From Chicken Soup for the Working Mom's Soul


Two little pictures are on my fridge. Two girls, plastic framed and magnet backed, stare out at me from the mess of magnetic poetry and keepsake artwork. They look at me, and they always tell the same story.

I thought I would always be a stay-at-home mom; I had been for years, and I liked it that way. Then in the summer of 2005, I started working part-time for a literacy software company. I loved it. When they offered me a full-time position, I couldn’t say no. We had just moved into a new—more expensive—town, and quite frankly, we needed the income.

So the fifth of September saw my little girls packed off to their new first and third grades, and me off to the office. The first few weeks were a painful adjustment—not to the work, but to the home life I was missing. Suddenly I left my girls at 8:30 AM and didn’t see them till nearly 5:00 PM. My cell phone erupted in a volley of new-school bureaucracy: Health records! Vaccination records! Registration forms! Under which pile of must-dos had I buried today’s requested forms?

I survived those weeks, somehow. And gradually life took shape, a life in which the evening hours were just as vital (and stressful) as the workday hours. The paperwork was filled out and handed in; the girls grew to love their after-school program and settled into their days well. And every day they returned home with a sheaf of notices, things for me to investigate and follow up on and do; and every day I scheduled my evening hours for this purpose (and the laundry, cooking, cleaning, and . . . but I digress).

One of those notices informed me about the school photo day. Without a doubt I picked up that notice, read it, and scribbled myself a must-do Post-it and tacked it in my planner. But as one day slid into the next and one emergency swallowed another, school photo day slipped from my mind. And disappeared altogether.

One day I had to leave early for work; as usual when that occurred, my mother-in-law readied the kids for school and dropped them off for me. It was somewhere around 11:00 AM when I spied a wrinkled Post-it sticking out of my planner, and a sickening wave of realization broke: it was school photo day, and I had sent my children to school completely and utterly unprepared. My world crumpled.

It wasn’t just the photos. Obviously, a photo comes and goes. Never mind that this was their first year at a new school, that every other parent would take home a group picture of my unkempt daughters to place on their silver-trimmed mantels. But this was about more than that—this was about my working out of the house, about my not being there for them, about my having only so many brain cells, so much capacity for Post-it note retention, so much area over which to spread myself before the fabric started slowly, slowly to unravel.

And I unraveled. I pictured the outfits I’d wanted to send them wearing, color-coordinated and freshly pressed; the hairstyles that would highlight their features just right and the complementary accessories for their finishing touches. “I’m a bad mother,” I wailed. “How could I forget something so huge?”

When I picked up the girls after school, I was not greatly reassured. Their hair was wild and windswept, not a hair-clip in sight. My youngest wore jeans and a white turtleneck (with marker-enhanced sleeve cuffs). My eldest wore a flower-print shirt—nothing bad; nothing special. I shed more tears, mourned the prize photography that would not be.

And then I forgot about it, caught up in the next stack of notices, the next round of emergencies. Until one day the stack of notices contained two oversized envelopes: the photo verdict was in. But who could say what the sentence would be?

I tore open the envelopes—and the tears began again. But different this time. The photos were taken outside, and hair that could have looked unruly was sun streaked and windswept. Lowered arms hid offending sleeves; the jeans were well out of sight. An ordinary flower-print shirt turned the wearer into a garden fairy.

But more important than any of that was the joy I saw in the girls’ faces. Those smiles filled the whole landscape from end to end. Those smiles said, “My life is pretty awesome, and I don’t care who knows it!” So they weren’t the sharpest, most stylish girls in the pack—but those smiles were enough for me.

And this is the story those pictures tell me every time I walk by the fridge. “You don’t have to do everything, Mom,” they say. “You don’t have to be superwoman. In the end, you do the important things, and you do what really matters most—you care.”

Joan Paquette

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