When it comes to working motherhood, it is the small things that break you. September seems to break me every year.
I have three children, 15, nearly 13 and 9, and work full-time in New York City, commuting about an hour each way. My husband also works full-time, but the bulk of the work of organizing the kids falls to me. For the first time, we are experimenting with having a sitter come just two days a week after school -- which started Wednesday.
But soccer practice started Tuesday, and our summer babysitter had already returned to college. Meanwhile, the recreation department had moved soccer practice from a manageable 5:30pm to an impossible 4pm. No worries, though -- I had recently spoken with the mom of the family we had carpooled with for years. They would drop off; we would pickup.
However, unbeknownst to her, her husband had signed their daughter up for the traveling team. No two words strike greater terror into the heart of a working, commuting parent than "traveling team." This is a parallel universe in which entire weekends are devoured and fossil fuels burned in monstrous proportions in the service of more competitive matches against teams in remote corners of a three-state region. (Keep in mind that just 1 to 2 percent of high school athletes get any scholarship money at all.) I have managed to avoid this world for a decade and it would take a gun to my head to make me go there.
I discover the collapse of my carpool on Monday night.
No problem, I think, emailing the two moms I knew on the team early Tuesday morning. But one has a conflict and can't make the practice; the other is already in a carpool with a neighbor. When I call home at noon to tell my older kids to walk my younger one the mile-and-a-half to the field, I discover my youngest had gone to a play date -- with a friend who had soccer at the same time, at a nearby field.
Feeling somewhat guilty about the request, I call the au pair and ask if she wouldn't mind dropping my daughter off on the way, then text her the exact address of the field. Then I call home to tell my oldest to remind my youngest that practice was at a different field this year.
I am feeling highly efficient.
I had come to work that morning two hours early so I could be home in time for the 5:30pm pickup. My two trains align perfectly, and I even run into a neighbor who gives me a ride home from the station -- landing me in my driveway at 5:08pm.
And there, strolling up the street in her cleats and ponytail, is my bedraggled nine-year-old.
My flight plan had crashed: The oldest never told the youngest about the new field location (too busy watching the entire sixth season of "Lost" on Netflix ahead of the school-night TV ban). At my daughter's insistence, the au pair dropped her off at the wrong field where she saw a few players (not the au pair's fault -- she had to get her charge to a different practice on time). My daughter wandered around for 40 minutes looking for her team and asking strangers if they knew where the practice was. Then it started to rain and thunder. So she walked the mile-and-a-half home from the field.
I told her I was also proud of her for finding her way home. Then I went in my office and fought back tears, my imagination gone wild with dark thoughts of the calamities that might have befallen her.
I know: I'm the over-controlling mom who should chill out. It all turned out fine. But I filed the memory with other failures over the years: the time I put my preschooler in aftercare, where she spent two hours alone with the teacher while all her classmates went to the birthday party I forgot to put on the calendar; the time I arranged a ride to Chinese class for my daughter and she got dropped off, then stood shivering in the cold for an hour because the center was closed; the supplies I couldn't buy for the Egypt project (assigned that afternoon and due the next) because I got home late; the (multiple) times I drove to our school gym when it was an away game, arriving at the correct location by halftime.
Overall I can't complain; I worked mainly from home for nine years, and navigated the tyranny of the kids' schedules pretty well. But I can't help wondering how we got here, and why our kids' worlds are geared for families with a parent at home when the share of married-couple families where both parents worked was nearly 60 percent in 2011. (I can't begin to imagine how single working parents manage.) A friend once told me the best year of her parenting life was the 12 months she lived in London, where the kids do sports and music and everything else after school at school and arrive home in time for dinner with their parents.
My mother, who had 11 children, was expected to attend exactly five school activities a year: fall open house, holiday concert, science fair and twice-a-year teacher conferences -- all of which were held at night. She was never invited to read to the class, or come to the Halloween parade, or watch my presentation when I dressed up as Jo from "Little Women." But for my generation it's "attachment schooling" -- we're expected to be there for everything, and then manage all the after-school enrichment that will catapult our children into respectable colleges.
For an hour or so I ache in the place where the balance has been broken. Then I shake it off. As my mother used to say, this too shall pass. This may be my failure, but it's a success for my daughter. She has learned she can figure things out on her own, and life turns out OK.
Wednesday morning I make breakfast and take the requisite first-day-of-school pictures. We head to the bus stop with an absurd load of school supplies, tissue boxes, disinfecting wipes, poster board, umbrellas and the dog.
The school bus comes 20 minutes late. I miss my train.
I can't wait for the holiday break.