Resistance boomed from the belly of a new mother and rested on a conversation they had had during Jen's pregnancy about telecommuting.
“No,” Jen told them. she’d be lying if she didn’t say that she had to fight through fear and tears to stand her ground. “I can’t leave my newborn baby.”
“If you’re not going to travel for us, we’ll need you here in the office, running operations,” Her colleagues told her.
More fear. More tears. “But I thought we had agreed I could telecommute for the first few months after maternity leave and until I could find reliable childcare for my baby…” Her voice had trailed off as she saw the frowns on their faces.
Caroline had allergic colitis and Jen was in and out of doctor’s appointments. It’s clear to her now that she was suffering from post-partum depression and was trying to hold herself together. In retrospect, she should have fought for a more robust maternity leave while getting used to motherhood. Jen was twenty-five years old, unsure what to do, and, despite a strong personality, was good at doing what she was told. The people pleaser in Jen had not asked for a contract, a certainty that their agreement would be honored.
"I’m going to have to quit", she realized in that moment. "I’m going to have to tell Eli I’m quitting. I’m a mama now, and I’m going to have to give up my career dreams for my baby."
Jen slunk home that day, feeling heavier than she had just a few months earlier, when she had waddled the eight blocks home with my still-protruding belly. Jen walked down the steps of the stone sidewalk, away from the building that served as the Joint Council’s headquarters in Alexandria. Black iron lantern streetlights and low branches of towering maple and chestnut trees hung in front of the historic buildings on St. Asaph street. For the first time since she had started working for the Joint Council, she didn’t—couldn’t—breathe in gratitude for the beauty and opportunity around me.
She had given birth, and was about to let one of her oldest dreams die.
Her dream was one that started when just 13 years old and her mom handed her one of the Reader’s Digest magazines lying around the house. She was on her way to the hospital for her shift as a labor and delivery nurse, and Jen was home sick. She couldn’t watch MTV, couldn’t wear black in our strict Catholic household; but could thumb through Reader’s Digest, the family-values-approved fare that had the patina of learning about it. It was a small magazine with a quarter-inch spine, like a paperback novel. Jen sat on the blue couch in their tidy family room in pajamas, surrounded by boxes of Kleenex, and mindlessly flipped through the worn pages until seeing The Picture: A tiny baby with a mouth opened into a black wail and a face scrunched into an angry red splotch. Jen read the words marching across the page, pulling her in, one after another. Orphan crisis. China. Babies abandoned. One-child policy.
“This is insane. We have to do something about this.”
Jen looked around her family home in South Jersey, where she lived outside of Philly. She felt a shadow of anger and near-despair pass nearby, brushing her with prickly fingertips. Here she was, her belly full of food and her family about to arrive home from work and school, while helpless baby girls in China were tossed away like trash. The fact that families did this because they could only have one child and wanted a male heir stirred something in her. Rage and anger passed through her good-Catholic-girl compass and knitted itself back together as determination and intent.
Riiiiip. Jen tore the pages free of the spine. The article and that picture, The Picture, lived the rest of her teenage years on my bedroom mirror, the edges curling and yellowing as day after day Jen brushed her hair, put on her earrings, and got ready for school or church. She knew she would do everything in her power to help kids who had no one else. No babies would get thrown out on her watch. And she hadn’t even heard the voice of God at that point. At least not in a way she had recognized.
The giant bromeliad Puya raimondii, the Queen of the Andes, grows in mountains in Bolivia and Peru. The spiky flower takes years to bloom, to come to full life. For years, Jen was like this, too, thinking of abandoned children around the world, gathering their stories so that in some way they would not be forgotten. She was preparing.
...to be continued tomorrow!