Steamy heat rising from the tall grass. Yellow jackets at my ankles. Thorns ripping the skin on my hands and arms.
These are my childhood memories of berry picking.
I hated it.
Picking berries was a summer chore in our family, during that small window when blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and chokecherries ripened in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State. I grew up on homemade jam sealed with wax lids, one of the ways our mother saved money with eight kids to feed.
It was forced on me. It left me hot, sticky and, sometimes, bloody. So why do I find myself wandering the fields on our property every couple of days through late July and early August, reaching into webs of thorns, plucking plump blackberries from bushes?
Am I becoming my mother?
I have spent a lifetime fighting that possibility.
I loved my mother and I admired her on many levels, but we never really got along. I won’t go into the details, but we could not spend more than twenty-four hours together without breaking into a full-blown argument, even though we talked easily and comfortably on the phone at least once a week.
We drove each other crazy.
I grew up on stories of her upbringing in Nazi Germany, where she was taken from her family and made to work in people’s homes, like many German kids during that era. The Nazis claimed they were protecting city children from potential bombings. It just so happened there were Nazis willing to take them in who needed 11-year-old housekeepers and babysitters.
From her tales, I gathered that a love of nature was her coping mechanism. Unfortunately, it often lured her on unauthorized journeys from her assigned homes, which led to reassignment after reassignment after reassignment. She was labeled a troublemaker, a title she accepted with pride. The need for a particular flower or a certain view was that great.
That craving stayed with her into adulthood and got her into plenty of messes, like the time she tried to drive up Owl’s Head Mountain with a bunch of us in the vehicle, and then couldn’t turn the station wagon around when the rough road narrowed and ended in an area too crowded with trees to even open the doors.
That was mom.
I have always loved nature, but in different, safer ways. I grew up hiking, camping, cross-country skiing and swimming, and continued to pursue those activities later in life. But since we moved to the hills of North Central Pennsylvania ten years ago, I have felt a different kind of pull from the fields, the woods and the water.
It’s a psychological craving that demands satisfaction.
My walks along the trails my husband cleared on our property center me, especially now during all the craziness of the pandemic. I walk slowly, observing the little things – the various languages of the birds, the array of insects and the assortment of plant life, all while noting the blooming seasons of each kind of wildflower. I often take photos, which I enjoy sharing with others on social media.
But when I first saw those plump, dark-purple berries clinging to bushes in clusters along the trails, I felt a new surge of excitement. I immediately rushed home to get a plastic bowl. I covered my clothes and skin in Deep Woods Off, pushed through thorns with bare legs and scraped my hands pulling off berries that were deep among the branches.
What was I doing? Was I becoming my mother?
I do not have the time or the patience to pick quart after quart after quart of berries and devote days at a time to making them into jam. I never force my children to pick with me for hours at a time. I barely gather more than a bowlful from each picking.
It excites me because I love that the land gives me something back. I don’t even have to ask. I love the act of foraging. I love the sweetness of the blackberries even though they leave tiny seeds between my teeth. I love the thought that we could live off the land if ever we had to.
Even though I am not my mother, my walks and my blackberry obsession have brought me closer to her. I have developed a better understanding of the woman who was born a rebel and left everything she knew behind for new adventures in America with a U.S. soldier she had met, and then married after only a few months of courtship.
Nature was her solace while she raised eight kids with a man who eventually left her for his high school sweetheart. It was a connection to her childhood and her home country, a way of coping when she felt out of control. It was something familiar in a world full of uncertainty.
With every berry I pick, I am reminded of my mother, who passed away four years ago at 87 years old. But the memories are not of sweat, stings and bloody scratches. Instead, I am reminded of her determination and inner strength, the drive that fueled her through nursing school in her 40s after her marriage failed, that kept her working until age 71, that earned her retirement with a house of her own and a little money stashed away.
I am reminded of the little girl who slipped out through the windows of strangers’ homes to pick flowers—symbols of beauty in a time of darkness—the little girl who was willing to risk anything for freedom and adventure, the life she craved and deserved.
So, no, berry picking does not make me into my mother. It brings the best of her alive again for me.
Update: More patience is required. I’m told one more week!
We all handle rejection differently.
Some laugh. Some cry. Some get mad, allowing jealousy to devour their ambitions.
My own practice has been to remind myself that the timing could be much better, that it’s okay, and maybe even beneficial, to wait a little longer.
I began working on my first novel when our oldest was a toddler and our daughter was an infant. That was sixteen years ago. Since then, we have grown as a family with the addition of twins, who are twelve. I completed four novels between cross-country moves and part-time gigs as an adjunct instructor, a book editor, a freelancer and a taxonomy specialist, and I started two more. I self-published a nonfiction book as well.
I went through two literary agents and a couple of “almosts” from acquisition editors during that time. It was disappointing. No doubt. But I knew that publication in the early years of parenthood would leave me torn between my passion for my kids and my passion for my work.
My kids will always need me, but their needs were more physically intense in the earlier years. With each rejection, I told myself there would always be time to become a successful author, but that the window for successful parenting was limited. That was my consolation.
It was okay, I said. I could wait.
But the kids are older now.
I am ready and so are they.
I have exciting news to share, but I need to be patient just a little bit longer.
I told a fellow writer recently I would not be attending two appealing conferences this spring and summer because of conflicts with my children’s lives. One falls on the weekend of my son’s first-ever prom and the other clashes with summer camp drop-off. She commended me on my “sacrifices,” but suggested I reconsider. I need to put my writing first, she said. I need to ensure that I am taken seriously if I want to succeed. I was taken aback. I just don’t see it that way. I chose my career, but I also chose to have children. I believe in balance, but when I am forced to tip those scales, they will always tip in favor of my four kids. My husband is no different in his approach to his career, though it’s less obvious because he doesn’t have as much flexibility. Motherhood has made me a better writer, so if it slows me down a little, that’s okay. My perspective is unpopular, at least that’s what I gather from forums, blogs and books on the subject. We female writers are supposed to protect our writing identities at all costs and forgive ourselves the selfishness required by our career choices. Don’t get me wrong. I am selfish sometimes. Um, plenty of times. Just this morning, I encouraged my sick ten-year-old son to watch YouTube videos so I could write in peace. The house could be a lot cleaner. I could put better meals on the table. I could be doing art and science projects with my kids during school breaks and on the weekends to keep them off their iPods and computers. I could also take a regularly paying job and earn money for after-school activities, upcoming college costs and educational summer outings. I have sometimes worked part-time when our finances required it. Most recently, I was a taxonomy specialist for a media company. But as soon as our finances allowed, I quit. Why? Because I’m selfish. I want to write even if I can’t guarantee that my writing will sell. But I have my limits. No conference is worth missing my son’s first prom. I want to see the flush in his face when I tell him how handsome he looks in a tuxedo. I want to see him give his date her corsage and wave as the two of them head off for a night of dinner and dancing with friends. I want to hear all about it when he gets back. No networking opportunity is worth missing camp send-off. I want to hug my twins before they disappear into their cabins for their first full week of overnight camp and squeeze my daughter before we let her go for two weeks, longer than we have ever been without her. And no novel of mine is going to suffer because I didn’t go to that one workshop. Look at all the real-life experience I am getting through my kids. You can’t buy that. We women have good reason to be protective and defensive when it comes to our identities as writers. Despite all the strides we have made as a gender, society as a whole still tends to see male writers as professionals and women as hobbyists. But we don’t have to deny one identity in order to reinforce the other. I completed four novels while my children were in the most physically, emotionally and intellectually demanding stages of their lives. They still need me now, but their needs have changed. These days, the conflicts with my writing are more about the schedule. Achieving a balance is easier and it will only get better. If I get published now, my youngest kids are old enough to understand that I will have to travel for signings, to teach workshops or to participate in conferences. They are old enough to be excited for me, to be proud of me and maybe even to sometimes travel with me. And it goes both ways. I am secure enough in my identity as a mother to do all that without guilt, to enjoy success as a writer. I have not sacrificed. I have compromised to get what I want, an entirely different concept. We are not going to change society’s view of female writers by mimicking the success of stereotypical male writers. Why would we want to do that? We need to show the world something different. We need to show society that parenthood (fatherhood included) is a valuable asset for writers, not a complication or a burden. I will go to a conference this year, but I won’t miss a child’s birthday, a school event, or a milestone to do it. Childhood lasts for only so long, but I intend to write forever. Where’s the sacrifice in that? (Margaret Atwood, you are my idol!)
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.
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.
Kathleen is unlike most of the stay-at-home moms I interviewed for this biweekly series, Who Am I Now: Honest Conversations with Stay-at-Home-Moms. Most struggled with their post-career identities, unaware of the toll the social isolation would take on them. Kathleen, who lives in a Seattle suburb, worked as a nanny for seven years before she had kids, and then in a private preschool for eight years. She was accustomed to the lifestyle. Staying home is important to her, she says. Her parents divorced when she was young and she spent much of her time in the care of sitters. She didn’t want that for her children. I spoke with Kathleen, 43, five years ago. Her children are now 11, 9 and 7. She is thinking about going to school and getting a job, but she keeps herself busy now volunteering at school, caring for her household and her kids and keeping the whole family physically active. This and all interviews in the series can be found in their own blog: Who Am I Now: Honest Conversations with Stay-at-Home-Moms.
Here is Kathleen’s story in her words:
We’d always said what you say when you’re dating. (I was nannying when we were dating.) When we have kids I can always work with the first one and by the time you have two, you stay home. Really I was working at a daycare that was quite elitist. It had infant massage every day. This place was very, very fancy. I don’t know how I got a job there, but a lot of people wanted their kids in there, so to be able to have my child go there was really, I thought, kind of a blessing. We were glad to have it. But, the problem was, they kept adjusting my hours, you know working the latest shift that you could have. The place closed at six thirty, so I was there until closing. Technically, I could see my son on all breaks, but that was when he was sleeping. I would get home. He would fall asleep on the commute. I never saw him. He was pretty much just there to get me in the carpool lane back and forth. It was really, really depressing. Then on the weekends, he was just pretty much going through withdraw from being in pretty much the most glorious daycare. I wasn’t happy with my job. They wanted me to work more and more hours. Half my paycheck was going into his daycare. I was getting a fifty percent discount, but being such a fancy place, it was a very expensive program. He started at four months and by the time he was eight months old, I quit. It kind of all blew up in my face. All of a sudden, I just couldn’t stand it anymore. It was great to stay home but, to be honest, it was really hard because I had to get to know this baby that really didn’t want to be with me. He really wanted to be with the other people. That was hard. He did and it felt lousy. They did baby sign with him there and I didn’t know what he was saying. I had no idea what he wanted. I just really never got to spend that much time with him, which was a terrible thing. He was my first child. I’d been with other people’s children more than mine own as a newborn nanny. That was hard. I think. It was so depressing and so I gained a little weight and then I finally really had to get myself out there and start doing things, because that wasn’t good. It wasn’t really a big paycheck in the first place. It wasn’t like we went through this monumental change. It was literally like if we cancelled the diaper service and I washed diapers and we didn’t go out to eat as much and I wasn’t really buying a lot of wardrobe… He (her husband) always had a good enough job that he could have supported us. We always knew it was coming. I don’t think we intended for it to come that fast. And then I got pregnant again right away, so it worked out. I’ve thought about going back and getting a different kind of degree. I actually don’t have a degree, but getting it in just a completely different field, getting a degree in nutrition because I got really into eating healthy and stuff like that. But it was just one of those things where it would have had to have been after my youngest was out kindergarten before I could even start going back. In reality, it’s really important for us to have somebody at home. I was raised by a single mom without supervision and that was not a good thing. When you think kids are more independent, that’s really, really when I want to be home. So I think we just kind of focused on having somebody here or, if I did go back it would just kind of be a hobby. But we don’t really need it. My husband’s a tightwad and I’m pretty much a hippy and those two things actually can really work out well together. We’re pretty tight with money, but I think it’s more that that’s how our lifestyle is. Our lifestyle is unusual. I make ninety percent of what we eat. We grow a lot of our own food. We have goats. My husband is from Europe, so we still go back to Europe. He doesn’t really have a big bling-bling job or anything like that, but we are pretty tight with what we spend it on compared to other families. He works in IT and he does well enough to support a family of five in the city and everything. So I guess being at home really did put the focus on living more of a natural life. I don’t think my social life changed intensely. I stopped going out, but I did that years before I had kids. I gave up my theater tickets. That was pretty much the only big switch. It was hard to get my husband to come home early, so I could go to the theater. My husband, I think he likes it. He has somebody here. Somebody is looking after the animals and somebody is with his kids. He really likes that and I think it’s nice to come home and smell dinner. My friends, I think they really think I lucked out. I mean, they know we are not excruciatingly wealthy, but a lot of my friends were single moms most of the time. Like I said, they’ve raised their kids already or maybe they were working moms. I think they were not necessarily jealous, but I think they definitely think I lucked out. I feel sad that they missed out on everything that I have. I think it would have been really nice for them to be able to stay home and have that kind of a bond with their kids. I can imagine that some of them feel a little remorseful because they just weren’t able to do that. I came from a divorced family and I’ll tell you my parents have the utmost respect for it. I was raised by a single mom. I think it’s really healing for my parents to see—my husband and I have a very strong, very loving marriage—to see us raising children in a way that my parents weren’t able to do for whatever reason. I think it’s really good for them. I guess I have a lot of admiration from my friends and my family for that. I am very supported and I guess I’m just really lucky. I’m really happy with it (her decision). Coming from a divorced family and being raised by a single mom, my main goal as an adult was to have children and be able to stay home with them. I didn’t suffer. It wasn’t like I was beaten or anything like that. My mom worked very hard and she’s a really good person. It’s just that, you know, she wasn’t home and I really, really miss that. I’m just so grateful to be able to do that, to stay home with my children. My oldest, he is in kindergarten now and he had a cold and it was just a cold and it was a slight fever, but I got to stay home with him. I was so grateful to be able to do that. Whereas, when I was a kid you had to be vomiting for my mom to be able to take a day off from work. I’m very happy with the position I’m in. I’m very happy about the life I lead. I feel really good about it. I don’t think I could be this happy about anything if I was working a job. It would never give me this kind of satisfaction. His family? I think the hard part is that his older sister isn’t married. She never married and she really would have been a wonderful mother and she would never have children in her own or anything like that. They are a different generation and from a different country and you just don’t necessarily go out and adopt children on your own. There is probably not a lot of hope in her marrying at this stage, which just breaks my heart to even say. His second sister doesn’t have any children either. She and her husband have tried and tried for years and have gone through IVF, I think, four times, They’ve been on an adoption waiting list for a few years now. You can’t adopt Irish children. You have to go out of the country. So I think that they see me as very blessed and I’m sure I do have a good relationship with his family, but I would like to think that they see me as being appreciative and grateful for what I have. I would never, never complain about staying at home with the kids or anything like that. Neither of them have children and I know they want them. There are really not a lot of people I can bitch to about it. A lot of my friends are going on the same boat as my husband’s sister. They are going through IVF so you can’t really complain. I don’t complain that much. I do a lot to my husband. Going out? I don’t know what to do by myself. I really don’t. My husband will be like okay why don’t you go off and do something, and I don’t have anything to do. I’ll say okay, I’ll just take so and so, one of the kids, and he goes, don’t take one of the kids or it’s not time for yourself. It’s really nice actually for me to have one-on-one. So I do enjoy taking one of the kids. It’s nice to go with that one person and talk to them. I don’t have like a gaggle of girlfriends just waiting for me. I think it would be very presumptuous of me to tell everybody that they should be Becky-Home-Eccy. I think there are some people out there who are just meant to work and there’s nothing wrong with staying at work if you really want to work. God knows, my OB is a mother and my pediatrician has children in school. I would never judge someone for that. But I think if you go to work and decide you would rather stay at home, there’s a lot that you can do to do it. There are so many cutbacks and things like that. So I think it’s nowhere near impossible. It’s how much you’re willing to give up. Just find your own groove and find something that works and stick with it. Motherhood truly softened me. Like an emery board, it just sort of smoothed out the rough edges. I can’t remember who my mentor was before, but now it’s Mr. Rogers.
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.
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.