In this post on Women Writers, Women's Books, I discuss how motherhood has influenced my writing. For anyone who has ever wondered how a working mom finds time to write a book, here's my answer.
Like many people living year-round on Martha’s Vineyard, my family and I spend a portion of our summer doing the “island shuffle.” Every year, we rent out our Oak Bluffs home for at least a few weeks. Unlike many people on the island, we're lucky enough to have two incarnations of home to spend that time.
We usually start these weeks away by staying at my childhood summer home. The Crystal Palace is a charming Victorian in the center of Oak Bluffs where my parents and aunt still spend every summer. As a child, summer meant cousins. My brothers and I longed for the days of July and August when we and our cousins spent endless days eating peanut butter sandwiches on the beach and evenings eating soupy ice cream on the back deck. As we grew older, summer meant nights spent checking out boys at the Game Room and driving up and down Lambert’s Cove Road looking for beach parties. From the enviable sun-dappled cantilevered front porch to the storybook tower, every nook, cranny, and corner of the house holds a piece of our families’ shared history, and continues to be a gathering place for us six cousins and our growing families.
Next stop on our shuffle is Ireland to visit my husband’s family. We spend the weeks in the bustling coastal town of Kinsale in County Cork, living in the small stone cottage where my husband’s grandmother spent most of her life. Much like I spent my childhood summers on Martha’s Vineyard, my husband spent his summers with his grandmother in Kinsale. From the overgrown garden where his grandmother and great aunt used to pick raspberries to make into jam, to the outhouse the men were expected to use (despite the working toilet inside), to the giant kitchen fireplace where the women used to cook, the house is a trove of memories and history. We spend the month visiting family and reconnecting with old friends, walking along the harbor front, eating Irish potato chips (crisps) and French fries (chips), and sampling the local pubs. As the Irish would say, the town and house are “lovely” but by the end of the month, I am longing for our light-filled Cape on a quiet dirt road.
Finally, it's time to move back home. For much of the year, we take the house for granted or think about the various improvements that could be made. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a deck? When will we ever be able to finish the basement? The hallway could use a fresh coat of paint and the medicine cabinets are falling apart. But upon returning after a stretch away, the house is newly discovered. My eight-year old daughter rushes from room to room, exclaiming over items she’s forgotten but now realizes she missed. “My bed,” she cries, lying down on the mattress that knows the shape of her small body. “My tree,” she yells, climbing the Japanese maple that grows in our front yard. I know the way she feels. I want to do the same. “My kitchen!” I cry, running my hands along the vast expanse of counter-space, massive when compared to the tiny Irish kitchen I’ve cooked in for much of the summer. “My couch,” I sigh, sinking into the soft worn sofa that has known many strangers over the summer months but still seems to welcome me back. Much like my children, I want to chant “Mine, mine, mine,” sprinting from room to room and pointing at everyday overlooked items throughout the house that take on a new significance after the long separation.
Though the island shuffle inevitably brings headaches, I know that we are blessed in that it also brings us a rare gift: the chance to return to the homes that shaped our childhoods and a chance to return to the home we have created as adults.
Vacationing with a four-year-old is a bit of an oxymoron. The two words just don’t go together. I know this already, yet my expectations and reality continue to collide. As my family spends three weeks in Ireland visiting family and friends, I’m getting another reminder. My other daughter is eight now, old enough to keep up with many of the activities my husband and I enjoy—going for long scenic walks, eating out, browsing in bookstores, lounging in cafes. This isn’t always so for the four-year-old. Today, on a beautiful (yet somewhat long) walk, I felt my agitation rise with her every whine and fuss. My husband and eight-year-old wandered ahead, while my youngest cried every time I let go of her hand. Ever the vigilant family photographer, I continued to take pictures along the way, and from these shots, it looks like an idyllic outing. And it was, except for my frustration.
The problem is wholly mine, I realize. She’s only doing what most four year-olds are programmed to do. Her legs are short, she tires easily, and her desire to be close to me trumps everything else.
Since our trip began, I’ve been asking the girls what the best part of their day was.
“Going to the model train exhibit,” the eight-year-old said.
“Holding Mommy’s hand when we walked,” the four-year-old said.
For me, one of the hardest parts of motherhood is being able to comfortably fall into it and let go. Too often my first instinct is resistance--walk faster, stop complaining, finish your dinner, for god’s sake, just try the carrot! Much of this is leftover from those early years when every hour of the day was a physical exhaustion. I was not built for that stage of parenting, and while I did my best, it was a challenge not to be subsumed by it. I envy the women I see who so clearly adore spending time with their babies and toddlers, who just fall headfirst into their time together. For me, my mind was always going a million miles an hour, soaring far from the moment, even while I loved my children fiercely. I acknowledge this now with equal parts shame and relief.
We’re exiting that stage. The daily trials are simple and painless compared to the days of sleep deprivation and never being able to take my eyes off a running toddler. Yet my mentality is a step behind these advances, and I’m still quick to anxiety or exasperation. I need to learn to slow down, rather than persuade them to speed up. There's no need to hurry, I must remind myself. I see the speed in the grown up shape of my eight-year-old's face, her mouth full of holes where her baby teeth used to be. I see it in the growing peace in my house when each child heads to her own room to play. I need to take a lesson from the four year-old, who meanders at her own pace, never in a hurry, perfectly capable of getting lost in the moment without worry of what’s ahead or behind.
“What was your favorite part of the day?” I asked her last night.
“When the sun came out,” she answered with her easy smile.
Oh yes. There it is.
This whole mothering gig is hard work.
I’d heard that many times before I had children of my own, and I guess on some level I knew it was true, I just didn’t realize HOW HARD. When I was pregnant with my first child, my husband and I had many people tell us, “You have no idea. You just have no idea.” Helpful, right? These people used to drive us nuts with their “I know something you don’t know attitude.” And then we had kids. And holy moly, we had no idea. I’d never considered myself a self-centered person until literally nothing in my life was about me anymore. When I went to bed, when I woke up, what I did when I walked in the door after work, what I did with my weekend. There’s no such thing as off-duty when you have kids, even if you don’t actually have your kids with you. They’re always in the back of your mind, hovering around the edges of everything else. And as maddening as this can sometimes be, it’s one of the truths of motherhood.
One of the things I hadn’t realized was how hard it would be to maintain my temperament once I became a mother. Most days, I know that objectively I’m a good mom, but man oh man, there are lots of moments throughout each day that I don’t always feel like one.
I’d normally considered myself to be a fairly even-keeled person. As a teacher, I was used to being patient during frustrating circumstances. I didn’t realize how the 24-7, day-in-day-out nature of life with kids can drive you batty, leading to adult temper tantrums, nonstop exasperated sighing, and a brain that feels cluttered with competing obligations and endless chatter (“Mommy, come here. Mommy, look at this! Mommy, can I have more milk, ice cream, vitamins, shampoo, water, fill in the blank.”). I wasn’t prepared for the self-doubt, the inability to curb my frustration, and the resentment of always having to put everyone else first. And I wasn’t prepared for the noise. My God, how I crave quiet some days. But I couldn’t imagine it any other way, and despite the challenges my kiddos have brought with them, I wouldn’t trade a single minute of it.
I pretty much hit the jackpot when it comes to mothers. My mom is kind, patient, nonjudgmental, giving, and easy to be around. We never really went through the “I hate you, you suck” stage. When I was a kid, she was always there, a steady presence in our lives from the moment we woke up to the moment we went to bed. I’m sure she didn’t always feel patient, and I’m sure there are plenty of times she yelled at me and my brothers, but when I think back on my childhood, those aren’t the times I remember. Those aren’t the feelings I remember. Instead I recall knowing I was loved and knowing that my mother (and my father too, but sorry Dad, this one’s for Mom) would always be there if I needed help. Even as an adult, I know this is true. My mother is still only a phone call or a few hours’ drive away, and I know how lucky I am that I can still turn to her, even if I need her in a different way than I once did. I try to remember this in my frazzled and less than stellar moments. If I can impart upon my children the absolute certainty that they are loved and the knowledge that I am always here if they need me, then I’ve done my job well.
To my own mom, thank you for not only being a wonderful mother to me, but thank you for showing me how to be a good mother to my own girls. And to all you moms out there who are doing your best to keep your head above water, don’t worry about the clean house or the chore wheel or whether all of the broccoli gets eaten before ice cream. It’s not what will be remembered. Happy Mother’s Day to all.
My mother used to tell me that when I was a child, all she had to do was look at me wrong and I’d start crying. “Constructive criticism” would often end with me defensive and in tears. As a teenager there was a lot of door slamming, though my parents seem to have forgotten this part of my adolescence. I still remember sobbing into a wet pillow and waiting for someone to come apologize (for what exactly, I don’t know). Once, in a fit of anger, I slammed our back door, accidentally shattering the glass. The phone happened to ring at that exact moment, and my mother spent the next forty minutes on the phone with a friend. I spent those forty minutes sobbing theatrically on the couch, thinking if I was genuinely upset enough, maybe she wouldn’t get mad at me.
Luckily, getting rejected by agents for almost ten years does wonders for developing a thicker skin. As I bumble through my first month as a published author, I’m getting practice letting things roll off my back, like water on a duck. While I’ve heard from many readers who have enjoyed The Bloom Girls, it’s the little thorns here and there that have a way of pricking the skin and drawing blood. A few recent cringe-worthy, sobbing into the pillow moments where I instead shrugged.
And I know this is only the beginning. There will be readings where only 1 or 2 people show up. There will be bad reviews, possibly in actual publications. People might hate my next book, maybe I’ll never sell another one, maybe I’ll post something on this blog that accidentally causes people to take to Twitter in protest (though I’m so Twitter-challenged that I probably wouldn’t even notice). Bottom line, you can’t please everyone all the time. And that’s okay.
I recently stumbled upon the quote “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” (Neale Donald Walsch). Well, I’ve been out of my comfort zone for the past six months, and I haven’t dropped dead. Want to know where my comfort zone is? On the couch, reading or watching TV with my husband. And as relaxing and comfy as that is, probably not a lot of personal or professional growth is going to happen there. So I’ll do my best to make like a duck and let it all roll off me, empty readings, 1 star reviews, and all.
The road to publishing can be a loooooong one. It took me nearly ten years to finally sign with an agent, and for some reason I kept writing all that time. Since getting a book published, I've thought a lot about what it means to be a "professional" writer has changed. To hear more about how, head on over to Writer's Digest to read my guest post.
A few weeks ago, a cold worked its way through my family. Then my 4 year-old spiked a fever. Then my 8 year-old came down with the stomach bug. Another day at home, disinfecting the puke from her bedroom carpet (does any other smell permeate quite so much?), and praying the rest of the family wasn’t hours away from heaving over the toilet.
Ugh. It’s February. The bleakest month in New England, and if you live on an island in New England, multiply that by four. February in Martha’s Vineyard means shuttered shops, empty restaurants on a Saturday night, and way too much time inside. February means letters home from the school nurse alerting you to an outbreak of the flu, stomach bug, strep, Coxsackievirus virus, lice, you can go ahead and fill in the blank. The letter always seems to arrive as my kids are eating something that doesn’t require utensils, and I realize I forgot to tell them to wash their hands when they got home from school. They smile as they lick the germs from their fingers, mouths glistening with butter and honey.
The past few weeks have been a bitter reminder of how precarious the work-family balance can be, and the winter months are the worst. Things will be going along swimmingly, happy healthy kids, busy productive parents, and then one little glitch will throw everything out of whack. It’s moments like these when I realize just how fragile our little working parent system actually is. When all is going smoothly, it feels sturdy, but when the wind blows too hard, I realize string, glue, and Band-Aids is all that holds it together. This is the time of year when I think about warmer climates. California, North Carolina, Oregon, Arizona, anywhere but here. This is the grass is greener time of year, because I’d give anything to see something green.
And then there’s a day like yesterday, unexpected and unseasonal. The air is soft, and there’s no wind. The day smells like fresh earth and sun, something growing. I breathe in and think, okay. Okay.
We’re not out of the woods yet. Tomorrow someone else might throw up. It might even be me. We’re still held together with the flimsy materials from my daughters’ craft box, but the breeze in spring is gentler. We're not knocked down quite so easily. And February is only twenty-eight days.
This weekend I took a shower and left my children unsupervised. And not just a sixty second rinse where there’s leftover conditioner still in my hair, and I leave the shower curtain open. I actually used shampoo, soap, and conditioner. I even shaved my legs. While I engaged in this normal daily activity, my children occupied themselves in the living room.
It may seem insignificant, but when you’ve got little kids that require constant attention, any step toward independence feels like a major milestone. If this blog had a larger following, I’m sure someone would leave a comment about neglect and the dangers that lurk around every corner. And I understand the reality of this. But neither of my kids put foreign objects in their mouths anymore, they can both walk without fear of falling, and I’m ten feet away in the shower, not out shopping.
On Sunday my older daughter turned eight. Last month my younger daughter turned four. And in the space of these two birthdays, my young family has turned an important corner. We seem to be exiting the stage of mild daily chaos.
There are no more diapers or bottles in my house. No pacifiers or baby monitors. No high chairs or booster seats, Pack n plays, strollers, or Baby Bjorns, and the crib needs to go to the dump, since no one sleeps in it anymore.
This year, my husband and I have quietly noted some changes. The girls play together. Occasionally well. My eight year-old can get sucked into a book like a Facebook feed, and the four year-old sometimes disappears into her room to play with her dolls. Alone. And after the four year-old goes to sleep, the rest of us sit around in the living room, drink tea, and read. Our own books. What???
While I cautiously celebrate every tiny step in the direction of independence, calm, and peace in my household, already I see what we’ve left behind. The forty-five minute bedtime ritual is down to five minutes (okay, ten or fifteen), and though I’m grateful for the extra time in the evening, I know that one of these days I’ll be lucky to get a goodnight kiss. That sweet baby smell, you know the one, right in the folds of your kid’s neck? There are only traces of it left on the four year-old, though I sniff her soft skin like I’m doing deep breathing yoga exercises.
I hear we’re entering the sweet spot of parenting, after the exhaustion and chaos of baby and toddlerhood but before the riot of teenage years, those precious few years where our kids actually still like us but don’t require every single second of our attention. Though we’re leaving some things behind, I’m happy to settle in, cuddle with my girls while they’ll still allow it, enjoy not getting poop on my hands from changing diapers or smelling like spit-up every day. I’ll sleep through the night since now I understand the blessing of eight uninterrupted hours. And I’ll enjoy the last breath of baby smell on my daughter’s neck.
With the New Year comes something else if you live in New England…snow days. Or if not actual snow days, the potential for them.
Growing up, most children awaited news of a snow day via the radio. Sometime after seven, they’d hunch around the radio, listening to the long list of alphabetized cancellations, fingers crossed that their school would make the cut. As the daughter of a principal in the town where I attended school, my brothers and I were blessed with hearing the news first, by an early morning phone call when we were still tucked in bed. The ringing phone sometime after five AM was our indication that we could roll over and sleep for another few hours.
These days most of us hear about snow days by an automated text or phone call, yet the day and night prior to a snowstorm still prompts the same anticipation and weighing of the pros and cons of a possible day off. In our house, the conversation usually goes something like this:
“Looks like school might be cancelled tomorrow.”
“That would be great. Except then we’ll have to make up the day in June.”
“Yeah, but a day off would be great. Then we’d have a long weekend.”
“I know, but it’s only January. We just got back to school. A snow day now would be a waste. Plus it’s too early to start racking up snow days.”
“Maybe we’ll have a late start?”
“Those are such a pain. They’re so disruptive to the school day.”
“Yeah, but you don’t have to make those up.”
“I guess. I hope we have a snow day.”
“I’d rather save it for February, when we really need it.”
When I was a kid, my brothers and I would have a similar conversation with our mother the night before a snowstorm. Our mother’s reaction, to our intense annoyance, would always be the same:
“It doesn’t really matter what you hope for. Either we’ll have a snow day or we won’t. We don’t have any control over it.”
To which we’d groan, “Moooooom!” She wasn’t playing along with the game, which was more about the anticipation of a possible day off than anything else.
However, these days I find her approach comforting. There are so many things I feel I should be in command of—my children, my home, my classroom, the structure and order of my household. When there’s something truly beyond my control, I appreciate the chance to sit back and let nature run its course.
Today we had a delay, two extra hours to sleep in, have a lazy breakfast, and play outside. And as I drank my second cup of coffee, leisurely, as opposed to while I race around the house barking orders at my daughters, I thought of my mother and the freedom that comes with not having to be in control, even if just for a morning.