Mommy Chronicles

A funny look at motherhood and the mayhem it causes.

October 30, 2005

In defense of the bake sale

Maybe I just notice it more now that I’m a mother who gave up a high-powered career to spend more time with her daughters.

But I can’t seem to pick up a newspaper or magazine without reading something depressing that accuses women like me of abandoning feminism, or trading in our potential for a cushy life as conformists and sex objects, “stranded in suburbia,” as the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd – who has no children – calls it.

Worse, the media predict permanent doom for those of us who hop off the corporate ladder while our children are small and needy. "Women find it impossible to restart their careers," the articles claim. One New York human resources official – a woman - even said, "Volunteering at the bake sale is probably not going to help you re-enter the work force."

Excuse me. But that is total bullshit.

The problem is that mothers and fathers who adjust their work schedules for the sake of their children don’t have articulate people explaining why we’re doing what we’re doing.

It’s not just baking cookies, nor is it simply a chance “to spend time with our children,” as the human resources official said. That makes it sound like a hobby.

What's more, the cause of thoughtful parents, and particularly feminists who choose children over careers, isn’t helped by the loony Biblical literalists who argue that women are men’s helpmeets whose place is in the home.

Nor are we helped by the uppity, controlling types who call daycares and other professional forms of childcare “abandoning one’s children to strangers.” This is false and makes full-time working parents and even part-timers feel guilty for needing a break – for whatever reason – from a job that otherwise lasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

I wish those people would shut their pie holes and let other people make the case for a modern kind of parenthood: one where the difficulty of the job is recognized, the intellectual and strategic rigors are respected, and where a short-term reallocation of time – the only resource in finite supply – is recognized as a crucial contribution not only to the lives of our children, but to society as a whole.

Here’s what I mean.

Raising children well is physically and emotionally grueling. Imagine a corporate executive having to be near the office all day, every day, with no vacations – unless a trained proxy can fill in for the short term (such a person could never be trusted with the long-term health of the company). Oh, and the pay and benefits are zero dollars. Less, if you consider the expense of working the job.

Such an executive would be regarded as incredible. A true believer. Someone making noble sacrifices for the sake of shareholders. Either that, or insane.

And yet, these are the working conditions that people caring for their own children face. Physically, it is exhausting. The emotional cost is even higher, compounded by the uncertainty of the job. First time parents often say, “I don’t care if it’s a boy or a girl, as long as it’s a healthy baby.” But even that isn’t something we can count on. Nor is it an excuse to walk off the job. Any parent who’s spent time in the hospital with a sick baby – as I have – knows you can’t. You can give this job your heart and soul, and get no guarantees your child will even survive.

Parenthood is not mindless; it requires strategic planning and thinking. And I’m not just talking about the challenge of timing dinner preparation so that all the elements of a meal are done at the same time, all the while wearing a toddler legwarmer.

Rather, it’s the planning that goes into a good life: figuring out how to grow our children’s minds, discover their passions, develop their ethical and moral sense, keep their bodies fit and healthy, and out of trouble.

Even with top-notch childcare (which comes at incredible cost), parents still must be deeply involved in their children’s lives to be confident of a good outcome, which benefits society as a whole.

To write this off as “volunteering at the bake sale” is the deepest of insults. That it comes from a woman makes it worse.

Why is it that corporate executives aren’t described as spending their time “wearing neckties” or “sitting in padded chairs”? Both are accurate descriptions of the appearance of that work. But they fail to capture the intention of the work, which is far more significant.

Bake sale volunteers are people who recognize that schools don’t have enough money to teach our children well, and that their time spent earning extra funds for language, art and other programs will pay off for their children and for society in the distant future. It isn’t baking cookies; it is investing in minds, spirits and the soundness of society. This is strategic, and it is admirable.

I spend a half-day each week in my daughters’ classroom; when I was the editor of, I would have made considerable money for that time. What’s more, I am not a full-time mother; I have a part-time nanny for my toddler. I could make $250 in consulting fees for the hours I volunteer in my kindergartener’s classroom. And yet, which hours will continue to have value many years down the road? I believe the ones spent helping children -– and the people they meet -- have better, more productive, and more meaningful, lives.

The idea that any other person who diverts career time for the sake of his or her kids would have to start over on the career ladder is ludicrous and insulting.

I don't deny this phenomenon is real. When I asked to continue my work at Microsoft part-time, I was told that was impossible. Today, the job is held by a man who works in London. The message: a man who is never in the office is preferable to a woman who is there some of the time.

But the blindness of corporations to the value of parents -- both in and out of the office -- is something we must fight. I have never worked so hard, and I have never been as effective with my hours. I am confident that all serious parents –- the ones who recognize that our lives change when we have children –- could do the same.

That is, if we had the words to sell the importance of what we do. And so this is what parents who are ready to re-enter the workforce or go back to full-time emloyment need to say about the way we've been spending our lives.

We were not baking cookies. We were not fulfilling Biblical obligations. Nor were we “opting out” of the hard, hard career world for the comforts of being kept by a well-paid spouse. We simply recognized that there is a relatively short window of time that we, personally, could ensure the future of the human race.

The stakes are no lower than this. Our society needs world-class healers, teachers, thinkers, builders, artists, scientists and more. It needs people who are prepared to operate at the very highest level to address the problems the world faces: disease, poverty, violence, environmental degradation, and despair.

Right now, these people are children, children who will not automatically develop wisdom, passion, courage, or the capacity for deep compassion and unending work. They cannot learn to do this in the factory setting that is our current school system. As excellent as the teachers I’ve seen are, these are values that must be taught one-on-one, a single day and a single experience at a time. Our children can’t do this if they are abandoned to television or video games, or to anything in isolation from people who can help them make sense of the world.

Doing this well requires a certain sacrifice.

In another, less shallow and materialistic time, the people willing to give their lives up in the service of others, the people willing to do the lowest work for those who can not do it for themselves, weren't called conformists, sex objects or sell-outs.

They were called heroes and saints. Last time I checked, the world today needs more of these.

That it is mostly women who are willing to do this work is not a reflection on our failure as feminists; it is evidence of how far the men, who still rule this world, have to go.

October 14, 2005

The Physics of Parenting

It doesn’t take a degree in rocket science to have kids. But then again, a basic understanding of physics can really help you raise your nuclear family.

Antimatter: Excessive, often inappropriate gifts given by aunts (and uncles)

Black hole: Your child’s brain after watching too much TV

Cold fusion: When your kids pass the same cold back and forth to each other all winter

Gravity: How you measure the length of a time out; the heavier the crime, the longer the time

Light year: The year before you became a parent (and each year before that)

Newtonian Physics: Explains the paradox of how fig cookies that stick to furniture can unstick your child’s colon

Particle Physics: The tendency of a couch to accumulate basic units of household matter

Perpetual Motion: The dance the dog does under the highchair

Quark: The sound that alerts you to a dirty diaper

Radioactivity: A child’s tendency to turn up the volume on the radio or TV, even after you've yelled "turn it down" 1,000 times

Relativity: The closer family members live to you, the faster they seem to run away when you need free baby-sitting

Speed of light: How quickly the morning comes when you’ve up all night with a newborn

String Theory: Explains why shoes always come untied, while yo-yos tie and kites do the opposite

Super collider: A room with two boys in it (see also quark and vortex)

Thermodynamics: The tendency of a child to squirm uncontrollably while you’re trying to take her temperature

Vortex: Another word for a room that has been visited by children

October 02, 2005

Mom Loves Duck

As with many of the world’s the truly great love affairs, I had never planned for this one to happen. But, against all odds, it did.

And despite the fact that it came to a terribly sad end, I have no regrets – only pity for the people who can’t understand how much a stuffed duck, just nine inches tall, can mean to a woman rapidly approaching middle age.

His name was Snatchy. Snatchy McQuackers.

I first laid eyes on him one cool December day in 2000, when Lucy was just four months old. She’d been out with Adam; I had given explicit orders for him not to buy anything.

“For the love of cleanliness! We live in a small apartment with a baby, an old dog and an incontinent cat that literally scares the crap out of our other cat on a daily basis! Go to the store if you must! But do not buy anything! We! Are! Out! Of! Room!”

One would think this sort of instruction is clear.

But for a man who loves his daughter and delights in her newfound ability to snatch things and put them in her mouth, there are no words a wife can utter that will stop him from pulling out his credit card and buying the stuffed animal the baby has drooled on.

“Other people saw her do it,” he said. “We had no choice.”

And so Snatchy came to live with us in our crowded condominium.

Despite my better judgment, I found myself in falling in love with the intelligent sparkle in his beady little eyes. I adored stroking the tuft of white fuzz that poked out of his big yellow head. And I thrilled the way Lucy laughed when Adam made Snatchy dive from dizzying heights and land in a small cup full of pretend shark-infested water. He was one brave duck.

Lucy seemed to love him, too. Snatchy was the closest thing she had to a security blanket, though she never managed to find anything that gave her as much comfort as sticking her hand inside my shirt and tweaking my nipple. Alas.

Snatchy rode with her in the stroller. He slept with her in her crib. He never once complained when she left the crib to sleep with us in our bed, night after night after night. If only I could have been such a stoic duck.

Though many lesser stuffed animals were purged in our eventual move to a real house, Snatchy came with us. He survived the incontinent cat. He survived the other cat, who, before her death, eventually became incontinent. He outlived my beloved dog, who had the good sense not to chew Snatchy’s eyes out or lose bladder control.

Sure, we misplaced Snatchy from time to time. But every time I’d find him in the back of the car, alongside the spare tire, or in the filthy hollow behind the dryer, I’d shout his name.

And I’d look into his beady eyes, and it was as though we were never apart. Although he lost some of his head fluff, as well as all the stitching on his beak, to me, he was the same old Snatchy I’d always loved. Oh, and Lucy seemed glad to have him back, too.

Snatchy was with us when baby Alice was born. And he was with us when we decided to conduct an experiment to determine whether newborns or puppies are a bigger pain in the ass. We brought home a puffy little golden retriever when baby Alice was just six weeks old, and were able to prove that puppies are worse than babies -- if only because human babies do not poop worms on your hardwood floors when you have company over.

I look back on it now and realize that, for Snatchy, the puppy was the beginning of the end. I will never forget the way my heart pounded the first time I saw him in the puppy’s mouth.

“Snatchy!” I yelled, and dove across the floor. I was just in time. Snatchy was fine. I made a solemn promise that I would never let him set another plush orange foot on the floor again. It was just too risky.

But mothers should never make such promises when there are four-year-olds on the scene. To a four-year-old, the floor is a fine place for toys, books, jewelry, quarters, blankets, hairbrushes, grapes, improperly sealed sippy cups, and even ducks that someone loves very, very much.

And this is how, one day, I came to find Snatchy with his beak chewed off. His cottony insides burst out of his face like a cloud. And his eyes, his beautiful eyes, they were gone.

Though I tried to hide him, Lucy, who was home from preschool with a terrible cold, caught sight of him. She turned her face to the sky and yelled, “SNATCHYYYYYYYYYY!” Then she wept more snotty tears than would have filled the cup Snatchy used to dive into, back in the day when he still had a face.

It was bad enough that I’d found Snatchy dead; it was worse to see Lucy’s heart ripped in two, spilling its cottony love all over the living room.

I called Adam at work.

“It’s Snatchy,” I said. “It doesn’t look good.”

Although I know you can never replace true love, I thought I might be able to trick Lucy with an identical replacement.

No luck. The store where Snatchy had come from three years earlier no longer carried him. I searched on eBay. And then finally, I found a duck bearing an uncanny resemblance on a website that sells logo giveaways. Better yet: He was just $3.

So I ordered him. Minutes later, I got a notice that my order had been canceled, because I hadn’t met their minimum order requirements.

I wrote to the company, asking if they could make an exception, just this once. I told the whole tender story of Snatchy, and how he came to live with us, and how much my daughter loved him.

“Sorry,” a woman named Tracy wrote back with astonishing speed. “We only sell in the minimum qtys posted. You will need to find one through a retailer.”

Tracy, who didn’t even care enough to write out quantity in its entirety, recommended I find a retailer who carried the duck.

So I wrote back, asking if she knew of any.

“No sorry I don't,” she replied, not caring enough to use commas. I would just try searching the website or check at your local stores.”

Because there is no such thing as “the website” that carries replacement stuffed animals that have been mauled by puppies, and because I live in a major city with more “local stores” than a mind like Tracy’s could ever imagine, I felt close to giving up.

But then I tried one more search.

And I found a better company than Tracy’s. Better because they were willing to send out free samples of their merchandise, if I only paid the shipping.

And so this is how I came to have a replacement for Snatchy McQuackers. He wasn’t quite the same. Snatchy II’s eyes weren’t as shiny. He had more hair and intact beak stitching. And he leaked small, plastic balls from between his legs until I stitched him up.

Still, Lucy believed a miracle had occurred. She had her Snatchy once again.

It was only when, a few weeks later, Lucy had another meltdown that I realized perhaps her love for Snatchy was not as deep as I had imagined. A coupon for a free ice cream cone that I’d clipped out of a newspaper got wadded up.

“My COUPONNNNNN!” she cried out, tipping her head at the sky just as she’d done the day Snatchy died.

“It’s okay, Lucy,” I reassured her. “We can get another one.”

And at that moment, deep inside, deeper than a whole stack of cups a brave duck could dive into, I knew that another coupon, like another duck, really would make things all right for her.

But it wouldn’t make things all right for me. I’d fallen in love with my daughter’s stuffed duck. For me, though, he was more than just a duck. He was a symbol -- tangible evidence that I knew and could provide what my daughter needed and loved.

After all, isn’t this what all parents want? To understand our children’s hearts, and to keep them safe and full?

It’s an impossible wish. No matter how good our Web searching skills, or how willing we are to abuse the free-sample policies at promotional merchandise catalogs, we will surely fail. Our children’s hearts will break -- over lost ducks, crumpled coupons and love gone wrong. And as we watch helplessly from a distance, ours will break, too.

I never thought that finding my one true love and bringing his daughters into the world would be this hard, would involve this much heartbreak. So much for happily ever after.

And so this is goodbye, Snatchy. I miss you still.