The Year My Mother Hit the Road

Family bike ride in Glacier National Park (photo credit Kelly Marchetti)

If you haven’t stepped into my house during the day, you wouldn’t know what it sounds like.  There is NPR on low in the kitchen, an occasional UPS delivery and thusly, the occasional sounds of a golden retriever and a black lab barking, gravel being rolled over by truck wheels.  Sometimes there’s the sound of a sump pump in the basement throbbing like a hospital breathing machine.  Sometimes rain gushing from gutters.  Sometimes errant flies caught between the window and its screens.  And from May to August, birds.  These sounds come and go and I am their only witness. 

If you walked into my home and I didn’t know you were here, you’d also hear the popcorn of my computer keyboard, right when it’s really popping there at the end, before it burns.  You’d be my witness.  You’d hear first and then see if you walked to the sound coming from the small room at the foot of the stairs, that I write.  All day.  And have since 1994 when I stopped working fulltime and became a fulltime writer.  I’d been writing inbetween jobs since 1988, but my steady writing life really began when we moved to Montana and my husband took a well-paying job running a brewery– which meant I finally had the time to put my total energy into finding the intersection of mind and heart and craft that is writing.  And then the babies came, but I still wrote during their naps and at night after they went to bed, and then when it was time for them to go to school, I had my days wide open again to write.  From 9:00 until 3:00, more or less, once first grade began for the last child.  That happened six years ago.  Since then, I’ve written and I’ve mothered. 

I get down and dirty with the tuna fish and the mayo and the deli meat and the peanut butter at 7:00 am, slicing apples and carrots and putting them into small waxpaper bags for school lunches.  I serve up French toast with warmed real maple syrup in yoga pants and a fleece and my hair in a scrunchie, trying to take advantage of the ten minute ride into school– everything always a teaching moment.  There’s a lot of philosophy and world religion and English 101 on those drives.  And then the popcorn pops all day. And then I return to the school at 3:00 to escort my children to their music lessons and sporting practices and games.  The “how are yous” from other parents are met with “I’m fine.  How are you?”  And the conversation wanders around in the field of parenting, sharing opinions and concern for local issues from the sidelines and parking lots that house our public lives.  But privately, I have another world with no witnesses save for flies and dogs. Privately, I write.

And then my dream came true.  I got a book published. And everything changed. I got to serve the popcorn.  And people ate it and wanted more.  And I went around the country serving it up in whopping portions.  It turns out, I make good popcorn.  And people paid me for my popcorn.  And then flew me around so I could serve up more of it.  And put me up in fancy hotels and drove me around in limos.  Man, I never even knew that my popcorn would really ever be eaten, much less eaten like that!  It was really really satisfying.  I’ve been told, my popcorn even has changed people’s lives.   (OK– I beat the shit out of that one.  Sorry Strunk and White. Outside of metaphor-land, I always burn the popcorn, for what it’s worth.)

Suffice it to say, I’ve been gone a LOT for a year or so.  Sometimes for two whole months.  At one point, I couldn’t remember what grade my son was in.  At another, I found out that my daughter had started Driver’s Ed.  Who wrote that check? Who signed that permission slip? The answer is:  my husband.  And it’s not like I wrote a book about a small tribe in Africa.  I wrote about writing.  I wrote about a hard time in our marriage.  I wrote about practicing what it is to live powerfully right there at your kitchen sink when the world tells you you’re a victim.  I wrote about lifelines– canning tomatoes with my children, digging carrots from my garden, picking huckleberries, learning how to breathe deeply…rather than exploding in pain and agony.  I wrote my way through this time to help myself and to help other people.  I went public with my deepest thoughts and emotions.  And even though it’s not really a book about marriage, let’s face it:  my husband was going through a major crisis of self, and I reported on what that looked like.  Not to expose him, or my children, but to expose me.  My book is about my journey– my committment to stop basing my happiness on things outside my control.  The publishing world, my marriage, all of it.  And somehow, the world wants to hear that message.  And somehow, my husband has the grace to know that our story is helping people, even though it’s no one’s first choice to be depicted in a time of personal crisis. 

When I am out of town, and even sometimes when I’m here and things are busy in this little room at the bottom of the stairs, here’s what that grace looks like:  he wakes up, gets down and dirty with tuna fish, mayo, deli meat…well you get the picture.  He signs the permission slips and writes the checks and drives the kids to school and has those conversations and picks them up and escorts them around to their after school activities.  He has those conversations with other parents in the parking lots and sidelines.  And on top of that, he works.  His work day is compacted because of it, like mine used to be.  And when I return from my travels, I can see it.  They are in a rhythm.  And it works.  I am not part of that rhythm.  I am so grateful for what he is doing in my absence and in honor of my dream come true.  He is the reason I can publicly be my book’s messenger. 

I will admit here that it’s also a haunting experience, re-entering my house and my family life and seeing how it has worked without me in it.  It’s like I’ve died and I’m looking from the afterlife into this farmhouse in Montana.  Wow, look at that– the windows got washed. The windows haven’t been washed in ten years! Gosh that’s a big pile of laundry. Has anybody fed the dogs? I’m not at all comfortable with my son going to that kid’s slumber party.  But these are not my calls to make when I am on the road.  I have to let go.  I am not home.  You relinquish a certain level of your parenthood when you travel for business or if you work late hours.  It’s like the opposite of sending your kid off to college.  YOU are in college, as it were.

I tell you all this because it matters to me that you know, if you too have suddenly catapulted out of your daily regime as a parent and are feeling…well, a little scared of what that means to your kids and spouse.  A little guilty.  A little overcome by the new rhythms of family.  I tell you this because I have compared notes now with plenty of working mothers and fathers whose work brings them far from home.  And I’m here to say that, as long as it’s not constant, as long as there is balance and regularity and a system in place that works…you are setting a GOOD example for your children.  You can have your parenthood and your job.  You can have your dreams come true in your field of work and still be a good parent.  If it happens quite suddenly…it can be a shock at first–for everyone in your family.  And there are conversations that need to happen.  There may well be abandonment issues that need to be worked out with a therapist.  I check in with my kids about this regularly.  I want them to know that I am not choosing my work over them.  But rather that work is part of life.  Knowing them, they will work hard too, and hopefully it will be doing something they love and hopefully the world will receive them into it and hold them up to their best selves.  That’s what I’m trying to do with my life.  Be my best self.  Which means that sometimes, I have to leave my family and hit the road. 

So to my family, thank you.  Thank you thank you thank you.  And yep– your mother’s back.  Brush your teeth.  Don’t slouch.  Take off your hat at the dinner table.  And no, you can’t go to that kid’s slumber party.  And to my husband, thank you for marrying me as the woman I am, and not only the mother that I am.  But p.s. I don’t do windows. Way to raise the bar! I love you.

18 Comments

Filed under A Place For Writers To Share, Motherhood, My book: This Is Not The Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness, My Posts

18 Responses to The Year My Mother Hit the Road

  1. sarahjaneanderson

    i.love.this. dear friend
    xoxoxoxox

  2. Colleen

    Laura … I stumbled upon your blog on Huffington Post. I haven’t yet picked up a copy of your book, but I will tonight … This is our start of summer (even though still spring) here in New Jersey, and I will be heading to the beach with my kids, which means the first summer book needs to be in my beach bag! I am so looking forward to reading your story. This post has tugged at me as many things you write do. I am currently in the very beginning stages of possibly starting a venture that will take me out of the house every day, something I have not done since my oldest daughter was born 13 years ago. (Yikes, I am now a mom to a teenager!) I am excited, scared, doubtful, insecure, and thrilled beyond belief to be able to even consider that this possible venture could be mine. I am looking forward to being my best self. Looking forward to something I can call mine and be proud of … Thank you for the words of encouragement and for being real because I relate to real.

  3. Susan Morgan

    The popcorn just gets better and better, Laura. This piece is gorgeous.

  4. Beautiful piece, once again, Laura. Thank you. My journey will bring me to your neck of the woods again this summer and I cannot wait. Keep the popcorn popping. It’s a favorite snack of mine.

  5. I love this. Your popcorn is never stale :) always fresh seducing us to consume it. :) I recommended your book to five people this week and one of them is a part of a thirty woman book club. I sing your praises because I believe in your writing and as you know I loved your book.

    • lauramunson

      AYALA! YOU ARE SO KIND! Thank you thank you. It’s people like you who are my book’s messenger. Couldn’t do it without you. I want it to help a LOT of people and thanks to you, it is. Deep gratitude. yrs. Laura

  6. Dear Laura,
    Once again, two of your sentences struck like lightning in the growing understanding I have of my own happiness. You wrote, “My book is about my journey– my committment to stop basing my happiness on things outside my control. The publishing world, my marriage, all of it.” For many years, I based my happiness on something outside myself–the publishing world. “Oh, if only I were published, then thus and so.” “Oh, if only I could get an agent, then thus and so.” Like you, I’ve learned that it is the writing that I can control and only the writing. And that is joy enough. Thank you for sharing your journey. Peace, Dee in Missouri

    • lauramunson

      Hey Dee in Missourri. Yes. You got it! Isn’t it a RELIEF!? And when I finally realized the pain I was in living like that, my whole identity wrapped up in how the publishing world received or didn’t receive my work…when I finally realized that all I could control was writing the best books and short stories and essays I could and doing my best to find the stewards of my work…and that then I had to let go…when I got that, Dee, everything changed. Isn’t that interesting? That’s when I got an agent and a book deal and readers like you. DON’T GIVE UP! The power is in the work. That’s your job. Thanks for finding me here. yrs. Laura

  7. Nan

    Laura,

    I think you illustrate the point for us that once we become mothers, we think we are responsible FOR EVERYTHING. That can be good, but when carried to the extreme, it leaves us exhausted, stressed control freaks who make our loved ones miserable. It is true that no one can do our mothering jobs quite the way we do, but the way they do it can be good enough. Thanks for the reminder.

    • lauramunson

      Well put, Nan. I am watching myself let go of the steerage and it’s disorienting but ultimately a much more balanced way to raise children in our case. If I was not co-parenting, that would be another story. I have such respect for single mothers and fathers… yrs. Laura

  8. Your story reminds me of seeing a woman standing in the car park of the day care centre where I was picking up my daughter, holding her young baby (less than a year old) clutched against her chest, completely oblivious to everyone just hugging the baby tightly. I could have cried – I knew what it was like to retrieve a child at the end of a long day, of being torn between wanting to work, and be a mother and all those other million things. It just never goes away that pull in different directions.

  9. Hey, Laura! I love the way I get pulled back to my “self” after reading your words of wisdom. Since I have returned to school, I have had to do a lot of letting go at home – and it has been good. One son has just graduated from high school and will be attending college in the fall – five hours away. My absence has allowed him to take more responsibility for himself. Our younger son has learned to be quite resourceful too. I am still a part of their lives, but no longer managing them. My initial guilt has been replaced with gratitude. Please keep popping the corn!

  10. Jenny

    Hi Laura,
    I just got done reading your book. Loved it! I’m so glad to see your family is doing well. The picture of your family is beautiful, BTW. I hope you will continue to write – your writing is refreshing and real. Thanks for sharing your story with everyone! :)

    • lauramunson

      Thanks for checking in, Jenny! I’m so glad you loved my book. And thanks for finding me here. I’ve been on the road for two months on book promotion and need to spend more time at THESE HERE HILLS. I’m sure summer will bring with it a host of things to write about! yrs. Laura

  11. Hi Laura-I don’t have kids, but I was a kid once ^_^! I don’t think we realize how much kids look up to their parents and if their parents are fulfilling their own dreams, kids see that and feel that and I honestly believe it helps them to discover their own passion and dreams and live them out. You love your children and make the most of your time with them, but you are also living out your dreams very gracefully and touching many people in the process. This is amazing and it’s what makes your writing so rich. It’s important to remember that we don’t “own” anyone in our family and it tends to function better, in fact, when we give it space and when we allow each person within it to be who they are, without controlling what that has to look like. You are doing beautifully and I, like many others I’m sure, see and feel that. Peace to you Laura. Glad we crossed paths.

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