Oops. I grew as a writer, but so did my waistline.

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.

She gave up her career for her son and our country. Meet Kitty, former teacher and stay-at-home Navy mom.

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.

All interviews in this series can be found in their own blog: Who Am I Now: Honest Conversations with Stay-at-Home-Moms.

Twice she stayed home with her children, and twice she went back to work. Meet Billena, proof that moms can have it both ways.

Billena and her family on New Year’s 2013

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.

All interviews in this series can be found in their own blog: Who Am I Now: Honest Conversations with Stay-at-Home-Moms.

Who Am I Now? Honest Conversations with Stay-at-Home Moms

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?

Once published, each segment will be available on a new blog: Who Am I Now? Honest Conversations with Stay-at-Moms.

Parents magazine and the bipolar disaster

An article in the May isssue of Parents magazine caught my eye the other day.
It was written by a woman whose ex-husband has bipolar disorder and it promised to focus on the difficulties of shared parenting when mental illness is involved.
I am very close with several people who have bipolar disorder, so I was excited and interested to read what the author had to say. This is Parents magazine. Certainly, it would take a fair and well-balanced look at the affects of mental illness on parenthood.
Then I read it and was terribly disappointed.
The woman’s ex-husband goes off and on his medications. Once, when he was on his medications, she thought that having a baby would make their marriage stronger, so she got pregnant. Then he went off his meds again and their marriage disintegrated.
He never did anything dangerous to himself or others, but he was often manic and unpredictable. He spent money wildly, rarely slept and once decided that when her parents came to visit, they should sleep in the backyard.
Like many people who experience mania, but not depression, he apparently didn’t see the need for medication. Mania feels good. Manics feel smart and invincible. Convincing them that they are sick is next to impossible.
So she took their child and left him.
Can’t blame her for that.
The rest of the article is about her attempts at visitation and her struggle with whether her daughter should have contact with her father at all. It’s sad and it’s probably true, but it’s also misleading and will likely take us a few more steps backward toward the days when people with mental illness were locked up forever “for their own good.”
The article fails to mention that bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive disorder, is common. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 2.6 percent of adults have it and most cases are considered severe.
It’s also highly manageable.
It takes time and patience to find the right medications, particularly since the disorder presents differently in everyone. But anyone can find that balance. Look at Jim Carey, Robin Williams and Rosemary Clooney. How about Alvin Alley, Francis Ford Coppola and Vincent Van Gogh? Or Ted Turner, Buzz Aldrin and Winston Churchill?
Those are just a few of the more high-profile people for whom bipolar disorder is or was part of every day life.
A very few.
The people with bipolar disorder who are close to me have families who love them. They are successful in the careers and they are people I want to be around. They care for their children, they love their spouses, they excel in most everything they do.
I am often humbled around them because, like many bipolars, they are so unbelievably bright and creative.
They struggled before they were diagnosed, they struggled to accept their diagnosis and to get on the right medications, they struggled with the fact that they would have to live with it the rest of their lives.
But they survived and thrived.
As with any illness or disorder, there are people like the ex-husband in the article who will not accept their medical conditions. We can’t help people who won’t help themselves, so many people go untreated. Too many people. Unfortunately, a small percentage of those people, in states of psychosis, do things that are highly dangerous or so ridiculous that they make the headlines.
Those sensational acts are what average person knows of bipolar disorder.
They are what publicly defines it, the false image that so many of us have fought to change.
And this article doesn’t help.
There are far worse dads (and moms) than the writer’s ex-husband.
There are abusers, abandoners, and people who are just too selfish to love anyone more than themselves. There are thieves and killers and cheaters. There are far, far worse parents than a bipolar dad who forgets birthdays, talks nonsense and overwhelms his daughter with voice mails and letters about subjects that are beyond her maturity level.
How harmful is he?
How much does it really affect her daughter?
I guess I was naive. I thought the media was working a little harder to give a more accurate portrayal of mental illness, to help people understand that in most cases, it’s no different than having diabetes or heart disease or any other chronic illness.
It’s incurable, but it’s treatable.
People live with it every day and do quite well.
Shame on you Parents magazine for not providing more balance, for not putting this article and this woman’s experience into perspective.
Shame.