My mother, like most mothers, believes the absolute worst of humanity when it comes to their intentions regarding her daughter. For this reason, I’ve always assumed that she isn’t worth discussing. She’s a mom—that’s what they do. They rant and rage and produce the most misanthropic monologues I’ve heard this side of Dostoevsky. Their daughters roll their eyes and redirect their attentions back towards Final Fantasy IV, its pretty-boy pietists and sweeping 16-bit orchestral numbers their only frame of reference for a positive worldview. There was nothing interesting about this experience, nothing worth repeating. There might be love between us, but no stories.
It wasn’t until I started working at a non-profit populated primarily by women best described as “motherly” that I realized the average American mother doesn’t condemn goodness in her daughter. Like a cartoon supervillain, my mother was stricken by my sympathy and softness and ability to be suckered. “You’re good,” she once told me, in a tone that hovered between disappointment and despair. “You need to be bad.”
I repeat my mother’s advice to friends and employers and passers-by because it’s funny and frightening and frequently true: don’t trust your friends, because they’ll betray you. And don’t sympathize with people, because they’ll use this against you. And don’t worry about means; focus solely upon ends, because only you can be trusted to fill your pocket. Most of her advice was about pockets, and the importance of thinking of them. She’d had chronic lice as a child, and believed that a full pocket was capable of achieving anything.
These are the sorts of things she would say while dragging me, sulking and sniffling, to another day of the fifth grade. Our conversations, such as they were, lasted no longer than twenty minutes and invariably revolved around the inherent shiftiness of humanity. If I mentioned that a friend of mine was having a birthday, she would respond by asking if that friend had given me anything for my birthday. If she hadn’t, then buying a present for her was out of the question. My mother knew a scam when she saw one, and was disappointed that her daughter could be swindled so easily. I might register a token objection, but I could see where she was coming from. I was a condescending little shit of a fifth grader, and figured that having chronic lice as a kid left her unable to trust anyone.
If you read the woman’s Facebook page today, you might think I’m lying. The majority of her posts consist of selfies and aphorisms set against a backdrop of cats. Sometimes, she’ll ask me to come up with a caption for a shot of my father’s flowers, or a building she thought was pretty as filtered through her passenger’s-side window. And if I suggest something uttered by the woman in the Escort in 1999—something about how love is crap, or charity is a scam—she’ll turn her back on me with a tsk of disgust. “Dios mio, the crap you make up. I don’t know where you get all this from.”
This is the First Shift Mom. She’s a twenty-first century woman, and needs nothing more than her tablet and her Instagram account to be happy. She’s not a bad sort: She can hold a conversation, and never sends me back to my apartment empty-handed. She’s capable of curiosity, empathy, and taking an interest in something. But she isn’t the mother of my childhood. That honor belongs to the Third Shift Mom: the misanthrope who I saw for twenty minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night, the woman who didn’t have time for light touches, who could only advise her daughter by deeming large swaths of existence to be crap.
My mother worked the third shift because my father had a high school diploma and she didn’t, and he could land a job that conceded the importance of sunlight while she was stuck with whatever her employers deemed fitting. Dad started with U-Haul as a mechanic, but had already worked his way up to management by the time I was cognizant of such a thing as employment. His job involved a desk, a computer, and a white shirt collar, and relatives and other spectators couldn’t believe that there was any need for my mother to work. “But she doesn’t have to, right?” cousins and half-siblings would ask me at family gatherings, once my parents were out of earshot. “That’s just her weird thing.”
“Weird thing,” because her dedication to work couldn’t be ascribed to pleasure or passion or any sense of purpose. She worked at a hospital laundry, which (according to NPR, at least) is one of the dirtiest and least fulfilling jobs in the United States. One of her co-workers once found a stillborn baby in a pile of scrubs and sheets she was supposed to be washing. My mother works on the other side of the laundry, the clean side of the laundry, where the clothes are dried and folded and sent back to the hospitals. She assures me that she’s never seen any corpses or pieces thereof: “Don’t be ridiculous.”
But even if she had seen a dead body, she would’ve said the same thing. Both First Shift Mom and Third Shift Mom hate the job, but their hatred is domesticated and declawed: It’s just a fact, as natural and unremarkable as erosion, and nothing to get hot-blooded about.
From what I could gather, life at the clean end of the laundry consisted largely of scheming, subterfuge, and folding. Hours upon hours upon hours of folding, and the only intellectual stimulation those hours had to offer was plotting some way to get yourself behind a shittier dryer. The slower the machine, the slower the workload, and the less likely you were to herniate a disc or singe a knuckle. Allegedly, the job was easiest for the heartless. It wasn’t uncommon for my mother to stare wistfully into the horizon and ruminate upon how much better her life would’ve been, if she were only a worse person. It’s possible that she might’ve felt guilty for regularly condemning her co-workers to eight hours of misery—but, knowing her, it’s more likely that what she regretted was not pulling the trigger, and resigning herself to misery. Mom didn’t have much sympathy for the conflicted. She thought ambivalence betrayed an embarrassing lack of survival skills.
But she kept the job because having chronic lice as a child taught her the difference between surviving and thriving. After making child support payments for the half-siblings, and paying down the mortgage and the credit cards and the utilities, we might’ve been able to eke a living on my father’s salary—but my mother was done with eking. She’d spent her youth as the middle child of a single father who could not afford to keep her simultaneously clean, fed, and educated, and being a charity case was nothing she was interested in repeating. She’d had her fill of frayed hand-me-downs and single-packs of Kotex. I never knew much about her childhood, because the woman guarded those secrets more carefully than the slowest dryer in the clean end of the laundry; but she believed firmly in the worthlessness of charity, and swore that anyone who helped you would either expect something in return, or hate you for it in the end.
I knew that her father couldn’t afford plumbing: the family had to rely upon an outhouse and a nearby river for their sanitation needs. But I don’t think this explains anything. After all, Mom didn’t regard it as a tragedy. To this day, she still maintains that balancing all those pots of water upon her head gave her a wicked sense of balance.
But she did think that it was better to have money than a mother who was consistently in her daughters’ lives. Money could buy books, computers, museum memberships and private tutors: but what was a mother without resources?
And it was better that my father worked days and she worked nights, because my father spoke English and could better bear the heavier burdens of parenting: the doctors’ visits and the parent-teacher conferences, the homework help and the lecturing.
In theory, Mom could’ve worked the first shift from the beginning, but she thought it was better that she be around in the morning. She couldn’t bear the thought of anyone else driving us to school. Dad had to be at the shop by 6 a.m., to have it ready for his mechanics at 7 a.m.; and, in my mother’s opinion, no one else but a parent was capable of giving us a ride. Marrying into my father’s family had done nothing to convince her of the worth of relatives. So, for most of my childhood, her presence in my life was confined to a ride in the morning and a pre-prepared dinner at night. I never thought it was strange that my father was the nurturer, and my mother little more than an emotionally distant financial backer. It wasn’t until I got older and started meeting more mothers that I realized sacrifice and self-destruction weren’t the ways that most people defined motherhood.
Third Shift Mom’s martyrdom only lasted until my older sister learned how to drive. Once she could be trusted to shepherd us safely to school, Third Shift Mom abandoned her cross and allowed First Shift Mom to assume the remaining motherly duties.
We get along enough, but there’s a hardness to me that First Shift Mom finds baffling.
“Why do you have to take everything so seriously? Who made you such a drama queen?”
Try as she might, First Shift Mom doesn’t have as much sway over me as she’d like. My flaws—my obstinacy and my ambition and my inability to forget anything—she blames on my father. As far as I can tell, she’s forgotten the woman in the Escort with the iron will, the woman who looked with contempt upon anyone who refused to destroy themselves to get what they wanted.