I was proud of myself. All four kids were fed and appropriately dressed, and we had made it to the high school recognition night on time. We’d even picked up my mother-in-law on the way. That was a huge success for me, considering all I had tried to juggle that week. So I was smiling inside and out as I made my way to the table full of cookies, veggies and cheese with crackers. Until I looked at my feet to determine why my gait felt funny. I was wearing two different shoes — both black, both ankle boots, but one with a slightly higher heel than the other. I made the best of it, pointing out my error my family and to the women serving the food. We all had a good laugh. But I knew it wasn’t a good sign. Summer was quickly approaching and I wanted to enjoy the time with my kids. Stress was threatening to make that impossible. Something had to give. So I examined my priorities. There were people who needed me: the kids, my husband, my mother-in-law and my father. My sister was terminally ill and lived a state away. I wanted to be available if she or her family needed me, too. I wasn’t willing to push the people in my life to the sidelines. That left two possibilities: my health or my writing, and I had already vowed to improve my health. The timing was perfect. I had just finished one novel rewrite and was almost done with a second. My agent would need time to read both. I emailed my agent and told her I planned to take the summer off. She agreed to read the manuscripts over the summer and start the submission process in the fall. So here we are. I’ve had wonderful summer with the kids, though it never seems long enough. I was able to be there for my sister’s husband and children when she died. I visited my father in the nursing home weekly and helped with my mother-in-law’s care as she recovered from a heart attack. My husband and I shared many-a-coffee and glass of wine on the porch, watching the deer. School starts in less than a week. I began to prepare about two weeks ago, organizing my notes and my thoughts. As I sat there, I got thinking about the advice so many writers hear and take to heart, that we need to write every day, that daily writing is essential to the craft. And I got the urge to type. I wrote a blog post. The post was picked by a magazine that is well-read by fans of my genre. I wrote a short story. The story was accepted in an anthology that will be released next year. I’m writing another blog post now. I’m sure daily writing schedules work for those who can do it, but I’ve never had the time. I am fortunate if I can write for a few hours twice a week. Yet it hasn’t hurt me. I’ve completed four novels and I have an agent who believes they will sell. I took two months off and immediately placed two pieces in publications. I plotted out my next novel during swimming lessons, long walks and long drives Of course, we all need to practice our craft to improve, but what we often forget is that sitting at the keyboard is only part of the process. Thinking, experiencing, and thinking some more is just as essential. For two months, I produced no writing, but I wrote in my head, collecting experiences, analyzing those experiences and letting my imagination roam. My creativity did not fade during my time away from my laptop. Rather, I would argue, it was enhanced. My advice to aspiring writers? Write, but don’t forget to live.
Four months ago, my husband bought me a Fitbit. We live in a large house with three levels on lots of land in the country. I was sure I’d be racking up those steps in no time. Instead, I looked at my wrist after a long day of writing, transporting children to school and to various activities, making dinner and putting kids to bed to find I’d walked only a little more than 3,000 steps. Experts recommend 10,000 per day. It was quite a shock for a formerly obsessive runner with six marathons in my past, but it forced me to face reality. I’ve completed three novels over the past five years and I’ve gained an average of ten pounds per novel. (That’s on top of the pounds I’d kept after giving birth to my twins eight years ago.) Writing wasn’t the only distraction from my health (We moved, built a new house, and our aging parents grew more dependent on us.), but it has been a big one. And I know I’m not alone in this. I’ve watched several writers grow with me during this same time frame. Some of us have ramped up our writing to distract ourselves from the painfully slow submission process. Others are newly published authors under pressure to get the next novels out. We share an insatiable passion for writing, but we have one other important thing in common. We are all parents of school-aged children. It makes sense. When we parent-writers look at our priorities, we often find our own health is the easiest thing to put on the back burner. Our health affects no one but ourselves in the short run and we honestly believe the priority shift is just temporary. We’ll start eating better in a month or so. We’ll go back to the gym after the holidays. We’ll get more sleep once this latest project is completed. But that time never comes. The months pass as do the years and, as the pounds accumulate and the muscles whither, it gets harder and harder to muster the enthusiasm required to shed the weight and rebuild strength. Writing is my passion. It’s my past and my future. It’s my greatest priority next to my family. But those numbers on my wrist made me realize writing would have to share that second-place ranking from now on. I miss running. I miss being healthy. I miss the way my clothes used to fit me. I want to keep up with my kids. So I started by focusing on my step goal. No more nonstop writing. Nowadays, I take breaks. I walk our quarter-mile driveway to the mailbox. I walk the trails on the property. I walk the country roads. I walk laps around the playground while my youngest kids play. It’s 2 p.m. now and I’m at nearly 5,000 steps. My efforts have paid off. I’ve stopped gaining weight. But that is not enough. My daughter is running on her school’s cross-country team this fall. She needs to build her endurance and I vowed to help her. To do so, I need to lose weight and get back in shape again. So, a few weeks ago, I started doing five minutes of floor exercises every other day and jogging a bit on my walks. Last week, I ran a mile with her at the track and even did a little speedwork. I jumped roped for ten minutes a couple of evenings and I swam half a mile the other day at the YMCA. It’s too soon to see any results on the scale, but something cool happened last night. My husband and I were talking as we walked the quarter-mile hill that is our driveway at a fairly brisk pace. I realized as we neared the top that I wasn’t short of breath. Not at all. Not even a teensy bit. That had never happened before. The feeling that overwhelmed me was much like completing the first quarter of a new novel. I know I have a long ways to go toward my goal, but I feel motivated. Invigorated. I feel like this is going somewhere and that each step brings me closer, just as each paragraph brings me closer to the end of a novel. My productivity as a writer has suffered, but not nearly as much as I’d feared. I’m fine with that because when I do finally get published, I’d like to be healthy enough to enjoy the royalties.
The decision to stay home with our children can be hard enough, but it’s even harder when it seems there is no choice. Kitty began her career in anthropology, but fell in love with teaching while interviewing residents of rural Alaska for a National Parks program. She taught elementary school for twelve years, but gave that up when she met her husband, a Navy pilot, and they moved from her home state of Washington to Florida. There, she made plans to start a PhD program in public policy with an emphasis on education and was excited to begin. Those plans came to a halt when she became pregnant with their son, their only child. Kitty found her role as military spouse and mom made full-time work nearly impossible. I interviewed Kitty four years ago when she was 40 years old and her son was 15 months. Since then, she and her family have moved three times, landing back in Florida again. Kitty does not regret her decisions, but she plans to return to the workforce in a few years when her husband retires.
This is Kitty’s story, in her own words:
I don’t know what I’m going to do. When my son Evan gets older I am definitely going back to work. I cannot do this for the rest of my life, although I don’t really feel the drive to go back to the classroom. I was doing a lot – up in Washington – of consulting work. I was on a state committee that was looking at fairness and bias, and I loved that. I really felt like before I got married I was heading in this direction where I was eventually going to be able to leave the classroom and sustain myself through the consulting work. But that kind of came to an abrupt halt when I got married and moved down here. I don’t have those contacts and I’ve been out of the scene up there for two and a half, almost three years now. We’ll see what happens when we go back. We’re going to be back in Washington again and I certainly can get back in contact with people, but my husband is going to be gone for months at a time on the air craft carrier and I don’t want to get myself into a situation where I’m in the classroom, working Monday through Friday. I mean I would have my parents around to help me, but you know, they’re elderly and they’re not up for babysitting every day. I firmly believe that doors will open and that it’s right for me to stay home with Evan right now, but not forever. I wasn’t satisfied with teaching, and I knew that (graduate) school was one of those things where it would be lot of time commitment to do it right. I didn’t know if I was ready to jump into that. Also, I knew we had a finite amount of time here in Florida, and that we were going to be moving eventually. If I didn’t hit it hard in those two years, I wasn’t going to get my coursework done. In retrospect, that was really a very good decision. I wound up with postpartum depression and it was all that I could do to keep my head above the water. I’m glad I didn’t have the pressure of school or work on top of that. Another reason I wanted to stay home was I always knew that if I had kids… I had spent twelve years in the classroom and I could pick out which of my students had been day care and which ones had been home with mom. The kids that had been home with mom or with a caregiver, like an aunt or a sister or a grandparent – somebody who is family and loves them and who wasn’t paid to take care of them – you know. There’s a difference. Those kids were not as needy of my time and seemed to be a little more adjusted to who they were as people. The day care kids were adjusted as far as teams and following directions, but they just didn’t seem to know themselves as well. It would be hard for any nine-year-old to know themselves, but there was just a different confidence level that I saw in the kids. I’m not knocking parents who had to put their kids through day care. I know that for most families it’s a financial decision to keep working put their kids in day care. I certainly have a lot of friends who are not in any position for the mom to quit their jobs. The other reason, too, is that maybe there really is a subculture (in the Navy) – and here’s the anthropologist in me coming out — with its own customs and rules for belonging, and the vast majority – and I am not kidding when I say the vast majority – of women who have children stay at home. One reason is because it’s very stable. I am talking officers’ wives here. It is a little different with enlisted. They don’t make as much money. My husband is not, for the amount of education and training he’s had, is not compensated very well. But we’ve lived comfortably, and part of it is through our benefits like the Commissary and the free medical. Right there, we’ll save hundreds of dollars. But there really is a support system amongst the wives. But, it’s kind of the expectation that you’re going to stay home and I just kind of slid right into that. I miss intellectual stimulation. I miss the validation. I miss feeling like I’m in control and competent. I miss the satisfaction of a job well done. I miss the “thank you” and just the reassurance that, you know… I guess I had a lot of my self-worth tied up in working. While I know in the long run what I’m doing by staying home with my son is going to be best for him, he’s like this little fifteen- month old. Now he gives hugs and kisses and stuff, but when he was little, it was just pooping and screaming and eating, and there weren’t a lot of reward in that. You know. Outside rewards. It’s getting easier partly because I think I have adjusted, but little things where he comes up and gives me a big mouth kiss on the cheek or a hug, those are his little ways of letting my know that I’m the most important person to him. That melts my heart. But one thing I did take on is I became president of my Spouse’s Club. As I told one of my friends back home, “I’ve become that which I used to mock” because I’d look at the Navy wives – remember I taught in a Navy community – and they were all these moms who were just hanging out at school chit-chatting and gossiping with each other. I would always be thinking in my head, “Get a life.” Then they would move down in a pack to get coffee, talking about squadron stuff, and their whole conversation was “Oh, the squadron this. The squadron that.” I would just think, “Oh, they don’t have a life outside their husbands’ identities.” And I’ve become that. I mean, the first thing you do when you meet someone else in the military community is, “Oh, my husband. He’s a lieutenant. He’s a pilot over in whatever unit.” At what point did I become that versus, “Hi. My name is Kitty. I teach fourth grade?” It was actually really hard and a real source of contention between my husband and me. Because I was like, “You don’t understand. I gave up my job. I owned a house in Washington. I sold that to move down here. I gave up my name. Now I’ve given up my job, and where am I? Who is Kitty? I am identified through Trent’s wife and Evan’s mom, and I don’t have anything that identifies me as “I am this. I am a teacher. I am a consultant. I am a committee member for fairness and bias.” I have lost those identities to the past and I don’t like the fact that all the hats I wear now are not mine. And he was just like, “Oh, well. What’s wrong with being my wife? What’s wrong with being Evan’s mom?” And I’m like, “There’s nothing wrong with that.” I’ve come to realize that I’ll get my hats back. If I could do it again, I would still decide to stay home and that goes back to the classroom. When my son is nine, I know he’s going to be better off because of the fact that I stayed home. It has meant a lot of changes for us financially. We don’t eat out anymore. That’s an easy thing to wipe off your budget. The household is given $1000 every two weeks from which groceries and gas and incidentals, clothes for Evan or something for myself come from. Before, if I wanted something I would buy it. I think the big one is the eating out. We go out only for special occasions now whereas before we went out two or three times a week. And we don’t really buy prepackaged stuff anymore. I don’t regret my decision. I know I will not be a stay-at-home-mom forever. I’ve just taken my hats off and hung them on the hat rack for a little bit. I’ll dust those hats off and they’ll be back. As you get older, you get more and more hats. I wear two very important hats now as a wife and a mom, but that does not mean I have to throw away those others.
Many stay-at-home moms worry they will never be able to re-enter the workforce. Billena is proof that fear is invalid. She has returned to the workforce twice after stints at home, once as a massage therapist and, just this month, as a medical assistant. I came to know Billena of Chelsea, Michigan, nearly six years ago through a forum for women who were pregnant with twins. We have remained friends since. I interviewed Billena four years ago, just after her twin girls were born. Billena is now thirty-nine years old. Her oldest daughter is fifteen and her twins are six. Billena stayed home with her oldest daughter until she was in kindergarten. Then she went to school for massage therapy and worked in her field for about three years. While pregnant with the twins, she put her career on hold, returning to school just before they started kindergarten. She and her husband initially gave up one car to make the decision financially feasible. Her husband is an engineer.
Here is Billena’s story, in her own words:
We always said that I would stay home and be with the kids while they were little, but I think it was mostly my choice. He (her husband) didn’t mind, but he does prefer for me to stay home. He doesn’t like the kids to be in other people’s care. I do miss work sometimes. People ask me all the time, “When are you going to start working again? I need a massage.” I haven’t decided when I’m going to do that. But I have to say I do miss it. I have thought about a couple weekends a months or something, but I haven’t got any definite plans yet. What did I give up? I sacrificed my car in October. I sold my car and we did pay off our credit card with it. We have no credit card bills at all now. That’s awesome. I don’t think I’m going to have to sacrifice it for very long. I’m hoping by spring I’ll have a car. But we thought, just for this winter, let’s try to save some money and see what happens with that. I mean you have to sacrifice. I don’t get to go out like I did before. With Marina (her oldest), when it was just the three of us, we used to go out to eat probably three or more times a week. Now we rarely go out. But we mostly rely on his income. My income wasn’t a huge income. I guess that was kind of play-around money. Going out and doing fun stuff. I do have to say having the twins has been a little bit more strenuous. We do live about eight or nine blocks from downtown. So I can walk. Of course, in the winter I’m not going to want to do that with the kids. So, basically, I don’t really go anywhere during the week except on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He has a friend who picks him up if I want to use the car. Actually, I meet Holly and Rachel (friends) at the mall and we exercise. I do have the car two days a week. I am enjoying life right now. I love staying home with the kids. I really do. To me it’s just a small sacrifice to make because they are just little for a very short time. I can give up going out to eat and going to the movies. I’m not liking not having a car. I told my husband when we had to take the kids to the doctor, I said, if we had two cars, I wouldn’t have to worry about you getting here. He’s notoriously late for everything. That doesn’t fly with me. But, to me, it’s just a small sacrifice because they’re small for only a short time. It goes by so fast. I think that staying home has freed up more time because I have dinner ready and I’m not rushing to get it done because I’m just getting home from work. I have it done earlier. We like to play Scrabble and board games and I think it has freed up more time. But, on the other hand, I think my husband does think I should do everything. I still think we have more time as a family because we do more things together—playing games and things. The babies, of course, can’t play the games, but the three of us—we always sit down to dinner together and, usually, we pull out some game after. So I think we have more time together. Usually, I would get home and I’d forgotten to get something out of the freezer, so everything’s frozen and I’d say, let’s go get something take-out, or we’d go to the restaurant. That was just with the three of us and now, with the addition, with the twins, we don’t eat out very often at all. He (her husband) will say, when you’re done, when you go back to work, things will be better because we’ll do this. And actually I’m thinking about going back to school to finish—to be a physical therapist or an assistant. I’m going to go for the assistant first. I’ve been talking about that, so he’s been talking about when you do that we’ll have a second income and it won’t be so bad. And we’ll do this and that. I think sometimes he’s a little stressed because we don’t have that second income. I worked when she (Marina) was in school, but with being a massage therapist, I had the flexibility of making my own schedule. I was my own boss. I was self-employed. So I always made my schedule around her. I think our relationship is the same as before because I always made sure I was available to her when she came home from school. I may be in denial about my identity right now. I realized that I just put on a form that I am still a massage therapist and I’m not doing that right now. So I may be struggling with that a little more than I thought I did. They are just growing up so fast. I do think that I do struggle with that (identity) because you get out and you are doing something and you have a title. Not that I don’t have a title now. My new title is mommy and homemaker and that’s such a great title. Still, it’s something more. You’re in the world out there doing something for people. I think maybe I have to explore that a little bit more. I think that it (staying home) has impacted me physically too. Before, I used to work out a lot more than I do now. I think that mentally I am more tired even though I’m at home, but it’s probably that I’m tired because I am at home. There are so many more things to do and you can’t get it done. It seemed liked when I was working, I think I did get more things done maybe because—I don’t know—maybe I’m a little bit more lax on my schedule because I am home. I think I’m more tired because of the twins. But definitely, physically? Yeah. It has impacted me. I am struggling with the weight loss. I think I did have a better grip on it when I was working because—this might sound silly but—I think I cared more about what I looked like going out and getting dressed everyday for work, putting makeup on and getting it all put together. I think so. Yeah. I don’t go anywhere anyway. I think it will change. I told myself the other day I really need to start exercising and eating better. If I could do it again? I’d stay home. I would advise them (other moms) that if they could do it financially, if they didn’t have to have a second income, then I would recommend staying home. It’s very rewarding to stay home and see all their little milestones. I mean, I don’t have all the clothes that I need for work anymore. Sacrificing that—going out and all the extras, going to the movies all the time and all the little extras—to me, it’s such a short time to sacrifice. We’re almost at a year now. If I stay home with them until they go to school that’s three to four more years, depending on if they go to preschool or not. Really, I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing much at all to be able to stay home with them. I know I’m lucky to be able to stay home. I know there are many women out there who are not able to. But if they are able to financially, I would say, go for it. I do feel that being a stay-at-home mom, a homemaker, it is a full-time job. I feel like it’s twenty-four/seven. Sometimes I feel like there isn’t a break. But it’s rewarding. It is. It can be challenging at times, but I feel it’s very rewarding. It’s peace, I guess for me. I know that they are safe with me and that they are not being exposed to someone who could hurt them. I mean you hear things so much. You hear so many stories about day care providers or nannies doing something horrible to someone’s child and that, to me, is just a fear that I don’t want to have to think about when I’m at work. I don’t want to have to fear someone is hurting my child. A lot of my friends who have children who go to day care, they are always sick it seems like. The bigger the day care, the worse it is. I know that they are getting fed and cared for because I’m doing it here at home. That’s a peace of mind for me. And I would hate to think that I missed their first step or a new word that they said or a new game that they learned or blowing kisses. I want to teach them that. I don’t want anyone else to teach them that. I’m selfish.
Children were not on the agenda when Jessica married a fellow police officer. She was passionate about her career and had no plans to slow down. But then came her son, and Jessica realized she could no longer put her life on the line and risk leaving him motherless. So she quit. Soon after, she discovered her son had suffered a stroke in utero and would need intense therapy. She was glad she had made the decision to stay home before his condition could make that decision for her. I interviewed Jessica, now 40, four years ago when Brendon was her only child. He is seven now and has a two-year-old sister, Adelyn. Before becoming a stay-at-home mom Jessica, who lives in St. Louis, MO, worked seven years police officer. She was a social worker before that. Though she earns no salary, Jessica spends her spare time advocating for the youngest stroke victims as a board member of International Alliance for Pediatric Stroke and through her own website, Brendon’s Smile. She is also excited to venture back into police work soon through her former employer, teaching courses that help people develop plans of action should active shooters enter public venues such as schools or businesses. Here is Jessica’s story, in her own words: I loved it (police work), I really did. And when I was pregnant, I kept saying I am going to have this baby and I’m going to go back to work, and I’m going to retire from the police department because this is what I do and what I love, and … I fell in love with something else! I think I was so career-oriented at that time, that I thought, oh, eventually we’ll have kids. My husband always said he wanted children, but he was like, ‘I’m never going to step in the way of your career.’ He wanted to have kids, but if it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen. So Brendon was not in our plans. Of course, now he is in the plans because he’s here. God put him here for a reason. So it wasn’t like we went through trying to get pregnant or anything. It was just one day, I was pregnant! Whoa! My husband was ecstatic and I was in shock, and about 24 hours later the initial shock wore off and it was like, ‘Okay. Baby mode.’ And it’s been Brendon mode ever since. I definitely thought I was going back to work. That was in the plans. That was totally in the plans until, I guess, when I started getting ready. I was home about a month or so and I thought, “I don’t know how I’m going to go back.” My husband said he knew I was not going to go back, but I wouldn’t admit it. And so I did my 12 weeks where I had the family leave, where I got to stay home, and then I took an absence, basically leave without pay. They would hold, not my position, but I could come back as a commissioned police officer and they could put me wherever they wanted. And I just couldn’t do it. I was like, there’s no way I’m going to go and risk my life when I have this life dependent upon me. If I would have worked in a non-risky job, or a career that wasn’t as risky, I probably would have struggled even more with the decision because it had been instilled in me that I should work by my father. My mom was a stay-at-home mom for the most part, but I always remember my dad thinking we could be better off if you have a dual-income family. I think I would have stayed at home no matter what—it doesn’t matter what the career—but it was very easy to rationalize that I can’t put my life on the line for anybody now that I have my child. My husband was like, “Why don’t you just quit? You’re hanging on. You’re not going to go back. We’ve figured out for a year that we can live on one income and we’ll just do the best we can.” The other thing that was hard for me too was that when my husband and I got married, I was 30. I’d been on my own—career, self-sufficient—and to rely on somebody’s income was really hard for me. I don’t do that. It’s weird. I had the weird feeling I was going to be getting a free ride. And he never makes me feel that way. Never. He’s always like. “It’s our living; it’s our income; it’s our money.” I think it was just, always … I think that’s just how my dad was raised, his generation: I’m the man; I’m the wage-earner; it’s my money. That type of thing. And my parents raised me, my mother raised me, to be very independent, and it was instilled that a woman who can get a job goes out and works and brings in, contributes to the income. Identity? That’s a hard one, especially going from this woman who is in a career that is so male-oriented and being quite successful at it. I have to say, I was very well liked amongst my superiors and fellow workers. People were shocked that a woman could go out and hold her own and do a good job in a man’s career. That was really a huge self-esteem booster. I think women can do the job very well because they tend to talk things through and rationalize. Whereas men are very testosterone-oriented and just ready to go in and combat, women kind of rationalize and explain. And I think I got things done very effectively. And of course being a police office, it’s not always perfect and people aren’t always rational. But it was cool. It was really neat to be able to be effective and be good at it and be a woman. And all of a sudden, here I am: a good reputation and I was getting ready to possibly go into a bureau undercover, and you don’t do that when you get pregnant. You come off the street. You don’t work the street anymore. I was saying, “I’ll go back,” and then it was like, “Well, maybe I’ll go back and be a school resource officer.” And it was a huge switch. Here I went from this woman who was always put-together and very well-kept—I always had my nails done and my hair done—and, all of a sudden, here I am this mother who is sleep-deprived. Like, I always enjoyed working out. Well, you don’t get to work out when you’re nursing a newborn and are sleep-deprived. You get no time to yourself, and it was a really big adjustment. But it wasn’t that I hated it or didn’t want to do it. It was just a huge, total switch from what I was doing. Somewhere in that first year of taking care of him and not going back to work I was like, “Gosh, I’m not a police officer anymore. I’m nobody.” I don’t think it was a police-officer thing, but an I’m-not-making-a-difference-in-the-world type of thing. Well, come on, you know how hormones are. And this is the best job, and the most important job, and the hardest job I could ever do. But the most rewarding job. I think I achieved a balance with that when I started getting sleep again? He did not sleep for 15 months. It was agonizing. And then you’re bringing in this whole other aspect of a child who had a stroke. I realize we didn’t get his diagnosis until he was three days shy of turning 19 months. So, honestly, that mode kicked in where I have to get his needs met beyond what I thought I had to do. There was another purpose. I wouldn’t say that it is typical, that most parents go through what we’ve gone through. I mean, I know there are many people out there with children with special needs and everybody has their own story. But that was a huge eye-opener that, yeah, you are supposed to be home. You are supposed to be taking care of this child, and now it’s mode of trying to get treatment and place for him. Now my job is running him to preschool or to therapy, and then picking him up from preschool, and then going to do therapy, and then coming home and doing whatever I do at home and getting him down for his nap and then, if he’s not at therapy, then we’re going to the zoo or we’re doing … but it’s fun, it’s a lot of fun. I miss work every once in awhile. I do, but never enough to stop doing what I’m doing. I won’t ever go back to it. I don’t think it’s fair to him to have two parents doing that. And quite honestly, I really had to convince myself, or realize, that I wouldn’t be as effective on the job because I was more apprehensive, and I was afraid that I would put the guys I worked with on the street in danger because, if I were having to go in and search a home or search a building or something, I would always have it in the back of my head, “Oh my God. What about my child?” I would be timid or not think fast on my feet like I used be able to. And I didn’t want to put anybody that I worked with in danger because I was nervous. But I do miss it, and once a cop, always thinking war stories. Whenever my husband comes home…like my husband came home this weekend and was talking about something that he was doing, and I was like, “There he goes telling the war stories,” the silly things you do like running through backyards and chasing after people (laughs) because police officers love to talk. When I run into somebody that I used to work with, I’m like, “That was funny when we did that,” or “It was cool when we did this.” So I do miss it here and there, but this is just where I need to be and what I need to be doing. I don’t want somebody else raising my son. He’s only going to need me to raise him for so long—for 18 years—and then he’s going to need me, but in a very different way. And so I can always get another job or find a new career or do something someday down the road, but right now it’s just vital. And the other thing we looked at too is my income. There were a lot of factors going into the decision, but ultimately it was probably me doing this. My husband was like, “Quit your job. Just do it.” Why was I going to pay somebody over half of what I’m bringing in? It just didn’t make sense to me. Why am I going to pay somebody to be doing a job that I need to be doing? You just don’t bring in that much of an extra income. And, do we really need to have a bigger house or brand new cars? No. We don’t. I didn’t grow up with all that, and I certainly don’t need it right now. My husband, he made a lot more than I did, but we cut our income more than a third. So yes, definitely, you don’t have that luxury of, if your car breaks down, you just fix it without worrying about where we’re going to pull money from. We certainly have to budget a lot more. I don’t get my nails done anymore. I don’t do the things I used to do to pamper myself as a full-time working woman with no child. I don’t splurge on myself, but that’s perfectly fine. We don’t really go out to eat like we used to. Before Brendan and before the economy went belly-up, I didn’t’ hesitate to go buy something if I really wanted it, and you certainly don’t do that anymore. And it doesn’t matter. Here I am a mother of a child who has special needs. He had a stroke. Most people don’t hear about stroke in children. I think that they (friends and family) respect my decision. Nobody judged me. My father, I don’t think he thought bad of me or belittled me. I think it made sense to them (her parents), especially with the career I was in. But then what I’m doing…they see that it’s a full-time job not only taking care of a child, raising a child, but then having to get them to that extra—how many three-year-olds have hours upon hours of therapy every week, where you’re driving here to there and going to doctors and doing all that? Ultimately, if I would not have quit my job in the beginning, I would have had to. There is no way I could ever ask anybody to do all that I do for him, like asking my parents to take him to his therapies or his doctors’ visits. Nor would I want anybody to be in charge of all that. So, I think because of that, I officially quit my job and then shortly thereafter we were going from doctor to doctor trying to find the answers. I think it just happened so quickly. I think if Brendan wouldn’t have needed therapies and wouldn’t have had the stroke, I think they would have respected what I decided to do anyway. I think it made sense to them. I think they felt it was probably a good decision. My husband certainly respects me no matter what I do. And I think he appreciates what I do. I think he feels bad if I’m like, “Oh, I miss the job.” He’s like, “I understand.” But I think maybe he admires how I am with our son and what I’ve taken on. I know sometimes he’ll say, “I wish I could do what you do.” And I’m like, “Oh, you wish you could do what I do?” (laughs) And he’s really happy to see that I can raise our son. I don’t think he wants anybody else doing it. Then there’s that extra aspect of, she’s the mother of my child and she’s taking care of what needs to be taken care of at home and running the household and taking care of all that. So I think he admires that. I don’t think he respects me any more or any less. He always tells me that I’m a very strong woman and that he admires me. So I don’t think it’s that different. A lot of it was me having to overcome, “I’m not contributing financially.” And I think that’s where it came with my dad. My dad probably never said that, but I always felt like you’re nobody unless you contribute financially. I think as I’ve gotten older I’ve matured and become less self-centered. I think for me, personally, I’m a more attentive mother than what I would have been if I was in my mid-twenties when I had him. But then intuition may have kicked in or whatever. But I think I probably am a little more patient because the little things don’t matter as much as the things that you get concerned about in your young twenties or mid-twenties. But everybody matures at a different rate. But I think I was pretty into me in my twenties. And I really do appreciate how it happened. I see some people in their twenties having children and, sometimes, I think their child is kind of an accessory to their life. And maybe they would look at me and say, why do you make your child the center of your world? You’ve got to do things for you. And as time goes on, I do things for me. And my husband pushes me out the door, he’s like, “Give me some time with my boy and go do something.” That’s another thing I’ve started to do is evolve and reconnect with people, where I feel confident enough to leave my son home and be away. I went to New York City in November with a friend of mine for two nights. That was the first time I’d ever been away. It was wonderful, and it was just enough. So it was good. I still think I’m the same person. I’m just more mature. So maybe that intuition would have kicked in, but I think I probably would have been a little more self-centered, or at least not as patient, in my twenties as I am in my thirties. I probably would have gone right back to work. I think, in my 20s, that would have been a big thing. I think self-esteem wise I needed my career, because it really helped me. When I graduated college and got my first real job, it really made me feel like I was contributing to society, which is funny because I contribute to society as a mother and I see it. But I think back then it was something I really needed—to be going to work, feeling like I had a purpose, getting a paycheck and being independent. It was, “I can do this on my own.” I think if I would have had him in my mid-twenties I would have gone right back to work. And now in my thirties, you know, I can always get a job if I need one. The rewards for me? I get to see the world through my son’s eyes, and he has really taught me…he is an incredible teacher. He has really taught me to slow down and appreciate little things that I overlooked so many times, so many years, every day. Like we just got back from Florida, and the things that I stopped to learn for him. Bat houses. Did you know that a bat house can contain up to 300 bats? Can eat up to 1,000 mosquitoes in a night? And that they have their own nature preserves? And that a lot of times Boy Scouts will build them for their Boy Scout projects? An average bat will eat over 1,000 mosquitoes a night. And they have 300 bats, so you’re talking 300,000 mosquitoes in a night. So I’m thinking maybe we should get a bat house. I would have never taken the time to stop and read what that thing was in the tree if my son wouldn’t have pointed up and looked at it and said, “What’s that mommy?” So how cool is that, that I get to know that? So I think he is just an incredible teacher. He doesn’t sweat the small stuff, but he enjoys it. I also learned that I can’t ever get anywhere on time with him because we’re always stopping and looking at everything and talking about it. He makes me think a lot. He’s in that phase of , “Why, why, why?” and I don’t know! I never thought about it! I think for our family it’s a really good thing because we have a really good sense of family. We are together a lot. When my husband isn’t working, we eat meals together. We sit down. We talk. And we’re struggling with him right now because he wants to not sit still. He’s pulling the I’m-not-hungry bit and we’re like, we don’t care if you’re hungry. You’re going to sit with your family and eat or at least sit with us. So I think it really helps keep us kind of a family unit. We really think about each other. I almost wonder if we were so busy crossing paths because I was going out on my shift or I was going to work and it was rush, rush to get here or there, that we might almost have lost sight of each other and what we’re really doing here. Family is more important than anything. I really don’t’ think we would have had that if I’d have gone back to work. Certainly, we could have made it happen, but I think we would have just lost sight of that. I have a dear friend who would love to stay home and they just, financially, couldn’t do it. And I understand that. I think I would tell moms that this is the only time in your child’s life that you’re going to have this and in your life that you’re going to have this. You can’t go back and get this. I’ve heard a lot of people who have gone back to work, who have older children, say, “I regret going back to work.” I remember hearing that a lot when I was trying to make the decision—that you can never turn around and go back and get that time that you lost with them. So I would have them think really hard about what’s important. Is it your self-esteem, or your independence? Because you can get that back. Really think who you want raising your child and who you want to be there when your child needs somebody. Do you want it to be you or do you want it to be a grandparent or do you want it to be a daycare provider? But I’ve also learned in my thirty-six years that everybody has their own opinion and that no opinion is right. But, in my world, I don’t want anybody else doing that for my son, and my husband doesn’t want anyone else doing that except for him or me. I would tell them you can always get that job or get that career, but you can’t ever get that time back with your child. Having Brendon has really slowed me down, like I said, and he’s taught me so much about how to just enjoy every second. And like I said too, we have that extra aspect of a child who had a stroke, who has therapies and special needs. That’s really put things in perspective for me too, because I wonder if I would have taken for granted his ability to walk and talk if he hadn’t had to work so hard to do it. And I try to tell people—because every child is a miracle, and everything that a child learns is just amazing. I knew that about him before I knew that he had a stroke and had a disability, but something about him … I don’t know if it’s because I became a mother and I don’t have another child to compare, but I really do appreciate what he’s capable of doing. I also appreciate what other people are capable of doing, what other children are capable of doing. Even with having everything intact, and not having had a stroke, it really is a miracle. So he’s taught me a lot and, like I said before, if I wouldn’t have made that initial decision to stay at home, I would have been forced into it later on down the road. I’m actually really grateful that I did make the decision before because then that was my decision, and it wasn’t something I was forced into. Do people resent that? I don’t think I—I never would resent my son. He’s just incredible and he didn’t ask to come into this world, and I owe it to him to give him the best foundation.
I’d like to modify the analogy of our age group as the “sandwich” generation. It just doesn’t work. Too many good sandwiches come on soft, tasty bread. The bread is actually quite delicious and satisfying. The way I’ve been feeling lately is more like panini — my precious bread crushed by two thick slabs of hot metal that are squeezing the melted cheese out of me, searing us all and permanently charring our skin. I’m not even there. My parents are a good 1,000 miles away and our youngest brother is taking the full brunt of it. But the past couple of weeks, I’ve been on the phone or on email dealing with doctors, social workers, case managers, directors, our parents and other family members all while trying to keep the household going and lamely pacifying my kids when they come home and I’m too busy to hear about their days. And writing? Forget it. This is the first chance I’ve had to write anything. I miss it. It is getting better. My mother is improving and my father has been stable for a long time. But that grill is still there, threatening. And it can be cruel and deceptive. There was, for instance, a moment when the pressure eased and I rolled over to survey the damage to the other slice of bread. Just then the grill gave me one more hard, heated squeeze, nearly suffocating me with the pressure to make up for all I’ve neglected, especially the kids. Book reports were due. Easter was looming. The twins wanted to roller skate in the house. Fortunately, I am not alone in this sandwich. Two other strong hands reached out and pushed back the grill, helping me fluff the bread, tending to it in magical ways, making it soft once again. I found that the bread is tougher than it had seemed. The heat had not broken it down and the char marks could be scraped away. My kids still love me. They didn’t starve. They made their school deadlines. The Easter bunny will make an appearance on time. And the twins have not convinced me to let them roller skate in the house. Thank goodness for those two other hands. Here’s the thing though. Despite it all, I still love panini. Especially the bread.
It was cool and raining. Water seeped through my windbreaker and dripped from the rim of my hat as I ran down Main Street in our little town last night. In the darkness, it was a bit like trail running. I jumped around puddles that I didn’t see until I was upon them, I leaped over broken chunks of sidewalk. I strained to balance as I slipped on wet leaves. While passing under a street light, I glanced at the Garmin watch my husband had lent me. I’d run almost 3 miles and I hadn’t even thought about running. I had been lost in thought and in the challenge of keeping my footing. I was running like I used to run more than five years ago before I became pregnant with the twins. My body was straining, but my mind was free of it. I had finally regained enough fitness to disconnect the physical from the mental. I fell in love again … with running. I am heavier than I was in my marathoning days and I certainly won’t be setting personal records in 5Ks any time soon. My pace was slow, more of a jog than a run. But I felt it again — that release that hooked the first time back in my teenage years. I’ve regained that part of me. I am back. I am really back.
It’s been a long summer. A very long summer. With early sunrises and late sunsets, no one sleeps in our household. And no one wants to stay home. That means no writing at night or early in the morning, and no sneaking in a few words here and there during the day. I can’t even jot down notes at the pool or the lake because our youngest two are still swimmers-on-the-verge. Both have taken their first independent strokes. One even started swimming a little distance the other day. But at 4 years old, they still have no judgment and they certainly don’t have enough endurance. My eyes must remain focused on them even when lifeguards are present. I know. I could make it a priority. I could squeeze a few words in here and there. But we have four kids and they tire me out. What I really want at the end of the day is a glass of wine. What I really want in the morning is a cup of coffee. But my mind won’t rest. Even without a laptop or a pencil and paper, I find that I am writing. I am writing in my head constantly, focusing on my characters when I should be focusing on the road, blurting out plot dilemmas during conversations about minnows and tadpoles, revising while I’m loading the dishwasher and scrubbing pots and pans. When September comes around and the kids return to school, I know that I will have trouble doing anything but writing. I will obsess. I will forget my vow to exercise more. I will procrastinate on those home remodeling projects. I will be surprised to realize that it’s time to get the twins from preschool and nearly time for my husband to bring the older kids home. I will have my hands on the keyboard, banging out those words — those characters, plots and settings — that are fighting for space in my head. The experience will be freeing just like it was last fall. I will be productive. Very productive. I am excited. But … why then do I still dread the fall? Why do I find that I am reluctant to send the kids off to their classrooms, where they will be challenged daily, where they socialize with their friends, where someone else will feed them lunch? Maybe even saddened? Maybe even a wee bit depressed? I love to write, but the reality is that I love my kids more. And it’s healthy to be pulled away from my keyboard, to get a little color on my arms, legs and face, to have lunch on a picnic table that is situated between the beach and the playground. It’s good for me to converse with other moms while the kids swing or climb on the monkey bars. And it certainly doesn’t hurt to sit into a chair at night with stars bright above me and fire crackling in front of me and my husband beside me, watching the older kids instruct the younger ones on the qualities of a perfect s’more. The things is that every September brings us closer to ages when the kids won’t be interested in hanging out with mom in the summer anymore. Every September, I realize that they’ve grown just a little bit more. Grown a little more independent of me. That makes me proud, but it also makes me appreciate the time I have with them. I will always be able to write provided my mind remains sharp and my hands can still navigate a keyboard, but I will not always be able to a push swing or coming running to see a captured crayfish in a net or catch a child jumping off the edge of a pool. Because the kids won’t need me that way. So for now, the words in my head will just have to move over, cram closer together and make room for more. They are not going anywhere. But I am. The pool, the deli, Darien Lake, the library, the playground, the beach, up and down the street in front of our house, grandma’s, Aunt Karen’s, cousin Amy’s, maybe Aunt Angie’s one more time, the mall, Market Street, a hike, and who knows where else. Who knows.
With the twins entering preschool this fall, I decided it was time to reclaim my running legs. So I went for a walk/run the other day in my new town along a route recommended by my sister-in-law. The route took me through a local cemetery, which was appropriate; By the time I got there, I wanted nothing more than to take a long rest. So I walked. I have run through many cemeteries over the years, but I haven’t walked though one in decades. Not since I was a child. As a child, I would run from stone to stone, seeking out familiar names and looking for the grave of my sister, who died as a baby when I was only two years old. I derived a sense of comfort from cemeteries back then even though I was generally terrified of anything involving death. The bodies that lie under my feet were those of relatives or the relatives of friends. They were people who were part of my history. I felt, oddly, at home. But I did not get that sense here. Here, in this cemetery, in the community where I will live for the rest of my life, where we will raise our four children, where my husband grew up, was evidence of a certain status I will never achieve. I am an outsider. I always will be, no matter how deeply entrenched I become. And that is okay. I have my own hometown. My own cemeteries. I have another place that has fused within my core and will always be part of who I am. But our kids don’t have that. Two were born in Arizona, and two were born in Cincinnati. Their roots have easily come loose with each move, leaving little or nothing behind. (Well, not as easily for the older kids this time around. We had to tug a little harder and their leaves are still a bit droopy and wilted from the shock, but I am confident they will recover and flourish.) I had never understood the need for the formalities of cemeteries before, for gravestones and memorials and family plots. My irrational fears dictate that I be cremated after death, and I hadn’t given much thought to where my ashes would land. My husband has strong feelings though, so I agreed long ago to his request that, when our souls are long gone from this world, my ashes will lie with him, wherever he might choose. But on this day, I started to understand something. I understood that this isn’t just about me. This is about our children and their children and their children. This is about that feeling, that sense of belonging. Home. Our hope is that this is the place where our children will grow roots so strong that no one and nothing can rip them out, regardless of where they settle in adulthood. This will be the place they can come home to no matter how long they have been away. A sense of history and of their place within that history will help those roots grow thick, deep and strong. Cemeteries provide some of that nourishment. A great deal more than I realized. And this cemetery, in particular, provided me with nourishment of a different kind. After passing all those gravestones– lingering long enough to read the names and the dates of death and birth and realizing that they were often far to close together –I found the motivation to pick up my pace again. It was hot. I was (and am) horribly out of shape. But I ran. Just a couple of quarter-mile stretches. But I ran.
When my husband and I moved to Arizona almost 11 years ago, it was supposed to be a temporary thing. An adventure. Our ticket to the life we had always dreamed about. My husband, a former journalist, had been working from home as a programmer for a media software company based in Scottsdale. His bosses wanted him to move into management to help the company go public. That required a physical move as well. Two years, they said. That was all. The company would pay for our relocation to Arizona and then move us back east when our time was up. We would earn enough from stock options to build a house on his parents’ farm in Pennsylvania, something we’d talked about since we started dating. I had to give up my newspaper job, but I was sure I would find work in Phoenix. And, when all this was over, he and I would both be able to work from home while we raised a family. We weren’t counting on me getting pregnant before we even got there. We weren’t counting on the company going under. We weren’t counting on living in Arizona for five years, or in Cincinnati for six years. But we went where life took us, always believing that things would work out in the end. And they have. In seven weeks, we will move to Pennsylvania with our four young children. We bought a house to live in while we build our final home. The house is in a burough of about 700 people, where the nearest mall is 50 miles away and the convenience store has hitching posts for the Amish. And we can’t wait. For the first time, we will be near family and that’s far more important than the convenience of 24-hour grocery stores, multiple fast-food restaurants and a selection of wi-fi coffee houses (Okay, so maybe I will miss Starbucks and Panera). We will be able to help care for his mother as she ages and we will be free to travel to my parents’ house when we have vacation time. My husband’s sister and niece live within walking distance, and two of my sisters and my stepdaughter are only a short drive away. My husband will keep his job. His company has been gracious enough to let him work from home. We will miss all the people we have come to know in Cincinnati, just as we miss those who we left behind in Arizona. Our older children have roots here. This is where they attended preschool, kindergarten and most of elementary school. But both kids value family tremendously. They are as excited as we are. The twins will have few memories of their birthplace, but we will bring them back. We will remind them that Cincinnati has been good to us. We have plenty of good friends here and lots wonderful memories. Best of all, Cincinnati gave us two healthy young boys. Arizona was equally good. We left there with a healthy son and daughter; a greater understanding for Mexican/western culture; and an appreciation for a different kind of nature than we were accustomed to. We plan to spend many weeks each year of our retirement there. And so it is that, with a sense of contentment and fulfillment, that we say this: Good-bye, Cincinnati. Good-bye and thank you.