Stretched, stressed, and seeking solace

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You ever have one of those moments when someone holds a mirror in front of your face and you see, really see for the first time a reflection of your life.

Well, I had one of those moments last night.

I finally, after years of gentle nudging (read: subtle nagging) from several girlfriends  joined an organization for black mothers called Mocha Moms. Oh, I’d had my reasons for dragging my feet on joining up…not the least of which is an already overcrowded schedule and my worry that I wouldn’t be able to contribute to the group.

Which brings me to last night.

I finally joined and, after working a 50+ hour week, arrived at the suburban home of a fellow mom with my little brood in tow. The gathering was chocolate utopia! I rejoiced at the site of so many black moms and the thought that my little ones would finally have more little brown playmates. Considering my preschooler asked to turn our African American nanny pink this week (that’s a whole other upcoming post), I would say the gathering was not a moment too soon.

The guest speaker was not only a wise mom who’d raised a brood of three, but a life coach and organizer. She opened the floor for questions, and I leapt right on in with a breathless plea for help in trying to carve out personal time.

“Give me a sense of your schedule,” she asked, adding that my busiest days would be the best example.

Up by 5am. Get ready for work, play with and read to the kids until I leave the house at 7:15am. Blog and or work on other personal writing during my commute. At work by 8am. Work my first job as an editor. Leave between 4:30-5pm (I stay a little longer every day to justify taking time off to volunteer once a month in my daughter’s school). Grade papers on the way to my second job as an adjunct writing instructor. Teach until 7pm. Home by 8pm. Bedtime and stories for the kiddos. Clean the house, cook meals for next day, and prepare next day’s clothes, backpacks, lunches, diaper bags, etc…until 10pm. Crash into an exhausted heap shortly after. Awake at 1am to spend time with hubby (who works nights and gets home around 12:30am). Up again by 5am. Do it all over again.

The fellow moms were aghast. They looked at me in shock.

Was it really that bad, I wondered.

“Oh Lima,” whispered a friend.

Uh oh, I thought.

The organizer advised that, given that there are only 24 hours in a day, something had to go or I would not recognize myself in the midst of all of this chaos in a few years.

Another mom helpfully offered that I looked really good though (which I appreciated :) )

They’re both right. ;)

But looking good and making it work are not the same thing as everything being “all good.”.

And this, right here, ain’t okay.

It’s not as if I was unaware that this schedule was grueling.

I’ve been wrestling with how to fit in exercise (it’s going to take more than a few sun salutations and the quick walk from the train to my office to get rid of my post-preggo pounds).

I’ve agonized over how to finally find time to make more progress on my creative writing projects.

I routinely turn down invitations to happy hours from colleagues and sources (not great for career advancement) because I’m trying to balance long work hours with spending quality time with my kids.

I’ve turned down some prestigious job offers because the positions required me to be on-call during hours I’ve reserved as family time or had an unpredictable schedule.

And, when my three year old sobbed, as she did this week, that she misses me at night and wishes I didn’t have to go away for so long, I’ve also turned down additional teaching and writing assignments.

Even with these boundaries in place, I feel as if I’m circling in on balance but haven’t quite hit the right note.

Since last night’s forced epiphany, I realized that advice I’ve received from everyone at the gathering (and frankly some other mom mentors) to let some of the housework go is dead on. This is hard for me because our household functions best when our home is tidy. However, as part of her pay raise, I did ask the nanny to pick up some light housekeeping duties, so this should help.

And, I can try again to reserve the 5-6am block for my creative work…though when I tried that before the kids sensed I was up and awoke with big smiles and playful little spirits wanting me to join in the fun.

And I guess attending a once monthly happy hour or work-related networking event couldn’t hurt. I could check my coat and mommy guilt about time away for a few hours.

And I could go back to eating lunch at my desk and using that 30-min block to exercise at the office gym. This used to work quite well for me at a former job.

And, finally, but certainly not least, my husband and I have started a nice tradition of sneaking off to our newly repaired hot tub on weekend nights when the kids are in bed. We could and should certainly add a once monthly date night to those rendezvous.

Sounds simple enough, right (don’t all agree with me at once).

Wish me luck as I endeavor to strike better balance.

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The baby undie bandit…

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Our infant son likes panties. A lot.

He revels in pulling mine or his sister’s from the clean laundry and wiping the floor, the furniture, and, yes, sometimes his belly with them.

He puts them on his head.

He even tries to put them on.

We thought at first that we could substitute similarly sized items to help wean him of his fixation.

So we gave him socks.

No dice.

Washcloths.

Uh uh.

Cloth diapers.

Rejected.

Panties. That’s what the baby likes. That’s what the baby wants.

It’s probably because undies are stretchy. Still, we’re on the hunt for an acceptable substitution.

‘Cause, it’s cute now, but it would be damned weird in a couple of years.

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Nanny poachers

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I see you, chick.
With your Petunia Pickle Bottom bag, your extra latte for our nanny, and your eyes brimming with, what you hope, is genuine friendship.
You stalk the nanny, following her with greedy gaze as she pushes my kids on swings and jumps into piles of leaves with them.
Then, like some suburban svengali, you swoop in…sly and superficially sweet. You try to lure her away with promises of better pay, or hours, or a yearly cruise, or weekly lotto tickets…anything you think will work.
And maybe it will, it is a free market.
The women (and sometimes men) who we entrust with our precious little ones often leave behind their own young ones in order to do their jobs. These caregivers are well within their rights to try and seek the best match in terms of pay, benefits, work hours, and family fit.
But, oh, how I wish a special pox on those who try shady, underhanded methods in an attempt to poach nannies.
And, in the D.C. market where monthly child care costs are often equal to a mortgage payment, the competition for a good nanny can be vicious.
I’ve seen moms slide over to nannies on playgrounds and pass on contact info. I’ve seen moms spot a great nanny at circle time and scoot over next to her…just to chat, mind you.
And, to be fair, I’ve also had nannies approach me at these places with boasts of their homemade smoothies guaranteed to cure infant constipation or their skills at getting babies to walk.
And, if I’m truthful, I’d kept our current nanny’s name mentally filed away over the years as time and again raves about her popped up on listservs.
When she had an opening I raced to interview her and tried my damnedest to make a good impression.
She, of course, did likewise.
Her try-out was the day I had to rush to the doc with a shoulder sprain. I paid her an inflated rate as a mother’s helper to pitch in the rest of the week while I recovered.
She, in turn, did the dishes without being asked.
And she declared it her mission to help our one-year-old learn to walk.
So far, this woman is a dream.
She’s highly experienced, nurturing, and fun-loving. She’s also legal, speaks three languages, and is licensed to drive–which makes her a highly sought after caregiver.
So, when I posted on local listservs at her request her availability for a morning position (she works for us in the afternoons), I expected quick responses.
But the poaching attempts were surprising in their brazenness.
One woman didn’t even try to finesse her poaching. She just launched right into her pitch to have the nanny leave us and come work for her in the afternoons.
The nanny politely turned her down.
But the poaching continues.
And, in an effort to keep our nanny, who has only been with us a month, we decided to give her a raise.
Mind you, she never asked for this.
But, she also does other household tasks without being asked. We felt the raise, which we’d planned on offering at the three month mark, was well deserved.
But now we’re maxed out and can’t afford to pay a higher salary until our own salaries increase early next year.
Sigh.
Still, I am quite aware that I am bitching and moaning about a completely First World Problem. There are lots of people here and abroad who must leave their little ones unattended and go off to work low paid jobs.
The issue underscores the dearth of and need for quality and affordable child care for everyone.
In the meantime, we will be brown bagging it and delaying plans to buy me a much-needed new laptop.
‘Cause both the kiddos and the nanny are well worth the sacrifice.

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Party rules

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So my following note to a very helpful grandma of one of my daughter’s friends sums up the insane whirlwind of this season’s birthday parties:

“I just wanted to thank you for all of your help with the kids today. Seriously. You were a godsend. This week I started a new job requiring very long hours, am still nursing a sprained shoulder, and hosted the baby’s 1st party this morning.
By this afternoon’s party, I was exhausted.
Then you helped out with the baby and even retrieved my daughter for me as we headed home. (Did I mention my belt broke at that party and I was nervous my loose pants would fall down as I chased her?)
Anyway, just wanted to thank you a thousand times over for helping out.
It was greatly appreciated.”

In this part of the country birthday parties are a B.F.D.

And kiddie fetes have unwritten rules of engagement:

For kids five and under, the whole class must be invited.

It’s tacky to open gifts at the party.

Provide goodie bags or takeaways for the kiddie guests.

At “no present” parties, guests will always bring presents anyway…just in case you didn’t mean it, or they didn’t read the Evite, or Candyland was on sale, or whatever.

Send a thank you note of some sort (there are raging debates on local listservs about whether an emailed or paper note is most proper. My rule: if you sent an electronic invitation, send the same as a thank you. Likewise, paper invites warrant a paper thank you).

Two weeks ago, we attended three birthday parties back-to-back–all in one day. One party was a double-feature party with specially-ordered princess costumes for the birthday girls, themed activity tents on the lawn (professional face painting, dress up, crafts, sand play, and, of course, cake and food.) The goodie bags included large teddy bears, each in a unique outfit.

Last week, we got turned around on the way to a party for a toddler and wandered by accident into another party at a park replete with two bounce houses, a petting zoo, pony rides, a balloon animal artist, and an art auction. The child was turning one.

Yep, welcome to D.C. Home of neurotic overachievers who put in long hours at work and guiltily try to make up the missed time with tons of extracurricular activities and big blowout birthday parties. And, now that Pinterest is a factor, it’s like giving type-A crack to a bunch of addicts.

And for the record, yes, that includes me.

Just take a look at the  “The good mother hen” section on my Pinterest page (self-plug alert ;) ) and you’ll see a bevy of party ideas.

The baby’s teddy bear picnic themed 1st birthday party was Pinterest-inspired. I roped my visiting sis and goodnatured husband into helping me decorate teddy bear goodie bags and festooning the house and yard with red and white picnic-themed decorations. The menu included grapes and strawberries decorated to look like caterpillars and lady bugs, sandwiches decorated as butterflies, and homemade cupcakes decorated to look like teddy bears. The kids hunted for fake food in the yard to feed the teddy bears. We painted the kids’ faces, played with bubbles, and invited teddy bears to the fest. Each kid went home with mini teddy bears and gummy bears in their goodie bags.

The baby, who we lovingly call “Papa Bear” and who turned one yesterday, of course was oblivious to all of this.

He was amused when we sang happy birthday, but wailed in protest when I tried to offer him one of those carefully decorated cupcakes.

The huge teddy bear we bought him as a gift went largely ignored.

He was happiest just crawling around with one of his baby buddies and plinking on an old toy piano.

And that’s as it should be.

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With cupped palms receive blessings

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My work world went and got itself in a big ole hurry while I was sick and on bedrest and then maternity leave.
Sure, I returned to the same political squabbles that seem to define Congressional dealings these days.
There were scandals aplenty.
But the faces of those covering those stories seemed younger, the lingo of social media reporting trendier and not quite aligned with what I got in this to do.
Absent from the hip speak about “socializing content” was the concept of writing pieces aimed at comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.
And that’s what I got in this to do: tell the stories of people impacted by policy and politics.
I felt, at not yet 40, old and washed up and, as the mother of two young kids, at times quite tired.
Oh, I still excelled and reported stories that fared well online in terms of audience and impact.
But, increasingly, my heart wasn’t in it the way it used to be. And I desperately missed teaching writing and the freedom to write about topics with impact.
Still, despite this niggling feeling of displacement, I clung on.
Maybe things will change, I reasoned. Maybe I’ll change, I thought.
Both happened.
By the time I was laid off with a group of similarly aged veteran colleagues, I felt (beneath my overriding terror about making ends meet) a profound sense of relief.
Finally, my inner voice sang, you can return to your core as a writer.
So, I breathed deeply and just let go.
I trusted that, at almost 40, I’ve learned a lot about who I am and what I need to feel creatively fulfilled.
I trusted that the hard work of finding a new position would now be tempered by the guiding principle of maintaining balance creatively and for my family.
And, I am happy to report, that a week after I was laid off, I was offered a promotion and pay raise under contract as an editor with another publication. They are open to me continuing to teach and the position offers a sense of work-life balance and creative autonomy in my non working hours.
It is exactly the type of situation I’d prayed for.
And all of this underscores a truth that has guided many of my “grown woman” life choices: only when your hands are open can you receive your blessings.

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We are not what we do. We are not our jobs.

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I found out I lost my job while on vacation with our kids.
I was driving back from a bounce house and the little ones were napping in the backseat.
As the phrase “position has been eliminated” echoed through the car’s speaker, I had a surreal moment of relief that the morning’s play meant the kids–who are far too young to understand anyway–couldn’t hear the conversation.
I also knew that loudly weeping, as I really wanted to do after the call, would wake them up.
So I held it in and flipped the radio to soothing lullaby music as I silently sobbed.
By the time we reached home, my tears had dried and the kids, now refreshed from their nap, were none the wiser.
I was laid off one day before my husband, who’d lost his job six months earlier, started his new job.
We’d rejoiced that finally, after months of financial stress and worries about making ends meet, we’d reached some degree of security.
2014 was looking up.
I would later learn that fellow salaried and veteran members of my team were similarly laid off. We would soon join the ranks of the millions of unemployed Americans who have found themselves financially adrift in the Great Recession.
Empirically, things are looking up.
Unemployment is declining, due in part to an addition of thousands of jobs to the economy and the fact that some people have been out of work so long they’ve dropped out of the workforce.
I can not afford to do that.
So, I immediately began job searching, networking, and interviewing.
This period has also given me an opportunity to really regroup, tune in, and think deeply about what makes me most happy.
Here’s what I learned:
First: After years of struggling to have children, I cherish my little family above all else. I pride myself in maintaining strong boundaries between work and home and the work-life balance is extremely important to me.
Second: I also deeply value my creative autonomy and am happiest when I have the freedom to write, edit, and teach as I see fit.
Third: I suck at being poor. Seriously. I can and do budget very well. We buy clothes from consignment sales, rarely take vacations unless it’s to see family or a staycation at free or low cost nearby attractions, and purchase generic food brands on sale. And, now that I no longer work for a cable network, we’re planning on nixing that too.
But I also have a threshold of comfort that I need to feel as if all is well…and I’m willing to bust my hump to make sure my family stays there.
And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing since my layoff.
Busting.
My.
Hump.
And with some degree of success.
I’m happy to report that I’m teaching a writing course with offers to teach other writing courses on the table.
I’ve received some very promising job leads which I hope will firm up into job offers very soon.
I’ve had more time to spend with the children. I volunteered to help clean and decorate my daughter’s classroom before school started. We went to her school’s ice cream social where she helped catch and release a frog and made new friends. I was there for her first day of school–she packed a book called “Mommy and Me” as her special item.
I took the baby to story times at the library. I was there when he took his first few steps pushing the baby walker and then, later that week, when he stood on his own. I’ve rejoiced in his infant babble and attempts to say his sister’s name and signing the word “more”.
We’ve all gone to the park, the splash fountain, free outdoor concerts, harvested tomatoes from our garden, and relished our time together.
All of this reaffirms for me a very important truth:
We are not what we do. We are not our jobs.
The measure of our worth, our spirits, our lives is tallied in those experiences in which we bring joy, share sorrow, create, connect, laugh, and love.
That is our true work, the only work that truly matters.

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Goodbye Mr.Foo

We used to sit next to each other in the hospital’s infusion room and joke about the awful food, who had the most needle pokes that day, and god awful daytime tv.
I left the hospital cradling new life.
Mr. Foo lost his.
And I am very sad.
Life is so tenuous, so fragile, so precious.
Today,I honor someone who found strength to smile through the pain and try to bring joy to others to help ease their suffering.
Blessed be, Mr. Foo. Rest in peace.

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