In the fall of 1992 I moved with my husband and our two-year-old daughter from Memphis, Tennessee, to a small cabin in the far north of Wisconsin. Our marriage was failing, my husband didn’t like working, and I had recently had an affair.
I applied for waitressing jobs in a nearby town, hoping to work at a restaurant on the lake near our home, but they had no positions available until the tourists returned in summer. The owner said he had another business, though: a strip club called Weasels. He needed a waitress there. I had a family to support. I was also in my mid-twenties and secretly found the idea exciting.
The busiest time at Weasels was the deer-hunting season. Unshowered men, often in bloodstained camouflage, drank beer, yelled, fought, tipped poorly, and groped and pinched me. These were rifle hunters. Bow hunters were quieter and more diversified in their drink choices. Duck hunters wore sweaters and button-down shirts and drank expensive wine and cognac. They paid little attention to me and tipped better. In February the snowmobilers poured in from Canada and Chicago for a competition in the nearby town. They were arrogant and presumptuous and looked like spacemen in their suits, but their generous tips carried me through the following spring.
I finished each shift between three and four in the morning and drove a half hour home through the dense woods, often skidding on icy roads. Once home, I would pause to look across the frozen lake, perhaps taking in a shower of meteors against the black sky, or the northern lights, or a scruffy black wolf watching me near the shore.
One week a Penthouse centerfold model performed at Weasels. A photographer flew in to do a photo shoot, and the model told me I was pretty enough to be in Penthouse. Her photographer agreed and offered to include me in a shoot. When it was over, I didn’t sign the release to have the photos published, but I still pull them out occasionally to see my young body lying on a pile of red velvet.
I lasted six months at Weasels, longer than my marriage lasted after the move. Then I moved back to the city to finish my degree in elementary education. I think of that period as one of darkness but also beauty. Some things can only be seen by braving the cold and the dark.
My dad and I often worked together in silence on small jobs and big projects: painting houses; pulling weeds around his barbershop and his commercial rental property; tarring over the cracks in the roof of my mom’s flower shop; scrubbing grime from brick walls with a mixture of water and vinegar.
Both smokers, we never took cigarette breaks when we worked — we just kept puffing away. And when we weren’t smoking, we worked our tongues. He chewed his; I probed the inside of my mouth with mine. I still catch myself doing it when I’m raking or washing dishes. I’ve been free of tobacco for more than twenty years now; my dad quit three months before he died.
Sometimes we fought when we worked. The Irish temper I inherited from my mom would clash with his more simmering anger.
One day, near the end of his life, my dad asked me to meet him at the barbershop to pull weeds. I told him I would be by a bit later: I needed to drop my daughter off at her mom’s first. He said OK and started without me. When I arrived, he was so pissed that he was in tears and yelled at me before I could even get out of my car. He said he was having trouble breathing, and my lateness might’ve been the end of him. I bellowed that he was full of shit and reminded him that he knew I’d be late. It was his own fault for starting without me.
We ripped weeds out of cracks with silent fury for the next hour.
Five years after he died, I was painting the upstairs apartment of a duplex I’d recently purchased. Up on the ladder alone, painting that tricky corner between the ceiling and the wall, I caught myself pressing the tip of my tongue hard against the inside of my cheek. For an instant I felt my dad’s presence, chewing away in his own fashion. I started crying so hard I had to climb down off the ladder. I sat on the floor, out of breath, my face wet.
It was the first time I’d mourned him.
La Crosse, Wisconsin
Because I was born into a family with money, I don’t have to work for a living. I have enormous privilege, and I am ashamed of it. I try to avoid parties or events where I don’t know everyone, because I don’t know what to say when people ask what I do. Should I tell them about the philanthropic organization I manage or the nonprofit boards I serve on? Or that I taught in a prison and volunteer at my kids’ school? When pressed, I say I’m a writer, but what I make as a writer is barely enough to pay for my cat’s food. Because I don’t need the money, I often work for free, and sometimes I’m treated with less respect as a result.
I worry that one day my karma is going to catch up with me, and I will end up an old woman pushing a shopping cart filled with dirty belongings. I’m afraid I’ll get a brain tumor, or that the people I love will be snatched away.
I inherited money, but I also inherited a constant, low-humming anxiety that never stops. Part of me is always waiting for the moment I will have to pay up. But reading about the lives of others deepens my empathy. I hope my writing can have the same effect.
In the late 1960s, with only a high-school diploma and little job experience, I landed a position as a manager at a corporate headhunting company. Our offices were in a large suite that occupied half a floor of the building.
Chuck, one of the recruiters, seemed to hang out wherever I was. He was often standing at my office door, offering advice and telling jokes but mostly flirting. I was twenty-one, and he was a hunky guy in his thirties with a square jaw and chiseled features. He never seemed to hear me when I said I was newly married and not interested. I suspected that my boss, Phil, had told Chuck my husband was on active duty with the U.S. Navy.
“Who’s taking care of you while your husband is gone?” he would ask.
“I’m taking care of me,” I’d say.
Finally one day he said, “You’ve gotta be lonely. Let me take you out. Your hubby doesn’t have to know. I would take real good care of you.” He grinned.
I emphatically told him that I wasn’t interested.
One Friday afternoon the guys went to lunch and said they wouldn’t be back until Monday. Chuck stayed behind and surprised me by appearing in my doorway. I ignored him, not looking up from my work.
He walked over to me, unzipped his pants, and laid his penis on my desk next to my left hand.
“Bet you’re missing this,” he said, gripping my arm.
I pulled away, grabbed my purse, and ran out of the office, shaking.
At home I called Margie, the older woman who had previously held my position. During my training she had given me her phone number and said I could call her anytime. She wasn’t surprised by what had happened. When I told her I wouldn’t go back to work unless Phil fired Chuck, she laughed.
“Honey, that ain’t gonna happen,” she said. “Chuck and all the other schoolboys in that place bring in more money in a single week than you do in a year.”
Margie was right. Phil told me he would never fire Chuck. He didn’t care.
My mother often told me, “Men are like trains: if you miss one, another will come along soon.” The same is true of jobs.
Kerry Lee Daniel
Asheville, North Carolina
Because of the work my grandfather did, I am alive today.
He was a structural engineer in eastern Poland, and after the country was invaded by both the Germans and the Russians during World War II, he and his family were shoved onto filthy trains headed to a labor camp in Siberia instead of Auschwitz. The camp commandant put my grandfather to work fixing bridges and other structures. Sometimes this meant my grandfather would receive an extra loaf of bread to feed his starving family.
My grandmother, a tiny woman who had been a college professor, was forced to move tons of bricks every day. She used to tell me that she wrote a letter to Stalin and threw it on a train going to Moscow. In it, she begged him to save her family’s life, saying that her husband could build and repair anything. My mother and my aunt deny this, but I like to believe it worked, because the camp commandant eventually issued my grandfather and his family permanent exit visas and offered him a job in Uzbekistan building shelters for refugees and a courtyard for Communist Party officials.
Later my grandfather befriended a man who told him the British needed an engineer in Tanganyika, a British territory in Africa (now part of Tanzania). My grandfather jumped at the chance and was given an exit permit for him, his wife, and his children. So it was that he became the only fix-it person — and one of a handful of Jews — in a Polish refugee camp in Africa. He repaired bridges and built thatched huts.
Months later the BBC reported the extermination of millions of Jews in the Holocaust. My grandmother had such survivor’s guilt, she almost starved herself to death. At Passover throughout my childhood and young adulthood in the San Francisco Bay Area, she would stop the seder and remind us that we had survived these atrocities. She wouldn’t resume until we had all nodded our heads.
After I graduated from college, I applied for a job in a factory. The manager asked what I knew about working in a factory. I knew nothing, other than what I’d read in a novel about a steel factory. Nevertheless I got the job.
On my first day, a coworker showed me how to use a molding machine. I soon got the hang of it, and every day I was at that machine for eight hours with a thirty-minute lunch break. After ten days I was moved to another machine to learn that one, too.
I asked some of the other workers how long they had been at the factory. The answer, on average, was about ten years — doing the same repetitive chore every day, with the windows closed in winter and open in summer. An unchanging, soul-crushing routine for nearly six thousand employees. I could barely take it for ten days.
I drive around the county picking up dead animals. Most have been hit by cars. My truck has a camper shell so people won’t see all the carcasses in back. I recover raccoons, squirrels, skunks, birds, deer, coyotes, possums, foxes, goats, dogs, and cats. You’d have to be a little crazy in this job not to think about mortality. It makes me appreciate being alive. I have three daughters and wish they could see through my eyes for a while: maybe they’d be more careful. I also wish people would keep their cats indoors.
Every so often I get a call to pick up a dead dog at a residence. Before I enter the home, I take a breath to prepare myself. Some people feel deep loss; some are ashamed that their dog is old and stinky; some worry about other family members. A lot of people don’t know how to engage with death.
I greet the family and ask where we can sit to fill out the required paperwork. I need to know what the dog’s name is, what breed, what color. By the time we’re done, I’ve told them about my German shepherd, Frank, who died five years ago: how I held him as he died; how I still can’t bear to have another dog. Usually they tell me a sweet story about their dog, and we’ll sit swapping dog stories. It can be a healing experience.
When it’s time for me to take the dog, I ask permission. The animal is almost always covered with a blanket. I turn back the blanket and, if the dog’s expression is calm, look the people in the eye and tell them their dog went easy, that there are worse ways to go. Then I pet the dog and tell them their animal is beautiful. To me this is a crucial part of the process.
Before I take the dog away, I ask if they’d like to have a final private moment. Then I put the remains in a large black plastic bag and carry them to the truck with dignity and respect. I never stack them: they each have their own place.
As a corporate lawyer I earned a salary that far exceeded my desires. I wore my firm’s prestige like an ermine-fur coat and scattered business cards like confetti. But something was missing. My life had no purpose. I felt gilded and hollow.
After three years at the firm, I started spending Sundays at home instead of at the office. My decreased hours hurt my year-end performance review. “You used to be the golden girl,” one of the partners said. “Step up this year, and you might still make partner.”
I thanked him and said I’d decided to quit. Then I went home and called my parents. My mother answered.
“I quit my job, Mom,” I said.
She gasped and made me talk to my father, who’d always been proud of my achievements. “Honey,” he said gently, “your mother tells me you are leaving the law firm.”
“Yes, Daddy.” I was crying by now.
“Well, that’s good, honey,” he said. “That’s very good.”
The next morning I felt reborn. Some partners at the firm took me to lunch and made phone calls on my behalf. Others commended me for slipping out of the golden handcuffs. On the day I accepted a new job — a position and mission I still cherish thirty years later — I met my future husband, an ordained minister whom I also still cherish. Gold coins no longer tumble from the skies, but I am wealthy in other ways.
Carol Ann Siciliano
Falls Church, Virginia
Early fall was harvest time on our farm. My dad grew sweet corn and taught my brother and me how to tell when the husk was perfect for picking. I was nine and my brother was eleven when we started picking corn with our dad. In less than thirty minutes our burlap bags would be overflowing, and Dad would toss them into the back of his truck. Most of the crop went to the local market, but my brother and I were allowed to sell a small portion and keep the money. Our dad would divide the leftover corn equally between us and tell us to charge thirty-five cents for a dozen ears.
I would set up a chair and a table in front of our house, but my brother was allowed to move to the top of the hill. He always sold out long before I did. I thought he had a better sales pitch or a busier location.
One afternoon a woman in a big Chevy Impala pulled up in front of my stand. “It seems you have some competition at the top of the hill,” she said, holding up a paper bag filled with corn. “That young boy only charged me thirty cents for fourteen ears. You may want to rethink your price.”
I ran to tell my mom, whose eyes blazed as she removed her apron and headed up the hill to where my brother sat. I’m not sure what happened up there, but that evening he gave me two dollars from his cash box. He never admitted to wrongdoing. When he grew up, he became the vice-president of a well-known company.
Canaan Valley, Connecticut
In 1969 I talked my way into a job as a beat reporter at a suburban New Jersey daily newspaper. It was wonderful work, but I was a terrible writer. What I lacked in talent I tried to make up for in diligence and enthusiasm. It wasn’t enough. Five years later I quit, too embarrassed by my own ineptitude to carry on. My managing editor strongly supported my decision.
I took a job as an operating-room orderly, the lowest rung on the hospital hierarchy. I was fascinated by medical science, comfortable with the chaos and gore, and enamored of the nurses, both personally and professionally. Three years later I got my diploma as a registered nurse, and I worked for decades in emergency rooms. An adrenaline junkie, I found the job invigorating, and it allowed me to both help others and pay the rent. I showed up early for every shift, much to the annoyance of my wife, who is the best nurse I’ve ever met but also knows how to draw a line between life and work.
Emergency rooms are infamous for periods of boredom punctuated by stretches of chaos. Over the decades my body and soul started to wear out as I watched my colleagues take cushy clinic positions or retire. Finally a younger colleague told me I was getting too slow and suggested I try hospice work.
When I applied for the job, the interviewer asked if I was comfortable with the dying and death. I thought my experience had adequately prepared me, but hospice is not the same as an emergency room. The process of dying under hospice care can be excruciatingly long. You develop relationships with patients and families while teaching them about drugs, tubes, and catheters. There’s denial to be gently countered and grief to be met with compassion and empathy. I do my best to ensure each person has a peaceful and comfortable death. Although I rarely end a shift thinking, “Well, that was satisfying,” after thirteen years in hospice and palliative-care nursing, I believe I have found my calling.
My daughter has delivered all four of her children at home, unassisted. She says, “Dad, you and I are on opposite ends of the same business: I deliver them into this life; you deliver them into the next.”
Pleasant Valley, New York
After getting an honorable discharge from the Marines and a bachelor’s degree in history, I faced the grim job market of the early nineties. I took a number of low-wage, often menial jobs that barely covered rent and necessities: I worked on a masonry crew and as an inventory clerk. I washed dishes in restaurants and a nursing home. I loaded trucks at UPS. I manned a hot-dog cart in front of an unemployment office. I stacked bags of potting soil at a wholesale nursery. I was a substitute teacher, a residential counselor at group homes, and an event security guard. I sold newspaper subscriptions door-to-door and worked as a ride attendant at an amusement park. I was a glass sculptor’s assistant, an assembly-line worker, a reference librarian’s assistant, and an iron molder at a foundry. My shortest job, as a doorman at a topless theater, lasted a couple of days. The longest, working for a press-clipping bureau, I kept for almost a year.
I eventually managed to complete a master’s program, and for the past sixteen years I’ve worked for an agency that provides housing to low-income residents. It’s stressful work, and I often think I would have been better suited to a career more focused on ideas. But when I reflect on my own struggles to get by, I find the empathy for my clients that keeps me going.
Mt. Vernon, Washington
During World War II my father flew cargo planes full of wounded soldiers across the Pacific to the safety of military hospitals. When he returned home, he had a new job: being my father. To support our family, he considered becoming a commercial airline pilot, a relatively new job at the time, but my mother worried that his plane would crash and she’d lose the husband who had only just come back. My father abandoned the idea.
He returned to duty in the Korean War. After it was over, he was asked to join a big band comprised of musicians he had played with during both wars. He was a talented pianist and arranger, and the job paid big money, but he didn’t think a music career was secure enough for a man with a young son.
Instead he took a job in a cork factory for forty dollars a week and worked his way up to management. When the plant closed suddenly, he found another reasonably good job that he kept until retirement, but music remained his passion. Most weekends he and a few friends would get together to play gigs for social-club events. He also served as a rehearsal pianist for a singer who had a couple of big hits in the late fifties, but he was never paid what his talent was worth.
The only times I remember him content were when he played piano. His shoulders would relax, he would smile gently, and his huge hands would find perfect chord voicings and descending chromatic lines.
He ended his working days in an assisted-living home. Every day at lunch he would play for residents in the dining hall and take requests. He died peacefully at eighty-three.
I was eleven when I was offered my first job, as a shoe-shine boy at Link’s Barbershop. Frank Link gave haircuts to all six boys in my family, and every day I would wave to him as I walked past his shop on the way home from school. One afternoon Frank stepped outside, a black comb in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other, and asked if I wanted to shine shoes in his shop for fifty cents per customer. Half a dollar was two weeks’ allowance, so I agreed immediately. He said I could start after school the following Monday.
Over the weekend my father bought me a shoe-shine kit and showed me how to apply polish, use a brush, and buff the leather to a high sheen, the way he’d learned in the Army.
But on Monday Frank wore a frown. “Listen, kiddo, it’s not going to work out,” he said. “Somebody told me you need to be at least fourteen for a work permit.”
I nodded, locking my lips so I wouldn’t cry. For a long time I took the alleys home from school to avoid walking past the barbershop. But the idea of a job as a privilege had been indelibly burned into my brain.
At sixteen I finally got my first job: fabricating bundles of iron and steel into bushings, nuts, and bolts. Other jobs followed in retail and landscaping, until I began my career as a high-school English teacher in 1972.
My friends were skeptical, saying a man couldn’t support a family on a teacher’s salary. But the Chicago Teacher’s Union had recently bargained for its first contract, with the promise of better pay in the future. I had faith. And I loved teaching.
My annual salary was just over nine thousand dollars, which did not go far with a wife, a baby, and a mortgage. We could go out to eat only once a year, and on our summer vacation I would plot a circuitous driving route to avoid paying tolls. While our friends bought Pampers, we rewashed cloth diapers. While they shopped for the best clothes, toys, and furniture, we picked over garage sales for cribs, snowsuits, and pajamas. But I never considered us poor or even struggling. I thought of us as climbing the ladder toward the American Dream. If we worked hard, the union would fight to help us make a comfortable living.
That dream came true. We paid our debts, helped our kids get college degrees, and built a vacation cabin in Wisconsin. But I worry about the next generation of teachers. Unions today don’t have the same power and influence, and hard work alone does not translate into higher pay or benefits. The plight of American workers is far worse now than when I started out fifty years ago.
Port Charlotte, Florida
In 1990 I started work as an apprentice on a vegetable farm in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. I loved food and the outdoors, so farming made sense to me, but I was inexperienced, not very strong, and a bit overwhelmed by the challenges of moving irrigation pipes, driving a tractor, and bringing in the harvest. Still, I loved the job: the outline of the neighboring butte against the sky; the feel of cold river water on a hot day; the call of the osprey from its nest; the fresh broccoli from the field.
I was also growing fond of my boss. It turned out he felt the same way about me. After we rescued an irrigation pump from a rapidly rising river on a stormy day, we decided to try to make a life together on the farm. We weren’t officially married until later, but we’ve always considered that rainy day our anniversary.
Over the past thirty years we’ve found new ways of working together through extreme heat and frosts, market competition, falling food prices, rising expenses, labor shortages, pest outbreaks, legal challenges, equipment breakdowns, and entropy. There have been personal challenges, too. His mother has suffered from dementia, my father died from a burst aneurysm, and we’ve both had health problems of our own.
My husband now has liver disease, and our focus has shifted away from the farm and toward his care. I bring him food, but he cannot enjoy it. I rub his sore, stiff muscles, but his energy won’t come back. On the rare day that he can step outside and walk a bit with me, I slow my pace to match his, hardly believing he’s the same person with whom I have walked so many miles.
Our work now requires the same patience, persistence, compassion, and faith I learned on the farm, but it is harder to see the results. A field cleared of weeds or a market display full of vibrant produce was much more satisfying. The feeling of renewal at the start of each new growing season was so powerful. I’m having trouble finding that feeling in my new job.
The boys say they need pencils. Then they tap, chew, sharpen, and break them. They go to the bathroom, the library, the water fountain, the nurse, and occasionally the principal. They blow their noses loudly and have outrageous reactions when others do the same. They balance precariously on their chairs, make noises that don’t sound human, and toss anything they can find into the trash. They bounce balls against the wall, launch spitballs, roll mini skateboards across their desks, and suck on their hoodie strings or their fingers. They pick their scabs, fart, drip sweat, smell like rancid sneakers, and once in a while chip a tooth.
The girls do many of the same things and also weep silently, ask to call home, braid or brush or straighten their hair, do their makeup, tattoo themselves with permanent marker, ask for gum, whisper death threats to each other, require balm and lotion for chapped lips and dry hands, steal my Sharpies, and raid my emergency backpack for pads, since they constantly have their period.
I give warnings. I move their names down the behavior chart. I try to give them consequences. When I call their parents, the phone numbers are wrong, disconnected, or have restrictions on when they can receive calls. When I’m able to get through, it’s mainly grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, or uncles who answer. They are raising many children and are tired.
These children live in chaos, so that’s what they create in my classroom. But it’s my job to help them.
Whittier, North Carolina
Throughout my career in occupational health and safety, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people about their working conditions. I’m often surprised by how different my perception of their job is from their reality.
I once interviewed blasters who shot steel pellets at high velocity to remove old paint from a bridge. When I entered their tarped-off containment area, even with hearing protection, the noise was as loud as a jet engine. The foreman didn’t always let them take the legally mandated showers at the end of the day to wash off the lead dust. It seemed like a terrible job, but the blasters told me they enjoyed their independence. Nobody bothered them all day. They could control the temperature of their suits, a feature they appreciated during the summer. And at the end of their workday they could see what they had accomplished — a reward many working people don’t have.
When I asked the custodial staff at my university what the worst aspect of their jobs was, I expected to hear about working alone at night, the tediousness of the tasks, or the low pay. Instead they said it was that they were treated as if they were invisible. No one looked them in the eye or said, “Hello,” or, “Thank you.”
A couple has been cleaning my house for twenty-five years. I knew the man didn’t love his work, but they seemed reasonably happy. The woman recently left her husband, and yesterday she told me that sometimes, two or three times a day, he would rage at her until she agreed to have sex in the places where they worked: People’s houses. My house.
You know absolutely nothing about people’s work lives until you ask.
My parents arrived in a small town in Upstate New York in 1952, having survived Nazi Germany and spent six years in Bolivia selling ice cream to women who visited their husbands in the local jail.
My mother was a polyglot, but my father never mastered English. He spent his life in America working in a leather factory, placing pocketbooks into shipping boxes. Initially he was a machinist, but he lost three of his fingers on a cutting machine. The workman’s comp from the accident provided my parents with a down payment for a small house. Later I wondered if he cut his fingers off on purpose. He worked six days a week, twelve hours a day, for twenty-five years. He walked to work and ate the same lunch every day: three salami sandwiches on rye bread with mustard, a pickle, and a large thermos of instant coffee with condensed milk. He worked this soulless job to support my mother’s dream of continuing her education. At the age of fifty-two she graduated from college and became a special-education teacher.
She always told me I needed to go to college and get a job that would allow me to work in any country, in case the Nazis returned. I wanted to go to art school, but my mother cried in protest, so I became a dentist and eventually ended up owning my own practice. The work was all-consuming. When my husband became disabled, I was left to be the sole breadwinner for us and our two children. Like my father, I walked to work and brought my lunch every day.
I wanted my children to follow their passions and not end up in a job they hated. I didn’t want them to stress about school, like I did. I wanted them to be happy.
My children came of age in Seattle as Microsoft and Amazon were driving the economy. Neither has any interest in computers or finance. After a brief stint in an avant-garde art gallery that went out of business, my daughter ended up making zines and comics and helping at a school. My son drives ambulances and makes magnets shaped like mushrooms that he sells at farmers’ markets. They both live on minimum wage. I can’t tell if they are happy.
I lie awake at night and worry they did not choose professions that can protect them.
The phone rang on a cold, gray Saturday afternoon at my home in rural Wisconsin. The small community hospital where I worked as an operating-room nurse needed me to come in. A fourteen-year-old boy had been shot in a hunting accident and needed surgery. I could hear the urgency in the caller’s voice, so I headed to the hospital as fast as I could.
None of the OR crew thought the boy would survive, though we did all we could to save him. Thirty units of blood miraculously appeared, sent from blood banks throughout northern Wisconsin. Nurses from other departments offered their services. When we ran out of surgical sponges, the sheriff’s department brought more from a neighboring hospital.
Our surgeon had worked on the battlefields of Vietnam and had seen many young men on the brink of death. He methodically repaired the life-threatening injuries, and every hour or so he would update the boy’s father, then return burdened with the weight of our task.
The anesthesiologist kept the patient alive with multiple transfusions. Sometimes the two of us stood on either side, squeezing the blood bags manually. We worked with tears streaming down into our masks.
The boy survived the surgery and was transported by helicopter to a hospital in Madison, where he endured many reconstructive procedures. His mother gave us regular reports on his progress, and we celebrated every victory.
A year later the boy’s mother asked us to gather every person who had helped save her son: EMTs, nurses, doctors, and technicians. We assembled in the surgical waiting room, and when she and her son arrived, she turned to him and said, “I just wanted you to meet the people who saved your life.” We all sobbed with joy.
A nurse’s job can be stressful and thankless: long hours, paperwork, and heavy patient loads. When my work feels more like hell than healing, I think of that day in November.
In October 2016 my wife and I became the foster parents of a five-year-old and a three-year-old. It was nearing the end of our farm season, and we quickly realized that having two traumatized children in our home meant there was no way we could continue working.
After three weeks we dropped the three-year-old off at a day care for the first time. I went home and collapsed on the couch. My wife and I lived in a state of shock and exhaustion as we learned basic parenting skills — how to childproof a house, how much food is appropriate for little bellies — and how to stay up all night with children who associate bedtime with neglect or worse.
But we slowly found the rhythm of parenting. We taught the kids nursery rhymes and children’s songs, read to them, and helped them realize that they would get three meals every day. We convinced them that our house is a safe place, that their feelings are OK, and that even when we’re angry or upset, we will not hurt them.
More than three years later we are all still learning from each other. It will be another year or two until we can adopt them. The work is not over, but we’re doing it together.
My husband’s parents are from a generation that believed in traditional gender roles: women stayed home while men worked. I supported myself on my own for a decade and am fiercely independent. My in-laws are avid Fox News watchers. I’m a lifelong liberal.
When their son married me, I’m sure plenty of my views horrified them. They often seemed just as uncomfortable with me as I was with them. I know I was judgmental. For years I avoided them, even though my husband visited often. When I saw their number on caller ID, I’d let the answering machine pick up. I saw them mostly at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and ten years into our marriage I was considering taking those holidays off the table.
Then, in 2008, my husband and I were facing emergency home repairs — a new roof, a new chimney, a crumbling wall — when my freelance work dried up. We maxed out all our credit cards, and our bills soon exceeded our income by about two hundred dollars a week.
My husband’s parents gave us two hundred a week, no questions asked, until we could stand on our own again. And every time my husband came back from visiting them, he brought along bags of groceries they’d bought for us. “You’ll get work again,” they told me encouragingly. And they never suggested that we owed them anything. They were truly generous during a difficult time.
It was several years before my work gradually picked up. We eventually paid off and canceled those credit cards. My in-laws and I have a warm relationship now. I welcome opportunities to reciprocate their kindness, reminding them of their help and how grateful I was and always will be for it.