A few days ago, my husband and I were on the road with a car full of children.
My daughter was in the back seat with a cardboard box and a paper bag covered in marker. It was a bag that I would call “trash,” but she was bringing the bag everywhere she went that day. She called the bag “work.” And she held the box squarely on her lap and rested her hands on top, tapping the brown paper with her fingertips as though it were a computer keyboard.
“I’m working, mom,” she hollered from the back of the van.
“Oh, that’s great,” I said. “Be sure to earn us some money.”
My husband and I chuckled at her imitation of us — the mirror that children are. And we talked about how she was old enough to work now, and she needed to earn her keep. She’s 5.
A couple of minutes passed, then the voice from the back piped up again.
“Oooooh, I think I see a quarter!” she said.
The money was coming in already. She saw a quarter every few seconds after that, but she made sure to tell us it was just pretend. We laughed and drove on our merry way.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s good or bad that my daughter knows I work. Most often, I fall on the side of good. She is learning that clothes and fun trips to the museum and My Little Pony dolls aren’t free. We must pay for those things with money that must be earned. And she is learning that moms and dads can both earn money. Moms and dads both have skills and value in the world. And mom’s time is something that is valuable, too.
Then again, maybe I’m projecting all of that on her. She is only 5. I hope that’s too young to equate money with having value in the world. I hope that’s too young for her to think my playing with her or cleaning the house is not as important as her father’s job, which provides money to buy the things she wants, like popsicles and princess dress-up shoes. I hope the times when I tell her I can’t play because I’m working don’t make her feel like work is more important than she is.
Working from home is a tricky thing to balance.
Ever since I was little, as I watched my own mother head into the office every day, I thought about work. I used to get dressed in my summer pajamas just before bedtime and just after my bath and sit at the little desk in my room with a big mirror. It felt just like a news desk to me, and I’d look into the mirror and pretend to be an anchor on the evening news. I imagined being a scientist and making paper out of hay — it was going to be the next big thing to save the earth’s trees. I doodled in my notebook that I took everywhere and dreamed of being a children's author.
There was so much I could do. I imagined it all.
My mother worked full time, and so did my grandmother Fleeta, who died before I was born. My mother was a psychometrist, a secretary, a paralegal and more. My grandmother was a nurse.
I've thought a lot about my grandmother working back in the day. She was born in 1911, and in the 1930s, women made up 21.9 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the U.S. Department of Labor. In 2010, women comprised 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, which included almost 60 percent of women over the age of 16, according to the Department of Labor.
I suppose those statistics include the various jobs I’ve had since I turned 16: washing dishes, answering phones, seating students at football games, balancing payroll, editing newspaper stories, designing newspaper pages, writing newspaper stories and more.
No one ever told me I couldn’t do some jobs because I am a woman. But I’m aware that times were different when my mother and grandmother were young. Because women like my mother and grandmother were employed, out of necessity, I believe their experiences have opened more opportunities for me to have the kind of job I always wanted to have — a job that allows me to use my talents and, at the same time, stay home with my children.
I'm grateful to my grandmother for forging new territory so long ago to help create a world that is kinder to me. Whatever my daughter chooses to do when she is older — pulling quarters out of thin air or not — I hope my own decisions will help shape her world for the better.
Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.