Heart Work

By

I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders, along with the weights of my four- and seven-year-old daughters sprawled across my chest and my eleven-pound calico cat Annie in the crux of my arm, on Sunday morning. I wiggle my way out from under my sleeping children and my moody cat and tiptoe to the living room, where I’m greeted by a half-constructed puzzle, a Barbie suitcase, blankets, jackets, and an overflowing garbage can.

It’s gotten even harder since I turned thirty-nine two years ago and added full-time graduate student in nonfiction and screenwriting to the mix, aspiring to show my kids that it’s never too late to follow our hearts. I want them to know that heart work is hard work, but worth the struggle. This morning as I’m staring at my messy apartment, I can’t help but second guess if any of this is inspiring the kids.

My quiet is abruptly interrupted by my daughter’s bare feet pounding against the hardwood floor with each stride. Seven-year-old Espi shifts her hands to her slender hips and shakes her untamed chocolate colored hair out of her face. “Mom, I want to finish watching Go right now! You promised I could,” she scolds.

 

It’s Women’s History Month. For my day job, I run a Center for Women & Gender Equity. It’s an exciting time at work, celebrating the progress that women have made and making a case for the work that still needs to be done. As a single mom of two and graduate student who struggles every month to pay $1800 rent (a steal in the Bay Area) on a rundown triplex in Lafayette, I’m always negotiating the tension between making forward progress and maintenance work. It means getting up earlier on weekends. It means my girls being handed from one neighbor to another so that I can do and keep my day job, though I do not earn quite enough to stretch the full two-week span between paychecks. It means my girls going to another neighbor’s home so that I can solo produce and anchor the International Women’s Day newscast at KPFA, a job that feeds my soul, but pays me nothing. It means that instead of letting my girls sleep in on Saturday, I talk them into going to a solidarity walk for equality.

 

Here’s how our long weekend begins. It’s the eve of International Women’s Day. I read my girls a chapter of Mitali Perkins’s The Rickshaw Girl, a story about a little girl in Bangladesh who aspires to drive a rickshaw but can’t because of her gender. It’s one of Espi’s favorites and even though she knows the whole story, she remains passionate and inquisitive about it every time.

“That’s not fair, Mom,” Espi tells me. “She should be able to drive if she wants to.”

“Let me see, Mom,” Four-year-old Delilah demands. I love my girls an infinite amount and yet on this night I am so relieved when their breathing becomes deeper and their eyelids close. I kiss each of their foreheads and place my hand in the middle of their chests to feel their beating hearts.

“Goodnight babies,” I say.

And then I pull out my laptop from beneath my bed to finish a speech, which I need to deliver in nine short hours. Heart work, I write, might or might not pay us, it may or may not enable us to make ends meet, but it feeds our souls. It makes the world go around. I close my computer at one o’clock in the morning when I can no longer keep my eyes open.

I’m up before my alarm goes off at 6 a.m. As I’m packing lunches, doing my hair, coercing children into eating breakfast, I get a text from my landlord, letting me know that, as I’d feared, my rent check has bounced. Knowing that there’s absolutely nothing I can do before my next paycheck, which is seven days away, I just keep moving through the morning. I’m told I should be grateful that my rent for a two-bedroom place with a garage in Lafayette, just a ten-minute drive from work, is still $1800. I’m told I shouldn’t fret the cracked walls, broken window, or untended weeds surrounding the unit. I’d love a better place, but how would we afford that when we can’t pay for this? The feeling of struggle is familiar at this point, so much so that I don’t panic anymore.

I’m stuck here, two thousand miles from biological family, so I piece together another one, comprised of neighbors and friends. On this particular morning, my friend Faten, who moved here from Egypt with her husband and three children two years ago, receives my children, and David, a neighbor who is the primary caregiver for his three children so that his wife can do her job as an epidemiologist, picks up and delivers the children to their respective schools. Twelve hours later, I read another chapter of The Rickshaw Girl. Espi falls asleep after hearing just one page. Delilah interrupts.

“Mommy, I had a good day today,” she says with a sweet smile, looking at me with her big brown eyes, as I imagine her thinking, Even if you forget to ask me, I’ll tell you, Mommy.

 

On Saturday, after a cold and rainy morning, after dragging my children out for a fundraising walk, I’m at the radio station. It’s an honor and a privilege to be solely charged with producing the all-women’s newscast for International Women’s Day. My unpaid work at the radio station is work that some say I should’ve given up when I had kids because it doesn’t make financial sense.

I started in 2009 right after the life of Oscar Grant, a twenty-two-year old father, was cut short by a BART police officer. I can’t stop police brutality, eliminate gender-based violence, or ensure that everyone has access to education, but I can amplify the voices of those whose lives are at the heart of these issues. One of my first field stories put me in Oscar Grant Plaza, also known as Frank Ogawa Plaza, in downtown Oakland, covering a “Justice for Oscar” protest. Oscar’s uncle spoke with Oscar’s five-year-old daughter and her mother by his side. I fixated on the little daddy-less girl and her heartbroken mother. Five years later, I sat with Oscar’s mother and grandparents in Oscar’s home. They laughed and cried as they remembered Oscar for all that he was and for all that he was striving to become.

This is my heart work. The kind of work I want to model for my daughters.

My girls arrive at KPFA thirty minutes before we go live. I greet and kiss my girls, right before setting them up beside Carla, the tech producer.

“This is what heart work looks like,” I tell them just before I go on the air, on the other side of the glass window.

Delilah is sitting on the Carla’s lap and topples off midway through the news cast. During a three-minute interview that I prerecorded with an author who shares how she found her voice as a Korean American writer, I rush out and comfort my daughter. Thirty seconds before I go live again, I hand my daughter off to the other mom in the room as she cries and reaches for me. I wave and blow her a kiss through the glass window that separates us five seconds before my microphone goes live.

When the newscast is done, Delilah wears a band aid on her head like a badge of honor and the girls take turns interviewing each other mimicking my own work.

“Who is one woman that you look up to?” my neighbor’s daughter asks Espi.

“My mom,” she replies.

I’m shocked. I don’t feel like I deserve it. It causes my throat to tighten so I can swallow back tears and just smile at my proud child.

 

It is Sunday. There are fifty dollars in my bank account and my next check is five days away.

Espi is understandably unapologetic in her demands after our busy Saturday. I play Go for her and begin walking back and forth between the car and our run-down triplex emptying dolls, teddy bears, lunch boxes, and jackets that have accumulated throughout the week so that eventually we can go to the park.

Delilah sits in the driver’s seat of the car. I have the keys in the ignition and I’m listening to Bob Marley’s “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” a perfect soundtrack for my morning. I make small talk with the kids while I do a mental checklist of my situation. My tuition balance of $785 can wait. We still have some groceries in the cupboards. My gas tank is near full so I should be okay until at least the early part of the week. A car wash can wait. I owe more than $300 to Pacific Gas & Electric but I switched to an analog meter so my electricity can’t be shut off remotely.

Delilah hoists herself into the driver’s seat. She holds the steering wheel and makes zooming sounds.

“Honey, you can’t sit here when the keys are in the ignition,” I say. I suggest that maybe she can sit in the passenger seat or another spot, but not the driver’s seat.

“Yes I can! You’re not the boss of me!” she yells back. She continues zooming.

As I’m negotiating with Delilah and breathing deep to find more patience, the triplex neighbor’s thirty-something-year-old daughter and her boyfriend pull up in a red Toyota Camry with a dreamcatcher hanging from the mirror. The woman is put together and her hair is pulled into a ponytail. Her boyfriend’s long, curly ash blonde hair hangs free. He wears shorts and a t-shirt but no shoes.

They take note of Delilah as she screams.

“She’s upset because I won’t let her drive,” I explain.

“You’ll get your day, kid.” the shoeless man tells Delilah.

Delilah gasps and points.

“Mama, he’s not wearing shoes,” Delilah says. “He’s gonna get splinters.”

“It’s probably more comfortable that way,” I tell her. I want to cut the awkwardness of my four-year-old daughter’s unfiltered mouth.

“But I get splinters sometimes when I don’t wear shoes!”

I look at him, shrug, and smile.

“Kids,” I say.

The couple goes upstairs. I continue emptying the car. I sweep out crumbs with a broom. Faten’s husband tells me his car is a holy place, that kids should be disciplined enough never to eat in the car. I think in that moment that maybe moms, who are both the breadwinners and the caretakers, whose vehicles become a moving extension of home, don’t get to bask in the privilege of deeming any space holy. I hear the barefooted man’s voice again but I don’t realize it’s directed at me.

“Excuse me,” he says again.

I look up to see to whom he might be speaking.

“Do you need any help?”

“Nope, I’ve got it,” I say, knowing that while I could use help, I have too much pride for anyone to see the chaotic state of my car or home.

Delilah moves out of the driver’s seat and into the sandbox, where she makes pretend pies. I smile and remind her to stay on the side of the sandbox that’s closer to the house, not the one near the road.

“Okay, Mama,” she says agreeably.

Finally, I’m ready.

The clouds are rolling back in and the sun is beginning to vanish.

“Girls, let’s go. We’ve gotta get to the park before the rain.” I repeat this a few times. Going to the park was their idea but they’ve now forgotten. Now, I am more anxious than they are to get to the park. I know after the rain starts, we’ll be cooped up inside for the day.

“Let’s go, girls. C’mon.”

My requests get louder and my patience grows thinner. Seven requests later, the girls get into the car and I notice that the couple has returned to their red Camry across the street. They seem to be taking note of my family circus. We’ve crossed each other’s paths like this for the past several weeks, always as I’m struggling to get the girls into the car to go to school on time, frantically rushing to an appointment, running back inside to get a forgotten lunchbox, never during a leisurely stroll to the car with time on our side.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” the barefooted guy says.

He is standing near his car and his girlfriend is getting in from the other side. I’m braced for him to tell me that I dropped something or to offer some unsolicited advice.

“I just wanted to give you a little something,” he says.

He walks back across the road and meets me beside my silver Rav 4. His girlfriend gets back out and stands beside the Camry watching with her arms crossed. My girls press their noses against the window like curious puppies. He hands me what looks like a large folded bill.

“Oh I can’t….”

“Shhhh,” he shushes me.

He tells me that he’s heading for Australia, that he travels light, that he carries everything he needs on his back. I glance down at his naked feet and contemplate whether or not he’ll travel across the world with no shoes.

“Take it,” he says.

I don’t know exactly what he’s given me, but I think I’m holding a hundred-dollar bill.

I want desperately to give him a copy of the book I had written a decade earlier, when I was a world traveler, when I made peace with knowing that I wouldn’t meet my blueprint plan of becoming a mom before I was thirty.

“No, I don’t want anything in return,” he says. “I’ll take a hug. That’s all.”

We hug.

But I still give him the book—I run inside and bring it back out to him. It’s all I have.

“I really want you to have this. It’s people I interviewed from around the world during my pre-kids chapter of life,” I say. “If you don’t need it, you can pay it forward.”

“I’m keeping this. I’ll read it,” he says. He gets out of the car and hugs me. He smells a little like marijuana and a little like lavender.

As I walk back to my car, he says, “Your journey is still happening.”

“Can I know your name?” I ask through tears.

“It’s Flip.” He extends his pointer fingers and makes a pedaling motioning. “You know, like flip.” He introduces his girlfriend, whom I’ve seen dozens of times and greeted without knowing her name. “This is Happy, my girlfriend, but we’re splitting because I’m leaving and she’s staying.”

I get into the car, where my girls are waiting. I open my hand to see what he’s given me. It is a pile of hundred-dollar bills, ten to be exact. Each one radiates with the smell of lavender. I cry. I can’t stop. My girls fire questions at me.

“Mommy, what’s wrong?” Delilah asks.

“Are you crying because you’re happy or sad?” Espi asks.

I can’t answer. I can’t decide.

“Which one? Happy or sad?” she presses further.

“Are we rich, Mommy?” Delilah asks.

Both girls unfasten their seatbelts. Espi pats my back and Delilah plays with my hair.

“I think it’s because we’re not alone,” I say.

 

I put nine of the one-hundred dollar bills in my daughter’s orange and red Elmo sandwich container and tuck it into the freezer right beneath the frozen vegetables and put one bill in my wallet. When the girls finish their ballet lesson, the sun is still shining, and the day is still young. It’s the first longer day of daylight savings time and we can feel the freshness of spring.

Both girls are hungry and proposing dinner plans. They are well-accustomed to my kind rejection.

“Not today girls,” I usually say, before promising that in a week or two we’ll splurge.

“Because we don’t have enough money for that, right mommy?” Delilah with her honey-dipped brown hair usually asks, while looking at me with her big brown eyes.

I watch the road and think for a moment. The girls silently await my response, perhaps bracing themselves for a no but crossing their fingers for a yes.

“Okay,” I say. “Let’s do it.”

“Really, Mommy?” Espi shouts as she claps her hands. “Pho. Can we have pho?”

“Yep.”

I look into my rear-view mirror as I drive down Willow Pass road toward our favorite Vietnamese restaurant in Concord, which is embedded in the center of a sprawling shopping center, and see that Delilah has hopped out of her car seat and is leaning halfway into the front of the car.

“Delilah, get back in your seat and put your seatbelt on now,” I say in the sternest voice I can muster.

“But Mommy,” she says. “Please oh please oh please. I want a huggie. I just love you.”

At the restaurant, the girls want pho, spring rolls, tea, and a three-colored drink. I make them choose between the drink and the spring rolls and they choose the rolls. I order us one large bowl of pho along with scissors, ice, and three small bowls. The waitress, a Vietnamese woman in her fifties, thinks it’s a mistake to order tea for my children. She goes over my order, item for item, except for the tea.

“Just one tea cup, okay,” she suggests.

“Okay,” I say winking at my girls, who know I will share.

When my tea is delivered, I take a deep breath and pour some into my small porcelain cup. Espi has flipped three small sauce containers over and placed the crinkled wrapper of her straw underneath one. Delilah and I take turns guessing beneath which one the wrapper is hiding. When the soup arrives, I cut the noodles into more manageable pieces and portion it out between our three bowls. Espi eats four of the six spring roll pieces within minutes, leaving one for Delilah and one for me. Our total is $18.67. I add on $3.33 for an even $22 tab.

 

The sun is just on the verge of hiding when we come out of the restaurant after 7 p.m. Outside, an African American woman in her fifties is talking with a white guy in his thirties who is leaning onto a shopping cart filled with his belongings. The woman pauses from her conversation and says something to my children. I only hear the words “little ones.”

I look back.

“I didn’t mean no disrespect,” she says.

I assure the smiling woman that I know that, but just didn’t hear her.

“I was saying buckle up little ones.”

“Did you hear that, girls?” I look at both of my daughters.

It’s as if this woman knows that getting my girls to stay in their seatbelts is a chore.

“When I was pregnant, I got into a real bad car accident,” she explains. “My head smashed into the window and I still have glass in my head but because of my seatbelt, me, and my baby boy who was inside me—we’re still alive, and he’s twenty-one years old now.”

I turn to my children.

“Did you hear that girls?”

“Yes mommy,” Delilah says. “If you don’t wear your seatbelt you can smash your head or die.”

 

The next day, I’m at the Whole Foods. A dad and his preteen son and daughter are outside holding a sign asking for spare change. I refill my five-gallon water jug and go to the line. There’s a man and a woman in their late fifties lingering between lines.

“We have a little problem, so you can go ahead of us,” the guy explains.

He hands the cashier his food and tells her that he’s forgotten his wallet and that he’ll be back. I’ve done that before when my credit card has been maxed out and not come back for my groceries or stood in line sifting out luxury items like dark chocolate, almond milk creamer, or gluten-free bread to make sure we have enough to cover the basic staples. I make up an excuse for my own kids about how mommy’s credit card is in her other purse because that’s easier than explaining that we’re fresh out of money. They rush off in search of that wallet.

The preteen boy is now in front of me in the check-out line, trying to buy himself a fifty-cent water. I tell the cashier I’ll pay for the couple’s food.

The boy knows the score as much as I do.

“Can you just ring her up first?” he asks the cashier. By now the couple is in the parking lot, nearing their car. I suggest to the boy that I’ll pay for his water if he can run ahead and deliver the food to the couple. The cashier weighs the couple’s food, scans the water, and the boy sprints out. When I leave, he’s standing by his dad pointing proudly.

“I got to them just in time,” he says with a smile.

I give his dad ten dollars, apologizing for the small amount.

“Someone helped me recently,” I explain. “And I wanted to pay it forward.”

***

Rumpus original art by Lea Wells.


Sharon K. Sobotta is a lifetime advocate, a writer, a journalist, a mom, and a doula. She has dedicated her professional career to advocating for gender and racial equity, diversity, and amplifying the voices of marginalized populations in her role as the director of the Center for Women & Gender Equity at Saint Mary’s College of California and as a reporter and anchor for Pacifica KPFA news and a contributing producer and host for The Women's Magazine at KPFA. More from this author →