A Cold August morning
Thursday, August 27, 2015
I am walking our dog Koji. It is the first day this summer when I am out in the early morning and the air actually feels cold. I think about how it always feels this way at this time of year. Each summer there is a specific day where I wake up and it’s a bit chilly, unlike the day just before. I recall the first time I had this realization just 13 years earlier. Tears fill my eyes, a lump fills my throat.
That day was August 26, 2002. Until that day in since Tommy (my oldest son) was 15 months old I had been a stay-at-home mom for the most part. I was in college and I worked part-time at A&P and was in the U.S.C.G Reserves, but only opposite my ex-husband’s shifts. At that time Tommy was 5 and his sister Gabby was 3. It was my first day of work at what I considered at the time a “real” full-time job. It was also Tommy’s first day of kindergarten. When my alarm went off that morning the sad realization that I had to get out of bed before my body or the kids woke me up was startling. My initial gut reaction was that it would only be for today, but it quickly sunk in that this would be the sensation I would have every morning going forward. Ugh. I wasn’t quite ready to go into the work force. My then husband and I were really struggling to make ends meet since he got out of the military just a few months earlier. My working full time was a necessity for us. I felt extremely tired. I distinctly remember when I walked from the bedroom to the bathroom that morning that it felt cold. It was so very unlike the warm summer mornings I had been used to, even just the day before.
I begrudgingly waited for the shower water to warm before heading in. I wasn’t sure how the new morning routine would work, how long it would take to get ready, and get the kids dressed and fed before dropping them off at their new daycare. I was a bit worried. Nervous butterflies. My husband went to work hours earlier for his own shift, and I was left to get the kids ready for this first day of something new for all of us alone. I dressed and woke the kids. They too were not used to being woken up. And by golly – it was just chilly in the air. Somehow I don’t remember much about the morning or how I got them situated or where they thought they would be going; but I do remember being cold when we first got in the car, and driving over to Buttons & Bows daycare in Naugatuck. They weren’t nervous or excited or sad – they just were. It was me who had those feelings. Overall I was sad. Today was Tommy’s first day of kindergarten, and neither I nor his father would be there to witness this very special occasion. The bus would come pick him up and cart him off to school with the other children whose parents worked.
Somehow the sadness quickly passed as I started the drive to the new job, trying to navigate unfamiliar roads with a print out of map quest directions in hand. More nervous butterflies. Where to park? Wow, there are so many people who work here walking into the building! Will I find the right room in this massive hospital I was entering? Am I really qualified for this job?
Somehow I made it to the correct room to start a two-day orientation. Everything was new and unfamiliar. I was almost in a trance, there was too much to take in and it wasn’t all quite registering. Sounds, lights, colors, smells. The VA Hospital felt like the military somehow. Familiar, but not quite. At certain parts of the day I thought about being home with the kids and how much fun we had that summer. Then I thought about them at Buttons & Bows, and how they must feel similar to me. I felt sort of guilty for some reason. Lunch time came and I went outside. What struck me the most was that it was hot! I had to take off the sweater I put on at the last minute that morning. I ate my lunch in the warm sun, alone and nervous. I didn’t define myself as someone who worked outside the home. I felt like an impostor. I checked my two day old cell phone that I had just gotten from Cellular One that previous Saturday. No one called. That must mean the kids are doing well. I went back inside and finished up the day.
When I got home that evening the kids had already been picked up and were settled in at home. They were beaming about their day. They were OK! Tommy told us as much as he could in 5-year old vocabulary about school. I was sorry I missed it but glad to know that they were happy. I wasn’t as excited about my day as they were, but it was a success. I came to the sad realization that as they were going to get older I would be missing many other things in their lives. This is a normal and expected part of children growing up, but worse for parents who work.
The next day I woke up and it was cold again. And by the time I left work in the late afternoon it was downright hot [again]. It was the same the next day, and the day after. Until the crisp autumn days began to swallow up some of the heat, and when I left work those afternoons there was a chill in the air. And so it goes, the seasons change. The winter came and I had to really bundle the kids up in the morning. Just a few short months later when the snow melted and there were signs of spring, my car felt surprisingly warm in the afternoons. Eventually the mornings warmed up too. Before I knew it, it was late August again and I remembered the previous year’s sensation when I experienced the first of the cool mornings and hot afternoons. A year went by in a flash. Then so did two years, then three, and now 13.
Today, 13 years later, this first cool morning air following the humid summer mornings is all too familiar. This particular morning I am filled with an unbelievable sadness. I blink back the tears as Koji happily pulls me along on his leash. I inhale deeply trying not to cry, becoming slightly distracted from my own thoughts in an attempt to make smoke rings like I’ve seen pictures of American Indians doing with the condensation of my breath. I notice the heat from Koji’s breath too. Tomorrow we will be bringing Tommy up to college in Maine. His entire school career had come and gone in the blink of an eye. A few months ago our families came from New York and North Carolina for his high school graduation. Cards from relatives near and far poured in. It was our mailbox that had the graduation balloon. It was hot out. It seemed like there would be so much time before he had to leave for school 3 months later. And here we were. Tomorrow was the day.
Hints of light are coming through the sky as Koji and I walk the streets of our familiar neighborhood. I reflect back on the past 13 years. They went by so quickly. When I first started working I imagined I would only do so until my ex and I got back on our feet. I really wanted to be home with the kids. That first winter started the many years of snow-fretting that parents who do not work outside of the home likely do not realize. Which parent would stay home when both school and daycare closed? I had to use my vacation days when it was my turn, which diminished time with the kids in the warm months when they were home with little to do. I did however cherish those early snow days. I would make hot chocolate with marshmallows and graham crackers with peanut butter for breakfast. They would squeal with excitement about this special snowy day treat. Years later when the kids were teenagers and there was a snow day, and my now husband and I went to work since they were old enough to stay home; it was Tommy who would wake up and prepare this same treat for his sister and two younger step-brothers.
After the first year passed of my being in the workforce full time, my now ex almost went back into the military. Even with both of us working full time and me keeping my old part time job at A&P, we were still struggling to make ends meet. We were all prepared to make the entrance back into military life. I was kind of excited. I would be able to stay home again and pretty much wherever we got stationed, the location would be a new area to explore. The kids were a bit nervous about this change, but I don’t think they fully understood it. Just before we had to make the final commitment, I got a promotion at work that resolved all our financial problems. We thought long and hard about whether to take the plunge and stay in the civilian world, or head back to the military family life we were used to. My ex wasn’t crazy about going back in and here was out opportunity to make it in the “real” world. I quit the job at A&P and only worked at the VA. The kids were ecstatic. I was a little disappointed, but trucked on.
Just a year later my ex got a new job and huge raise. We were at last not only financially free, but had breathing room. For the first time when I went grocery shopping I didn’t have my eyes on sale items only. When the kids asked for a cereal off the shelf, I was able to say yes. It felt great!
For a short period of two years time while I went back to school to get my MBA, I cut my hours back and had Thursdays off. The kids ended up loving Thursdays. I did too. I would wake up before dark and get a start on my schoolwork. The kids were able to sleep in a little, and when they woke up I would always make them a special breakfast since the other days of the week were rushed. I would then lovingly get them off to school on the bus in front of our condo instead of dropping them off at daycare or with a neighbor. I would go back to my studies, usually taking a break at lunch to walk by the pond down the street and then heading home to whip up a batch of some sort of homemade dessert. The kids usually knew I would have some treat after school waiting for them. They would come off the bus with big happy smiles on their faces while I waited at the door, excited to see me- but also looking past me to see what kind of goody awaited them inside. They’d drop their backpacks and sit at the table with their after school snack and a glass of milk. We would talk about the day and then split up again until dinner time. If it was warm enough they would go out to play with the other neighborhood kids.
I had many different daycare arrangements while the kids were in their early elementary years. Friends and neighbors, different daycare locations, odd shifts with their father watching them for partial or full days. It was a constant struggle worrying if their dad would be late, the sitter or their children would be sick, or the daycare would be closed.
When Tommy was in 4th grade I finished my MBA and was promoted to a new job. I had mixed feelings about it because it meant I had to go back to work full time. I really felt bored in the position I had and was ready for a change. Accepting the new position meant more money and less boredom, but the trade off was that I had less time to be a mom. The choice wasn’t easy. The kids were rather proud of me and were only slightly disappointed that I would no longer be home Thursdays. We had enough money to buy a house and move the kids to a town with a good school system, and into a neighborhood where they could ride their bicycles in the street. Tommy was at the end of 5th grade when we moved to Cheshire. He was excited while Gabby was very hesitant. I had no reservations about moving and continuing to work at this point. It was 2008. I did worry about how we would manage when the kids were teenagers and could get into trouble after school with a lack of after school care as my catch net, but there would be time for that.
Only there wasn’t. In the blink of an eye the years flew by. My ex and I started having marital problems before we moved to Cheshire and they did not resolve themselves. My efforts were spent working to save a failing marriage, then a divorce, new relationship/home/step-kids; working on helping the kids and pets adjust while trying to nurture a new partnership; all of which moved incredibly quickly. At one point I attempted to apply for one day of telework per week. For two weeks while the paperwork was being routed Gabby would excitedly ask me every day if I heard anything back. Tommy was a little too old at the time to care and was indifferent. When I did find out that my request was denied, Gabby put on a brave face and said it will be alright. I myself felt hardened somehow.
Another blink of an eye and I was suddenly teaching Tommy to drive. He got his license, then a job of his own. Before I knew it he was taking SATs and his high school was having student-parent sessions about the college application process. Another promotion opportunity came up when Tommy just started his senior year. I wondered if trying to learn a new job would be too difficult in my increasingly complex home. It was Tommy’s senior year, we just got a new puppy, we were having problems with my husband’s ex, and my own children were having issues with their father. Again I felt a bit bored in my current position and it was a toss up between money and learning versus focused home time and boredom. I took the job.
A whirlwind of college visits ensued and then the application process seemed to be over in a heartbeat. Tommy always wanted a puppy and took the brunt of the responsibility for training, feeding, and walking the dog. The holidays came and went. Tommy found out he got accepted into all the school he applied for. My husband and I went on the acceptance visits circuit. There were suddenly senior pictures & events all around, and then the culmination of the graduation. Now here we are. I don’t know how it happened, but my little boy grew up and was about to move away. Until a few days ago I thought I would be fine, but now that this change is staring me in the face I’m completely broken up. I will be one of those parents who cries and hyperventilates the whole way back home from the college drop off.
I am rounding the corner with Koji back toward my house. In another minute I’ll be inside on one of the last mornings that will feel normal. Of all the firsts and celebrations that make the fanfare throughout the years like first birthdays and other milestone birthdays, first day of school, communion, end of sport seasons, concerts, start of high school, graduation etc; the most transitional moment happens very quietly. There are no family and friends visiting and celebrating or handing out presents or money. Hardly any of our family even knows which day Tommy is leaving. It will be a quiet drop off. Just me, his sister and his step-dad. His dad moved away and is living in Massachusetts, treating tomorrow like any other day. My friends and the people I work with hardly have a clue that my heart is breaking. I knew back in 2002 that I would miss many things throughout the years. Only I did not know at the time how quickly it would go. In these years Tommy learned to read, ride a bike and navigate peer pressure. He went through puberty, had his first kiss, first girlfriend, first heartbreak. We had normal teenage ups and downs without too much drama. Now he was a grown man. This all happened in front of my eyes while I spent these precious years in the workforce.
We are just feet away from my house now. Koji doesn’t want to go back in and very deliberately sniffs the grass across the street. I pause and let him, looking over at my warmly lit home while I shiver in this cold August morning. That same lump fills my throat. I worked for 13 years and let his life pass. Would it have been any different if I stayed home? Did I have a choice? Does it matter? Will Tommy or Gabby ever understand how much they mean to me? I feel the need to let people know how emotionally challenging it is to be a working mom. It can only be worse for a single parent. Most workplaces including my own are not very flexible and do not allow compressed, flex or telework schedules. Would the world be a different place if the organizations understood the challenges faced by single parents or two adults in that work outside the home? All I can do now is go back inside, put on a brave persona, take my little boy to college tomorrow and continue on knowing that I did the best I could. It will warm up and be hot this afternoon. The mornings going forward will be cooler, and soon the days will as well. The seasons will go on and life will continue.
“Come on Koji-poo” I say. Koji looks up at me, I give him a slight tug on his leash, and we head back inside ready to tackle another day.