Truth be told, though, that statement was often accompanied by someone shaking their head and displaying a facial expression that ranged from genuine respect to befuddled disbelief. And it usually came in response to learning that I was undertaking some new venture, commitment or project. Ultimately, that phrase was responsible for me making the biggest change of and in my life.
I‘ve always been a working mother (is there any other kind?). I went to college in order to have a career, and my husband of 24 years, David, and I decided to have children because we wanted to have a family. We‘re blessed with three great ones - Jordan, Taylor and Christian - and all the other stuff that comes with life, like great relatives, a car loan, a mortgage, credit card debt and pets. You know the drill.
To keep all these balls up in the air, we‘ve been gainfully employed. He‘s a social worker, and I have a background in media and public relations. Until one month ago, I had the absolute pleasure of serving as the marketing director of Traverse City‘s Downtown Development Authority. It was a great job - demanding but with enough flexibility that I could get the kids to the dentist or doctor, chaperone them on a field trip or drive them to dance class or a cross country meet.
In addition to being a working mom, and not just for kicks and grins, I‘ve worn a great number of other hats. I‘m a freelance writer; director, teacher and performer; a committed community activist on a number of fronts, board member, also on a number of fronts; and in general, someone who couldn‘t seem to find the word “no“ in her vocabulary.
But I hit a personal wall of sorts this past summer in late July when someone said to me, “I don‘t know how you do it all.“
In the past, I‘d sort of blow the remark off and quip about not sleeping, or it not being a pretty sight, answers that were actually steeped in reality, but on this one occasion, I found I didn‘t have a reply besides the one I offered up for the first time. “I‘m not sure that I am,“ I said. “I think something‘s going to have to give soon, before it‘s me.“
I‘d been thinking for awhile, mostly around that wonderful hour of 3:00 a.m. when you can‘t sleep and all of life‘s little woes seem magnified, that yes, I was doing all these things, but that they weren‘t anything to be marveled at or over. I‘d lay awake at night trying to do a jigsaw puzzle of sleep with too many pieces missing, worrying about the impossible balancing act one does on the tightrope of working and mothering and how to reconcile those two great passions. Yes, something had to give, but I had no idea how to let go of any part of it. Until someone said, “I don‘t know all you do it all.“ At that moment and with a rare burst of clarity, I knew I was going to leave my job and concentrate on my family.
Luckily, David was incredibly supportive of the idea, and encouraged me by saying things like “So, we‘ll eat rice and beans,“ “We‘ll cut back on expenses and you can do more freelance writing,“ and, most importantly, “We need to have you around more than you need to be working.“ He was right on all counts. But I also knew I had to pull back on the number of other commitments I had going, from being a member of too many boards to volunteering for political campaigns. If I was going to focus on my family, I had to do just that, and learn to say “no“ in the process.
So as of October 6, I‘ve been gainfully unemployed, save for the freelance writing I‘m pursuing so that we can pay bills, and fully plugged in to being Mom in a very different way than I have for the past 16 1/2 years. It‘s strange. I‘ve never not gotten up and gone to the office, but now, after getting up and to school, I return home and go upstairs to my own office and work on whatever writing assignment I‘m fortunate enough to have gotten. I‘ll say it again. It‘s strange. Prior to this, I was rarely ever in the house by myself, but now I‘m here most of the time. There‘s no soap operas or bon-bons in the equation, and “I don‘t know how you do it all“ has been replaced with comments about my being a “lady of leisure. Yeah, right. I feel that I have to be productive and earn my keep here, so if I‘m not writing, I‘m doing housework or trying to get to one of a long list of long overdue projects. Mostly, I work at being accessible and available to my family, in whatever way they need me.
That is now my job, and I‘ve warned them, “Be careful what you ask for because you might just get it.“ After about a month, I think they‘re beginning to get used to the idea that this is how we‘re all living now, and so am I. I think they rather like it, and so do I. But it is different and strange, this redefinition of being a working mom. I always was one, but it took leaving a job I loved to pursue the best job I‘ll ever have. Maybe I‘m not doing it all, but I feel like I‘m having it all - for the first time in my life.
Look for more of Nancy Sundstrom‘s articles on a wide range of topics in upcoming issues of the Express.