career · happiness · intentional happiness · motherhood · Past life · preschoolers · writing

See that Mountain? Redefining Glory Days (from the Momplex Blog archives)

The month before I graduated college, one of my writing professors approached me to ask if the university’s English department could use my senior writing portfolio as a model for future classes. She said it was one of the best she’d ever seen. My sophomore year, there was some sort of essay-on-demand writing-proficiency exam required for all sophomores, and my graded essay came back with a letter saying it was so good, the grader had stopped the rest of the judges to listen to it read aloud. True stories.

My husband and I used to be cemetery fanatics. This one, from Savanna, was always one of my favorites. It was next to the husband's headstone, which was about 10 feet high and inscribed with every freaking thing he'd ever done or joined. Go ahead. Click on it. Behold the last line of the epitaph. That's what I call honest. Makes her husband look like a narcissistic wiener.
My husband and I used to be cemetery fanatics. This headstone, from Savanna, Georgia, was always one of my favorites. It was next to the husband’s headstone, which was about 10 feet high and inscribed with every freaking thing he’d ever done or joined. Go ahead. Click on it. Behold the last line of the epitaph. That’s what I call honest. Makes her husband look like a narcissistic wiener.

I think about these experiences sometimes, mostly how they make me feel (and sound) like Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite: “See that mountain over there? What do you want to bet I can throw this football over it?” He takes his bite of pan-fried steak, his hairpiece glistening, and, oh, it’s such a pathetic sight. I guess I’ll take comfort in knowing I’ve done a few things between my supposed glory days and my current life.

It’s been about 15 years since I graduated from college. Before I even turned my tassle, I was working at a small educational publishing company as its managing editor. Since, I’ve worked from coast to coast. I’ve been a newspaper editor where Southern hog farmers and retired Yankees are fighting the final, fizzling skirmishes of the Civil War. I was the editor for the largest private-equity research firm in the Northwest, on the receiving end of a nana-nana-boo-boo letter from Bill Gates’ dad about a typo he found in a report I edited. (Yes, the rich and famous are just like us!) I’ve been a stringer for public radio. I’ve coordinated publications for the National Endowment for Democracy, where I got to meet some incredible champions of freedom, like escapees of North Korean forced-labor camps, survivors of rape warfare in the Congo, and one Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran. More recently, I received a Pushcart Prize special mention and wrote a book. See that mountain over there?

Let’s be real. I haven’t landed among the stars, at least not the ones anyone expected. To quote a former classmate of mine from my 15-year high school reunion, a guy with something like 17 children and enough ATVs to entertain them all, “I thought you were going to go somewhere, be something big, like a lawyer or a doctor.” To boot, that was said during all the aforementioned accomplishments. He didn’t even know I was about to become what I am now.

These days, I am a mom and a wife in a Wisconsin home with a loud dishwasher that is making it hard for me to think as I type. My day went like this: shower, wake up the kids, make lunches, wake up husband, wake up the kids again, dry hair, wake up the kids again, make breakfast, search for kids’ socks, diffuse tantrum over socks not being fresh from the dryer, replace said socks with better-fitting socks, search for snow boots, drive kids to school, go to work, blog for a camera company, blog for a jeweler, pick up kids, go grocery shopping, miss yoga, make enchiladas, watch eldest pick onions out of enchiladas, go to science fair, do bedtime, and finally, sweet finally, watch some Modern Family. What can I say? I have two kids and came this close—this close—to choking a passive-aggressive, competitive parent tonight at a school science expo in a cafeteria, where the fluorescent lights no doubt showed off the greasy child-sized fingerprints on my glasses. Every day, I am so much more tired at the end than I intended to be at the beginning. Yes, I have #firstworldproblems. But, God, I love my family so much more than I ever loved anything I ever wrote. There’s that. No, there really is that.

Sometimes I’m plagued by the thought that I have not become what I could become. There are still little voices telling me I thought you would be a big deal. This is when I have to remind myself that life is longer than 15 years between college and now. What am I? Dead? It is no small deal raising children well while still becoming who you were meant to be. In fact, in my case, the two are inextricably related. And so I do my best. I march down from curing the hiccups, negotiating over cold or hot lunch, doing so many endless experiments with baking soda, and I try to turn on that thing—that magic thing—that’s still somewhere in there. Usually I can’t find it. It’s so hard to create beauty when you’re exhausted. In the end, I believe this isn’t a choice I have to make right now. I believe the writing will keep. My kids will grow up and move away, for we all know childhood’s fleeting. But the writing will keep.

career · motherhood

Shifting (from the Momplex Blog archives)

I am sitting in one of my favorite coffee/wine shops. Two women, upwards of 50, are arguing about real estate at at a table nearby. “Don’t tell me that!” one practically shouts at the other, a real estate agent with a smart teal coat and a ruby-red shirt, a boy peacock of sorts. The peacock is fanning out her feathers as she tries to interject comments about dual-agency representation.

“But, you–” she tries.

“I already know that!” shouts the frumpier one.

“Well, let me tell you how–”

“I’m a lawyer!”

The indignant one reminds me of Tracy Morgan when he used to do his Star Jones bit on Saturday Night Live.

As I sit here typing in my too-big jeans, hair not yet combed, mascara most assuredly smeared under my eyes, I feel a million miles away from these women. They have Day Jobs, careers that they allow to ooze into the rest of their lives until their lives seem inconsequential without their jobs. They have appointment books and toggle-buttons on their Talbot’s coats. Whatever today’s prime rate is, they know it. I am not like them anymore.

I have been out of the work force for more than five years now. My last job, running the publications arm of a vibrant agency in DC that aspires to building small-d democracy around the world, is foggy to me now. I can’t really remember what it’s like to have a day job, to have an alarm clock wake me at a designated time on weekdays, to sleep in on weekends. There are expensive clothes hanging in my closet, business cuts, that do not fit me anymore but hang as some sort of reminder of where I’ve been. I’ve no intention of putting them on again.

I have worked in cubicles. I have had an office with a door. I have boarded planes for assignments. I have ridden, coffee and briefcase in hand and feelings of dread in my gut, on too many elevators going up. But the last time I stepped foot on one of those rides, sporting my work hair (twisted on top, red pens stuck into it), it was going blessedly down. “I am never going to work in an office again,” I said out loud to my then seven-months-pregnant belly. Exhilirating.

Five years later, I am readying to become an earner again, if only marginally so, and I feel like a stranger in a strange land. The women near me today in the coffee shop remind me how a job can cause you to care so much, or think you care so much, about things that really do not matter in the grand scheme. If I had a nickel for every time I lost sleep over choosing a font face for a publication…

I’m really not ever going to work in an office again. And my journey back will be slow. I already do a little freelance writing now and again. I’ll find more. I’ll build up a client base. I’ll start knocking away at that book I’ve always intended to write. But I will never again look at a job as some sort of alternative to being a stay-at-home mom. It’s apples and oranges.

Sure, like all parents, I’ve had to make a choice between going to work and staying home. I’m just beginning to see that there’s a problem with the way we all talk about that: We talk about it as though having a job and staying home to parent are comparable somehow. As though, in some way other than that they usually take place during the same time of day, they are options in a shared category. As though we are choosing between caffeinated or decaffeinated, between living on the coast or living on the plains, between Catholicism or Islam. But it isn’t like that all, and thinking of career versus motherhood as though these are some sort of this-versus-that takes the value out of each, particularly out of the latter. Take a potato and set it next to a robe. Put a Latin textbook alongside a turtle. Just because you ask me to choose one over the other doesn’t mean the two have anything to do with each other in any other way.

Yes, I’m deconstructing to cope, because the thought of returning to work almost pains me somehow. Don’t get me wrong: I love to write. I want to contribute. It feels good to earn. But it’s the way the world around me has come to talk about motherhood versus job, the idea that’s been chiseled so deeply into my brain. This idea that a job can somehow fill that metaphysical place that parenting babies and young ones has created, that all-consuming place where the self is given over so deeply, where — where what? I don’t know. It’s otherwordly, and not really a place or a time at all. It’s like another dimension. And the idea that a job is going to fill in spaces created and left behind by this deeply complex experience in my life? That’s some kind of sacrilege.

I just have to untangle this idea that work is anything other than what’s next. It’s not in place of. As I untangle, I see a little part of what hurts: When it’s time to work, it means my children will be in less need of my constant supervision and hands-on care. It means they will be farther down that inevitable path of separating from me and becoming their own people. Good for them. And yet it means that I will have little to no use for all the things I’ve learned in these past five years, from diapering to breastfeeding to navigating and respecting the emotional complexity of preschoolers to the science of napping biorhythms. These are not easy things, not to me, not a one of them. Like a painting on a Buddha Board, these things will fade into past as the present takes its proper place at front and center. It hurts me to know it will all dry and disappear.

As for going back to to work, sitting down in coffee shops and arguing about font faces or deadlines? It will be about coming to terms with the notion that I have to return again to the world from which I’ve cut myself off for so long. It’s a world where news headlines figure prominently, where with spidering fingers, my life will stretch out from itself and the protective nest I’ve molded for and inhabited with my young children, to include things other than. It will include, once again, a space for the adult me and my now small-seeming ambitions that once propelled me to wake up each morning and answer to an alarm clock.

So, as I sit here in this coffee house, readying to look at freelance gigs, I will try to remember that things that matter so much less than whether my son is circumcised and whether my daughter feels valued, can still matter. They must still matter.