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.