The Art of Celebrating Nothing

The Art of Celebrating Nothing


By Laura S. Distelheim

This isn’t happening, is the first thing Nikki thinks when she hangs up the phone. And then she covers her face with her hands to block out the image of the teetering stacks of cartons – the teetering mountains of cartons – that are piled up on the table, the counters, the island, the chairs and the floor of the kitchen in front of her. The teetering stacks of cartons that she’d sworn to herself she’d be unpacking today now that the renovation is finally completed. But it is. See. It’s happening. That was her nanny, Fabiola, on the other end of the phone, calling to say that she’s sick and won’t be coming in today, and there’s her To Do list, as clearly as if it were hanging right there on the inside of her eyelids, sporting a blinking red X across it.

She draws a shuddering breath and opens her eyes. Think of the beach, she orders herself. Think of a waterfall. A sunset. A waterfall at sunset. Isn’t that what her yoga teacher had told the class they should do to fight panic? But, for some reason, what – or rather, who – she finds herself thinking of instead (boy, she hasn’t thought of him in years. What’s he doing here?) is her college English Lit professor. The one she’d had in her senior year at the University of Illinois, who had looked as if he’d been sent from central casting, with his white beard and his pipe and the suede patches on the elbows of his jackets. She can actually see him, right up there at the front of the lecture hall, turning to the blackboard and writing, “The world is too much with us,” in his wide sweeping scrawl. Ah. Wordsworth. She’d gotten an A in that class.

How could she have gotten an A in that class? She didn’t know a thing about the world back then. Where is he now, Professor… what was his name again? Well, anyway, where’s Professor Whatshisname now, when she deserves that A? Because now she knows. It is. It really is. The world really is too much with her. Too much world. Too much with her. Yeah? Well, too bad. The mom doesn’t get to call in sick. Okay. She can do this. She can do this. Of course she can do this.

She draws another deep breath. It’ll be fine. Okay. Think. Thinkthinkthink. She’ll have to change a few things around. Cancel her get together with Leah, for starters. They were going to grab a cup of tea at Arriva Dolce this afternoon, when Steph will be at preschool, but Max will be napping then, and if he misses that, he’ll be a bear. Okay. What else? The grocery store. The cleaners. The post office. The bank. She could do them this morning and take both kids with her, but it’ll take her four times as long. Maybe a couple of them on her way home from dropping Stephie off at school? A couple more on the way back to pick her up? Max’ll just have to nap fast. That’s all there is to it.

What else? The phone calls she’d promised to make for Steph’s preschool’s toy drive for Children’s Memorial Hospital. “Oh, I’ll be happy to take charge of that. It won’t be any problem at all,” she can hear herself caroling when Dana had called to ask if she could do it. She should be arrested for reckless volunteering. Well, it’s too late to back out now. She’ll just have to find time to take care of it. Find time? Okay, make time then. She has the sudden image of herself, knitting together a second. Knitting a minute. Knitting an hour. How, precisely, does a person make time? Another deep breath. Maybe this afternoon, when Max is sleeping?

The kitchen, though. She looks around at the cartons, lined up on the counters, teetering on the table, stacked up on the floor. “God hon, it’ll be great to finally get our lives back. You think you can really get it done by the time I come home?” Rob, at dawn this morning, heading out the door to his conference in New York. She hears the click of the door again – the starting shot of a race – and closes her eyes against another wave of panic. It’s like being in the middle of the ocean, trying to thrash her way toward a shore that keeps moving further and further away. Her heart is hammering so hard that it’s almost a relief when a crash from the family room startles her back to dry land, and she hurries in to inspect the damage: Max, splayed out and wailing beside the stool she’d left him sitting on, his bowl of Cheerios upended and strewn across the carpet.

“I tolded him not to stand up on it,” Steph announces from her perch on the back of the rocking horse, all raised eyebrows and shrugging shoulders and big sister superiority, her imperiousness accentuated by the tiara she’s planted atop her red curls and the shimmering pink tutu she’s pulled on over her Cinderella nightgown.

“And what did I tell you,” Nikki asks, reaching down to swoop Max up onto her hip, where he rewards her by abruptly halting his wails and placing one sticky fist on her neck and the other in her hair, “about leaving that tutu in your closet? Didn’t Mommy tell you it’s not a toy? It’s your costume for your dance recital next week and if you tear it, we’re out of luck. Now please go right back upstairs and put it away. And, while you’re there, bring down the clothes I left out on your bed. Fabiola’s not coming today and Mommy needs you to be a very good helper.” When did she start referring to herself in the third person? What would Professor Whathisname have to say about that?

“Why she’s not coming?”

“Because she’s sick. And Mommy has a lot of things she has to do today, so you and Max both need to be very good listeners.”

“But Mommy, I hafta wear my tutu, you know why? Because it’s sparkly. And Hailey? Who’s in my school? When we was playing in the doll corner yesterday? She said I was the queen. Queens is always sparkly. And do you know what she was, Mommy?”

Who knew Cheerios could roll that far? Thank heaven she hadn’t poured any milk in the bowl. Rob’s right. This is exactly why she has got to get the kitchen back in order. It’s enough already with this chaos of their eating their meals in here. She carries Max over to the corner, turns on the television and sets him down in front of it… “to our Super de Duper Circus,” Barney croons and Max squeals and claps his hands. Whoever it was that gave birth to that purple dinosaur really should get the Nobel prize. Maybe she’d find out and nominate him. Or her. Of course it’s a her. A mom, no doubt, who had probably been snowed in with four children for a week when she’d conjured him up. Hallucinated him, more likely, but hey, it had paid off.

“Don’t move,” she orders Max, picking a Cheerio off his Spiderman pajamas. “And don’t even think about eating those Cheerios off the floor. Steph, what are you still doing here? Didn’t I tell you to go get your clothes?”

“She was the queen’s kitty cat. Did you know that Hailey has a real kitty cat at her house? Guess what’s his name. It’s really really really really funny.”

“Is it? Uh-huh.” Let’s see. She glances at her watch. Still more than three hours before she has to get Stephie to school. If she can clean up this mess and have the kids dressed in what? Twenty minutes? Half an hour? maybe she can at least make a dent in the kitchen before lunch time.

“Yes. It’s Puppy! Isn’t that a so funny name for a kitty?” Steph giggles, sliding off the horse and launching into a wobbly pirouette.

“STEPHANIE REBECCA GELLER! Will you LOOK at what you’re DOING? You’ve stomped ALL OVER the CHEERIOS. Did I not TELL you to go UPSTAIRS and take that tutu OFF?” She watches Steph jolt to a halt, her light dimming and her nose and eyes reddening. God, she hates yelling at them. She fights the urge to stoop down beside her, wrap her in her arms and apologize. No. If they don’t cooperate, she’s going to lose this day completely. They’ve got to learn that she means business when she talks to them. See? There she goes, up the stairs. Dragging her feet, of course, but at least she’s going. So. The vacuum.

“Mama, lookit Baby Bop doin’,” Max turns to say, but she’s already gone.

An hour later, when Stephanie walks into the kitchen, holding Disco Barbie’s body in one hand and her head in the other, Nikki has three empty boxes at her feet and is pulling a stack of soup bowls from a fourth, on the counter in front of her. “What happened to Barbie?” she asks. Not yet not yet not yet. She’s just beginning to get her groove here. She needs more time.

“She broked. Can you make her better? Fabi all the time makes her better.” Steph hands both pieces up to her and she sets the bowls on the counter to take them. Lost your head, huh? Boy, do I know how you feel. She holds the two pieces together and gives a press and a twist until she feels a satisfying snap. “Ta da!” All of life’s problems should be this easily fixed. “There you go, kiddo. All better. Why don’t you go put a dress on her? She looks a little cold without any clothes on, don’t you think?”

Steph takes the doll and appraises her in all her crayon-tattooed nakedness and then shrugs and sets her on the counter. “I don’t wanna. Will you play the piano wif me?”

“Oh, sweetie, I wish I could, but do you see how busy Mommy is? Look at all these boxes of things that have to be put away. We want to have dinner in the kitchen again, don’t we?” She feels as if her voice has its hair up in a high pony tail and is waving around blue and white pom poms. Give me a D. Rah rah. Give me an I. Rah rah. Give me a N-N-E-R. What do we have? Dinner! Where do we have it? In the kitchen! Yeaaaaay! Every four-year-old’s dream. But what choice does she have? She has got to get her life back under control here. If she has to live with these mountains of boxes for one more day, she really will lose it.

Stephanie nods and looks out the window. “Can we go to the park?”

Nikki follows her gaze, grateful to see a splatter of rain against the pane. “It’s raining out, hon. See? We can’t go to the park when it’s raining. Why don’t you play with the new art set Grandma gave you? Maybe you can make a picture to give to Daddy when he comes home.”

“But I don’t wanna play alonely. I want you to play wif me.”

“But you’re not playing alone, hon. You’re playing with Max. You can help him make a picture for Daddy, too!”

And there he is, as if on cue, toddling through the doorway with a yellow plastic hard hat placed backwards on his dark curls and a Cookie Monster sticker plastered to one cheek, and his beloved copy of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom clutched in both his hands. “Mama read?” he asks.

Mama sighs. “C’mon guys,” she says, shepherding them back into the family room, settling them each on a tiny chair at the play table, placing a piece of paper in front of them, opening up the art set, freeing the crayons and pencils and markers and chalk from their plastic slots and spreading them out in a row. “Wow, look at all these colors,” she’s saying. Just give me one more hour, she’s thinking. Enough to empty at least a few more boxes. Forty-five minutes, even.

Make it fifteen and there’s Steph, back in the kitchen doorway, this time with her new grass skirt – a gift from her Uncle Jeff and Aunt Jackie, who had dropped by last night, fresh from their anniversary trip to Hawaii – in tow. “Can you put this on me?” she wants to know, and Nikki, down on her hands and knees in front of the dishwasher, elbow deep in a carton of appliances, looks up and sighs. “Not now, honey. I promise we’ll try it on really, really soon, but right now, Mommy needs to find the toaster. Do you want to help?”

Steph shrugs, turns around without answering and heads back to the family room. It occurs to Nikki, watching her go, that she’d known even before she asked that she wouldn’t be trying her grass skirt on this morning. “I promise you we’ll play with it very soon, sweetie,” she calls after her. She means it. She’ll set aside an entire morning to do nothing but play, in fact. It just can’t be this morning or she’ll have to spend the afternoon on these boxes and she’ll never get to those phone calls or to her errands, which will mean she’ll have to try to get to them tomorrow, when she’s already scheduled an oil change for the car and a meeting with the other mothers of the kids in Steph’s dance class to plan the refreshments for next week’s recital. So it can’t be this morning, but it will be some morning. Soon. Really soon. And, oh god, now what’s that?

The phone. Which turns out to be Fabiola, calling to tell her the real reason she hadn’t come in to work today, and which she tucks between her ear and her shoulder while she – abandoning the search for the toaster – pries open the carton in which she’d packed away her bottles of spices. So that, when she hangs up a few moments later, it’s that carton she turns back to. Paprika, she’s thinking. Celery salt, forcing herself to focus on each label as it emerges from the box. Cream of Tartar. Sage. Why are her hands shaking? Everything’s fine. Fabiola’s safe. She’s okay. She’s fine.

It’ll turn out to be nothing, that black van, or vans, or whatever it was that someone saw somewhere out there in the town. Okay, so the word had gone out that it was being driven by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and a lot of people, Fabiola among them, had been spooked enough to stay home today, but things will be back to normal by tomorrow. Nine o’clock, just as always, there she’ll be at the door, calling “Where is my babies?,” the kids running to hug her. But that crack in her voice. She’s never heard her sound that way before. If I has to go back to Me’hico, my chil’ren, they can to die, is what she’d said. Simple as that. I cannot have any way for feeding them. Nikki sees them again, the two little girls, staring, unsmiling, from the photograph Fabiola had brought in one morning.
Two little girls, just a little older than Stephie, standing side by side with their arms around each other’s shoulders, in front of a small, crumbling one room house that seemed to be made of stone or concrete or some such thing. Cracked dirt in its yard. Nothing but air where its windows and door should have been. The home where they were living with their grandmother? She didn’t ask. Didn’t want to embarrass Fabiola, so she’d asked their names instead. Tulia and Karyme.

“They’re very beautiful,” she’d said, and Fabiola had nodded and smiled. They really were. All shiny black hair and large dark eyes and soulful expressions. They can to die. Those words. That crack. She’s heard words so close to those before. Coming from her own mouth, in fact. And even that crack she’d heard in Fabiola’s voice. It had been there, too, in her own voice, when she’d said them.

She should alphabetize these spices, as long as she’s putting them away. Why doesn’t she set them all out on the counter? There we go. Now. Let’s see. Allspice. That would probably go first. What is allspice anyway? Has she ever even used it? Well, there must have been some reason she bought it. And apple pie spice. She needs to do more baking. Nothing happened. Maybe she should call her mother and get the recipe for that great apple pie she always makes on Thanksgiving. Basil leaves. She supposes they’d probably come in right about here. Ginger? No. No, that’s much later. Black pepper. Celery seed. Nothing happened. Chives. Chives would be next, wouldn’t they? Where are the chives? Okay, forget about the chives. Cinnamon. Cinnamon, ground and cinnamon sticks. Here they are. Perfect. Nothing happened. This time, she says it out loud. Wow. She hadn’t thought about that day in months. She looks up and out the window at the glowering sky.

It was a Sunday. A perfect autumn Sunday. The kind of day when the weatherman says, “On a day this clear, you can see forever,” and “C’mon folks, get out there and pick those apples and walk in those woods. We all know what’s ahead for us, Chicagoland. Better grab hold of these days while you still have a chance.” That’s what they’d done, she and Rob. Grabbed hold of the day. Grabbed hold of the day and the kids and driven over to Anton’s Fruit Mart on Skokie Boulevard to pick out their Halloween pumpkins.

What comes after cinnamon? She surveys the counter again. Pushes aside the garlic powder and the marjoram. No, not yet. Cloves maybe? Where are the cloves? But it’s no use. There she is – it’s like watching a scene from a home movie – in her U of I sweatshirt and blue jeans, with her sunglasses perched atop her head and the breeze ruffling her hair across her face, walking along the outer edge of the rows of pumpkins that have been lined up in the parking lot, with Max riding shotgun on her right hip and Rob and Steph walking side by side just a few steps behind her.

Walking side by side, but not hand in hand, because Steph is already cradling a tiny yellow gourd in her arms. “Oooh, a baby one,” she’d cried when she saw it and had reached down and carried it with her. And now, entering the scene over there to the left, are Jeff and Jackie and their two boys, whom they hadn’t expected to see there, so that, for the next few seconds, there’s a lot of waving and smiling and laughing and calling. And now here it comes. She throws a longing glance in the direction of the counter again, but there’s no point in looking away: Elliot, the older of Jeff and Jackie’s sons, tugging at his brother’s sleeve and pointing, saying, “Wow, look at those over there!” The two boys leaping over several rows of pumpkins to reach the giant ones at the distant end. Steph swiveling to watch them go, leaning down to set her gourd on the ground.

The Nikki standing in her kitchen, looking back from here, can see the idea forming in her daughter’s mind as clearly as if it were printed out in a balloon above her head. But the Nikki up there on the screen, the Nikki who’s standing right next to Steph there in that parking lot, has just turned in the wrong direction. Has just turned to ask Jackie if she’s read the book for their book club meeting yet, while the Rob up there on the screen is reaching over to take Max from her arms, so that the Steph who’s up there on the screen, being too small to hop the rows of pumpkins as her cousins have done, has a split second of a chance to dart away from her father’s side, around her mother’s back, out into the parking lot to follow them.
Even watching it again now, in the kitchen, in the morning, in the safety of the spring they are all here to see, Nikki finds herself shaking so hard that she has to lower herself into a chair. Nothing happened. It was over before it began. There had been that one endless moment – a fraction of a speck of a sliver of an instant later – when she and Rob, both realizing what Steph had done and whipping around in her direction, had found her, all Winnie the Pooh sweatshirt and open-mouthed grin and dandelion hair blowing in the wind, dead center in the path of an oncoming SUV.

And then the SUV had veered, its brakes keening, and nothing had happened. Nothing happened nothing happened nothing happened, they had said and said and said and said and said – to themselves, to each other, to the car’s taillights, to the fruity autumn air. But that night, standing with Rob in the hallway, listening to the sound of Steph’s high, silver voice, rising up into the darkness of her Over the Rainbow room as she counted the glow-in-the-dark stars they’d glued to her ceiling just before she was born, it had hit her like an aftershock. “She could have died,” she had croaked, her voice cracking, and then had found herself down on her knees on the carpet.

What if she had? No need to ask. She already knows. She already knows that, if Steph had died on that Sunday afternoon, she would have stood, writhing, in the doorway of that Over the Rainbow bedroom the next morning, looking at the empty bed and the uncounted stars, listening to the memory of the “Rise and shine, shiny bunny,” she would never say again, of the “I’m not a shiny bunny, Mommy, I’m a shiny girl,” she would never again hear. And she knows that, later that day, later every day of the world from then on, she would have looked at her watch and looked at her watch and looked at her watch and looked at her watch, until 12:00, when she would have found herself thinking, “This is when I would have been fishing in my purse for my car keys, grabbing her Beauty and the Beast backpack, zipping her purple jacket to her chin and leading her out into the garage.”

What if she had? I’ll tell you what if she had, she thinks. If Steph had died that day, then, last night, when Jeff and Jackie had given Max the coconut shell monkey they’d brought him from Hawaii, she would have tortured herself with the thought that ifonlyifonlyifonly that SUV had veered away in time, they certainly would have also been giving Steph the grass skirt she’d been asking for. And then, this morning, she would have tortured herself with the thought of Steph bringing that skirt to her and asking her to help her put it on, and then with the thought of herself tying it around the pudgy tummy, with the thought of Steph’s face filling with light as she wriggled her hips, with the thought of how she would have let loose with one of those husky, wide-as-the-sky laughs she’d been known for ever since she was a baby. The two of them would have then stood in front of the mirror, she would have known for sure, deciding that, really, Steph looked not just like a hula dancer, but more like a queen. And then she would have imagined how they would have sat together at the computer – Steph on her lap, leaning back against her – googling Queen Lili’uokalan.

That’s exactly how it would have happened. If Steph had died that day, she wouldn’t have spent this morning emptying boxes. No. If Steph had died that day, she would have spent this morning sitting right here in this kitchen, looking out at the lilac tree that’s just beginning to blossom in the back yard, knowing that she was in a world that no longer held her daughter in it and imagining how it would have felt for the two of them to sit there at that computer together. Trying to remember the tickle of Steph’s curls against her neck, the wriggly weight of her on her lap. Trying to remember the up and down lilt of her voice and the sweat and Ivory soap scent of her skin and the feel of her small, steady heart through her back.

She sits, unmoving, in the chair with her hands in her lap, taking short, shallow breaths. Listens to the hum of the refrigerator, to the clunk of the ice maker, to the tinny murmur of the television and the rise and fall of the children’s voices, though she can’t make out what it is that they’re saying. A cardinal lands in the lilac tree and she watches it until it cocks its head and flits away. Somewhere out in the street, a garbage truck groans and she listens until it drops back into silence. Why is that? is what she’s thinking. Why is it that, when tragedy comes, we continue to see the other life in our mind (“I would have been making breakfast now. I would have been going out to the driveway for the paper, turning on the television to check the weather, taking Tuesday for granted.”), but if it doesn’t come, if nothing happens instead – if the car swerves away in time, the cell divides properly, the piece of concrete falls from the high rise five minutes before someone we love walks past on the sidewalk below – we rarely, if ever, stop to think: “But for that miracle, I would have been grieving now. I would have been sharing this bed with a memory. I would have been dialing this cell phone number, knowing that no one will answer. I would have been clutching at air instead of holding this small hand in mine”?

She looks at the boxes stacked up on the floor in front of her. What had she called them? Mountains of boxes? The mountains of boxes she had to conquer before she did another single thing on this Earth? She envisions it: This Earth. Spinning through darkness. Spinning through darkness and crawling with bearing-down SUVs. With the SUVs that are bearing down on Fabiola’s children, over there, who live perpetually frozen in their path, while she waits and watches from over here, holding her breath and hoping she can somehow find a way to make them veer away. With the SUVs that are bearing down on all those children in their beds at Children’s Memorial, to whom she’ll bring teddy bears and checkers boards and Legos, while their mothers wave their arms and scream, silhouetted in the headlights, wishing she’d bring miracles instead.

She can hear them, she’s sure, their cracking voices. She can hear all the cracking voices of all the mothers all over the world. The mothers rocking their babies in the bomb shelters and the refugee tents, and the mothers standing back up in the rubble of the earthquakes, and the mothers picking through the remains of their huts on the beaches where the tsunamis have raged ashore, trying to make them veer away, all those bearing-down SUVs. She can hear their cracking voices and she can see their waving arms. And where, in all of this, is she? There. Down there. She’s that one right over there. That one looking away from the retreating taillights and away from her children, who, due to nothing more praiseworthy or profound than the randomness of fortune, have been left whole and unscathed in their wake. She’s that one who’s racing right past with her eyes on her watch.

It’s a lovely sound, really, the clickety clack the spice jars make when she stands up and sweeps them off the counter and back into the cardboard carton from which they’d just come. And the sound of the sudden silence that blooms in the playroom after she clicks off the television is an even lovelier one. Steph pauses in her hammering, her arm frozen midair. Max turns from the television, his face a question mark. “What did we do wrong?” is what she can see them wondering, but look at them now, she thinks, as soon as she asks, “Who wants to play the piano with Mommy?” Look at them squealing and tumbling over each other in their race to the bench. Really, it occurs to her as she stoops to pick a few stray Cheerios she’d missed earlier out of the carpet and slips them into her pocket, people could save themselves a fortune in self-help books on How to Live With an Open and Forgiving Heart if they’d just take an internship with a preschooler instead.

She helps Steph climb aboard the bench, sits down beside her and swoops Max up onto her lap. “What’ll it be guys?”

“Free,” Max announces, underscoring his request with a fist on the keyboard.

“No, Mommy, not Free Blind Mice. That’s a baby song and I hafta anyway pick first ’cause I’m the oldest.”

“Well, how ’bout you each pick a song and we’ll do both of them?”

“Okay. Twinkow Twinkow Littlow Star. Did you know that Mrs. Levy? Who’s my teacher at my school? She always sometimes plays it when we sit on the aphlabet rug, and it’s about diamonds. And you know what else? Betsy who has the red shoes says that Mrs. Levy’s glasses that are all sparkly have on them diamonds.”

“Well, isn’t she lucky. That sounds like a very good pick then. Does that sound okay to you, Max?”

“Hokay.” Another fist on the keyboard.

“But Mommy?” Stephanie’s dark brown eyes lock on her mother’s.


“Where is the stars?”

“Well, they’re way, way, waaaaaaaaaay up in the sky.”

“Could we go to them on a hairplane?”

“Haiwpwane!” Max swivels toward the window and is halfway overboard before she grabs hold of the back of his overalls.

“Whoa there, buster. Where do you think you’re going? There’s no airplane out there right now. And if there were, we couldn’t ride it up to the stars. We’d have to take a rocket ship. Maybe when you guys grow up, you’ll be astronauts and then you can ride on a rocket ship to the moon and see the stars.”

“Nuh-uh. Bemember? I’m gonna be a queen.”

“Oh, of course. How could I forget? I’m counting on being the queen’s mum. Well, maybe you can be both. You could be the first queen on the moon. How does that sound?”

“Good. If you and Daddy and Max will come wif me.”

“Sounds like a plan. You know what else sounds like a plan? Playing some music! Seems to me that we could do with a little less talk and a lot more action. How ’bout we get going with the star and then we’ll move on to the mice?”



“So. Twinkle Twinkle it is. Do you remember what I showed you? First we put our finger on this key, and then on this key and then on this key and this key.”

“Uh-huh. But Mommy?”


“Why they’re free?”

“Why are who free?”

“The free blind mice.”

“Oh! Well, actually, they’re not. Well, maybe they are. I mean, I hope they are. We want everyone to be free, don’t we? But this song is about three blind mice. There are three of them.”

“One, two, free,” says Max, holding up his fingers.

“Bery good! Isn’t that bery good, Mommy?”

“It sure is. What a smart boy you are, Max. Just as smart as your big sister. Okay. How ’bout giving that a try, Steph, just like I showed you? And then we’ll give Max a turn.”

“Uh-huh. But Mommy?”

“What, sweetie?”

“Why they’re blind?”

“Well, I’m not exactly sure. I think maybe they were born that way.”

“The same like Aristotow, who’s Big Bird’s friend with the purpow face and orange hair, who he reads books with his fingers?”

“Yep, just the same.” Although there are all different kinds of blindness, is what she finds herself thinking, a vision of herself standing at the kitchen counter, her eyes trained on the tiny bottle in her hand, intent on making sure that the paprika doesn’t end up next to the black pepper in the cabinet, flashing through her mind, as Steph, head bobbing and legs swinging now, reaches a pudgy finger toward the keyboard and the music starts to play.


Read our Q&A with Laura.

Laura Distelheim’s work has received the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award, the Richard J. Margolis Award, a Barbara Deming Memorial Fund grant and the Press 53 Open Award, among others, and has been noted in Best American Essays and The Pushcart Prize.




The Art of Saying No

The Art of Saying No

By Kim Drew Wright


-after Naomi Shihab Nye’s “The Art of Disappearing”

When they say Don’t you want to join the PTA?
          say no.

When they ask you to aide kindergartners
at the start of school,
remember last year before buckling.
          Ten minutes guiding cute faces off buses.
          Three hours shoveling packets—stuffed. Paper
          cuts. Numb ears. Manila smile stuck to seven
          hundred bland envelopes.
Then answer.

If they say You’re a stay-at-home mom
          with time.
Do not reply fine.

Start clocking your hours spent
          cutting patterns for gingerbread houses,
          segregating beads by color, shape—piling
          minutes like papers instructing parents how
          to file for discount lunches in an upper-class

Tell them you would if you could, but time is
a commodity just as important to you as that kid’s father
who’s a brain surgeon at VCU. You bet he doesn’t give
brain surgeries away for free—at least not repetitively.

When they chase you down in the halls, squat down
and become a water fountain. Let them spout on and on.
Accessorize your outfit with yellow caution tape.

Hang a hand-written note around your neck that states
Shut Down.

Thank them for the invite to the volunteer tea,
          then decline.

Kim Drew Wright volunteers at her three children’s schools in Richmond, Virginia. Her debut collection of stories and poems, The Strangeness of Men, won Finalist in the USA Best Book Awards. Find out more at KIMDREWWRIGHT.COM.

Stay-At-Home-Mom Bingo

Stay-At-Home-Mom Bingo


Mindi Wisman is an American social worker and freelance writer living with her family in Brussels, Belgium. Her work has appeared on The Toast, One Chic Mom, and World Mom’s Blog. She has worked as a mental health therapist, sports psychologist, and academic researcher, but is still trying to make her dream of being a back-up singer to Dolly Parton come to fruition. You can find her on Twitter.

Illustration: Christine Juneau

What’s A Mother Worth?

What’s A Mother Worth?

By Valerie Young


Every mother saves her family thousands of dollars by performing services in unpaid domestic labor for free.


At first glance, family life in our private homes seems far removed from economic news in the business section of our newspapers and media outlets. Markets, profits, and the workforce belong in one world. Family dinners, carpools, and laundry belong in another. Transactions involving money are endlessly measured, analyzed, reported, recorded and publicly discussed. But making a place for people to live and grow, and creating the care required for them to thrive, does not. There is a rich irony here, as the original meaning of the word “economics” is household management. Strange, then, that we draw such a line between the consumption and production that takes place within our families, and what happens on the other side of the front door. What could we learn if we used business measures to determine the monetary value of a mother?

Our homes are all about the allocation of limited resources to satisfy multiple and sometimes competing demands. The management of a home, the provision of family care, involves consumption of goods and the production of services. When we look at motherhood through an economic lens, we learn valuable information about the costs and returns of investments we make. These investments involve money, certainly, but they also involve time and energy and effort. Raising children is one such investment. Its return is the fully functional, educated and tax-paying citizen, the productive member of society, which results.

From time to time articles appear estimating the value of the services a mother provides. Most such estimates are based on buying these services on the open market. This replacement cost approach tallies up the expense of paying somebody else to provide the transportation, cooking, cleaning, laundry, health care, child care, home maintenance and household financial services a mother performs for free. The total varies, of course, as the cost of living does from state to state, or urban versus rural areas. In recent years, the grand total has been placed at $113,586 by Business Insider, to $150,000 by The Independent. says $118,905. So, every mother saves her family thousands of dollars by performing services in unpaid domestic labor for free.

Of course, it’s not free to the woman who’s doing the work. If she cuts back on her employed hours, or steps out of the paid labor force entirely, the value of the wages, benefits, and future social security payments she is surrendering, she is in fact paying an opportunity cost. This is another way to calculate the value of a mother, and the numbers this calculation generates are much higher than replacement cost. (Remember, domestic labor when done by another is poorly paid. Child care providers and direct care workers, the compensated form of domestic labor, are low income workers, and usually have no paid leave or paid sick day benefits at all to take care of themselves.)

Opportunity cost goes up and down depending on the education of the woman and the field in which she would otherwise be employed. Ann Crittenden, author of The Price of Motherhood, estimated that a college educated woman gave up about $1 million in wages, benefits and retirement income if she had a child. Forbes worked out the opportunity cost for an elementary school teacher who stops working when she gives birth and came up with $700,000. In more general terms, it’s reasonable to go with an opportunity cost of at least several hundred thousand dollars all the way up to $1 million, as suggested by the experts at Clearly, if opportunity cost is the measure, a mother’s worth can skyrocket.

So, why do women make the choice to get out or cut back on paid work to raise their children? It can be the most costly decision a woman ever makes, and will affect her economic security for the rest of her life. There’s more than one reason, of course. I suspect many mothers just want to. So much of a child’s development, up to 90% of neurological growth, occurs in the very first years. The huge cost of child care may equal or exceed a mother’s income. We still labor under the cultural myth that the best caregiver for a baby is its mother, and it’s more socially acceptable for a mother to be the primary caregiver than the father. In 60% of two earner homes, the mother earns less than the father. If someone must assume the primary caregiver role, drafting the lower earner makes economic sense. US workplaces are notoriously inflexible. Lacking a middle way where caregiving and wage earning can be successfully combined, many women are backed into a corner and face an intolerable choice: either work for a living OR raise your children, but never both. Many women forge ahead with their careers, only to find that a country without paid leave, paid sick days, and discrimination against both pregnant women and mothers running rampant makes no allowance for their family obligations. They may then “opt out” of the work force, but in reality there is much less choice than the “opt out” label suggests.

What needs to change here is the attitude that running households and raising children is unskilled, unproductive work. Mothers make people, and people are the most basic economic element. Babies are consummate consumers. They grow to be producers – of everything! Without children, there is no economy, and no future. We know that the value of family care to elders saves public spending and, if compensated, would be worth around $450 billion a year. The US economy’s GDP for 2014 is estimated at upwards of $17 trillion. If mothers’ uncompensated labor – in birthing, nursing, and raising children, and the myriad activities that involves – were tallied up, estimates place its value at between 21% and 50% of GDP. Nancy Folbre, a Professor of Economics at UMass Dartmouth and frequent past contributor to the New York Times Economix blog, places a conservative estimate at 25% of GDP. So that means that mothers’ unpaid domestic labor actually adds between $4 trillion and $8.5 trillion to the economy. Every. Year.

Not only that – in tax dollars alone, the future taxpayers these women raise will contribute their taxes to our public coffers. Each mother, in addition to her own unpaid labor and the profits it brings to the economy, is responsible for another $200,000 going into the US Treasury in taxes collected from her child.

So, please, let’s not say we are “just” stay at home moms. Don’t think that our only contribution to society is our compensated work. We don’t deserve less, do less, or are worth less because we are mothers. In fact, we are the greatest producers in the entire economy. We must know our worth, and cherish our value in its totality. We must insist that ALL we do, both the compensated and uncompensated labor, be respected, accounted for, and valued in all our private and public interactions and institutions.

Valerie Young is a public policy analyst for Mom-mentum, a non-profit organization providing leadership, education, and advocacy to support mothers in meeting today’s personal and professional challenges. Formerly an attorney, Valerie now blogs about the effect of family carework on a woman’s economic security and advocates women’s empowerment at Your (Wo)Man in Washington, and covers policy news for Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers.

Photo: gettyimages




By Doreen Oliver

iStock_000000074062SmallThe first time I threw myself a birthday party, my hair caught on fire. I was chatting with a friend in a West Village lounge, unaware burning candles hung centimeters away. With a slight tilt of my head to sip my lemon drop martini, my hair lit up like four out of the five rings at the Sochi Olympics.

I’d never been one to throw myself a party. It had always seemed a bit self-indulgent, celebrating yourself when all you did the day you were born was lie there, bawling.  But I had felt isolated in the months leading up to that fateful day, and wanted to be fêted. For nearly two years, while my husband went off each day to collaborate with colleagues and clients, I stayed home with my lone co-worker: our first-born son, Xavier. I had abandoned my career as a film producer when he was born, and now he and I were new hires in the roles of mother and child, with neither of us doing a very good job. He had high marks when it came to walking and feeding himself, but wasn’t cutting it in the talking department. If I were a better supervisor—scheduling more play dates, labeling aloud each piece of produce in the supermarket, not stashing him in the Aquarium swing during my morning coffee break with The View—I would have been able to help him speak. Instead, Xavier and I were alone together in our Brooklyn apartment, punching the clock. And he hadn’t uttered two words consistently.

I scheduled another developmental review with New York City’s Early Intervention agency. A few months before they had denied my son free speech therapy services, saying his language was “age appropriate,” but I knew he needed help. This time, my case manager prepped me for the upcoming review,advising me to push for at least two speech therapy services each week. “You might only get one,” she said, “but at least that’s more than none.”

At the meeting, after probing deeper into how below average our pride and joy was, the agency awarded my son three speech therapy sessions per week and two family training sessions per month. They also recommended he undergo a psychological evaluation.

I closed my eyes and finally allowed myself to exhale. A moment later, my eyes flew open.

Wow, I thought. My son must be really messed up.

*   *   *

Still, my birthday party had to go on, now more than ever! I needed—no, deserved—to celebrate something. After clothing and party accommodations were squared away, I focused on my hair.

Hair had always been where I’d stumbled. During college, the time when many African-American women declare their allegiance to either permed hair or their natural kinks, I vowed never to chemically straighten my hair again. For someone who never liked to think about her mane but refused to cut it off, this decision left me to fight with my thick, coarse mass on a daily basis. It brought me great anxiety, and to make life easier I often covered up my God-given locks with braided extensions or the occasional wig.

Determined to display my natural beauty for my birthday, I indulged in a trip to one of the best natural hair care salons in New York. The stylist massaged my scalp with elements like eucalyptus and lavender; she coaxed my curls into lush, even, shiny waves. I glowed.

At the party, surrounded by only adults, I caught up with friends who did things other than cut up their child’s chicken nuggets. Alison quit her job to ski in Crested Butte. Lorelei started a non-profit in Brazil.  Athena, my cousin’s friend, focused on me.

“Your son is so cute!” she said. “The picture you sent of him in the bathtub is adorable!”

“Thanks.” During Xavier’s first year I’d email pictures every week—him at the playground, eating cake, sleeping. Recently I had taken fewer. Only my husband and I knew how hard it was to get him to look at the camera and smile.

“Do you have any new pictures?”

I nibbled the sugar on the rim of my glass. “I’m so used to toting him around I didn’t even think to bring pictures.”

“Where is he now?” she pressed.

“Huh?” I said, thinking of ways to change the subject.

“Where is your son now?” she shouted over the music. “Who is he with?”

“Oh no!” I seized the opportunity to create a diversion and called over to my husband with mock alarm. “Honey! What did we do with Xavier? I thought you had him!”

My husband and Athena looked at me, baffled. I, however, laughed hysterically. I had traded my discomfort for amusement, and I leaned back away from Athena and her questions to take a long, satisfied swallow of my drink.

And then I was aflame.

It was quick and without warning—the low-hanging chandelier caught a strand of my eucalyptus-treated hair and ignited it as if it were the actual leaf. Athena, a parole officer trained in emergency situations, swatted at the middle of my head, extinguishing everything but the smell of burnt hair. A patch in the middle of my head was seared almost to the scalp, and my formerly beautiful tresses now resembled an overgrown lawn, mowed only in the very center.

Within a month after that party, the psychologist diagnosed Xavier with autism, my husband was laid off, and my 35-year-old sister had a stroke. I had tried to runaway from my worries about my son, to focus on myself instead of the nagging guilt that I was failing my child. Instead, I got burned.

*   *   *

That was six years ago. My husband found a new job, my sister recovered, but sometimes I still wish to run away from motherhood. Xavier was diagnosed early, but at eight years old he still can’t hold a proper conversation. Maybe I’m the problem. My love for him is great, but also heavy, laden with worry and regret. Perhaps it drags him down, stunting his development. Maybe if I left, we’d both be relieved. I imagine stepping out of the kitchen while the kids eat their gluten-free ground turkey and kale wraps, slipping out the back door, then tearing down our tree-lined street.

My fantasy stops there, though, because I have no idea where I would go. I can visualize the escape, but can never picture the destination. That’s the difference between a fantasy and a dream; a vision borne of sadness rather than joy.

I dream Xavier will be a musician. Recently he recorded himself on playing “Let it Be” on the keyboard. He had taught himself to play the chords by ear in the original key. I don’t know if he’ll ever speak like you or me, but I believe his passion for music will be the path to his success—however we define it. When I think about his talent, the accomplishments he’s made in his own time, my love for him is light, buoyant, and joyful.

It is this type of love that cements me in place when self-doubt shouts for me to run. I can see my son’s future, and therefore I must stay. I have to be his voice, his advocate. I have to be his mother.

The patch of hair has grown back since, but recently, after an exhausting few weeks of Xavier waking up in the middle of the night and squealing for up to two hours, I cut off all my hair. It was uneven, the ends were frayed and split, and it was too much to manage. I hated the way it looked and was overwhelmed by the care it needed that I felt I couldn’t give. So I took the kitchen shears, stood over my bathroom sink and cut it, lock by lock. I ran my fingers through the short, healthy roots. They were strong and sturdy, and stood firmly in place.

Doreen Oliver is a writer, performer and producer and mother of two boys. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post Sunday Magazine and the 2014 Listen to Your Mother storytelling showcase at Symphony Space in New York City. Follow her at @doreenoliver.

Why Do I Feel Guilty About My Naps?

Why Do I Feel Guilty About My Naps?

By Tamara Reese

Tamara Reese imageI went back to work when my firstborn was six weeks old and I felt like my heart was being ripped out of my body every minute of the day until I could race home to him.

Deciding to stay home was scary and I feel blessed our family was able to make financial sacrifices enabling me to make this choice. But once the band-aid was pulled, I found myself in a day-to-day rhythm that was completely foreign to me. In addition, I felt like I was a one-woman-show with a social stigma to refute. If I was “giving up” my career to stay at home, it needed to be productive. I needed to cook and clean and craft and be the best damn homemaker I could be because the degrees I’m still paying off are wasting away on a shelf until I get back to the workforce.

My firstborn loved to nurse and would wake several (thousand) times throughout the night. Often times after his 7:00 a.m. nursing session he would snuggle up beside me in bed and go back to sleep until 10:00 a.m. As he drifted off to sleep with the sun shining in on us I’d have a mental battle with myself. Should I slide him into the crib and get something done or give in to my own exhaustion sleep alongside him. After all I was up half of the night nursing and changing diapers, I could use the extra sleep. And then I’d picture one of those, ‘what-do-stay-at-home-moms-do-all-day-people’ catching me sleeping until ten thirty nodding judgmentally – “that’s what I thought. You sleep all day.”  While I was so torn about those morning lie-ins with my first born, I realized it will be decades before I sleep in a quiet house until 10:30 a.m. again. Never again would I have the opportunity to snuggle this baby, because as they say, babies don’t keep. So I chose our lazy mornings together, which faded and changed as he got older, like all stages of motherhood do.

When my husband would come home from work and innocently ask what I did that day, I’d defensively rattle off a list of tasks—changed diapers, went to the grocery, emptied the dishwasher.  And on the days when laundry went unfolded or dinner wasn’t ready, I let guilt completely overwhelm me. I felt like I was failing, not at motherhood—but at homemaking.  I’m staying at home, that means I should be able to care for my child, my husband and my home. The house should always be clean, the baby fed, the laundry folded, the pantry stocked, and the dinner made. That was my expectation of what being at home meant. And then my son cut his top front teeth and screamed for two days straight while I rocked and hushed him. I didn’t shower, or clean or even leave the house. I nursed and sang to him amidst his blood-curdling wails. And when my husband asked what I did I said, “Nothing. Nothing is done,” and I chalked that day up to failure, and added to my to-do list for the following day.

To ease the burden that was weighing me down,  I told myself that rather than complete my entire to-do list, each day I needed to complete one task in addition to taking care of my child. One task. Anything else was a bonus but as long as I scrubbed the bathroom or made a dental appointment, I was doing an acceptable-to-me-job. I found my mornings were infinitely more pleasant if I went to bed each night with an empty sink and I started lowering my standards for just how clean the kitchen floor needed to be.  And this is how I learned to let go of what were probably my own insecurities and expectations about what “staying home” looked like.

When you really think about it, being a stay-at-home mom is about taking care of your child(ren). That is your job. Feeding, changing, bathing, kissing boo-boos, reading and playing with them—it takes up most of the moments between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. and then some. Sure you can throw in a load of laundry here or there, or get dust during naptime. But sometimes, naptime is the only quiet you get. The only time in the entire day that you have to be alone with your thoughts, squeeze in a shower or (gasp!) sit on the couch and read. The second your child falls asleep the timer ticks down to the moment when you are “on” again, you are theirs.

I think about how if I trusted my children to a nanny or daycare provider while I worked how outraged I would be if I found out the person who was supposed to be caring for my children was washing dishes instead. How furious I’d be if my child’s teacher didn’t have time to play blocks with him because she was vacuuming. If I were entrusting my child to another person I would expect that caring for him would be their number one priority. Because caring for a child, whether it is done by you or by people that you trust and pay enormous amounts of hard-earned money to, is a full time job.

And when I feel guilty (which even now three years in with two children I often do) for not getting enough done or taking an afternoon nap, I look at my children. They are happy and clean and cared for. We read ten books, they were fed three meals and cuddled and listened to. We sang songs, built towers and after five public tantrums by the time both children were simultaneously napping—I have nothing left to give. So I lay down on the couch and fall asleep trying not to think about the laundry waiting for me. Because laundry is waiting for working Mamas, and laundry waits for dads, and laundry won’t be awake in an hour begging for attention and crackers. My babies will be. And babies, don’t keep.

Tamara Reese is a stay-at-home mama, freelance writer and part-time consultant in the field of Maternal and Child Health. She is a contributing editor to ( a website with a Jewish twist on parenting. Tamara lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and two boys. You can connect with her on Twitter (

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