Why I Pump in a Storage Closet at Work

Why I Pump in a Storage Closet at Work

By Marjke Yatsevitch


While many support the idea of pumping at work, the world of the nursing mother is still happening in a shadowy corner.


The recliner sits in the corner of a storage closet, surrounded by old telephones, bedraggled hangers, boxes of bank statements and purchase orders, and spools of tickets used for 50/50 raffles. It is not a nice chair. Its upholstery might have once been a shade of pink, but it now reflects a low-pile sadness that must have a name like puce, or dun, or boiled yam.         

For the second time today I am sitting in the intermittent light of a motion sensor, wearing a brazier-like contraption that allows me to write, while I extract as many vital ounces of breast milk as I can, before second lunch ends.       

I am at work—and compared to many other nursing mothers who work, I have it pretty good. I am not perched on a toilet trying to negotiate an absence of power outlets. I have not been walked in on, yet. I have not made agonizing eye contact with an athletic director as he stands in the doorway of my hiding place, jawing a palm-sized piece of pizza, and too slowly, saying, “I heard a weird noise,” without apology. I have a supportive and generally good humored administrative team, and I have a Styrofoam cooler next to me on which I can place a water bottle and the apothecary of herbal supplements that I need to produce 16 ounces of milk each day.        

The whole situation would be hilarious if it weren’t so important; if it didn’t drive the two greatest pressures of my life, teaching and parenting, right into each other, divining one of my least favorite circumstances: one in which it is impossible to succeed.

On the first day of school, I returned from maternity leave knowing I would need to pump. I underestimated what that meant, and had not developed any real system for it. I glibly transported my subpar breast pump in its neat little carrying case to work with me that first morning, with a few bottles and an ice pack. What I should have done is walked through the step-by-step process with impeccable precision.

Instead, I was a hot mess. I made the rookie mistake of washing all of my pump parts in the front office sink. Where else could I have gone? Could I have laid out some elaborate sanitary blanket on a bathroom floor somewhere? Where would I put all of these damp tubes and bottles? I hadn’t thought through the systems, and I was too embarrassed to ask a veteran. While scrubbing a sink full of phalanges and nipples, the school art teacher came to my rescue—she suggested I put the unwashed parts into a paper lunch bag, one that breathes, to keep in the front office fridge until the next time I would need them.

Even armed with the cleverest of tips, so much depends on timing; fire drills and schedule changes, faculty meetings, and kids in crisis can dismantle the best laid plans. Or, more intimately, the limitations of my own body: dehydration, leaks, swollen breasts, raw nipples, and exhaustion compromise my professionalism, daily. Milk production is mostly out of my hands, and so are the inherent needs and obligations of my career.

I had not spent a day away from my son until that first day back; I had never developed a pumping schedule, one that might work once I returned to school. Thankfully, the first day had been for staff members, not students. The principal’s secretary lent me her storage closet key.

A low mechanical drone overpowered the room, with halting thwacks sounding like a tennis ball hitting a wall. I wish I could multitask while pumping, but most are off limits: phone calls, filing, anything that involves movement or engaged brain cells. I settle on answering email, usually, but still wonder at the surrealness of me in my surroundings: shirtless in a storage closet sending out missives to unsuspecting colleagues. It just feels weird.

In the throws of pumping at work, so many things can go wrong. Spills, overflows, running out of bags, power shortages. There are figuratively and literally a lot of working parts—tubes, sterile bags, bottles, caps, phalanges, membranes, motors, power supplies, adapters, freezer packs, and a whole array of materials used to disguise my goods when I have to store them in the community fridge. But the comedic humility of it all is nothing.

There is something about having to hide, even as I perform a vulnerable and essential task. While many support the idea of pumping at work, the world of the nursing mother is still happening in a shadowy corner. For each of us who sit in a storage closet, while trying our damndest to remain invisible, there is a cost. The variable conditions and compromises that women who return to work have to make, reveal the wide gaps in understanding what we go through, and the need for some candor.           

I count the bells through lunch hoping that I am still safe within a cushion of time that will allow me to return to my room with my game face on, ready to perform, as if nothing humbling and indiscrete has happened. As if I had not just balanced everything that mattered on a very thin wire.
Marjke Yatsevitch grew up in the woods among reclusive farmers and artists, and has slowly been adapting to quasi-suburban parenting, teaching high school English, and seeking comforts in gardens and kitchens on the Seacoast in New Hampshire.

Are You My Mother?

Are You My Mother?

By Cynthia Keenan


My daughter Audrey and I stood on the platform at the Stratford train station at 6:15 a.m. to catch the 6:35 to Grand Central. She carried her Little Mermaid backpack full of juice boxes, PB&J, pretzels and a fig bar. My law firm offered employees free day care at a center nearby where I’d drop her off at the lower Manhattan facility and then head to work, one stop north.

I held Audrey’s soft, brown, little hand and looked up the track for the bright light on the steel head of the train. Whoever saw it first “won.” She was five years old.

The train pulled into the station and the door to “our car” opened. The conductor stepped onto the platform to greet us as he always did.

“Good morning ladies.”

I gripped Audrey’s hand tighter, almost lifting her over the gap. She knew where to go as we took this train at least once a month; the first set of two seats facing forward. As the train pulled out of the station, the conductor came to collect tickets. I flashed my MetroCard and Audrey held out her 10-ride for him to punch.

“Thank you very much young lady.”

My daughter clutched Dee Dee, your dark-skinned doll with the Raggedy-Ann style dress, whose hair had taken on a certain Rasta-look after she had recently dunked her head into a sink full of water. We had tamed it by pulling it into two ponytails with rubber bands.

Although we were clearly behaving like mother and daughter, Audrey and I are visibly different, something she realized at an early age, when she asked “why is my skin brown and yours is so ‘pale’ Mommy.”

“Because you were born in the tummy of a woman who had brown skin,” I had said. We had a pregnant friend at the time so she knew about babies in “tummies.” This became my daughter’s explanation when friends asked the same question.

My daughter was curious about the woman with the brown skin, the one whose tummy she was in, and occasionally she asked questions about her—”Where is she?” “What is her name?” “What does she look like?” I supplied age appropriate information as best as I could, but was also extremely cognizant of not appearing hurt or disinterested. I actively listened to her, occasionally nodding my head in understanding and asking her simple questions to prompt her to talk more about it. As a single mother, I relied on many, mostly other mothers, to help me. If some goodness could be found in a relationship with the woman whose tummy my daughter was born in, I was all for it.

Within four stops Audrey’s head was on my shoulder, and by the time we got to Stamford, 40 minutes into the trip, her head had slipped to my lap for the first nap of her 12-hour day. I placed my hand over her body, slipping my thumb into the faux hammer loop on her pink striped overalls to guard against sudden stops, and put my head back and closed my eyes for the first nap of my equally long day.

“Next stop! 125th Street! Next stop! Check the overhead racks and seats. Make sure to take all of your items with you.125th Street, next!”

I opened my eyes and nudged my daughter gently on her shoulder.

“We are almost there,” I said. “Time to get ready.”

The train slowed into Grand Central and we worked our way to the door, scrambling off the train with thousands of others. The volume of the crowd seemed to create the pace of movement. Audrey held my hand while also gripping the strap of my briefcase. We snaked our way through clumps of crowds to the escalator down to the subway platform.

I positioned us near a steel pillar, far back from the edge of the platform, to wait for the train. Although I knew she wouldn’t fall onto the tracks, the image of it happening was horrifyingly vivid and flashed in my brain every time we took a subway. I tethered myself to her via the Little Mermaid, the fingers from one of my hands tightly clinging her backpack loop while my other clutched her hand. Her free hand covered one of her ears to block the loud screech of the arriving train.

We took the number 5 to Bowling Green, to the day care center. Her little hand squeezed the shiny subway pole as best as it could during the 20-minute ride, fitting only a third of the way around, while darkness sped past us. I held the same pole and hovered over, our bodies swaying to the motion of the train, as we held on a little tighter around each turn. The piercing sounds of the turning train prompted a mild look of terror, her eyes wide, mouth partially open.

“Are we going to tip?” she asked, grabbing my coat.

The train partially emptied after a few stops and we grabbed seats. Young black women sat all around us, some with children in tow. Audrey’s polite stares revealed fascination. From their hair, to their faces, clothes, and shoes, she quietly observed them.

“Can I sit over there?” she asked as she pointed to the seat across the aisle that happened to be occupied by one of these women. She was an independent little girl so this was not out of character. Audrey moved next to the young woman who acknowledged her with a motherly smile.

The woman was about 34 years old, dressed in a black pencil skirt and black and white stripe rayon blouse, a typical workday outfit. Her short-cropped hair was neatly styled, and held in place around her hairline with a hair product that shined. Her face was the color of very tanned white skin. Just like my daughter’s.

She moved her head closer to my daughter’s to hear what she was saying. I sat across the aisle wishing my ears were amplifiers. I could only hear snippets of the conversation; words like “day care,” “my mom’s work” and “Connecticut.” I was sure Audrey was asking her questions, as she was also very curious about people. My 5-year-old seemed so grown up in that moment, and so comfortable talking to this stranger who looked more like her than I did. At one point they both looked at me; the woman smiled and nodded her head. I felt like an outsider.

She left the train at the next stop, and Audrey made her way back across the aisle and nuzzled up next to me.

“Hi,” I said. “I see you found a friend. You know talking to strangers is fine, as long as I am with you.”

“She was really nice.”

“She was quite pretty too,” I said. “Did she tell you your name?”


“Well was it a nice name?”


After a few minutes of silence, I spoke.

“Do you think that nice lady with the nice name might look like the woman whose tummy you were born in?”

“Yes,” she said.

She stared at the seat she and the young woman had occupied and looked around at the few young black women remaining on the train. She was thinking. A lot.

“I wonder if that was her?”

Cynthia Keenan is a lawyer, writer and stepmother to six grown children.  She is working on a serious of vignettes about life with her daughter and lives in New York with her husband.

Photo: gettyimages

Utopia Lost and Value Reframed

Utopia Lost and Value Reframed

By Debi Lewis


Am I home because a woman should be home or am I home because, as a woman, economic forces guided me there?


Here is the utopian dream, masquerading as a concrete plan, which I formulated before my second child was born in August of 2005:

My well-paying, full-time flexible-hours technology job at a national nonprofit organization would continue as it had for the next year, after which I would begin a PhD program in writing at a local university (which happened to have on-campus childcare). I would fill my days with heady conversation and scoop my children up in the afternoon to eat ice cream on the campus lawns and return home to my husband—who would keep us afloat with his job in finance, the one he loved as much as I loved the idea of academia.

This plan never came to fruition.

My baby was born with a host of ambiguous medical problems. She was in the hospital with dangerous respiratory infections twice in her first four months, and her doctors gently and then less-gently told us that daycare would continue that cycle. She was considered medically fragile. By the end of the second hospital stay, which was five days long, we had decided she could not stay in daycare.

We did the math; if we hired a nanny, the cost per year would have been more than half of my salary. Our older daughter would still need to attend preschool, adding another several thousand dollars. My husband made more money than I did. It made more sense for me to leave my job. Our baby was five months old when I did.

My well-paying, good job had been my identity for five years. Prior to that, I’d been employed in one way or another for the previous fifteen years—starting in high school.

Suddenly, I had no income.

My husband was working, earning a salary that covered our expenses, though not as easily as when I’d been employed. I sat down at my kitchen table on that first day when my husband left for work—and I didn’t—and I cried. I was in my pajamas, and when I went upstairs to put on clothes, the baby still slung over my hip, I looked at my closet and realized that most of what I owned was business-casual.

Then I got a rejection letter from the graduate program to which I’d applied. The last piece of hope I’d had for an identity which declared to the world that this woman is making something of herself had vanished. Though there was hope that my daughter would outgrow her fragile state by the time the fall semester came around, I would have no fall semester to attend. Instead, I nursed, rocked, held, walked, medicated and worried over my constantly-sick baby. What just happened? I asked myself, over and over for months. I remained, for a long time, shocked to see what I thought I had become: bored and boring.

In the years that followed, I scraped together a new life, starting my own consulting business in hours snatched from naps and, as my daughter’s health improved, while she was in preschool. I now have new dreams—smaller dreams, always tied to my need to stay flexible for my children. With both of them in school these last few years, I work out of a local coffeehouse that sells scones delivered warm every morning. It has not been terrible; at times, it has felt like a close second to my original plan.

Still, I resent those early days, the burden falling on me and the perspective-shifting I had to do. I resent that, as a natural progression of being the one at home and being a woman, I’ve fallen into gender roles I never intended. I am the one who cooks. I am the one who shops for the organic berries and the mint Oreos, knows the children’s friends and teachers better, and manages the laundry. In a nine-to-five job that, inclusive of commute is really a seven-thirty-to-six-thirty job, my husband has become the one to pop in and “help out” with occasional rides to Hebrew School and play rehearsals, but the real burden of making sure everyone is where they need to be is left to me. It’s my job because, nine years ago, I left my other job to stay home with my sick baby, a baby I both loved fiercely and resented quietly.

How to unravel all of that? Am I home because a woman should be home or am I home because, as a woman, economic forces guided me there? What if my husband and I had made exactly the same amount of money? Would he be home? What if medical insurance covered at-home childcare for children like my younger daughter? Would neither of us be home?

I feel very lucky that we made it work, un-utopian as it felt to me at the start. As I struggle with what it means to be an at-home parent—even with my part-time consulting business—I have a partner willing to struggle through it with me, to talk about and name this arrangement for what it is: fragmented. My daughters are now thirteen and almost nine, and they see the juggling every day. I am in and of both worlds all the time—sometimes from the same spot in my kitchen, on the phone with a client and stirring the soup.

Now, most mornings, I walk to the neighborhood elementary school with my once-sick baby—now a thriving nine-year-old. In one hand, I hold hers. In the other, I hold the bicycle I’ll use to ride to the coffeehouse where I’ll work for much of the day. There’s dinner to prepare, and laundry to sort. Rides to give, and counters to scrub.

It is, in the end, a comfortable life. I am there for it all. Sometimes, on the playground after school, we even eat ice cream.

Debi Lewis is the mother of two daughters and blogs regularly at swallowmysunshine.com. You can find her essays at Brain, Child Magazine, RoleReboot, Mamalode, The Mighty, Kveller, and ChicagoNow. She is currently at work on a memoir about her younger daughter’s journey through medical mystery.

Dreams of Teeth

Dreams of Teeth

3457e11b6ec7feaeca35b87f6e2834acBy Lorri Barrier

I had the dream about teeth again last night. In the dream, I feel something odd in my mouth, and I put my tongue in the place. I feel the tooth move easily, back and forth. I find a mirror and look. It’s true. The back molar is loose. I push it again with my tongue and it falls out easily. My heart pounds. Oh god. What will I do? Ill call the dentist in the morning. I console myself. At least its in the back. No one will see.

I look in the mirror again. This time I notice it’s not the only one. One of my front teeth on the bottom looks angled and awkward. I touch it. The tooth falls into my hand. I can feel how smooth the sides are, like one of my children’s baby teeth, but jagged on the bottom where it was attached at the root. I taste blood in my mouth. I panic. How will I go to work with a missing tooth? How will I afford getting two teeth replaced? I look again, and the cascade begins, teeth like dominoes falling into my hands. I can still feel them like tiny invisible pebbles when I wake.

My eight-year-old daughter has crawled into bed beside me again. I shove her over, and rub the place that aches on my shoulder from where her back was pressed against mine. I get up, leaving my daughter in bed, and make coffee. I am groggy and spill grounds on the counter. I wipe up the mess. I wake my nine-year-old son first by brushing the hair out of his eyes. He is sleeping tangled in covers, his head off the pillow. He mumbles he’ll get up after breakfast is ready. I go back to my bed to wake my daughter. “Time to get up,” I say.  She stands, stumbling, and I turn and carry her to the couch on my back. I have done this since she was three. She flops on the couch and covers herself with the fuzzy throw. I make her brother’s breakfast.

I know she won’t eat, but I ask her what she wants anyway. She has inherited my difficulty with breakfast. I have to be awake a long while before I can eat. Most days, she goes to school with an empty stomach. I yell after her as she gets on the bus, “Get breakfast at school! You have money on your account!” Sometimes she does, but most often she does not. In the mornings my son is ravenous. It is possibly the only time of day he asks for more food.

My husband sleeps through this morning routine. He would get up if I asked him to, but there is a rhythm to the morning, a road worn smooth with years of use. Sometimes I am envious of his extra sleep, but I’ve been getting up with babies since they were born. It feels like part of me.

Once my two younger children are on the bus, it is time for my middle-schooler to begin his day.. I’ve been up for well over an hour when it’s his turn to get up, I only have to call him once or twice, and then I go ahead and turn on the water for his shower. He goes in without much prodding. He always eats a cup of yogurt in the morning, but I don’t think that’s enough. He spends nearly five dollars a day on lunch, so I imagine he is starving by noon. He swears he eats it all.

On the drive to work, I have time to think about the tooth dream again. In college, I took an anthropology course about China. During one class meeting, a woman from China came to speak to us. She’d interviewed hundreds of Chinese women, recording their thoughts on all sorts of issues. The most common dream among the Chinese women she interviewed was loss of teeth.

At work one of my colleagues comes to talk to me. Our community college is small and rural, with many of the instructors wearing various administrative hats in addition to teaching. My office is messy, and I’m embarrassed, but it’s how I work—I like to see everything. She tells me they want me to take on an additional duty, something important. I listen. It is important. I’d enjoy it. She asks if I have any questions. I never know what to ask when people are sitting right in front of me. It’s only later that I think of what I should have asked. But at the moment, before I blurt out yes, I only think to ask, “How will this affect my other duties?” She smiles and laughs a little. “It would only be a few hours a week.” I list my current responsibilities, then make a joke about giving up something I don’t like to do this. As usual in education, there is no mention of more pay. There is always more work, always the expectation of excellence, but never more money. But I do want to do it. Even as she speaks, I have ideas.

I eat my lunch around noon. It’s usually a microwave meal, which I eat at my desk. I figure I can stop grading papers, stop planning my online classes, stop jotting down ideas for this new duty for a little while. I love the beach, and I look at beach homes for sale on the internet. My tastes are not fancy. I look at what we might really be able to afford with just a little more money. Not beachfront, but cute and cozy. We could walk to the beach, or buy a used golf cart to drive around. I imagine how our lives would be different if we had this beach house. I imagine the clean line of sand and aquamarine water next to the shore, my three children floating out on the waves, their distant laughter lost on the wind. It is always summer at this beach house. We are always happy.

By the end of the day, I am mentally exhausted. My younger son meets me at my car as soon as I pull up and asks me if I brought pizza. Pizza? “No, honey. Not today. I’ve been at work.” My oldest son tells me his sister broke the remote and now no one can watch TV or play the Wii EVER AGAIN! I look at it. It isn’t broken, but the back did come apart and the batteries are missing. I find one battery under the couch, squatting, still in my heels and skirt.

I make afternoon coffee before I change my clothes. My husband is working in the study. He still has more to do. “She lost privileges for throwing the remote,” he says as I walk by. “Okay,” I say, already wondering how to keep her out of the living room while the boys are watching TV. “Let’s just turn it off for now,” I say to all three of them, doing exactly what my students hate—punishing the group because of the one. I put on yoga pants and a T-shirt because I need to go to exercise class at 7. I have to go, even though I feel too exhausted to stand. Somehow, I make it through. On the drive home from exercise class, I wonder what I’ll find when I get there. Have the kids been fussing? Is the homework done? Are they ready for bed?

Inside the house it’s eerily quiet. It’s just before 8:30. Surely they aren’t all asleep? I look in on my daughter. She’s reading in bed. She sees me pop in my head and says, “Get out.” I look in on the boys. They are both in bed, my oldest on the top bunk with a book light, my youngest already asleep. “Mom,” my teenager says from the top bunk, “When you go out, close the door.”

“Good job with the kids!” I say to my husband as we settle down on the couch to watch a show. This is the only time of day we spend together, these meager hours once the kids are in bed, both of us exhausted. “They do fine at bedtime when you aren’t here!” He smiles and I know it’s a joke, but there’s some truth in it. They are always talking to me, clinging to my arms, sitting in my lap, wanting a story, even though they read easily enough themselves. They become babies again at bedtime, or close to it, when I’m here.

In spite of my best efforts, I fall asleep during the show.

“We can watch the rest of it tonight,” my husband says in the morning. He’s talking to me through the door while I’m in the bathroom. I’m flossing my teeth, watching for signs of decay, being careful around the one with the crown. I should have had braces when I was younger, but they didn’t do that as much when I was a kid. If your teeth were mostly okay, they let it go. No one expected perfection.

When the woman from China finished speaking, students peppered her with questions. Everyone wanted to know more about foot binding. After a little while, I tentatively raised my hand and asked what I wanted to know. “The dreams of teeth—do you know what they mean?” She nodded her head a little. “It’s hard to say what someone’s dreams mean, but I think,” she paused, trying to find the right English words. “A loss of voice. Like, you have no say, no voice.” I was twenty then.

I look at my reflection in the mirror. The same blue-green eyes. The same fair skin. The same reluctance to be too noticeable, too bold. Twenty-five years later I’m still spitting dream teeth into my hands. I feel like the life-clock is ticking. I want desperately to begin shouting my truth, whatever it is, if I can just find a voice in me loud enough.

Author’s note: It’s been a little over a year since I wrote this piece. Many days I still feel like I’m treading water with the business of parenting, working and being a good partner to my husband. It’s hard to nurture the self in a sea of activity, meeting the needs of others. I have tried to find my voice more at work by starting an LGBTQ awareness club for students. I have also decided to stop dyeing my hair (after 17 years of color) and go gray. That might sound superficial, but I’m learning it is a journey of self-discovery and reflection. I write about my gray hair and my journey at https://graysitions.wordpress.com/.

Lorri Barrier is a mother, wife, teacher and writer. Her other essays for Brain, Child include “Faithfully,” “The F-word,” “Unplugged” and “Idle Threats.

Illustration: pinimg.com

Spud Day

Spud Day

By Beth Eakman

Screen Shot 2015-03-01 at 1.50.54 PMIt took me about a year after my husband left to feel like I’d regained something resembling control of my life. I had managed to scrape together a couple of regular freelance writing gigs and a part-time teaching position at the local community college that would give me a small but regular pay-check—and the regular part was going to do wonders for my mental health.

It had been rough. My kids, ages three and five at the time he left, had been profoundly freaked out and honestly I had, too. I was single again, which was weird. A lot of the people I’d thought were my friends had ditched me, everything had broken, and I’d burned through almost all of the savings that my ex and I had split up in our settlement. But as the bad first year was coming to a close, things were beginning to look up.

In late July, I got a phone call from one of the top Montessori schools in the nation. I’d put my daughter, Annika, on their wait list as soon as we’d moved to Austin and had completely forgotten about it. They had a last-minute first grade slot for her. Did we want it? My mother offered to pay the tuition.

The fantasy of becoming the working-mom who “does it all” shimmered like a beacon on the distant horizons of my imagination. I had emerged from the smoking ruin of marriage, kept my kids clean and fed, secured gainful employment, landed a boyfriend, and, as far as anyone outside my closest friends and the school registrar knew, could afford private school for my kids. We might be eating lentils and scrubbing the stains out of thrift-shop clothes inside the house, but those clothes were clean and pressed when we walked outside. I might not actually have a traditional family anymore, but I was doing a pretty good job of faking middle class.

My first major setback was Spud Day.

The Montessori school we joined requires an almost cult-like level of parental involvement. At the very first parent meeting, we all sat in a large circle in the classroom chairs that our first through third graders used during the day. Because I came from work and thus was not one of the first parents to arrive, I got one of the really tiny ones. I was wearing a fullish, knee-length skirt, which I had to wrestle the entire time because my knees were higher than my seat. I learned from the introductions that I was one of two single parents in attendance. The other was a teacher at the school.

We discussed the school’s philosophy. I’d been a Montessori preschool teacher in the handful of years between my undergrad and grad school, so I knew and was in full support of the method, which allowed me to space out a bit and focus on keeping my skirt tucked tightly under my legs, think about wearing flat shoes next time, and glance furtively at my watch, calculating how much the childcare was going to cost. After an overview of the history of Maria Montessori and her method, the meeting agenda went on to recommendations for supporting the Montessori education at home—televised news: bad! Branded clothing: horrible!

I was selective about the quality and amount of television my kids watched, but, in the words of my first single-mom friend, there are going to be days when television and potato chips are going to be your best friends. I made a mental note to cut back, but a full prohibition was out of the question.

This was the mid-2000s, probably the apex of the social trend of what one journalist has called “aspirational parenting.” It was a kind of child-raising philosophy that I had been totally down with when my kids were babies. We were the cloth-diapering, baby-wearing, breastfeeding, co-sleeping people who took parenthood very seriously, probably in reaction to our own find-yourself/me-generation parents, many of whom had had a much more casual philosophy.

A certain percentage of this population crossed the line from aspirational to competitive. You might use cloth diapers, but they grew and hand loomed their own organic hemp for their cloth diapers. You might support gentle discipline, but they considered making a recalcitrant youngster brush his teeth against his will child abuse. And, because this was Austin, there was an additional level of Competitive Earthiness.

Even with our organic textiles, homeopathic remedies, and mail-order composting worms, we Montessori parents weren’t barking lunatics like those Waldorf nuts. Heavens, no. They were a contingent who rejected recorded music in favor of folk songs sung by the family and manufactured toys in favor of baskets of pine cones. We were still a pretty aspirational bunch, though, and the discussion at the parents’ meeting was increasingly lively.

I kept my mouth shut, aware that I was lucky to be here, able to give my daughter—and later, my son—a top-notch education.

“Spud Day,” was one of the last few agenda items. Good.

Spud Day, it turns out, was an exciting treat for the children. Every Friday, parents should send a potato along with the rest of the daily healthy brown-bag lunch—no chips, crackers, or cookies. This potato should be scrubbed and poked multiples times with a fork. Apparently there had been an insufficiently poked potato some years ago and the resulting explosion in the oven had reached legendary status. Furthermore, the potato skin should have the child’s initials or otherwise identifying symbols carved into it to reduce confusion.

“Oh,” the teacher rhapsodized, “when the potatoes are cooking the smell just fills the room and it is absolutely heavenly!”

“What kind of potato, exactly?” one parent asked.

“Just a plain baking potato,” the teacher said.

“Well, at our house we really like to bake sweet potatoes,” another parent offered, initiating an avalanche of potato-related discourse. What I’d thought had been passionate opinions about televised news programs and Disney characters on t-shirts paled in comparison to the freshly energized positions on potatoes.

“But sweet potatoes are so much bigger than regular potatoes. They would take longer to bake!”

“Not all of them. It depends on each individual potato.”

“I think Irish potatoes tend to be more uniform in size.”

“Irish potatoes? What are Irish potatoes?”

“They’re the same as baking potatoes; you know, just regular potatoes, the brown ones that you’d get at a restaurant if you ordered a baked potato?”

“At our house, we like to slice sweet potatoes into about one-inch thick disks and sprinkle them with olive oil and cinnamon and bake them on a cookie sheet,” the sweet potato aficionado interjected.

“Wow! That sounds great! About how long do you bake them?” A side conversation broke out among those excited to try this at home.

The teacher and her assistant were trying in vain to reign in the conversation.

“Should we send toppings, like butter or sour cream?”

More side conversations erupted. Emotions ran high regarding bacon bits.

I might have had my head in my lap at this point. I was pretty sure that there were dissertation defenses that were shorter than this conversation about Spud Day. Was I the only one who was finding this absurd and existentially exhausting?

The meeting went almost an hour past its originally scheduled closing before ratification of potato policy. I noted the critical action items as follows. Send potato in your child’s lunch on Fridays. Poke potato with fork and carve identifying mark in potato skin. No fancy potato varieties. Basic condiments would be provided. Additional condiments could be sent, with the exception of bacon bits, which had been determined to serve no good purpose. Maybe for next year’s meeting, I would volunteer to create an instructional brochure about Spud Day.

At 7:30 am, ten minutes before we were to leave for the first Spud Day, I discovered that the only potato in the vegetable drawer of my refrigerator was a red-skin potato, aka, a “new potato.” Curses. I checked my watch: no time for a grocery store run. Surely this would work, though, right? It was approximately potato-sized. I poked it with a fork, carved an A in it, and sent it in Annika’s lunch box.

At 1:00 that afternoon, I received a phone call from the school. The Montessori method emphasizes classroom leadership and self-reliance by the children, so I was only slightly surprised to hear a child’s voice.

“Hello, this is Waleed calling from Annika’s class. Is this Annika’s mother?”

“Yes?” I responded in the slightly sweeter voice that one reserves for children.

“The potato that you sent for Spud Day was the wrong kind.”

I explained as gently as possible that I was aware of this, but that it had been all I had and that, speaking as a person who’d baked red-skin potatoes before, I knew that they would behave approximately the same way as Irish potatoes when subjected to heat.

The world would never know. Non-conforming potatoes were not added to the baking sheet. My claim was entirely theoretical and therefore invalid.

When I picked her up from school, Annika displayed great self-discipline and forbearance when she told me, concisely, how disappointing it had been.

I had exposed both of us as outsiders and frauds. I might be able to pass my- self off as a normal, competent, middle-class mom, but I could not pass off a red-skinned potato as a baking potato.

I would not, however, accept defeat so easily. Not over a potato.

The next week I sent an enormous, brown, Irish, baking potato.

Waleed called, again.

“Hello, this is Waleed calling from Annika’s class. Is this Annika’s mother?”


“The potato that you sent for Spud Day was too big. You need to send a smaller one next time.” It was becoming increasingly clear that Waleed, one of the older children in the mixed-age classroom, had the job of compliance officer. This was likely a merit-based assignment and he was clearly proud of it.

Annika preferred not to discuss the topic on the ride home from school, but confirmed that, while this potato had actually made it onto the baking sheet, it had emerged with a hard, impenetrable center. She had not eaten it.

My boyfriend, Mike, whom I would later marry for being just the sort of guy who’d do this sort of thing, offered to go to the grocery store and find me a potato that would not subject my child to further ostracism and disappointment. He was the father of teenaged twin girls and thus a true veteran of conformity and compliance problems. He bought me a plastic-wrapped four-pack of “Baking Potatoes” so very medium sized and uniform in physical presence that they were surely genetically modified and probably irradiated. I sent one to school.

“Hello, this is Waleed calling from Annika’s class…”

“Yeah, right, Waleed. I know who you are. Now what?”

“The potato that you sent to school didn’t have holes poked in it.”

“What?! Yes, it did! I poked the whole skin all over with a fork! That potato absolutely had holes in it.”

“Well,” he paused thoughtfully, “I guess the holes weren’t deep enough because the potato didn’t cook all the way through. Maybe you need to poke it harder next time.”

I stabbed the next potato from the genetically modified pack, which, incidentally, did not seem to have aged at all in the intervening week, with a sharp, pointy, paring knife, perhaps more violently than was strictly necessary. It went to school covered with little black dash marks.

“Hello, this is Wal….”

“What. Just. What, WaLEED?” I was aware of placing unnecessary emphasis on the final syllable in a way that made me sound less adult than might have been appropriate.

“The potato that you sent to school today for Spud Day didn’t have initials carved into it.”


“But it’s okay, because we carved an A into it ourselves. There are 30 children in the classroom so you are really supposed to carve initials into it your- self so that we can tell which potato belongs to which person.”

When I picked Annika up from school that day she said, “Mom, you don’t need to send a potato to school for Spud Day, anymore.”

What were the odds that I was the only parent failing at Spud Day? I might be making Waleed’s day with the regularity of my failures, but with the seriousness with which he undertook potato audits, surely I wasn’t the only one getting the calls.

I didn’t dare ask other parents.

I made a decision. I would no longer try to pretend that I was the kind of mom who could do the whole parenting gig solo and conform to the exacting standards of Spud Day. I didn’t know why this particular operation exposed my Achilles heel, but frankly I didn’t need the aggravation. It was affecting my self-esteem.

The truth was that I was keeping my head above water, but just barely. I was barely getting the garbage cans out on a regular basis. I was probably at about a 50 percent success rate if you counted the mornings that I heard the truck and came flying out of the house in my pajamas, barely controlling the wheeled can down my steep driveway toward the curb. Spud Day was clearly one potato over the line of what I could manage.

I sat my daughter down to ask her how she’d feel about just skipping the whole thing.

“You know, Mom,” she said, “I don’t really like potatoes much anyway.”

Author’s Note: I am pleased to report that Annika, now headed into her sophomore year of (public) high school, shows no permanent signs of trauma from her mother’s Spud Day shortcomings. When asked if she’d like to contribute to this postscript, she said “I think we all know that there were plenty of holes poked in those spuds. Waleed was kind of a tyrant.”

Beth Eakman teaches writing at St. Edward’s University and lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two teenagers who provide her simultaneously with inspiration and interruptions. Visit Beth at www.betheakman.com, or on Twitter @BethEakman.

Illustration by Casey Arden

A Real Mom’s Resume

A Real Mom’s Resume

canstockphoto5572533By Mandy B. Fernandez

I have been both a stay-at-home mom and a work-outside-the-home mom. During my at-home stint, I was asked by others, “So, what do you do for a living?” When I answered, “I’m a mom,” I was often faced with sympathetic looks or simply dismissed.

Upon reentering the workforce and having to explain maternal gaps in my employment, I dreaded explaining my family priorities to a new company. Didn’t the hiring official know what I had endured just to be on time for the meeting?

After one particularly grueling interview process, I came home and completely re-wrote my resume to reflect what I really wanted to say about the work of being a mom. I grant any mother out there permission to borrow it. Please feel free to hand out the below document to your future employer or to the wise guy who asks what you do all day.

A Real Mom’s Resume

(Insert Your Name
And Address Here)
Phone: It is out of order, my kid threw the device in the toilet
E-mail: whyme@moms.me

· Extremely organized since I manage two children, a husband, this household and a crazy pet
· Highly resourceful when it comes to restraining myself from pulling my hair out each and every day
· Dedicated to excellence in bringing up fine children (forget that incident where kid number one pulled that lady’s pants down, will you?)
· Possesses a positive mental attitude (for at least five minutes a day when I lock myself in the bathroom)
· Willing to learn and ready for increased responsibility, training and education (I’ve mastered the art of saying “no” under extreme manipulation and regularly manage a borderline dysfunctional family)
Goal: To work for an organization that allows me to escape my world and pretend I’m 22 years old, single and fifteen pounds lighter.

Technical Skills:
· Wipe butts
· Talk on the phone, burn dinner and help with homework all at the same time
· Read and do the voices of all animals in a book
· Type while completely ignoring my children
· Operate heavy machinery and build things (Have you seen the toys these days and the engineering degree you need to put them together?)

· Degree in Early Childhood Education (okay, not really but I’m raising two small children who haven’t killed each other. Shouldn’t that count for something?)

October 2007 – Present: Position of Overworked, Underappreciated Mother

· Manage all personal affairs of the humans that came from my never-region
· Coordinate meals, teeth-brushing, illnesses, meltdowns, and bedtime stories
· Notify upper management (grandparents) when I absolutely need a break from the above listed items
· Record the number of daily tantrums for historical purposes (to throw it back in my children’s faces someday)
· Manage records retention program (throw out old artwork, doctors’ bills and expired coupons)
· Manage travel accounts and expense reports (trips to the grocery store, children’s museum, coffee shop, bookstore, etc.)
· Update filing system (photos of children that haven’t been updated in two years!)
· Coordinate all slobber and snot removal in the house, for kids and dog
· Supervise the details of all holidays, birthday parties and all the shopping that goes along with those events (except for Thanksgiving since I had a meltdown after the turkey fell apart and I burned the pumpkin bread)
· Balance checkbook and organize finances (eating only cheese and crackers until the next paycheck)
· Coordinate occasional opportunities to have a date with my husband (never mind find time for myself)
· Memorize cult classics known as Sesame Street, Elmo, Dora the Explorer, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, and every Disney film known to man (what’s an adult movie?)
· Nurse every bruise, scrape, cut and fall that my children incur in my presence
· Defend the dark arts—monsters, thunderstorms and imaginary creatures that scare us
· You name it, I do it. Now do you really think you could hire someone else that would do a better job than me?

References: I have them. They’re just smeared with peanut butter and jelly right now so I can’t clearly make out the names and numbers.
I’ll look forward to hearing back from you. Thanks for the consideration.


Mandy B. Fernandez is a freelance writer living in Pensacola, Florida with her husband and two children. She writes creatively and professionally on topics such as education, business, creative arts, health, family life, parenting and natural foods. You can learn more about her at www.writtenbymandy.com.

My Bunny Slippers

My Bunny Slippers

By Lisa Tucker McElroy

BUNNYSLIPPERSThere are days, I tell you, many, many days, when all I want to do is come home and put on my bunny slippers.

Now, if you were to ask my teenaged daughter, she’d tell you that they aren’t my bunny slippers at all. They’re hers, poached from under the Christmas tree one year we can’t quite remember, a year in which “her” ornament (yes, we do that thing where each member of the family gets an ornament to represent that year’s passion) was a NASA astronaut in full moon landing gear.  They’re hers, except that she never wears slippers.  I mean, maybe she would, but she never has hard days that must end in slipper heaven.  OK, she has hard days.  But bunny slippers just don’t do it for her.  Not that I’ve ever given her a chance to find out.

Because the bunny slippers—they’re mine.  And as a lawyer, I know that possession is nine-tenths of the law.

I’m a cliché, I think, because I’m that forty-something working mother of two who presses snooze instead of hitting the gym, eats lunch in front of her computer, and constantly rummages through the laundry room to find clean socks.  Sometimes, the socks are even my own.  Sometimes, small tween socks or giant husband socks will work.

But nothing does the job like bunny slippers.  After three or four years, one bunny has no tail.  The other bunny has a hole where his nose once sniffed.  Neither bunny is particularly white where the white parts should be or pink where the pink parts should be.

Yes, both bunnies are perfectly molded to my feet, padded in just the right spots when I scrunch up my toes.

They sit patiently on the coffee table, propped up while I type on the computer on the couch.  They walk out to the driveway to find the permission slip that got left on the floor of the backseat or the dog’s leash that got dumped in front of the garage.  They narrowly avoid the spitting spaghetti sauce that drops from the stove burner all the way to the floor.

They nuzzle.  They cuddle.  They hug.

Now, naturally, my bunny slippers (not my daughter’s, mine) come with a large helping of grief.  Think I’m exaggerating?  Well, you try opening the door to the UPS delivery man wearing a business suit and bunny slippers.  You dress up in jeans and bunny slippers to welcome in the mortgage broker who’s there to work on your refi.  You drive the kids to French horn practice in yoga pants, a day-old sweatshirt, and  . . .  bunny slippers.

You try being a mom to two teenagers who are embarrassed when you let your hair go au natural, for goodness sake.  Then tell me how much you hear about humiliation, and boys who will never look at them, and moms who should get a life.

And moms who should just put on some shoes, IMHO (in my humble opinion).  That’s teen speak for “as the whole world except my totally embarrassing mom knows.” And lose the bunny slippers.

So why the aggravation? Why make the traumatic memories for my teens?  Why take the daily ridicule?

Because the bunny slippers have oddly (OK, I know how weird this is going to sound) become a part of our daily life, our family, even.

Because if the kids get all worked up about my bunny slippers, the bunny slippers become the source of teenage angst, and the AP World History test sort of loses its power.

Because if my husband needs a reminder that I need some TLC, all I have to do is lift up one bunny-shod foot and look at him meaningfully.  (Yes, bunny slippers can be sexy.  Don’t knock it ’til you try it.)

Because when students and editors and deans and husbands and teens and dachshunds and goldfish have each wanted something from me today—something different, mind you, something that has sent me in seven different directions—the bunny slippers ask for nothing.  Nothing except that B1 belongs on the left foot, and B2 fits on the right.

Nothing except that I attach myself to them firmly and acknowledge the better-than-fabulous way they make me feel.

Speaking of feelings, and speaking of fabulous  . . .

Yesterday, while I worked on the couch and propped my bunny feet on the coffee table, right next to my third or fourth cup of the day, my husband and daughters hit the post-holiday sales at the mall.  I looked around the quiet house, tucked my toes in tight, and sighed with a mother’s delight.

Yep, just me and my bunny slippers.  The way it should be.

The door opened.  The teens came in shrieking.  The husband followed, hollering that I just wouldn’t believe their shopping success.

An Abercrombie shirt on clearance?  I asked.  A sale at the Pandora store?  Two for one day at Auntie Anne’s?

Nope.  Whatever it was was wrapped in tissue paper.

“Be careful!” the younger one shouted.  “Don’t let it fall!” the older one warned.

More giggles.  “Come on, Mom, unwrap it!”

I was pretty sure this was some kind of bad joke.  And I was going to be the laughingstock.

Sometimes, it’s just beyond awesome to be wrong.

Peeking out of the tissue was a pink spot.

I looked at the girls and started to smile.  “Is it . . .”

“Yes!” they shouted.   The big one fell over the little one to pull the tissue off.

There.  In my hand.  Made of glass.  White, with pink whiskers and, yes, two tiny pink noses.

This year, my ornament was my very own pair of bunny slippers.

Lisa Tucker McElroy is a freelance writer and law professor.  She writes for outlets like Redbook, AARP, Huffington Post, Slate, and the New York Times’ Motherlode.  She is the mother of two teen girls.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.



By Carol Paik

Paik_ConcertMy mother announced that she was about to give her last solo recital, at Lutkin Hall at Northwestern University. “I’m sixty-six,” she said. “I don’t feel like doing this any more.” She told me this months in advance, to make sure that I—and perhaps more importantly, my two children, her grandchildren—would be able to attend. Meredith and Jonathan were four and six years old, and I thought about what it would be like for them to fly all the way to Chicago and then sit through a full-length piano concert at night. It didn’t sound promising. But if this was in fact going to be their grandmother’s last recital, I wanted them to see it.

So we traveled from New York City to Evanston, Illinois, on an unseasonably warm November Friday. Evanston is a place of significance in my family’s history, but an unfamiliar place for me. My father and mother met at Northwestern as undergraduates, my mother on a full piano scholarship, my father studying engineering. Not far from the hotel where we were staying were the practice rooms where my father used to study lying underneath the grand piano while my mother worked the keyboard above his head.

We arrived at the hotel around four o’clock, the children were hungry and tired, and I was beginning to think it had been a bad idea to come. Then I spotted my father across the lobby, just as he spotted us. He and my mother had flown in from Boston the day before. He grinned and hurried over, taking Meredith up in his arms.

“I thought you’d be getting in about now,” he said, squeezing Meredith until she protested. “I came down to look for you.” (“Ants in his pants,” I could just about hear my mother mutter.) He sat down and the children draped themselves over him.

“Where’s Mom?” I asked.

“Resting upstairs,” he said. “She wants me to bring her a hamburger at five o’clock and then the rest of us can go out for dinner.”

I had almost forgotten these pre-concert rituals. Before a concert, my mother likes to eat, but just a little bit of something to keep her energy up. (“Something high in protein, nothing with milk or onions.”)

“We should probably go soon, if Mom wants her hamburger at five,” I said.

“There’s plenty of time. There’s a Burger King around the corner. It’ll take two minutes to get there, two minutes to get back.”

“It’ll take more than two minutes, Dad.”

“Alrightalright,” he said. “Five minutes to get there, five minutes to get back.”  (I could picture my mother, eyes rolled to heaven. “Have you ever seen such a stubborn man?”)

 *   *   *

On our way back from Burger King, Meredith asked if she could bring Grandma her hamburger, so just outside my parents’ room my father placed the small cardboard boxes in her hands. He quietly unlocked the door for her and sent her into the dark. He and I waited outside, listening.

“Hi, sweetheart,” I heard my mother say.  I realized she thought it was my father who had entered, and that I was hearing the way she speaks to my father when no one else is around. I was surprised by the softness of her tone.

“Sweetheart?” she repeated when no one answered. Then, “Oh, Meredith! Come here my darling! What a wonderful surprise!”

My father and I went in and opened the heavy hotel drapes. My mother was sitting on the edge of the bed with Meredith on her lap, looking happy and calm. Not tense with energy the way I expected her to be. She reached around Meredith to give me a hug.

“Hi, darling,” she said. “I like your hair that way.”

I hadn’t combed my hair since that morning, but I knew why she’d said that. There was a story behind it. When I was in college, in an all-out effort to please her I once told her that for her next concert I would wear whatever she wanted. She bought me a high-waisted, blue and pink flowered dress with a hemline below the knee—the sort of dress no one older than ten or younger than sixty should ever wear. I wore it, fairly confident I wouldn’t see anyone I knew at the concert. I also permitted her to curl my hair. I felt ridiculous, but I was proud of myself for being mature enough to bend a little for my mother’s pleasure. Then, as we were about to enter the auditorium, she turned to inspect me and her face fell.

“I guess your hair really doesn’t hold a curl,” she said.

I had turned to my father then and demanded the car keys. He fished around in his pocket and handed them to me, and I turned and walked out of the hall. I spent the recital in the car, amid the shreds of my newfound maturity.

After the concert, she said she had no idea I would be so hurt by such a comment. She hadn’t meant to be critical, she said. Since then she has only bought me black clothing and routinely compliments my hair. She herself often wears the blue and pink dress and it looks quite nice on her.

I thanked her for the hair comment with a kiss. “How are you feeling?” I asked.

She shook her head and groaned theatrically. “The Rorem is my nemesis—twentieth-century music really isn’t my bag. I’m so glad this is my last solo recital. It’s just too much work! I want to spend that time with my grandchildren! Come, Meredith, would you like to see my gown?”

Meredith nodded, and my mother led her to the closet, where a new shell pink gown was hanging in its plastic bag. During my childhood, in the weeks leading up to a concert, my mother would be focused on her practicing to a point near frenzy, but the concern about what she was going to wear would linger just beneath, occasionally spiking up and sending her to rifle frantically through her closet—and, once I grew to be her size at about age eleven, my closet as well. Sometimes, as a last resort, she’d make a grudging trip to Filene’s Basement. She always came up with something that met her criteria: it had to be dressy enough to show respect for the hosting organization; it should sparkle a little for a festive note; its sleeves had to cover the wobbly underside of her upper arms. It also had to cost next to nothing, for she would never willingly spend money on a dress she would get so little use out of. She would decide that the black wraparound skirt I had sewn in Home Ec and sequined top—eight sizes too big—from the church rummage sale fit the bill. I remember, in particular, clunky silver lamé platform sandals that she got for half price because her size, four and a half, had been used as the floor sample. The dignity, bordering on smugness, with which she always carried herself, no matter what her outfit, confirmed my belief that she and I would never agree. But when I saw the lovely fairy-princess-pink gown she had bought for herself, now that she and my father had more means, I wondered if for all those years her smugness had masked disappointment.

“My dress is pink, too,” said Meredith, delighted. In fact, her dress was almost the identical shade. The bond between my mother and my daughter surrounds them like a force field. They even look alike: large brown eyes, small noses, and mouths that form thin lines with downturned corners when they are displeased. Occasionally, when Meredith was an infant and I was holding her in my arms, she’d look at me in a certain loving yet measuring way and I’d be struck by the impression that I’d given birth to my mother. They understand each other at a deep and strange level. “I always know exactly what she needs,” my mother often says. “She doesn’t have to tell me.”

My mother and I never shared that sort of understanding. She seemed, on the contrary, to have a particular knack for dwelling on irrelevant details of the story I was telling, dismissive of things that mattered to me while praising me for things I cared nothing about, offering “constructive criticism” when what I needed was support. For instance, it was my father, not my mother, who took me shopping when I was in high school and quietly bought me Levi’s jeans when my mother said the ones from Fashion Barn with elastic waists were perfectly fine. As for Meredith—sometimes I felt uncertain how to approach her, standing there with her little lips turned down at the ends. How do I show her how much I love her without annoying her? Did my mother ever feel that way about me?

“Tonight will be a fitting swan song,” said my mother. “Did you know that when I was in college I gave my senior recital in the same hall? Charlotte Gackle and I gave a joint recital. And she’s coming tonight, can you imagine? Of course, she has changed her name. No soprano should be called ‘Gackle’!” She laughed. “But anyway, it’s a nice close to my solo career, I think. Full circle.”

*   *   *

I have seen photographs of her senior recital. They are black and white, so I can’t tell the color of her gown, but from the way its folds catch the light I can tell the fabric had a sheen. I know it was handmade, either by her mother or by her sister-in-law, who also sewed her wedding dress. My mother is seated in the photograph, slender, obscured from the waist down by a large bouquet of roses that are darker than the dress. She always took her glasses off for photographs, and she smiles at some point to the left of the camera, glamorous and blind.

My mother’s relationship with the piano began when she was a very small girl. She remembers playing the piano in her grandmother’s house in Seoul, and she remembers playing the piano on the boat that brought her and her family across the Pacific Ocean to the United States in 1940. When they finally reached Chicago, there was a piano in her new home, or more accurately, in the church that occupied the top floor of the small brownstone where they were to live. On weekdays my mother’s father peddled trinkets to factory workers, but on Sundays he was the minister of that church. The top floor was heated only on Sundays, and during the long Chicago winters, when my mother needed to practice, my mother’s mother walked in a semi-circle around her holding a small electric heater.

My parents were married in June, 1957. “Everyone got married after graduation,” my mother says. “That’s just what you did.”  Within three years they had two sons, and they all lived in student housing in Palo Alto, California, subsisting on my father’s fellowship while he earned his Ph.D. There was no room for a piano, even if they could afford one, even if she had had the time to play it.  After my father received his doctorate, they moved to Massachusetts, where I was born. We moved to Chicago, and then back to Massachusetts, when I was almost three; my parents decided this would be our permanent home. They were able, finally, to acquire a Baldwin upright and my mother began to play again. I had to go with her to her lessons. Her teacher was an ancient French Canadian lady who spoke accented English and lived in a townhouse filled with fragile items. I sat as still as I possibly could in a corner of the music room, but invariably Miss Giguère would sigh and tell me I had to sit somewhere else.

When I started school, my mother began teaching piano at home. She also began to arrange performances for herself. At the public library fundraiser. At the retirement home. Accompanying the church choir. Soloing with the high school orchestra. Any time she saw an opportunity to give a recital, she snatched it up. Performing gave her exposure, she said, and the exposure brought her more opportunities.

“I had to decide what I was going to do,” she told me recently. “And I realized I only knew how to do one thing. I knew how to play the piano. It’s not that I love it so much. But it’s the thing my parents labored so hard to give me, and it’s the only thing I know.”

*   *   *

We needed to let her get ready. “I’ll see you in just a little while, darling,” she said to Meredith, who nodded, took my hand, and came away without any protest. I wasn’t so understanding when I was young. I was already older than Meredith when my mother began to give concerts again, but I remember disliking the oddness of dinner being served by Dad, the percussion of high heels on the floor above our heads, the sight of my mother coming down the stairs two to three inches taller than normal with a hairdo like a helmet and lipstick like a warning.  She would help me into my tights in a distanced, careful way, and she would inspect us all, her mouth turned down, looking right into our eyes and licking her thumb to stick a stray hair in place. She would inspect my father, too, and question him about the status of the tape recorder and whether he had tested the batteries, making him defensive and impatient.

But now she saw us off cheerily without even asking what I was planning to wear, without admonishing my father to come back in time to take her over to the hall. We left to find my husband and my son, and I found myself looking forward to the evening, looking forward to hearing my mother play.

When I was young, and even when I was not so young, I disliked going to her concerts.  I particularly dreaded the aftermath. I would be relieved that it was over, and there were usually some cookies and juice on a table. But there would be a large crowd of well-wishers around my mother—old friends, colleagues from one of her piano associations, as well as complete strangers. She greeted each one with smiles and warm conversation—she never knew when someone who could advance her career might show up. I would want to go to her, but I knew that if I got too close she would introduce me to everyone and I hated that. My father and my brothers and I would stand around at a safe distance. It would be late. We would be tired. Finally, we’d gather up the freshest of the roses and get into the car.

And then she would ask us:

“What did you think?”

I knew there was something I was supposed to say, that there was a right thing to say, but I didn’t know what it was and neither did my father or brothers.

“You did very well,” my father might try.

“That doesn’t mean anything!” she would snap. “What did you think, Carol?”

“I thought you sounded very good,” I might offer tentatively.

“Which piece did you like best?”

“I don’t know. I thought they were all nice.”

“Oh!” she would groan. “Were you paying any attention at all?”

And we would ride dumbly home, where she would be unable to sleep and would sit up at the kitchen table long into the night.

*   *   *

After a quick dinner we dressed and walked the short distance to Lutkin Hall. As I watched my father striding ahead with the children, I noticed that he was not carrying the tape recorder. He had brought it dutifully to every concert I could remember, a dense black rectangular box that wheezed as it recorded. Because of the tape recorder we always had to sit close to the front, but not so close that my mother might be distracted by some slight misbehavior glimpsed out of the corner of her eye. But there was no tape recorder tonight. I assumed the old thing finally gave up the ghost and they had not been able to bring themselves to replace it, unwilling as they are to read instruction manuals. Once we reached the hall, my father seemed quite free about choosing his seats. In fact he changed seats, with the kids in tow, more than once.

Finally, everyone was seated and the house lights dimmed. After a pause, the stage lights went up dramatically, the side door opened and my mother stepped out in her pink gown. She walked briskly to the piano, placed one hand on its side, smiled graciously and inclined her head. I used to think it was funny, when I was a child, seeing her act that way. My children clapped and clapped. She sat down before the piano, half-rose, adjusted the bench a bit, sat, looked up to a spot on the far wall and began the Beethoven.

When I was a child I never knew the composers or names of the pieces she played, but I knew every note by heart from listening to them so many times. She practiced at night after we had gone to bed, after her long day of teaching recalcitrant students, making dinner, and otherwise providing for the needs of three children and a husband. Night after night I would lie in the dark and listen. Just as I would begin to drift off to a particularly lovely part I would be jerked awake by a wrong note, or a garbled passage, which would be followed by an abrupt stop and then several laborious repetitions of the offending phrase. Each repetition would jerk me awake anew. Because of this nightly conditioning, each mistake she made in a concert was almost physically painful to me. The other result of this conditioning was an unfortunate and much unappreciated tendency to fall asleep during her concerts.

But I had left home twenty years ago. I didn’t know this Beethoven. As usual, she was playing new repertory. Although I discerned a few falters, they caused me no distress. The children, taking their cues from their grandfather, held their applause between movements.

The second piece was a Chopin barcarolle, followed by his Ballade No. 4 in F Minor. Chopin has always been my mother’s favorite composer, and she is at her best with him—her affinity for this music obvious from the fluidity of her movements. Gradually I stopped listening for mistakes. I did what I always used to do at her concerts to help me stay awake—squinted at the stage until it became just bright light and two shapes, one large and black, one pink and animate, together producing sound yet disconnected from it.

*   *   *

When I was about six, someone who ran a prestigious piano workshop heard my mother play. He approached her after the recital and encouraged her to apply. My mother was very excited by this man’s attention, and she spent days carefully preparing her application and a tape. A few weeks after she sent it in, she received a letter from the workshop organizers. The letter said they were very impressed with her tape, but, unfortunately, one had to be twenty-five years old or younger to participate in this workshop.

“Isn’t that hilarious?” she said, holding the letter. “That man must have thought I was younger than twenty-five!” We all laughed, for it was a very funny idea. We sat down to eat lunch.

I saw it first, a pinkness spreading from the tip of her nose.

“Mom?” I said, just as she began to cry.

“Twenty-five!” she sobbed. “He thought I was twenty-five! Can you imagine?” My father squatted by her chair and put his arms around her, but I knew there was nothing he could do to make her twenty-five.

*   *   *

By the time I left home for college, my mother had made a name for herself in our town and the surrounding area both as a performer and a teacher. She couldn’t go to the grocery store or the post office without someone stopping her and asking, “Aren’t you Wanda Paik?” She had performed twice with the Boston Pops Orchestra, once under the great Arthur Fiedler himself. After I left home, she continued to expand her repertoire. My oldest brother joined the Foreign Service and she gave concerts at the embassies  where he was stationed, adding international performances to her résumé.  Her students, who now came to her from all over the state, regularly won contests and prizes. They kept in touch with her into their adulthoods, crediting her with changing their lives.

But: “Never be a musician,” she would tell my brothers and me. “It’s a life of drudgery. Most musicians have to teach tin-eared children day and night or else play at parties where people can’t hear you and put their drinks on the piano top. And for what? After all that drudgery, they’re too exhausted to play the music they want to play. So what’s the point of that? I’m so lucky, because I can choose my students now, and I can play whatever I want. But I only have those choices because I married Dad, and he’s such a good breadwinner.”

*   *   *

After the intermission she played the Rorem barcarolle and toccata. She used the sheet music for the Rorem—something she rarely does at a recital. “When you play twentieth-century music,” she had said, “it’s a good idea to put up the music just so the audience doesn’t think you’re making it up as you go along.” But in this case I knew she needed the music because she didn’t entirely trust her memory. I knew these pieces were a reach for her, almost as foreign to her nature as rock and roll. But she has always chosen to play, along with Chopin, pieces that make her reach.

As she began the final piece, a Bartók suite, I wondered about the tape recorder. This was her last solo recital, she had said. I would have liked to have a recording for my children. I would have liked to have something to remind me, something solid I could hold in my hand. We don’t have any recordings of her concerts, for the tapes my father so diligently made had never been intended for posterity. They were for her edification. In the days following the concert she would play and replay the tape, biting her lip over the worst parts, holding her breath through the best. Eventually, after she had wrung all the information out of it, she would reuse the tape.

There was one practice tape of hers that we kept for a while. On it, you could hear her practicing, and in the background the little sounds of my father and my brother playing chess. From time to time you could hear my brother, in his nine-year-old treble voice: “Cheap! Super cheap!” Then you heard him say, a little louder, “Oh, that was so cheap!” Then there was a banged chord and a clatter and my mother’s voice, shrill: “Get out of here!” We called this tape the “Get Out of Here” tape, and we saved it because it never failed to make us all laugh. But even that was gone now.

I was afraid that once she stopped playing I wouldn’t be able to remember what it sounded like. With no recording, my memory would have to suffice. I became a little panic-stricken and tried to listen harder. Perhaps if I somehow listened harder now, I would be able to keep it in my mind. I wanted the music to continue, for as long as it continued it could speak for itself and I wouldn’t have to try to find a way to describe it.

But eventually the music stopped, and everyone was clapping. My mother bowed, exited, returned, bowed again. Someone ran up the few steps to the stage and handed her a bouquet of red roses. My mother disappeared through the side door.

I took my children by the hand and we hurried up onto the stage and after her so we could get to her before the well-wishers. We rushed through the stage door and found her in a small room with a little square table. When she saw us she dropped the roses onto the table and knelt down to gather the children in her arms.

“I think you were great,” I told her.

Author’s Note: Now that I’m a mother who’s trying to be a writer, I finally have some appreciation for my own mother’s struggle to fulfill both domestic responsibilities and personal aspirations. Her energy, determination, and relentlessly high standards are inspirational to me. Not surprisingly, the concert described in this essay was, in fact, not her last. Five years later she’s still going strong.

Carol Paik lives with her family in New York.  Her essays have appeared, among other places, in Brain, Child; Tin House; The Gettysburg Review; Literal Latte; Fourth Genre; and Full Grown People.  More of her writing at www.carolpaik.com.  

Brain, Child (Spring, 2006)

Mama Wants a Brand-New Job

By Katy Read

winter2010_readIn unexpected ways, the Great Recession has been good for Amy Stone. Oh, not the fact that her family has had to slash expenses: downscaling the cable and cell-phone plans, cutting back on restaurant meals, dropping their dental coverage. And certainly not the fact that her husband was laid off and, though he has a new job, is now making $50,000 less than he formerly earned.

But for Stone, the hard times have presented an opportunity to build a business doing work she loves to do: creating handmade baby gifts, ceramic baby hand and feet impressions, murals, jewelry, pottery—basically offering her artistic talents “to anyone who has an idea.”

Stone, a former FedEx executive who took a buyout to be a stay-at-home mother—she now has two daughters: one four years old, the other eighteen months—has an art degree. She put it to use about four years ago, when she began cutting, painting and renting out wooden stork-shaped “new baby” yard signs (having been inspired to improve upon a sign she received for her older daughter’s birth that was “absolutely ugly”). The venture grew slowly at first, by word of mouth. But after her husband lost his brokerage job, Stone decided to get more proactive. In January, she launched a website advertising her creations and offering an expanded line of merchandise.

“Now I’ve got so much work I can hardly keep up,” says Stone, forty, who lives in Byhalia, Mississippi. “I have people from all over the United States calling me asking me, ‘Can you do this,’ ‘Can you do that.’ And I’m one who has a hard time saying no, so I usually try to accommodate everybody.”

She doesn’t make nearly what she used to make at FedEx, but as a tradeoff for being home with her children and homeschooling her older daughter, “it all breaks even to me.”

For the chance for a parent to stay home and care for the children—to take them to playgrounds and the beach, to be there when they get home from school, to avoid the frantic schedules and frustrating compromises involved in balancing full-time work and raising children—many families willingly make sacrifices. Plenty of single-income families cheerfully forgo new cars, fancy vacations and other luxuries. But in the current recession, the worst in recent memory, those measures may not be enough. What once seemed like a reasonable and rewarding choice has forced many single-income families to rethink their decision.

Not all stay-at-home mothers are as lucky as Stone, able to monetize their talent and ideas in a pinch. But many are casting about for ways to improve their earning power. With spouses’ jobs threatened, investments and home values clobbered, and household budgets straining at the seams, mothers who have spent years comfortably at home have started brushing the dust off their résumés, or looking for ways to make extra income on their own.

Experts aren’t certain exactly how many stay-at-home mothers have returned to work, or where, or doing what. And although economic cataclysms can bring about long-term changes in social, economic, and political behavior, it’s not yet clear what the consequences will be this time around. “You can never be in the eye of the storm and know what’s happening,” says Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard University and the author of Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women (1990). But the logical assumption that hard times might push at-home mothers back into the workplace seems to be supported by federal statistics, Goldin says. The number of women in the labor force, which includes women actually working as well as those just looking for work, has inched upward, suggesting that some women who had previously kept themselves out of the labor force (including at-home mothers), are at least trying to get back in.

“This recession has brought home to huge numbers of women that opting out is just too scary from a family finance point of view,” said Joan Williams, a legal scholar and director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California. “It has been a rude awakening and has dramatized for people the true economic consequences.”

Women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, now hold about half of all jobs. The recession, sometimes called a “man-cession” or “he-cession” because about three-quarters of those who have lost jobs are men, has battered male-dominated industries, such as construction and manufacturing, whereas jobs in female-dominated professions like healthcare and education are stable or growing.

Though still digesting what women might gain from this new strength in numbers, some observers hope that it will finally prompt long-sought changes in both homes and workplaces that could potentially improve mothers’ lives. A national study of women’s status published in October, titled A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything, examines various issues that complicate the lives of working parents—particularly those of mothers—and floats the idea that women’s increased representation in the workplace could spur dramatic societal change. Spearheaded by California First Lady and Kennedy clan member Maria Shriver, along with the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank, the report argues that government and businesses should adjust policies to meet the needs of their women employees. The report also suggests that men are seeing, or at least at some point will see, the need to do their fair share at home, becoming equal partners with their co-breadwinners in household chores and childcare. Some commentators, including feminist leader Gloria Steinem, have noted that women’s mere presence in the work force may not be enough to spur these changes, but applaud the report for putting the conversation on the table.

Most mothers want to work, even if many would prefer part-time. A 2005 poll by the Institute for American Values demonstrated that, if given the choice, more than two-thirds of women would opt in to working, at least part time, while their children were young. The good news is that their contributions seem to be welcome; in a recent study conducted by Time magazine and the Rockefeller Foundation, majorities of both men and women said mothers are just as committed to their jobs as women without children, and just as productive at work as fathers. (However, the respondents seemed conflicted about how this might play out at home: Fifty-seven percent of men and fifty-one percent of women agreed that it is better for a family if the father works outside the home and the mother takes care of the children.)

With more women bringing home the bacon, families and employers may better appreciate the importance of women’s earnings, said Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress. “Policy makers are hopefully going to start taking seriously the need for workers to balance work and care—not just women but all workers.”

That would be great news for mothers who’ve felt unwillingly squeezed out of the workplace by policies that don’t accommodate the needs of families, according to Pamela Stone, author of Opting Out?: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home (2007). In her book, Stone (no relation to artist Amy) interviewed mothers who “actually loved their jobs, wanted to stay in their jobs” but eventually left them because they found their demanding schedules made staying at work and raising children too difficult.

Much as mothers might need and desire more workplace options—flexible hours, part-time work, telecommuting—in tough times some employers conclude that they can’t afford to offer those things, possibly becoming even more inhospitable to parents’ needs, Williams, of Worklife Law, says. And employees, thankful to have jobs at all, are more afraid to rock the boat. So at-home mothers returning to work may find the workplace more hostile than it was when they left.

Indeed, Pamela Stone says, the recession might have changed the outlook of women like those she interviewed, forcing them to find ways to stick it out at work, a decision she says would probably be for the best. “Because it’s too perilous a time,” she says. “Based on where things are now, and what I know about some of the difficulties about returning to work, if you’ve got a job that you can make work, make it work.”

But there are some indications that workplaces are already becoming more flexible, not just to make moms happy but also to control businesses’ own costs. A study conducted in 2009 by the Families and Work Institute in New York found that eighty-one percent of employers have maintained the level of flexibility they offered before the economic meltdown, and thirteen percent have increased it, offering perks such as telecommuting, compressed workweeks, voluntary reduced hours, and phased retirement.

“Workplace flexibility is one of the hidden, strategic workplace management tools that has allowed employers to respond to many different ups and down,” said Lois Backon, vice president of the Institute.

Turns out such measures aren’t just a boon to parents and others employees who’d like to work fewer hours: They also help businesses cut costs, not to mention hang onto valuable employees rather than lay them off, Williams says. “One of the great problems in managing a recession is gearing up once it’s over. If you give everybody the opportunity to flex their hours and reduce them if they want … once the demand returns, you already have the people you need on staff.”

Those flexible options may be great for many parents, but mothers reentering the work force after years away may be reluctant to take advantage of them, for fear of seeming less than fully dedicated. New employees often feel they first need to prove themselves, said Melissa Stanton, author of The Stay-at-Home Survival Guide: Field-Tested Strategies for Staying Smart, Sane, and Connected While Caring for Your Kids (2008). Stanton, who has three children and lives in suburban Washington, D.C., is job hunting herself these days. She applied for one contract position that would have required her to commute into the city five days a week. When she asked to work from home twice a week, the employer declined, and she didn’t get the job. Now she feels she should have taken the job as it was offered, proved her value, and then asked for a partial telecommuting arrangement.

“That’s advice that was given to me by a woman who’s got a really great job that she can now do at home,” Stanton said. “You go in and you work your butt off, and for a year or two your children and your spouse need to know you may not be at home until eight o’clock at night, the kids might be in bed by the time you get home.”

But that kind of full-throttle work commitment is a pretty tall order for many mothers, still burdened with more than their share of housework and childcare. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, even employed married mothers of young children do two-thirds of the household work. Men have started doing more around the house, but still far from half, said Dianna Shandy and Karine Moe, authors of Glass Ceilings & 100-Hour Couples: What the Opt-Out Phenomenon Can Teach Us About Work and Family (2009). Despite all that women have gained in the workplace, the division of household chores can sometimes seem “like a page ripped out of a history book or something,” Moe says.

One woman the authors interviewed for their book, a woman who held an MBA from an Ivy League school (as did her husband), said that after becoming a mother she noticed all of the changes she had made in her life to accommodate her new role.

“And she looked at her husband, and he had not made one single change,” Moe says. “She said, ‘We’re like this 1950s couple, and I don’t know how that happened.’ “

Kathy Pape of Las Vegas has been frustrated with the division of work in her family. Pape left a job as a television reporter in Monterey, California, to stay home with her two small sons. But since her husband, a photojournalist for a television network, had his pay reduced, cutting the family’s income by hundreds of dollars a month, Pape has been helping make ends meet with freelance public-relations jobs. Now she works about forty hours a week (her husband works about fifty), but she still does all of the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and shopping.

“I love my husband, but he doesn’t do any of that stuff,” says Pape, thirty-five. “He gives me the old, ‘I go to work every day, I’m tired.’ He has no clue how it is, none.”

Meanwhile, the recession also is limiting the extent to which families such as Pape’s can pay for conveniences and outside help with domestic chores. For example, Pape has had to cut back on both ready-cooked deli meals and babysitters. Lately, when she’s at the computer in the daytime her sixteen-month-old has started “pulling the bottom drawer of my desk out, standing on it, trying to hit the mouse, hit the keyboard,” so she does most of her public-relations work at night, when the kids are in bed.

Yet she’s glad to have the chance to be home with her kids, she says. “You only get that shot once, and then they grow up.”

Could the recession mean the end of the so-called helicopter parent, who feels obliged to monitor his or her child’s every move and schedule the child with wall-to-wall classes, sports and activities intended to ensure his success in school and later life?

Logic suggests that strapped parents are less able to spend either time or money on their kids. Indeed, Pamela Stone suggests, at-home mothers who have felt obliged to sacrifice jobs and financial gain on behalf of their kids might eventually decide that providing financially for one’s kids is also part of caregiving, and that financial decisions that jeopardize mothers put their kids at risk, too.

“I think that there’s so much in our culture that really puts pressure on working moms to quit—the guilt trip and the like,” Stone says. When it gets tough, it helps to “keep remembering that the vast majority of moms are working.”

But hyperparenting may not die out so easily, says Hara Estroff Marano, author of A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting (2008). After all, overprotective parents usually act that way out of anxiety, and a recession certainly doesn’t help to allay anxiety.

“Anxiety doesn’t follow logic,” she said. “Anxiety has been ratcheted up in the recession. Parents are even more worried about the future of their kids. … It filters into a style of parenting that you have to be more vigilant, you have to monitor, there’s no room for a mistake. Perfection becomes the goal.”

Marano said that when she speaks to groups of parents, people in attendance seem more anxious than ever. For example, she says, some parents feel it’s even more important now for kids to get into competitive colleges. So they are “hiring tutors for this, tutors for that, are much more eager to see their kids on travel teams so the kids could get onto the varsity team.

Even in the best of times, re-entry in the job market can be tough for mothers who have been at home for a while. Experts say they already face various stigmas and assumptions, from ageism to the suspicion that they’re not sufficiently committed, dependable, ambitious or capable. In a 2007 study by psychologists at Northwestern, Princeton and Lawrence Universities, researchers measuring public perceptions of different groups found that “housewives” were perceived to be approximately as competent as elderly and mentally retarded people.

Jennifer Piehl has faced this uphill re-entry battle firsthand. For more than eleven years, she was a mostly full-time at-home mother to her three children, taking a few jobs as a tutor but rarely working more than a few hours a week. Being at home gave her the flexibility to get extra help for a son who has a hearing impairment.

Now, though, she is getting a divorce. Although she and her husband jointly made the decision for her to stay home, it is Piehl who is paying a steep and personal price for it. At thirty-eight, she has little means of supporting herself aside from whatever she winds up with in child support and alimony.

The financial inequities between Piehl and her soon-to-be ex-husband are stark. He earns more than $100,000 a year as a project manager for a large company, and hopes to buy out her share of their 3,100-square-foot house. Piehl earns $60 a week (at best) when she can get private tutoring jobs, plus whatever child support and spousal maintenance her husband winds up contributing. She will have to pay for her own health insurance. Her husband has urged her to buy a condominium, but she doesn’t want to do that because she can’t count on a steady income over the life of a mortgage. “My spousal maintenance doesn’t last thirty years. My child support doesn’t last thirty years,” Piehl says. “When my oldest turns eighteen, which is only seven and a half years from now, I start losing money. I can’t bank on getting remarried.” Instead, Piehl has moved in with her parents in a suburb outside Milwaukee.

Piehl has begun looking for a job, but having sent out more than fifty résumés, she’s been called for only a handful of interviews. Though she has a master’s degree in education, she has never taught full time, which she fears makes her appear simultaneously overqualified (teachers with post-graduate degrees get higher salaries) and underqualified. There’s no question that her years out of the full-time work force have placed her at a serious economic disadvantage.

She is hardly alone. According to recent numbers, getting hired is more difficult than ever for almost everyone. According to Boushey, the economist, thirty-six percent of unemployed workers have become so discouraged that they’ve dropped out of the job market altogether for at least six months, the highest percentage since World War II. (The previous peak was twenty-six percent.) The employment picture varies from one industry to another, Boushey says, but statistically speaking, for every available job there are 6.3 people actively seeking work. In other words, someone applying for a job can expect, on average, more than five competitors—particularly dismal odds for those with gaps in their work history.

“For mothers, with that kind of competition, it kind of makes my stomach drop a little bit,” Boushey says.

Meanwhile, some mothers have found themselves opting out involuntarily. Margot Diamond, once a fast-track executive has been an at-home mother since she was laid off a year ago. Although she has made the most of her chance to take her two girls to activities, help with their homework and fix healthy meals, she wants to go back to work. So far, she can’t.

“I graduated college in 1987, and I have never seen an economy like this one,” says Diamond, a former product-development executive in suburban Dallas.

She has been laid off before, but other times she was able to get back to work fairly quickly. Recruiters courted her; big companies flew her around the country for interviews. This time, the phone isn’t ringing; the two hundred and fifty or so résumés she has sent out have generated only a handful of interviews.

“Somehow, whatever worked before is just not working this time, because no one’s hiring,” she says. As time goes on, she worries that employers will question her absence from the work force. “I know it’s more understood now, the way the economy is. Still, a year is a year.”

She’s willing to take a pay cut. In fact, Diamond, who once made more than $90,000 a year, has applied for unskilled retail jobs at the local mall—at Coach, J.Crew, Ann Taylor—without any luck. Which might be just as well, she acknowledges, considering that those jobs entail less-than-ideal hours and wages.

“Do I want to work on Saturdays and Sundays and not see my husband and kids, for eight dollars an hour, which is going to get taxed?” she wonders. “Or should I be providing value for my family?”

Author’s Note: I’m recently divorced after working very part time for many years. So I’m looking for a steadier paycheck, and can more than empathize with the women in this story facing their own financial predicaments. Much as I’d like to have found better news for all of us, it still seems too soon for much optimism. Frankly, in many professions, it sucks out there these days. But I’m inspired by people like Amy Stone, and other women I talked to, who look at the tough times as an opportunity to remake their lives—maybe even in a way that suits them better than what they would have chosen under easier circumstances.

The other great thing about looking for work in a recession is that you don’t feel lonely. It’s yet another reason for mothers—working full time or at home with children or somewhere in between—to stick together. Whatever our employment status, we all know the difficulty of trying to squeeze in all of our responsibilities, and maybe find a shred of time here and there for ourselves.

Brain, Child (Winter, 2010)

About the Author: Katy Read’s essays, articles and reviews have appeared in Salon, Brevity, River Teeth, Chautauqua Literary Journal, Literal Latte, Minnesota Monthly, the Chicago Sun-Times and other publications. She has been awarded a 2013 Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Art Board to work on a collection of essays. She has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and been honored in literary competitions including theChautauqua Literary Journal Prize for Prose, the Literal Latte Essay Awards, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition and the Mid-American Review Creative Nonfiction Competition. She is a reporter for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, where she lives with her two sons.

Single Mom Stigma, Alive and Kicking


summer2011_mayorhpThey’re easy. They’re slutty. They got pregnant with some random guy. Or, selfishly, they ran out to the sperm bank when they turned forty. It’s their fault.

They’re always broke. They’re on welfare. They’re sponging off the taxpayers. They should work for a living, and, simultaneously, they should stay home with their kids. Whatever they do, it’s never as good as what a married mom does. Ever. It’s their fault.

They should have worked harder to keep their marriages together. They go out partying anytime the ex has the children. They’re man-haters. Or manhunters, who shouldn’t be left alone with other people’s husbands. Their kids are troubled, or troublemakers, bound for the penitentiary, suffering without a male in the house, un-cared for, un-read to, a bad influence on other children.

They’re brave but pitiable. Their families, and their lives, aren’t complete because they don’t have a mommy and a daddy living under the same roof. And that’s their fault.

Thank God it’s 2011, not the 1950s, and people no longer subscribe to those heinously out-of-date stereotypes about single mothers. Right? Right?

Maybe not. This past February, the Pew Research Center issued findings from its survey on changes in family structure, in which respondents were asked to rank a list of seven trends, such as interracial marriage and gay couples raising kids, as being good, bad, or of no consequence to society. More respondents—nearly seven out of ten—ranked “single mothers” as being bad for society—more than any of the other choices.

The mainstream media, hot to get out in front of the next toxic mothering meme (think “Helicopter Mom,” “Tiger Mom,” and “Botox Mom”), had a field day, summarizing the finding with headlines like “Single Mothers ‘Bad For Society’, Pew Research Center’s Latest Poll Finds” (Huffington Post) and “Single motherhood still rejected by most Americans, poll finds” (Washington Post). Page views soared, blog posts proliferated, and comment boxes filled with opinions both judgmental and defensive.

Completely lost in the media coverage was the fact that the Pew Research study wasn’t asking about “single mothers” in general—meaning any woman currently parenting without a partner. The survey asked—quite ambiguously—what respondents thought about “more single women having children without a male partner to help raise them.”

Did the Pew Research Center intend the word “having” to mean “I have children and am currently their sole caretaker, regardless of whether I was partnered in the past”? Or did the center mean “having” in the sense of birthing—meaning women who, through intent or accident, were solo parents from the outset? ?It takes some digging around to discern the surveyors’ true intent—an earlier iteration of the same survey was more explicit, asking how respondents felt about “more single women deciding to have children without a male partner to help raise them.” Aha—”deciding” is decidedly more specific than “having.”

It’s safe to say this distinction was likely lost on survey-takers and absolutely lost in the media coverage. Either way, the results of the survey and the way it was picked up and conflated in the press indicate that, more than a decade into a new millennium, single motherhood is still a tender topic.

That got us to wondering: How is it that, as a society, we apparently haven’t moved the needle much on perceptions of single mothers, even as survey respondents were more accepting of arguably more radical changes to the family like gay parenting? Single mothers are everywhere, and their numbers have been steadily rising for thirty years. In 1980, 19.5 percent of United States households with children were headed by single parents; in 2008, the number was up to 29.5 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and eighty-four percent of those households are headed up by women.

Do seven out of ten of us disapprove of our own sisters, friends, and neighbors, our own selves? Or is there something more subtle going on? There is an almost infinite variety in the ways that women become and conduct themselves as single mothers, but when people are filling out surveys, do they revert to some kind of worst-case view of single moms?

Consider the notorious “welfare queen” of the Reagan era—most famously put into words by now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. “She gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check. That’s how dependent she is,” he said of his sister Emma Mae Martin in 1983. “What’s worse is that now her kids feel entitled to the check, too. They have no motivation for doing better or getting out of that situation.”

As the eighties rolled on, the welfare queen trope picked up other elements, like crack abuse. There’s a lot of baggage built into that caricature: racist, sexist, religious, moral, and economic. (And, for the record, the caricature proved to be largely just that—Thomas’s sister, for example, was on welfare for fewer than five years to nurse the elderly aunt who’d cared for her children while she worked.).

It’s likely you need only to hit one or two of those hot buttons to trigger a negative reaction in people who might be perfectly accepting of the single mothers they know personally while disapproving of “other mothers” that fit their preconceived stereotypes.

Of course, it’s also possible that women who actually are single mothers could agree that single motherhood is bad for society as a whole. Most didn’t choose it for themselves. They didn’t want their husbands or partners to leave, or die, or threaten them or their children. There are real hardships, economic and emotional, associated with single motherhood, especially if you didn’t plan for it from the start.

To unpack some of that baggage, we talked to single mothers in their various incarnations—women who are divorced or widowed, mothers who were abandoned by their children’s fathers, and those who are single mothers by choice. Each woman traveled a different path to single momhood—and some are single no more—yet they agreed almost universally on one point: No matter how their legion grows, people still think of single mothers as disruptive and outside the norm.

“Single mothers are still a problem to be fixed,” says Robin LeBlanc, who both studies public discourse about single moms in her role as a professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and is one herself. “On the left, they’re seen as victims of failed social policy. On the right, a symptom of moral failure. It’s interesting that most of us no longer thing of gayness as a problem that needs to be fixed, but single mothers are still viewed that way.”

What rankles single mothers like Donna Raskin perhaps the most is a pervasive insistence that no mother, no matter how dedicated, stable, and accomplished, can raise a child as competently as a man and woman together, no matter what the state of their union.

“Many people assume two parents are better than one, but that isn’t true at all,” says Raskin, whose son’s father left when the boy was nine months old. “I have had people tell me that they are staying in miserable marriages with spouses who cheat, drink, or do drugs just so their children aren’t growing up in a ‘single parent home.’ As if having a single parent, even a wonderful single parent, is worse than living in a home with parents who hate each other or where one parent is a true problem.”

“To me this is lazy thinking,” says Raskin, a teacher and writer in Pennington, New Jersey. “They’re insulting me to my face, and they’re not even acknowledging how loved and happy and successful my child is.”

LeBlanc seconds that thought. “If there is a poor family struggling and the parents are married, we talk about them as a ‘working family’ and they get a mention in the State of the Union,” she says. “You don’t hear that same tone about working single mothers. There’s a presumption that there’s something wrong with that woman.”

“It’s a special kind of sexism,” LeBlanc contends. “I don’t know how many times we’ve had to hear people praise Barack Obama and [Supreme Court Justice] Sonia Sotomayor because they became who they are ‘even though’ they were raised by a single mother.”

Jamie Wallace says there’s a specific kind of opprobrium directed toward a woman who actively chooses to leave her child’s father, rather than being cast as a victim who’s been abandoned, cheated on, or otherwise had the union fall apart against her will.

Wallace initiated a separation from her husband after fourteen years of marriage, when their daughter was three, with the support of two different marriage therapists. “I finally said to myself, if two professionals and my gut are telling me this is not coming to a good conclusion, I have to accept that and get out,” she says.

Not everyone else was as accepting. “There was a feeling of, ‘what’s the matter with you that you couldn’t hold your marriage together?'” Wallace recalls. “I did have some people say, ‘Who are you to make this decision?’ or call me selfish because I initiated the separation. I was told I should have stuck it out, and put my needs last until my daughter was older.”

Suzy Vitello knows the story from the other side of the coin. Vitello, now a marketer and writer of young adult fiction in Oregon, became a single mom at twenty-six not by any action of her own but by the car accident that killed her husband four days before their second child was born, when their first was just eighteen months old. ?People didn’t judge a young widow—thankfully—but still, the reception was troubling.

“People wanted to take care of me. I was put in the category of vulnerable, somebody who might make bad decisions,” Vitello recalls. “I felt most on guard with people who were trying to swoop me up, make me live with them, tell me what I needed to do next. I felt like I didn’t need that. I had been raised very independently, and had had a traditional family orientation only for the very brief time period of my marriage.” Vitello eventually moved across country to get clear from the smothering blanket of concern.

Years later, when divorcing a second husband with whom she’d had another child, she caught the same blast of blame that Wallace had experienced. “I think that people are saddened by failure,” Vitello muses. “Because the man-woman-children relationship is culturally the architecture for stability, people project their own fears about failure onto that, depending on where they’re coming from culturally or religiously. They need to know who was the cheater, who was the drug abuser. If there was none of that, they want to know why you didn’t try hard enough. They want to know what’s wrong with you.”

Single mothers are “single” not just in the sense that they’re parenting solo, but that they’re viewed as socially and sexually unattached. And that, says Martha Albertson Fineman, can mess with society’s head, because once women in our culture become mothers, they’re not supposed to be available sexually.

Fineman, author of The Neutered Mother, The Sexual Family and Other Twentieth Century Tragedies, says that the belief underlying many divorce cases and custody battles is that a woman without a steady sexual partner is likely to sacrifice the needs of her children. “A mother’s sexuality is expected to be subsumed and stable. There is a fear that a single mother’s sexuality will jeopardize her child,” says Fineman, director of the Feminism and Legal Theory Project at the Emory University School of Law in Atlanta.

“We have changed our attitudes about sex outside of marriage, but expectations for mothers have remained unchanged. You are expected to put your children’s issues above your own, including your career and your sexual appetites.”

Because she has a steady man in her life, Wallace hasn’t had the experience of some other single mothers, who say they have been perceived as a threat by their married or partnered friends. But Wallace does clearly see the destabilizing influence her single-mother lifestyle can have on her friends’ relationships.

“There was a lot of curiosity among my friends when I was going through my split, a lot of self-questioning. It gets people thinking about their own situation, about how stable their marriage really is,” she says. “And at times I do sense a little bit of jealousy. I get to go out every other weekend or have time to myself, knowing my daughter is safe with her father. People can make time like that within their marriages, but it takes work.”

Just as single mothers can cause other women to question the state of their unions, they can cause men to wonder, at least subconsciously, if they’re still needed in the family equation.

Surprisingly, early American thinkers actually viewed single men as a threat to a stable society. Marriage and fatherhood were viewed as a way to bring out men’s more noble selves—once men started caring for wives and children, the idea went, they’d extend that largesse to society as a whole, explains Washington and Lee’s LeBlanc. In that context, women were needed to play the role of submissive wife and bearer of babies to lure men into a domestic, responsible state of existence.

That, of course, has all changed. Thanks to the career independence that came out of the feminist movement, women—specifically, women educated for a career—don’t need marriage economically in the way that they once did. “I don’t have to be married if I’m not happy being married,” says LeBlanc.

That simple change has had a profound impact on men’s roles as husbands and fathers. “If a woman can take her kid and go off on her own, men think, where does that leave me?” LeBlanc asks. “More generally, people may look at a single mother and say, ‘If she doesn’t have to play by these rules, then what are the rules? Why is she allowed to make up her own life?'”

Jane Mattes knows a thing or two about breaking the rules and leaving men out of the equation—and getting grief for it. Mattes, a psychotherapist in New York?City, founded the advocacy organization Single Mothers by Choice (SMC) in 1981 after intentionally getting pregnant without a partner and realizing that women choosing that route needed lots of support to counter societal disapproval.

Mattes says women can still be judged for stepping outside the prescribed mommy-daddy role, but nothing like they used to be. “Believe me, it was much, much, much worse thirty years ago,” Mattes says.

Especially then, but still even now, some men are insulted by the very premise of her organization. “Men feel that we’re saying they’re not important or that they’re a dispensable option, which is not the case. Our position is simply that you have a lifetime to find the right man but only a limited number of years to bear or adopt children.”

In fact, some ninety-eight percent of SMC members polled say they would have preferred to have a child in a loving relationship, Mattes says. “Very few felt this was their first choice, but a least it is a viable choice.”

Cara DeAngelis wasn’t thinking much about men when she joined SMC in 1994, a little more than a year after the untimely death of a longtime love. Nor did she encounter any blowback when she became pregnant on her own. “The day I told my mom I was first pregnant she said, ‘Oh thank God, thank God,'” DeAngelis recalls. “Nobody was going to criticize me after what I’d gone through—people just wanted me to live, no matter what it took.”

Now mother to two teenaged boys, DeAngelis says she has been able to sidestep much of the criticism and burden of being a single mother, partly because of continued support from a large family and wide circle of friends, but also, she concedes, because she is a prominent professional with a steady income. “I think people don’t criticize me because I’m a doctor. I float above the fray.”

As with almost every other aspect of American life, economics plays a big role in shaping perceptions about single mothers. Women like DeAngelis who set out to have children by themselves are overwhelmingly middle-class or above, sometimes far above, with good careers and a solid support network.

That’s not always the case for single mothers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 29.9 percent of households headed by females with no husband present were at or below the poverty level in 2009, compared with 5.8 percent for married-couple households. In turn, children raised in poverty are more likely to lack access to healthcare, suffer from poor nutrition and obesity, experience violence and unintentional injury, and experiment with drugs and alcohol in adolescence, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Those kinds of statistics, though they don’t apply to the majority of single-mom households, could well be the reason so many Pew Research survey respondents said single mothers were bad for society, says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

“Something that works for someone on an individual level can be disturbing on a societal level,” says Coontz, author of several books on marriage and family, most recently A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. “The vast majority of women who end up as single moms have not had a chance to assess their situation or prepare for the challenge. They don’t have the support systems that they need.”

A lack of access to decent education for her and her children, to living-wage employment, to engaged mentors and role models, to reliable and affordable birth control, to employed and employable partners, and to safe neighborhoods … the list of ways in which a single mother in poverty is challenged is long and complicated, says Coontz.

“With the growing gap between the haves and have nots, you have whole communities of women raising kids on their own.” It’s not their singleness, but their chronic impoverishment and dearth of suitable, stable life partners that’s the problem, Coontz says. But when it comes time to check the box on the survey, “single mother” is the label that sticks.

Seen in that light, the Pew Research survey’s unfavorable view of single mothers may not be a condemnation as much as an acknowledgement that any single parent can have a tougher time, emotionally and economically, than a pair of parents.

The Pew Research survey did not ask respondents their opinions about single fathers raising children alone (and they make up just sixteen percent of the custodial-parent population)—so it’s impossible to know if respondents would have felt more strongly biased against one sex or the other as a single parent.

But the survey did find that people were less negative about unmarried couples and gay couples raising kids together than they were about single mothers—a possible indication that people believe simply that two—any two—is better than one when it comes to raising children.

With households headed by single women making up twenty-five percent of all households with children in America, what most frustrates many single moms is that they and their families are still considered to be so far outside the ideal “norm” even though that norm dominates less and less every year.

“There is a feeling of supremacy or superiority of two parent families that is pervasive in this society, regardless the numbers that clearly illustrate single-parent households are plentiful,” says Kelli Kirk, a Seattle writer and mother of two who recently remarried after four years of solo parenting.

It drives her crazy that people will think nothing of leaving a single mother out of social events or outings, assuming she may not be able to afford it or she’ll feel awkward around only couples. “Don’t make the decision for us, please and thanks,” says Kirk. “We are not ‘half’ a family—we are our own family. A mom and a kid, or two kids, or three. It’s nice to be treated as if we are the absolute equal of a family of four with two parents, because we are.”

For her part, Donna Raskin wishes simply that people would untether the words “single” and “mother.”

“The best times for me are when people take my marital status out of the equation in our relationships. When they don’t judge me or make assumptions about me or my child, when they find out who we are as people. That makes me and my son feel safe and happy.”

“What is true about being a single mother is that the ‘single’ has almost nothing to do with the ‘mother,'” she says. “I’m a good mom, and I would be a good mom whether or not I am or am not married.”

Author’s Note: As always, I am humbled and grateful when people are willing to spill their guts for a story I’m writing. A big thank you to the women quoted in this piece and also to the many mothers who shared their single-mom stereotypes on Brain, Child’s Facebook page. I really do believe that telling stories is the best way to change minds. Thanks for being part of the process.

Brain, Child (Summer 2011)

About the Author: Long-time contributor Tracy Mayor has written for Brain, Child about armageddon parenting, birth control for mamas, soccer mom stereotypes and — for the very first issue — swearing in front of the kids. Her essays and journalism have appeared on the New York Times Motherlode blog, The Rumpus, and in Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, Child and Wondertime. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two sons and crazy beagle.

Baby Weight

Baby Weight

By Cheryl Strayed

fall2008_strayedAs a child and teenager, I remember being mildly disturbed by the animal quality that overcame my mother while in the presence of babies. It was a quality she cloaked in a polite, seemingly offhand request—may I hold the baby?—and a nonchalant tone of voice, but I knew her intentions were indisputably vulturine at their core. She wanted that baby in her hands and she wanted it now.

“Oh,” my mother would coo once she had the borrowed baby in her possession. “Look at this,” she’d moan to me, standing desolately witness to her mysterious rapture. “There’s nothing on this earth like the smell of a baby once you’ve had one of your own,” she would explain each time. “Nothing like the weight of a baby in your arms.”

Over the years, I observed this same response in other women, all of them mothers whose own children are no longer babies. Inevitably—both in my younger years with my mother and later, in the company of my post-baby mother friends—I, too, would eventually be offered the opportunity to hold the baby, but rarely did I take it. It wasn’t that I didn’t see the astonishing perfection and beauty of these babies. It was that I appreciated them most at arm’s length. I wished them well, but I didn’t wish them to be in my sphere. I was never what you would call a baby person. As a child I didn’t even like dolls.

At the root of my indifference was a belief that, adorable or not, babies were trouble. They were the thing that kept you from doing what you actually wanted to do with your hours, your days, your weeks, your life. From traveling and writing and perfecting your yoga postures or collecting fragile figurines, from making love at all hours of the day or lounging around drinking tea or wine with a good book in hand. Babies cried and caterwauled, they fussed and fidgeted, they demanded without compunction and ruthlessly denied those charged with their care even the most reasonable requests: to shower, to sleep, to pee in peace. I liked to shower and sleep and pee in peace. I liked my life without babies. My life was a private pleasure dome of self-fulfillment, of doing what I wanted to do when I felt like doing it—or not.

Which is how I got the shock of my life when, at thirty-five, I had a baby of my own and loved him so entirely I couldn’t honestly remember what I thought my purpose had been on this earth before he came along.

To conceive him had been an essentially intellectual decision. It wasn’t that my husband and I particularly wanted to have a baby at that moment in our lives; it was that we’d grimly realized I was approaching an age that, as one not-so-cheerful article from a women’s magazine put it, if I wanted to naturally conceive a baby, I’d “better run, not walk, to the exit.”

My husband and I had talked for years about becoming parents, and we were in perfect agreement with each other on the subject. Neither of us was in a hurry to have a baby, and yet there wasn’t any doubt that someday we would. Parenthood, we agreed, is one of the few truly profound experiences life offers, and neither of us, regardless of our grave and genuine doubts, was willing to miss out. What if we don’t like the baby? we wondered out loud to each other. What if the baby bores us to tears or destroys our budding artistic careers?—his, as a filmmaker, mine, as a writer. We imagined, as the years rolled by, that our desire for the two children we planned to have would move from the theoretical realm and into the actual. That we would wake up one morning with the mad and certain desire to relinquish our lives as we knew them to the sweet bonds of parenthood.

That never happened. In the end, we simply reached for each other and hoped we weren’t making the biggest mistake of our lives.

On my thirty-fifth birthday I was eight weeks pregnant and living in a grand house on a small island off the coast of Brazil at an artist’s colony, working furiously to complete my first novel and trying to distract myself from the relentless pregnancy-induced nausea that clawed at me every minute of every day for three months solid. I sold my novel the same week that the nausea let up. As the details of my book contract were being negotiated, my editor asked me when I would like to hand in the final, significantly revised draft of my novel.

My baby was due at the end of April. I had a distinct image of what he would be doing in the first months of his life, of how he would recline in a lined wicker basket such as the kind I never owned, woven and biblical—a Moses basket, it was called in several of the catalogues of baby items that had begun to crowd my house. I had it in my mind that he would lie in this basket at my feet, sweet as a bundle of straw, silent as a pile of laundry, while I significantly revised my five-hundred-page novel.

I told my editor to set the deadline for June 30, and then I forgot all about the novel I’d toiled years to birth and settled into my pregnancy, watching my expanding belly in wonder, feeling my baby’s sometimes fierce, sometimes tender kicks, not quite believing that there was a human being growing inside of me. A human I would love.

“I don’t think I actually love the baby yet,” I confessed to my husband, well into my third trimester, on one of the daily walks we took around our neighborhood. “I’m extremely fond of him,” I went on to explain, “but I don’t know him yet, and how can I possibly love someone I don’t know?” Even in the throes of the much-touted high emotions of pregnancy, I was a rationalist, not a romantic when it came to babies—including my own. I was stunned and delighted the first time I heard my son’s heart beat or saw the skeletal profile of his dear little face on the ultrasound, but I didn’t burst into tears the way many mothers-to-be do. Instead my nascent mother love manifested itself in a more practical arena: in making sure I would grow and birth the healthiest baby I could. I exercised and ate the right foods and read dozens of books on pregnancy and birth and breastfeeding. I opted out of an epidural—which would ease my pain during labor, but put my baby at risk—and chose midwives who were well practiced in the art of birthing without unnecessary medical intervention. I performed a daily repertoire of squats and stretches and Kegels and practiced relaxing while my husband pinched me hard in a birth-simulation exercise.

My baby was born after an agonizing forty-two-hour labor at an out-of-hospital birth center, weighing nearly eleven pounds. I’d truly suffered while birthing him, literally been ripped apart at the seams. I’d been awake for two days and two nights roaring like a lion every six and then four and then two minutes with the pain of my contractions, unable to keep even a sip of water down. I’d pushed and pushed and pushed my baby out of me so hard I felt like there was no part of me that wasn’t him, felt that in pushing his body out, I’d pushed my own into absolute oblivion. I pushed so long that I forgot what I was pushing for, forgot that at the end of that final push there would be the baby who’d grown in me, this boy who was my son. But there, at last, he was.

My unspeakably beautiful son.

Brown as a bean, despite his Swedish and Scottish and Irish heritage. Brown hair, brown eyes, a brown cast to his skin, as if the weeks I’d spent in Brazil with him in my womb had seeped into him and taken root. Despite my exhaustion, I was too happy to sleep in the hours after his birth. How could I sleep with such a precious being in my charge? His every breath was a miracle. The ancient knowing of his eyes, a revelation. The fragile grace of his hands, an astonishment.

I was a mother now. I would never truly sleep again.

My son. My sun. My son. My sun. I chanted to myself in the weeks and months that followed his birth, as those final two days of April turned to May and then May to June, my world spinning around him all through the last pale chill of spring and into the heat of that first summer.

The thirtieth of June arrived, and at dawn I sent an e-mail to my editor, composing it with one hand, the other hand holding my son to my breast as he nursed. I assured her that I’d made great progress on my novel revision, though it wasn’t quite ready to send to her yet. Could I have until August fifteenth? I asked. The tone of my e-mail was flimsily optimistic, falsely calm, and the part about having made progress was just short of an outright lie. Turns out, despite the fact that my son was what’s called an “easy baby” in the mothering trade, he did not spend his first two months in a wicker basket resembling either a bundle of straw or a pile of laundry. In the midst of all the nursing and diapering and dressing and undressing and burping and pacing and hopping and loading and unloading and buckling and unbuckling that mothering a newborn entails, I’d barely showered since he’d been born, let alone sit down to do any honest writing.

My career as a novelist was over, I feared, despite its dazzlingly promising start—a generous deal with the publisher of my dreams, an editor, reputed to be among the best in the business, whom I both adored and admired. Writing my first book had not been unlike giving birth: a years-long gestation and labor that required a fantastic leap of faith, both emotional and financial. It was a process that had obliged me to believe, against serious odds, that I could do this, and then go on to actually do it. To write a whole book and then write it all over again. And again. To endure the doubt and constant lack of funds, the brutally candid and diverging opinions of the fellow writers I’d enlisted to read my work, the frozen half-smiles of all the people I’d met at parties over the years to whom I’d been compelled to explain that although I was working as a waitress or a youth advocate or a teacher I was, in fact, actually a writer.

And now all I had to do was write a bit more, to make one last pass at the book I’d written in what felt to me like my own blood. But I couldn’t do it, I realized with indisputable clarity on that late June morning in the early first summer of my son’s life. I was going to be the woman who ran the marathon and then took a race-ending fall in the last quarter mile.

And it was all my son’s fault.

The thing was, I didn’t care that much. Or rather, I cared—an icy cold mix of anxiety and sorrow rose in me like a fog—but I didn’t care enough to do much about it. All of my life I’d believed that writing was my calling, my passion, my reason for being, my greatest contribution to the betterment of the world, but that theory of my life unraveled completely when I became a mother. I had a new passion now. A new reason for being. And though I took it on faith that my writing remained somewhere lost inside of me, there was no question that now it was shadowed entirely by the towering existence of my son.

There aren’t words to adequately describe the love I felt for him. It was, by far, the most shocking thing that has ever happened to me. To love this way. To become, in an instant, a baby person. The relentless totality and depth of my love almost hurt; its tenderness and clarity was truer than anything I’d ever touched. When my son was one week old I wept while my husband rubbed my back in bewilderment, asking me what was wrong. It was that our son was a week old, I managed to explain between sobs, though my husband’s expression only grew more bewildered. “Don’t you understand?” I asked in exasperation. “One entire week of our son’s life is gone.”

He didn’t understand, though he, too, had now become a baby person, had been stunned by the depth and ferocity of his love for our son. But being a mother was different from being a father, another shock to me. As a feminist, I’d always rejected the notion that mothers were more vital to their children than fathers were—and I still do to a great extent. But in those early months of my son’s life, there was no question that no matter how lovely, amusing and interesting he found his daddy, I was his world. If the entire human race except for the two of us had been wiped out that first year of his life, my son would have been just fine. He ate from my body, slept nestled against me, spent a good number of his waking hours in my arms, followed me steadily with his dark eyes when he reclined in his bouncy seat across the room. I’d read that babies don’t comprehend that their bodies are separate from the bodies of their mothers until they are three or four months old, and I struggled to comprehend the same thing.

I was him that summer. He was me.

Still, I was also allegedly a novelist. A novelist who’d promised a powerful editor the final draft of her novel by August fifteenth. My husband had a teaching gig that summer that took him away from home five days a week. Each morning when I said goodbye to him I would swear to myself that this was the day that I would begin in earnest. I would write without stop from the moment my son fell into one of his frequent naps until he woke. I could make it work, I thought, I could fit it in. But almost always, something intervened. Exhausted, I would nod off when my son did and not even realize until an hour or more later when, together, we woke. Or I would spend those precious hours kicking around uselessly on the Internet or sinking deliciously into a novel or making myself lunch and then sitting down to eat it in exquisite peace.  By the middle of July, I knew the jig was up. I needed help.

The babysitter I found was perfect for the job. She wasn’t looking for anything long term, and neither was I. I needed her for three or four weeks, I explained. She was between semesters at a naturopathic medical school and would sit with my son for four hours, four days a week and study for her board exams while he napped. My office was in the basement. I could hear the rhythmic ticking of my son’s battery-operated swinging chair on the floor directly above my head while I wrote. Or allegedly wrote. Half the time I sat simply staring at my computer screen, a photo of my smiling son staring back at me.

This is insane, I remember thinking even then, confounded by my mad love for such a little man. Especially since a fair portion of the time I spent with him was not precisely fun. In fact, there had barely been a day in his life that I hadn’t at one point or another felt the distinct urge to either run out the door in hysterics or smash his gorgeous little head against the wall. I didn’t do these things, of course, and nothing even remotely approaching them. But there was no question that motherhood took my breath away not only because of the gloriousness of the beauty it offered up to me each and every day, but also because of the heat of its rage. Knowing what I knew, now that I was a mother, made me afraid for all the babies in the world, amazed at how many of them had survived babyhood, despite being born to mothers who didn’t have half of the emotional and financial and psychological resources I had. It made me think of my own mother, who, by twenty-six, had three babies, no money and a volatile marriage.

My mother never met her grandson. She died young, when I was twenty-two and she was forty-five, and her death has been my life’s greatest sorrow. Before I had my son, every time I made a wish on a star or a set of birthday candles, I always wished for the same thing: that I could see my mom again for one more minute, and in that minute I would tell her that I loved her over and over again. But now my wish had changed. I wanted to say thank you to her and to tell her that I had no idea how hard it was to be a mother, and how hard, in particular, she’d had it, not only while she was married to my father, but after they’d divorced and she’d become a single mother. I wanted to thank her for not ever running out the door in hysterics or smashing my head against the wall even though she must have had a thousand impulses to do so. And most of all, I wanted to tell her that now that I was a mom, I understood something that had never occurred to me before: that when she had raved about the smell or weight of a baby in her arms, she hadn’t really been talking about that borrowed baby, she had been talking about me.

But I couldn’t say that to my mother. All I could do was pour the love she’d given me into my son. I could also finish my novel, which, as it happened, was essentially an ode to her.

I tore myself away from that computer screen photo of my son and wrote what I could in the time I had. Come August, I sent my revised novel off, knowing in my heart that I could do better, that I hadn’t really reached hard enough for what I needed to find. My editor called me a week later and gently but firmly confirmed my gut feeling. There was still work to do and no one was going to do it but me, but I couldn’t do it just yet: In the midst of everything else, we were moving.

My husband and I had bought a house that was five houses down from the one we were living in, a bigger one that would accommodate our new family of three. For those last weeks of August, before we officially moved, we owned two houses on the same street. Each day I made trips on foot, carrying small objects from our old house to the new one, my son lolling in a sling strapped to my body, while I carried a Crock-Pot or a tea kettle, or a box of knick knacks we probably wouldn’t ever unpack.

The new house was empty except for one thing: a big red rug that I’d ordered and had delivered and laid out in the living room. It had cost seven hundred dollars, paid for by my book advance. My husband and I had never before spent that much on anything for our house, but we reasoned that we needed it because our son would be crawling before long and we wanted to cushion his body from the hardwood floors. I would set him down on this rug as I unloaded whatever things I’d carried over, darting into the kitchen with a box of cups, or into the bathroom to place a stack of towels on the shelf. One day when I came back into the living room, I saw that my son had rolled over while I was gone, a thing he’d never done before. From his back to his tummy, unlike most babies, who first do it tummy-to-back.

I placed him on his back again and left the room, and when I returned he’d rolled over again, so this time I put him on his back and waited to see what he would do. He did nothing but smile at me and smack his lips and kick his legs in that jovial way he did when he wanted to nurse. I lay down next to him on my book-advance rug, and as he nursed I thought about the months ahead. Summer was waning, and I had the feeling I always get as autumn approaches—that I could begin anew again, that the future was starting now. I wanted to parlay that optimism into progress on my novel revision, and as I lay on that rug, I felt a glimmer of faith that it could be done, that in fact my old passion for my writing hadn’t disappeared, that it wasn’t in contradiction to the deeper passion I had for my son.

“Talk to your baby,” an old woman in a grocery store checkout line had advised me, unsolicited, when I was pregnant. “Tell him everything you’re doing and thinking, even when you know he can’t understand,” she’d said. It had seemed like good advice and so I’d taken it, talking to my son always, explaining what I was doing when I was changing his diaper or putting him in the car. And I talked to him on that red rug in the house where we hadn’t yet lived. I told him that a plan had been made, that his daddy would be home more soon and I would go into my office for hours at a time to finish the novel I’d first finished nearly a year before, when I’d been pregnant with him. That if I didn’t do it I wouldn’t feel complete, and that would make it impossible for me to be the kind of mother to him that I wanted to be.

He seemed to listen, the way he always did. I could tell by the way the rhythm of his sucking changed when I spoke, like he didn’t want to miss a word. He was nearly four months old, and it seemed to me both that he’d been born yesterday and also that he’d been with me forever. When he was done nursing we just lay there together for a while, awake and cool in the last summer heat. And then he did what I’d never seen him do before. He rolled away from me.

Author’s Note: I did manage to complete the revision of my novel when my son was nearly nine months old. I sent the final draft to my editor and then immediately became pregnant with my daughter. By the time my book came out, I had two children under the age of two—a newborn and an into-everything toddler. I took them with me on my fourteen-city national book tour, along with my lovely and supportive husband. It was the most exhausting, hilarious, maddening, conflicted, and wonderful time of my life.

Brain, Child (Fall 2008)

Cheryl Strayed is the author of #1 New York Times bestseller WILD, the New York Times bestseller TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS, and the novel TORCH. WILD was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as her first selection for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 and optioned for film by Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Pacific Standard. Strayed has written the “Dear Sugar” column on TheRumpus.net since March 2010. Her writing has appeared in THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS, the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Magazine, Vogue, Allure, The Missouri Review, Creative Nonfiction, The Sun and elsewhere. Her books have been translated into twenty-six languages around the world. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from Syracuse University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and their two children.

More Than a Feeling

By Jennifer Niesslein

fakesmileCleo, my dog of eight years, died recently. There was one good thing about the day she died: the emotional clarity. We were all sad, and we were all supposed to be sad. There was no disconnect. Why was I driving down the road with tears and snot streaming down my face? Why was I having a beer for lunch on a Thursday afternoon? Why didn’t I answer your email? Because my dog just died. No further explanation necessary, no judgment on whether I deserved to act so wrung out.

It’s rare, in life, to get that sort of blanket approval to be unhappy.

Chances are excellent that, by now, you’ve heard of Judith Warner’s controversial book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. In it, Warner takes up the issue of unhappiness among American mothers. She asserts that there are many, many middle-class American women for whom motherhood causes anxiety. “The feeling has many faces,” she writes, “but it doesn’t really have a name. It’s not depression. It’s not oppression. It’s a mix of things, a kind of too-muchness. An existential discomfort. A mess.”

Warner had lived in France with her husband and two young daughters, and when they moved to the Washington, D.C., area, she was shocked at how different the experience of motherhood felt. While in France, she had enjoyed a leisurely postpartum period, high-quality, low-cost childcare, and a culture that took for granted that mothers work and children grow up perfectly fine without being the royalty of the family. Back in the States, though, she found something else entirely: The mothers here–and she interviewed about one hundred fifty of them for this book–were being driven crazy. In many cases, the mothers themselves were behind the wheel.

Warner makes clear early on that she’s writing about a certain demographic: middle-class mothers born between 1958 and the early 1970s. (And let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the middle class, in this review, includes the upper middle class.) She alternately calls the crazy-making situation these mothers find themselves in “This Mess” or, taking a page from Betty Friedan, “The Mommy Mystique.” According to Warner, you might be suffering from This Mess if you spend an awful lot of time coordinating extracurricular activities for your children, or if you have no interest in getting it on with your husband. You might be suffering from This Mess if you attend PTO meetings at night or feel that “attachment parenting” is the only avenue to help your child achieve her potential. If you wear overalls (childish, Warner thinks), or tend to get caught up in things like throwing the perfect birthday party for your five-year-old, you might be suffering from This Mess. Everywhere Warner looked, she saw mothers crumpling under the pressure–from within and without–to sacrifice themselves to motherhood.

Clearly no one is putting a gun to any mother’s head and forcing her to rent a pony and a moon bounce for her preschooler’s birthday. But, Warner asserts, there are real reasons women make this and similar over-the-top gestures–a mass psychology affecting us, if you will. In Perfect Madness, she sets about figuring out why she and the other mothers she interviewed participate in the sort of lives that make them unhappy.

Her main conclusion is that we feel helpless, so we obsess over the details. “Our baby boomer elders often call us selfish,” she writes, “but in doing so they often miss a larger point: that what our obsessive looking-inward hides is at base a kind of despair. A lack of faith that change can come to the outside world.” She calls us, more than once, “a generation of control freaks.”

How did we get to be this way? Warner floats some psychological and cultural theories.

Among the more convincing: The rise of “attachment theory”–the idea first put out by British psychoanalyst John Bowlby in the 1950s–has worked to mothers’ detriment. Bowlby proposed that the relationship formed in the earliest days of life between a mother and her baby set the stage for the kinds of relationships they’d have with others down the road. Mess up that relationship and a child is all but doomed.

Attachment theory is so mainstream now that we pretty much take it for granted. We call it bonding. We do it until we’re blue in the face. After all, the most widely read parenting experts in the period when we became mothers–Penelope Leach and T. Berry Brazelton–were steeped in attachment theory . . . Bowlby’s theories are now part and parcel of what we call good parenting. Normal parenting.

Bowlby’s research, however, was conducted on homeless children, and its application to the average family seems a little excessive. Warner does a fine job of showing how Bowlby’s theories of childrearing took seed–in the culture and in women’s own minds–when the U.S. was trying to figure out women’s relationship to the workforce.

Another convincing theory: Warner sees the current state of the country as a “winner take all” society, where the very successful reap most of the rewards and the rest “end up, de facto, losers.” Parents want their own children to be the winners. “They want the best for their kids . . . in part because they fear that they cannot do the best for them,” Warner writes. “Often, they cannot give them the best of education, of neighborhood, even of health care, because, for more and more parents, ‘the best’ is out of reach. Yet anything other than the best, all too often, is pretty mediocre.” It’s this fear that the kids will wind up on the second tier of society–scrambling to pay the bills, working an unsatisfying job, worrying about health care, all while in the middle class–that leads mothers to do what appear to be crazy things, Warner says. Why else would a woman find herself driving each week to ballet lessons, SAT prep classes, swimming lessons, soccer matches, music lessons, and her kids’ volunteering spot, all in the service of creating the über-child?

These two theories sound convincing because I personally could see how these pressures could get stuck in one’s head and become internalized. They make sense to me. Some of her other theories? Not so much. Warner tells us on the very first page of Perfect Madness, “This is a very personal book . . . an exploration of a feeling.” I had to keep reminding myself of that line.

For example, in the chapter titled “A Generation of Control Freaks,” she constructs a profile of the modern middle-class mother, growing up in the wake of second-wave feminism. She takes feminists to task for coming up with a kind of girl-power narcissism, which stemmed from the “choice” concept. We thought, she claims, we had the choice to control everything in our lives. And our own individual lives–not the greater good of the world–is where we chose to focus our attention. This looking inward, Warner says, manifested itself in phenomena like eating disorders, a condition she spends a surprising amount of ink chronicling. Then she goes further:

The look of our generation was Ray-Bans and oxford-cloth button-down shirts. The sound of our generation was arrogance and irony. The book of our generation was Less Than Zero. . . What we did believe in was money and our own power to succeed. We voted overwhelmingly to re-elect Ronald Reagan in 1984–ringingly endorsing his “small-government” policies that would, or so it was promised, allow us to pursue success unchecked and reap the maximum rewards for our efforts.

Huh? Yes, I too saw Judd Nelson and friends in St. Elmo’s Fire, but this didn’t at all sound familiar to me. I wasn’t sure which “we” Warner was writing about, although I fall in the tail end of Warner’s age demographic. I spent my coming-of-age years dressed in black and fretting about the Constitutional rights of minors. I fucking hated yuppies.

Reading Perfect Madness, I wondered sometimes if Warner herself knows which “we” she’s talking about. She starts out sympathetically enough, writing, “[T]oo many women in America are becoming sick with exhaustion and stress as they try to do things that can’t be–shouldn’t be–done.” She seems to feel a tenderness for these women who, despite being pretty well ensconced in the American dream, are often miserable.

But by the end, you can feel Warner’s exasperation with the mothers. She distances herself, and the sisterly “we” becomes the tsking “them.” In her chapter on husbands and not having sex with them, she writes, “There was something sinister in the fact that the very same women who would tell me how wonderful their husbands were would, in the next breath, let me (and a roomful of avid listeners) in on the most awful humiliations of their mates’ private moments.” Maybe, although probably not as sinister as a writer who publicly judges the revelations shared by the very women who were kind enough to go on record with her. (Too much information, ladies!)

And when writing about the state of modern parenting, Warner nearly shrieks with alarm. In Warner’s estimation, parents who, for instance, arrive late to a birthday party so as not to upset the nap schedule of their baby will damage their kids. Depression, suicide, anxiety, narcissism–all conditions that could await our children if we keep putting them first in the family. Really? I thought. Generations of Americans have grown up with beatings for discipline, no hugs from their parents, and child labor and they’ve turned out fine–but this is what’s going to ruin our kids? Hyper-parenting?

Warner ends with a rallying cry for mothers. (In what I began to think of as Warner’s trademark move, she rallies with uplifting prose, all the while giving the finger to the media, many in the mainstream feminist movement, Republicans, big business, and mothers’ movement organizations.) “This is not just a problem of individual women and their privately managed psychological pain,” she writes. “This is a problem of society.” She argues for a “quality of life” politics. She maintains that the government needs to create a set of pro-family entitlements. (She’s vague on the specifics, but you get the sense that universal childcare and paid leave are part of this vision.) She acknowledges, “It could be said that making an argument for a set of middle-class entitlements is obscene when the conditions of working-class and poor families in this country are so dire . . . But I believe that [these] kinds of quality-of-life measures . . . are potentially helpful for everyone.”


Everyone had lots to say about this book–and/or Warner’s Newsweek article that came out about the same time–partly because the book itself was reviewed and covered and analyzed so extensively. The responses tended to fall into one of two camps: Thank You, Judith Warner or Stop Whining, Whiner. (I got these from Amazon, but they seem pretty representative):

A Thank You, Judith Warner: “This book has struck a chord with me and many of the women I know balancing a family and work. The author has some great points about the lack of a public support system (or even a private one in today’s world) and my generation of control freaks. I recognized myself and many of my friends in bits here and there throughout the book.”

A Stop Whining, Whiner: “Here is a line from the book: ‘It was the day before the Iraq war started and our au pair had fled back to France. If I was going to keep working, I might have to take out a home equity line on my house.’ Oh, boo hoo.”

A Thank You, Judith Warner: “I loved this book! As a mom of six children, I have read my share of parenting books and Perfect Madness is now at the top of my list! Warner has braved the waters to write about this ‘mess’ we are in trying to do it all and do it all ‘perfectly.’ We need to give ourselves a break! This book also opens up communication on a subject we don’t often broach–competitive parenting.”

A Stop Whining, Whiner: “I have a great cure for mommy madness and a terrific new reality show all wrapped up in one! We will take all of the rich, urban white women suffering from mommy madness and have them swap places with poor mothers in exciting locations such as inner-city Detroit, Harlem, South Central L.A., Little Havana in Miami and under the local interstate overpass . . . Another thing, can we please ban the word ‘stress’ from the English language? It now seems to mean ‘made up problems by someone who has too much free time.’ “

There was also a smattering of Stop Blaming the Mothers responses as well as some You’ll Spend My Federal Dollars on Universal Childcare When You Pry It from My Cold, Dead Estate Tax responses.

Me, my first instinct was one of mild dismissal. Really, how many mothers get worked up over this sort of stuff? And why can’t they figure out what seem like obvious solutions? Don’t like the endless hours spent in extracurricular activities? Don’t do them. Can’t get Junior into that perfect school for little geniuses? Pick another school. Didn’t have time to bake cupcakes for the second-graders’ holiday party? Two words: grocery store.

My co-editor Stephanie and I went round and round on this. It seemed to me that these were problems affecting just a tiny segment of the population–not nearly enough to justify all the buzz surrounding this book.

Stephanie, meanwhile, was getting a little frustrated with my inability to see beyond my own life. “I don’t think that Judith Warner is lying when she says that she interviewed a hundred fifty women for this book,” she’d say. “Maybe where you live, or among your friends, not everyone has their kid in a million lessons, but maybe in other places, everyone does. Sure, you might be able to resist peer pressure, but other people really might be feeling miserable and caught. What’s wrong with helping them out with pro-family policies?”

She was kind enough to resist pointing out that I’d never actually parented in one of these high-pressure suburbs.

Still, I couldn’t muster much interest. Perfect Madness was the latest in a string of big serious books on motherhood, and the others seemed to be built on more solid ground. Ann Crittenden built hers on the venerable field of economics in The Price of Motherhood. Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels built theirs on the interplay between media and public policy in The Mommy Myth. Katherine Ellison, we knew, was just about to come out with The Mommy Brain, a book based on neuroscience. Money, policy, science. These were things you could prove affect people’s lives.

And then there was Judith Warner with her book on happiness. No one has the right to happiness, I thought–only the pursuit of it.

I kept thinking this until a month or so after Cleo died. The day was windy, and fat pouffy clouds moved across the sky. On a day like this one a few years earlier, my then three-year-old son and I lay side by side in the grass–his hand, soft and still faintly dimpled, was warm on my arm–and we watched the clouds blow by. I see a pig! Doesn’t that look like the letter C? There’s a dinosaur footprint, Mama! Inside, I had jambalaya cooking in the crockpot, and the last load of laundry was in the dryer. Eventually, though, the wind got colder and colder and Caleb got cranky and the happiness of that day disintegrated in a matter of hours. I hadn’t added enough water to the crockpot and the jambalaya burned. I can’t remember now what his big tantrum was over, but it was a typical one, irrational and crazy-making. I remember that afternoon, it rained hard, and I sat agitated in front of an Elmo video, feeling desperately unhappy for no reason I could really articulate. While I was sad when Cleo died, it was a good sad, a noble sad. On that windy day years earlier, it was a maddening sad.

Would I have been whining then, had I tried to articulate what was wrong? Would some mother of a six-year-old, as I am now, have been so dismissive of how I felt? Is one’s personal happiness important in the scheme of things?


In the past decade or so, psychologists have started to study positive emotions, including happiness. Two recent books have taken some of this research and tried to put it to use.

Gregg Easterbrook’s 2003 book The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse takes a long, global view. In it, he catalogues all the ways in which life is good, especially for Westerners, on nearly every front.

Public health is improving by nearly every measure, including rising longevity and falling rates of most diseases; even many forms of cancer are in decline. Doomsday claims to the contrary, environmental trends are nearly all positive, with all forms of pollution except greenhouse gas in steady decline in the United States and the European Union. Drinking, smoking, and most forms of drug use are declining. Teen pregnancy is declining. Welfare rolls are shrinking without increase in poverty. Women, immigrants, and minority group members are acquiring ever larger slices of national pies. The divorce rate has stopped increasing. Personal freedom has never been greater. Book sales hit new records almost every year. Movie and television may at times be excruciating, but otherwise art and culture have never been more active, interesting, or diverse. Nearly all forms of death due to accidents are declining. Crime has declined so rapidly that the fall has almost been eerie. Education levels keep rising, while test scores and public-school performance show guarded improvement . . . Global democracy is rising, military dictatorship and communism are on the run. Each year, the number of nuclear warheads in the world declines. The single worst threat to the world–the Cold War–has ended, with complete victory for the West and the hand of friendship extended to former adversaries.

Oh, man, is there a lot to quibble with in Easterbrook’s assessment. But, as he points out a few times, almost no matter where you are in the social structure, this is the best time to be alive. Today’s average Americans and Europeans, he writes, live better than most royalty of history. Easterbrook invites his readers to think of their great-grandparents’ lives: Whose life would you rather live–theirs or yours?

It gives you pause. But, despite the gains the West has made, the percentage of Americans who report that they’re happy has not changed since the 1950s. The percentage who say they’re “very happy” has actually gone down from 7.5 percent in 1950 to about 6 percent today. And, Easterbrook says, “The decline of the ‘very happy’ continues, while the big action is the increase in the depressed class.” (“Depression,” he writes, “is thought not to be a physical disease; something within our society, or within our own minds, causes it.” Another idea open to debate.)

Easterbrook has some ideas as to why we haven’t gotten happier, including “choice anxiety” (too many options actually cause us stress, particularly for women), “abundance denial” (basically, it feels good to play the victim), and “collapse anxiety” (we feel that the good times can’t last). He doesn’t deny that many Westerners feel unhappy, and he would say that our happiness is important. It’s just that we’re barking up the wrong tree by complaining.

He identifies three things that Westerners can feel justified in complaining about–three things that we should work to change. First, it’s an outrage that the United States has no universal health insurance. Second, Americans should work for wages that they can actually live on. Third, we should not stand for “the greed at the top,” the morally reprehensible CEOs and other public officials who steal–and then get to keep the money. (This is an example of Warner’s “winner-take-all” society at its extreme.)

We not only need to take care of these things; we also have an obligation to help the poorer nations of the world. Suffering? Easterbrook, who’s traveled extensively in developing nations, can show you some serious suffering. For relatively little money, he argues, we can solve the world’s problems, which are vast and heartbreaking. Easterbrook begins this chapter describing how, in August 2001, the frozen body of a young Nigerian man fell from the wheel well of a jetliner as the plane landed in New York. He had stowed away in the unpressurized and unheated wheel well, that desperate to reach the United States.

In the face of this sort of tragedy, it feels incredibly indulgent to complain about anything American and middle class, anything that might fall under the umbrella of Warner’s “This Mess”–which, of course, is Easterbrook’s intention. To solve our own happiness problem, he argues, we need an attitude adjustment: “Psychological research is beginning to show that taking the positive view is in our self-interest.” Forgiveness and gratitude–mainstays of a lot of religions–will, he says, save us. “Studies [suggest] that increasing a person’s sense of thankfulness could lead to both lower stress and better ‘life outcomes,’ meaning success in career and relationships,” he writes in the chapter titled “Selfish Reasons to Become a Better Person.”

“To be happy is not an exercise in self-indulgence, rather, one of the primary objectives of life,” he writes. He says that it’s hard work to be an optimist, to practice gratitude and forgiveness, to find some meaning in life. (To Easterbrook’s credit, he manages to write about seeking spirituality and a greater meaning without swerving into religious dogma, goofy New-Age-speak, psycho-babble, or philosophical mumbo-jumbo.)

One is tempted to wonder through all this, however, whether Easterbrook would characterize any problem besides the lack of universal health care, a pitiful minimum wage, and corporate greed as legitimate–or just a whine. And while he isn’t quite a proponent of Stop Whining, Whiner, he does address head-on the issue of whining, in the form of false victimhood. “The We’re-All-Victims worldview,” he writes, “only serves to deter men and women from asserting control over their own psyches.” If you’re unhappy, you need to check yourself, he seems to be saying.

And this, in my opinion, is probably the sorest spot anyone writing about happiness can poke at. No one wants to be a caricature, the whiny American, the victim feminist, the mommy who doesn’t really want to get her shit together. It reminds me of a scene in David Foster Wallace’s short story “Good Old Neon,” in which the narrator is contemplating killing himself for being a “fraud.” He’s watching an old Cheers episode:

Lilith says, ‘If I have one more yuppie come in and start whining to me about how he can’t love, I’m going to throw up.’ This line got a huge laugh from the show’s studio audience, which indicated that they–and so by demographic extension the whole national audience at home as well–recognized what a cliché and melodramatic type of complaint the inability-to-love concept was. And, sitting there . . . I suddenly realized once again I’d managed to con myself, this time into thinking that this was a truer or more promising way to conceive of the whole problem of fraudulence.

So, on top of unhappiness, you get self-loathing. And while it’s no good to be unhappy, it’s infinitely worse to feel your unhappiness was judged and deemed unworthy of anyone’s consideration but your own.


Like Judith Warner and Gregg Easterbrook, British economist Richard Layard takes personal happiness seriously. Unlike Warner, though, Layard bases his book–Happiness: Lessons from a New Science–on more than a feeling.

Layard draws from the sciences, economics, and philosophy, particularly the work of Jeremy Bentham, the eighteenth-century philosopher who put forth the idea that we should aim to maximize happiness for the most people. Layard starts out with the same premise that Easterbrook does in The Progress Paradox: We’re richer and better off, but we’re still not happy. He then lays out the terrain of happiness as he sees it: how we measure it, why it’s important, what prevents us from getting it, how we–as individuals and as a society–can get more.

When people–like, for example, the middle-class mothers Warner interviews–say they’re unhappy, it turns out that we can believe them. “When people experience positive feelings, there is more electrical activity in the left front of the brain,” Layard writes. “[When] they experience negative feelings, there is more activity in the right front of the brain.” EEGs, MRIs and PET scans all show this. Layard also catalogues studies that show links between physical well-being and happiness.

What’s more–and he cannot stress this enough–mental health counts. Big time. “Clearly, mental health is a key part of health, but it is more than that. It is central to our overall happiness,” he writes. “For example, we might ask, What causes much more misery: depression or poverty? The answer is depression.” Needless to say, he thinks that stigma against illnesses of the mind is ridiculous and advocates for medication for those who are suffering through life instead of living it.

What prevents us from happiness? Layard is nothing if not blunt. Divorce causes unhappiness; he actually goes so far as to promote a sort of public shunning of those who would tempt a married person and to suggest that would-be parents be required to take parenting classes. A lack of community–common in mobile areas like the ones Warner’s interviewees live in–causes unhappiness. Always having someone else’s successes trumpeted before us–even (or maybe especially) fictional ones like we see on TV–causes unhappiness. Lack of job stability (the result, Layard argues, of the push for higher productivity) causes unhappiness, as does unemployment. In short, Layard has taken a look at modern life in the West–where workers are not guaranteed stable employment, where marriages are not necessarily forever, where families move wherever jobs take the breadwinners, where we tune in every night to see what we don’t have–and has seen a recipe for widespread unhappiness.

Layard, a member of Britain’s House of Lords, winds up in the same territory that Warner does, advocating for the government and businesses to do more to increase happiness on many fronts, including work, community, and mental health. He sums up the happiness of families neatly:

For the happiness of our children, we need more family-friendly practices at work, and high-quality child care, priced in relation to income. Flexible working practices are an essential investment in a happy society, as are entitlements to parental leave . . . [The] general finding of social science research is that once children are over one year old, they will flourish equally well whether both parents work or only one. So each family should feel free to make its own choice.

For all his odd-bird social conservatism, I nearly wept at the matter-of-factness of this statement.

But Layard’s biggest goal for the West is this: “We desperately need a concept of the common good. I can think of no nobler goal than to pursue the greatest happiness of all–each person counting.” Each person, I thought. The desperate Nigerian man contemplating climbing into a jet’s wheel well, the middle-class American mother grinding the minivan’s gears on the way to another baseball game, the rest of us.


So, here we are, back to the same idea: We–as a society and as a government–need to band together and get cracking in fixing what ails the world, all three writers conclude. Judith Warner says we can fix structural problems that directly affect our lives. Gregg Easterbrook says that both affecting change and finding meaning in life are necessary. Layard says it’s a paradox: the more we help others, the better we’ll feel, too.

Is mothers’ happiness a personal issue, a public one, or a combination? I don’t know. The United States hasn’t taken the family-friendly measures that Warner and Layard tell us will increase happiness. For us, it’s an untried experiment. Scandinavian countries have taken these measures, and their happiness ranks higher than ours. But France has taken these measures, too, and its happiness is actually lower than ours. It’s a complex thing, happiness.

I do know that the idea that happiness is a personal issue, and not to be attained through public means, is a deeply entrenched one. Anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with a twelve-step program knows that no one can be responsible for anyone else’s happiness.

On the other hand, I think it’s a terrible thing to say essentially: I don’t care. You’re miserable, and I don’t care. In fact, that seems like the most terrible thing in the world.

Part of the problem could be that there isn’t a consensus. We’re not all unhappy, at least not all at the same time. And there’s not good language to describe happiness or unhappiness anyway–there’s a reason that Judith Warner calls her dissatisfaction simply “This Mess.”

How are you doing?

Well, maybe your kid is at a good stage, funny and fun and not much trouble at all. Maybe you’ve miraculously gotten to the point where money-making doesn’t feel all-consuming. Maybe your social circle is one that doesn’t promote extracurricular activities and chichi schooling. Maybe it’s been a couple months since your beagle girl died, and spring has finally warmed up, and the days are getting longer, and your happiness is something you haven’t had cause to think about for a while.

And even if none of that is true, chances are good that you’ll still say: Fine.

Author’s Note: If you want family-friendly change and can’t get hyped up about happiness, I think there are other good reasons–moral, economic, health-related–to agitate for it.

Brain, Child (Summer, 2005)

About the Author: Jennifer Niesslein is a writer and editor who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. She’s the author of Practically Perfect in Every Way and the co-founder of Brain, Child magazine, where she worked for thirteen years. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, The Nation, NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and online at Virginia Quarterly Review and The Morning News, among other places. Her website is: http://jenniferniesslein.com/

Art by Gina Kelly

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By Robin Schoenthaler

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 10.24.21 AMI have many strong suits; dancing is not one of them. So the day I nail a complicated backstep on my very first try it’s hard to tell who is more shocked, my dance instructor or me.

My dance teacher, graceful on the floor and off, asks me if I’ve been, um, practicing at home.

Now of course I haven’t been practicing. I’m a single mom with two kids and a job, and it’s everything I can do to get to this one-hour dance class each week. But I blurt out, “Yes, I do a lot of backsteps at home, with my teenager,” and then feel embarrassed when she looks impressed.

Because in point of fact, my fourteen-year-old son and I haven’t danced together in ten years; the very thought of it makes Kenzie break out in hives. Still, everything I know about backing up and backing away and apparently backing around a dance floor I’ve learned while parenting a teen.

When my kids were babies, being a mother felt fully frontal—all that feeding and rocking and cooing. Then, gradually, my parenting became more and more about the side-by-side—walking alongside the kids holding hands, crouching beside them at playdates, scrunching up next to them in teeny tiny chairs at pre-K, sitting beside them at movie theaters and soccer games.

Then along came adolescence, and my side-by-side parenting began to wane. I noticed it first at the mall, trailing behind the kids like a geisha. And every day it happens more: I find myself hanging back or stepping backwards, turning to move behind them, letting them go forward, out in front. I’m becoming a parent who pivots, scrambling to get out of the way.

I’ve watched these kinds of parent/teen backsteps during the confirmations and bar and bat mitzvahs we’ve attended over the last few years, too. They all seem to include a moment when the child moves front and center and the parents pivot and do a backstep. Our neighborhood church, a Unitarian Universalist congregation outside of Boston, holds its own coming of age service every June for kids finishing middle school. As Kenzie wound down eighth grade and began to prepare for his ceremony, I wondered how the church would present this new phase of his life.

I also wondered how I would make it through the day. I’m not very good at these kinds of ceremonies. I’m a world-class weeper, which mortifies my eleven-year-old son, Cooper, halfway to a coronary (the more-experienced Kenzie has come to some sort of grudging Zen state of surrender about mom’s waterworks). Plus I tend to approach these kinds of ceremonies in one of two ways: either endlessly obsess about every aspect of the day to the point of madness, or go on auto-ignore until standing at the local convenience store asking about clip-on ties half an hour before the kid is due to line up.

A couple of months before the ceremony we schedule a family vacation. Just before we leave, all our preparations blow up—quite literally—in our faces. Volcanic ash disrupts travel all over the Eastern seaboard, not to mention a little conclave called The Whole of Western Europe, and my attempts to reschedule flights are flummoxed in the ensuing chaos.

Right as I’m ready to give up entirely and do a staycation week (which will no doubt consist of six days of yelling at the boys to quit playing video games and one day of cyber-surrender), Kenzie takes over. During the course of a single afternoon I watch as he gradually crafts a smart set of Amtrak timetables, sorted by direction, departure time, and price. We pack and depart on a sleeper car for Chicago, leaving old airline tickets in their envelopes on the floor.

When we walk into the train station, Kenz strides ahead, managing the luggage while Cooper and I bring up the rear. It sets the tone for much of the trip.

On the train, Kenzie takes a kitty-corner seat in front of Coop and me; he always does this these days. Does he want me watching his back, or does he want me out of sight? Did this happen with our German ancestors on their Kansas-bound immigrant trains—did they sit kitty-corner or on benches side by side? And did my siblings and I do the same with our own beleaguered mom: Did we cling to her skirts, or did we pretend she wasn’t there?

Kenzie takes to the streets of Chicago like a native, sidling right in with his newfound loping gait. A few months earlier, I’d started to notice a change in his stride, but when I teased him about it (“Quite the swagger, big guy”), he would smooth his strutting out. Not anymore: Wherever we go, his hips go first, rocking and rambling down the street.

In a clothing store on the Magnificent Mile, Kenz homes in on a black rocker shirt. Once he was a boy who wore all sweats all the time, but sometime during the last year he’s become a serious shopper, a clothes hound. At stores I sit outside dressing rooms while he works his way through armloads of shirts. Out of nowhere he has developed his own specific style, and he often knows it when he sees it. There in Chicago, he sees it.

Outrageously priced and über-trendy, the shirt stands in the window and calls his name. Kenz tries it on in the middle of the store and stands with one hip jutted. He meets my eyes in the mirror and after a moment’s pause launches into a soliloquy on all the reasons he has to have it, rattling on about the singularity of this shirt, the way it fits his hips and lifestyle, and how it really is a perfect example of his carpe diem way of life.

His passion (for a shirt!) is irresistible. I end up fronting him the money. I am not a money-fronter (a family motto admonishes that “this is a home, not a credit union”), but I front him the money.

At the cashier’s desk he slides in front of me to chat with the salesclerk about some heavy metal lyrics. Standing behind him I see, as if for the first time, how the soft baby circles of his boy body are evolving into teenage triangles—the base of his neck, the muscles in his calves, the torso tapering more every week.

He wears the shirt out of the store. He doesn’t take it off for three straight days. His arms disappear in the sleeves, the shirt tail bounces with his strut. Every time I see this skinny guy swimming in a big black shirt it takes me a long minute to realize who he is.

He’s still wearing the shirt when we land at the trendy Graham Elliot restaurant our last night in Chicago. It’s got a “bistronomic” menu—haute-cuisine casual bistro food, Kenz informs me breezily, having heard all about it on Top Chef. He orders a never-heard-of-it-before dish. Even before he starts to chew I see his eyes turn inward. He begins to groan with pleasure, and I think for a minute that he is going to swoon right under the table.

The waiter lights up when he sees Kenzie’s response. They chat back and forth about ingredients, spices, cooking techniques. When he realizes that Kenz is both a budding cook and a Top Chef fan, he escorts us into the kitchen (the kitchen!). The chefs gather round to chat with my son; they encircle him. I start to talk a bit about the meal, but then I realize this is all about Kenz and these young chefs; they are there to talk to him.

The head chef—who is wearing a beret in the middle of this high-intensity, high-end restaurant kitchen and is therefore dazzling to us all—appears out of nowhere and steps into the circle to talk to my son.

The light in the kitchen streams down on the tableau—the thirty-something, bereted head chef, the rocker-shirted, hundred-pound teen, the circled tribe of sous chefs. For maybe the first time ever, I consciously step backwards; I want to be in no one’s sightlines. The chef, astonishingly generous, invites Kenzie back for a day of cooking the next time we’re in town. “Help you learn what it’s like,” he offers. “Come on back, work alongside us,” he treats him like a man. He looks him straight in the eye and talks about the unwritten script that is his future.

Kenz floats out of the kitchen. By the time he hits the sidewalk he looks about three inches taller: shoulder blades nearly touching, hips trim and rocking, eyes clear and gazing far ahead. After a pause my boy murmurs, “I can’t believe how long he talked to me,” and the rest of the walk he is silent.

The next afternoon we take the sleeper car back to Boston. Kenz and Coop sleep curled up in the bunks above me; I listen to their steady dreamy breathing from below. Within an hour of our arrival home Kenzie signs up for cooking classes.

Throughout the spring, out of nowhere, he takes over the kitchen. I sit and watch him cook, flinging energy and salt. While he reads his recipes he tosses utensils in the air, flipping the serving forks over and over, then the spoons, sometimes his pie pans. He learns to whisk, and I watch his forearm muscles, every day more defined. He takes to striding outside to yank long stalks of herbs straight from the garden. He tosses half the plant, unwashed and uncut, into his dishes. We find twigs in everything we eat. At least once a week he says to me, “See how my thyme flies,” and I obligingly groan, and then smile and turn away.

Meanwhile, the upcoming coming of age ceremony looms. Our assignments for the ceremony are deceptively simple. Each teen is to write a five-minute speech, and each parent is to present a symbolic object that conveys their hopes and dreams for that child. I begin to speculate about what gift I will offer to Kenzie and what hopes and dreams I want to define.

In May our church holds a special service honoring high school seniors. In prior years I had watched “Senior Ceremonies” with scant attention, soothed by the usual magical thinking that my own kids would “never be that old.”

Now, only two weeks away from Kenzie’s eighth-grade ceremony, I walk right into an emotional pluckfest. The most enervating, chest-clutching, and groping-blindly-for-the-Kleenex moment takes place when the minister cups her hands around the cheeks of each high school senior and says to them: “Aren’t you just something? So now off you go, dear one. Off you go.”

I honestly don’t recall ever seeing anyone outside of a French film touch an eighteen-year-old’s cheek with that kind of tenderness. I begin sobbing, an EmoMom mess, impervious to Cooper’s hissing, “Please don’t sniff so loud!”

Watching those catch-your-breath-gorgeous seniors bask in the heat and light of their transitions, it dawns on me what I want to talk about at Kenzie’s coming of age ceremony: his moment in the heat and light of the restaurant kitchen in Chicago—the first time I watched him carry on a man-to-man conversation outside of our own family circle, the first time I saw him radiant with the potential of his wide-open future, the first time I consciously made myself step back out of his way.

I decide my “gift” should be the restaurant’s eponymous shirt. I can’t buy it online, but in searching for it I locate the head chef’s e-mail address, and I instantly write him a gushing e-mail fan letter. I tell this near-total stranger everything about my son, the restaurant, their food, our church, the ceremony, the kitchen, the light; I believe I also mention his beret, perhaps more than once.

Throughout the e-mail I try to tell him about what it means to see a young son grow taller in a high-end, crowded commercial kitchen, and what it feels like to deliberately move backwards and witness it all.

The moment I press “send,” I am embarrassed. This poor young chef, working night and day, trying to do some nice kitchen tour PR, and what is his reward? A middle-aged mom gushing about some kid he can barely remember. I figure e-mail silence will reign, not so much a guarded silence as a sniffing “weirdo e-mail” non-reply.

But his response pops up in my inbox almost immediately, sweet and touched and self-reflective. He promises to send the T-shirt posthaste. I write back and thank him (for stepping up, for writing back, for not putting my e-mail into the folder marked “fan letter, subtype: geezer”) and settle back to wait. Of course, geezer that I am, I don’t remember to give him our home address until forty-eight hours before the ceremony at which point it becomes a nail-biting FedEx race to the finish.

In the end, the T-shirt arrives safely, as does the appointed day. The kids line up outside the church, skinny, eye-rolling, all dressed up. My boy wears his rocker shirt and truly looks divine. Each boy-child and girl-woman walks up to the lectern and speaks with a clear voice while the congregation listens with sweetness and intent. After they finish, we parents walk behind them, newly stationed in the back.

Each parent steps forward to present his or her gift. One set of parents gives a toolbox, another a Dr. Who action figure. Two different sets of parents choose fedoras for their boys, both exactly the same type, both for different reasons. One mom gives her daughter a prism, a single dad shares a chin-up bar, a couple gives their rangy boy a pie labeled pi.

When my turn comes, I step up beside my Kenzie, in front of hundreds of people, in front of him. I look into the eyes of my rocker-shirted, soft-eyed, skinny-guy son and am rendered essentially mute. Finally my words spill out, contorted, jumbled, the story twists around. I have less than a minute to speak, but I want to tell it all, the train tracks, the dance steps, the rocker shirt, the restaurant, the kitchen, the head chef, the fork flipping, the twigs in our food. I keep repeating the word beret.

I look into my son’s eyes, his gorgeous eyes, glowing part tolerance, part embarrassment, part bone marrow intuition that this is all worth it, part smart-guy grinning at predictable mom (“of course she’s crying, DUH”). I start to sense our new order together. I feel the alignment begin to rotate, and I feel him shifting, too.

From here on out, it’s going to be mostly about that backstep. If he gets a fever, yes, I will step forward. In the car alone we will sit abreast, and with his brother we’ll sit in a circle.

But when he talks to friends I will stand back; and on school trips he will sit behind me, melding into kin group. And when there is a woman—like the girl who pressed her thigh into his during the ceremony’s line-up, don’t think I didn’t see that, you little trollop—when there is a woman, there will be no backness back enough. I will not even be a shadow in the room.

We look out on it together, and then I give him the restaurant’s T-shirt, nervous for a moment that he outgrew it just last week. But it’s fine, and he loves it. We have a quick air hug, and then my mama-babble is over and so is my mama-lead. It’s done.

All I have to do now is what I have to do for the rest of my life: back up and back away. So, I do, I do it, I turn and I pivot. I walk away from him and his rocker shirt, from him and his friends clutching their new gifts, from him and his gorgeous eyes and his smart-guy grin. I go stand in my new place just behind him, while he moves forward, carrying the T-shirt, becoming a silhouette in the light.

Author’s Note: Kenzie still fits in the Graham Elliot T-shirt, just barely, and it’s now got a lot of cooking stains on the front. The rocker shirt from Chicago looks like it will fit for at least another year or so. Cooper’s coming of age ceremony take place in less than two years. I’ve already bought some Kleenex.

This piece is dedicated to Kim Foglia, a fantastic teacher, parent, mentor and friend. Her tragically short life, as well as her premature death from pancreatic cancer, was full of lessons and gifts. On the same day that this essay was officially accepted for publication, I also received word that Kim had, just prior to her death, transferred her “lifetime subscription” to Brain, Child to me. She died two weeks later. She is deeply missed.

Robin Schoenthaler is a mom/physician/writer in the Boston area. She now has two boys in their teens so she is backstepping as fast as she can. Her website is at www.drrobin.org

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Brain, Child (Spring 2011)


Mommy Comes Back

Mommy Comes Back

By Sally Stratakis-Allen

SSAllentoddlersOn his first day of daycare, Harry toddled off happily to explore his caregiver Jean’s toys and meet Jean’s little friends. I stood in her kitchen, feeling torn. Should the absence of drama fill me with relief or despair? All around me, children with months of daycare under their belts clung weepily to their mothers. Harry never looked back.

Then, on a bitter New England morning, after eight months of drama-free goodbyes, separation anxiety suddenly and inexplicably invades. Outside the weather is soul chilling, the kind of cold you can’t quite distinguish—are you facing the onset of winter or its last gasp? On this kind of day, only the trees provide clues: either the last resolute scarlet leaves cling hopelessly to the branches while others float gently to the ground, or else tiny clusters of pale green buds perch on the tips of otherwise bare branches. Inside Jean’s house, I pick up my Michelin baby and hold him close, trying to stave off the approaching storm.

“But I like you, Mommy,” he insists, looking solemnly into my eyes.

“I like you too,” I assure him. “You’re going to play with friends and have a good time, and then I’m going to come back and we’ll have a good time together.”

Unconvinced, he clamps his body around mine, ignoring Gracie’s offer of Kipper’s Sticky Paws. More children arrive. More mothers depart. Harry and I remain, frozen in our embrace.

As I attempt to extricate myself gently, he begins to cry and hugs me tightly. His sobs arrest the other four children—Gracie, who has found a willing recipient for her book, huddling with Ella in one corner; Christopher, pushing a large bulldozer back and forth in the center of the room; and Tess, standing by the sofa clutching a nervous-looking plastic Gumby bunny. The children, previously absorbed in their usual play, stop what they are doing to gaze, pensive and sorrowful, at the drama unfolding between Harry and me. Four sets of eyes train on us, four delicate psyches, recalling their own unwelcome separations moments before ours.

Jean approaches us and holds her arms out to Harry, but he only clamps himself more firmly around me, burying his head in my neck.

At moments like this, Jean often invites the other children to comfort the child in distress. “Christopher feels sad right now,” she’ll observe. “Can someone give him a hug?” And without fail, like pack animals responding to the alpha member’s call, the children abandon their books and their bunnies and wander over to offer their support. Earlier in his daycare career, Harry would be the one offering words of encouragement.

“Mommy comes back,” the small sage, marshalling two years of life experience, would encourage, repeating the mantra Jean and I had taught him. Then he would wrap his arms around the crying child’s shoulders, patting gently. Later, when I would pick him up, he would inform me of the day’s events.

“Christopher cried today,” he would apprise me. “He missed his mommy.”

On this day it is Harry, missing me before I am gone. I walk him over to his bag in which we packed, just this morning, a collage we made together from pictures of ceiling fans. It has the look of a ransom note. Jean comes too and proffers a stack of magazines, each collected for its promise of a Hunter Douglas advertisement buried between how-to guides on reducing clutter and features on restored Connecticut farmhouses.

“Would you like to see if there are any fans in these magazines? We could sit at the table and cut them out,” Jean suggests with the studied air of nonchalance practiced by power brokers and paparazzi. “Would you like that?”

Harry pauses, his sob fading like an echo. He frowns, brow furrowed, eyes fixed intently on the magazines in Jean’s arms. Our watershed moment has arrived. Harry will have to decide whether or not to accept this compromise: Mommy will leave, but there will be magazines. Silent contemplation ensues. Tick tock.

“Yes,” he finally decides, a small smile spreading slowly across his face.

My blood resumes circulating. Jean produces a pair of blunt, child-safe scissors. Harry anxiously clutches Architectural Digest in his two plump fists.

Having said my goodbyes, I start to back away as unobtrusively as possible. Only then do I notice the little band of toddlers forming a circle around him. Jean had followed us, and they had followed Jean. Perhaps they sought an answer to the hidden messages contained in Harry’s collages: would today reveal their meaning? Perhaps they smelled insurgency: if Harry prevailed, what might that mean for them? Or maybe they knew the outcome was already written in stone, and they came simply to show they understood. You can have hugs, and you can have Gumby bunnies. You can have Kipper’s Sticky Paws, and you can have bulldozers. You can even have pages of ceiling fans. But it still sucks when mommy leaves.

The moment of separation aches. Space filled by mommy becomes empty space then space filled with magazines and glue and snacks and the playground and an unconscious hour on the mat until daddy comes back, when the real fun gets going doing all the things mommy always says no to. But still mommy does not come back.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the ache, the 10:05 to Grand Central carries me dozens of miles away, where I will fumble with my MetroCard just long enough to miss the downtown express, drink a giant latté, teach in a cave-like library classroom, attend meetings in an intimate conference room overlooking Fourth and Broadway, walk back to the subway, admiring the city lights, the velvet blue evening sky. I will do so many things.

Until that happy moment when our lives converge again. In Daddy’s arms on the train platform, Harry watches two white circles of light in the distance, their circumferences gradually expanding. Inside that train, I have watched the landscape change as first buildings then trees drift past, anticipating the moment my foot crosses the threshold between train and platform, between other life and this life. The train glides to a halt, the doors part with a slide, and I take that step. Harry launches himself against my chest. We smile and look into each other’s eyes. And I don’t need to say it, really, because already in that embrace, the wisdom of Jean’s words pierces the dusk.

Mommy comes back.

Brain, Child (Summer 2006)

Art by Caty Bartholomew

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