The Way We Worked, In Three Acts
by Jamie Wagman
I. Long Ago
My grandmother worked in kitchens, professional and home, pouring coffee and working a register, working from recipes and working from memory. Her hands were smooth velvet, her eyes deep brown and expressive. She whistled while she worked, driving her butcher husband and two grown children mad. I loved the sound; I was her taste tester, her fan club president, her rapt audience.
How had she mothered? I imagine crossly, sometimes with rules and sometimes with rewards. If she gave her dog an ice cream cone for dessert every evening, what else did she give?
My mother, the first woman in her family to graduate from college, majored in education. She didn’t enjoy teaching, so she began working in 1974 as a secretary until last year when she retired. She always worked for men. She used shorthand. She never spoke of her work life until I was in my thirties, and by then I saw how much she dreaded it. After her divorce, I wondered who she would have been if she had been born a little later, found feminism, not met my father in 1971. She wrote poetry and loved Literature courses; I still remember her verses typed on typewriters and then printed and placed in drawers. I leaned so hard I nearly broke the tree, she wrote.
I never knew her on the job since she never brought me to the office, but I knew intimately of her mothering work: breastfeeding when it wasn’t fashionable, combing the lice out of my hair, gently explaining that the guinea pig had died, selecting every item of clothing I wore, making the meals, packing the lunches, planning the birthday parties, signing me up and then taking me to ice skating, swimming lessons, acting camp, finding my food diary and confronting me with it. She cried audibly in the shower and she wasn’t the happiest of mothers, this I knew, but she was happy to mother.
I am the first person in my family to graduate with a doctorate, and I started life as a professor five years ago. I make to do lists, travel, teach, publish, plan, meet, assess, propose, and face rejection and success. There is no work life balance, only making it through the day, punctuated with moments of joy and relief. Sex. Fiction. Ice cream. Possibly in that order.
I had two children, a baby and a toddler, when I began working, and I pumped milk for 13 months, in airplane and auditorium bathrooms, a convent, hotel rooms, a library archive, and every single day at my desk with the radio turned up. I force myself now to be cheerful when I am not so that they will not have memories of me crying in bathrooms. I cheer for them so hard I lose my voice. I take photographs and carefully curate a happy childhood blog. I am present; I am away.
Jamie Wagman is an Assistant Professor of Gender & Women’s Studies and History at Saint Mary’s College in Indiana. Her work has also appeared in Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues, The Adirondack Review, Newfound, Hip Mama, and in 2017 anthology Nasty Women and Bad Hombres.