Working & Mom—We All Do It

I don’t want to fight about who works harder—dads don’t have it easier, stay at home moms don’t have it easier, people without kids don’t have it easier. Honestly, we’re all just doing the best we can between screw ups, unexpected wins, and deep heartache.

None of that matters though, not in the big picture, or even the little picture. Every damn day I am just trying to not do or say things that will leave me with a hideous pit of, “Why did I do that?”

Briar found my blog two weeks ago. Somehow in the time between buying her a phone and her discovering Safari, it never once occurred to me that she would find my blog. I was sitting at my desk at when I heard the email ping.

 

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I pushed my chair back from my desk, it hit the spot where the floors of our hundred+ year old building start to dip. I slid backward awkwardly. I threw my legs sideways while thrusting my upper body forward to slow my roll. As you can imagine, it was incredibly graceful. I cupped my hand over my mouth. I immediately panicked, “What if I’ve written something she shouldn’t see?”

Our beautiful, sunny studio was silent, I looked around half expecting looks of scorn and I told you so, which makes no sense, but the mind does what it does, I guess. Looking back at my computer I re-read her words.

“She spells mama differently than I do,” I thought. “She made LEGO into a verb.” The url included at the end of her comment was inspired by the book we are reading together before bed each night. My throat caught as I read on, remembering the forts I’ve made over the years. I wondered if she meant this fort.

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I felt dull aches tugging at me; emotional musculature straining and cramping under the growing weight of the speed of life. I’ve been pulled in new directions at work just as the girls’ schedules and homework demands have spiked. Reading, spelling, math, special projects and permission slips. It’s nothing new really, but the context has shifted, there are penalties if I don’t sign that manifest in the girls’ performance and in the unspoken tenor of relationships with people at school.

That little yellow emoticon blowing me a kiss and wink had me thinking about how often I assume that I know what is important to Briar or to her sisters. I imagine that my take on things is similar to theirs. This comment of hers revealed the possibility that as I am tracking my failures, they are marking moments that they’ll cherish that I never considered.

Lately they’ve been asking me what I do at work. It’s hard for me to explain the nuance, “Well, it’s my job to secure new work. I try to find people or companies that could use our help.”

“And then they hire you?” they ask.

“Not exactly, it’s not enough to find them. I also have to show them why we’re the best for the job.”

“So you aren’t always the best?” their eyes are big and worried.

“No, but no one is. We take turns.”

They looked scared. “It’s ok. I like what I do and I am good at, so is dad. All of us are good at what we do.”

“How do you do it, I mean, like what do you actually do?” Avery asked.

I had to laugh. I’ve often lamented not having a tangible product. “I can’t exactly show you what I do, but I can show you me trying to do what I do.” They looked at me with tilted heads and confused faces.

“Ok, so listen, sometimes we have to do pitches, not like baseball, but it’s still kind of throwing something. It’s like we toss an idea out, in this case the idea being, Trampoline can help you grow your business. Hopefully they catch the toss and decide to keep it, does that make sense?”

“How would you show us that?” Ave asked. She is the kid that wants to know things, Briar wants to fix things, Finley wants to do things. I genuinely just want to stay in the category of things they enjoy for as long as I can.

“You know how movies sometimes have the funny scenes at the end?” I asked.

They nodded, Finley started regaling us with the outtakes of a movie she’d seen recently.

“Exactly, Fin,” I said. She beamed. “Here, I can show you a video dad made of me making mistakes.”

Briar looked at me with concern, “You make mistakes? He teases you about them? Oh, mom, I don’t think that’s very nice.”

Ave chimed in, “I think that’s awesome. Are they on YouTube?”

I nodded. “Wanna see?” They gave me an enthusiastic “right now!” response.

The thing about being a mom, no, I take that back, the thing about being me, sometimes I define my life and my worth too rigidly, separating the good and the bad and hoping that I have more of the former. I am not all good or all bad and sometimes what might be bad about me is actually what brings my relationship with my girls closer. It can also be the thing that makes me bette at work, or in relationships.

We’re going to be ok, we just have to be ok with the fact that life comes with outtakes.

 

 

Never Been a Planner

I remember when we were putting our wedding together people said,

“So what were you thinking?”

I would stammer, all I was thinking was, “I just want to marry him. Isn’t that enough?”

I didn’t have an iron clad vision of just how things needed to be, because in a sense they were already perfect—he’d asked me to marry him and I had said yes. Everything that was bound to follow the proposal was what I wanted, so I didn’t let the planning of the wedding bother or overwhelm me.

My career has been similar to my wedding. I have never had a strong structure to my goals, rather I’ve dug into almost every position I have ever had to prove that there is more to me than people think. As a scenic carpenter, there wasn’t more skill than anyone thought, but I was hell bent to show that what I lacked in know-how, I could make up for in steely determination. There was no sheet of plywood or stick of lumber too heavy for me to carry. As a salesperson my initial lack of polish and confidence was offset by my ability to relate to prospective clients and demonstrate sincerity, a vastly more successful mechanism for closing deals than a well-practiced pitch. Since then I have worked with at-risk youth, eked my way through contracting with union crews, hawking product at Origins, building a blog and email marketing initiative at a chamber of commerce, and helping lift a product through marketing and social media strategy to be acquired by another company.

Twenty years into my professional life and I find myself at what some people might call a crossroads. I have two businesses, one, despite my love for it, must go. The marketing agency that I own with my husband and two partners is soaring. It has been a blessing through the years as I have been able to honor, albeit with some guilt, the ebb and flow of my desire to be in the workplace. I have taken meetings and I have been home for nap-time. I’ve also brought my daughters to work and carried on tense work conversations from the phone in my kitchen. Creating this company without a rich uncle or a fat roster of clients was not easy, but it has taught me exactly what I always set out to show others; I am more than I think.

When you close a business there are so many questions and speculation. Entrepreneurs know that there is always a risk, although truth be told I think many of us never think about the risk or the potential of failure, you just move ahead using all the tools that you have. Thinking about failure just makes you fail faster. Whether it’s in terms of a business or delivering a speech, believing in yourself is central to succeeding. There are many reasons and, just as with the wedding, the specifics of it don’t matter, there was love and that is what I keep as our retail store closes.

Now what? Am I a failed business owner? Is it time to doubt myself? What does it mean that I started something and it didn’t make it? I thought that I might be embarrassed, so much so that I spent months trying to change the ending, but now that I am here all that I can see is a beautiful thing. A business that I never intended to have became a deeply meaningful part of my life, teaching me what I can and cannot do, what I love, and the difference between trusting other people and trusting myself. The best comparison I can make is that seemingly endless stretch of time as new parent when your baby, despite all of your preparing, fusses. People weigh in, sometimes they judge, but they are rarely in the room with you. Some nights the relentlessness of the crying brings you to the edge—sleep, quiet, triumph seem menacingly out of reach. Will you ever make it? And then they sleep, they burrow into the space between your chin and collar bone, their tiny, impossibly soft hands trace your skin. It isn’t easy, it isn’t without flaws, but it is unmistakably perfect.

We were married in June and no one rented a cabin. We didn’t gather around a campfire and have stew with wonderful, crusty rolls. We did string twinkly lights in a barn and throw quilts over hay bales. The day was, as I had known it would be, perfect. I married Sean just as the sun began to lazily make its way down. I don’t remember the menu or the speeches that were given. What I remember is a hot, sunny day in June, the creak of deck planking, the soft way my grandfather played piano, the unexpected blending of people we loved from different parts of our lives beaming and the moment when we squeezed each other’s hands, lips trembling, and the minister told us that we could kiss as husband and wife.

I believe that in business, as in love, it isn’t about a blemish free fairy tale, it is about realizing who and what you love and understanding that so long as you are able to enjoy that, then you are a success.

Home at Work

When I met Sean I told him that I wasn’t looking to make friends, he told me he wasn’t asking me to marry him. It wasn’t the last time that I would be faced with something that I hadn’t quite thought all the way through. Eventually he did ask me to marry him and I said yes without hesitation. We talked about having kids and celebrated in disbelief when we saw the first pink line. We had no idea how much life would change or how much we would change. I still have a chip on my shoulder, but it doesn’t prevent me from loving the way that it did the summer we met. He is still a romantic, but the years have hardened some of his edges.

Having a family and starting a business has forever changed us. We are, evermore, parents. Parents to our children and to our work, the former being the reason we pressed on for the latter. I was pregnant with Briar when we started Trampoline, a Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprise in New York State. I have contributed to the company every step of the way and have been grateful for the flexibility it has given me over the years. Oh, the brochures that have been written with one hand, as I have held a nursing baby in one arm and run the fingers of my other hand over the keys—sometimes in my office with the door closed, other times at home. Talk about needing to lean in.

Here’s the thing, I had no idea that when I became a mom I would want to stay home, nor did I have any premonition that years later I would ache to work more. People didn’t say that I would be judged for wanting to work, that somehow I am less loving as a mom for wanting to pursue a career. No one shared or admitted that how I viewed my place would shift so dramatically. This fall Finley will head to kindergarten, which will mark the first time in nine years that from the hours of 8-4 my children will, for all intents and purposes, be otherwise occupied. My ability over these years to readjust as my emotions and their hopes demanded more or less of me has been a blessing. This does not mean it has been easy.

Owning a business and taking a day off does not mean that you don’t have to make that time up, nor does staying home and focusing on art projects not create challenges financially. I suppose this is where some of the frustration with the Sheryl Sandberg book comes in—she had help, she had a spouse, and one who made a decent wage. I have heard the argument that if I couldn’t afford to stay home I should not have had kids. People are entitled to their opinions, but as far as the Sheryl Sandberg book goes, or the edict from Yahoo that there would be an end to telecommuting, and as far as the mommy wars and every other media-fueled feud about how we parent and how we rise professionally, there is no one size fits all. There will never be a single voice that comes from a figure who mirrors our own image. We have to carve our own way and take the pearls that come from the different people and plans that we discover along our way.

Yesterday I brought Finley to the office. Monday she had been too sick to go to school, and so we stayed home together. Tuesday she went with a dose of Pedia Care multi-symptom cold medicine in her belly. Yesterday? Yesterday we were running late. There was a one hour delay for the big girls, we had to stop at the pharmacy and I had a 9am meeting that had slipped my mind. Driving out of the pharmacy parking lot I said, “Fin, do you want to go to school or come to my meeting?” She picked my meeting. Is this something that I would do a year from now when she is in elementary school? Probably not. Right now though, I can choose this.

I love the way the girls occupy the space at the office, they greet anyone they meet with respect and genuine interest. They consider our downtown neighbors and our clients to be a part of their circle. They are respectful of our things, but they are also kids. Finley sits with Derek and recites There Was an Old Lady and every time Derek ends in tears of laughter and thanking her for the great break. She tears down the hallway between meetings with an infectious joy.

She stops at each door, arms thrown wide, socks intentionally mismatched and I can almost hear the shutter of a camera as I seal these moments in my bank of memories. They sit alongside my own memories of marveling at the art deco ladies room in the Hult Center and of sitting on parade floats for the United Way, when I was little and one of two daughters of a working mom.

We build forts and construct a mix of productivity and levity. Some days these actions are steeped in a kind of guilt, is it guilt that I am not working? Guilt that I am? Or is the truth that I am not trying to have it all and that I am simply working on and with what I do have?

When she’s not at the office, she is still here. They all are—there is artwork from Briar, a hat from Avery, lists from Finley. I ache with loving them and wanting to be the best that I can for them. My place is in the quest, this ongoing process of building a foundation that provides for our family, allows me to feel that I am contributing to our community in a meaningful way, and in the piecing together a childhood for our girls that has people who love them and experiences that offer perspectives that will serve them as adults.

I am not perfect at this, but as I try to be deliberate about parenting three daughters, I don’t want them to think that perfect is attainable. Failure and disappointment are things that happen, just as love and bliss do. I believe that the greatest gift that I can give them is a template of striving to be a loving parent, a considerate partner, a responsible citizen, and a person open to hearing what other people have to say. I also want them to know that regardless of the opinion of others, if they listen to their hearts they’ll know where they belong and that I love them.

Take a Moment

I remember right before we got married someone said to us, “Take a moment. Forget about thanking people for coming or about when the next toast is, just take a moment. The day goes by so fast and you deserve one sliver of time for just the two of you.” I remember not understanding, but filing away the advice. I am grateful, because we did take a moment away from the crowd to drink each other in as well as the significance of the day.

I carry that advice with me and it came in to play Friday night. We had our industry’s big night, a regional award ceremony recognizing the work of 2012. The theme was Mad Men and it carried with it a special layer of importance because it was the first time ever that Patrick would not be there handing out the awards dressed to perfectly embody whatever the theme.

We committed to dressing up for the event without any reservation in order to carry on Patrick’s spirit of living every moment completely. Not many people dressed up, but then again, not many people lived life like Patrick did. We were delighted to be there dressed up in his mantra, “Don’t ever let them tell you that you have to grow up. Don’t let them!”

I put my highest hair forward and brightest color on in a dress from Laura’s Vintage.

Sean did his best Mad Men minus the infidelity.

Throughout the night we won 9 awards, but there was one that was truly unexpected. I walked to the stage and my tears came without apology, we had worked so hard on and never imagined to win. My screaming yellow dress and my tears were both over-the-top compared to the other faces and outfits in the room, but the advice of our friend rang in my ears. I let myself replay every door that I knocked on, every person who took a leap of faith and joined the campaign, and every weekend, school night and lunch hour that we spent pouring our hearts into this project.

We celebrated with our friends and partners.

We hammed it up.

We cracked ourselves up trying to vamp.

Then, when the evening was almost through, we shared stories with Patrick’s family and told them how honored we were to have known him and to be spending time with each of them. They took this photo of us, which was the next best thing to having Patrick there to hug each of us as we made our way up to collect our awards.

Before we took off our Mad Men finery, Sean and I found a quiet table to reflect on the year behind us and all that we have ahead of us. Lucky me, it ended with serious butterflies because I am, without question, mad about my man.

Without a Doubt

This July I will turn 40. I’m not afraid of it, I’m kind of fascinated by who I’ve become. As the girls are getting bigger and as each birthday puts more distance between my 20-something self and who I am now, I consider what almost was.

What if I had stayed so completely insecure?

I’ve often daydreamed about being able to speak to the people from back then, but honestly though, the person I’d most like to talk to is Amanda.

We’d probably meet at the baseball fields at the community college; the fields are long since covered by campus expansion. I’d be smoking and probably looking deliberately disheveled, part of the lack of confidence back then manifested in a desire to preempt anyone saying that I wasn’t feminine by wearing men’s shoes, baggy jeans and an aloof expression.

“Hey,” I’d say

Hey.

“How are things going?”

Things?

“Your career.”

My job?

“No, your career. How do you like being the Operations Manager at the theatre?”

I’m not really qualified. If something happened I could never run the soundboard. I couldn’t step in for the master electrician.

“Ok, but is that your job?”

Well, it is Operations Manager, you should know how to run the operation, do everything.

“Hmm, the way I see it being Operations Manager means having the competence to ensure that all the things within the operation are managed, not that you actually pull every lever.”

People don’t think I’m qualified, they think I have the job because I’m the boss’s kid. I just keep trying to prove that I am willing to work harder than anyone else. First one in, last one out.

“Ok, what about what you did last year? You met Paul Newman, worked on an Arthur Miller play, left with an invitation to go back to Williamstown as the Associate Production Manger.”

Right, but it was the same thing, I just kind of tricked everyone into seeing past my inexperience and recognizing that I worked hard.

“So you don’t think it’s possible that maybe the reason they asked you back was because you have value?”

No. If they had more time I’m sure they could find someone more qualified.

“Do you think you’re talented?”

There’s a whole lot more that I can’t do, than I can do.

“What can you do?”

She’d light a cigarette now, beginning to panic.

I don’t know. Ok? I don’t know! I can barely manage a resume. I don’t know how to apply for jobs because I don’t have any of the skills that fit what they want.

“Amanda, listen to me. You have to stop holding yourself up to this imaginary perfect job candidate you fear.”

Right. I don’t have a talent. I don’t have a single marketable skill. Do you really think that, “Handles a crisis well,” or “Knows how to work without the right equipment or tools” is a skill set?

“You have no idea how valuable the ability to improvise can be.”

You say that because you know me.

“No, I say it because I’ve seen employees who have all the credentials but who don’t have the character. I’ve seen people focus exclusively on looking the part and then when it comes to actually playing the part, they can’t do it. I am saying it because in the last 15 years I have built a career and a business with how I think and how I leverage my knowledge.”

Company photo for the business I own with my partners.

You don’t have to apply for jobs or prove yourself.

“That isn’t true, no matter where you are in life, you have to be able to articulate why you are different and how that can help a business, situation, or a cause. I have learned that I do have talent and skills and that more importantly they can be translated to any thing that I want to accomplish. The trick is that I have to believe in myself and I have to allow myself to show on the outside all that I have available under the Amanda talent umbrella.”

Post-meeting in NYC.

[She shrugs.]

“It’s a simple shift in approach; you need to apply your efforts to living without doubt. Stop hiding behind cigarettes and stop selling yourself short. Take a little more initiative in how you meet each day. You can carve your own way. Today’s job really could become a career and the days that you are just crossing off on a calendar can become a life. A business, a community, a family, all waiting for you if you just believe, because the doubt—the only thing that will get you is more of the same.”

This post is part of the BlogHer’s Success Tips for My Younger Self editorial series, made possible by Kaplan University.