I took AP classes in high school. I graduated valedictorian. I took honors courses in college and got the silver tassel for my mortarboard. I received a behavioral science award. I was a member of NHS and Phi Theta Kappa. Hell, I read when I was four. I have a good working knowledge of French, Spanish, and ASL. I have a scholarship and instant acceptance waiting for me when I ever get around to going back for more learning. This is not bragging. This is just the truth.

Here is another truth.

I work at a grocery store. I have worked there for going on four years. I started off nights and weekends and have gradually gotten down to Sunday mornings because it conflicts with my other job at the local elementary school. Last year I worked I the high school cafeteria. Yep, I was a lunch lady, complete with hairnet and swollen ankles. Confused? So are a lot of people.

“Where do you work?” It’s an innocuous question. Often we use it to get to know each other, or in some form of small talk. When my kids were small, I was happy to say I was a stay at home mom. Most people were supportive of that, even if I got the blink and half-second hesitation before the inevitable “that is so important” speech. Closely followed by “I wish I could do that” or other such sentiments. Sometimes I heard the “you must be counting the days until they start school” or “don’t you get bored” lines and I would have to bite my tongue. Counting the days, yes. But in dread. Bored? I was never bored. I was with my best friends.

I went to work at the store when they were in preschool. We had struggled financially for years and the mortgage kept going up. So I finally found a place willing to work around my husband’s job. It meant long hours on my feet working until midnight or later, only to be woken up around six by my boys and I was always so tired. But I did it because it was money. And we needed it.

Now they are in school full time. This is when a lot of people go back to the jobs they had before they had their children. Or when they find new ones. For someone with my qualifications, it would be easy enough. But I don’t do it. I choose not to. I work at my store, wearing my uniform polo shirt and clip-on name tag putting up with belligerent customers and harried bosses. I still sport scars from the industrial ovens at the cafeteria and I don’t think my complexion will ever be the same from all the sweating over steam trays. Now I spend most of my weekdays working with special needs children, helping them in the bathroom or reminding them to chew while wiping away the errant saliva trickling down their chins.

But why? Why do I do this? I’ve been asked this before. Several times. To me it was a simple decision.

I do it because I refuse to let others raise my children. Hell, even if I wanted to, I could never have afforded the daycare. And it is not my mother’s job to take them all the time. No, I am not slamming anyone who uses daycare or family to help with their children. Used in the right way, they are wonderful things which have helped mothers and fathers provide for their families. But for me, there was no choice. I had my children because I wanted them. I wanted to be with them, to hold them when they cried and see their first steps and hear their first words. They are only small for such a short time and I selfishly wanted to be there for all of it.

So we ate a lot of pasta. Vacations? Forget it. New cars? My husband has a company vehicle and I’ve had the same tiny sedan for the last six years. It’s good on gas and it’s paid for. We still have a collection of VHS tapes and DVDs with no plans to get a blu-ray player or high def TV. We rent a small apartment in the center of town with a shared yard and cracked siding.

No, I don’t plan on living here forever. This year we might even take a trip for a few days. Thanks to the husband’s promotion last year, things are getting better all the time. The bills are actually paid for, the most part, on time and there have been no threatening phone calls for months. I might even be able to hang up the name tag soon. But I will never regret working there; part-time retail for little money just to make it through a few tough years. Not when I look at my boys and still get heartfelt hugs when I walk in the door.