It was nothing short of a miracle that I walked into Langston Creative’s office at five ‘till eight with a Starbucks in my hand and a normal heart rate. Traffic was on my side this morning. I silently thanked whatever gods decided I was worth the extra energy today. I practically floated to my desk. I must have looked blissful because the second I sat down Wendy, my coworker, came rushing over. Normally, I was scowling or half-asleep in the mornings and no one talked to me. I much preferred the no talking mornings.
“Amanda, do you meet with Peter this morning?” she asked. Her voice was hushed. She glanced in the direction of my boss’s office and then back at me. Her eyebrows furrowed and her lips twitched into a frown.
“He’s on a tirade this morning. He’s already snapped at Ethan.”
“Ethan?” Ethan was the golden boy. He was a master brown noser and was always shoving it where it did not belong—mainly with my clients. Technically, he was my junior in the office pecking order and reported directly to me, but the way he acted you’d think he was my boss. “Peter is never cross with Ethan.”
“I know,” she hissed. “So, it must be bad.”
“I wonder if his wife is pregnant again,” I said. I’d meant to just think it, but the words tumbled out. I was comfortable with Wendy, but like Ethan, she was my employee and I knew better than to disparage the boss in front of her even if she was my only mom ally in the office. Peter had three kids, but his wife stayed home, and I was certain he didn’t even know their names or birthdays. Ethan was a bachelor, as were most of the younger men in the office. The women were either older and empty-nesters or younger and well-rested. Wendy had two kids, a boy and a girl like me. Unlike mine, hers were twins. Yet, she somehow managed to come in every day with perfectly coiffed hair and makeup. I’d not met her husband, but I assumed he was a saint.
“Probably.” She laughed. She knew what I was implying. Wendy and I spoke the same tired, cliched language of the working mom.
I took a deep breath to brace myself for whatever I was about to walk into. I didn’t bother turning on my laptop. I’d checked my emails while waiting in line at Starbucks. Nothing blew up overnight, so it seemed everything was fine. My pulse quickened and sweat beaded under the waistband of my black wool slacks. I don’t know what possessed me to wear them this morning, but I was deeply regretting my extra hot choice.
Peter’s door was closed, which was unusual. He was one of the most standoffish people I’d ever met, but he insisted on having an open-door policy. Going through the motions was Peter’s entire management philosophy. He didn’t smile. He never said please or thank you. He didn’t offer false platitudes. If he asked how your day was, he was doing it out of habit and not care. When I first interviewed with him four years ago, I almost walked away from the offer because of him. But over time I came to understand it wasn’t personal, it was just Peter.
Tentatively, I knocked on the door. His deep, muffled voice, invited me in. I turned the handle and carefully pushed the door open. I don’t know why I was so hesitant. Peter was known for his tirades. Sure taking one out on Ethan was new, but that was probably because I wasn’t here at seven when he started ranting.
“Good morning,” I said, forcing my voice to remain calm and steady. He didn’t need to know I knew he was a live wire this morning.
He barely looked up from his monitor. His fingers typed furiously. The crease between his brows deepened with thought, or concern, I wasn’t sure which. His pale skin tinted red. His chest rose angrily as he heaved with each breath. The buttons of his too-tight shirt threatened to explode. Why don’t more men wear those Spanx undershirts for men? Reign in the buttons and tame loose chest hairs.
I took my usual seat, the comfortable one on the left side of his desk. I sat down, crossed my legs and rested my planner and notes on my lap. We usually had a loose agenda for my weekly one-on-one. Today I needed his approval on a client pitch and two ads Ethan and I had worked on. Both were for big accounts that brought in more than enough revenue to cover the salaries of his entire team. I’d fought hard to be assigned to them and even harder to get promoted to an account supervisor. I now had four accounts under my management and was on track for a promotion to a director role. Ethan and Wendy were on my team for all four of them. Two of those clients accounted for a quarter of the agency’s financials. No pressure.
“Your kid was sick last week,” he said. No good morning. Not even his usual, whatcha got for me. Just straight into an accusation on my kid’s health. “And you missed another meeting with the Kyle Team.”
I flinched. I hated missing that meeting because it had been an important one but it was unavoidable. “Yes, my youngest had croup.” I wasn’t sure he knew what that meant, or if his own kids had ever had it. Carly was my problem child. At six months old, she’d already been to the emergency room for breathing issues twice. We were regulars at our pediatrician and the after-hours children’s clinic. I often wondered if they offered a punch card. Every sixth visit is free! As a marketer, I thought it was genius. As a mother, our insurance and bank account desperately needed it.
“That’s the fifth day since January that you’ve missed because of a sick kid.” He came at me again with more accusations. An atomic bomb exploded in my stomach sending shrapnel through my veins. I did not like where this was going.
“Carly, my daughter, has a weak immune system,” I said. Born six weeks early, her health was a constant battle that she never stopped fighting. She was a tiny baby. Just last week she’d finally hit fifteen pounds. Her little lungs were prone to viruses and infections. Stephen and I alternated as much as we could. “I did work from home. I tried to call into the Kyle Pharmaceuticals meeting, but no one shared the code, and I worked with the buyers to secure the entire Q4 media plan for Burgers & Waffles.” I intentionally mentioned the two biggest clients. They also happened to be the ones who loved me the most. Both of their marketing teams refused to work with Peter. He knew it, too.
“Our work from home policy is meant to be an as-needed situation. Not whenever you feel like it.” Like when your kid is sick and can’t be at daycare, and you can’t leave a six-month-old home alone?
“I understand that. I work hard to ensure I do not abuse the flexibility. My husband and I take turns staying home when it is necessary.”
He grunted. “What does your husband do?” He said it with an odd mix of curiosity and disgust.
“He’s lead engineer at Kramer Judd.” I tried to say the name casually so as not to brag. Kramer Judd was the it technology firm in Nashville. They built apps, websites and software for anyone and everyone. Their largest projects were in the healthcare industry; an industry Peter was desperate to break into.
“Interesting,” he said. He rubbed his chin with his fingers and looked up at me. Our eyes met for the first time. “I’m surprised he babysits the kids when he should be working.”
“He is their father, he does not babysit his own children,” I replied before I could stop myself. “His job is flexible, but sometimes he has meetings he cannot get out of. So, we both bear the responsibility when our kids are sick. We’re both fortunate that the work we do can be done anywhere.”
He paused for a moment as if he were contemplating what I’d said. He himself worked from home on occasion. He’d even worked from the beach when he took his summer vacation last year. He worked so he didn’t have to use his vacation time, or so he said. My guess was that he worked so he didn’t have to deal with kids on the beach. We’d taken our son to the beach last summer. Never again. There is nothing relaxing about chasing a toddler on hot sand or in the ocean.
It was infuriating that he didn’t even see the contradiction in his words versus his own behavior.
“Can’t your mother-in-law help? Doesn’t she live here?”
His question stopped me for a moment. I wasn’t sure I’d mentioned her before or how he knew she lived here. What he didn’t know was that even if she could watch the kids when they were sick, I’d never let her. Betsy Harris didn’t approve of my working outside the home. If I dared to call her when the kids were sick, she’d just use that as another arrow in her bow.
“No,” I said without further explanation. I crossed my arms over my chest and leaned back into the chair.
“Bottom line is this; I need you to find a solution for your sick kids. I can’t have you missing deadlines or leaving meetings.”
“I have not missed a single deadline or meeting,” I said. I rarely pushed back or argued with him, unless I was defending a client request, but this conversation was pushing every one of my buttons. Tears threatened to expose my vulnerability, but I fought them back. I would not give him an ounce of emotion. “Sick kids or not, I always deliver on time. And I always exceed client expectations.”
I was quoting directly from my mid-year review. The very words he’d written. He’d delivered them hastily as if giving me a compliment put him in serious pain.
He sighed and said, “What I’m saying is you need to get your priorities in order.”
My priorities?! The audacity of what he was implying slapped me in the face. My family was my priority. Full stop. It was for Stephen too. I guaranteed his boss wasn’t having this conversation with him. When he left work to care for a sick child, he probably left with a chorus of applause chasing him. A standing ovation for Kramer Judd’s father of the year.
But when I, the one who pushed those children out of her vagina, leaves to take care of them, my priorities are out of whack.
I fought back another wave of tears. I was damned if I do, damned if I don’t. I found myself annoyed at my daughter for being sick. Angry at myself for not being able to carry her the full 40 weeks. I blamed her daycare for calling for even the low-grade fevers.
The guilt overwhelmed me. It hit when I was at work and not with my kids. Or when I was with my kids and not at work. Or when I was at work and angry because daycare called. I couldn’t be everywhere at every moment, but that’s what was being asked of me. Be a good mother. Make family a priority. Be a good employee. Make work a priority. Be there when your kids are sick, but don’t make others at work suffer because of you.
I sighed, nodded and stood. “Is that all?”
“No,” he said. “The meeting with Geoff is canceled. He’s in Atlanta this week.”
“Okay,” I said. After the five-minute assault on my sick child and value as an employee, I wasn’t exactly in the mood for an hour-long meeting about financials and project statuses.
“Do you have the Burgers & Waffles ads?”
“Yes.” I pulled the proofs from my folder and hand them over. “I also have the Kyle pitch. The team has reviewed it and it’s aligned with their RFP.” Kyle was already a client for creative services and traditional media, but they were looking for a new digital and social media agency. It was my idea to pitch for the business. Thanks to my relationship with Leah, their VP of marketing, we’d gotten a two-week heads up on the request for proposal. At this point, the pitch was a formality. Leah was on board and impressed with the work I’d shared with her.
“When are we pitching?”
“With your approval, I will send the proposal over today. Once they review, they will schedule our presentation at their offices.”
“Do you have a print out?” I always had a print out. Peter hated reading emails or PDFs. He needed to kill a minimum of ten thousand trees a year to do his job. I slid the fifty-page, spiral-bound presentation across his desk. “Has legal reviewed?”
“Legal, finance and the digital team have all reviewed and signed off. All I am waiting on is your approval.”
He nodded and picked up the book. “I’ll have it to you by the end of the day.”
“Before five?” I asked. Peter considered the day anything before midnight. But I had kids to pick up, dinner to make and a house to run; none of which were on his radar. I couldn’t wait by my phone for an answer. Instead of explaining that, I said, “Leah is on vacation starting tomorrow. If I can get it to her today, we are more likely to get a quick response.”
“I’ll have it to you before noon.” With that, he ushered me out of his office and asked that I close his door behind me. I did as he asked but slammed it. The sound echoed through the office.
I breezed past an inquisitive Wendy, grabbed my pump bag and rushed to the tiny broom closet designated as the Mother’s Room. The space had no ventilation, which meant it was a sauna in the summer and an icebox in the winter. But it had a chair, a mini-fridge and a lock. More often than not, I had to chase someone out. Usually that someone was in the middle of a phone interview. If I were a spiteful person, I’d turn them all into HR for using the Mother’s Room to find another job. The worst, though, was when the secretary ate her lunch there and threw the leftovers in the trash. I’d spend my afternoon pumping session holding my breath, so I didn’t retch from the smell of stale ketchup or old Chinese food.
With the door safely locked behind me, I turned off the lights and sat in the soft chair. I didn’t need to pump, but I needed the fifteen minutes of silence to recover. My entire body vibrated as the tears threatened to explode. I counted to ten and then started my mental math routine. Two plus two is four. Four plus four is eight. I repeated this until I couldn’t add the numbers and started over. The routine always centered me. It took several rounds to get my breathing back to normal. The anger didn’t subside as quickly.
Fuck you, Peter.