Parenting, Love and Writing

Ah, the mommy-wife-writer balance! In her insightful and intelligent interview, Dr. Psych Mom asked some really personal questions, so I gave some really personal answers about balancing parenting and work…

1. How do you make time for your husband while raising a daughter and being an awesome best selling author?

Hmmm … interesting question, and the answer is complicated, as well as constantly changing. First of all, thanks — although, I don’t think of myself as a best selling author. My husband Jeff and my daughter Ocean always come first when I’m setting priorities. As I’m trying to decide what’s important on any given day, it’s family first, then work, then everything else. So that helps a little, to compartmentalize that other identity. Lisa Unger the author is not Lisa, Jeff’s wife and Ocean’s mom.

Still, Jeffrey refers to himself as Number Three. Since we got our labradoodle Jak Jak (fur baby), Jeff claims that he’s been demoted to Number Four – Ocean, work, fur baby, then Daddy. (Aw, it’s not that bad.) But, honestly, he does often get what’s left of me at the end of the day. That’s just the season of our life, though. As working parents, we often come last or not at all in the equation.

But we have set priorities for ourselves as a couple, too. We have almost always had Saturday date night. (Not every week, but most weeks.) We get a sitter and we go out – alone or with friends. Ocean has never slept in our bed and she has always had a very early bedtime (because she is a crazy early riser). So we have managed to keep some time and place that is just for us as a couple. We consider our happy marriage to be part of the foundation of our daughter’s life, so we try to honor that for her as much as for us. And we really like each other! We’re best friends. It’s not SO hard to make time for someone you love so much.

2. What’s your favorite parenting stage? Least favorite?

My favorite parenting stage is right now. My daughter is eight going on nine and she is truly awesome – smart, funny, lovely to be around. Yeah, she’s a little whiny, a little stubborn, persistently trying to get me to buy her things and we have bedtime issues. But she’s so curious and interested in doing things with us, and such a little smarty. I just love talking to her, doing things with her, listening to all her wildly creative thoughts. I totally worship her — and doesn’t she know it.

I know there’s this tendency to think of parenting in stages, because every phase is so totally different. Still, there are really beautiful, joyful and blissed out moments, as well as really miserable ones at every point in your life as a parent – just as that’s true of life in general. If I had to pick the most difficult stage, for me it was the year between 6 months and 18 months. Sure, there was all this quiet, blissed-out love time, and she was so perfect and smelled so good. I breast fed for an eternity (like 18 months, yeah one of those), so my daughter was pretty chilled out (though I was a human binky).

But I was mega-stressed out, worried all the time; everything seemed so life and death. She seemed so fragile – and then when she started walking, so clumsy! The falls were spectacular. I felt like I was perpetually grabbing her back from the edge of disaster – my body constantly flooded with cortisol and adrenaline. My vivid writer’s imagination – in which I can imagine the worst-case scenario in stunning detail – was not an asset to me at that time.

Also, I was struggling with the mommy-writer balance. Prior to O’s arrival, nothing ever rivaled my desire to write. And I never lost that passion; I just had a brand new one. So when I was with her, I was thinking about my work. When I was writing, I just wanted to be with her. So I had a really hard time finding a happy place. Adding to that stress, I am the main breadwinner for my family (and it was a new role at that time) – so I was juggling all the new mom stress plus all the provider stress. And it was a pretty heavy load.

But as kids do, Ocean got older. She became more in charge of herself, stopped reaching for meat cleavers and making a beeline for every electrical socket and busy street. I grew more confident as a mother, and better at finding balance between work and life. She started pre-school, and time expanded a bit. I learned that every stage — with all its joys and miseries — passes in a heartbeat. It doesn’t seem like that in the moment; but in retrospect, I think I could have chilled out a bit.

3. What are your strengths and weaknesses as a mom?

I am totally present for Ocean; that’s my number one strength. I work around her schedule. She has traveled with me all over the world for book tours. I start work as early as possible so that I can be with her in the afternoons – either shuttling her around to her various activities or just hanging out doing our projects, crafts, watching a movie, whatever. I’m proud of that.

On the other hand, I think I tend to be a bit too soft. I do things for her that she could and should be doing herself – like brushing her hair, and putting out her clothes. Part of that has to do with that she’s my only, and there isn’t anyone smaller around who needs me more. But also, it has to do with my not always seeing her as someone who can do things for herself. I have to catch myself, and encourage her to be in charge of the things she can handle. Otherwise, there’s this line between taking care of your kid, and communicating that you don’t think she can take care of herself in certain ways. What is caring at a certain age becomes undermining, and robs her of the pride she takes in accomplishing things.

Also, I’m in my head a lot. It’s an occupational hazard. Sometimes I worry that she sees me as this absent-minded person who drifts around thinking about stories, not finishing sentences, more interested in a fictional world than I am in the real one. But then I see her doing the same thing, getting that blank day-dreamy stare. So it might be a weakness, or it might just be who I am. And she’s a lot like me — so maybe that’s okay.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that when we become parents, we don’t cease to be people. We’re wonderful and deeply flawed, sometimes struggling, sometimes doing everything right, and sometimes doing it all wrong. I think just loving your kids and being there for them goes a long way toward balancing out whatever failings we have in the moments of our lives together. And, if not, I’m prepared to pick up the tab when she comes to see you, Dr. Rodman.

4. I see from other interviews that when you met your husband, it was love at first sight. Tell me a little bit about how you complement each other as partners and parents.

Because Jeff is such a relaxed, easy-going guy, I always assumed that I’d be the hard case, and he’d be the softie. Instead, he’s more of the disciplinarian. He’s the one to insist that Ocean clears her plate, and gets her own glass of water, and cleans up her room. He has been the one to try to set boundaries so that I can work when I need to, where I have trouble setting them for myself. You might be getting that I’m kind of a wimp when it comes to Ocean. So we definitely balance each other out in that way.

When Ocean was about a year old, Jeff left his IT job to come work full-time for the corporation we’d established. Of course, the work of being an author is solitary. But there’s also a business component – so Jeff handles the accounting, a good deal of marketing, the website, posting my blogs, and he helps with the social networks.

We thought this would be the perfect situation. I would work in the mornings, while he was on with Ocean, and then he’d work in the afternoons, and I’d have the rest of the day with the munchkin. So that’s another way we balance things, as parents and as co-workers. Of course, there are a lot of challenges when two people live together, parent and work together. Things don’t always go well, and there have been lots of highs and lows. But we’ve been happily married for 14 years, parenting for 8 (almost nine), and working together for 7. So far, no one’s been hauled away in a body bag. So I’ll call that success.

5. What are your five favorite books to read to/with kids?

Oh, gosh, reading with Ocean is one of the biggest joys of my life. I am not exaggerating when I say that we have read to Ocean every single night of her life since the day we brought her home from the hospital. And now she’s a rock star reader in her own right.

There are way too many beloved books to limit to just five. When she has was really little, we read and memorized and recited all the Sandra Boynton books – Your Personal Penguin, The Going to Bed Book, Snuggle Puppy, Belly Button Book.

As Ocean got older, we blazed through the entire Mo Willems library– our absolute favorite being The Pigeon series, though Elephant and Piggie, and Knuffle Bunny are WAY up there on the all time favorites.

In the last couple years, reading has just gotten so much fun for us because we’re discovering new books together. The Harry Potter books are top favorites – they’re a bit dark and a tad old for her, but Ocean is a very sophisticated reader and doesn’t scare easily. This past summer our top reads were: Wonder by RJ Palacio and The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate – both excellent books for middle grade readers. Ocean also reads on her own, currently loving The Book of Elsewhere series, and she just finished Doll Bones by Holly Black. Books are a huge part of our life together; so the list is always growing.

6. Give me one thing you’ve never told another interviewer. Please.

Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever told any of the above to another interviewer. The mommy-wife-writer balance doesn’t come up as much as I’d like, though I have done a bit of blogging about it. In fact, I wrote an essay that got shopped around to the various women’s magazines and never got published because as one editor put it, “the life of a full time writer is not relatable to our readers” – which actually hurt my feelings a little. (There, that’s another thing I never told another interviewer.) I’m blessed to do what I love and make a living at it. But I’m a working mom like lots of other women. And I imagine my struggles are relatable to any mother with a career. Most of us no longer have only one traditional role.

What I try to remember when it gets chaotic is that it’s a blessing to have a life so full. Yes, the balancing of our children, our husbands, our careers (and ourselves!) sometimes seems like a crushing, Gen-X crisis. And, some days, it is. Still I know that I wouldn’t give up any of it – not my gorgeous, funny, firecracker of a daughter, not my cute, supportive, driving, cooking husband, not my nutty career. I look back on how stressed I was during that early phase of Ocean’s life, and think: Wow! I was really a basket case. And now I can’t even remember why. I have a feeling that I’m going to look back on this middle phase – the whole kid, career, marriage phase, and think: It was the whole rainbow of experience, life in all its shades and hues. Too bad you can only see all the colors from a distance.