Child Health Kids Motherhood

When the Duty of Motherhood Calls, We Answer Over and Over Again

The phone rings.

I check the contact on my vibrating cell; the name of the daycare is boldly illuminated in the center of the screen, a subtle scream that motherhood is sacrifice before I even pick up the phone.

The daycare. Awesome.

I answer, because, of course, how can I not?  Even though I have a deadline, even though I’m already behind, even though it was just last week that I left work early to pick up my two-year-old, how can I not? 

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I answer, and receive news of a fever, or vomiting, or a rash, and assure the director that, yes, I or my husband will be removing him from her care presently, lest he infect the other cesspools of germs which are daycare-going toddlers.

Then I sit, silently, panicking, practicing in my head what I am going to tell my boss, realizing yet again how much I loathe confrontation and how hard it is to stand up for my best interests, my son’s best interests, in the face of conflict.

Then I stand, calling my husband, letting him know that our child is sick and that I will be getting him. I, because my schedule is more “flexible”. I, because at least I don’t work the kind of job like his where leaving early is an impossibility. I, because I can occasionally “work from home”, which is so successful when there’s a sick child is clamoring for your attention and care. I am grateful to have the flexibility that I do, however, because, so far, we are both still employed.

Then I walk down the hall to knock on my boss’s door, to ask her if I can, yet again, leave for the day. It’s déjà vu, a glitch in the Matrix, because I just did this, and she must know it. The last time wasn’t illness; the last time was a sudden appointment and a meeting with his team of therapists and specialists, because this entire mess is complicated by having a special needs child.

My boss is a mother, has a heart, seems to understand the urgency of a sick child, but how many more times can I ask this? How many more times will I have to choose between my job and giving my child the support he needs to flourish? 

I pick him up, and yes, he is sick, and so sad, and my heart goes out to him. He’s on the autism spectrum, and I don’t care, because he’s perfect, but there’s a lot that goes into managing that diagnosis. There’s a lot that is incompatible with 9-5, with full-time employment, with the difficulty of mid-day doctor’s appointments and weekly sessions, trying to fit your life and the life of your son into someone else’s 9-5.

We go home, and he sleeps—thankfully, he sleeps—but I am nervous to check my work e-mail, nervous to see what I’ve missed, who’s been looking for me, what I should have done but didn’t because my love for my son transcends normal business hours. I miss the deadline but still complete the task, writing furiously, producing, creating what my job requires, just a little later than when it was requested. He sleeps, and I take care of loose ends, measure out Children’s Motrin for when he wakes, call one in a seemingly endless stream of therapists, the one who called me a week ago and to whom I am only now getting back.

Sometimes, it feels just like drowning, like wave after wave breaking over your head, being pushed under by the water again and again, just when you struggle to the surface, only the water is responsibility.

He wakes, which is good, because I was starting to miss him, and we play, and I even do a bit more work because I resort to screen time, the sick little boy ecstatic to be sitting in front of the iPad, completely ignorant over the societal debate about my worth as a mother for giving it to him at all.

My husband comes home, and we struggle to feed a toddler who doesn’t feel like eating, struggle to wash the dishes when we don’t feel like cleaning, and have a mild argument about who will stay home with him tomorrow if he is still sick.

It is a day like any other day, perhaps a bit better because of the extra time I got with my child, perhaps a bit worse because I didn’t meet my deadline. Tomorrow will probably be fine, and the next day, too, but the phone will ring again. And when it does, I’ll repeat the process, mentally counting back in my head to the last time I had to make my job a lesser priority, mentally counting forward to the next intervention or development meeting which will require the same.

Because all parents—those with one child, those with several, those who manage special needs, those with neurotypical children—we all do the same thing when the phone rings. We balance, we juggle, and sometimes we drop everything we’re attempting to control . . . but always, first, we answer the phone.

About the author

Shannon Frost Greenstein

Shannon Frost Greenstein resides in Philadelphia with her husband and son, who keep things from descending into cat-lady territory. She comes up when you Google her.