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.

The Voice: an interview with its youngest fans

My husband and I have never been big fans of reality TV shows.
No Bachelor or Biggest Loser or American Idol for us.
We’re sit-com people.
We strive to escape reality at the end of the day, not live someone else’s.
But, for some reason, we got hooked on The Voice.
It was our own little secret last year, our private indulgence.
We’d record it when it aired and wait until the kids were all in bed.
Then we’d pull out a bottle of wine and enjoy.
It was a wonderful season.
So we were thrilled to return to our routine when the second season began after the Super Bowl. I even saved a good Merlot for the occasion and bought my husband his favorite hefeweizen, anxious to become immersed in the world of Adam, Cee Lo, Christina and Blake.
Then, about halfway through the second night of auditions, the inevitable happened.
One of our 5-year-old identical twins, Jonathan, sneaked down the stairs, unable to sleep and slipped into the recliner with his father.
Minutes later, he was in love with The Voice.
The Voice has since become a family affair with the twins and their older siblings all eager to watch.
Jonathan and his twin, Matthew, are so enamored, they sing the theme song constantly. After listening to it over and over again on the way to preschool and back today, I decided to interview them about their latest passion.
Here it is:

Running, running, running, running, running …

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.

The fourth anniversary of that moment in the Starbucks bathroom

Four years ago today, I woke up feeling pregnant.
I tried to shake it.
It was silly, I thought.
I assumed it was my cynical nature kicking in: I was finally freelancing regularly for a magazine; I had started querying agents for my novel; I was editing a book for a well-respected graduate school; and, in a few months, our youngest would start kindergarten.
Something had to go awry.
But that pregnant feeling only grew stronger by the hour.
By mid-afternoon, I broke down and took a test.
And as I stood there in that Starbucks bathroom, watching that second line grow stronger, I also watched my writing career fade. I was 40 years old and about to have my third child (and my fourth, as it turned out!). I would never get this freelance/novel-writing thing going full force, I thought.
I was ready to surrender.
But my husband, a former journalist/author turned techie, wouldn’t let me. He pushed me right back into the writing battle even though he just as shocked, bewildered, scared as I was. He made sure I was armed with a well-charged laptop. He made me face that Starbucks bathroom, the scene of my perceived defeat, once again.
But not right away.
Tom did allow me a sabbatical of sorts.
He had to.
I was horribly sick and tired that first trimester and beyond. I found out why during my 20-week ultrasound; I was carrying two little guys in there. Two beautiful, perfect and healthy baby boys.
By the time my stomach had improved, my belly was so big, I couldn’t reach the keyboard. My fingers were too swollen to type anyway and I was on partial bed rest with two older kids to care for.
My husband didn’t mention my writing much and neither did it.
The first few months after the twins were born were a sleepless fog of nursing, diaper changing and shuttling the older kids back and forth to half-day and full-day school and their activities. Tom was still traveling frequently then and we had no family here to help us.
It was all we could do to stay awake for another day.
But by that fall, things had started to settle a bit. The twins were sleeping better, my husband’s travel schedule was less hectic, the older kids were both in school for full days. I was getting antsy and, I admit, somewhat depressed. And my husband knew it.
One night in November of 2007, he pulled out my laptop after all the kids had gone to sleep and showed me this site called Blogger. Just start a blog to keep your writing fresh, he said. No big deal, he pushed. Just do it for fun.
And I did.
My first blog, The Boys: Raising Identical Twins, stirred something in me again. That stirring inspired me to pick up the novel and give it a good overhaul. I was surprised by the insight I had gained by being removed from my manuscript for so long. I eliminated major characters, wrote new chapters and deleted others.
I started querying again and one, day, when the twins were two and a half years old, I got the email that led to the happy dance.
I signed with Roger Williams of The Publish or Perish Agency.
Now, four years after that second line appeared in the Starbuck’s bathroom, my novel, Spring Melt, is under submission with major publishing houses; my first short story is due for publication in the fall issue of Aethlon, a journal of sport literature centered at the East Tennessee State University; and my second novel is well underway.
Yes, the twins did affect my writing career, but in a good way. Our entire family dynamic has changed since their birth. The older kids have become more independent and have shown a capacity for love and responsibility that blows my mind. The twins have taught us both to both prioritize and relax. Enjoy life more. (Right now, they are squirting hand soap all over the bathroom. So what? Half an hour of fun for $1.99.)
I have learned to write more efficiently and to concentrate on the projects that are most important to me: no more book editing. I have done all this and they are not even in preschool yet. I am 44 years old, I have three-year-old twins, a 10-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter, yet I am still writing, and I believe I am writing on a more mature level than I was before The Day of the Stick.
My creativity did not whither the day the twins were born, in part, because my husband encouraged me to nourish it.
So, on this day, on the fourth anniversary of the appearance of those double lines, I thank him.
I thank him for loving me, pushing me and believing in me.
(And I would greatly appreciate it if he would pick up some more hand soap on the way home.)

Twin moms and the psychology of rudeness

The irony was too much.
I was reading a post on an online forum for parents of twins when my 3-year-old identical boys started watching Ni Hao Kai Lan. The theme of the children’s show on Nick Jr. was politeness, always finding something nice to say.
The theme of the forum thread was how to avoid unsollicited advice from moms of singletons. Some posters were kind, but frustrated. However, a few expressed in many words that outright rudeness was not only appropriate, but the right of every twin mom.
One poster told of an incident in a department store in which she commented on someone’s twins. The mother replied with, “Yes, they are twins. Now leave us alone.” The poster was forgiving of her because the other mom didn’t know she had twins herself.
When I responded that rudeness is never okay, I was shot down.
So I paid closer attention and this is what I found:
_ Some women enjoy rudeness.
_ Even more so, they enjoy bragging about their rude exploits.
_ Rudeness is addictive.
_ Rude people eventually drive others anyway,
_ Rudeness is like crack-cocaine: it is often practiced by people who are depressed, angry or have low self-esteem. It gives its practitioner an immediate sense of euphoria, but then it brings her crashing down. The only solution is to keep doing it and doing it over and over to re-live that euphoria, knowing that she will eventually self-destruct.
Twins attract a lot of attention, especially when they are babies or infants. So twins offer moms many more opportunities to be rude. Yes, it can be frustrating to walk into a store for a quick errand only to be stopped two or three times by people who oggle your babies, but that’s why you build in “oggle time.”
I always either gave myself a few extra minutes to run errands or reduced my agenda to only the most vital errands. More often, I hired a sitter for the important stuff or waited until evening when my husband was home.
And it helps to try to have some perspective.
Maybe even some sympathy or empathy for those who approach us.
Most are simply struggling to make conversation.
And most are in awe of twins.
That’s a good thing.
I have healthy twins and two healthy older children.
I am forunate.
Very, very fortunate.
And twins seem to make people happy.
Why would I not want to share them with the world?
Why would I want to be rude?
There were times when I was tempted, like when the clerk from Dillard’s kept jumping in front of my stroller and stopping me every time I tried to get around her; or like the time an acquaintance kept calling one twin “the fat one;” or like the time the older gentleman at the mall insisted over and over that my twins were not identical.
But I stopped myself.
What good would it do?
Another clerk finally helped me out of my Dillard’s situation.
I haven’t found a reason to speak with that acquaintance since.
The older gentleman? Well, what do I care what he believes? I smiled, told him I had to get going and walked away.
As for this whole thing about advice from singleton moms, what’s wrong with it? Singleton moms have plenty to share about feeding babies, getting them to sleep, making baby food, the best diapers, milestones, etc. Why can’t those moms just listen and pick and choose the advice that applies to them?
Why be rude?
Those women did not want to hear it when I wrote that rudeness was unacceptable. Perhaps, I took the wrong approach. Maybe what I should have written was, “Turn on your TVs. Ni Hao Kai Lan is on.”

I used to be a better mom

I used to be a better mom.
My first two kids had my constant attention except when I was cleaning.
I got online when they were asleep.
I worked on my novel when I had a sitter.
They had it good.
Then came light-weight laptops and wireless networking.
Now, I keep my laptop on the kitchen counter most of the day.
When it’s in the basement at my desk, I sneak down and check my email hoping my 3-year-old twins won’t notice.
I let them watch too much TV. I don’t read to them quite as much as I should. I let the older kids stay up an extra half an hour while I finish one last blog entry, a couple of emails and take a quick peek at my Web stats.
I have excuses.
_ I recently started working as a moderator for a popular online forum.
(I have to become more familiar with its culture–the posters, the topics and the general tone of the community. Right?)
_ My agent might email with an offer.
(Okay, so he’d probably call first. Enough already. These are excuses, remember?)
_ Some horrible ailment might befall a friend I haven’t seen in 20 years and the only way I will know is if I check Facebook. (How will it look if I miss the wall post and fail to send a “get well” card?)
Yes, I have excuses.
But today, it started to get to me.
I wondered whether I was cheating the twins.
(I rarely touch my computer from the time the older kids come home from school until just before they go to bed.)
I looked at them.
They were feeding each other pretzels.
Five books were scattered across the living room floor, books I had read to them earlier. Books they had pulled out again and flipped through, pretending to read them aloud.
In the midst of the books was a length of railroad track I had set up for them this morning. Thomas was towing Annie and Clarabel. Diesel pulled a Troublesome Truck. They had played with those off and on for hours.
The television was off .
And they weren’t bothered.
No, Matthew and Jonathan were happy.
And I was getting some work done on my laptop.
I had even cleaned the kitchen.
So maybe I’m wrong.
Maybe it’s not such a bad thing, this portable, virtual world in my kitchen.
I am not glued to it.
I still get down on the floor with the boys several times a day, flipping them, lifting them and letting them climb on my back and shoulders. I still scoop them up and cuddle them individually for several minutes at a time. We do puzzles together. We count our fingers and toes. We color. We sing the alphabet song.
We dance.
We try to get out of the house for at least a few hours each day.
Perhaps the difference between the mom I was before wireless Internet and the mom I am now is that I am connected, connected with other adults and connected with my work. I am not going crazy for adult interaction or intellectual stimulation while I’m home with my children.
This time around, I have my laptop.
I have my email.
I have Microsoft Word.
I have it good.
But when I power down and take a look around, I realize this:
So do they.

I am a coffee addict, or am I?

Winds are gusting at about 50 miles-an-hour so far today and the weather folks are warning us to prepare for power outages. The last time we had gusts this strong–the effects of Hurricane Ike—we lost power for four days.
My first thought?
I’d better brew fresh coffee.
Quick.
Four kids, and that was my first thought.
I’m an addict.
It’s time I admitted it.
In my defense, we do have gas heat and a gas stove. Even without power we will be warm and I can cook. So really, all I can do to prepare is to stock up on batteries and candles and maybe get some ice to keep the milk cold. I could do that now. The twins are at the sitters’ house for another half hour.
But I don’t want to.
I just keep thinking about that coffee that will done brewing any minute.
Coffee with milk and one Splenda.
Drinking it at the kitchen table with today’s newspaper spread out before me.
Maybe it’s not so much a caffeine addiction as it is an addiction to what that cup of coffee stands for. I rarely wrote on deadline without coffee beside me in my full-time journalism days. I walked to the cafeteria for coffee whenever I needed to think.
I met my friends in coffee shops.
I wrote good chunks of my novel in an Arizona Starbucks.
My husband and I often end date nights in coffee shops.
So maybe that’s it.
Maybe coffee stands for an identity that started to fade when I had my first two kids and that sometimes seems forever lost now that I have the twins.
But I don’t have time to think about that now.
The coffee is done.
The clock in ticking.
The newspaper is waiting.

Slump. Please help.

I am in a reading slump.
And it’s disappointing.
Until recently, I’d always had two or three books going at once. I kept one on my nightstand, one on the kitchen counter and one near the treadmill in the basement.
Now, only the nightstand holds a book and it’s gathering dust.
I just haven’t had time to pick it up.
Time.
Maybe that’s the problem.
I haven’t used the treadmill since summer.
I’m always on the defensive in the kitchen these days, trying to keep our very-independent twins from emptying the fridge, pretending to cook on the stove and pushing chairs up to cabinets to get the van keys out of my purse.
I never seem to sleep anymore.
I have too much to do.
But I love to read.
I crave a good novel.
I enjoy the escape.
This is a place where I cannot remain.
It is time to map a new course.
The trouble is that I don’t know where to begin.
Do I try to get more sleep, foregoing the measly hour a night I get to hang out with my husband, cuddle, watch silly sitcom reruns and talk uninterrupted?
Do I climb on the treadmill more often, ignoring the editing, writing, cleaning and cooking that tear me in other directions? And, oh yes, our four kids?
Do I remove all glass and hot sauces from the fridge, disconnect the gas from the stove and disable the horn button on my key chain so I can just set the twins loose in the kitchen while I read?
Or am I looking in the wrong direction entirely?
Is it the novels?
Is that the problem?
It seems that over the summer, the novels I picked up were impossible to put down. They pulled me out of my world with so much force that I couldn’t resist. Not even four kids, a messy house and a pile of unedited interviews could keep me in reality.
Nothing I’ve read lately has done that for me.
So, perhaps, it’s not the time constraints at all.
Maybe, what I really need is a good book.
Any suggestions?