Through most of my childhood, my mom worked third shift. I think she got her first nursing job just before I started Kindergarten. We still lived with my grandparents, so not a lot changed for me at the time. But then she decided to buy the house down the hill. It was so exciting to have our own house but… I was never really there. I got off the bus there, sometimes had dinner there, played with my toys a little bit, but when it was bed time, I went back up the hill to my grandma’s house.
It was a really weird thing for me to process. I got a dog, but it wasn’t allowed to sleep at my grandma’s. After the dog got hit by a car and died, I had other pets, and I would sit at my grandma’s wondering if they were okay down at my house. Sometimes, I could look out the window of the bedroom I slept in at and see the lights on, because obviously, I had to go to bed before mom left for work at ten-thirty. I would imagine my mom getting ready to go to work and I would think, you know, it’s so unfair that other moms and kids got to stay home and sleep at their houses in the night, every night.
The house never ended up feeling like my house. Once, when my grandmother tried to drop me off with mom after an outing with my cousins, I screamed and grabbed at anything I could to try and stay in the car. My cousins were all going to grandma’s, and that was where I slept, so why couldn’t I spend the night, too? Why couldn’t I go home? I’ll never forget that desperate, sick feeling as I chased the car down the driveway, pleading to just be allowed to go home.
But it was my mom’s night off, so I had to stay at the house that was small and boring and dark and dirty and which didn’t even have a flushable toilet most of the time because the plumbing was shoddy. And I had to sleep in my bed that used to be at my grandmas but which now felt totally different.
I could never understand when the house was my house and when the house was my mom’s house. Sometimes, I was at my grandma’s and I knew my mom was home, but I wasn’t allowed to go there because mom was sleeping during the day. There was only one bedroom in the house, so mom slept on the couch. That meant no TV in the living room, and I could play outside, but if I was inside I had to be very quiet.
There were times that my grandma up the hill might be out of town or getting back from something late, and on those nights, I would have to stay at my Baba and Papa’s house. Those were the worst nights because Baba and Papa were kind of the fun, stay-the-night-on-the-weekened house, so having to get up and get on a school bus in the morning just felt weird. Plus, it’s always strange to ride a different bus than you’re used to. For years, the bus driver from the route past Baba and Papa’s house would say that I was such a good kid and “quiet as a church mouse.” It wasn’t that I was good, I was just extremely terrified of her and out of my element.
Eventually, we moved into the main part of town, to a house I could walk home from school to, but I still had to take the bus from my grandmother’s house in the mornings. That was fine by me. I was twelve at that point and used to not sleeping in my own bed. I liked being in our new house because the toilet reliably flushed and we weren’t so far out in the country that we couldn’t get cable. In fact, I started to hate having to go to my grandma’s house for the night because I couldn’t watch MTV there.
In rural communities, two miles can be decades apart, technologically.
When I started high school, it was at a private Catholic school in the city. The neighbors across the street had kids who went there, so during my freshman year, I rode with them. On nights my mom didn’t work, I just walked across the street and got in their car, but they were nice enough to pick me up from my grandma’s house on all the other mornings. My sophomore year, the family moved to Japan. My mom drove me on her days off, my uncle (newly home from the Army and in a kind of unemployed holding pattern) drove me. There was always someone to get me places I needed to go to, play rehearsals, tutoring, skating lessons, mom always had someone lined up for all of that, if she couldn’t do it.
When I got my driver’s license, that’s when things started to really change. Mom was offered a job that would give her three days off per week if she worked four twelve-hour shifts. That meant she had to be to work at seven in the evening and she’d get out at seven in the morning. I was worried this would mean I would have to go to my grandma’s house even earlier, but Mom decided that since I could drive myself to school, I could stay home at nights alone. So, from age sixteen, I was staying home alone at night and getting myself to school in the morning.
The problem with the new schedule was, I got up and went to school before my mom got home. And because her new schedule would cut into time spent with her boyfriend, she often left for work early to see him. When I was younger and staying with my grandma, it wasn’t a big deal, because I had to be in bed by eight (nine on Tuesdays, so I could watch Roseanne, the The Cosby Show for white trash families). So, if my mom left early, it didn’t really cut into the time we had together. On her new schedule, it did. If I had skating or rehearsal after school, I would race home, frantic at every red light, praying I could get there in time to see my mom, even in passing.
There were a lot of days when I didn’t make it home in time. Sometimes, those days would stack up and I would come home to an empty house several days in a row. There would be a pit of dread in my stomach when I’d see her car missing because I knew it meant I wouldn’t see another human in person until the next day at school. It was lonely in the worst ways, so the relief and joy I would feel when I’d get home before she left were basically regulating my brain chemistry. Once, I came home to find my mom’s car in the driveway, but she wasn’t in the house. I felt tricked and disappointed, and it resulted in a huge meltdown. I clawed up my face and arms, smashed up our glass kitchen table, punched holes in a door, slammed my bedroom door so hard the hinges ripped out of the wall… and my mom was just at the neighbors’. She ran home when she heard me screaming my head off and found the house destroyed.
It didn’t change anything. She never replaced the kitchen table because, “we don’t eat dinners anyway.”
I’ve spent a lot of time since then wondering why, upon entering the house and finding her kid in a mess of broken doors and shattered glass, with a bleeding face and knuckles, that she didn’t just say, wow. I need to put my kid first and maybe my boyfriend/career second? Maybe that was some kind of signal that a sixteen-year-old couldn’t handle being alone for days? Or even just a vague sign that something was very wrong for me?
Many years later, after I had kids of my own, Mr. Jen’s schedule changed to night shifts. It would be fine, I figured, because my mom had been on third shift and I understood how everything worked. Except, I didn’t. I didn’t understand that it would be very much a single-parenting situation most of the time. I got the kids up and off to school before Mr. Jen got home. He usually got up after they went to bed. And the parent they got stuck with was snappy, shouty, and downright mean due to being overwhelmed. The house was not clean. The house was not nice. Homework turned into screaming and punishment, then didn’t get done at all. I was a terrible mother. My brain was constantly racing, I was always on the verge of tears, always ready to scream at even the smallest change to our schedules. I regret so deeply how I treated my children during that time, and I’m furious at Past Jenny for not getting help and antidepressants and anxiety meds that she desperately needed.
Then, Mr. Jen got on a different schedule, and things became easier. I was more productive and focused, I was able to write a book that got us out of our poverty. Things in generally just got better. It didn’t erase the horrible years, but to me, it felt like they were over.
And then they asked him to switch back to thirds. This was in 2018, so this time, things would be different. Our kids were older, they were being homeschooled, and I was more chilled out. My career was in a better place, and taking third shift again would put Mr. Jen’s career in a better place, too, so I agreed that it was a good move. Still, I didn’t like it. Something about it felt wrong to me. When his boss promised Mr. Jen that the switch would only be for a year, I laughed in his face. “You’re never coming off thirds,” I told him. But he insisted it was only for a year, and took the new position.
September 2019 rolled around, the time that he should have been moved back to a day shift. But the holidays were coming up, his boss pointed out. Training someone to do retail management in a new department, on a new shift, in September? Just wait until after the holidays, they said.
We all know what happened in 2020. Obviously, they couldn’t change his job during a pandemic. Or in 2021. Pandemic was still going.
Meanwhile, I was miserable. But so was everyone else. It was a pandemic, baby! Everybody’s mental health was in the toilet. I would get up in the morning when Mr.Jen got home, stay awake until he went to bed, then go back to bed myself and sleep until the evening. I struggled to get any work done at all. If I wrote five hundred words in a single day, that was an epic feat and it took all my mental energy. I was deeply unhappy all of the time, self-harming more than ever before, and Mr. Jen’s bosses kept dangling vague promises of getting off third shift in front of him. Theses never panned out, but my hopes went through the roof every time. When I would hear that it wouldn’t work out, he would still be on third shift, I didn’t give a shit about his disappointment. I would throw “I told you,” in his face every time. I told you that they were lying. I told you it wouldn’t be just a year. I told you, I told you, I told you. I was a megabitch, angry at everyone and everything.
And I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see that the feelings of rage and hurt I had every time we found out he wouldn’t be getting a position on a day shift were the exact same feelings I would have as a high schooler pulling into an empty driveway. That they were the same feelings I felt when I was trying to hang on to my grandmother’s car, wanting to go home and not understanding why it wasn’t my home anymore, even if I slept there nightly. I’d never connected those things in my mind.
A few months ago, Mr. Jen started in a new position, on day shift. On his first day of work, I wrote two thousand words in one sitting for the first time in years. The career I’d envisioned sliding away was suddenly back on track. It didn’t make any sense; all that had changed was Mr. Jen’s work schedule.
All that had changed… was Mr. Jen’s work schedule.
In all my years of being miserable and mean, it never once occurred to me that no matter how much time I spent with Mr. Jen, no matter how many vacations and outings we carved out of his weird schedule, I’d never realized that my brain immediately heard “third shift” as “abandoned and lonely, like the worst time of your childhood.” If I’d ever made that connection, would I have been a better mother? A better partner to my husband? Would I have been happier, if I could have reframed it not as that original feeling of instability and abandonment, but as a totally different life event involving totally different people and an added sense of my own adult agency?
I was in middle school when my mother casually mentioned that she had been offered a position on a day shift. My hopes soared. Her next sentence was, “I didn’t take it. I prefer nights.” When I graduated high school and moved out, my mother did change her schedule.
Her new boyfriend didn’t like that she worked third shift.