Are Working Mothers Color Blind?

Work life balance for working mothers is often thought of as equilibrium between career and family. But for mothers of school-aged children, balance is more like a three-legged stool than it is a two-sided scale. And school is the third leg of that stool.
05/29/2013 02:16 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2013
Mother helping son and daughter (6-8) get into mini van
Mother helping son and daughter (6-8) get into mini van

If you're in town tomorrow, swing by the elementary school musical theater performance and wave to my daughter on stage. You'll know who she is -- the one in the gray pants; everyone else will be wearing black.

My daughter doesn't own black pants, although I would have been happy to buy her a pair. I could have picked them up when I walked by the Gap, twice, yesterday. Or I'm sure I could have found a pair for her at any number of stores in New York City, where I spent the day on business. But you see I didn't know she needed black pants until I was seated on the 7:00 p.m. Acela train headed home and I received a text from a friend, another mother. It read, "FYI, musical theatre show is tomorrow at 3:30. Clearly I missed the notice." Except there hadn't been a notice before the note that came home -- the day before the event -- the notice that also said the student performers needed to wear black pants. And by the time I got home, it would be 10:30 -- much too late to go shopping.

I sent a text to my husband from the train asking him if he knew about the black pant request and what he was doing about it. He responded, "I have the situation handled." But I wanted more details. He told me my daughter would wear her leggings. I replied, "I think they are gray." He ignored my text. So I called him. And again he told me, "I'm handling this."

I checked the pants when I got home and sure enough they were gray. Gray is not black. But I remained calm. A few years ago, I wouldn't have been so composed. A few years ago, the school principal called home after dinner the night before Flag Day, and invited the kids to ride on the school's float in the town parade the next day. Flag Day is kind of a big deal where we live. "If your kids are interested," she said, "have them at the start of the parade route by 5:30 p.m. wearing red, white and blue." They were definitely interested.

But what were they going to wear and how was I supposed to plan their outfits when I had a proposal to finish for work the next day? "Don't worry," my husband said. "Get your work done and I'll find clothes for them." I had a bad feeling, but I took him up on the offer.

The next morning, as I was rushing around getting ready for work, I asked to see the patriotic attire he picked out. Oh no! Oh no! I lost it when I saw what my husband had chosen. I imagined people talking about "those poor kids" the ones who never had the right attire. "Is their mother colorblind?" people would ask. "No. She works."

"Blueberry is not one of the colors on the American flag!" I cried. "The blue on the flag is navy! And these pants? They are maroon! Maroon is not red!" My husband made a few adjustments. Still I wasn't satisfied but there was nothing I could do. I had to get to work, and I wouldn't be home before the kids left for the parade. I had spiked my blood pressure, alienated my husband, and worst of all, had made my kids feel bad about their now pink, teal and ecru outfits. I sobbed all the way to work.

That night, after fighting rush hour traffic to get to the parade on time, I saw my smiling kids go by on the float in their outfits that more closely resembled a transgender pride flag than an American flag. And I thought, "Wow they look so happy. And hey, most of the kids aren't in red, white and blue anyway. And besides, I support LGBT rights. It's all good." And it was.

So even though I couldn't resist telling my husband last night that gray is not black, (it's not even the new black), I wasn't going to lose sleep over my daughter's costume. I know that when the curtain rises, she'll be singing and smiling no matter what she's wearing. What's more concerning for me is that I didn't have enough notice to rearrange my work schedule so I could attend the performance.

Work life balance for working mothers is often thought of as equilibrium between career and family. But for mothers of school-aged children, balance is more like a three-legged stool than it is a two-sided scale. And school is the third leg of that stool. No working parent expects to see every performance or chaperone every field trip, but we do want enough time to make choices about what things we will or will not attend. Especially at this time of year, striking a balance can be incredibly challenging due to a very busy school calendar. May and June are jammed with standardized tests, warm-weather field trips, end-of-year concerts, carnivals and recitals. So when it comes to special requests -- black pants for theatre, red shirts for a group photo, hair nets for lunch lady appreciation day (really), we do our best. And if we can't honor the request, so be it.

I'm learning that staying balanced means focusing on what truly matters. In order to maintain my schedule, my sanity and my relationship with my spouse, it helps to be crystal clear about what's important. My child's happiness is important; what she wears is not. My husband's support is important; his doing things the way I might do them is not. Working with the school system to improve communication is important; I'll put my energy there. I'm confident that busy, working parents like me can partner with school administrators to make positive changes that benefit everyone.

Next week, at the all-town chorus concert, the singers will be wearing white shirts and black pants -- except for my son. He'll be wearing navy. My husband informed me he was not going to buy a new pair of pants that my son would only wear once when he had a perfectly nice pair of navy pants already. And even though I thought to myself, "Navy is not black," I don't have time to shop between business trips. So I said to my husband, "That's fine dear."

And so, if you happen to catch the performance next week, look for my son. He'll be "that" kid. No, not the one with the colorblind mother. The one whose mother found a little balance.