Did I Shave My Legs for This??

Posted by Claire Vath on Feb 4, 2014 in Men, Musings, Relationships
Courtesy of Kay Jewelers--What is this supposed to be? A heart? A serpent? Boobs and a butt?

Courtesy of Kay Jewelers–What is this supposed to be? A heart? A serpent? Boobs and a butt?

In 2008, one of my favorite authors, Jeffrey Eugenides (“Middlesex”) edited a compendium of love stories entitled “My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead.”

In promoting the then-upcoming book, Eugenides sat down with NPR’s Michelle Norris. I was on my way home at the time and tuned in. A snippet:

Norris: Wait a minute — an author who puts together a collection of love stories has total antipathy for Valentine’s Day?

Eugenides: Oh yeah. Don’t you think it’s the cheapening and commodification of something rare that we’d all like to celebrate in private and on our own time?

Norris: I personally like flowers and chocolate.

Eugenides: Well, your special person, I hope, is listening.

…Did I mention Eugenides is one of my favorite writers?

Last year on Valentine’s Day I was standing in line behind three work-weary men, each wielding tragically sad heart-shaped boxes of chocolate marked 20% off. (I was there for the aisle of more romantic cough syrups and Kleenexes.)

Why, oh why, February 14, you masochistic Hallmark holiday that all the consuming-loving masses hungrily devour?

What is it that makes normally intelligent people purchase a box of crappy chocolates that may or may not have a picture of the men from “Duck Dynasty” on the heart-shaped box? (I saw that one the other day.)

Why heart-shaped jewelry?

Why red roses with sprigs of trash flowers named after someone’s breath?

Why the tacky teddies slumped over warped hangers in the lingerie section of Sears?

Or ugly stuffed animals holding crushed red velvet heart pillows with horrific slogans like “Can’t Keep My Paws Off You.”

Why the need to tell the world—or just all your “friends”—via a Facebook wall how much your significant other means to you? And why on February 14?

Because we all know that nothing says love like telling your spouse who, I’m sure is available by phone, text or likely sitting right next to you, that you love him for all 550 of your friends to see … right? Who are you trying to persuade? But I digress.

Instead of overt calorie-laden or monetary gestures, here are the things I’d appreciate from my spouse on February 14 … or any other day:

The dishes get done.

  • Reading to the kids.
  • Having an actual conversation that doesn’t involve diapers or finances.
  • A trip to the bathroom without kids banging on the door.
  • A long, hot bath by myself.
  • Clothes folded.
  • Floors mopped.
  • Dinner cooked.
  • Diapers changed.

Something small but significant. I’m lucky. These are things he helps out with on a daily basis—things I desperately need and still appreciate. Chocolates may be sticky and delicious, but they don’t hold a relationship together. Neither do ambiguous-shaped pendants that Jane Seymour hawks at Kay Jewelers.

To the sad sack men in Rite Aid—and any guy over the age of 18—listen up: Heart-shaped anything is ugly. If you plan to go the jewelry route, might I suggest a more tasteful princess cut or oval?

And if you want to celebrate on a different day—you know, a day where flowers aren’t marked up 400%—February 9 is a nice day (nevermind that it’s my birthday).

And maybe, just maybe, if you want to send flowers, pick peonies.
Trust me on this.




Loss of Cabin Pressure: How I Cope When I’m About to Crash the Mother Plane

Posted by Claire Vath on Jan 13, 2014 in Motherhood, Musings, Relationships

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to flight XXX with nonstop service to XXXX.”

 As if flying weren’t panic-inducing enough these days, the laundry list the stewardess off-handedly ticks off is absolutely horrifying if you really listen. “Welcome aboard, here is a list of ways you could die.”

“Emergency exits are located here and here. Each exit is equipped with a safety slide.”

If there’s a fire, you’d better hope to God you’re close to an emergency exit. Have you SEEN how long it takes for everyone to exit the plane at the end of a routine flight?? Let’s hope you even get to the slide before you burn to a crisp inside this metal oven we call an airplane.

“In the event of a water landing, life jackets are located under your seats.”

But when’s the last time you heard of anyone using those things, really? Hope you at least filled up on our complimentary peanuts before sinking to your watery grave.

“In case there’s a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will deploy from the ceiling above you. To secure, pull the mask toward you, secure the elastic strap to your head … Breathe normally. Even if the bag does not inflate, keep in mind that oxygen is flowing. Always secure your own mask before assisting others.”

And there it is. A laundry list of ways you could meet your maker non-stop from Denver to San Francisco, but it gets at some hard truths too: You have to help yourself before you help others.

“So, are your kids still at home with you all day?” my pediatrician asked as she shined a light into the eyes of my shrieking 15-month-old.

“Well,” I said in hushed tones, as though my words would absorb through the walls, “I don’t get all my fulfillment from my kids.” 

She nodded understandingly. But people aren’t supposed to admit that, right?

My children are not my whole life. Motherhood is not the ultimate fulfillment. Sure, it fills me up, but I need other things to help make me whole.

But that sounds selfish. Because it’s supposed to be enough. Two gorgeous, healthy children whom I have the privilege of nurturing, and nourishing, and rearing. What more could I possibly want?

Again and again, I find myself straddling this awkward fence of motherdom and … other-dom. I’m no great feminist, but quitting my office job was a no-brainer when I popped out two kids. I wanted the few short, precious years I’d have with them before they were forever schlepping to and from school. 

But just because I stay home, that didn’t mean I had to lose myself in the process. I am a mother, yes. Sometimes a good one. Sometimes a surviving one.

But first and most important—and perhaps most selfishly—I need other things too.

So I find things that fill me up and allow me the opportunity to flex the non-mom brain muscles.

I write and edit stories, sometimes slogging through tedious blocks of copy wondering why I accepted a job (money); other times writing story leads and rewriting story structures that I enjoy. I take leisure classes to learn things like calligraphy and photography. I have periodic dinner dates and drinks out with friends. I read at least one book a week. I read critical essays and political columns. I watch trash TV.

And I date my husband. Often, those dates consist of a microwaved dinner after the kids have gone to bed, maybe a glass of wine and a TV show on Netflix, but I never said those dates were perfect. Having children has changed us in ways we never imagined, but we work—sometimes hard, sometimes not as hard as we should—to keep our relationship strong.

And in the mornings, I often get up before the kids have begun stirring and put on a pot of coffee before I get them up. Sometimes I have a bowl of oatmeal before I fix their breakfast.

I spend nearly all their waking hours with them—lots of quantity, frankly, not all quality. With so much quantity, I’ve come to accept that it can’t be all quality all the time.

I need my me time: my outside interests that span beyond the confines of diapers and timeouts and story hours and playtimes.

I need friends and adult interaction and things that challenge my brain outside of the motherhood vortex. Because in the end, it’s all those outside things that allow me to be a better mother to the children who (most days) I’m profoundly privileged to call mine.

It is all those things that fill me up and allow me to feel fulfilled—including, but not limited to motherhood. So when my proverbial cabin loses pressure, I will secure my own yellow mask first, so I can then help my children. Because if I’m not breathing comfortably, they won’t be either….




Why I Will NOT Write for Free

Posted by Claire Vath on Dec 3, 2013 in Musings, Success Guide, Writer Rants

A year ago, I walked into a meeting and was introduced to a longtime editor. “I’m an admirer of your writing,” she said.

I turned to see who it was she was complimenting.

“Me?” I asked, flushing. There was no one else there.

“Yes, you,” she said, smiling. “I love your work.”

It’s something I’ve been doing professionally for a decade now—and something I’ve been doing informally my whole life—but when people ask what I do, I sort of laugh when I say, “Well, I guess I’m a writer. I write, at least.” Because, even to my ears, it doesn’t sound real.  So when someone gives anything close to recognition, it’s just … odd.

Apparently other people think it’s not quite a real thing either. In a meeting a few months back, a client leaned back in his chair and asked, as though he were joking: “So if you do a lot of work for us, do you give us a discount on your hourly rate?”

It ain’t manual labor, folks, but writing is hard work. (A point which Mollie Bryan made a few weeks back.)

You’d pay me if I sat at a desk all day inputting numbers into a database. Right? Or if I answered phones all day and made copies. Or wasted time playing Solitaire at an office desk. (Does anyone actually play Solitaire anymore??) Or if I cleaned your house or mowed your lawn or cooked your meals.

But yet … some people balk when you ask for money in exchange for words.

My job as a writer is to come up with smoothly flowing sentences and correctly spelled words so you come across as competent.

Nine-point-eight times out of 10, writing is far from inspired. I’m not exuberantly scratching out with my quill pen some existential work that will transform mankind with the gravitas of my words. Mostly, I’m drinking too much coffee and sleepily squinting as I slog through a story that doesn’t particularly interest me while trying to make it sound interesting to a reader. Or I’m crafting interview questions designed to draw out from an interviewee a really great quote that will neatly fit my ideal of what a story should be.

And then there’s the mental toll—mulling those sentences and leads over and over again while I can’t sleep at night, while I’m taking a shower or doing the laundry. It takes time, effort, careful culling and editing to craft a story, a press release, an e-mail.  I may not be doing manual labor, but for every physical hour I spend typing up a blog post or your newsletter or web copy, I’m spending at least twice that working it out in my head, editing and re-editing for you.

To ask me to discount that is frankly insulting.

So when that prospective client asked me about my “writer’s discount,” I gasped but recovered quickly.

If I’d had my wits about me, I’d have said: “So, do you take a pay cut if you work more than 40 hours a week?”  (Judging by his shiny Lexus that was parked just outside, I’d be willing to bet not.)

Or: “My job as your writer is to make you sound less like the idiot you apparently are.”

Instead, “Do you know how expensive diapers are?” in a saccharine-y sweet voice that showed I was also pretending to joke, was my response.  (Judging by my post-college compact car stuffed with diapers and car seats, I was not joking.)

I got the job.

And, a few weeks later, an e-mail. That same client sent me his self-written press release as background for an article I was supposed to write.

The press release copy was rife with misspellings that could have easily been caught … with spell check.

“Did you mail that out yet?” I wrote him back.

His reply: “Yeah, LOL. Did you see any boo boos? :-)”

… I’m worth much more than my hourly rate.



Learning to Say No (While Saying Yes)

Posted by Claire Vath on Nov 8, 2013 in Motherhood, Musings, Success Guide
My serene work environment....

My serene work environment….

It was my dream job, the one I imagined while I sat in meetings sipping tepid coffee out of a styrofoam cup: I want to be a stay-at-home mom and writer.

“It will be great!” I mused to my husband. “Don’t you want all your laundry done, a hot meal, and clean house?”

He rolled his eyes.

“I’ll work too!” I told him. “I’ll need something else to do anyway. I’ll write and edit from home,” I said, picturing myself sipping a cup of coffee and flexing my creative muscle while my child played quietly at my feet.

The driven, perfectionist side of me believed I could be at home all day, cook a hot meal, keep a clean house, find time for hobbies, laundry and meet deadlines.

Those were the lies I told myself pre-children.

But I am a “Yes” person, finding it hard to turn down freelance jobs … mainly to prove to myself that I can do it all and do it all well.

Then I began working from home. My son was 4 months old, and I had a phone interview. In addition to my research preparation and list of questions, I had a spread-out blanket on the floor beside me, a myriad of chewed-on toys that jingled and made music, a bottle and three pacifiers for good measure. I was leaving nothing to chance.

Once on the phone I was confident that, put to the test, my child would be great.

I asked the first question in my list and the person on the phone launched into an explanation which I furiously scribbled down on a pad while keeping one eye on my child.

And my baby, well, he projectile vomited all over me, the floor, himself. On the first question.

One tiny, helpless human being was difficult, yes, but then when I found out a second helpless human was on the way—the first only 7 months old—I panicked. But the second was born, and I was even more determined to do it all, be it all. Maybe even while wearing a dress and makeup?

“Wouldn’t it be even more impressive if I took on more work and responsibilities while raising two children under the age of 2?” These were questions I asked my subconscious, as I told clients “Yes” in the same breath.

“Yes, I’d love to edit monthly copy for you.”

“Sure, I can fill in this month.”

“Next month? Well, yes. That’d be fine.”

“Oh, that story sounds like it’d be fun. Yes, I’ll accept the assignment.”

“Yes, writing product copy would be great!”

I was Rosie the Riveter! I could be it all! The consummate professional, maternal goddess, Martha Stewart, made-up wife.

But my life is far from Pinterest-worthy. It’s 11:30 a.m. as I type this. I am wearing Christmas pajama pants with a T-shirt—my husband’s undershirt he wore yesterday, because it smells good. Forget the bra; I haven’t gotten that far yet. And likely won’t, if I’m being honest. But here I am, pounding out the words on my keyboard for a story well before its deadline.

My third cup of coffee was consumed by 9 a.m. It coincided with my son’s third timeout. I’ve wiped more runny noses so far than typed words. Both children are currently wearing diapers and little else—it’s easier to change them that way—and vestiges of their breakfast yogurt remain in the corners of their mouths and the crevices of their hands.

Last night’s dishes litter the counter. A host of half-empty water glasses and coffee cups surrounds my computer desk. Graham cracker crumbs litter the floor around me from the children “quietly playing” at my feet. And when I get up, I trip over a singing teapot.

Some days—hell, most days—I let my children watch too much television—the same “Daniel Tiger” and “Sesame Street” episodes on Netflix. It is the only way I  get actual paying work done sometimes.

Then it’s finally nap time—time for me to get a good chunk of work done! But I’m exhausted. So I choose sleep for an hour … until a child cries out. I’ll work later. You know, when I’m supposed to be cooking dinner.

And when I’m particularly busy, dinner turns into a handful of out-of-the-can almonds and often the discarded food on my children’s plates. Maybe a stray grape or half a sandwich if I’m lucky. All this as I sit with a pen in my hand and a stack of copy on my lap.

I am not a total loss: minus the dirty faces in the morning, my children are well-loved, well-fed, well-tended, well-disciplined. I religiously take them to the zoo, story time, the park. We read books, sing songs.

I may not know how to turn down work, and I may not have it all—but my deadlines are met. Screw the mopping; I’ll peel the dinosaur stickers off the floor tomorrow!

Will I accept another story assignment or editing job if I’m offered one? …Yes. Probably. A deadline met gives me a fleeting sense of “I did it!” that doesn’t nearly as often come from raising children.

And, maybe tomorrow I’ll find the time to put on a bra?

No. Probably not.

… See? Maybe I can get the hang of this saying-no thing.



What I Did On My Summer Vacation…And Can I Get a Do-Over?

Posted by Claire Vath on Oct 22, 2013 in Motherhood
Our wagon packed for a 20-minute trip to the beach

Our wagon packed for a 20-minute trip to the beach

My brother parked the car, and his wife and I ran as fast as we could to make the ferry before it departed. Soon I was standing on the back deck of the Grey Lady as it churned up the dark waters off Hyannis Port en route to Nantucket.

It was June, but the sky was the color of smudged charcoal, and the wind whipped our hair into a frenzy as we cut through the choppy waves. Most passengers sought refuge out of the frigid salt spray, but I stood on the deck, impervious to the chill as I watched the foamy wake trailing behind.

Two days prior, two faint pink lines had appeared on a pregnancy test. And now I was here, on the sea—slightly nauseated and alone with my secret—some 1,200 miles from home.

Once we got to the island, the clouds blew away like smoke, and the sun began to warm the streets. Nantucket dripped with charm. We traversed quaint cobblestone streets, snapped photos of rose-draped white picket fences and gray-shingled cottages. We walked out to a lighthouse and dipped our feet in the frigid Atlantic. And when we were hungry, we dined on tiny, delicate cherrystone clams and lobster rolls.

The dreaminess continued as I fingered tiny, infant-size Nantucket shirts, children’s storybooks. I walked through the enchanted town, eyeing unsuspecting tourists.

“I’m making new life right now, what can YOU do?” I wanted to say to them. “What’s your superpower?”

Because—right then—this tiny, two-week-old cluster of cells was beating into existence. And the new world I was experiencing through pregnancy-colored glasses (think beer goggles but with a hangover) was poetic and lovely.

And that evening, when we departed Nantucket Sound, a few people joined me on deck, watching the lighthouse throw light beams across the water. A man stood next to me, fished around in his pocket and came up with a penny.

“You’re supposed to throw a penny off the boat to ensure your return to the island,” he told me.

I looked at him skeptically. “Is that something islanders tell tourists?” I asked.

“No, it’s real,” he said, convincingly flipping his penny into the icy depths below.

I pulled a penny out and did the same. I also wished for a healthy, viable pregnancy.

I got that wish, and for that I’m grateful. But, all things being equal now, I’d like to tack on one more wish: One. More. Relaxing. Vacation.

Fast-forward three years. That tiny speck of cells is now a very tall, lithe two-year-old with curly hair the color of caramel. And he’s throwing his body again and again into the salty surf of the beach.

He can’t swim. But he flings himself into the waves as my husband grabs his hands, his arms, his pants in an effort to save the toddler who has no idea he’s being saved.

I sit, surveying all this on a warm patch of sand, my nine-month-old daughter wiggling impatiently in my lap as sand blows in our eyes and sticks in our mouths. I put her in the wagon we carried down two flights of stairs and both pushed through the sand just to get all our crap onto the beach. But she tries to fling herself out of the wagon, mimicking her wild brother a few yards away.

I yell into the wind at my son, but if he hears it, he ignores it, my advice blowing away. We manage 20 minutes on the beach, coaxing a screaming, kicking toddler back to the boardwalk so we can then again lug the wagon—packed with chairs, buckets, towels, bottles, sippy cups—up two flights of stairs while each of us holds a small child in one arm.

When I grew tired in Nantucket, I curled up in a daybed and napped until the late-afternoon sun woke me.

But here in Florida, I have yet to get to sleep. We are tired, my husband and I. More tired than we ever thought possible. And we’re road-weary veterans of bottles and breastfeeding and projectile poop and vomiting. We’ve done it all. We deserve a vacation, damn it. And we intend to take one.

But at 1 a.m., when our two babies begin screaming, I try to will myself back on the deck of the Grey Lady, basking in the glow of early pregnancy with no responsibilities.

It doesn’t work. Instead, I lie in bed—alone, my husband on the sofa with the dog; my daughter commandeering the master bedroom; my son in the bed across from me—mentally flipping a penny into the gray water below: Can I get a do-over?? A relaxing vacation perhaps?

And then I think back to those two faint lines running across the pregnancy test, that pink symbol of a perfection I hadn’t previously known existed. In that moment and in the moments standing aboard a Nantucket-bound ferry, I was brimming with the brand of idealism not yet tainted by the realities of motherhood.

Will I ever again be able to nap for hours on end in a sun-drenched room unpunctuated with baby cries? Will I ever know the pleasures of a dog-eared beach read with only the sound of waves in the background?

Will I ever get to that hard-earned point in the distance?

And when/if so, will I miss this—the chaotic nights, the spilled sippy cups, the never-ending exhaustion?

For now, those are questions I don’t have the time or energy to ponder. Instead, I will myself out of bed to cajole a wailing infant … and pour myself a large cup of coffee….


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