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Guilt and trying times aside, this mother works lest she wither

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MELONE
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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001


It was 2:30 in the morning, when only drunks and cops are on the road. This was no time to be taking a small child for a drive.

But desperate times in the small hours call for desperate measures.

My daughter would not go back to sleep. Holding, rocking, cooing, begging, pleading -- none of it made her deep brown eyes flutter shut.

So we strapped her into her car seat and drove around, and around and around.

The only person who nodded off was in the front passenger seat. Me.

When I opened my eyes, I heard that little voice again. Not hers, but the voice in my head. It had the pitch of a small, perpetually yappy dog. The voice was saying my daughter wouldn't be up all night -- with anxiety, fear, or who knew what -- if I didn't work. If I were home, my love would fill all her little empty spaces, where the monsters of her imagination might otherwise grow.

We would be at the park, giggling in the grass. We would be cutting out paper dolls, painting pictures on the porch, walking the dog. We would stick our faces in the jasmine blooming on the backyard fence.

Mommy would not be tired. Mommy would not be scrambling for dinner. Mommy would not be berating herself for the clutter that has spread from room to room in a kind of household kudzu.

And mommy would be out of her mind.

There would be no urgent thrum of debate and dialogue, the stuff that makes my working world spin, and my own mind work.

There would not be enough to keep me alert and alive. I would be a lousy mother, not the one I am -- who wants not just to love her child but to show her the world beyond her horizon, where cuddling ends and thinking begins, where being and doing intertwine.

All the same, guilt is the white noise of my life.

Somewhere out there is the gold standard of a working mother. I not so secretly think she lives in every other working mother I know. They come off as organized and unflappable. I imagine their patience never runs out like a leftover ball of yarn.

In rational moments, these insane notions crumble. I am not a perfect parent, but better than I thought I would be. I might even be good enough. The guilt is an absurd, unnecessary weight, so many stones in my pockets.

But the rational moments are few. Except for the weekends, my daughter and I have about an hour and a half together in the morning, and three hours at night. That's 20, 25 hours spread over five days. Less time than I spend in the office.

My daughter has come to recognize my picture in the newspaper. There are times when I wonder if she knows that paper face better than the one made of flesh. I tell myself this is not so. I am still the first person who holds her in the morning, whose leg she won't let go of, who she insists read to her and rock her to sleep. When she does sleep.

We drove for more than an hour that night. When that didn't work, I resorted to Barney videos. She and I watched them from 4 a.m. until 6. Then the sun came up. The day began. She went to preschool, and I to work.

By her teacher's description, she made it through the day without much trouble. She is better at this balancing act than I am.

She has mastered phrases like "vacuum cleaner" and "the whole wide world." She wants to tap dance. She likes to crack eggs. When we are in a roomful of strangers, she tells me everybody there likes her. In those fleeting rational moments, I believe each new step she takes signifies she'll do just fine, thank you. I tell myself this over and over in a rhythm that makes the words resemble a prayer.

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