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I’m a Writer, Not a Stay-at-Home Mom (Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That)

Posted by Mollie Bryan on Oct 28, 2013 in Motherhood, Success Guide

After quitting my editing job about 15 years ago and moving to a different area of Virginia to stay at home with my new baby, I expected to feel a sense of relief. But what I felt was isolation, frustration, and a sense that, all of a sudden, I had become invisible to certain segments of the population.

In some ways, I still struggle with those issues—but I like to think I have a better perspective on it now.

The relief I expected to feel was a sense of freedom away from the pressure of deadlines, of selling my writing and editing to people who really had no appreciation for the skills I offered. In fact, some of them could barely put a sentence together. My writing was just another task they checked off their list. In the meantime, I sweated over every word and stayed late to meet my deadlines.

I was starting to make decent money in my career—but the lack of respect wore me down. That, along with the daily D.C. Beltway grind of just getting from point A to point B and loads of my time being sucked away in the process, pointed me in a new direction. As did the fact that my husband and I were lucky if we saw one another by 7 p.m. every night. We knew we wanted to spend more time together and more time as parents. What was the point of having a baby if we would hardly ever see her?

Freelancing, after close to twenty years of publishing experience, and moving away from the D.C. area, seemed a viable option. My role in my family began to be a shifting balance between writer and stay-at-home mom.

Fast forward fifteen years, and I’m pretty much broke, ridiculously busy shuffling my girls to all their activities, am never caught up on anything, and am still dealing with feelings of isolation, frustration, and invisibility.

Part of this is self-imposed.

I am a writer of novels.  It is my choice to sit in front of the computer alone each day, spin stories, and meet my word count goal. The other part of it is that I live in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where there’s no real outside work for me. When I’ve tried to enter the workforce, it’s been an utter failure. I’ve written and grown myself out of the local market.

So I need to make this novel thing work.

And my books do well enough to offer hope. I’ve been able to patch together a sporadic professional life freelance writing and editing, along with book writing and consulting, while maintaining a certain focus on my family.

Even with the financial woes and the other frustrations, I don’t regret the choice we made for me to stay home, freelance, and write, and for my husband to take a job eight miles from our house. This has allowed him to be an active partner in our parenting.

I know that the confident, secure, bright, and fabulous daughters we are raising owe a big part of their magic to my husband. But they also owe a part to me—the one who is always just a phone call away if the girls leave an important paper at home or if one of them gets sick in school. I’m also the parent waiting at the bus stop every day— and the one who asks how their day went and talks with them about the boy who’s their crush-of-the-week. All of that matters.

And then there’s all the volunteering I’ve done over the years—school, music, and dance studio functions—even when I’m not as available as what some people think I am.

I am not a stay-at-home mom. I have deadlines. I write books.

Yet I do try to be available because I want to be an active parent in my kids’ lives. Sometimes I stand back and think: How did I become THAT person? I often shake my head when I remember that at one point in my writing career I was called a “radical feminist poet.” Heady stuff.

So on the face of things, I’ve gone from radical feminist poet to mini-van mom in a matter of a few years. But I’ve also penned a couple of cookbooks, four mystery novels, and countless articles in magazines and on blogs.

My accomplishments outside of parenting are also for my daughters. I hope someday they will see and appreciate how I’ve managed to maintain a sense of self and patch together a writing career in a world that is constantly chipping away at selfhood.

I’ve decided the sense of relief I was after is not ever going to come. Deadlines are like heartbeats to me—part of what gives my life energy, balance, and structure.

Knowing who I am and what I can realistically accomplish has been a gift of maturing.  Now I wear the skin of novelist, mother, and wife. In a few years, I’ll be a different kind of mother as my kids go off to college. My writing self will adjust. But for now, I walk a precarious line, gathering new strength along the way for whatever comes next.

Neither the path of mothering, nor the path or writing is an easy one.  Some of us are compelled to do both. As writer Julianna Baggott so succinctly put it: “My fear was that if I gave up writing because of my children, I’d resent my children. If I didn’t spend time with my children — or didn’t have them to begin with — for the sake of my writing, I’d resent my career. I had to do both.”

And so have I, balancing my roles precariously at times but balancing them nevertheless. I am not a stay-at-home mom, but I am a mother…and a writer…who happens to work from home, the deadlines of editors and the deadlines of parenthood ever looming. And no matter how old I get or how much my girls grow, I will always occupy these roles–writer and mother, crafter of words and crafter of heartbeats.


 

 
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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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Racy Brain on Steroids: Life Planning at 2:30 a.m.

Posted by Deborah Huso on Oct 14, 2013 in Motherhood, Musings

It is a horrible habit of mine—this waking up almost every night at 2:30 a.m. to stare at the ceiling fan churning slowly over my bed, feeling the cool whoosh, whoosh drift over my face. My best friend told me to always go to sleep with the ceiling fan running so that I could imagine it whisking my worries away. “It will help you sleep,” she advised me, being something of a middle of the night insomniac herself.

Insomnia has always dogged me to some degree. But it didn’t start to get really bad until the last weeks of my pregnancy. The inability to ever get comfortable kept me awake, Heidi kicking my abdomen but only after dark, willful even in the womb. I went into new motherhood already sleep deprived.

After my daughter’s birth, insomnia chased me so hard I could read an entire novel in one night because I’d never actually fall asleep, ever mindful, waiting for the middle of the night cry that would call me for a 3 a.m. feeding or a diaper explosion in the bassinet at 4:30. Remember those? The colors and smells would often rival a cat box.

But even once Heidi was sleeping through the night, I wasn’t. I could dream up a million reasons to stay awake or to wake up only three hours after falling asleep and stay awake until the sun rose. 

The opportunities for wakefulness are endless….

Is that tech consultant really coming to fix my office network at 8 a.m.? That means before I imbibe Dr. Pepper.  That means she’ll be there in the middle of my phone interview with a couple of Georgia cotton farmers. That means I’ll be distracted. And what am I going to talk to them about anyway?  Have I done all my research? Do I know what I’m going to ask?

I wish I still didn’t have to write that column in the morning. And pay bills. I must not forget to pay bills. Or schedule interviews for that story on gluten intolerance.

I didn’t lay clothes out for Heidi. What if she dresses herself when she wakes up and puts on pink and black striped pants with an orange Halloween T-shirt, and sparkly Hello Kitty shoes?

And what do I wear? I need to exercise. I don’t exercise enough. Should I do yoga when I wake up? Should I bike before I get Heidi off the bus after school? My bike pants aren’t clean. I need to do laundry. Oh no, tomorrow night is choir practice. I can’t bike before choir. Then I’ll have to take a shower, and that’s one more thing….

I forgot to make Heidi practice the piano. How could I forget? And I didn’t wash her tutu for ballet. If I wash it in the morning, will it dry before practice?

Wonder what that certified letter is I got notice about from the post office? Is someone suing me? And how come that new client hasn’t paid me? Is he going to be a deadbeat? I should never work with startups.

I can’t believe it’s October and the grass still needs mowing. When the heck am I going to do THAT???

And so it goes. By the time 5:30 a.m. rolls around, I have planned out my wardrobe for the week, mentally packed my suitcase for my upcoming vacation, written an entire blog post in my head, and put my boyfriend through Gestalt analysis (and no, he was not present when I did this). 

I am exhausted by the mental effort. I fall asleep.

One hour later the alarm goes off, and I feel like Rosie O’Donnell in a wetsuit stuck on the ocean floor at 60 feet. 

I hit the snooze button.  Three times…

I know it is going to be one of those mornings when I pull jeans on over my boxer shorts and put a sweatshirt on over my T-shirt so no one at the bus stop will be able to tell I’m not wearing a bra.

I pull together some semblance of an outfit for Heidi, whip her hair into shape even though I know it will look like a rat’s nest in five minutes, guaranteeing some kind of mental note on the part of Social Services: Heidi Grimes repeatedly shows up to school with unbrushed hair. Make home visit ASAP.

I have tried chamomile tea. Hot chocolate. Reading books about the hunt for Eichmann or ex-patriot love stories by Henry James. Wine. Benadryl. Meditation. Sliced cucumbers on eyelids.

No luck.

Sometimes I embrace the wakefulness. I get up, go to the office at 3 a.m., churn out stories by the handfuls, so that by 10 a.m., I feel like I’ve put in a full day.  By noon, I will be foggy and nonfunctional.

I can doze at my desk. I can go to sleep while driving. I can drift while folding laundry, boiling eggs, or even mowing grass. But not in bed. Why not in bed?

But then there is this: were it not for lying awake in the middle of the night, I would never have time to think. It is in insomnia that I have my wildest daydreams and stir up the ingredients for making them real. Not that I recommend life planning at 2:30 a.m. anymore than I recommend baking a pie. It’s easy to get the recipe all mixed up when one is hopelessly tired, throwing in three cups of flour instead of three tablespoons.

And that would, in fact, explain a lot about my life…it smells too much at times of having been baked by someone only half awake.

Therein perhaps lies the beauty though—a fully awake and rational person would never do some of the things I’ve done. And how much of the experience of living might I have missed if clearheaded and cautious thinking always ruled my actions? 

So I try to appreciate the butter coconut pie with three cups (instead of three tablespoons) of flour, even if it is a bit dense. Better that life be too full than too empty….

 
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Why I’ll Never Leave My Husband…and How Hardship Can Strengthen Marriage

Posted by Susannah Herrada on Oct 9, 2013 in Motherhood, Relationships
Jorge and I caught in an early spring snowstorm in Cappadocia, Turkey

Jorge and I caught in an early spring snowstorm in Cappadocia, Turkey

My husband and I are at the divorce-affair-midlife crisis stage. Not for ourselves (fingers crossed) but for what feels like way too many people around us.

I won’t pretend to know what each couple that split is dealing with, and I don’t really know how bad it can be, how deep the cuts can go, how emotional neglect and ambivalence can sear the soul, and how words and deeds can cause such fragmentation. But as anyone who’s been hitched for more than ten minutes knows, marriage is a process, a long journey not meant for the faint of heart–some days it’s a summit with a breathtaking vista, and other days it feels more like a jagged, treacherous rock scramble.

After more than 15 years of wedded bliss (wink, wink), I do have weeks or months where I feel like we’ve hit a rocky path, a rut, or at best, a relationship plateau.

Sometimes I wonder what keeps us going.

Honestly, we both can be kind of oblivious, living our lives of kids and work, on-demand TV, and Facebook. What snaps us out of it?

The strange thing is that it often takes a bit of hardship, sprinkled with emotional angst, and peppered with the ‘laugh or sob’ hysterics (‘hysterics’ all mine) that get us out of the rut or off the precipice. These so-called ‘hardships’ work to fill in the cracks and smooth over the ruts of what was once a blindly hopeful relationship. We struggle through, and in the end, we are a little closer, a bit stronger, and a lot more deeply rooted.

Where do we find these experiences?

As much as I hate to admit it, it’s not during the constructed date nights and pampered getaway weekends that we grow closer. Instead, it’s in the challenging experiences that we learn to really see each other again and remember the days when we were so stricken with love that we were able to think of little else but each other.

Maybe that’s why we love traveling so much. Traveling provides a crucible for relationship testing. It puts us outside the everyday experiences of the “go to work, do errands, keep the kids from bickering” lifestyle. On the road, as we figure out how to get from point A to point B, when, where and how to eat, keep hydrated, where to sleep, and who to meet, we get to see each other’s strengths (and weaknesses) in a new light.

Many of the best stories are a bit adventurous and hint at danger:  hitchhiking in a blizzard in Hveragerei, the eight-hour cliff-edge ‘hike of death’ in Phuket, shady men in suits plying us with drinks in Istanbul, paperclip door locks on rooftop shacks in Jerusalem, the finger-snipped Japanese Mafia man in Hokkaido. 

It’s the retelling of these travel stories of struggle, frustration, and success (or at least some level of completion/survival) that maintains that awareness of one another that once came so easily as newlyweds. They help remind us what each of us brings to the table when it comes to the smooth functioning of our marriage and family.

Adding kids to the mix, our story list goes on and continues to grow, though generally with slightly less real danger. But just the same, like a butterfly unable to survive without the death-defying fight out of its chrysalis, the clarifying power of these ‘uncomfortable at the time’ struggles are essential to our survival as a couple.

This past summer when we were traveling through Central America for nine weeks with our kids, we noticed a distinct pattern that whenever we were at a more luxurious hotel or an all-inclusive resort, Dylan and Abigail were at each other’s throats. Sit them for four hours, three or four to a seat, on an un-air-conditioned chicken bus where the location of their next meal remained questionable, stops seemed to occur randomly along the road, and the evening’s accommodations were still up in the air, and the kids worked together like a well-oiled machine. They discovered power in teaming up to achieve a common goal, particularly given the numerous times their non-Spanish speaking parents had to rely on them to communicate with strangers.

Maybe Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said it best: “Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

Gazing intensely at each other, as new lovers often do, eventually leads to uncovering glaring faults and inevitable dissatisfactions in one another. After all, no one is perfect, regardless of how exceptionally they present themselves initially.

Looking out in the same direction though and focusing together on a goal helps avoid this pitfall.

So Jorge and I look at the map, stick in pins, and plan our next escapade—making sure to leave room for a bit of hardship.

Together, hell or high water, we make our way, take risks, and make the memories-turned-family legends that remind us to keep the focus on how we work together, not how we fall apart.

And then we wearily come home and look at pictures, and write, and tell and retell stories. We laugh and shudder at our recklessness and sometimes even glimpse the hand of God in our survival.

Most importantly, we take a step closer to each other in this combined journey of discovery, love, and struggle, all the while having one foot out the door toward our next odyssey.

 
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Am I the Only One Who Can Pick Up Socks Around Here? And Why I Fold Laundry in Front of My Husband

Posted by Mollie Bryan on Oct 3, 2013 in Men, Motherhood, Mothers and Daughters, Success Guide

I’m not the world’s best housekeeper. As you can imagine, living in a small house makes it even more of a challenge. When you need to put things away, where do you put them exactly? Under the bed? Squeezed between some furniture? How about one of those nifty pretty storages boxes? Wait. Where will you put the pretty box holding your stuff?

It doesn’t help that my husband is as much of a slob as I am. He’d rather be reading than doing anything else, so he reads in his free time, rather than pick up his socks from the bathroom floor.

Would I rather be reading or cleaning? I’d rather be reading. Better yet, I’d rather be writing my novels. It’s much easier to live in my fantasy world than to open the door to either one of my daughter’s bedrooms and carry on as if the piles of clothes and books don’t really matter. It shouldn’t bother me, I tell myself, the rest of the house is pretty untidy, too. But at least I can walk across the floors in the rest of the house. (A good thing, don’t you think?) Not so in my daughters’ rooms.

Sometimes I do try to pick up and keep things clean—but I’m not sure anybody really notices what I do—unless I perform the task in front of them.

For example, the other day my husband was surprised that I laundered a load of towels. “Do you think the clean towels just fill the hallway closet on their own?” I asked. So I try to do my housework in front of everybody when I can, with as much moaning and sighing as I can muster. “Look at me, I’m folding the laundry!”

But seriously, this was not an issue in our lives until I decided to stay at home with our children and freelance. Before children, my husband and I lived in the D.C. area, and I worked outside of the house as an editor. We divided chores much more equitably—when we actually did the household chores. We didn’t keep up easily because we were too busy bookstore hopping, going to concerts and readings, and eating out to worry about a clean house. Ahhhh, those were the days.

It’s really been a struggle for me to justify not doing the housework every day when I’m home all day long. But it’s not as if I’m eating bon-bons and watching TV. I’m actually writing books. And blogs. And proposals. And so on.

But the sad truth is most people have some sort of lala-land image about what I do, as if writing isn’t working, as if writing is nothing but joy and happiness and money coming in by the droves. And yes, even my own husband of almost 23 years has a hard time with this concept. From his point of view, if I’m not making money, it’s not a job. He has a point.

I am making money with my writing, even though it’s not enough that if I were alone on this planet without a spouse, I could earn a living by penning my novels. No way. Maybe I could do it with freelancing, but then I’d have to give up writing books because freelancing deadlines are tighter and must be met if you want to keep working. The kind of a novel you could squeeze in between the deadlines of another kind of writing might not be a very good novel. Or even a very good idea of a novel. Novels take long tracks of uninterrupted time.

Okay. Seems I’ve gotten sidetracked, away from my original subject, which was housekeeping. You see how easy that is for me—to just forget about it?

Right this minute I’m thinking “Just step away from the keyboard and put a load of towels in the washer.” But the very next minute my thoughts progress to the next sentence on my computer screen and how I’m going to finish this blog post in time for my deadline. Next, of course, I think about my next book and that’s where my thoughts always lead me—which is a good thing because that due date is looming, too.

In the meantime, I’m not sure how important a clean house is to the happiness of my family. And thank goodness for that. I’d much rather spend quality time with them than nag at them to clean or to be cleaning the house myself. While trying to keep the house passable, at least, I try to keep the bigger picture in mind. In the words of the wise-cracking Phyllis Diller, “Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing is like shoveling the sidewalk before it stops snowing.”

 
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Trying Not to Panic: A Mother’s Woe When the First Born Enters High School

Posted by Mollie Bryan on Sep 15, 2013 in Motherhood, Mothers and Daughters

In the midst of the craziness of day-to-day parenting, sometimes we have moments that force us to pause and experience some strange mix of awe and gut-wrenching fear. A couple of weeks ago, I had one of those moments as I sent my oldest daughter off on the bus for our school district’s “Transitions” program.

Emma, you see, is heading to high school. Those words cycle through my brain and strike a numb feeling across my chest, as if I have just lost my breath. Then I take a deep one. Exhale. We’ve made it this far.

Oddly enough, it reminded me of the time a friend handed me a photo of Emma in her dancing costume years ago. I gasped. I wanted to say, “Wait, there’s been a mistake. That’s not my daughter.” But it was. She was beautiful in her blue costume and tutu, kneeling, hands crossed, one shoulder lifted, as if to hint at the joy of being a little girl. A big smile spread across her little face. Shades of the woman she might be someday.

I hardly recognized her.

When I think of Emma, then five, I think of her thick mane of strawberry blonde hair tussled and blowing freely as she ran and bounced around. Hair that I brushed into a shining golden beauty, which lasted about two seconds. I think of her dirty face that I washed eight or nine times a day. Her teeth that I was constantly after her to brush, her hard-to-keep-clipped, let alone clean, finger nails. She was the wind and the earth all wrapped into a big, messy wonderful little person. So to see this other version of Emma, perfectly coiffed, startled me.

And in some ways she is still more wind and earth than perfectly polished at age fourteen. I only see traces of that girl now. She is somewhere in-between, slipping through my fingers one minute. The next she is crawling into bed with me to cuddle.

These days she is more concerned with her appearance. I don’t have to “make” her brush her teeth or her hair. She sits in front of the mirror for long periods of time, primping.

Of course, she is so much more than what she looks like. I want her to know that. I want her to celebrate who she is every day even though I know that is an optimistic order in today’s world. I want it so much for both of my girls. But I guess I worry about it more in Emma. She is my sensitive one. There’s not a mean bone in her body. When her sister Tess used to take swats at her, Emma ran to me and hid behind me. She has veiled this characteristic with a tough girl attitude all the way through middle school. But I know her native sweetness is in there, underneath the skinny jeans and combat boots.

And so I worry about what the world will do to my oldest daughter. I think about it every day, more and more, with each step she takes. I try to point out to her that it is a good thing to be sensitive and nurturing, but we need to be careful where we place our hearts. I think she understands—well, as much as a fourteen-year-old can.

For some, high school is the pinnacle of our lives, shaping us in ways we try not to think about. For me, an outsider in high school, I couldn’t wait to finish, leave the area, and get started with my life elsewhere. But in many ways, I’m still an outsider. I struggle to find my place on the planet after years of painful letdowns and broken hearts. I’ve donned my tough-girl attitude to make it through rocky times as well.

I see shades of myself in E. It can be hard to see yourself in your children—they are almost like little mirrors, giving glimpses of ourselves as we struggle to understand it all.

I used to think the toddler days were like the Olympics of parenting —days of runny noses and diapers and poop on the floor and one more cup of milk, and, God help me, macaroni and cheese again for dinner. So many days I thought, if I can just get through this, it will be okay. Tomorrow will be easier.

I’ve reached one of my tomorrows. Is it simpler? In a way, it is, in that Emma pretty much takes care of her physical self. I am no longer responsible for brushing her teeth and unruly hair, for example, and I don’t have to worry about her sticking an electrical cord in her mouth. Or something. But I can’t afford the lull of a false sense of security now that she’s a bit older. The dangers and heartaches are still there—prevalent—but in a very different way.

Sometimes I’m excited for her and confident that she will be fine. We will be fine. We will get through shopping for the proms and homecoming dressess, the heartaches and the joys of dating, and the academics and everything that goes with that. We will be fine. Other times, I’ll ignore my racing heart, my feeling that time is slipping away too fast, and simply try not to panic.

But then again, just yesterday Emma asked me if she could put petroleum jelly in her ears because they felt itchy. “No,” I said. “Don’t put anything in your ears!” I think it’s safe to say she’ll be needing me for many years to come.

 
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Where Have All My Movie Nights Gone?

Posted by Amy Anderson on Aug 8, 2013 in Motherhood, Relationships

When I was single, I loved living alone. I wasn’t one of those people who jumped at every noise outside the window or complained of being lonely. I relished my independence. I decorated with all the flowers I could stand. I watched a movie and ate half a gallon of Blue Bell ice cream without a shred of guilt. I peed with the door open. Ah, the single life.

When my then-boyfriend and now-husband moved in with me, I mourned the loss of my freedom and unbridled personal expression. And I don’t have to tell any of you who have cohabitated that the first few months were rough—“What do you mean you don’t like this painting?” “Um, what exactly is this in the bathroom sink?”

But I soon learned the joys of living with someone I loved were well worth the effort. I had my best friend around every day. We developed more inside jokes than a CIA open mic night. And we started creating a family through a bond of intimacy that stretched far beyond the bedroom.

After we were married and decided to have children, the old loss-of-freedom fear returned. Actually, I’ll be honest. I was pretty sure I was too selfish to be a mom.

My solo movie nights were still treats, but now I also luxuriated in long dinner dates with my husband. If we wanted to spend an entire Saturday doing nothing but watching TV or wandering around the museum, we could. We traveled to places like the Bahamas, Mexico, and France. We had couple freedom—a slight variation on single-gal freedom, but freedom nonetheless.

Every friend with kids told me the same thing: Enjoy it while you can because when you have kids, you won’t be able to travel/go to the movies/get your nails done/shop/wear white/pee by yourself.

Haha! I laughed at their warnings behind their backs. I mean, get a sitter, people! What do you mean you can’t travel? Take the kid with you! Geez.

I am now the mother of a loving, talkative, and courageous two-year-old. And I have to say, my friends were mostly right. There are exceptions. We see movies—but rarely together. We travel—but rarely out of state. And I shop—but I do it quickly.

The good news is I found that selfishness wasn’t so much the problem. Meaning—that was the problem.

I’m a writer, so I always have a project that I’m passionate about. I find great meaning in my current manuscript or feature article. But I’d never give up movies or vacations or nail salons for an article.

I would, however, give up just about anything for my son.

That kind of deep meaning arrives with an equally profound amount of responsibility. That’s what I was afraid of—not so much the loss of my freedom, but the inadequacy to meet the challenges that accompany great meaning.

But one of the mysteries of life is that we don’t get the courage to face something new until we’re actually faced with the new thing itself. The challenge brings with it a key that unlocks reserves in ourselves we never knew existed.

We buy diapers instead of manicures. We wear white on days we have a sitter. And we travel to places that are kid-friendly because watching the joy on our children’s faces as they discover new worlds is a trip unlike any other.

I sometimes wonder what my single-gal self would have made of my life today. I’m pretty sure she would have winced. But as nice as her nails were, she didn’t know what I know and what Janis Joplin sang so well: Freedom is just another word for nothin’ left to lose.

 
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“Where’s My Yurt?”: The Failure of the Home Office

Posted by Mollie Bryan on Jul 15, 2013 in Men, Motherhood, Mothers and Daughters, Relationships

“What a circus act we women perform every day of our lives. Look at us. We run a tightrope daily, balancing a pile of books on the head. Baby-carriage, parasol, kitchen chair, still under control. Steady now! This is not the life of simplicity but the life of multiplicity that the wise men warn us of. It leads not to unification but to fragmentation. It does not bring us grace; it destroys the soul.”—Ann Morrow Lindbergh

A simpler way of putting this would be “Honey, I love you, but get the eff out of my space. You’re destroying my soul.”

Okay, maybe that’s just my interpretation.

When I thought about my efforts, as a writer, to create a home office, a space for myself, I thought about that quote from Virginia Woolf. You know–the one about women writers needing a room of their own. How lovely. How romantic. But it simply didn’t work for me. It didn’t have the right flavor and feel for my more Erma Bombeck-ish life.

Unfortunately, I found no quotes from her about etching out space and time to write while mothering, taking care of her house, and so on. She was probably too busy living that reality to really think, let alone write about it.

Come to think of it, I don’t read much Erma Bombeck these days because if I want to read about dirty houses, piles of laundry, and the ups and downs of family life, well, this is my reality and I lost the fascination with my “exciting” domestic life years ago.

But I do keep Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s famous book Gift from the Sea close at hand. She inspired many women in her generation to follow their dreams and gave a voice to their emotions and struggles. She also struggled to maintain her own identity–both literary and personal–in the immense shadow of her husband, Charles.

She was a mother and a well-respected writer. Her “circus act,” of course, was probably helped by the fact that she was wealthy. She probably had nannies for her children, maybe a few maids.

Most women writers don’t have that option. And for most of us, writing is more than a trade—it is a compulsion and a passion. So when you don’t have the time to write because say your children are taking up most of it, it’s not only a professional but also a deep personal sacrifice.

My husband and I purchased our three-bedroom home 14 years ago. With one baby, 1,400-square feet seemed plenty. One bedroom for each of us and an extra room for an office. That lasted about a year—or until we knew another baby was on the way.

Then I moved my desk into the dining room, where it stayed for awhile. I remember slipping Emma in the baby bouncer and dashing off a quick column or article to my editor to the bounce-bounce-bounce rhythms of the contraption. I also remember trying out the playpen and a dog fence while I worked and Emma played. As wily then as she is now, she eventually escaped.

And she stopped napping when she was about 18 months old. So working during naptimes wasn’t much of an option for me either.

The next step in my quest for workspace was a groovy desk/armoire in the living room, where I could work and sort of watch over both girls playing. We could close the doors on my computer and papers so the girls wouldn’t mess with them, and we could have some semblance of a normal living space when people visited.

In the meantime, we had decided to turn our sun porch into an office for me, with a little space for my husband, who, after all, has a rather large office where he works. Renovating the sun porch was no easy task. Between our lack of time (toddlers) and dwindling funds (one-income household, basically, with an unsteady freelance income on my end), it became an issue of a physical, financial, and time balance in our household. I remember a vivid conversation with an editor while I was in the middle of painting the walls. Finally, there was heat, flooring, and even lovely pond-moss green walls.

But as we finished the room, I began to worry. My husband liked it too much and was becoming enamored by this private room of many windows, books, and music. There was a gleam in his eye as he looked over my space. Okay, I told myself, hey, he’s worked on this room, too, and he works at an office, so he won’t spend A LOT of time in here, right? This was just another one of those compromises in a long marriage full of them. I’ve had to fight softly to maintain my space to write and think.

Well, at this point, a few years later, the office is the room he spends the most time in on the weekends and in the evenings. He loves it and now has a huge rocking chair in the corner where he sits and listens to music on his headphones. Every time I step around that chair to get to my desk, I think one word: yurt. Yep. you read that right. I am now longing for a backyard yurt.

You see, it’s not just him, but also my daughters who have taken a shine to my office. Many times, we are all crammed in the office together—the smallest room in the house. And I am not writing. It’s such a nice space that the whole family gathers there. This is a problem. In my quest for space to work, I find it’s also a search for acceptance and acknowledgement that my writing matters in my own house, to my family, as well as to the outside world.

So I eek out my space. However I can. And I won’t give up.

Sometimes the guilt sets in, and I adjust my writing schedule and tell myself I don’t need to be working when my family is home. On the other hand, when I’m on deadline or have an important phone or Skype meeting or interview, I give them fair warning. The door will be closed.

Sometimes my balancing act veers to one side or the other. Sometimes I spend way too much time writing and lift my head and wonder what the hell is going on in my own house. Doesn’t anybody else know how to unload the dishwasher? Other times, I’m on top of the house and the family schedule, and my writing suffers. Did I really send that to my editor?

This summer my balancing act is working by getting up earlier than the rest of the family so that I can write in peace. It doesn’t always work out. Even as I write this at 5:38 am, my husband is in his rocking chair, reading, and he just let loose with a loud sneeze. “Bless you,” I say. But what I’m really thinking is “Yurt.”

 
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Life’s Messy: Don’t Clean it Up

Posted by Amy Anderson on Jul 2, 2013 in Motherhood, Success Guide

When my husband and I prepared our home for our newborn son, Max, I went to the baby superstore with one thing in mind: We will NOT be one of those families with a house full of multi-colored baby crap. So I carefully selected a high chair, pack n’ play, and other items that coordinated with our home’s “décor.”

Now, I didn’t put décor in quotes because I have a fundamental misunderstanding of grammar. I used the quotes because if you were sitting here with me while I told you this story, I’d use air quotes to describe our home’s furnishings and wall “art.” See there? I did it again.

No one would mistake us for interior decorators, but we were quite proud of our two-year-old living room set and gigantic TV armoire. I refused to let some baby come in and mess up the harmony of details that was our living space.

Amy's living room...ok, just kidding!

Amy’s living room…ok, just kidding!

The parents among you already know the ending to this part of the story. But for those of you who aren’t parents, here’s a picture of the corner of my living room. Okay, that’s not my living room, but you get the idea.

Turns out, my child’s joy and laughter are the best accessories in any room. Yes, I still look forward to the day when we can have a sofa made out of a fabric that doesn’t repel juice like turtle wax on the hood of a car. But really, would I rather sit on a luxurious sofa while I scrub stains out of it or casually brush them off and continue chasing my son around the now-foam-padded coffee table with my hand shoved up a monkey puppet?

Being a parent has made me realize so much about myself, life, and the living of it that I could fill a baby superstore with tidbits of wisdom and wake-up calls.

But here’s the real lesson: How do I apply this stain-resistant, mismatched attitude to the rest of my life?

I run my own business. I have a husband. I have collected, over the years, a stellar line-up of friends and social connections. I volunteer and sometimes go to church. And I’m writing a book.

In my obstinacy to do all these things in accordance with the established “décor,” I often miss the most beautiful parts. I get so caught up in doing it “right” or looking good to others while doing it that I miss the laughter. I miss the breathless exhaustion after going all out and throwing caution to the wind on a creative project. I miss making my husband snort with glee at the hand-up-a-monkey-puppet moments. I miss showing my friends a good time with paper plates and cheap off-brand sodas in the dim light of a once-in-a-lifetime sunset from my back porch.

Nobody is perfect. Our living rooms don’t match. Our makeup isn’t always on. Our business ideas aren’t always great. And sometimes our children go to school with snot on their faces.

These are the things that make us human.

These are the things that make me real. So today, instead of agonizing over any detail—any detail at all—I’m going to step back and look at the real picture, the one where everyone is messy…and smiling.

 
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All Roads Lead to Rome: Finding the Courage to Go On in the Holy City

Posted by Susannah on Feb 10, 2013 in Motherhood, Success Guide, Travel Archives

With the kids in St. Peter’s Square

I finally succumbed to sitting on the grotty stoop of the apartment building by the bus stop.  I leaned away as residents pushed by me to enter their building, muttering something in Italian.  Looking directly up from my perch was another striking old building.  By this point, I was less into the architectural details and more interested in how the little overhang protected us from the drizzle, which had progressed well past the tolerable early evening mist.  It was well past dark.  The kids and I were damp, and although it was July, we were getting chilly from sitting still as we huddled in a residential neighborhood a few blocks from the Vatican.

We had crossed the street back and forth and jumped around the block from bus stop to bus stop.  Most of the drivers were kind, and though their facility in English was about as good as my knowledge of Italian, they each assured me that their bus went nowhere near our hotel.  How that was possible puzzled me since our little hotel was in the historical center just off a major thoroughfare. Isn’t there some saying about all roads leading to Rome?   I guessed Rome was just bigger than we realized.  I tried not to complain as it was futile.  We were so hungry for real food, not gelato or street cart popcorn.  I missed my husband and his planning.  I longed for the chipper young Parisian women donning perky green uniforms that we had met a few weeks prior in the Paris metro, with ready smiles and pens and maps in hand.

Honestly, I just wanted to cry, but every time my eyes welled up, my children looked all the more hungry and tired.  I was alone with them.  I knew that had Jorge been here, he would have figured out our transportation home long before we had even left our hotel for the morning.  And if he hadn’t taken care to plan, I could gripe and complain to him, as unjust as I knew that behavior now was.

The stark truth was that after more than 2,000 years, Rome was clearly tired of accommodating tourists.  And after a nine-week odyssey in Europe with my kids, I was ready to go home.

Abigail and Dylan waiting for the bus as the rain starts to fall in Rome

We were stranded, hungry, tired, and cold.  Later when my husband asked why we didn’t just do the obvious and take a cab home, I explained that it hadn’t even been an option for me.  When he and I travel, we have a hard and fast rule about walking or public transport whenever possible.  It’s cheaper, you see more, and you are given a better glimpse into the lives of the people that a cab can’t give. There were chickens under the seat in Bali, a uniformed school boy traveling alone who was almost too small to make it up the bus steps in Japan, and an interminably hot bus in Egypt by the Libyan border that stopped at a roadside shack with the best ground meat kabobs I have had ever had, along with scary looking big men with big guns, lots of flies, and a yucky hole-in-the-ground toilet.  Give up these experiences in exchange for the comfort and security of a cab?  I’d rather stay home.

I also confess I had something to prove.  I could do this trip alone.  I wouldn’t take the easy way out.  After a month with my husband in Spain and Morocco, I had five weeks alone with my kids to see a bit of the rest of Europe and I was going to show the kids, myself, and my husband that this life of a gypsy was in their blood.  Wanderlust would become a part of their psyche by nature and nurture.

But I wasn’t thinking all those lofty thoughts as I cursed the bus schedule under my breath.

Then the moment of responsibility came to me and I was released from my paralysis.  I stood up, looked at my two raincoat-hooded children and knew what we must do.  Though I have a habit of making broad proclamations, I knew I couldn’t force anything.  At this moment, I asked them if we should start walking.  I genuinely wasn’t sure if they had it in them.

They knew it was through the rain, in the dark.  I didn’t know how far we would have to go or how long it would take us.  We were all dead on our feet.  Our legs ached from the long day of walking and standing in our extended tour of the Vatican, preceded by many long days of traveling.

The consensus was to strike out into the dark and start walking in the direction of what we thought was our hotel.  We went a block and then another.  Soon we had crossed the bridge over the Tiber.  Our paces quickened in our soggy shoes as we started to recognize a few landmarks.   We had been walking for no more than 15 minutes at that point.  We soon became giddy with excitement as we realized we were close.  And we had been so close all along.  Within less than half an hour, we were back in our neighborhood and looking at the al fresco dining options.  The rain had stopped, and though we were still wet, we couldn’t help but notice that we were actually late enough to experience dining with the Romans instead of our usual habit of eating in quiet restaurants that were barely open for the evening hours.

As we were seated with our wet bags and jackets hanging off our chairs, I looked at both of my children.  I was so proud of them.  Proud of their bravery, their willingness to take that first step away from the security of the bus stop, and their sense of adventure, not just today, but every day on this journey we had taken them on.

I told them that they must never forget what happened that night.  Never forget how far away we felt from home, how dark the night seemed, and how discouraging the rain felt.  Never be afraid to take that first step away from the complacency of a bus stop into the dark unknown.  Avoid the trap of letting the temporary situations of life, like rain and darkness, hunger and fatigue, overwhelm them and keep them from making their way.   I wanted them to know they always have the strength to make the journey, to remember that more times than not, we are much closer than we think.  Just remember Rome.

And yes…my children do sometimes roll their eyes when I remind them of this night.  But I know that as they grow, there will be many moments in their lives that they think that they cannot go on.  It’s then that they will remember that night in the dark and the rain in Rome and, I hope, take the necessary steps toward their dreams, whether those dreams are as simple as coming home again or launching themselves onto a completely foreign road in an untried direction.

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