Flares

My paying gig as front-desk customer service at a community arts center means I get to talk to a lot of people. Some people are signing up for classes with Portland Parks, some are visiting our art gallery, some are looking for something else altogether. What I do every day is sorting out what people need and trying to help them find it. People seem to like to talk to me. This is true wherever I go; my mom said I just have that “face.” Hard to reconcile with being an introvert.

I spoke to a woman yesterday who came to the arts center for the first time after moving here from Alaska. She said she needed to get her hands in some clay, and asked about our ceramics classes–and about a job. From what I could tell, she was maybe 10 years older than me, with a crisp efficiency I recognized from my parenting days; reciting questions prepared in advance, mentally ticking off items on a list, on to the next thing.

“I need SOMETHING,” she said, rattling off the jobs she’d held in multiple locations around the country while raising her kids, one of whom had medical conditions. “We’re vagabonds. We had to go where the doctors were. It was my whole life. I did whatever work I could find wherever we were. Now the kids are grown, and I need something. Anything.”

I perked up. Kids are grown? One has medical needs? Working any job you could fit into your weirdo medical schedule just so you could have some money coming in? I have my own fractured resume from the last 20+ years, itinerant by accident of childbearing, by marital circumstance, by proximity to specialized medical care and an attempt at stability.

I mentioned my similar circumstance, gestured at my workplace, an admittedly odd choice of job for someone my age.

Like that moment when you meet someone wearing a vintage jersey of your favorite sports team, or another graduate of your high school thousands of miles away, or a fellow former Catholic school student, we recognized our bitter kinship in this exclusive club; parents of grown children with medical needs.

We talked about our very specific skill set, one that you can’t put on a resume, but informs everything we do. To her way of thinking (and I agree), it made us capable of doing *anything*, but the attendant complexity of pursing medical care for our children meant our schedules were uneven, unpredictable, commitment-phobic. “Can you work 40 hours a week?” Sometimes, but not always. It depends on my child’s medical needs. “Can you work late nights and weekends?” No, and I have to leave work early to pick up my child from school. “Can you travel for work?” No, and I have to work ten minutes or less from my child’s school, in case there’s an emergency.

She worked multiple jobs in multiple fields. Office, accounting, emergency management (how ironic), substitute teaching, moving across the country several times for medical care and having to start the whole networking process over again. That’s a pitfall of moving to a new city; proving your worth all over again to a new audience. She did it in multiple cities; I managed by working freelance gigs and signing up with temp agencies, which reduced employers’ inherent suspicion, but also limited my career expectations. Some companies treat temps like staplers; sometimes you need more of them, so you get more, but when you don’t need staplers anymore, you just get rid of them. No big deal. Doesn’t matter how well they did the job. I lowered my expectations to stapler-level.

So there she was, another woman with a brain and strong problem-solving skills and no coherent resume to speak of looking for a job (any job!) like the one I have, like the one I got by walking into a community music center and saying “I like this place. I’d like to work here.” Only now, increased bureaucracy has closed the path I took to this cherry position to people like her, people like me, who want something–ANYTHING–to do to occupy these brains that are accustomed to managing multiple task lists and life-changing stress and carrying children into adulthood through shark-infested waters.

But what do you do when you’re done doing that job? What happens to the resume you’ve built around working with medical professionals and school principals? What about the hours spent pacing in waiting rooms and sitting next to hospital beds waiting for your child to wake up from surgery? What about the transformation from Emotional Mom to Detached Educational Advocate representing your child in hours-long IEP meetings? The hours of research into education law and IDEA and 504 plans? The hours searching for a DIY solution to your child’s discomfort or positioning need? The time figuring out how to meet the needs of the non-medically involved siblings? Tracking down the right specialist who can meet with you some day *after* school hours, because your kid has missed enough school as it is?

And the emotional management; kids who miss a lot of school end up not having very many–or very loyal–friends. Helping the siblings maintain some kind of normalcy in families like ours is a particular challenge. There’s a lot of pretending that everything’s fine. There’s a lot of breaking down behind closed doors.

You can add psychologist, social worker and event planner to this resume that no one will ever see.

These are the skills no employer ever recognizes. If it’s not verifiable by a former boss or manager, it doesn’t exist. It’s simply lumped in with “parenting”, as if THAT is a wholly dismiss-able category.

I could see this woman’s brain needed something to do. I saw myself in her. At this age, employers want you to have *something* to show for yourself, some work-related success you can point to to prove your worth.

I wanted to talk to this woman for hours. I wanted to go to lunch with her, to listen to her stories of hospitals and isolation, and tell her my own stories. I wanted to talk to someone who would know–without offering pity or canonization–the places I’ve been and the things I’ve seen. I wanted to be able to talk about how weird it is to suddenly not have that job anymore–to have those responsibilities just vanish, as if they never existed, leaving me grasping for something–anything–for my active brain to hang on to.

I wanted to witness her invisible resume, to verify that what she did was fucking hard, to acknowledge that what she learned, what she became from her parenting experience is singularly durable, endlessly adaptable, and superior to the career path she might have taken. I wanted to hear those things myself. But she was gone and I had to answer an incoming call before we could exchange numbers.

There is no resolution to this discomfort. My current workplace maintains a firm hierarchy that leaves me stationed exactly where I am. I’ve been warned blithely not to try to find fulfillment at this job (at an art center where nearly everyone is seeking ways to be fulfilled); I’ve also been asked why I don’t find my dead-end reception job fulfilling.

Using endless job applications, I keep trying to launch myself into another workplace. I maintain some brain use with freelance gigs writing and copy editing, still too irregular to function as a method of advancement. I have long-term goals of attending law school, and so I study for the LSAT and dream of one day using my whole brain, or at least my whole skill set.

When I write, I shoot my flare into the sky. Yesterday, talking to that woman, I saw another person’s flare. I know I’m not alone out there. For a few minutes, we were each fully visible, not just middle-aged women with spotty work histories, but intelligent, clever, powerful people who can intellectually MacGyver any situation for maximum survival.

I hope she comes back someday so I can tell her: I see her.

flare

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