Category: Mothering

Fright night tonight

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Cold rain run this morning. Yoga stretching to kundalini playlist before that. Soon after, a quick shower. Picking up two swim kids from the pool, eating bananas. Eating eggs on toast. Braiding the hair of two red-headed girls. Laundry. One minor meltdown (mine) on the subject of the constant stream of demands directed at MOM, when Dad is clearly standing right there, too. (Why? How is it possible that I am the recipient of all grievances, from the much-loathed raincoat that has yet to be replaced, to the injured knee, to the pangs of hunger, to the lack of desirable snacks? I suppose I should counter that by noting that I am also the recipient of news, ideas, stories, and proud dictee results. Where was I?) Driving costumed children to school to avoid the rain. Stopping to get a coffee and croissant at our local French bakery. Falling into a coma of a nap. Wondering why I’m so tired.

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Rain on Halloween, for trick-or-treating. Plus high winds, apparently, yet to come.

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But we’re ready. The pumpkins have been carved. Kevin even got out the drill, which all the kids heard from their beds last night. “Oh, that’s what you were doing!” I saw the trick somewhere online. It does result in a really pretty lantern-like effect. I affect an effect. That’s what I say every time I try to remember whether it’s affect or effect.

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Yeah, I’m tired.

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I raced to my office last night to finish prepping for today’s class. I still haven’t found any scary stories to share. The problem is, mainly, that I don’t read scary stories. I hate being scared! So does CJ. When I returned home from campus last night, the pumpkins were being carved and he was watching a “Halloween playlist” on YouTube. Guess what happened the instant I walked in the door. He hopped off his stool and came running to me, his eyes popping out of his head: “There are dead people coming out of the ground!”

See what I mean: I’d only just got home. How long had the dead people been coming out of the ground, exactly? “What the hell is he watching?” Yes, this will be a little exercise in dialogue, just like I’m going to have my students do tonight.

“Dead people coming out of the ground!”

“You’ve got to be kidding me! You’re letting him watch this?”

How to convey silence within dialogue: The pumpkin continued to be carved.

“At first it was funny, it was my favourite song from Just Dance! But then dead people came out of the ground!” “You need to stop thinking about it.” Clutching my leg: “Dead people coming out of the ground.” “Think about something happy! Like Daddy getting to sleep in your bed tonight!” Actually, I didn’t say that. But I thought it.

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And CJ slept fine, so he must have not been permanently scarred.

But he was back at my elbow when I was repairing his clown costume a little while later, so that he could go to school today as a line from his current favourite song, not featuring anyone coming out of the ground: Baby, be the class clown, I’ll be the beauty queen. “Mommy,” he whispered, pulling my arm as I stitched impatiently. “Dead people. Coming out of the ground.” “It is time to think about something else. Hey, Grandma’s coming over! She’s here!” “Can we play?” “You can play until I finish this. It should take about ten minutes.”

It took about half an hour. I’m bad at sewing. And apparently also at estimates.

Meanwhile, we put that half hour to further use and discovered a costume for our eldest, who was hesitating about even going trick-or-treating. I think twelve is too young to quit the candy game. You’ll be forced out in a few years anyway. Enjoy it while you can! You’re only young once! Etc. “But I can’t think of anything. And it’s going to rain anyway.” (He was right about the latter, as it turns out, if not the former.) We brainstormed possibilities. He’d just been given a hand-me-down dress shirt and tie. Stuff it with a pillow? Rob Ford? But AppleApple had a slicker, higher-concept idea: “Nigel Wright!”

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She even fashioned her brother a special prop, of her own design. I won’t get into it if you’re not a fan of obscure Canadian politics, but I think a few parents might appreciate the costume when he arrives on their doorstep, with Monopoly money spilling out of his pockets, and the over-sized cheque. Kevin and I have a new inside joke; when discovering ourselves in trouble of any kind, we just ask: “What Would Duffy Do?”

But better to ask, at this point in the sluggish grey day, larded with high-level obscure Canadian political gossip, for which I seem to have a boundless appetite: What Would Carrie Do?

Carrie had better turn off the internet, finish her class prep, make an early supper, and keep working on the intro for the panel discussion at next Saturday’s Wild Writers Festival, which deserves a more comprehensive plug, don’t you think? Here’s my attempt:

Writers and readers in Waterloo, the Wild Writers Festival is coming to town next weekend (Nov. 8-10), and promises to be a rollicking and inspiring event. Many events are free, and intensive workshops with amazing writers are $20/each. The festival is in its second year, and if its first was anything to go by, this one will be warm, welcoming, thought-provoking, and unique. I’ll be there, soaking it all up (and leading a panel discussion (free!) that includes the fabulous Elisabeth de Mariaffi, coming all the way from Newfoundland!). Please pass on the word, and come if you can.

Tickets here, and registration for the free events, too.

Experiments in expertise

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You all really liked that other colour of green, didn’t you? It’s okay, you can tell me. I can take it. I really like it, too. But it didn’t fit with my vision for the room! To use a metaphor, as I’m wont to do, it’s like editing one’s own writing: kill your darlings, is how Stephen King puts it. The point being, just because you love something doesn’t mean it fits. Sometimes you have to paint over a colour you really love, or remove a plot point that charms you, or exise your favourite sentences (actually, in writing, that is almost the rule rather than the exception. Your favourite sentences will inevitably be the ones you have to sacrifice in honour of the whole.)

Stick with your vision. This will make you happier in the end.

Yesterday, the Giller longlist was announced. I didn’t hear about it until rather late in the day, which put in perspective the difference between this year and last. Last year, I was on tenterhooks the morning of the announcement, which kicks off prize-season here in CanLitLand. And then I wasn’t on the list. It felt crushing, but I coped, and pretty soon I felt better. But it was kind of a relief, this year, not to have that pressure of waiting and wondering and then coping and forging onward. A year from now, I’ll be going through this all over again. I can’t even ask the question: should literary prizes matter so much? One hopes a deserving book finds its readers no matter what, but the prizes do help focus attention, especially on books that might go otherwise overlooked.

I want to congratulate everyone on the list — and also hug everyone not on the list, especially those who it seemed might find their way there. One small observation: there are 13 writers on the list, and 4 are women. I wonder about that. And then I observe that the jury is made up of two Canadian women (Esi Edugyan and Margaret Atwood) and one American man (Jonathan Lethem). So, who knows. I realize that’s not a profound conclusion, but I haven’t got one.

One more thing: looking over this list of authors, I notice how many are of my own generation, or just a little older than me. Makes me realize that “the establishment” is fluid. The list also reinforces my sense that CanLitLand is about the size of a neighbourhood, and that I’ve found it a lovely place to dwell. Despite the pressure and anxiety around prize lists, I’m looking forward to having a new book out next fall, because it’s a reason to travel and meet other writers, and that’s my favourite part of living in CanLitLand.

I woke up without a headache this morning. I’ve been sitting at my desk for over an hour, and I still have no headache. This feels worth celebrating! Perhaps with a sunshiny walk: I saw the physio yesterday, and he said I could try a half hour walk once or twice a day. He also did acupuncture, and I swear it helped. As yesterday afternoon turned to evening, it felt like the fog was lifting.

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I cut this lad’s hair yesterday outside in the backyard. I’m trying to remember when I became an “expert” haircutter, and I think it was as a teen, when I simply insisted that I knew what I was doing, and my mother let me experiment on my younger siblings, who suffered some occasionally unflattering cuts as a result. (Edna, please forgive me that bowl cut?) But some of the cuts actually turned out, cementing my “expert” status! (Or, more accurately, my delusions of expertise.) I remember giving my mother a brilliant haircut right before her high school reunion. In turn, this anecdote should give you a succinct understanding of who my mother is: a woman who would let her teenaged daughter give her a haircut right before her own high school reunion!!! She trusted it would work out, you see. That’s pretty awesome mothering, in my opinion.

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Stripes! We should have done stripes just like these! This girl had her second gymnastics class yesterday evening. Flushed and happy afterward, she wondered whether she could take more than one class a week. “I might have found my special thing, Mom!” (She’s been terribly worried because her siblings all have their “special things” that they love to do, soccer, mainly, while she’s dabbled in, but never loved, quite a few activities including dance and tennis.)

I tried to ease her anxiety by explaining that we may discover many special things that interest us deeply at different times in our life, and that experimenting is a good thing, but I’m to blame for putting the anxiety in her head in the first place, by suggesting that we all have “special things.” I meant to encourage her to explore her interests, but instead I planted a seed of worry. Parenting. Try, fail, try again, fail better.

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One of this girl’s “special things” started yesterday evening, and we were both really excited to get the season underway. Swim team! Last fall, she was a novice who couldn’t do a flip turn or a start dive, and now she seems like a veteran. Here’s a thought. A sign that something may be our “special thing” is that we return to it with excitement, enthusiasm, and commitment, even when it’s no longer new. Even when we already have a sense of what to expect from ourselves. Even when we’re acquainted with our limits, and know our own strengths and weaknesses. If, even then, we want to participate and keep learning and stretching and growing, then we’ve landed on something special.

Where mom-at-home meets working-mom, part two

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Hi there. For some reason this old blog post, titled “Where mom-at-home meets working-mom” has gotten a ton of hits this week, so I went back to re-read it, and found myself entirely drawn in to the conversation (if you go to read it, too, definitely read through the comments).

It was originally written in October, 2011: nearly two years ago.

I was asking myself some tough questions.

**When I unpeel myself from them [my kids], who am I? **Who am I outside this home? And the question I’m most scared of, the one I really want to ask: **How do I begin to develop my working self, now, after a decade of being mom-at-home?

It’s funny how these questions have answered themselves. The good fortune of having The Juliet Stories recognized danced me outside of the house, and unpeeled me from them. And it turns out that the answer to those questions is: I’m pretty much exactly the same person, except in nicer clothes (maybe: ask my stylish daughter).

What about this question: How do I begin to develop my working self, now, after a decade of being mom-at home?

Now there’s a tougher one. Clearly, my career has developed in the past two years. I have publishing contracts for two new books, essays in three upcoming anthologies, and a new teaching job. I field regular invitations to do readings and host literary events. That said, it’s not a career that involves full-time hours and the corresponding full-time pay. It’s a pretty insecure career, built around a constant flow of push and energy that must be generated by me alone. Funny, kind of sounds like parenting. Turns out that my working self is not all that removed from my mom-at-home self. Both roles have developed and changed, but it’s not like one cancels out the other. Maybe my original question framed it wrong: it’s not either/or. How could it be?

What’s gotten cancelled out is other things I didn’t expect. I miss my playgroup, meeting up with other women once a week — the regular, routine warmth and connection that I have yet to replace. I rarely bake anymore, and haven’t canned a thing this summer; probably won’t. I don’t have the energy, even if I had the time. We now have a dishwasher and I drive much more than I’d like to, ferrying older children to extra-curriculars. I’m alone a lot, which I relish and appreciate (it is essential to my work), even while missing contact that can’t be replaced by social media. Oddly, the thing I thought I’d miss — full-on time with my children — I don’t, because, as it turns out, we still share a ton of activities, scheduled and unscheduled. You never stop being a parent, no matter what else you might be doing.

But here’s a confession: this past winter, I tried to find a traditional job. You know, a job-job. This is an insurance town, so most of the openings were inside insurance companies. We were going through a tough financial spell, and my writing career had never seemed more risky and indulgent. I sent out a dozen resumes. I received one reply. ONE. It was a no-thank-you, but I was grateful even for that. The worst thing about the experience was discovering that I wasn’t even qualified for jobs I didn’t want, let alone jobs I did. Thankfully, we got through the very bad month and the slightly-less-bad next month, and our fortunes steadily improved again. But the fear lingers: that if my family were to need me to find a job-job, to keep us afloat, I would be useless as tits on a bull, as my mother-in-law would say.

It’s been a decade since the famous (infamous?) “Opt-out revolution” article was published, interviewing women who’d given up promising careers to become stay-at-home moms. I’m not sure I gave up a promising career when I became a stay-at-home mom at the age of 26, but I had recently been promoted, and the opportunity to advance and develop within my chosen field of media / publishing / editing / journalism was there. I can’t remember whether I related to the women in the original article, but I remember thinking it was annoying, setting up this dichotomy between women, making it so either/or. Aren’t we all in this together, I thought?

I also thought, secretly, quietly, that there would be time for everything, and I didn’t appreciate being told that one choice might disadvantage me in another area of my life.

Recently, a follow-up article was published on those same “opt-out” women interviewed a decade ago: what had happened to them? (“The opt-out generation wants back in.”) Well, the economy had happened to them (all were American). Most had gone back to work, whether they wanted to or not; most had found it difficult to re-start their careers, and many had taken jobs that were below where they had been or could have been. Those whose marriages had ended were particularly disadvantaged and struggling. Few, however, expressed regret about their original choice. One woman struck me particularly — she had been in a traditional media job (like me), and found it virtually impossible to find work in a much-changed industry. The article ends with her landing an exciting job, after searching for several years, but at much less pay than she would have earned a decade before, only to have the project shut down six weeks later, and everyone let go. She was back to square one.

Let me tell you, I sure related to that article with a pang of recognition. Yet, I can’t feel regret, either. Because there are other interesting questions posed in my post, two years ago, questions that seem at least as significant, and more mysterious. I can’t answer them, especially the last one, but that’s why they’re so fascinating.

**Where am I heading, at my breakneck pace? **What am I failing to stop for? **What if I can’t squeeze every fascinating everything in? **What matters? **Will I always be so impatient? So goal-oriented? **Can I be both ambitious and content, or do those two states of mind cancel each other out? 

Because it isn’t all about money, is it? If I look directly into my fear, and stare over the precipice of what would happen to my family were we thrown into financial crisis, and it were suddenly up to me alone to support us, I see many possibilities beyond disaster. I see family and friends. I see lifestyle changes and probably a lot of creative improvisation. I see a web of connections. We’re not without resources — I’m not without resources. That’s what I see, two years on, despite my recent experience of hunting for jobs I didn’t want and for which I was not qualified.

Because, I see, too, that I am already qualified for other jobs — ones I do want. This work might not offer the same security and stability, but maybe that just keeps me a step closer to reality. Stability is an illusion anyway, as we all secretly know.

It’s a gift to be doing what I love. I love being a mother. I love writing. I love thinking things through. My hope for myself, now and future, is that every time I doubt or question, I return to this: gratitude.

Be here now

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on Birthday Eve, still eleven years old
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on Birthday Morn, twelve times ’round the sun

I’m feeling compelled to sum up this month, even though it’s not quite over. It’s been such a month, and I’ve been unable to share some of the crucial details of its ups and downs and whirling arounds, which has forced me into awkward positions on this blog, made me into something of a contortionist. My ambiguity has caused a few friends to contact me with concern, wondering if all is well.

Well, all is well. And I don’t mean that in a Rob Ford way, whistling past the suddenly emptied offices of his communications team.

It’s been a good month.

It’s been a good month, but I won’t pretend it’s been easy. Decision-making is never easy, even when one is making decisions about excessively positive things, opportunities one has called out for, and hoped for, and pursued with determination. As I wrote in an earlier post, the doors are open. An open door is a blessing, and I feel blessed to be welcomed to enter.

But I have come to recognize, also, this month, that I can’t walk through every open door, not at the same time. I may contain multiplicities, but I am only one. I can only be in one place at a time. (I know you already knew that, but it’s taken me some convincing.) I am mother to four children. I am a writer. I would like to become a midwife. All those doors are open for me, right now. And I feel blessed. You, however, have probably already jumped ahead to the very obvious question that I somehow managed to avoid throughout this whole process: You are probably asking, okay, Carrie, that’s wonderful and all, but how, exactly, do you plan to go to school full-time, remain involved in your children’s busy lives, and continue to write?

Somehow, I thought I could do it all. I wasn’t going to not do some of it, oh no, I was going to do it all.

Magical thinking, perhaps. I am the sort of person who thrives on juggling responsibilities. Quietly, I told myself I could set aside the writing for the summer months. I did not need to attend so many soccer games and swim meets. We could get a dishwasher. The kids could learn to cook. Quietly, I thought, bring on the challenge.

But then the doors opened, all at once.

And suddenly I had to confront my own limitations — of time and of energy. I had to ask myself: what am I prepared to sacrifice? And I had to accept that now is not the right time to become a midwife. That is a hard sentence to write, and it’s taken me all month to carry myself toward accepting what I’m realistically capable of, right now.

For a good part of the month, I thought that this was an existential question about midwifery versus writing. Do I want to be a midwife or a writer? Well, the fact is, I’d like to be both, and I still believe it’s possible. I am already a writer, married to it for better or for worse and enjoying a happy stretch of career momentum right now. And I’m grateful to midwifery for being a career that does not discriminate against age: expect me to apply again sometime in the next decade, as my children grow up and get their driver’s licences and learn how to cook. No, what I’ve come around to recognizing is that this is not a question about midwifery versus writing. It’s not even, really, a question. It’s about being where I’m at, right now. And right now I have four children in the thick of their young and developing lives, and I want to be at the soccer games and swim meets. The shortened work day might drive me crazy sometimes, but I want to be here after school to gather them in, to follow up and dig around and take care of their lives in this very hands-on way. Juggle and spin it however I like, I can’t commute to another city for school and be here for this now that won’t always be.

How fortunate that I have an office, here, that I have quiet space to work, solitary time that is sandwiched on either side by frenetic activity and demands. I even have time to run and play soccer myself, to cook from scratch, see friends, and go on the occasional field trip. I go to bed done, and I sleep well at night.

I’d still love to doula at friends’ births.

I’d still like the kids to learn how to cook.

And we’re getting that dishwasher anyway — on Thursday, in fact.

When the time is right, I still hope to become a midwife.

But for now, my heart is full with the life that is all around me, right here, right now.

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Here’s a poem that wrapped itself around me a few days ago, coming from a book of essays I’m reading by Anne Lamott, called Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.

“Late Fragment,” by Raymond Carver

And did you get what
you wanted from this life even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Easter weekend

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We went for an off-road run / hike this afternoon, just the two of us.
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There was still snow and ice on the trail, and also chilly water, and mud, and slippery leaves. We forgot to bring her puffer, and she had some trouble on the hills. We are still getting used to her having asthma. But we ran for 7 kms, stopping to stare at the whirling water in the rising creek, and to look at Canada geese on this flooded area, and to listen to the cars zooming by on the nearby highway. Urban parkland.
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We saw almost no one. We had so much fun. If it had been up to her, we would have stayed for another hour, at least, exploring along every little off-shoot of trail. “Your companion, unfortunately, is a 38-year-old woman,” I said, diverting her from another attempt to run off-off-road. “You should have come with another 10-year-old.” “Oh, If I’d come with a 10-year-old, we’d already be wading in the creek!” she said.

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When I saw this photo from yesterday, I thought for a second it was me.
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Nope, it’s her. Behind her, wearing her goalie jersey, is her big brother, who was playing in his very first rep game ever yesterday (with Kevin coaching). Nerves, and excitement. I’ve really got to tone it down on the sidelines, however. I’m just shouting encouragement, but apparently it’s embarrassing. “Is this what you sound like at my games?” AppleApple asked (she is not usually on the sidelines). “Um … yes …” “Oh.” [with feeling]

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We didn’t make any plans for today. The rarest of days. I baked paska, which is a Russian-Mennonite Easter bread. My family background is Swiss Mennonite rather than Russian Mennonite, a detail of significance to very few, I’m sure, but the thing is that the Russian Mennonites have really yummy food traditions (sorry, Swiss ancestors!), so I’ve borrowed. This is my friend’s Mom’s recipe, which has the instructions: “sticky, not gluey.” It’s somewhat vague on details. I probably added too much flour this year, but last year the dough was sticky AND gluey, and turned out crumbly. This year’s looks good. We’ll be taste-testing it for dessert. Apparently it’s best sliced and covered with a big slather of icing, so I made extra.

Finally, here is what everyone is doing right now: (not pictured, Kevin doing the dishes, me blogging).
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Expectations: Meet Reality

balloon launch
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Yesterday afternoon, I spent some time helping two little guys launch a squeaking balloon down the staircase, with the happy effect that it squealed overhead and repeatedly smacked its little balloon head against the wall or ceiling before deflating and twisting earthward.

It would be pleasant to turn this into a metaphor, but I’m struggling.

There, no metaphor needed. I’m struggling. That’s it, plain and simple. I hesitate to spit it into word form, especially on a public forum, but there it is. A blog is a troublesome creation: it’s very much in the moment, and therefore can magnify the smallest ups and downs in a person’s life, and this here is a down. Right now I’m happy when I’m running, and that’s about it. But get that right now really is right now.

Suffice it to say that I’m tired after a second night up with a sick child. I’m irritable after another day home with my children, who are on holiday, but who can’t leave the house or have play dates due to the aforementioned sickness. It occurred to me today that the only thing a person can really accomplish while home with four children is cooking and housework — plus the vacuuming covered the noise of the periodic tantrums and steady stream of complaints. So the house is pretty clean. Which is something. But it’s not enough.

I would like to reflect on my impatient response to International Women’s Day, a day I usually respond to with honour and interest, solemnity, even pride. But this year, on this International Women’s day, all that welled in me was intense frustration. And I think my response is the key to unlocking exactly where I’m at right now, and why I’m struggling.

My expectations do not seem to be in line with reality.

I expect that girls and women will be treated as individuals, with the same opportunities as boys and men to pursue lives that are interesting and fulfilling. Every time I read another story about a horror perpetrated on a woman — because she’s a woman — my response is THIS CANNOT BE! Every time I read another statistic coldly demonstrating women’s under-representation in, well, you-name-it, most anything that has to do with power or cultural critique or leadership my response is HOW CAN THIS STILL BE? Every time I read some trumped up story on “The Mommy Wars,” or “Stay-at-Home Mothers v. Working Mothers,” or even hear myself referred to as “a full-time mother,” (what, exactly, is a part-time mother?), I want to shrug it off as mere noise, but instead I feel something akin to disbelief: WHY?

A few more WHYs.

WHY would any family rationally choose to have more than one or two children, understanding that childcare, particularly during the early years, will either cost one parent his or her career, or two working parents the better part of a decent salary? Let’s ask the politicians who a) have no interest in funding childcare and b) want Canadian families to produce more children FOR THE ECONOMY. (Surprise! They tend to be the same ones.)

WHY is Canada’s major news magazine running a photo, this week, of a woman shaving her face under the headline “Man Up,” suggesting that women should be more like men if they want to succeed in the workplace? WHY are we always being told to be someone we’re not? Which reminds me: WHY is success in the workplace our main measure of success? Further to that, WHY are good and moral choices so often couched in economic terms, as if that’s the only language that matters, the only real currency? I heard a news report, happened to be on International Women’s Day, in which an economist (who was a woman) explained that educating girls and women is a sure-fire way to increase the economic well-being of communities and nations. So let’s do it, people. Let’s do it FOR THE ECONOMY.

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