In 2002, I was finishing up grad school and ready to “Make a Difference”. I took the train to my new job, walked around Downtown Chicago like a tourist, all bright-eyed and excited for my new opportunity. I was also engaged and in wedding planning mode. Life was amazing.
When I arrived for my training at the NBC towers, I was beaming with pride and so impressed with the office location. I felt so cool taking the elevator to “my office” and using my badge to scan myself in to unlock the door. I walked into the training room and found six other girls in the training room. We all appeared to be about the same age, well except one woman.
She was wearing glasses, had short stacked hair and a blazer: dead giveaway for a mom. She did not look happy. She asked about 17 questions before the first break. I did not understand why this woman was insisting on knowing everything right away. The same thing happened day after day for two weeks, constant questions from this Mom-Lady. It seemed as if the other five women had the same thought as me because we all began to make eye-contact with each other when she asked yet another question. I had no idea what I was doing either; however this women’s questions emphasized that I was also clueless and made the training longer.
By the time the Monday arrived for week three of training, the newness wore off. It was winter and freezing downtown. I was exhausted from waking up so early, while it was still dark out, to begin my journey to what it felt like the north pole. It takes a lot of effort to be in the loop by 8:00am. I was also beginning to realize that I voluntarily signed up to be in the real-life version of Office Space: the cubicles, everyone complaining about the copier jamming, and all the staff in the cubicles with the same flat-zombie-like expression as Peter. (“Peter…What’s happening?”)
Finally on Friday of our last training day, we somehow decided to walk to the same place for lunch. As we sat down, one of the girls my age unloaded, “I am sorry, but do any of you guys know what the fuck we are doing?” All of us burst out laughing. The bubble of phony professionalism was broken and everyone unleashed their confusion, realness and fear. It was such a relief to hear everyone’s insecurities. Even the Mom-Lady was laughing and was making funny comments.
After we all had our food, Mom-Lady stated she felt compelled to tell us something. You could sense the uncomfortable tension by the abrupt, dead silence at the table. Mom-Lady explained that she had been in the field as a clinician for fifteen years until she took time off to be home with her kids. She was married and had two children, a girl (8) and a boy (5). She disclosed she was 42 years old and “feeling pretty humiliated” about going back to work after being off for eight years. “My husband is self-employed and his business was doing well. We were able to afford my being a stay-at home mom. However, with all the insurance changes and pre-existing condition limitations; private insurance cost a fortune. Unfortunately, I need to go back to work to provide insurance for my family.” The story continued to get worse. She then confessed she had also allowed her license to lapse during her time off, and without a license, you could not get hired anywhere except for entry positions. Therefore she had to basically start over and take the licensing exams which were not held until next year.
We all sat there stunned and speechless; wide-eyed and jaws gaping open. None of us were even married yet or had children. I could not even fathom this kind of stress. The silence was unbearable and I assumed it was making this Mom-Lady more uncomfortable than she already was. I had no clue what to say. Everyone began looking down at the remains of their potbelly sandwiches and sitting on their hands for what seemed like an eternity. When things are tense, uncomfortable and awkward I always think of funny things and feel the urge to laugh inappropriately.
Before I could think I blurted out: “Jeez, remember in Office Space when he says “Every time you see me, that’s on the worst day of my life. He’s got nothing on you. Sheesh! That SUCKS!”
Thankfully the Mom-Lady began to laugh, probably more out of gratitude that the silence was broken. Then we all began to laugh. It wasn’t the most professional, empathetic, therapist-like thing to say but it broke the ice. We all returned to the office laughing, relaxed and more cohesive than when we left; by being honest and raw, we had bonded.
The next week, we were all thrown into our roles and able to grasp the actual job fairly quickly. We had to just do it in order to learn it. We discovered instant messaging and we would IM each other all day long. It turned out the Mom-Lady was pretty hilarious once she got over her initial anxiety. We all laughed hysterically all day long at her instant messages, nicknames for team leaders and her in-person impressions of different coworkers.
Mom-Lady was honest, eloquent and had an amazing ability to say things to me that I would not tolerate from anyone else. An example, one day I was talking to my own Mother on the phone at work. I was all stressed out about my wedding dress and that “I would not be able to lift my arms all the way up” and “how would I dance if I can’t lift my arms up!” My Mother became stressed and worried too and the two of us were like two balls of irrational anxiety. Mom-Lady apparently overhead me talking from her cubicle and came over to my desk smirking. Mom-Lady basically told me straight up to “get some real problems.” I was knocked right into a reality check. Then she elaborated, “I know your wedding seems like it is the most important day of your life right now but seriously, I have been married for 12 years, and in the big scheme of things it is not a big deal. It’s one day.”
I was dumbfounded at first. Then I embraced her authentic honesty because it was exactly what I needed. I began to giggle and I replied, “Oh yeah, well then you explain to everyone at the wedding why I am dancing and walking like this.” I stood up and began doing some dance moves resembling Ed Grimley from SNL and walking with my arms planted at my side like Molly Shannon in the Seinfeld Episode “The Summer of George.” Mom-Lady and I began to perform Ed Grimley dance moves in my cubicle while laughing hysterically. We spent the rest of the week walking down the hall not moving our arms like Molly Shannon.
Mom-Lady taught me to laugh at myself and she turned out to be the older sister I never had. Over time she became my favorite person to talk to. Eventually she changed from Mom-Lady to my most cherished Mom-Angel-Friend. My Mom-Angel-Friend was definitely an example that fear and shame can bring out the worst in people; and in some circumstances, you do get a second chance to make a first impression.