We meet the Universe halfway, and then we wait. I love the notion that whatever we’re moving towards is also moving towards us. We don’t have to be perfect or push things along, we just have to show up.  – Jena Strong, Bullseye, Baby!

I am about to be unemployed. I am about to be part of the Great American Collapse. Or so it feels. As a lifetime freelancer who has never worked in one place for more than two years and who is accustomed to buying her own insurance, I feel psychologically better suited for this situation than many. But as a newly single mom, I’m also keenly aware of my obligation to provide.

I am pickier these days about work. Not in terms of income, but in terms of Right Livliehood – of wanting to be doing work that is contributing rather than harming; of working with people who are awake. As I talk to people about their organizations and businesses – trying to find the job that no one has yet thought of, the job that is secretly hiding in plain sight just for me – I am also realizing just what I will and won’t do in terms of time away from my children. I’m realizing just how sacred my work as Mama is to me. Writing can be put on hold. Writing can happen between the cracks. But not my kids.

During these “informational interviews” people ask questions. It’s sort of their turn to be nosy. I’m trying to use their questions as tools for narrowing my path, for better understanding what I want. One woman in a high position in my community who was kind enough to sit down with me and talk about work possibilities, asked: “What do you most love doing? What would your parents look at you now – remembering you as a little girl – and think, ‘Of course, this is what she does!'”

The answer was easy: I talked about telling stories. My stories, sure, but other people’s, too, stories that shouldn’t even interest me. I told her of writing academic white papers about gifted kids in rural schools – the whiz kid from a reservation in South Dakota who went to Yale and who I occasionally Google, now, years later, to see what’s become of him. About being the lead editor for Microsoft Complete Baseball without ever having been to a major league baseball game – and how interesting the player bios were for the guys who just made it to the Big Show for a season or even a single game. I enjoy every annual report I write, every newsletter. Really.

I knew the “right” answer:  A LOT! I should have blurted out, “Forty-plus!” I should have been thinking: money, money, money. But I hesitated.

Then she asked a harder question. “How much do you want to work?” I knew the “right” answer: A LOT! I should have blurted out, “Forty-plus!” I should have been thinking: money, money, money. But I hesitated. I sat and watched my mind whir. I had never had to answer this aloud to someone who was in a position to truly help me get work. Suddenly, I could not lie to this woman of two grown boys; “I cannot be away from my kids for the kind of time that a full-time job with traditional hours entails.” I went on to explain – and to my amazement, she agreed – that this should not rule out full time positions. There’s plenty that I can do from home as a writer, and my kids are both school-aged; computers have far reach; I’m well-disciplined. This is possible. But putting my kids in before- and after-school care, five days a week? Can’t do it. Won’t do it.

I remember my old neighbor – a single mom of two who told me of working a hodgepodge of odd jobs when her girls were in school in order to be there when they got home every afternoon. She worked in a lab and as an office clerk on different weekdays, then sang with a band a night or two a week after they were asleep. Her example has been a beacon to me, especially now when as a single mom it seems that finding a full-time, 8-to-5 job is de rigueur. And especially since she’s raised two amazing young women and been awarded every feminist award our university has to offer.

Connecting with another friend, a highly creative entrepreneur, got me thinking outside the box: Sell a booklet via pdf online, she suggested. Take in kids for after-school care. Get a renter. (Check – did that one last fall. Oops – renter just moved out unexpectedly. Know anyone?)

Then today, as I cleaned up my office at my current job, a woman who has worked there for two decades came in to get something. “What are you going to do next?” she asked. I shrugged and told her my conundrum.

“Be with your kids,” she said. “Even if you’re poor. You’ll never regret it. Never.” And then, much to my surprise, she welled up with tears.

“I do this work because it allows me to be the kind of mother I want to be.”

They were similar to the tears that a friend shed yesterday while sitting at my table sharing a cup of coffee. She’s a massage therapist and a recent injury has made it difficult to work. Another single mom, she lives very close to the bone. “I do this work because it allows me to be the kind of mother I want to be,” she said, and suddenly, she started crying.

“Wow, I didn’t know that was so close to the surface,” she said after she’d composed herself, referring to the tears. That is very near the surface for many of us, I think – that constant sense of obligation to provide and provide. To be breadwinner and mom. To love in the best and most important way. That is at the heart of our madness and could drive us politically (if we had more time!). That is what keeps us poor but makes us rich at the same time.


9 thoughts on “Providers”

  1. I am in a very similar predicament. I feel like I have to push the coming reality away each day, just to get through the work I DO have, now. I have been writing about getting through the fear of it all, but I like the idea of letting it come to the surface. There seems to be some cathartic release in that. Reading your fear reminds me I am not alone. Hearing that you will not sacrifice the time with your kids lets me know I can say no to work that takes too much away – even when others look at me with concerned looks of “are you crazy?” I have a friend who is struggling with maternity leave and the lack of support out through employers. She has a job for now but the struggle as a mother, it is really there. Makes me angry and reminds me that we must take these stands. Thank you, Jennifer, for being so honest and for not giving in. May there be a groundswell of support for us all.

  2. what makes this post ring so authentically is that you’re able to write about this dilemma while living through it (instead of what-if-ing from a safe distance). a big thumbs up to you for resisting that land of the living dead and sticking it out, whatever it is and whatever it brings. i admire you.

  3. Wow, Jennifer. You blow me away. Just today I was thinking about the pull, which is constant, when I am (for instance) trying to get my two-year-old to nap, so I can do some WORK, and yet how I want to be present for her, to love these young moments, to go play in the snow, and really be with her while she’s playing, not just be glad that she’s occupied and engrossed–and above all, not have work be so important. And yet, my doing work that means something to me will mean something to her, as I am a role model to her. Oy vey! Thanks for putting all these complexities so beautifully. (Why aren’t there grants for things like what you did in that essay???) Anyway, thank you.

  4. Thank you, Jennifer for sharing your thoughts. You write so well about a dilemma that so many of us struggle with. I am trying to get back to work after a year’s break with my second baby. Now, trying to figure out a meaningful work life (I like the concept of right livelihood) with all that goes with being the kind of mama I want to be to my two year old and one year old. It’s so hard, but I believe so worth the struggle to be able to be there. Courage to all you women around the world facing the same challenges!

  5. What a great, candid way to talk about how difficult these decisions are and, also, how clear at least a part of life becomes when you know exactly what your priorities are!

  6. Jen, it’s Amy Charles. Please, don’t be picky about work. Be picky about the pay. It isn’t 2002 anymore and if you play by the mommy-mores and “find your personal work” notions of the day it’s going to bite all three of you in the butt. The economy has no particular reason to do anything but sink for the foreseeable future, and with every passing year it’s going to get harder, because we all know how employers love older women.


    1. Be aggressive and tireless in chasing A. for child support and in having income imputed to him, if necessary. He wasn’t nice to you or the kids; don’t let him off the hook. You guys need the dough. You also may not have noticed, but the child support calculation methods changed last summer in ways that are probably in your favor, esp. if income’s imputed to him on the basis of his educational attainment. Go have a look if you’re still doing c/s under the old formula. It affects who pays for healthcare costs, too.

    2. You need time and money, which means you need to focus on the work with the highest hourly return. Build your career aggressively there, and in the meantime don’t sniff at work that’s available but pays less.

    3. If you can get a good university berth, do it. By good I mean pays regularly and is relatively safe. Like I said, our odds do not improve with the passage of time.

    3. T. and B. are both older than A., I think, and they’ve got their grandma right here, as well as all their friends and the friends’ parents. You’re not working every minute of the day. And it’s OK for them, if not for you, if you work old-fashioned man hours. If they were three years old, I’d say yes, they need you around lots and lots, but they’re pushing off into the social world now, growing up, and they do that without mama.

    I thought there’d be all kinds of trauma when A. started her long days — school, Tim’s, activities. I drop her off at 8:30 and don’t see her again till 6. But there wasn’t. She’s a bouncy, happy kid who keeps asking to be signed up for more lessons, more camp, more activities. She knows and respects that what I do is take care of her and work, and that while I’ll play with her sometimes, and read to her, and listen to her, and snuggle with her, I don’t have endless time for these things, and that after she’s in bed I go back to work.

    The main result of watching me, I think, is that she wants to help. To her, taking care of business is part of being a grownup, and of course she wants to grow up. She wants to work side-by-side with me, and I can’t tell you how that moves me.

    Anyway. Don’t let go of the bucks, Jen. You and the kids need them. It’s a different economic world out there and the American-prosperity dream is ending; that’s not a time to get romantic, because real poverty isn’t romantic. I know, I’ve been there.

    cheers and see you soon –


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