I remember well the day I first wore my Fitbit. It was nearly three years ago, and I strapped that thing on my wrist certain it would prove how conscientious I was about getting up and moving between bouts of writing.
I quickly forgot I was wearing it, so I didn’t peek at the steps screen until the end of the day. I was shocked. Only three thousand steps. I was embarrassed – no – ashamed. Before having kids, I was a regular road racer and a veteran of six marathons. Life, not necessarily kids, got in the way after that — a couple of cross-country moves, freelance writing, contract work, elder care, injuries, surgery.
Over time, I stopped running, but I hadn’t realized that I had also stopped moving.
It was a revelation so intense I became obsessed with my new toy, challenging myself to hit 10,000 steps and 20 floors each day. When I was short of my goal, I sometimes walked in circles around the living room, often carrying a glass of wine in one hand and ducking into the TV room to catch the next development in a show because it was time to relax, but I wasn’t ready.
I learned my Fitbit didn’t record steps when I pushed a shopping cart or my father’s wheelchair, so I shoved it in my pocket during those adventures to ensure that I wasn’t cheated of my goal. The hip movement triggered the step counter. I connected online with other Fitbit users, including my sister and my husband, to compare achievements and gloat when I beat them.
I made sure I carried the mail up our quarter-mile driveway in my left hand, so my right hand could swing with my body and accumulate steps. I monitored my sleeping habits and my pulse on my Fitbit, getting so worked up about getting a good night’s sleep that I couldn’t sleep. I wore that watch night and day and regardless of my outfit. I worshiped that thing.
Then it broke.
It happened in August. My Fitbit had stopped working before, but I had always been able to resuscitate it with the help of customer service. Not this time. This time it was dead-dead, probably because I so rarely took it off that I had accidentally dunked it in a hot tub on spring break three times. It had been behaving oddly ever since.
Fitbits are expensive and I couldn’t afford a new one.
I felt naked.
I was lost without it.
I bought a cheap knock-off, but it didn’t work. Sometimes it counted steps. Sometimes it didn’t. I probably would have rejected it even if it counted steps precisely the same. It wasn’t a Fitbit. I wanted my Fitbit. I was sad.
But something strange happened a few days after I chucked the knock-off. I was at the grocery store wearing pants with no pockets. For an instant, I stressed about where to put my Fitbit. Then I felt my wrist and remembered. And I smiled. I didn’t have a Fitbit, which meant my step total didn’t exist. Since it didn’t exist, it didn’t matter.
Without a Fitbit, I was free.
I have to wonder if fate played a role. Over the next few months, a nerve problem in my foot worsened, limiting my ability to walk long distances. If my Fitbit had been functional, I would have failed to meet my goal every day. I found I had gained weight over those three years, not lost it. In trying to figure out how to battle the weight gain with fewer cardio opportunities, I realized I had forgotten all about strength training. I used to do floor exercises regularly. I had stopped in favor of steps.
Last month, I resumed my floor exercises and, this month, I signed up for Weight Watchers. I am down five pounds and I am feeling stronger every day. I am sleeping better and I am living better. I will soon have surgery to fix the nerve, which will allow me to run and hike again, but I won’t get another Fitbit.
I find myself dreading October 1, the day the world turns pink.
The month-long campaign for breast cancer research and education is an astounding success in terms of raising awareness and money. That I will admit. But it has become an event. A celebration. Pink, pink pink.
Everywhere I look, I see pink. It’s hard to witness when my sister is on her third battle with breast cancer, which has now invaded most every part of body. Cancer will be her constant companion. She will spend the rest of her life beating it back whenever it threatens to establish primary residency.
I cringe at the constant reminders.
I wish I could turn off the lights for just one month so I wouldn’t have to see it.
But I can’t do that. I have to experience this month, regardless.
So I started thinking about what I can do to ease the stress, what all of us can do.
How about this?
Instead of posting ribbons to our Facebook profiles, crying over survivor stories and wearing pink t-shirts, sneakers and hats, why don’t we do something about it? Do something to help save ourselves, our relatives and our friends?
Why don’t we each make a positive change and become an example?
It doesn’t have to be a huge change. It can be as small as doing a few crunches in the morning to tighten those abs, or switching out a morning bagel for a bowl of oatmeal, or promising to start each day with one positive thought.
It’s that easy.
Those are the little things that can make a big difference. They can make us healthier – less likely to become victims, and stronger in battle should it break through our defenses. These are changes we can talk about with others, encouraging them to follow our leads.
Post it on Facebook, chat about it in the office, tweet it.
We don’t know what caused my sister’s cancer.
She’s always taken good care of herself. I suspect environment played a role. She lives in Southern Jersey in an area where cancer rates are unusually high. But even as she holds her head to stop the pounding, or clenches her stomach to ease the nausea, she’s trying harder. She’s working to improve her way of living – her diet, her attitude and her fitness.
She is fighting with everything she can.
So go ahead and cheer her on with pink flags, pom-poms and ribbons.
We all want to know someone is thinking of us, and I’m certain that helps.
But jump in and fight, too. Prepare for battle and arm yourselves well. Don’t let breast cancer have it easy. Wear the pink glow that comes with a brisk walk, or after a good night’s sleep or when you look in the mirror and tell yourself life is good.
Make pink the color of your battle uniform, not just your décor.
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.
Five years ago, I had an idea. A great idea, according to several agents and publishers. Who Am I Now: Honest Conversations with Stay-at-Home Moms was supposed to be a collection of interviews with mothers of all ages from all over the country who discussed, entirely in their own words, the sociological, the financial, the psychological and the physical impacts of their decisions to remain home with their children. No condescension from the experts, no supermoms held up as role models: only candid interviews with real women of all ages. More than a dozen women, strangers at first, gave selflessly of their time, their hearts and their souls to make this book happen. Their motivation was not money. There were no promises of compensation. They spoke to me because they wanted to help. They were no longer strangers by the time we were through and I am forever grateful that I had the opportunity to know them. I couldn’t wait to share their experiences, their raw honesty, their wisdom with the world. But then came reality. Pull a parenting book off the shelf. Chances are the author is a celebrity of some sort — a talk show host, an already well-known writer, an actor, a nationally or internationally renown doctor. The publishers who were interested in Who Am I Now? wanted that same status from me. They wanted me to freelance for national parenting magazines, speak at conferences, blog on parenting sites — do anything I could to become a “parenting expert” before they would consider publication. But I am not an expert and I never will be. I am a stay-at-home mother of four who was once a journalist and is now writing fiction. I am a woman who struggled with staying home, who took comfort in the voices of others and who wanted share that comfort with others who were struggling. I was to be the compiler of Who Am I Now?, not the writer, not the expert. It has pained me to think that those women wasted their time, their energy and their honesty. So I had another idea. Every two weeks for the next several months, I will publish one of those interviews on this blog. I will promote the blog wherever I can and I will count on the interviewees to share as well. Together, we’ll get the word out. We’ll reach those moms who need us, those mothers who are struggling with their new roles and with the identities they left behind, who are searching, sometimes through eyes swollen with tears, for the answer to that question: Who Am I Now?
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.