I saw the contest on the baby food aisle, advertised in neon pink and gecko green. MOM’S BIG PAY DAY! I stopped my cart and eagerly read on. Apparently if mothers were to get paid for the amount of stressful work they did, I read, they’d be earning triple digit figures. And Similac had decided one such hard-working woman would receive her just dues.
I looked down at my fistful of coupons and stained T-shirt from the local thrift store’s summer blowout. Yeah, I could definitely use some triple digit action in my bank account. And even better, this was a writing contest! Write the job description of a mother--100 words or less, the sign said.
Why I’ve written for money a million times, I mumbled to myself. I have a flipping degree in writing. This is MY contest!
I excitedly drove home, made dinner for my toddler, nursed my baby, wiped my toddler’s dinner off the wall, changed the baby, changed and bathed my toddler, read to him, changed him again, put him to bed, then finally sat down in front of the computer and started typing.
Every night I worked on my entry until it was perfect. After two weeks, I knew I had it. In one hundred ninety-nine words, I’d captured the pain and joy of my experience mothering. Reading my essay would make anyone cry. And to boot, it used metaphor, sensory imagery, and word-play. It was as close to a masterpiece as I was ever going to get.
That last night, I logged onto similac.com and submitted my piece with confidence. Over the next four months my mind came alive with dreams of what I would do with the prize money. Maybe I’d finally get out of this crummy apartment and put a down-payment on a house. I could pay my husband’s tuition for his final two semesters. Get my kids health insurance. I’d dress them with clothes from BabyGap and the Children’s Place instead of using hand-me-downs and dumpster finds. We would look like the mothers and children in all the glossies at the pediatrician’s office as soon as August 15th came and I was awarded MOM’S BIG PAY DAY.
Well August 15th came and went with no phone call from Similac. I was disappointed, then furious when a few days later I read the winning entry online. Even though it was only 100 words, I barely made it through the whole thing. “I can’t believe this!” I shook my computer monitor. “This essay isn’t the least bit original! It’s actually boring!”
I sighed and shut off the computer, made dinner, nursed the baby, changed the baby, put my toddler to bed, sung my baby to sleep, and covered dinner’s leftovers with plastic wrap for my husband to eat when he came back from class. Then I sat down, stared at the hamper full of dirty clothes, and cried.
I deserved that money, I told myself. I work so hard and the only people who care can’t even talk yet. In that moment I deeply wished I was back at my old job as managing editor of a newspaper. There I got attention. I got validation. I got paid.
Before getting ready for bed I stepped into my children’s bedroom and peered in at their sleeping faces. I knew they couldn’t possibly have looked more beautiful if they were sleeping in pajamas from BabyGap.
What was really bothering me was the loneliness of motherhood. I wanted someone to tell me I was doing alright. That they understood how frustrating things could be and it was okay if I wasn’t doing things like all the mothers in magazines. I was still worth big bucks.
But I suspected even winning a big wad of cash wouldn’t have really helped me feel better. My thoughts of inadequacy would probably never go away. It was just part of being a mom—the real job description.
Suddenly a heavy, depressing feeling came over me. I felt so alone. I rubbed my baby’s back, trying not to cry again, then kissed my toddler’s forehead and pulled his quilt around him. He opened his eyes, just for a moment, startling me. His eyes were so bright in the moonlight. I looked at the walls for confetti light, expecting his eyes would act like prisms.
“Mmmm,” my son said, lifting his chubby hand to lovingly touch my face before drifting back to sleep.
“I love you, too,” I whispered, feeling instantly lighter.
I softly closed my children’s bedroom door and returned to the computer. I stared at my contest entry for a long time. Then I changed the title from “Job Description of a Mother” to “Pieces” and rewrote the whole thing. This wasn’t something for the world to see. It didn’t herald my mothering successes. This was about the beauty I felt right in this moment, captured so I could revisit it on other nights when I’m wondering why I choose to be a mother.
I know now the idea of one big pay day for any mom is silly. Moms pay checks come in pieces. I’ll keep having days where the hamper makes me cry. But every now and then I’ll experience a moment when my child’s touch will take my breath away.
And that’s enough.