July 21, 2014 § 5 Comments
Last summer we taught our kids how to cook. This summer, I’m teaching them how to clean.
We’ve been away from home for four weeks. We camped, we visited family in Georgia and Florida, we vacationed on a Gulf beach, and the kids and I traveled north to Charlottesville to visit my childhood girlfriends and their kids. In the middle of all of this, I interviewed for a dream job, was asked to perform a sample project, and will be continuing the interview process over the next few weeks.
And what have I been thinking about the whole time? Our entire vacation I wondered: How am I going to clean the house if I’m working full-time?
When I first started thinking about re-entering the workforce, I started tracking my hours in my role as stay-at-home mom. I discovered I spend about 15-18 hours a week on writing and my blogs and about 30 hours a week on my job as CEO of the household. If I add 40 hours a week for a job, plus time for sleeping, eating, showering, and relaxing with the family, my brain short circuits and I start doing robot arms: Does not compute! Does not compute!
On vacation, I spent a lot of time strategizing how to make it work. My mental health requires a clean home. In college I could not study until my room was spotless, and I know that in order to focus on my work I will need a tidy, clean workspace. My first thought was to hire a housekeeper, but then my husband said, “Why don’t we pay the kids?”
As (I’ve heard) Sheryl Sandberg suggests in her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, it takes teamwork for women to succeed in the work force. Just as traditionally it took a spouse at home taking care of the household for men to succeed in their careers, it takes a supportive spouse – and family – for women to succeed as well. None of us can do it alone. So after my husband volunteered the kids (and himself) to help take on the jobs that were once mine, I formulated a plan:
I first made a list of all the chores:
- meal planning, grocery shopping
- budget, paying bills, reconciling bank account
- clean kitchen (every other week)
- laundry Monday & Thursday
- empty bathroom and kitchen garbage cans
- take trash to curb on Thursdays
- take recycling to bin periodically
- take recycling to curb on Thursdays
- sweep and mop
- clean mirrors and windows
- clean bathrooms
- change and launder linens
- sweep & weed back deck
I assigned permanent jobs to each of us according to our physical locations (I hope to be working from home so laundry is mine), mental or physical ability (the kids can’t manage the budget, and our vacuum is too heavy for them), and time constraints (garbage duties are quick for the kids when school and sports are in session) and then split the remaining chores among the four of us on a rotating schedule. For example, my chores this week are to change sheets and towels and to sweep the back deck. Next week my chore will be to sweep and mop.
When we talked to the kids about how we’d need help with housework if I re-enter the workforce, and especially when we told them that when I start earning again, they will start earning, too – they will get a bump in allowance – they were all about me getting a job. Surprisingly, they were all about the extra chores, too. As our 10 year-old son and I bobbed in the Gulf of Mexico, talking about financial planning and matching funds if they chose to put money in long-term savings, he asked “Hey Mom? Do you think sometimes we could do extra chores to earn screen time instead of money? If I buy a new game it’s always sad that I don’t have much time to play it.”
Great idea, little dude. Productivity deserves rewards. Besides, that’s one more opportunity to free up time for their Dad and me, and one more chance to teach the kids how to manage a household.
On our drive home from Florida, I scribbled notes in my composition book: how to scrub a toilet, how to sweep, how to mop a floor, how to sort and wash laundry. When we returned home, while sandy shorts and tee-shirts tumbled in the dryer, I wrote a housekeeping manual. I punched holes in the tutorials and put the pages in a leftover school folder. And on the one full day at home between Florida and Charlottesville, I told the kids, “Grab those cleaning caddies from the laundry room and bring them up to our bathroom. With cleaning, we start at the top and move down.”
Our son said, “I’ve got bathrooms the first week, so can you show me how to do that?”
He read the instructions out loud then started with one bathroom while our daughter started with another. They scrubbed and sprayed and wiped and rinsed while I stood by to answer questions and demonstrate technique. They fought over who got to try laundry first, and took turns with the glass cleaner so they’d both get an opportunity to squirt mirrors and windows. They struggled with carrying the mop bucket up and down the stairs and with keeping the mop over the bucket while they wrung it out, but they did it all, and our house was clean when they finished. They studied the chart, smiling over all the chores they now knew how to do, checking the *asterisked parent chores to see what extra jobs they could do to earn screen time.
The next day, before we left for Charlottesville, when the sun was shining and the kids were bored, our daughter came up to me and asked, “Hey Mom? Can I wash your car?”
And I said, Yes ma’am, you sure can. I’ll be over here at the beer table. Reveling.
The cleaning caddy is one of my happiness containers, especially now that our kids are carrying it.
May 26, 2014 § 11 Comments
A friend and I were talking about college for our kids the other day – my friend and her teenage son have been driving around the state visiting schools – and she said to me, “It’s really competitive you know. What makes a student stand out these days isn’t GPA or test scores, it’s their deep interest in something. It’s too late for us, but your kids are still young, maybe you can help encourage them in ways we never did.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“We didn’t help our kids find their passions,” she said, “the things they would choose to do on a Saturday morning when they had free time on their hands.” She gestured like she had a gamepad in her hands, pushed imaginary buttons with her thumbs. “Besides video games I mean.” She shrugged. “Our boy played soccer for years, not because he was passionate about the game but because he liked playing on a team with his friends. We didn’t introduce him to anything else and now we don’t know what his passion is.”
This conversation jump-started my husband and me to start thinking about how to provide our kids with opportunities to try new things, to see what takes and what doesn’t, without overscheduling their lives. He has been itching to introduce our son, who loves hiking and camping, to backpacking. Our daughter, on the other hand, is bored by hiking but wants to scale every rock we pass on a forest trail; my husband wants to take her rock-climbing. For now, our son reads when his screen time is finished; our daughter makes Easy Bake recipes from scratch. She spent three hours in the kitchen one Saturday making a four-layer rainbow cake with four different colors of frosting. Reading and baking: I’m on board with both of those. And we’d like to give them other options as well.
After contemplating our kids’ passions, I got to thinking, what do I do with my free time? How do I fill it up? What do I do because I love to do it, because I think it’s fun? And the answer was obvious. I write.
More specifically, though, what I do with my free time, what I do for fun, is I blog.
I love writing. I’ve written for pleasure for more than 30 years. But in this age – in the age of the internet, of the breaking the rules of form, of the democratization of publishing – what I love about writing is blogging. I love creating my own little space on the web, where I can set up my studio however I like, where I can change paint colors, decorate the background, create a mood, and publish my own little periodical. I love that. I think about blog posts when I drive, I jot notes when I jump out of the shower, I wake early so I can write because I am energized by the opportunities that blogging provides: to write, to edit, to publish, and to interact with readers, all with an immediacy and an intimacy that the traditional publishing route does not provide. I spend my free time blogging because blogging is fun.
Which is why, when I got the email from WordCamp Asheville that a wait-list ticket had opened up, I scraped my savings account clean to buy my pass and a hotel room. A Saturday and a Sunday, dedicated entirely to learning more about WordPress and the blogging world. I’ve already figured out when sessions I’m going to attend, from engaging through personal narrative with Cindy Reed, to how to troubleshoot with Russell Fair, to beginners CSS with Lydia Roberts, to building an active online community with Michael Calvert.
I am so excited! What I’m realizing from this giddiness is how joyous it is to find that thing that makes you happy, to find that thing that you’re passionate about, to find that thing that makes you wish for more free time in your life so you can do more of that thing.
I want this feeling for our children.
Soon, I hope to re-enter the workforce. I hope to re-enter the workforce so we can give our kids chances to try, to explore, to give them opportunities to find the things that make them say, “I can’t wait for Saturday so I can ___!” I want this for them not because it will help them get into college, but because I want them to know the joy of doing, and being excited to do, a thing they love. I want to bring in a little extra income so we can try out that backpacking equipment, we can pay for rock-climbing lessons, we can give our kids chances to find the things that might one day make them giddy to clean out their savings account to spend two back-to-back 7-hour days in classrooms power-learning about.
I worry about what working outside the home might mean for my writing and blogging lives. The work I do now as a stay-at-home-mom and manager of the household is flexible. I can write around it. Unless I get the job I’m hoping most for, which would allow me to work remotely, I fear I might lose touch with my blogs. It’s a really big fear, in fact. Fortunately, WordCamp has that covered. I’ve got Work, Life, Blog Balance, taught by Alicia Murray at BalancingMotherhood.com, circled in red on my schedule. I’ll find a way to protect that Saturday free time for the thing I love, and as importantly, I’ll be working to help our kids figure out what to do with theirs.
There are WordCamps going on all over the world. If this sounds like something you’d like to do, check out WordCamp Central for cities and dates of upcoming camps.
May 19, 2014 § 10 Comments
I’ve been reading through my diaries, and have found plenty of scandal that made me laugh so hard I cried*:
We all hate Crystal now. Guess what! We’re having a prom! (April 15, 1986; 11 years old)
We don’t hate Crystal. I’m glad because she’s a lot nicer than Hilga [who determined who we hated and who we didn’t]. We didn’t win quizbowl. (May 10, 1986; 11 years old)
Today was my first day of middle school. We have 4, hundred pound books and we have to carry them home and to school and all that junk. (August 25, 1986; 11 years old)
I love Teddy so much! He’s so cute. He’s got blond hair, he’s tan, he’s got pretty straight teeth, he eats a lot. (October 12, 1986; 12 years old)
I was always into straight teeth.
But what is strange to me is that these things that I’m reading from my 11-year-old self are not the things I remember from being 11 years old. The people I mention are contemporaries of plenty of people I do remember, but until I read my diary, Crystal and Teddy had evaporated completely from my psyche.
It makes me wonder about the whole trustworthy narrator thing. Several times I have read my own words and thought, that’s not how I remember it. In my little blue diary I wrote that I was excited when I started my period, but I don’t remember being excited. I remember being mortified because I couldn’t get to the bathroom and I was afraid I’d have a stain on my jeans and omg everyone is going to know I’m on my period. It seems strange that the memory that I’ve carried with me my whole life is so unlike what I recorded on the page.
Terry Tempest Williams wrote a beautiful book, When Women Were Birds, in which she inherits her mother’s journals, a tradition within her Mormon clan. Her mother told her, “I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.” And when Terry looked at them, after her mother was gone, she found that they were all empty. When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations On Voice is Williams’s grappling with those blank pages – why are all the books empty? Where is her mother’s voice? Why would her mother buy all these journals, not write in them, keep them, and then pass their silent pages down to her?
There are many entries like my first-period entry, entries that jar me in their discordance with my memory. The memories that stick with me are the ones I took for granted at the time, that weren’t remarkable to an 11-year-old girl, that didn’t merit recording in a diary. Like how pretty the marsh looks in summer, when a storm is coming, and the grass looks neon green against a blackening sky. Like the mud-romping shoes I made with my brother, and the heavy stillness of the marsh at low tide, when the sun beat down on us, and I could barely breathe through the thick humid air. Like laying on my clean, cool white comforter and reading books after I’d showered, when I was rewarded with coming inside into the air conditioning after Mom had turned us out of the house for a few hours.
None of those things – the marshes, the mud-romping shoes, the books I read – made it to the pages of my diaries. I know because as an adult I wanted to write about them. These scenes are vivid in my memory; if they are the things that stick with me from childhood now, they must have been important to me then. Surely I can mine my diaries for details.
Perhaps Willams’s mother recognized this, this limiting of narrative that a journal necessitates. Perhaps she knew that what she recorded on the page – the page that would eventually be passed down to her daughter – would be but a small part of her whole experience, and that words on a page would inevitably narrow her existence to anyone who was not her, who did not have her memories that filled the negative space between the lines, the everyday things that she took for granted, the things that didn’t merit recording in a diary.
When I began scanning my teenage diaries, I could only read a few minutes before having to go outside and soak up some sunlight. They take me into that dark place of adolescence, of not being sure who I was, of being a follower, of wanting desperately to be liked, of trying not to stand out. It doesn’t feel good to go back to that place. When I read the melodrama of my 16-year-old self I think, my God, I hope our kids never read this, they’ll think I was a miserable soul.
In my memory of teenage life there is glee that balances the angst recorded in my diaries. I remember riding with the top down on my VW Super Beetle and singing at the top of my lungs. I remember slumber parties with pizza and cake and Pretty in Pink. I remember laughter with my best friends, and coffee at Daybreak Café, and reading our musings about the universe to each other at Waffle House, smoking cigarettes and eating grits.
In my diaries there is only venting. In my teens I wrote when I was upset, when I needed to process. Anyone who found these diaries would only get the darkness, and not the light, of my teenage life. A writing buddy inherited her mother’s diaries and what she finds there distresses her. I told her about my teen diaries, and how filled with angst they are because I only wrote when I needed to vent, when I needed a place to sort my thoughts and vomit emotion. This was eye-opening to her, that perhaps that was her mother’s method as well. That perhaps the pages did not tell her mother’s whole story.
Maybe Terry Tempest Williams’s mother knew this as well, that journaling to sort, to process, to vent, to vomit could leave a powerful and potentially inaccurate legacy.
Despite what I’ve learned about the (un)reliability of my childhood diaries, I don’t care about incongruity when it comes to my journals as a new mother. What I remember about my colicky newborn son’s first weeks is desperation. When I remember myself during that time I picture my eyes as a dying horse’s – wide open and rolling in panic. What I remember is do-gooder’s poo-pooing my anxiety, saying “Oh, colic usually goes away after three months,” and my fright that I wouldn’t make it that long. What I remember is standing in the street waiting for my husband to come home so that I could hand our screaming son to him. So that I could collapse into tears myself.
What I wrote about in my journals were our son’s laughter, his coos, how fulfilled I felt holding him, gazing at him, feeding him. How he melted my heart.
He turns his head and looks straight into my eyes. And then he smiles. No matter how tired I am, when he does that it’s all gone, and I’m head over heels in love. (December 28, 2003; Mom 29, Baby 4 weeks)
Those journals and the joy they contain show me that I wasn’t the monster I remember myself being. The words that chronicle our son’s first year do not reflect the angst I remember but instead record the glee.
I like the Mormon tradition of Terry Tempest Williams’s family, of women’s voices being passed down through the generations through their diaries. I am sad for Williams that her mothers journals are empty, and she does not know why. Perhaps her mother was wiser than I and knew that whatever she wrote would tell a slanted tale, and knowing her words would be passed down, she could not be free with them. By leaving the pages blank, she gave Williams a gift of exploration, a wide open story instead of a narrow narrative.
I was not that wise or creative. Instead, after toting my childhood diaries around for 28 years, never considering that my children might one day read them, I find myself wondering now – is this the narrative of my life I want my children to know? Is it true?
My husband has always told me I’m a black and white person, that I see the world as This or That, rarely as a blending of both, as I’m currently doing, pitting diary against memory, as if one were truer than the other.
In the end, there wasn’t one thing about him that was truer than the rest. It was all true. – Paula McLain, The Paris Wife
Memory and diary are not mutually exclusive. They both contain truth. As a woman with a fickle memory, I would have once said that the diary was the truer – it is a written record of the events of a life as they were happening, when they were fresh, when time and consequences hadn’t yet shaped them into something more or less than they were at the time. Now, though, looking back on the bits I chose to record and holding them up against the memories that never made it onto journal pages – the blank bits behind the words – I realize that my memories are equally real, equally valid as records of my life. Diary, memory – it is all true.
I don’t know what I’ll do about my childhood diaries. I’ll keep them through our kids’ teen years to remind me what it was like to be that age, but after that I don’t know that I’ll pass them along. Those aren’t the story I want to tell.
My motherhood journals though. Those I’m hanging onto. Unlike my childhood diaries which disappoint me that they don’t contain the memories I cherish, my motherhood journals make me so grateful I want to cry. My motherhood journals do not tell the whole story, but they tell the story I had forgotten was there. My motherhood journals tell the story I want to remember, and am thankful the pages record: the joy, the wonder, the beginnings of brand new lives. They tell the story I want to share with my children – their story, our story – and we can fill in the blanks together with our memories.
* Names have been changed to protect the innocent (and the guilty).
May 2, 2014 § 7 Comments
First of all, let me just say that teachers are saints. If you have a child, or even if you don’t, I’d like you to please take a moment to silently applaud the teachers who are taking care of our nation’s children: teaching them history, encouraging manners, spending entire days with rooms full of children who aren’t their own, smiling, clapping, telling our kids they are awesome, dispensing hugs and band aids, and cleaning up barf on charter busses to Jamestown. Every time I am around our children’s teachers, I am in awe of what they do, and I am deeply grateful for them.
This past Monday and Tuesday I chaperoned our son’s fourth grade spring field trip to Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg, and Yorktown, Virginia. Our son has been excited about this trip since the first week of school when they found out they’d be going. Fourth grade Virginia curriculum includes Virginia history, and in our school and many others, that means a field trip to the places where the United States as we know it began. Our son raised money selling Virginia Diner peanuts, and after many long months of preparing and waiting (and a five-hour bus ride in the rain) we donned ponchos and foul weather gear and stepped out into the drizzle.
The thing I love most about my job as Mom is doing things like this. Even though I bitch and complain about having to be around all these kids, and how loud it’s going to be, how it’s going to be like herding cats, how we have to be vigilant about keeping the kids away from the river, and constantly counting heads, and looking for the ever-shifting red hood, blue poncho (distinguishable from the other blue ponchos only by the pink soles of the shoes that peek out from the bottom), clear poncho with a blue hoodie underneath, and green raincoat – even though I complain about all of this, the thing is, the kids are actually awesome, and I secretly love every second of it.
I love volunteering in the classroom, I love chaperoning, I love watching our children in their non-home habitats because I learn so much about them when I’m present but not in charge, when I’m standing quietly on the sidelines. In sports I get to see how motivated our kids are, how they interact as a team player, whether they respect and respond to their coaches, how they react to winning or losing. In the classroom I get to observe while our children’s attention is focused on something else; I get to observe the other kids in their class – who are the attentive kids, the class clowns, the sweet ones, the troublemakers?; I get to experience the teacher’s style; I get to see when my son laughs, which lessons engage him, which kids he gravitates towards. I get to see what his days are like so that when I ask him at the end of a school day, “How was your day?” and he says, “Fine,” I am able to accept his introversion with grace because I will have an idea of his experience, will be able to picture his classroom, will know something of his day beyond the one-word answer he gives me.
On field trips I get to experience what they experience, I get to learn what they learn, and most fun of all, I get to witness their unfettered joy at being out in the real world, learning real stuff – stuff that they learned from books and in the classroom but that is so much more exciting when you experience it in real life. In Jamestown I got to see our son’s interest in the Powhatan canoe, the way he scanned it from stern to bow with his eyes, held his hand over the still-warm coals reenactors used to burn a hollow in the tree trunk. In Colonial Williamsburg I got to gently prod him because he was lagging behind, too busy taking pictures in his awe. I got to hear him giggle at the slapstick 18th-Century Grand Medley of Entertainment – the type of theater production Thomas Jefferson might have attended – at the Kimball Theatre. I got to watch him touch the plaque that marked General George Washington’s church pew, I experienced the pride of hearing him explain the Virginia House of Burgesses – the first assembly of elected representatives in our country – to our tour guide, and to seeing him sit on a jury in the Capitol building’s courtroom.
The following day, with aching muscles from the cabin’s hard mattress, with no real coffee in my system, with puffy eyes and ratted hair, I got to experience with our son the feel of the Yorktown encampment on a cold, wet, muddy, raw day. I could not imagine being a soldier there, wet and dripping and sleeping on the mucky ground, and I think the day gave the kids a tiny feel of what it might have been like for our Revolutionary War ancestors. Despite the cold and wet, the kids loved the musket demonstration, where the reenactor explained the difference between the match-lit musket of Jamestown and the flintlock musket of Yorktown, and where she showed them how to load and fire the weapon. They gagged and squealed “GROSS!” when our guide demonstrated the surgeon’s tools on volunteer musket-maimed kids, and they grinned as they squeezed into tiny solider tents.
The kids were pretty worn out by the time we stopped at the battlefield, the real Yorktown battlefield, and stood where George Washington stood, on the same ground that General Washington paced and strategized and gave orders from, but their exhaustion did not stop them from shouting out answers when their teacher stood atop a bench with a semi-circle of cannons around her and asked, “What happened here?!”
“The Siege at Yorktown!”
“Where is Surrender Hill?”
“Redoubts 9 and 10!”
“Well let’s go look at them!”
And she jumped down from the bench and all the kids ran for the hills. We oohed and aahed and paused to take in the panorama, and then the kids were running again, towards the busses and their potato chips, their DSes and their pillows, as we, the parents, dragged our tired feet from the battlefield. We basked in memories from the trip on the long, dry drive home, where our work was done and where our little ones munched candy and worked quietly on their trip journals, watched videos and giggled, and slept the beautiful sleep of children.
April 9, 2014 Comments Off
She irons and she packs and her heart buzzes like a hummingbird’s wings. She watches the clock and checks the mountain’s weather and washes dishes and taps her pen and eats and checks the clock and when it says 2 she stands at the window and watches for the car.
This is my entry for the fifty-word-story writing challenge.