My cell phone vibrates while I am on a conference call with the CEO of my company. We’re talking about the impending layoffs and I am trying not to cry, gearing up to tell half of my team that they don’t have jobs anymore. It’s my mom calling me, for the third time in fifteen minutes. It’s also nearly 10 in the morning, and my son hasn’t made it past brushing his teeth yet, and I need to get him on task for the day.
By the time I’ve completed the call with my boss and gotten my son settled down to make his to-do list, trying to pull together assignments from nine classes spread out over three different web apps, my husband is whispering over his own muted Zoom meeting, “Honey, your mom keeps calling me. I can’t answer.”
I have to get through one more meeting and put out two customer fires before I can call my mom back. Nothing is wrong, she tells me, she just wanted to make sure her phone still worked, and also, when am I coming to get her out of this place and why haven’t I been to visit?
While I am re-explaining the COVID-19 restrictions that have kept her memory care unit on lockdown since March 15th, my son has fallen asleep watching a geography video. I can’t blame him. None of us are sleeping well at night, and the sofa is comfortable, but if I can’t get him through the last nine weeks of his freshman year, what is that going to do to his GPA?
My mom cries, my son snores, and Zendesk squawks at me that someone needs help, while I hear my husband’s conference call heating up in the next room.
In 1999, I was 28. I had a high-profile job at an internationally known non-profit. I was part of seminar based on the then-brand-new “motivational business fable”, Who Moved My Cheese? Our instructor went around the room asking us to identify with characters in the book. When it was my turn, cocky and self-assured, I said, “I’m the cheese.”
I did not make any friends in that seminar, but the answer was typical me. I have never identified with the confusion of a struggle. I identify with solutions and ambition, and I don’t care where you put the cheese, because ultimately the quality of my work is going to attract attention and the cheese will come find me. At least, that was me before I had someone other than myself to care about.
I was born in 1970. A latchkey kid starting in second grade, I took care of myself under the watchful eye of after-school specials, sheriffs from Mayberry, and dreamy Cleaver-style families from the time the bus dropped me off until my mom got home from her job in the evenings. I grew up on slick Duran Duran videos and Madonna-fied feminism, with MTV babysitting my early teenage years. I was raised by a grab-bag of mixed media, and I believed the ideal woman should look like the cover of a Cosmo magazine, cook like a 50s housewife, and ball like Gordon Gekko, backwards and in high heels.
I never learned to cook, but I looked amazing and I worked like I was a Diane Keaton character in a Nancy Meyers movie. I figured when I fell in love and got married, my household would be like the Huxtables, with two successful parents managing a brood of smart, well-adjusted children.
That is not what happened. Not even close. I did marry a great guy and we did have a great baby, but we were poor and struggling, both of us working to climb up into something better than the shady apartment complex where we were living.
After a merger in 2006 and the crash of 2008 slapped me down from professional heights with two layoffs in a row, and after solid months of caring for my mother through cancer in 2008 and heart disease in 2014, while trying to parent and wife, the only cheese I resembled was at the bottom of a spray can wedged into the corner of a dumpster.
By the time my son entered middle school, with all its attending hormonal glories, my mom had succumbed to vascular dementia and I found myself sandwiched between one dependent whose pre-frontal cortex was only half formed, and another whose executive function had gone into early retirement.
I found myself having the same conversations with both of them about everything from hurtful dining room gossip after my mom moved into senior living, to hygiene. Yes, you have to shower every day. Yes, deodorant is a non-negotiable.
So, now, in Coronatimes, I sit at a desk behind my sofa trying to hold it together long enough to terminate good employees with the respect and recognition they deserve, while I worry about my own future. If I lose my job, what does that mean for our finances? What does that do to my son’s education? My mother’s living arrangements, as her savings dwindle and dip into my own? My ability to care for myself in retirement so that my son doesn’t have that responsibility?
Sure, I’m the cheese, but only because I’m sitting between two pieces of bread in a generational sandwich.
There was nothing in Quarterback Princess, any Judy Blume book, or my Trapper Keeper to prepare me for this. Well, maybe there was. “I’ll cross that bridge when I find it,” Simon Le Bon sang in my 8th grade anthem, The Reflex. And that’s what I do.
Bridge by bridge, I figure it out, and try to keep inching forward, in pajama bottoms and bare feet because I haven’t worn shoes in two months. I don’t have the time or emotional energy to do anything else other than take it one step at a time. And anyway, my mom is calling again. I need to answer that.
Lane Morris Buckman is a writer from Dallas, TX. She is known for her work in picture books and the cozy mystery genre, and unknown for her smutty romance work as it is written under the pen name Nicole Lane. She also co-hosts the podcast about nothing, Divas Dish.