Katherine Reese Kusza
Mothers and Fathers and Rugrats
Mother’s Day came and went and Father’s Day is just around the corner. Many older adults didn’t and won’t get to spend them with their children because of COVID-19 and the subsequent insanity.
When you are the mother of four, every day is Mother’s Day. And when you are a single mother, every day is Father’s Day, too. The actual holidays themselves aren't really that much of a big deal. But I feel bad for those who go all out for their parents and grandparents on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day because they are missing out this year.
I did not enjoy being a mother when my kids were little. Once I started to like their company, they went to college. Let’s face it. Little kids are annoying. They are screaming bundles of need. Although my future husband and I joked early on when we met as students that we wanted nine kids and a farmhouse, I really wanted a career. I knew how hard a job motherhood was, but I had no idea how bad I would be at it.
I come from a culture that strongly values marriage and motherhood for a woman. The ideal woman is both Virgin and Mother. Who can live up to that?
I was a good girl and got married and had kids. The original plan was for my husband to stay home with the children and for me to work, but the economy was in the toilet for most of the 90s and the bank I worked for when I was having our first child was going through a merger and everyone was getting laid off. I had a second job as a newspaper reporter so, after my position at the bank was eliminated, I stayed home with our daughter and worked evenings and nights at our local paper.
I had our second daughter 14 months later (good Catholic girl, was I). The babies came too easily and I didn’t appreciate them at all. I hate myself for that and I am sure any woman who wanted a child and couldn’t have one hates me, too.
I continued to stay home during the day and work at night and only slept three or four hours at most. We took a lot of walks so I could stay awake and the girls spent a lot of time swimming in the bathtub because I wanted them to learn how to feed themselves and that is kind of messy.
We bought a house with a yard and made two more children. I don’t remember much about that time, probably because I didn’t sleep much. The Heir and the Spare were born 17 months apart. At two months old, the baby of the family contracted bacterial meningitis and is deaf, has severe cerebral palsy, a seizure disorder and is "total care". It is a miracle he lived.
After that, I became a first responder because I couldn’t help wonder if I hadn’t been such a dummy about medical stuff, maybe I wouldn’t have missed the fact that his low grade temperature of 99 wasn’t just an ordinary childhood virus that all babies get sometimes (he was my fourth kid, after all). I joined my town fire department, got my EMT cert.
My husband was fine with that because, quite frankly, being home with the kids all the time and writing about town politics was making me crazy. It’s not that I couldn’t take care of the kids. I was very efficient. They were fed, changed, read to, brought to doctors' appointments, preschool and playgroup. However, I was losing my mind. I could not sit in a room with other women and discuss designer handbags, hair color, the price of chicken quarters and whether or not I washed the kitchen floor on Wednesday or Thursday and not want to scream.
Being a call firefighter/EMT was lot of fun and fulfilled one childhood ambition, but it is hard to be out all night and then have to be up with your special needs kid all day. Never mind worrying about what diseases and hazardous materials you might be bringing home to your family. I apologize to my former neighbors for whatever parts of my anatomy you may have seen at four in the morning as I dropped trou by the door.
Call firefighter/EMT’s also don’t earn much, so I went back to school to be a registered nurse. It was either that or paramedic school and I figured I could work longer as a nurse than as a firefighter. Good call.
All this time, my husband was a really good mother. He was good with the bedtime routine and showing the children how to plant flowers and vegetables in the garden and working on various projects around the house. He was a good cook and good provider even though he didn’t make a ton of money at the time. We had just enough for groceries and the mortgage and car payments. And I worked, of course, which covered the taxes and the health insurance, so we were mostly comfortable. Until we weren’t.
After over a decade of marriage, he finally came out of the closet (we would have had 10 kids if he were straight) and started a new life. He lost his job. Let’s just say, the rugrats were not amused. And neither were a lot of people. People can be real jerks (especially Franzia drinking soccer moms). Divorce is not kind to anyone, but, even in the 21st century, it is particularly unkind to the straight spouses of gays and lesbians.
How could you not know? Did you make him/her gay? While the LBGTQ+ community vomits rainbows for the person coming out, there isn’t a parade for the wife or husband left behind.
Although I was a nurse by then and should have had my pick of jobs, the economy was crappier than ever and I was working a bunch of part-time gigs and paying through the nose for now mandatory health insurance that had quadrupled in cost. Needless to say, I couldn’t afford the house on half the income we had when we bought the darn thing. Our mortgage company had gone bust and didn’t get a bailout and the “loan servicing agency” that took over was not particularly sympathetic. As soon as I couldn’t make the payments anymore, I forfeited the place and moved into a really sketchy rental.
Eventually, we were able to find a nicer apartment (I only smell cigarettes and weed in the neighborhood now). The boys had already moved in with their dad and his partner because the schools are better where they live. The girls survived staying in town with me and managed to get scholarships to a decent high school and busted their humps to get through college and university.
I suppose I could have gone on the dole as a lot of single mothers did at the time and it would have been a heck of a lot easier. My kids would have gotten free school meals, free daycare, our housing would have been less expensive, our disabled son would have gotten all sorts of services without question. I probably would have gotten a lot more sleep. My kids may have even gone to college for free. They may also have gotten raped or murdered at the bus stop.
It was not an easy time and I was a very cranky, tired mother. I was also the PTA pariah. I wasn't available to volunteer every week and didn't have the money to supply the entire class with Magic Markers and Kleenex. My kids stopped going to activities. How could I get them there and who could afford them? If I wasn’t working, I was trying to catch a few hours’ sleep. We ate mostly noodles and frozen vegetables and peanut butter sandwiches. And all the kids wanted was a mother who stayed home and had time to give them her full attention and wasn’t running on fumes.
I couldn’t be the mother my children wanted, but I did my best. I hope I was the mother (and father) they needed at the time. If I were a man, I’d be Father of the Year. No, I wouldn’t, because I don’t have a house and a perfectly coifed wife and perfectly dressed children who play three sports. Yeah, I know, I really need to let that one go. Who knows what goes on behind closed doors? They may really be miserable at home. I was.
I admire the women who have the energy and wherewithal to be home with their kids all day because it is exhausting. It is easier to go to work. And I admire the dads who step up to the plate when the mothers of their children can’t do the job or won’t.
My kids will always be a little messed up because they didn’t have a stay at home mum (or dad) and their parents are divorced. I say this as a single parent. Kids need a mother and a father. They are better off when someone stays home with them when they are little and devotes herself (or himself) to their upbringing and education and does not expect the State to raise them.
I worry a lot about families now. It is especially worrisome with unemployment foisted upon them by the government. For the first time in my adult life, the economy was good and corrupt politicians took it upon themselves to wreck it in two months. Unemployment and underemployment bring a lot of grief and despair into a family's life that no government check is going to alleviate.
Mothers and fathers are in despair and despair is deadly. It could destroy them. Or maybe not. Our family went through terrible upheaval and economic hardship before and, somehow, we survived.
Our kids are pretty darned resilient because they were told “No” a lot and did without because my work schedule stunk and we never had money for anything other than rent, health insurance, taxes, food, and keeping the car on the road. They lived without television and mobile phones. They learned to work for any of the “fun stuff” they wanted. They were fortunate to have grandparents and aunts and uncles who could give them a little pocket money from time to time when I was scrounging in the couch cushions for change.
I felt education was essential and probably paid too much for it, but a college degree is the new high school diploma. I am grateful my daughters have degrees even if they are working reduced hours or at minimum wage right now.
"No one can take your education away from you even if you are swinging a pick," my grandfather used to say. He drove a bus in Times Square for 30 years.
My oldest son, God willing, plans to start at our state university in the Fall and will be working at whatever job will have him. When the economy is bad, a job that pays a wage is a good job. I am very proud of the kids for keeping their noses to the grindstone and not giving up!
As for the little guy, who is not so little anymore, he employs personal care attendants, so I thank him for living so he can do that for someone who needs a job right now. And I thank his dad and his partner for doing the heavy lifting every day because I can’t.
So, kids (and kids’ dad), thanks for making me a mother even though I didn’t know what a gift it was at the time.