90: Not So Guilty After All

90: Not So Guilty After All

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Multitasking Mom's Survival Guide

Not So Guilty After All

Forbear to judge, for we are sinners all.

~William Shakespeare, Henry VI

“Great game, Maggie,” I said to my sixteen-year-old daughter. “Your team did well. And so did you.” We had just returned home after her basketball game. I was scurrying about the kitchen trying to get dinner on the table.

“You didn’t even pay attention, Mom,” she said, with all the scorn a teenage girl can put in her voice. “You were highlighting. Becky saw you.”

“I was watching. You scored.”

“You weren’t looking when I shot the free throw. Becky saw you reading with your yellow highlighter in your hand. You always work during my games.”

There’s a lot of down time in basketball games. Time outs. Substitutions. Fouls. Of course, I had reading for my job with me at her game. I couldn’t just sit there, not with all the deadlines I faced at the office.

But I made it to most of her games. Didn’t she appreciate that?

“Go Cougars!” I yelled from the stands, as loudly as any parent. Surely, she could see I was paying attention… most of the time.

“Your mother’s always been that way,” my husband told Maggie. He’d been at the game too, sitting on the bleachers, elbows on knees, chin in hands. Looking bored, never cheering. Yet Maggie gave him credit for being there, while I got chastised for reading.

“Why, back in February 1980,” he continued, “Mom couldn’t take a vacation because seven cases were set for trial. You know what? All of them settled, but we didn’t go skiing.”

In 1980, I was a new attorney. The senior litigator in our department told me there were seven trials scheduled. How could I know they would all settle? But for the next twenty-five years, every time I told my husband I couldn’t do something because of work, he’d say, “And there will be seven trials in February.”

And every time I said something about my daughter’s activities, she told me I shouldn’t bother coming if I had to bring my highlighter. I was supposed to focus on her — and only on her — at these events.

My work was a perpetual issue in our family. Somehow my husband’s job (also as an attorney) and his civic responsibilities were never a problem. But my career as a corporate lawyer interfered with all the fun we could be having.

I know my husband appreciated me working. He told me many times that my salary took the pressure off him so he could spend his time on activities that were meaningful to him without worrying about increasing his billable hours.

I know my husband thought highly of my intellect. We’d met in law school, for God’s sake. He knew I was smart and worked hard and focused on doing things well.

So I thought we were partners in every sense. I thought splitting our home obligations and childcare responsibilities was the deal we had. But the message I got was that my work wasn’t supposed to interfere with anything anyone else in the family wanted to do.

We’d both grown up in traditional homes where the mothers didn’t work. I think subconsciously my husband expected his adult life would repeat his childhood experience. Even though he knew I wanted to work and he wanted me to work.

When the kids came along, they joined in his refrains about my job.

Our older child, Josh, was a dreamer. He hated being hurried, but what could I do? If he wasn’t ready to leave the house by 7:15 a.m., I wouldn’t get the kids dropped off so I could get to work by 8:00 a.m. If I wasn’t at work by 8:00, my entire day would be off track. So I rushed him. Every day. And he resisted. Every day.

Maggie was more organized than Josh — more like me. But also more vocal than my son when she was unhappy. Hence, the “you’re always highlighting” comments that came more and more frequently as she grew older.

Yet somehow we survived. Both kids went off to college. I changed careers, then retired. Life got easier.

Both Josh and Maggie are now focused on their own careers. Josh is not involved with any organizations other than his work. He can be found at his office late into the evening. Maggie is a lawyer like her parents, now working at a large law firm and facing her own pressures to increase billable hours. She is still athletic, but struggles to find time to exercise.

On a recent family vacation, both children had interruptions due to work obligations. Maggie made us stop at a coffee shop on our drive to the ski resort so she could participate in a conference call. Josh stopped skiing early one afternoon so he could send an urgent e-mail.

Now that I’m retired, I had no interruptions. No highlighters in hand.

They don’t have children and neither of them is married, though they are both older than I was when Josh was born. I always thought they’d shy away from working as many hours as I did. But at this point in their lives, they are as hardworking as I was thirty years ago.

Maybe they have shied away from assuming family obligations because of watching my struggle. I hope that is not the case, but I wonder what lessons they took away from my years of highlighting.

We all have to find our own work-life balance. As for me, I do not beat myself up for highlighting during basketball games. And I don’t point out my children’s similar behavior on our vacations. They will figure it out for themselves soon enough.

~Sara Rickover

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