week is the end-of the year party. And I need all parents to bring in a picture of their kid for a special project," she shouted to the rest of the parents in the hall.
And in that seven second announcement, my to-do list grew by four tasks. Buy another bag of Veggie Straws, find a quick Disney outfit for tomorrow, figure out who will be able to attend the end of year party (because I have a pre-arranged deposition that same time), and find time to stop by the print shop to print out a photo (we still don't own a printer). My heart fell. I already knew I could not manage to do all of this. There was going to be disappointment somewhere. And, as most often is the case, it was likely going to be on the faces of my children. Just like last week when I had to pass up my oldest son's school assembly. And when I forgot to order year books. And when I had to leave early for Mother's Day preschool tea.
After my preschooler took his place in class, I ran out to the parking lot to drop my two year old off with the nanny. On the way out the door I heard a group of moms planning a park play date after class. I smiled and walked passed them.
I then walked past two other moms talking about they never let their elementary school children order school lunch because it's so horrible. I raised my eyebrow and realized that I had never even batted an eye at the fact that my elementary school child ordered school lunch every day for the past two years. With school lunch costing a mere $2.50 and requiring zero prep time for me, there was never even a question.
I'm an outsider. The mom who always sends a nanny to pick up her son. The mom who doesn't show up for school events. The mom that despises school dress-up days and special school events because it means squeezing more tasks and obligations into an already overflowing schedule. I'm the mom who doesn't get to go to afternoon play dates or spontaneous trips to the zoo. I'm the mom who doesn't volunteer in the classroom. I'm the mom who doesn't take her toddler to mommy and me classes. And while I'm sure the other moms barely notice and actually care even less, I notice it. I'm always a step behind. A minute too late. A second-class mom.
I walk to my van, check the clock, and debate whether I have time to stop for a much-coveted cup of coffee. I decide that I don't and end up speeding ten miles over the limit to get to work in time for my meeting. Someone carelessly parked in my designated spot so I have to circle the block to find an alternate. I finally find one far away, grab my laptop bag, purse, lunch, and case binder and struggle to make it to my office building by 10:00am.
I arrive. I sigh and suddenly realize that I hadn't taken a full deep breath in hours. My work day has just begun and I already feel haggard. I've already lived an entire full day. I walk past several coworkers who have already put in two hours of work. I switch on my office light and hope that no one is judging the time of my arrival.
I arrive at 10am almost every single morning. And every single morning I replay the events of my last work evaluation in which I was chided for not spending more time physically in the office (although I do work at least 40 hours each week). I'm pretty sure my name is synonymous with "late" and "frenzied" and "disconnected." I don't chat with coworkers in the kitchen. Or join them on their lunch time walks. Or attend networking bar events. Because I'm always playing catch up.
I cringe as I check my inbox. The number of unread emails has grown exponentially since I last checked them in the hallway of preschool. But I can't address any of them at that moment because I have to duck into a meeting that I am barely prepared for. I reluctantly accept the fact that next time I return to my office, the unopened email list will surely have doubled... or tripled.
And that is what it is like. Day in. Day out.
The most frequent comment/question that I get from my friends and new acquaintances is "wow, how do you do it all?" To that comment, I always respond with, "I don't. I don't do it all." I usually stop there. But on a particularly mouthy day, I might be a little more elaborate. I might say instead:
I don't do it all. I simply do all things part way. I kill myself to barely fulfil the minimum requirements of being a mom. I kill myself to barely accomplish the basic tasks required of an employee. And at each step, I feel criticized and judged. People only see how far my actions fall from their expectations. They do not see what I have given up and how I struggle to accomplish what I do. It is very hard to be a full time mom and a full time employee. And I have accepted the fact that I will never be fantastic at both.
When I express my struggles as a mom, people are always quick to reassure me that I am so great. I appreciate it. I truly do. But it's not the truth and I feel like I need people to know that I'm NOT perfect. I'm NOT great. Because it's ok to not be the gold standard. The bubble needs to be popped. People need to know that I yell at my kids. A lot. That instead of standing my ground in the face of a tantrum like the pediatrician told me to do, I sometimes give in. My kids DO eat school lunches every day. Often (like right now), my clean laundry sits in the laundry basket for two weeks before it gets folded. I'm impatient with my kids and do things for them when they are taking too long doing it themselves. Instead of teaching my son to tie his shoes, I bought him tie-less shoe laces. And after dinner every night, I rush to get my kids to bed because I'm dying for down time. This is what it looks like people. THIS.
And if a kind soul smiles at me and tells me that I'm doing amazingly, I will 100% appreciate their kindness. Because, whether they go to work or work at home, all moms need other moms for support. But we also need the freedom to express our shortcoming and be in solidarity with each other on our imperfections. We need the freedom to not be perfect. We need to set a new standard- that being imperfect is totally acceptable.