© Copyright 2020 by Maureen Moynihan
Ever since I was strong enough to carry a baby on my hip without dropping it on its head, I worked. Growing up, I watched the drama of money play out in my household. My father made most of the money so he dictated that we ate bowls of Toasted Oats instead of Cheerios. His power over family purchases was absolute and unquestioned.
On the other hand, my mother had to justify every dime she spent. She once had to beg him to buy penicillin as he was convinced the drug was liquid bubble gum, a scam concocted by overpaid doctors to steal money from the working Joe. Panicked for her child, my mother called in the Irish Reinforcement: his mother.
My grandmother was a crusty old Catholic, pickled in spite. She did not like children but worshipped her respected reputation within the church community. God forbid if word got out on the street that Biff Moynihan did not care for his sick children. Within 5 minutes of Grandmother telling my dad to get his head out of his arse, he was out the door to pick up the penicillin along with a 12 pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. It was then I decided that I would always control my own money. I would not be a puppet because someone else controlled my purse strings. No way in hell.
Good things evolved from this epiphany. When I was eight, my dad informed me that God gave me a head full of brains along with a good set of legs, so if I wanted a bike I could figure out how to pay for one. And I did. Before cable, mothers who-could-afford-it were happy to pay another kid to play Hopscotch or Candyland so their own child would not chew on the furniture. Business was spectacular .
My Huffy Sweet and Sassy captivated the blazing trends of a 1970s childhood, featuring a banana seat peppered with orange and purple flowers. It was like sitting my fanny on a little slice of sunshine. A bell perched on the elongated handlebars. I chimed it to announce my arrival or express impatience. And since head injuries had yet to hit the collective social consciousness, my ponytails whipped in the wind with the unbridled joy of a Golden Retriever with its head out the car window. It was exhilarating. It was empowering. It was freedom.
My bike took me many places but mostly 3 miles up the road to Nana and Pa’s house. Nana stopped stirring the sauce the moment I arrived as she needed two hands to applaud my arrival and two arms to wrap herself around me. Every time I showed up in her kitchen, which was practically every day, I received a parade. It was that kind of love.
Nana had no tolerance for the lazy or unemployed. She grew up during the Great Depression but was shielded from poverty as her father was fluent in numbers, though hardly spoke a lick of English. Nana inherited his whip-snap brain and divine sense of purpose along with a passion for reading. In English.
According to Nana, if you were not raising a child, the most important job in the universe, you were expected to work and serve your community. That was God’s plan. Her plan had educational addendum, especially for her grandchildren. Nana’s schooling was cut short because her father did not see the point of educating a girl, even though she was valedictorian of her class and won a full college scholarship. So like most women of her generation, Nana worked in the textile mills until an appropriate suitor came along to exchange the doldrums of factory work for the exhilaration of motherhood.
My job was to perform well in school so I’d have the luxury of choosing a career, the treasure that was stolen from her. This implied agreement was fine by me because I loved school, except for the studying part. Nonetheless, I managed to squeak my way into Harvard Graduate School of Education, an honor that she shared with every knitting group and senior circle that listened or at least pretended to. Following my graduation ceremony, Nana uncurled from her wheelchair, wrapped her arms around me and whispered, “Now I can die” in my ear. Followed by, “Once we find you a husband.”
When my mom earned her Master's degree, she handed her husband divorce papers. With an empty nest and well-paying job, she could afford to leave the dictatorship and live a peaceful life of self-reliance. As a witness to her revival, I racked up degrees like a thermostat, as they certified my financial security. Just in case I married a gerk.
It never bothered me that I was the breadwinner of our family; Jack and I were a team. We were building a family and a life together. Besides, money was not a priority with Jack. Sure, he enjoyed an occasional game of golf, but fancy cars and designer clothes were not his thing. As long as I made the money and managed it, he was fine.
My work-home balance capitulated into a chaos when my water broke in the middle of a high school cafeteria. At the time, I was an Assistant Principal, de-escalating a disagreement about an outstanding cheeseburger debt that was really about a dirty marijuana deal. A whoosh sensation rippled through my body as a gush of amniotic fluid burst out of me and onto the cafeteria floor. In a flash, approximately 55 teenage witnesses reconsidered the consequences of capricious sex and developed a new appreciation for birth control.
The voice of our lead custodian, Kevin, bellowed through my walkie talkie:
“Spillage in the cafeteria!!”
“It’s human fluid!!
“Bring the sand!”
I grabbed the largest teenager within my reach and waddled towards the restroom as Kevin executed the orders to my amniotic fluid action plan.
“Go to the lost and found!”
“Grab that trench coat!”
We weaved through the landmines of public humiliation like two infantry soldiers just deployed on Omaha Beach. As commanded, the confiscated trench coat was delivered. I hesitated to put it on as the slogan “Jesus was a Liar” was written on the back in bold, black sharpie. Kevin reported to the bathroom door, his face panicked with the possibility of delivering my baby.
“I can’t put this on,” I said, “it’s sacrilegious.”
He stared at me with a level of disbelief that bordered on anger. When my contractions kicked in, I immediately exchanged superstition for hope of an epidural. Kevin wrapped me in that trench coat and sent me out the door like a human burrito in a take-out line. On March 23rd, 2006, minimal learning occurred at Londonderry High School. And I became a mother.
Twelve weeks later, as milk leaked from my nipples when I bent down to alphabetize a box of diplomas, I decided to find a new job. My inability to compartmentalize my work/home responsibilities was literally spilling from my body. So I did.
I was hired as a Literacy Consultant, which enabled me to work from home a couple days a week. During the remaining days, I delivered professional development trainings to educators throughout the country. It was challenging work but I loved it. Teachers know the show and will question a speaker who appears to lack knowledge or preparation. I held my own. Sometimes when I finished a workshop, teachers clapped. It was glorious.
In a snap, it was gone.
My lumpectomy failed. The tissue surrounding the tumor did not yield cancer free cells and 63 malignant cells were identified. My treatment plan was modified to include a double mastectomy, 20 weeks of chemotherapy and 6 weeks of radiation. Pandora’s box was opened.
My boss drove up to New Hampshire to meet me for coffee. You know it is not going to go well when your boss offers to travel an hour to meet you for a cup of coffee. I had a lurching thought that I was about to lose my job. But I was a teacher, and teachers play nice in the sandbox. When a colleague is short on maternity leave, we donate a sick day. The culture of education understands that certain things are too powerful to be planned, like a baby or a cancer diagnosis. Corporate American does not recognize personal circumstances because it is not conducive to profit.
When my boss walked into Dunkin Donuts, I knew I lost my job. She held back tears as she told me how very sorry she was that this was happening to me. I was a shining star, she said, one of the best consultants they ever hired. She told me she loved me and that she valued my work. But the company could not afford to pay me during cancer treatment. This was a business decision not a personal choice.
Losing a job is very personal. A career is not like nasal hairs, something that simply grows back, as it takes a lifetime to harvest. My profession was a thriving testimony to my intelligence, financial security and worthiness. It juxtaposed my role as a mother, where I worked for free, craved validation and lived in fear of dropping my baby on her head.
Then there was the shame. My grandparents worked in sweatshops to pay my ticket to financial security, and I lost it. Though I lived in a booming economy, cancer dissolved me to a poor, dependent parasite that sucked on the kindness and compassion of others. Or taxes, depending on how you look at it.
Regardless, I was mother, times two. Two little souls watched me as the trauma of cancer played out my household. As my dad used to say, feeling sorry for yourself and a token will get you through the tollbooth. For the most part, he was right. I still had the most important job in the universe.
My seven-year-old still had training wheels on her bike. She feared falling and I feared watching her knees scrap on the road. We lived in this illusion for too long. The truth is she will fall. She will have to pick herself up again. And again. With and without me.
I bought Sienna a bike that was fancy and sturdy, like her. It had white-coated wheels, a cotton candy frame, and colorful streamers that flowed from the handlebars and shimmered in the sun as she cut though the wind. But she needed to know the joy of riding alone. She needed to feel the pride that comes with independence.
I stripped those debilitating wheels off her bike and plopped her on the seat like a serving of mashed potatoes. When she fell, I cheered from the sidewalk.
“Up you go,” I told her.
“Try again, my love.” So she did. When she finally found her balance, she found herself. It was an honor to watch.
“Look at me go, Mom!!” she yelled. A smile of self worth splashed on her face when she realized the power of her own resiliency. And I began to learn how to watch from the sidelines, perhaps the hardest job for me to do.