The school bell rang at 3:00 P.M. when I was in elementary school, signaling not just the end of a school day, but that my mom was near. I'd sit in class and gaze at Fall leaves, Christmas trees or hearts scotch-taped to windows. And if I looked hard enough through the empty spaces, I might just see my smiling mom.
I felt incredibly lucky.
Not all kids had the privilege of a mom picking them up from school each day, a mom who didn't have to work. Even then, through eight year old eyes, I grasped how fortunate I was my mom was taking me home. As I ran toward the car, I glanced at kids walking to the cold "multi-purpose room" where they waited another two to three hours for their parents to arrive from work. I felt so sorry for them. They weren't taken home or greeted by freshly baked cookies or the warmth from a fireplace or an excited family pet. Those kids went to a room and waited. And waited.
In third grade, I vowed to be just like my mom, a stay-at-home mother whose purpose and focus were my husband and children. I'd take my kids to school in the morning, pick them up in the afternoon and help with homework before making a delicious dinner (just like my mom did.) We'd be home before dark and there would be no rushing, no heightened level of anxiety, no frayed nerves.
But life didn't turn-out that way.
Like most of our friends, we survived on two incomes.
The only alternative to being a working mom was being a childless working woman. I hoped to put-off pregnancy until we had more funds, yet had no idea if I would get pregnant easily or suffer years of infertility (like some of my friends.) So, my husband and I started our family planning, and two years later, at almost 30 years old, I was a working mom who dropped my child off at daycare. I felt hopeless, sad and guilty. Working seemed like a punishment, something I was forced to do, something that put a wedge between me and my mothering ideal.
During those years, I never anticipated my career would be my saving grace.
The angst I felt about working soon morphed into gratitude that I could financially sustain myself and my child when I eventually divorced. I hadn't expected to end-up divorced (does anyone?) Yet when it happened, I realized I was fortunate I had options, so many options, because of my career.
I was free.
I wasn't forced to leave the home I loved (because I could afford it.)
I wasn't thrust into a workforce with little or no skills (because I'd cultivated them.)
I wasn't subjected to attorneys or court orders dictating how much money would sustain me and my child (I had my own money, and even though it wasn't a lot, it was enough.)
I was independent (and, therefore, in charge of my life.)
Being a working mom also set the foundation for a divorce that was, dare I say, easier, because money was never an issue. I'm fortunate I've never needed (or received) child or spousal support. For over a decade, my ex and I have shared 50-50 custody of our son and all the costs associated with raising him. We've never once argued about money. I strongly believe it's exactly this financial autonomy that set the tone for a very amicable co-parenting relationship where spats over money don't exist.
Ironically, I never wanted a career or even considered the financial protection it would afford me. Being a working mother was hard (oh, so hard!). Being a single, working mother was even harder (some of the most challenging years of my life.) But being a woman stuck in a marriage without options due to financial dependence would be debilitating (thankfully, I never had to learn firsthand.)
Sadly, many women can't support themselves in the event of divorce or the death of a spouse. Does this mean I think women must work and shouldn't be home for children and/or a husband? Of course not! There is nothing more important than being present for our family. I highly value stay-at-home-moms (remember, I always wanted to be one, just like my mother). It just so happens I couldn't be home with my child and it just so happens this is precisely what saved me from financial ruin, dependence on an ex-husband and stifled career options.
Somehow, I was lucky in my unluckiness.
Life is fickle. Circumstances beyond our control rapidly change lives, whether it's divorce or the death of a spouse. I've learned the value of preparation and contingency planning (even if mine happened by accident.) I now believe women should have a plan, just in case they need it.
Where does this leave my son? There's another lucky twist -- my son's amazing stepmom picks him up from school every day since her own work schedule is more flexible than mine. And even though it's not my face he's searching for through those windows, I'm filled with gratitude that he gets to go home and feel that sense of warmth and love I wanted for him all along.