Sunday, December 28, 2008

Working Mom, Crazy Mom? Part Two: When It's Time to Change, You've Got to Rearrange

Every new mom is a sleep-deprived mom. If you find one who tells you she doesn't feel groggy most of the day, she's either lying to you or she has round-the-clock nanny service.

Part of the problem is that infants don't really have a set routine, no matter how much you try to create one for them. Their sleep patterns can change from week to week or even day to day; they become more active with each passing hour; and you never know what's going to set them off and have them crying and in need of their mothers' arms.

In short, your life is not your own when you're a mom.

When my first child turned six months old, I decided to devote my days to her. Outside of her nap time and the hour she spent in the babysitting room at the YMCA while I worked out, she was my constant companion, and her needs dictated almost every move I made. I still intended to write, but there wasn't time in the day for that, so it was time to make a few adjustments.

The beauty of working from home is that you can do it anytime you like and in whatever clothes you choose. As long as you make your deadlines, you could be working at 3 in the morning in a bunny suit and your employers wouldn't care.

So my workday became my work night. At 10:30 p.m., once the baby and my husband were safely in bed, I would slip into my pajamas and start my writing assignments. Those were my younger days, when there was no internal clock telling me it was way past my bedtime. I would simply work until the work got done.

Some evenings I wrote from 10:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. At other times, when I was faced with more than one deadline at a time, my work night was much, much longer. I distinctly remember several occasions when I dragged my exhausted body to bed, only to hear my husband's alarm sound off five minutes later. Luckily, the baby was past getting up in the middle of the night, and because we put her to bed late, she usually didn't stir until at least 7:30 or 8:00 in the morning.

The work got done, my child's needs were being met, and all seemed right with the world. Except for one thing: If I didn't get more than five hours of sleep in a night, I was...well, I guess you could say mean. Or moody. Or forgetful. Or crazed. Or all of the above. In short, as I look back, I was a mess several days out of the week.

At the time, I certainly didn't see myself as a sleep-deprived lunatic. I was just doing what I thought was natural: taking care of a house and a child during the day and working all night. That sounds completely natural and doable, doesn't it?

My husband appreciated the extra money I was bringing in, but not the extra doses of mania and hormonal imbalances. "No one asked you to stay up all night writing," he said to me on more than one occasion after I had ranted and raved about how tired I was. Well, no, but I had to stay up to get the work done, didn't I?

Who knows. Before we saw just how crazy I could become from my nutty schedule, the situation changed. Another baby plopped into our lives. And then another. And soon I found myself with three children under the age of four, a big house to care for, a husband to keep relatively happy and a workload that would have been doable if I didn't also have the full-time career of motherhood.

Instead of throwing in the writing towel and choosing to focus on the ultimately more important, albeit less financially rewarding, job of being a housewife, I changed my schedule again. And again. And again. Each time a new child arrived or one child developed a new sleeping habit, I adjusted my work schedule to accommodate.

The process worked, for the most part. I made sacrifices in a lot of areas, missing a deadline to care for a sick child, or worse, missing the opportunity to play "Simon Says" with my children so I could complete a project. No matter how I rearranged, I couldn't stay caught up with everything. One thing always managed to catch up with me, though: GUILT. Oh, the guilt, guilt, guilt, guilt, guilt.

But we'll save that story for next time.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Working Mom, Crazy Mom? Part One: In the Beginning...

Note: This is an ongoing series of blog posts aimed at answering a question that has been plaguing me, and no doubt other women, for several years: Is it a good thing or a bad thing for a mom to work from home? In this series, I'll explore my own experiences--good, bad and just plain frightening--and hopefully gain insight from other working moms.

"I'm going to keep writing from home after I have the baby," I told a friend of mine nine years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child.

If I remember correctly, she dropped the receiver and made loud snorting noises.

When she finally returned to the phone, slightly more composed, she had only one line for me: "Good luck, honey."

"Why?" I asked, filled with indignation and pregnancy hormones. "I can write from home; I'm doing it now."

"You'll see. It's hard," she said. Humph, what does she know, anyway?

For the first six months of my daughter's life, I praised myself for being the mom who could care for an infant, cook, clean and earn a paycheck at the same time. "I am woman, hear me roar," I found myself happily singing.

Then Mia learned to reach for things, like the computer keyboard, and to grab my attention by yelling at the top of her lungs. Hard to conduct a phone interview with that in the background. And that was the beginning of the end. Mia learned how to push my buttons faster than a fish learns how to swim. She knew how to distract me from my work, and how to get me to throw my hands up in the air, take her on my lap and start to hum the annoying songs of "Barney."

Of course, I had to admit to my friend that she was kind of right. She knew what lots of mommies know: Working from home while caring for young children is both a blessing and a curse.

A blessing because...

1.) You are there to see all the "firsts": sitting up, crawling, walking and talking. You don't have to hear about them from the babysitter or the daycare provider.

2.) You can spend time teaching your child in a relaxed atmosphere. I can remember sitting on the floor and connecting two blocks over and over again. "Together, apart. Together, apart," I'd repeat to help Mia connect what I was doing with the words I was saying. Not that I couldn't have done things like that if I had worked outside the home, but I probably would have been so tired at the end of the day that I would have fallen asleep with the blocks in my hands.

3.) When they get older, you are there as the children get on the bus in the morning and get off in the afternoon. (Except for those afternoons when you are trying to finish up a deadline project and praying that the bus is a little late, but it arrives six minutes early and your children show up at the back door with their hands on their hips asking over and over, "Where were you?" So you make it up to them by plying them with chocolate chip cookies.)

A curse because...

1.) You feel guilty that you are constantly putting the child aside to do work or putting the work aside to take care of the child.

2.) You give up nice work clothes for drool-stained sweatpants, and you can't remember if you brushed your teeth or washed your hair this morning.

3.) No matter how hard you try, you feel that you will never accomplish a single task--from folding the laundry to fulfilling an order for a client--for the rest of your life.

A working mom is nothing if not flexible, and so you find yourself rearranging your days--and your nights--to make things work. And that will bring us to the next post in this series: "Time for a Few Adjustments."

Monday, December 15, 2008

Illegal or Immoral: What's More Important to Teach our Children?

Plain Dealer columnist Connie Schultz wrote in Sundays' newspaper about the frighteningly popular trend of teens taking and distributing naked pictures of themselves. Eight people between the ages of 14 and 16, all students at a suburban Cleveland high school, were distributing naked photos that were originally taken by a young girl who wanted to show her ex-boyfriend "what he was missing."

None of the kids knew that circulating such photos was illegal. Even more surprisingly,none of them seemed to know it was just plain wrong.

Schultz's column encourages parents to talk about the dangers of circulating naked photos because, if caught, they could be labeled sexual predators, a title that will follow them for years into their adulthood.

No parent wants his or her child going to juvenile court and possibly having a horrible moniker attached to his or her name. So how best to keep this from happening: Do you first explain that acts such as distributing nude photos is illegal, or do you start by explaining that such acts are immoral? Do you stress that it would be unfortunate to be labeled a criminal, or is it more important to stress the disrespect they are showing their own body or someone else's?

Here's the difference between my working class, ethnic upbringing and what seems to be going on today: If I had done something as stupid as distribute naked photos of myself to others when I was a teenager and my parents had found out, they would have slapped me upside the head and told me I had disgraced our family name and greatly embarrassed them. Believe me, I grew up believing that embarrassing my parents was far worse punishment than having to appear in juvenile court.

And if I had gotten tossed in JD or been held by the police, my parents would have left me there for a good long time in order to get their point across: What you did was really wrong and we are really, really, really upset. I imagine that it would have been safer for me to have spent a few days in a prison cell than go home and face my parents if I had committed a crime, especially one that involved exposing my naked body to others.

If my father's sisters did something deemed imprudent by the family, my Italian-born grandmother would say to them, "Non you shame-a youself." It was a simple sentence that, translated from broken English, means don't do something that you'll regret or that will cause others to look down on you.

Is there any action out there today that is deemed immoral or embarrassing? Increasingly, our moral code has been shot to hell. If it feels good, do it. Oh, but it could be illegal, so watch out.

Certainly there will be people who will say that if you tell a girl or boy that it's immoral to be nude then you're also telling them they should be ashamed of their bodies. Please note the difference: The human body in and of itself is a beautiful thing, but when someone (especially a young person) exposes the naked body to taunt someone else or to get a few kicks, that is degrading and demeaning.

Yes, we have to teach our children about right and wrong through the eyes of the court, but what about through our own eyes? What do you think about this?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Remembering What It Was All About in Youngstown

Our visit to my parents' house coincided with the Feast of St. Lucy, the patron saint of the church where I was baptized, made my First Communion and Confirmation and was married. The president of the Men's Society of St. Lucy wanted to bring back the traditional "festa," including a procession with the Italian and American flags and part of the liturgy spoken in Italian, as well as a small dinner with music after the Mass.

Even my mother was a bit perplexed by this. "Nobody speaks Italian in this church anymore," she complained to me the other day. But I had a feeling that most people in that beautiful church still recalled the wonderful Italian traditions and songs, and would be happy to relive them.

The service brought tears to my eyes, especially the priest's homily. He talked about the beginnings of the 70-year-old church, and the dedication of the people who founded it and made it strong. These were the same people who labored in the steel mills and fought in world wars. They spoke Italian in their homes and in their church, but they were Americans through and through. Their dream was to build a foundation in Campbell, Ohio, that could be carried on to their children and grandchildren.

But, as the priest said, by the 1970s, their dream began to crumble, through no fault of their own. The steel mills began to close, and young adults moved away in search of their own American dream. This, of course, was good on some levels. First- and second-generation Americans who otherwise might have stayed close to home were able to move to new locations, get a higher education and build their own foundations. At the same time, little Campbell and the other suburbs of Youngstown still stood, proud as ever, but gradually shrinking in population and in opportunities.

Through the decades, schools have closed, churches have closed and people find themselves traveling to far-off areas to visit their children and grandchildren. But the foundation is still there. Not everyone recognizes it, because they are so busy with daily issues. Yet every time I return to Campbell, Ohio, and that church with the elegant stained-glass windows (some bearing the names of my relatives who helped establish the church), I see the foundation, and I still believe.

At the Mass for the feast of St. Lucy, the priest said that the parish was still there for its children, even though they now live far away. He said the church still stands ready to greet them and welcome them home. I feel at home every time I enter that little town and that church. In their own small way, Campbell and St. Lucy and all the other ethnic Catholic churches that dot that landscape act as beacons guiding everyone toward family and worship, patriotism and charity. Inside St. Lucy, there is no disdain for one's country or fellow man; there's no rush hour traffic or pressing business meeting. It's as though life is like it was 70 years ago, full of hard work and simple pleasures. It is, I think, the way life was meant to be, although it didn't last.

Looking back on my eagerness to flee the Youngstown area in 1982, I feel a sense of sadness and guilt. Sadness because I gave up the comfort of that small-town love and hard work in search of something else. Guilt because maybe if I had stayed there, I could have carried on the dream that my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents helped to build. I wasn't the first or the only one to leave, of course, but I carry my share of the responsibility of what happened to my hometown like a heavy cross that I'm forced to shoulder alone.

And so I try in my own way to take a piece of that dream with me and share it with my children. We go back to my hometown often and visit St. Lucy for a dose of small-town humility and strength, and to be hugged and kissed by people who have known me since I was a chubby, shy, (natural) red-headed girl. I'm determined to teach my kids the bits of Italian I know, and to impress upon them the significance that communities like Youngstown once held in our country.

And then there's the message of St. Lucy herself. As children, we would sometimes giggle at the statue of St. Lucy, who holds a dish with a pair of eyeballs. The story goes that the young Lucy refused to marry a pagan and refused to forsake her Christian faith. Roman guards tortured her and gouged out her eyes. What they couldn't take away from her was her clear vision of what was good and true.

Martyr stories today don't seem to hold our attention. How can we relate to someone like this? The priest put it into perspective. Lucy, he said, is a symbol for us to see what's really important, and to realize that what we're looking for is within our reach. "We're all searching for the same thing," he said. "Happiness."

I've lived in large cities and traveled to places around the world, and it turns out that the "happiness" I seek always leads me back to my hometown and my hometown church. Small towns like Youngstown may be shadows of what they once were, but their basic values, principles and dreams are things we should never forget and instead try to emulate.