“Daddy at work?” he asks, standing on pudgy toddler legs with one ankle crossed. Yes, Daddy is at work. “Mommy work?” He looks down at me seriously from the top of the stairs. When did he become taller than the banister? I look back at him with a smile that says more than he might ever know.
“Yes, Mommy is working too.” Perhaps it is fitting that he asks me when I’m between fixing the bed and washing the dishes—a moment in time when I snuggle our newest as I move her from tummy-time under her mobile to a bassinet in the bedroom. If I were in a formal workplace, I might even take an overdue, two-minute coffee break. We’re already a few hours into the workday that will tick into overtime by mid-afternoon. The office opened at 6 am when he called from his bedroom to ours, asking for a snack. We’re already halfway through a morning of staff meetings—the diaper meeting, the getting-dressed meeting, the disciplinary action meeting where one colleague ends up sitting in time-out in the corner of the stairs after a mild lecture. On the docket for the afternoon there’s a lunch pep-talk about the importance of eating at least three bites of cucumber, and a company fitness break at the park with mass participation required on the big slide: if I’m lucky, there will even be a focus hour when everybody is quietly working—or napping—at their desks.
Motherhood—it is very much work. Almost every mother has been asked, or even wondered herself, what it is she does all day, but no one who is a mother has questioned whether what she does is hard work. Motherhood is changing millions of diapers and washing too much laundry when you didn’t change the diaper fast enough, or even when you did. It’s walking to the park over and over and over and never saying the word “park” (or snack, or Grandma, or library) unless you’re committed; because at the least hint of possibility, your little committee will fight to get a walk to the park added to your duties, regardless of what it’s like for the employee behind the stroller.
A mother’s workplace is not exactly safe or sanitary. You will stub toes and bump heads and step on legos. Motherhood means no longer wondering why there is poop on your elbow or hotwheels cars hidden in your shoes or Cheerios of unknown age hidden between the cushions of all the office furniture. You plan the work parties and you host them and you clean up from them – or you don’t, and the floor accumulates it’s dried macaroni and stale Cheerios until you remember to pull out the vacuum—a sadly non-industrial sized affair that management refused to upgrade, probably partially clogged with the hair that you lost after you became a mother.
Motherhood comes with lifting requirements too, though they’re rarely listed on the job description. We mothers lift our babies in our bellies for nine months and then we lift them with our arms into their car seats and bassinets and high chairs and above our heads and we lift them with our hearts in those bone-deep aching prayers we murmur once they’re finally, finally asleep. The job of mothering is more physical than for movers or stockroom employees or construction workers. You can drop a box or a board but babies need more than This Side Up. Motherhood is carrying babies on your chest until your shoulders ache and then pushing them in the stroller until your legs ache and then coaxing them to eat what was, only yesterday, their favorite food until your head aches. And then you watch them sleep with an arm over their head just like Daddy and your heart aches a little too.
Motherhood is doing work while they’re awake and then spending most of that precious nap time wondering which important thing you should do while they sleep. There’s cleaning or dishes or reading or workout or getting a nap yourself, or planning the afternoon activities for when they wake up.
Motherhood is wondering over and over in each season “Who am I?” And you know it’s important because you get to shape how these babes of yours answer that question for themselves one day, so it’s vital you know. But it’s vital for you too, because in between the mothering that touches and changes every part of you and your life, you still need to be a whole person on your own. That’s where the job description gets fuzzy—Motherhood isn’t as easily pinned down as a teacher or agent or cook or nurse or circus clown. It is all of those and anything your little This Side Up parcels need—Professional Snuggler and Lullaby Singer and Medical Researcher—and beyond all that, it is yourself. It is your old hobbies, it is the nicknames you had and the particular way you smile when the sun comes out from behind the clouds. It is in the way you still remember how to shoot hoops and you know what to do with a brush and canvas even if you are limited, right now, to sidewalk chalk. It is in the moment you take to curl your hair and that silly voice that only comes out when you ask Who’s a good doggy?!
Motherhood is hard and glorious and a thousand years long when naps disappear one at a time like balloons popped before you were ready for the party to be over. There are actual decades between the day you go, nervous and excited, to the hospital and the day you stand at the end of the driveway and turn over the phrase “empty nester”. At each birthday, your heart has aged steadily past your own years, but somehow we never wish our hearts back to twenty-five or even thirty the same way we do our skin tone, our hair color, our eyesight. And yet we look back each twelve months and sigh, and laugh, and sigh again at how all those seasons have passed in mere seconds. Was it yesterday that we held an infant lighter than the dumbells we once used at the gym, and yet wondered how to bear the weight?
But we do it—we lean in slow, cleaning and washing and lifting and aching and knowing that workmen’s compensation will never come in the form of cash but not caring anyway. Motherhood will not pay for the coffee it requires or the lego injuries or the moment we realize with a pang that we can’t undo what was said to them at school or during the sleepover or when they missed a goal. But we do it anyway, because the moment we see the first smile and hear the first laugh, feel the squeeze of tiny fingers around our own or hear the sleepy “Wuv you too, Mommy”, we are recompensed for all the work at once. The injuries may have added up and the work must go on, but in the middle we are stopped suddenly by a giggle sweeter than a bank balance, and we know, for that moment in time, that we picked the right job.