Rose Kennedy: Knowing When to Quit

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Eight simple words.

Upon hearing them, I recognized my true self with a certainty I have not experienced a second time in this life. And they set me on a course as a quiet labor maverick, a walk-the-walk life philosopher, maybe even a feminist of sorts.

“What mean did Micky do to you today?”

One minute I was your ordinary dissatisfied American working mom, the next, that life was no longer an option for me.

The words dropped matter-of-factly from the mouth of my 3-year-old daughter. Comfortably settling in for a chat as we reached home, her from a family day care, me from a hip publishing company, she turned to me expectantly.

“What mean did Micky do to you today?”

I could not answer. I could not believe it. She was 3! And just by listening as my voice rose and fell, recounting my thorny workplace situation to her father each workaday evening and well into the weekends, she knew. Even my three-year-old, especially my 3-year-old, knew that I was in a situation that could not continue.

She grasped the names, and the unhappiness, and had begun to think it normal.

How, I wondered, had I reached the point where a young child knew I must move along without realizing it myself?

It just happened. As the company projects dwindled, I’d been assigned to work for a peer, when before I’d been in charge. I did most of the heavy lifting while this peer jaunted off to long lunches and whatnot and then swooped in on long-past-deadline projects to make expensive, contrarian changes, just so a presence could be felt. There were half truths, and closed doors, and shoddy work, and people working beside and under me who I could not protect, either.

As per company, and personal, standards, I’d brought my woes to the attention of higher ups, in ascending order, without jumping or end-running.

And yet—nothing. They could not or would not make changes that would keep me from wasting most of my working hours and our group from issuing substandard work with stupid mistakes.

I heard only from a 3-year-old, one who had just me and her father to set the pace, the tone, for her life. She’d never earned a paycheck or walked into a conference room, indeed, she’d been on earth just over 1,000 days, but she knew me, heard me, and told me this was not the way the world should be.

I knew all at once I did not want this for her. I’d been so caught up in this fast-paced career climb that I’d just accepted a deadening workplace experience, talked about it, then ignored it.

My child did not need the example of a mother who accepted a demeaning, energy-sucking, no-solutions role in exchange for a paycheck. Who could not solve things at work, so instead brought them home to define a 3-year-old’s frame of reference. And then the second thunderbolt: I didn’t need that, either.

“What mean did Micky do to you today?”

She caught me completely with those words, in a way the Womens Studies literature of my university years and the Ms. magazines could not. They had told me I could be equal, break glass ceilings, do meaningful work in a liberated world. But this was not about being a working woman, or demanding equal opportunity, or balancing child care and work duties.

It was about making myself miserable and not taking steps to correct my situation.

I little realized that my reaction to my daughter would make me sort of an oddball, if an inspirational one, the rest of my life.

Because I did it. I quit. Quit my job. I don’t remember the exact words exchanged, only that the boss-of-a-boss who accepted my resignation was genuinely concerned that I didn’t quite understand what I was doing.  With my English major and several very successful years at the company, the career was a good fit for me, and I was the wage earner as my husband finished a college degree, a proper little product of the women’s movement.

But none of that mattered as much as never hearing these words again: “What mean did Micky do to you today?”

Rose Kennedy came to Knoxville to work as an editorial assistant on 13-30’s Retail Appliance Management Series and never saw a reason to leave. Her “so uncool I’m cool” career among the alt weekly newspaper crowd has led to award-winning articles on Dr. Bill Bass and the Body Farm and cyber-bullying at West High School, and treasonous food columns about preferring unsweet tea and feeling ambivalent about biscuits.

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