Working Mother
How to get out of the house in the morning without arriving at work half-dead

The challenge, the adventure, the sheer unavoidable insanity of being a working mother comes, like a hangover, in the morning.

Actually, this is a good thing. Experts feel that most bodies are their toughest during this circadian period. I personally believe this; if I didn't, I would have left home years ago. Nonetheless, this brief wrinkle in the day, usually 6:30 to 8:30 AM - with variations depending on job and age of mother; sex, school and biorhythms of child - is when the mettle of working motherhood is tested. It is a test matched only by the hot-coal trials of the Hindus and running a gauntlet. My mettle has been getting tested for the past 16 years. I'm certain that if the Surgeon General reported on this long-term morning exposure, he would find it injurious to my health.

I entered the ranks in the days when most of my friends were still married to their first husbands, before civilized separations were commonplace and creative divorce was chic. My first marriage went down like the Hindenburg. There I was with a three-year-old whose Playdoh and Legos were not the only things unincluded in child support (a euphemism for token, sporadic payments that couldn't sustain an anorexic gerbil, let alone a growing child); there were others such as shelter, clothing and food. I needed gainful employment. Proud and talented as I was, I carefully selected an employment agency from the phone book with the tip of my pinky and took the first job I got.

Shazam! I went from average housewife to editorial assistant; good-bye Bon Ami, hello Xerox. Being an editorial assistant was actually the same as being a secretary, but because the title sounded as if you had a future, you made less money. I wasn't pleased about that, but optimist that I am, I had faith in the future. The job was a dream, the only problem was waking up and getting to it.

My mornings usually began the night before. I foolishly clung to the notion that one could, with proper planning, get a jump on the day ahead. Though this never happened, I always held out hope.

What would happen, especially when Shep, my first son, was very young, was something called "homecoming paranoia." I'd arrive at my apartment after work and no sooner was my key in the lock than my heart would be in my throat. What if the baby-sitter had forgotten to pick him up at nursery school? What if she'd been afraid to call because he had swallowed his Snoopy ring? What if they'd been kidnapped? mugged?' overcome by leaking gas? botulin-ridden peanut butter? I was a quivering mess. By the time I reached my son, who'd be happily watching TV, a stranger would think I had just escaped the Boston strangler.

I have since decided that this apres- office paranoia is indigenous to working mothers. No matter how many emergency numbers you leave, no matter how often you check in by telephone, you're never quite sure that everything is really all right until you get home. Is there one of us whose total being doesn't quake with fear at the thought of being greeted by, "Now don't be alarmed, it's nothing serious .. ," or "I don't know how to tell you this, but ... "?

The instructions I left my baby-sitter covered an array of likely physiological possibilities from hiccups to demonic possession (for the former I advised a drink of water, for the latter, a priest, a rabbi or any authority figure who made house calls). Endowed with portentous foresight-natural compensation for being one of those people who don't learn from past mistakes - I also included instructions for virtually all other conceivable eventualities. Fire? Wet towel over head ... avoid elevator. Earthquake? Stand in doorway. Nuclear attack? Don't face windows. I win sweepstakes? Give my office number or call at once. It was a tome to shrivel the bindings of any government manual. It made the phone directory look like a flyer for the warning signs of V.D.

Once home in the evening, I would try to get everything ready for the following morning. First I'd listen to the weather report to decide what clothes to prepare. If it was going to be one of those "possibility" days (possibility of snow, flood, tornado), I would select alternative outfits for my son and me. It seemed sensible, fail safe. But somehow, in spite of all my planning, I would still be running around the apartment on rainy mornings looking for the second galosh.

After attending to wardrobe, I'd usually tackle "musthaves." Musthaves are those absurd things teachers and daycamp counselors have decided your child must bring along the next day (and that you don't learn about until you're on your way to work and he's crying), things that will etch creatively upon his brain the basic elements of education, things every mother is supposed to have lying around the house, like six empty milk cartons, all sizes (learning the metric system); an empty gallon Clorox bottle, thoroughly washed (science project); 50 dried lima beans (state capitals for map making); a decorated sock (learning the letter S); reams of aluminum foil and endless empty toilet paper rolls (all subjects seem to use these). I often wonder how great the gap in education would be without empty toilet paper rolls.

Still, despite diligence and best intentions, no amount of night-before planning ever really takes the ulcer-making oomph out of workday mornings. During my stint as Number 5 (married working mother with precocious 1O-year-old and newborn baby), I learned the meaning of temporary madness. It came on with Jesse Max's cry for his 6:00 A.M. feeding and 10-year-old Shep's wail that he was too tired to get up. I'd pay attention to the former and try to ignore the latter, calling out commands to Shep like a pessimistic drill sergeant. "Wash your face, you'll be late for school. ... Brush your teeth, you'll be late for school. ... Comb your hair, you'll be late for school." "I won't be late," he'd shout. "You will," I'd snap. "I won't!" "You will!" I have since discovered that the threat of being late for school is much more effective on the parent than on the child.

Breakfast problems have always been only part of my morning hassle-but a large part. I mean, I know what meal is supposed to be the most important. Whenever I read something that asks, "Did your child have a nutritious breakfast this morning?", I feel myself gelling defensive. Visions of food charts dance accusingly in my head. Did he have enough from the dairy group? the grains? citrus fruits? Was his meal balanced? Balanced? When Shep was 13 I felt lucky if he ate half a cookie in the morning! Nutritional guilt aside, the real problems come prepackaged. In the cereals. Those little promotional toys that lie deep in the bottom of the box and say "some assembly required," without telling you that the assembler should be an M.I.T. graduate. Just try to get your kids to school and you to work on time when the cereal box has just presented a Whipseedoodle mini-laser roto-turning pencil sharpener-complete with broken rubber band.

I have reached the point where my only criterion for breakfast cereals is that there be nothing free, fun, amusing, amazing or nonedible in the box. I have also reached a point where I can, on a few lucky days, get out of the house in the morning without arriving at work half-dead. I've attained this by being ruthless to the point of sanity.

I buy stretch socks of one color for the entire family.

I have an automatic timer that can start my coffee maker before I'm awake.

I live in a house that has more than one bathroom. Anything less than fever, spots or a name illness, and the kid goes to school.

I take 10 minutes out to do basic exercises and meditate on the fact that time flies, and in nine years my youngest will be in college.

I keep a closet full of empty milk cartons, coffee cans, bits of string, old Clorox bottles, lima beans, aluminum foil and empty toilet paper rolls.

I still have hope about Howard Hughes's will.



Copyright Hester Mundis. All rights reserved.