A cake for Mom’s first day of work and Romney’s gift of dignity.

I’ve stayed out of weighing in on the working mom’s issue but its time for me to have my say; its my turn as a former working mom to express my opinion. Unfortunately, all things being equal, neither my opinion nor this “issue” will do anything to accelerate job growth or cause the unemployment rate to go into free fall on a national level. But hey, I got this blog, I’m a former working mom and in the words of Mrs. Ann Romney, it’s my turn now.

Even though I’ve written a little about this before, in this piece, I’ve chosen to start with Mitt Romney’s comments about dignity and people on public assistance he made while speaking in New Hampshire earlier this year. Romney said:

I wanted to increase the work requirement. I said, for instance, that even if you have a child two years of age, you need to go to work. And people said, ‘Well that’s heartless,’ and I said ‘No, no, I’m willing to spend more giving daycare to allow those parents to go back to work. It’ll cost the state more providing that daycare, but I want the individuals to have the dignity of work.’

Well, well.Dignity. So Romney wants to give the gift of dignity to folks on public assistance by requiring them to leave their toddlers at daycare and go to work because they don’t have the financial means to stay home and nurture their small children. Once again, this is Jim Crow messaging, but I’ll leave that alone for now.

The lack of money and affluence does not define whether one has dignity or not. Whether one receives public assistance or not does not make them less dignified or less humane or unable to create value in their lives and the lives of those around them. Often, it’s our struggles that carve in our hearts a deep river of humanity. Romney would do well to have a long conversation with Ellie Weisel, a Romanian-born Jewish-American writer, professor, political activist, Nobel Laureate, and Holocaust survivor and ask him about dignity. Perhaps hearing from a successful white male about the kind of unimaginable struggles Weisel faced would broaden Romney’s point of view and at least temper his campaign rhetoric.

When Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, the Norwegian Nobel Committee called him a “messenger to mankind,” stating that through his struggle to come to terms with “his own personal experience of total humiliation and of the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler’s death camps”, as well as his “practical work in the cause of peace,” Wiesel had delivered a powerful message “of peace, atonement and human dignity” to humanity. [….]

Households of humble means, including those of single parents, should not be cast in a shroud of negativity (or bigotry) or portrayed as though such people have no dignity, or don’t have the capacity to develop a higher consciousness beyond themselves for themselves and their children. I know first hand because I’ve experienced both.

I grew up in a humble and loving household of eleven where my father was the sole breadwinner. When my parents were younger, they lived in Strivers Row, a more affluent area in Harlem NYC than other neighborhoods. As the family grew, the need for a larger apartment caused them to move to an area that was less affluent and more congested. The schools began to decline and the congestion grew as we grew. That prompted my mother to find a job for the first time in her life, allowing our family to buy a home and move from Harlem to the suburbs in Queens NYC in a typical working class neighborhood. My mother continued to work to help my father pay the mortgage and college tuition bills.

My mother was the master of cutting corners to make ends meet and we never felt poor; not even in our congested neighborhood surroundings in Harlem. There was a vibrant community with many extended family members and neighbors surrounding us, including my mother’s two older sisters who came to live with us expanding our family from nine to eleven.

I will always remember my mother’s first day of work. It felt strange to have her out of the house. We (the four youngest sisters) decided to bake her a cake. We placed all the ingredients we watched her use into a large bowl, at the same time. We used her way of measuring out each ingredient along with a recipe we found in the “kitchen drawer,” written by her hand in pencil on a yellowed piece of note paper barely big enough to read. My mother measured out ingredients by, “a pinch of this” and “a cup of that.” The cup she used was not a traditional measuring cup but a drinking cup designated by her as the best one for her recipe.

Despite doing our best to follow her recipe, the cake batter quickly turned into a thick, doughy substance. We rolled it into a large ball and tossed it back and forth between us. There were a couple of times someone missed a catch and the dough landed on the floor, the edge of the table and even behind the stove. We picked the dough up, dusted it off, placed it in a baking dish and stuck it in the oven. Once the dough was baked, removed from the oven and allowed to cool, it was too hard to cut. We presented it to my mother anyway while our older sisters cautioned her about where that “cake” had been before the oven. My mother didn’t mind. She appreciated our gesture and had a good laugh; but was certain not to eat our concoction.

My experience and that of my sisters as working parents were similar to our parents. Fortunately, we had a great support system in that there were often two sets of loving grandparents we could rely upon while we worked. Without that support system, I would not have been able to work and give my children a better life as I could not afford to hire a caretaker.

When I divorced my first husband, I worked one-and-a-half jobs (for ten years) to keep my family in a good neighborhood with good schools, convenient transportation, cultural activities, shopping and other important amenities. But I paid a price for doing so, as did my children. There were times that I missed out on special moments,  including family trips and gatherings because of the demands of my job, or I had no choice but to go to work if I couldn’t get the day off, or couldn’t afford to take the day off.

That being said, I don’t begrudge my work-life. I loved my work and I was fortunate to have it. But no matter how well I did my job or how much I loved what I was doing, there was always a piece of me longing to be at home with my family, especially during my children’s formative years, or when something special was going on. My children did their best. They always saved a plate of goodies for me or brought home a souvenir for me from some place they have visited with their grandparents.

When my mother became ill with Alzheimer disease, we brought her home to live with us. Mom required 24 hour care. We couldn’t afford to pay for someone to be with her for more than eight hours, and that meant my husband and I took shifts sleeping at night.

During the daytime, we juggled our schedules between who would leave work early to allow my mother’s caretaker to leave on time to pick up her children from school. And then whomever came home early inevitably had to go back to work later to catch up. That’s after fixing dinner, helping my son with his homework or taking him to a sports practice, or putting on a load of laundry before heading back to the office.

Do I wish I was with my family during those special moments instead of being at work? I will always wish I was. We raise our children, take care of our elders and share with extended family members and close friends, making the most out of what we have. That’s what etches a deep and boundless river of humanity in our hearts.

Whether taking care of my children or my mother, going to work was a necessity and not a choice. So when I hear Mitt Romney talk about those who lack the means to choose whether to work outside of the home or not with such a disconnect and such arrogance and privilege, it’s clear to me this is the last person we need occupying the White House.

Just as my opinion will not accelerate job growth or improve the economy faster, Romney’s arrogance and privilege will not either. He’s offering no plan to fix the economy, just a tired rewrite of Paul Ryan’s budget machinations promoted by the same old GOP campaign rhetoric conjured up by Karl Rove and others. What makes Romney’s approach so distasteful is his arrogance and conceit, and then he has the nerve to talk to folks about dignity.

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