By Camilo Smith
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By Sean Pendergast
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Last week my boss forwarded a press release touting Monday, August 21, as Stay Home with Your Kids Day. Under normal circumstances, I ignore made-up holidays. I mean, does anyone out there care that this is Family Eye Care Month? Is National Creamsicle Day marked on your calendar? Is there a Hallmark card for Psychic Week? (Shouldn't your psychic already know you appreciate her?)
But this pseudo-holiday seemed worthy of attention. For three reasons:
1) Because the press release came from my boss, who was maybe dropping a hint: Write something soon or you'll be celebrating Stay Home with Your Kids Day all year round.
2) Because it arrived in August, which is National Pseudo-News Month. At this late point in summer, both reporters and readers are too heat-dazzled to think, so newspapers produce the printed version of a Creamsicle. You know the genre: the extensive team reporting on Survivor, the trend stories that claim Americans are abandoning Grey Poupon in favor of bright yellow French's mustard, the endless nattering about every twitch of the Democrats' and Republicans' news-free conventions. If there's ever a good time to cover a pseudo-holiday, it's August.
And 3) Because well, this is the embarrassing reason: Because the longer I looked at that cheery press release, the closer I came to crying.
On Stay Home with Your Kids Day, moms with nine-to-five jobs are supposed to take a vacation day, commune with their offspring and concoct an escape plan that combines stay-at-home mommying with cash flow: telecommuting, maybe, or consulting, or even launching their own businesses. Cheryl Demas publishes Wahm.com, which bills itself as "The Online Magazine for Work-At-Home Moms." A wahm, as Demas unfortunately insists on calling her target audience, is a woman able to field a client's call while dislodging a choking hazard from her toddler's tonsils -- all while a pot roast simmers in the Crock-Pot.
Such multitasking paragons of female virtue are pressed for time, of course, so Demas provided them with a handy fill-in-the-blanks press release, itself a triumph of multitasking. It promoted three entities at once: wahm.com, Stay Home with Your Kids Day and the work-at-home mom's home business. Penny Warner was eager to promote her business, so she downloaded the form, typed her own name in the blank after the words "local businesswoman" and, in other blanks, added the information that she has two little girls and runs a gift-and-party-supply business from her house in Missouri City. Her girls, she wrote, "will be grown and gone in the blink of an eye, and these years are just too precious for me to lose."
Yes, I know those are clichés, the trite pseudo-news with which new parents bore their childless friends: Kids grow so fast! You love them so much! They change your life!Before I had kids, I nodded politely at such besotted drivel. Now, Penny's declaration struck me as moving.
Blame hormones. Parenthood is like sex, one of those hardwired manias that ensure the species' survival. When you fall in love, you go temporarily insane; every stupid pop song seems directly relevant to your life, and your friends are forced to endure your ravings until the fever passes. When you have a baby, your brain is similarly reduced to goo. The problem is that this fever lasts for years.
In my first flush of baby fever, just after my daughter was born, I planned to stay home with her full-time and work as a freelance writer. I pictured a revved-up, superefficient version of myself conducting phone interviews and transcribing tapes during Mary Jo's nap. I thought I'd write while she cooed behind me in her swing or writhed happily on her play blanket. And when I was forced to leave the house, to meet a source or log face time with an editor, I'd leave the baby for only a couple of hours -- with my saintly neighbor, maybe, or my trustworthy husband, or a reliable sitter.
Of course, that plan didn't work. Mary Jo's naps lasted barely 45 minutes, and I found myself using that time for basic self-maintenance, like taking showers and eating. While she was awake, I could put her down for only five minutes at a time or she'd yowl like a cat trapped in the spin cycle. I couldn't find anyone to pinch-hit regularly. My saintly neighbor went back to work part-time. My trustworthy husband started working long hours. The most reliable sitter I found was a 14-year-old "mother's helper" who didn't understand the mechanics of disposable diapers. I didn't dare leave her alone with the baby.
I despaired. My only feat of multitasking was emotional: I managed to be both stressed out and bored smooth out of my skull. I wasn't getting any writing done, and I wasn't going to win any prizes as a mother. Finally I went back to work full-time. Mary Jo ended up in day care.
She thrived there, and later, so did her little brother, Ben. Now, they leave the house each morning, and I retreat to my garage office. Last week I dropped Mary Jo off for her first day of kindergarten. While other kids cried or clung to their moms, mine bounded into the classroom, vibrating with excitement. Day care had made her tough. I drove home imagining her first day of college, the way that she'd bound off and leave me for good. In my office, I sat in front of my computer, but instead of writing, I kept mooning over her baby pictures.