Lessons From My Daughter

My daughter is smarter than I am.¬† She’s three.¬† I realized that I was outmanned and outgunned during a recent nap-battle.¬†¬† She wanted to wear a large, pink translucent bucket on her head while she napped.¬† I objected, then compromised by leaving it on a near-by shelf.¬† A few minutes later, over the baby monitor, I heard her talking to herself.¬† There was an odd echo by which I determined that she’d put the bucket back on her head.¬† I entered her room and found this to be the case.

“Ocean Rae.¬† Mommy told you to leave the bucket on your shelf.”¬† (Why do I refer to myself in the third person when I speak to my daughter?¬† I have no idea.) ¬†The cherub considered a moment, gazing at me through pink plastic.

“But I thought it was opposites day.”

That she might have this concept of “opposites day” was staggering enough – where did she learn such a thing?¬† But that she could then use it in defense of wrongdoing sent a chill down my spine.

“Ocean,” I said (stammered), mustering my stern mommy voice, “when it comes to your mommy, there is no such thing as opposites day.¬† I will always say precisely what I mean.”

“Oh,” she said.¬† “I see.”

There was no nap that afternoon.¬† And I mark the day as the beginning of the end of naptime, that blessed hour and a half break in the day.¬† It was also the day I realized, that no matter how hard I strive for consistency, routine, to create an environment conducive to napping for my daughter, ultimately she’s the one who chooses to sleep or not.¬† Any illusion of control I had harbored – about naptime, about life in general — began to slowly dissolve.

The writer thinks too much.¬† Words overflow the brain and spirit to land on the page.¬† Motherhood didn’t change this for me.¬† In fact, quite the opposite.¬† I was massively creative in the aftermath of my daughter’s birth, completing my sixth novel as she slept beside me, a tiny, sighing, swaddled bundle.¬† After experiencing a natural childbirth, I felt tapped into a raw vein of creative power. When the book was done, I wrote stories for Ocean, poems, scribbled endlessly in a journal I’d been keeping for her since I was pregnant.¬† I couldn’t stop the words from coming.

Of course, things got more challenging as she grew.¬† My sleeping bundle grew into a cruising, toddling powerhouse.¬† But it was more than just the tending, nursing, playing, caring for and chasing that occupied my days.¬† An author friend of mine told me after the birth of his son, “I thought I’d have plenty of time to work because babies sleep so much.¬† I didn’t factor in the hypnotic love time, all the time I’d spend just in awe of my child. Prepare yourself.”

Before Ocean arrived, nothing had ever rivaled my desire to write.¬† And I had no idea that she would occupy such a huge space in my creative heart.¬† How can you know these things until you’re a mother? You can’t.¬† I knew before she was born that I would need help; but I didn’t know that after she arrived I wouldn’t want any.¬† I knew I couldn’t, wouldn’t stop being a writer.¬† But I didn’t know that, as much as I love my work, I would hate my time away from her.

I tried to do it alone, my husband caring for our daughter in the morning hours before his workday started.¬† I would write from 5 AM until 9 AM, when he had to leave.¬† Then I would spend my days as a full-time mom – walks on the beach, Kindermusik classes, mommy and me pre-school, milling homemade baby food.¬† I’d work in the nooks and crannies I found, at naptime, at night, on the weekends.¬† But after a year of this, I felt a little schizophrenic, fractured, spent.¬† It seemed like the mother-writer combo should work quite well, because both enterprises are creative, because they can both be accomplished in the home.¬† There’s something pretty and romantic about each endeavor. The trick is, if you’re doing either well, each demands your maximum creative output.¬† If you’re trying to do both well, there’s nothing left at the end of the day.

“You need to find some help,” my friend, bestselling author Margaret Coel advised.¬† Her daughters were grown, with children of their own. “Because it doesn’t get any easier.”

I knew she was right.¬† So, a parade of babysitters followed.¬† One sitter fell asleep while caring for Ocean.¬† I found her napping with her head on my nursing pillow, while Ocean happily tossed books from her shelf.¬† A college student came one day, showing promise, all eager and full of energy, and never returned again, never called to say why.¬† During a phone interview, another woman told me that she wanted to help me care for my daughter because she didn’t want a “real job.”¬† No one managed to occupy her sufficiently to keep her from looking for me, and I wasn’t hard wired to stay behind a locked door while she cried.

Okay, so maybe I had a hard time letting go.  But does any of that sound okay?  Suffice it to say, this idea of a nanny in the house while I worked just never got off the ground.

And then, of course, there were the book tours.¬† One when Ocean was just four months old and then another when she was just over a year. I took her with me (along with my husband and my mother).¬† At age three, my daughter has been on over 70 flights, has traveled to London, Paris, Frankfurt and Prague.¬† She has been breastfed in bookstore parking lots and backrooms around the country, and — in one particularly dark moment — by the side of a highway in the backseat of a rental car while my husband fed me a taco from the front seat.¬† Not pretty.

When I signed the biggest contract of my life, my husband and I decided that he would quit the job he disliked and stay home full time to manage business aspects of my career and to help care for our daughter.¬† It was a goal we’d had long before Ocean was born.¬† We would consider the corporation that we had formed to support my novels to be our family business and he’d do the accounting, the web publicity, and get creative about marketing – as he’d always done, even when I wasn’t making any money at all.¬† Now, he’d draw a paycheck for his efforts.¬†¬† I’d write in the mornings, from 5AM to Noon, then have my afternoons and evenings with my little girl.¬† I didn’t want to give up my time with her.¬† I decided I didn’t want to let go of my career and I didn’t want to let go of being a full-time mom, either.¬† I would do both.¬† And Jeff being home would make this possible.¬† It was perfect, idyllic, right? (Insert hysterical laughter here.)

I’ll start by saying that having my husband home full-time, to work together and to share all parenting responsibilities is a gift.¬† It’s a blessing that he¬†wants¬†to do it, and that we can make it work financially.¬† But, to be honest, there are some days when I think one of us is leaving this relationship in a body bag (hint: it’s him).¬† Which is to say that there are unique pressures to our situation that occasionally add, rather than alleviate, stress.¬†¬† When it works, it works perfectly.¬† When it doesn’t, chaos descends.

The women of my generation were raised to believe that not only could we have it all, but in fact, we¬†must¬†have it all. Brilliant careers, high-achieving children, egalitarian marriages, Brazilian bikini waxes, buns of steel, while washing the gray right out of hair¬† …¬† And there’s a special kind of pressure in this level of expectation.¬† But it’s almost subliminal, a low buzz in your brain, a nagging sense that there are no rules to follow but that somehow you’re failing anyway.¬† Add to that the pressure of new motherhood, the sudden shouldering of financial responsibility for my family, and a career that is a rollercoaster of dizzying highs and crushing lows.¬†¬† I told a reporter who came to interview me, “Some days it’s a bit crazy.¬† But it’s a blessing to have a life so full.”

Of course, that’s not the whole story.¬† Some days I am so washed away by gratitude for my wonderful husband and beautiful, funny, smart daughter, for the gift of living the only dream I ever had of my life as a full-time writer, that I want to weep.¬† And other days when I’m overwhelmed, feeling my way, wondering if in trying to do everything, I’m doing¬†anythingwell, that I want to weep harder.

But that’s life, right?¬† That’s everybody’s life — a series of good days and bad.¬† No matter what, no matter who.¬† If you’re a movie star or if you’re a single mom working two jobs to make ends meet, this is a truth of everyone’s life —¬† in matters of degree.¬† My generation was sold another unrealistic expectation: happiness is a condition that can be achieved and maintained permanently.

Watching my daughter grow and change from a tiny swaddled bundle to a lovely, graceful, smart little girl has taught me that happiness is not a windfall or a lottery jackpot, not something that is bestowed when we have a beautiful child, or find a wonderful husband, or a dream career.¬† It’s a series of choices we make every day.¬† And every day is different, with a new formula for success. When she entered my life, I was knocked off center in a myriad of wonderful, terrible, funny, awful ways.¬† And for a while, I was trying to find an exact equation for balancing all the things I was before she arrived and all the things I am now.¬† I was certain if I could create the right configuration of work and time with Ocean, time for myself, time with my husband – oh, and sleep, one must also sleep — everything would go smoothly every day.

But that’s not how it works. As Ocean learned to cruise and then to walk, her falls were devastating, but she always chose to get back up and try again.¬† Today I have to run to keep up with her.¬† As she struggled to express herself, she’d dissolve into tears.¬† But frustration in learning didn’t keep her from mastering language. This morning she told me, “Oh, Mommy, my shoes are so¬†stylish!”¬†¬† She has always tried to carry things too big for her – brooms and giant exercise balls, to climb things too tall for her, raging when objects were too unwieldy, too heavy, stairs too steep.¬† This morning she retrieved the vacuum from the closet and cleaned the floor; she scales the jungle gym at school with the ease of a little monkey.¬† With some combination of tenacity and personal growth, a perfect flexibility and willingness to try another way, every challenge she has faced, she has mastered.¬† My daughter is the happiest person I know.

Three years in, her lessons are finally starting to take hold. I do try to remember them even when my brain feels crowded by negative thoughts and feelings, when the fog of self-doubt rolls in from the sea.

  • Seeking balance will always be a journey.¬† When it is achieved, it will only be for a moment.¬† Eventually, for reasons internal or external, you will need to readjust and find center again.
  • In seeking balance, you will fall spectacularly and often.¬† Whether you laugh or cry about it is up to you.
  • Having a life too full of things you love and want to do well, even when the pressure is on, is a gift.
  • Marriage, motherhood, and a writing career – these are all organic and creative enterprises.¬† They shift and change, ebb and flow.¬† Learn to change and flow with them.¬† Any rigidity or efforts to control will result in needless pain.¬† Bend, or break down.
  • Learn from setbacks and rejoice in victory.¬† We only have moments in each condition in the forward trajectory of our lives.

Ocean is in pre-school now.¬† And after two years of working from home and parenting full-time, my husband and I have worked out most of the kinks in our situation – the key being a clear division of duties, giving each other lots of space – and offices on separate sides of the house.¬† So far, the neighbors haven’t had to call 911.¬† We did finally find some reliable help with Ocean, which allows us some of that all-important couple time, because our wonderful, loving, egalitarian marriage is the foundation of all we do.¬† And of course, like everybody’s life, sometimes it all seems to work. It’s effortless. And other days I feel like Sisyphus, endlessly rolling that boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again and crush me.

And on those days, my daughter’s strength, resourcefulness and tenacity inspires me.¬† In just three short years, she has learned to walk, run, speak, paint, use the potty, and sleep in her big girl bed, not to mention a constellation of other brilliant accomplishments.¬† Of course, there is a lifetime of wonderful, scary, exciting, and joyful challenges ahead of her.¬† But she doesn’t know that yet.¬† She’s fully in the moment with her successes, enjoying every single one.¬† And this is something innate within her, a lesson she never had to learn, and one I’ll keep striving to master.