Sipping coffee in my local diner, I looked around the room and became nostalgic. Servers weaved through the crowd with trays held high above their heads. They reminded me of myself when I used to wait tables -- it was how I earned money in college and throughout my twenties.
Yet, despite all those years of experience, I never advanced beyond mediocrity. For the most part, I was slow, forgetful and impersonal. No one ever raved about my stellar service to the manager. If you asked for tap water -- or anything that didn't raise the total of your bill -- sorry, you'd probably remain thirsty.
But now that I'm a mom, I'm much more attuned to the specific needs of individuals. At least I think I am. I'm more empathetic. More compassionate. The quirkier the need, the more rambunctious the person, the more likely they are to receive help from me. (And they might even get cookies, too.)
These thoughts led me to the obvious question: Has being a mother made me a better waitress?
You gotta admit, the similarities between waiting tables and parenting are endless. Both jobs require meeting the demands of difficult customers. Both can keep you up all night. And both can lead to a little bit of vomit on your clothing.
I finished my coffee and approached the owner, Mario (name changed). One shift was all I needed to prove my theory that six years of motherhood had made me a better waitress. Mario laughed when I proposed my idea, (well, it WAS crazy), but he agreed to let me work one 4-hour shift. I couldn't wait to write about my fun social experiment on my blog.
A few weeks later, I arrived for Sunday brunch dressed in uniform -- black pants, black shirt. The staff eye-balled me. Who does this well-to-do mommy blogger think she is, barging in on our shift? Is she mocking us? I felt bad. I knew that having to train someone new was a burden, and takes away from making tips. My guilt didn't last long, because guess what? Parenting had made me a better waitress! I could juggle. I could hustle. I did it with a smile. I wasn't an official server, more like a server's assistant, but I was still busy enough where that exhilarated feeling came back. If you've ever worked in a restaurant you know the feeling I'm talking about: you've got Table 5's order in your head, Table 6's drinks are on your tray, Table 7 wants the check, Table 8 has just been seated and everything is under control. Before children, I was a hot mess on the floor. After children, ALL GOOD.
But here comes the side dish I didn't order.
Two customers came in. Mario hollered across the diner to me: "Hey Michelle, do we have a two-top up there?" I hollered back that yes, a table on the upper level was available for two guests. He then turned to the customers and said, "Just follow pretty little Michelle to your table. There she is, right there, pretty, little Michelle."
Pretty. Little. Michelle. The hairs on my arm stood on end.
Back in the day, I would've taken sexual harassment much worse than this with a grain of salt. I would've told myself that I was an employee and he was the boss, able to call me whatever the hell he wanted. I would've told myself that those words aren't belittling at all -- they're flattering. I would've told myself that my paycheck depends on not stirring the pot. I would've told myself to just be cool and roll with it. I would've told myself that I am wearing a form-fitting uniform and objectification was inevitable and acceptable.
It never would've crossed my mind to tell my boss that I would appreciate he call me Michelle.
But now, I'm a mom. And I've got two daughters.
I laid the menus on the table for the couple, and I thought about my girls. I thought about what advice I would give them if they had been objectified in the workplace.
I walked downstairs and approached the owner.
"You can't call me pretty little Michelle." I shook my head and smiled as I said it. You know, because a voice deep inside said, Don't come off too strong, remember your place...
"Why?" His face wrinkled.
Did he really not know?
"Oh, come on," I laughed, keeping my tone playful. "Because it's condescending. And sexist."
A logical followup on Mario's part might've been, "Oops, sorry I offended you." Right?
Instead he retorted, "But... you're beautiful!"
To this I said nothing. Obviously he never got the memo that commenting on a woman's physical appearance doesn't belong in the workplace.
A few minutes passed. I bussed some tables. Then Mario gestured with his finger that I come to him behind the bar.
Apparently, he'd decided he was angry because his face was red. He spoke in a hushed, but deadly serious voice. "This is MY business." he said. "This is how I run MY business. And you -- YOU will not tell me how to run it." Suddenly it became clear: No employee had ever confronted this man.
My first instinct: tame the beast. "Oh, I know you meant no harm, I just..." but then my second instinct kicked in- the instinct to raise strong girls by example. "I just needed to tell you that I'm not OK with you talking to me like that."
No, he did not call me "sugar tits" and he did not pat me on the ass, but sexual harassment is rarely that obvious. Case in point: earlier in the shift he had shown me a picture of a fashion model on a customer's iPhone. For no reason other than to see what kind of reaction he would get from me. Sexual harassment, to remind us all, can be many things: an unwelcome look or gesture, gift-giving, calling a woman a girl, personal questions about one's social or sexual life...
In that moment, as he spoke to me in a threatening tone, I considered walking out. It wasn't a real job anyway. But I really wanted to finish what I had started. I wanted my full story. The restaurant was crowded and my fellow co-workers needed my help. Now that Mario knew where I stood on the sexual harassment fence, he needed to do some quick personal PR or this writer he had invited into his restaurant was going to expose him for being a creep. It might've been HIS business, but I had the power of the pen. I have to admit it felt pretty good.
I went back to work rolling silverware in napkins with the staff.
One of the things I've missed about working in a restaurant is the camaraderie. The staff becomes a surrogate family. Some of my greatest friendships have arisen from the most poorly managed dives. Since I didn't care about being fired, I turned to my co-workers and shared what had just happened.
"Oh my god!" the young male server exclaimed. "I can't believe you said that to him." Impressed, he quickly retold my story to the female server rolling silverware next to him. "Michelle told Mario not to call her pretty and little and he REPRIMANDED her!" He turned to me, face now downturned. "He does it to all of us, he said." The woman nodded, "Yeah, he's really abusive to the staff. What he said to you was nothing."
I asked her why she stayed. She shrugged. "I gave my two weeks notice six months ago." She went on to explain that she had finally started getting the good shifts and if she left she'd have to wait at the end of the line someplace else to get those money-making weekend shifts.
I hadn't intended on being the voice of all the people, just the voice I wanted my daughters to hear. Just the voice I had the courage to use now that I didn't need to pay the rent with a waitressing job.
My husband and girls came in at the end of my shift. I seated them at a 4-top and took their order: pancakes, eggs, juice -- kinda like I do at home. Years ago when I gave up waiting tables I vowed I would never do it again. And now here I am, a mother, clocked-in for life and loving it.
The girls got a kick out of seeing me working in a diner, wearing an apron and holding a pad of paper. "So are you a better waitress now, Mommy?"
Yes, parenting has made me a better waitress. But more importantly, parenting has made me a better person.
Before I left, the male server came up to me. He looked like a kid about to thank his teacher for saving the art program. "Thank you so much for speaking up... for all of us," he said. "May I hug you?"
I said "yes." It was a welcome gesture.