As a young wife (24 when I married my ex-husband) and then a young mom (25 when my first was born), thinking about family planning and the ripple effect on how I would eventually balance life / career was not top-of-mind. Possibly it was immaturity, possibly it was naiveté, probably it was a combination of the two. I was already in the workforce, but still sussing out what I wanted and where I wanted to go. My daughter was born in the midst of the dot-com boom, and by way of good choices and good fortune, I found myself in a great position to leave corporate America and consult from a home office giving me the opportunity to be with my new baby and still be part of the working world.
Eventually, one of my clients offered me a full-time position (right when I discovered I was pregnant with my second child which, to their credit, did not deter them at all) and I found a professional home where I would remain for the next decade or so.
When my daughter was in kindergarden, (about three years into that decade-long stint), I was in the throws of establishing myself professionally. You almost do not realize what is happening until you look back, but I was being pulled in many directions. I was trying to prove myself—mostly to me—and ensure that I could be self-sufficient, something that would be hugely important very soon based on the trajectory of my relationship.
I was missing things. Class field trips for my daughter, being a class parent every year (I was co-class parent for my daughter twice and my son once–it was INSANE, lesson learned) being a teaching assistant in the classroom… and I noticed there was a clear deliniation in the school yard: moms who participated and those who didn’t (I also noticed the same demarkation didn’t apply to dads). The moms who didn’t were usually moms like me, they were working outside of the home (to be clear, I absolutely believe moms who are stay-at-home, are totally working—they just are most likely working without salary, a lunch hour, time-off, etc… and this post is not debating the pros and cons between moms who work out of the home vs in the home), and trying to balance different types of work-loads (personal and professional) and keep both sets of stakeholders happy (or at least, content). I also noticed all moms were hard on themselves and, yes, hard on each other. We also tended to be hardest on and feared the judgement of those we were least familiar with… I guess we never can escape the playground politics.
There was one particular activity in Kindergarden that was a thorn in my side: Friday morning reading. This took place, no surprise, every Friday morning after drop-off (read: after business hours had begun), and was a time to read a book to your child in the classroom. The Scarlett Letter for those “Moms Who Didn’t” was the lone child at Friday reading solo–not for the child (and not for the father) but, no surprise, for the mother–who was already hard on herself, fearing the judgement of those she was less familiar with, and now she had to picture her abandoned not-yet-reading-child alone surrounded by well-adjusted children happily being read to.
Here was my logistical issue… Every Friday morning was a recurring department meeting and I could not miss it or be late, and at that point in my career, I was not comfortable asking to move it… that would mean moving it for an entire department. It was a lose/lose situation.
My savior was another mom… Whether she sensed my turmoil or was just being friendly I have no idea, but without pause or question she simply offered the other half of her lap to my daughter saying she had two knees, and she’d be happy to read to both her daughter and mine on Fridays. I don’t think she will ever understand how grateful I was, how grateful I am, for that act of kindness. It had an immediate impact on my daughter who did not have to wonder who she would be reading with on Friday; it instantly effected me and my life as a mother wracked with guilt and shame at my inability to participate in a classroom activity, but the longer-term impacts were even more substantial. I don’t think either of us knew that this Friday reading ritual would be the beginning of a friendship between our girls that, to date, still continues and is a foundational friendship for my daughter. It has also been meaningful to my husband and I (I divorced and eventually remarried)–time coupled with meaningful and shared experiences strengthens bonds–so this is not only a child, but a family we care deeply for and I know the feeling is mutual (and as a couple, they are wicked fun to hang out with).
I’ve known for a while that random acts of kindness can have ripple effects that are beyond comprehension; but the expectation is that this will likely have external application so by “paying it forward” one will benefit their community and the world of others (one kind word or act begets another, courtesy is contagious, and so on). In addition to this being immensely important and powerful because it is something we all are able to enact, as citizens of the world the idea is also that this goodwill eventually comes back to us full-circle. Looking back, the kindergarden Friday reading experience felt more personal and more acute than simply “paying it forward.” It felt more like an inheritance, with many direct beneficiaries–and one does not exclude the other. In fact, I learned that an added benefit of “paying it forward” could be a windfall of an ongoing legacy that continues to produce dividends–one can never tell.