“Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to ‘jump at the sun.’ We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.”
– Zora Neale Hurston, folklorist and writer, from Dust Tracks on a Road
I was 38 when I became a mom for the first time and then gave birth to my daughter when I was two months shy of my 41st birthday. One thing I’ve learned – in a nod to the wonderment of motherhood, parenthood: You can never stop learning parenting lessons, no matter what your age, if your heart and mind are open to them.
When David and I found out I was pregnant with our son, we made plans for me to continue working until his birth and then allow me to work on my novel, but morning sickness was taking its toll and my job as a business development writer for a health insurance carrier was neither enjoyable nor fulfilling. I quit in my third trimester. I had been writing articles on the side for a good friend from graduate school and was expecting to rely on increasing freelance assignments to replace my regular paychecks, which we needed. By not commuting or having an office job with set hours, we reasoned, I could stay at home and work around my son’s schedule.
It wasn’t easy. The experience of being a first-time mother was amazing, magical, confusing, exhausting and a whirlwind. Speaking for myself only, I could not imagine dropping him off in the mornings and picking him up in the afternoons, and I cherished being with him during the day. At the same time, however, it was stressful to conduct phone interviews, hoping he wouldn’t wake up, as he stirred in the motorized swing on the other side of the bedroom, my makeshift office. Once, I even nursed him during an interview. Surely a combination of sleep deprivation and the determination to multi-task whenever I could resulted in this jaw-dropping lapse of judgment. I remember halfway into the interview when the interviewee, thankfully a woman, asked me if I was nursing. She recognized the sound and marveled that I could do these two things at once. I vowed never to put myself in an embarrassing situation again, though she and I had a good laugh over it and she told me I shouldn’t apologize at all. That’s what women – mothers – had to do to make things work. It didn’t stop me from finding other ways to multi-task.
In the fog of early motherhood, I remember feeling disconnected from the rest of the world. I missed talking with adults face to face. There came a time when I could no longer handle the many assignments and take care of him full-time, and my mother was no longer able to stay for a week each month to watch him while I worked. I reluctantly agreed to David’s suggestion that we find a nearby family daycare so I could be more productive and not be up all hours of the night to make up for the work that I couldn’t get done during the day. I felt guilty and angry with myself – an early admission that I failed as supermom. I couldn’t take care of him full-time and help contribute financially. At first, and at the same time, it was difficult to be alone in the house and to admit that I could be so productive in this new situation.
But give supermom an inch and she’ll take a foot. I was going to make up for this shortcoming. Being highly organized, I made sure that everything was done before David came home from his long day at the office. The laundry was folded, ironed and put away. Dinner was on the table and the kitchen cleaned up. The house was always neat and clean (we had two dogs who shed a lot, so I vacuumed every day). I will admit that I even ironed the bed sheets. Groceries and other errands were done during the day. Bills were paid and filed. Weekends were supposed to be cleared so we could have family time. The only problem was that while the house was in shipshape order, I was still working round the clock and I was even more exhausted and sleep deprived.
The opportunity to go back to an office job came when my freelance editorial work for a magazine that covered people, technology and capital turned into a full-time position. I was thrilled to join the adult world, really enjoyed the work itself and overcame my guilt of having a set workday away from home. I negotiated to be able to come in early and leave early, so I could pick up my son at a reasonable hour in the afternoon. I still remember clock watching and the mad dash of pushing the stroller three blocks to the family daycare and then running to the BART station to catch my train into San Francisco. Few of my colleagues were married, and I endured a few snide comments when I left for the day because many of them stayed past dinnertime, when our editor brought takeout to the employee lunchroom. Never mind that after I put my son to bed and the house was in order, I parked myself in front of the computer to write my feature-length articles late into the night.
By the time my daughter arrived in December 2002, my work situation had worsened, mostly due to my boss’s irrational behavior, low morale and the high-tech industry bubble bursting. Overcome with morning sickness, increasing workload, politics and new management due to the bank taking over the company, I quit ahead of my due date. Again, the goal was to get back to my novel, return to freelance work full-time and stay with my daughter while she was an infant. When my son turned two, he transitioned to a preschool and when my daughter was six months old – much younger than I had thought she’d be for her first transition, I put her in my son’s old family daycare to be able to get more work done.
As the kids got older and into elementary school, the workday got shorter because the school day was shorter than the preschool and family daycare hours. When my son was in second grade, he drew a picture and wrote a few sentences about his family, which was displayed at the school’s Open House. He wrote: “This is my family. My mom works wen [sic] I am at school… My dad workes [sic] the whole day.” I remembered feeling somewhat cheated. I worked all the time, but it seemed I was a victim of my own success. I could set the dinner menu for the week in 20 minutes and go to the dry cleaners and two grocery stores in less than an hour and a half. By dinnertime, the kids had completed and I had corrected their homework and I had given or supervised their baths. I rocked them in bed, and then began my second shift of work. Nothing was out-of-order in the house. Except for me.
Gradually, I let go of things. The wrinkles in the clean bed sheets don’t bother me as much as they used to. I relented and let David do the weekly menus and get the groceries. I ignore the dust bunnies made of our dog Rex’s fur. The kids rake the leaves, pick up the dog poop, empty out the dishwasher, clean the bathrooms, dust, strip their own beds and so on. (Yes, it helps when the kids are older and take up chores!)
But the biggest thing I did was redefine what it means to be a supermom. There’s nothing wrong with being a supermom, but I wanted to personalize the qualifications to suit me. Last year, I asked my daughter if she wanted to be a writer because she has quite an imagination and loves to write and make up stories. She flatly said no. She didn’t want to be a writer because she said I worked too much, I was up late and I was always tired (read: cranky). That was my wake-up call.
While I value being able to work my schedule so I can walk them to school in the mornings, pick them up after school, be at home with them when they get sick (last winter they both came down with pneumonia on separate occasions and were sick for two weeks each), chauffeur them to their various sporting and other extracurricular activities, and most importantly, make home-cooked meals and have dinner together as a family, I don’t want either my son or my daughter to think that this is the norm for moms or that moms who opt for this lifestyle have to give up who they are. To be sure, all moms make different sacrifices for the family life they choose or that are chosen for them. But in making sacrifices, we can’t let go of what gives us, as women and persons, life.
So when I took a week of vacation this past April to work on the revision of my novel, I talked with my son and daughter about sticking with something despite the barriers, finding a passion and nurturing it, and doing something that truly makes you happy. They saw how happy, how buoyant and energetic, I was. This past June, when my son graduated from sixth grade, we had a long discussion about motivation and perseverance. I told him that fear of failing had kept me from buckling down and finishing the novel but that I was guaranteed to fail if I didn’t try. Wide-eyed, he asked me, “So you mean if you hadn’t been afraid, you would have finished the novel already?” I nodded, and then he nodded slowly and walked away in silence. It remains to be seen when he’ll fully appreciate that nugget of wisdom. But I’m hoping that the notion of a fearless mom has new meaning for my kids.
Also helping me to meet my goal of becoming who I want to be is writing this blog. I’m discovering that my blog has created another valuable by-product, in addition to providing exercise for my writer’s muscles and sharing the challenges and beauty of this time of my life with a bigger community. My posts reflect many of the things I want to tell or share with my kids and, thanks to the Internet and technology, my words and photos are accessible and permanent, relatively speaking. It is, I’ll admit, a form of multi-tasking.
My definition of a supermom has evolved to this: One who loves her children unconditionally, supports them and is always there for them in whatever capacity she can, and pursues her hopes and dreams so that they see and know that the pursuit makes her a whole and happy mom and person. Under those conditions can she love and support fully. These traits are not mutually exclusive. They are also not the traits of anyone else’s but mine.
More importantly, no ironing bed sheets required.