When the recession hit in 2008, I was a successful freelancer. And while it wasn’t easy, my hours were flexible: I was able to attend every one of my kids’ school functions and manage their extracurricular activities solo while my neurologist husband was on call.
Then, within the span of a year, three-quarters of my clients went under, my agent retired to become a full-time mother, and it looked like my husband and I wouldn’t be able to pay our bills — especially the one for our kids’ private school, which they both loved. Unless I went to work for a company that offered stability (and paid on time, so that I didn’t have to chase my income like freelancers too often do), we would be in serious financial trouble. When a position opened for a director of creative writing at a new charter school for the arts, I applied and got the job.
I didn’t give up any of the writing gigs that I still had, and once the economy improved I took on even more. We needed the additional income for our mortgage and my husband’s medical school loans, anyway.
So where did that leave my children? Somewhat neglected, according to my detractors (including one of my neighbors, who told me that she pitied the kids I’d be teaching given that I couldn’t even take care of my own children). These critics included my ungrateful offspring themselves — the very ones I was working so hard to keep in a place they wanted to remain.
For a long time, I felt guilty. I missed assemblies where my kids received awards, and performances where they sawed away at the cello and viola. I didn’t make volleyball matches and soccer games on time, or sometimes at all.
But seven years later — my daughter now a senior in high school, my son a freshman — I see two very capable young people who possess traits they never might have gained had I whirled closer around them in their formative years.
Here’s where my children improved after I started working outside the home:
When I started double-jobbing it, I stopped making dinner. Several nights a week I left them to their own devices when we arrived home from their various lessons and practices. This isn’t as heartless as it sounds: I’d taught my daughter the basics of cooking and baking when she was 10, simply because she was interested. At 12, she took over making dinner for her brother and herself. In turn, and in time, she taught my son. Now both my children know how to make a meal out of whatever they find in a refrigerator, freezer, and pantry. If there were a teen version, I’d sign them up for Survivor.
“I forgot my gym uniform/saxophone/book report at home.”
“Well, I’m not supposed to even be answering the phone. How do you think I’m going to leave my school, go home, get your gym uniform/saxophone/book report, go to your school, drop off your gym uniform/saxophone/book report, and get back to mine without anyone noticing?”
It took just a few of these conversations for my kids — especially my son, who until last year was playing two musical instruments and three sports — to realize they had to take responsibility for their own stuff and pack up the night before. Sure, the occasional, accidental forgetting still happens. But now they actually plan for the “What if Mom gets held up in a three-hour faculty or editorial meeting?” situations and leave for school with everything they might possibly need until they go to bed.
During these past seven years, my children — who are more privileged than most of the ones I teach — have been handed some real-life challenges. My daughter was diagnosed with early-onset bipolar disorder and ADHD. My son has developed issues with his immune system. Maybe because both these problems are familial — or because their father and I attend to them without weeping or moaning — the kids have taken these illnesses mostly in stride.
Still, we are surprised by how well they have handled themselves. My daughter has appeared for every single SAT tutoring session on her own, without complaint, and raised her scores 200 points. My son continues to play on his travel soccer team as well as his school’s varsity soccer and lacrosse teams, and has been his class valedictorian two years in a row. Even when they’re not feeling well — and those times are not easy — they power through better than we do.
Convinced that I was too busy to do a good job on my son’s bar mitzvah celebration, my daughter asked to take over. She was 15 at the time and probably correct in her assumption that I’d fail miserably. That’s why my husband and I agreed that — under our supervision and within a budget — she could do all the research and planning in accordance with what our son wanted. Turns out, she was so professional that when we went to book the venue in person, the general manager kept giving her funny looks; he hadn’t realized he’d been working with a teen over the phone the entire time. Finally he blurted out, “Do you want an internship?”
The experience led to her discovering her calling, and she’s now looking into college hospitality programs for event planning. As for my son, he has spent so much time attending summer academic programs and soccer camps on college campuses that he has very clear ideas on where he wants to go to school. (Unfortunately for us, he’s aiming for the really expensive ones.)
5. Work Ethic
Even after all these years, I’m still shocked to find that students these days consider assignments “optional.” My son would sooner skip a meal than not turn in an assignment — and that’s saying a lot for a teenager. Even my daughter, who has a reading disability and who is not naturally motivated to do all of her work, understands that going to school is her job. She may not love schoolwork, but she is motivated to do it because she has a goal to reach.
Mothers who model professional and monetary achievement, I have read, raise daughters who emulate them — and earn more over their lifetimes. There’s no doubt in my mind that she is going to make more money than I do.
My kids also are willing to work — and then work more (though I’ve never seen this demonstrated around the house via the willing completion of any chore). I came home from an academic conference this past August to find my daughter, who had just finished an internship corralling models during Swim Week at various events on South Beach, working in a clothing boutique. My son was already studying for his driver’s permit — which he just received right after his birthday this October. Both of them volunteer at their school’s day camp every summer.
My husband and I do fear that the examples we set will result in our children also inadvertently becoming overachieving workaholics. On the other hand, we can pretty much count on them to find jobs and move out before they’re 25.
6. What Equality Looks Like in a Marriage
My husband and I met when we were 19 years old, and we knew within two weeks that we’d marry. But we also both had goals: I wanted to be a poet and get an MFA, and he was already a pre-med student. We agreed back then that we’d a) never hold each other back, even if it meant living separately while engaged or married, and b) always help each other.
Our busy schedules and empathy for each other have led to a kind of household mantra: Whoever has the time and energy gets the job done.
When my husband was battling a serious illness, the kids were little and he was just starting to practice, so I bore the brunt; these days, it’s usually my husband who does three-quarters of the weekly chores and errands, including taking our children to their various doctors’ appointments. In our marriage, equality doesn’t mean we both do half. It means fulfilling the commitment we made to each other when we were young, before we knew what challenges life really had in store for us.