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.
My fog had lifted only a little when I received Penny's press release. I decided to celebrate Stay Home with Your Kids Day, to try working with a child in tow. Mary Jo wasn't available, of course, but Penny said sure, that I could bring Ben to the interview. Maybe my boy would play with her girls.
On the way to Penny's, I kept flicking the rearview mirror so I could watch Ben in his car seat. He sang his consonant-free version of the ABC song (A, E, E, E, E, Eh, E), and he looked just like Mary Jo did when she was two. When he starts kindergarten, I thought, he'll look just like she does now.
I knew I was wallowing in melodrama. But still: They grow so fast! You love them so much! They change your life!
After I extracted Ben from the car, I spit-washed a patch of dried milk off the corner of his mouth. I expected Penny to be one of those hyper-organized supermoms, the kind whose kids never have dirty shirts or boogery noses. I wanted Ben to pass muster.
When I rang the bell, Penny's girls ran to the door and looked through the glass, as wiggly as puppies. When Penny appeared, I was relieved to see that she wasn't what I'd pictured. Her hair was bright red, her Penny's Parties polo shirt was untucked, and she was barefoot.
Katherine, Penny's 13-month-old, was just past the point where an infant turns into a toddler. Her ankles were still buried beneath soft bread-dough rolls of baby fat, but she'd learned to walk the week before, and seemed determined to burn that stored energy. Just before I arrived, Penny said, Katherine had banged her nose; Penny didn't think it was broken.
Three-year-old Madison held a plastic cage containing two little toads. Ben and I admired them -- "Foggies!" he said -- and Madison inflated with pride. Penny looked resigned. Madison and her dad had caught the toads the night before, and since then, Penny had been trying to convince her daughter to set them free.
"They miss their mommy," Penny told Madison.
Madison stared at her blankly: No dice.
The five of us trooped upstairs to the playroom next to Penny's office. The girls, on familiar turf, quickly got down to business -- drawing with washable markers, hiding in their playhouse, making unauthorized forays into Penny's office. Ben, suddenly shy, melted into my lap.
I wrapped my left arm around him, held my notebook in my left hand, and with my right, attempted to take notes. Penny said that she doesn't work at home full-time, at least not yet. She's also a nurse, and still works a couple of evenings a week at Memorial City Hospital's critical-care unit, but she's been trying to find something more kid-compatible. Her first home business was baking banana bread; that one ended in comic disaster. When she called the health department to find out what she needed to do to be certified, she was informed that, basically, a home kitchen could never be certified. She'd busted herself.
But before she made that call, she'd been searching the Internet for custom-made banana-bread boxes. She typed "custom box" into a search engine and was directed to a site selling parties-in-a-box. A good idea, Penny thought, perfect for busy moms who don't have time to scour six different stores for matching birthday hats, cups, plates, balloons, noisemakers and napkins. In March, after the banana-bread business collapsed, she signed up to be a "party consultant." Now she has her own Web site, www.1800partyconsultant.com/15095, and handles maybe 20 orders a month, with more all the time. Her business is growing, she says, but obviously, she's hardly a mogul.
By now, Penny and I had been talking for at least five minutes, almost uninterrupted: a minor miracle, but even miracles end. Ben pawed my breast. "Night-night?" he said hopefully -- code for "I want to nurse."
"No," I whispered, and continued taking notes.
Penny picked her business because it's flexible enough to be molded to her kids' schedules. During the girls' naps, she makes phone calls. She promotes her business to groups such as the Fort Bend Parents of Multiples, and she places ads in small-town newspapers. Small towns are perfect for Internet party supplies, she says, because in a small town, the only places to buy party supplies are Wal-Mart (too cheap) and Hallmark (too expensive).
Ben was growing more insistent. "Night-night," he said, more firmly this time, and pressed his face against my shirt.
"No," I murmured. He was leaning against my right arm. My notes became barely legible.
Some of Penny's customers order through the Web site. Others call her at her home number, usually in the evenings, when nine-to-five moms have migrated back to their houses. Sometimes Penny's husband can take care of the kids while she's on the phone. Sometimes she bribes the kids with chocolate-chip cookies. Sometimes a customer hears her kids screaming. Usually that's okay, because most of the customers are frazzled mothers themselves. Her business is good that way; people understand.
"Night-night!" Ben whined, and began pulling up my shirt.
"He wants to nurse?" Penny asked politely.
I nodded, surrendered, and gave up writing.
My business isn't as flexible as Penny's. Without notes, I can't properly reconstruct the conversation that followed. I remember that it was pleasant but disjointed, like a thousand other mom-conversations I've had at playgrounds and school functions. I remember resolving to call Penny for my daughter's next birthday party because Penny could help me navigate kindergarten trends (Powerpuff Girls? Is that a cable show? Will other moms be horrified if that's the party theme? And how the heck does my daughter know about these things? Do kids attend secret seminars?)
I remember, too, that Madison curled into Penny's lap to demand a Band-Aid for an imaginary wound, and that she later stole my abandoned notebook but returned it when her mom asked. Penny showed me photos from Madison's and Katherine's latest birthday parties. Madison's was at the neighborhood pool, and the theme was "Under the Sea"; it was a good chance for Penny to display her wares to the neighborhood moms. I can't remember much about Katherine's party, but Penny told me a story that involved Katherine's eating all the icing off a cake, then pooping blue for three days.
Right before I left, the toads began chirping. Madison had carried their cage into her playhouse, and they must have mistaken the darkness for nightfall.
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"Listen," said Penny. "They're crying for their mommy."
Madison looked unconvinced.
"I know their mommy misses them," Penny said. "I bet she'd like to work at home."
Madison didn't budge. But I understood.