The Canvas Tote

I have never posted one of my short stories on this blog but last week I recieved a late Christmas present, a beautiful canvas tote, and it made my think of this story I wrote in 2007 that is still sitting in my computer.  Hope you like it…

The Canvas Tote Bag

I sat there staring at the white circular clock with large black numbers hanging half way up the ceiling in the dingy brown meeting room at the church that was the location of our monthly nursery school board meeting.  This was the third of eight monthly meetings that would run through the school year. As a working mom I had successfully evaded board duty while our first child was attending pre-school, but I felt I could not say no this time around as I had since left my Wall Street career to do philantrhopic work which offered me a lot more flexibility.  The “she is not a good mother because she does not spend enough time with the school” looks from some of the deeply committed and involved mothers finally wore me down as did the constant asks by the school’s lovely director.  “We need you”, she would say in the hallways. The guilt of saying no was just too much to bear. With great reluctance I agreed to serve, as with my daughter in her second and final year at the school, it would only be for one year rather then the usual two.

The meetings were scheduled to last two hours and the mother who headed the ‘social committee’ was generally responsible for bringing in coffee and the much preferred home baked snacks.  Store bought treats would generally be accompanied by an apology often related to a child being ill or having delivered a meal the night before to a family whose mom had just had a baby.   There were eight ladies whom composed the board as well as the school director.  As I rejoined the meeting the ladies were still talking feverishly about whether we should add canvas tote bags to the list of embossed items for these years merchandise sale fund-raiser.  Or not.

My attention turned to Mary, a mother of a child in the threes class, and former JP Morgan investment banker, now head of the fund-raising committee, “I’ve reviewed the items and sales from last year and feel we have to diversify. I have attached a spreadsheet that analyzes sales for the past 3 years and you can see that t-shirts are good sellers, but sweatshirts are not.  The adult size ones did not do well when added last year, so I recommend that we drop them.  In their place I am putting forth canvas tote bags.  We can retail them for $20, at a cost of $10, with a 50% bigger margin then we have on t-shirts.”

Damn, I thought, she must have been killer in front of the board when she was selling K-MART to SEARS 3 years ago.  I had heard of Mary well before I met her as I had headed up a lateral hire initiative for my own firm a few years earlier where we searched out the top women on Wall Street.  Mary was known for her financial prowess and her ability to determine the right sale price for the most complicated of companies. Our head of the investment banking division tried unsuccessfully to hire her, at a high seven figure salary. I remember reading about her departure a year later citing the usual ‘work life balance’ type reasons after she gave birth to her second child.   Someone inside told me she tried to make a run for the head job and got black listed by the good ole boys network and was so fed up she walked away with a big package in return for not suing. Though I did not know her well, she seemed a full fledged at home mom now and damn proud of it.  I was hoping we would have an immediate bond due to our similar career paths, but she seemed to want no part of her past as a working woman in favor of her new status as a wonder mommy.

As my eyes yet again glanced up to the overly large clock on the wall, Janet, an experienced board member with her third child now in the fours program and a one time McKenzie consultant, piped in. “Well, I think those bags would be very handy and be a good seller.  We need merchandise that appeals to the adults and those bags could be used as library book bags, to carry snacks to soccer games, to hold coloring books and other games for restaurant entertainment.  I took the liberty of reviewing prior sales as well, and I agreed, there was a lot of potential there.  I attended an event at the neighboring school and they had many more products then we did.  They were raking it in.”

“I agree,” said Diane a mother of 4 and a former advertising executive now head of the schools PR. “You can never have enough tote bags. I keep one of those in every vehicle full of snacks, first aid items, playing cards, flashlight. I have an idea, why don’t we write about the multiple uses for tote bags in the monthly newsletter and offer a volume discount?  How about 3 bags for $80?”

“What a great idea” chimed in another mom who was new to the school but enthusiastically signed up for the board and every other activity going on at the school.  “I had not thought having a separate bag for each of our cars.  I usually take a bag from car to car with all that stuff but to have one in every vehicle is really practical. I would definitely buy more then one.”

I looked back at the clock and watched the minutes pass by while the woman spoke enthusiastically about all the items that could be included in a car tote bag to make sure there was never a moment when we weren’t prepared to be perfect mothers. While smiling and nodding and pretending to take notes my mind drifted back to my last corporate committee meeting as a senior executive at a global investment bank just a few months earlier.   We had just completed an extensive review of all our diversity practices, globally, and were discussing the next steps to help make the firm a more inclusive workplace.  Around a very large table were the heads of the firm and the respective business units and I was one of a small number of women who had a seat at the table.  They looked to me for insight and guidance on what policies and practices would work at our firm and now I was one of many that were deciding what color a three year-old’s school t-shirt would be and at what price we’d sell it for.  As the conversation on the tote bags turned in to a discussion on the best games to play with a three year-old while waiting for the food to come at a restaurant my mind continued to wander.

On my notepad I wrote down everyone’s name and from what I knew of these women’s backgrounds added the salary they likely commanded when they chose to leave work. I then calculated the cumulative annual salary that we would be earning if they were still working and quickly came to the conclusion that one paid hour of all our time in our working lives would be a multiple of what we are hoping to make in this entire merchandise sale fundraiser. Heck Mary’s hourly rate alone would almost cover it. My heart sank and my frustration was mounting.   I wanted to scream out to these woman, “Let’s just all go back to work! If we do it together, then we won’t all feel guilty about it.”

I desperately began to scan the faces of each and every woman hoping to meet eyes with someone who was thinking what I was thinking.   My eyes grabbed on to Jennifer, a mother of three who was working part-time at IBM, who seemed to be searching the room with the same sense of controlled yet evident frustration. Our daughters were in the same class and had become good friends.  Having left the prior board meeting together we were quick to complain about how painfully long and ridiculous the meetings were to us. We swore we would try to come up with an excuse not to attend the next one, and yet, there we were again, suckers for punishment. I think Jen even brought home baked scones.

I knew that after the meeting I would show my notes to Jennifer, and we would have a laugh about the obscenity of it all. Maybe if we knew the other women better we could ask them if they felt the same way and then together we could do things differently.  But unfortunately we didn’t, and after all, it was only a few more meetings and we would be out of there.  In a town were 95% of the mothers were ‘at home’ we were the outsiders who ‘worked.’

My attention was called back to the meeting, as it was time for a vote, “all those in favor of adding the canvas tote bags, and eliminating the adult sweatshirts say I.”  Needless to say it was unanimous.  You can never have enough tote bags.

Walking back to our cars after the meeting I showed my notes to Jen and as expected, we had a good half-laugh about it.  We decided that she was going to talk to the board chair about making the meetings shorter and more productive as her punishment for caving in and making home baked scones. If that failed after the next painful board meeting we would together rise up, let go of the guilt and just say,  ‘My time is worth more then how I am spending it right now.  I work, I’m a great mother, and I am out of here.  The check is in the mail.”

This story is a little more fiction than fact and of course I am incredibly grateful to the countless mothers who dedicate so much time to volunteering at theirs ( and ours) childrens schools.  At the same time I felt working mothers were somewhat looked down upon and judged, and vice versa.  My hope is that we accept one anothers choices, learn to be comfortable in our own, and offer support and encouragement to each other, always.



One thought on “The Canvas Tote

  1. Jacki, thank you so much for sharing this letter. What a turbulent time to be living in! The women who are facing this wave of hatred will need all the courage they can muster and more.

    By the way, I loved your Tote Bag story – could sooooo relate to that. I was so desperate to be a super mommy while working that one day I volunteered to be “snack mommy” for my son’s nursery school. I took the morning off to prepare and was so proud of the snack I made – fruit kabobs – colorful, fun, different, healthy; all the boxes checked in my zest to be uber mom. It wasn’t until I got to the school when I realized by the horrified glares of the teachers and other mom that I had supplied the 3 year olds with lethal, pointy (on both ends) sticks which were in effect weapons with which to poke little eyes out and puncture little ear drums and pierce tongues and cheeks. Oh well…you can’t be all things to all people. I stuck to what I knew best after that and it wasn’t being ‘snack mommy’.
    Margot Franssen

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