Kristin van Ogtrop knows she's lucky — fulfilling career, great husband, three healthy kids, and, depending on the hamster count, an impressive roster of pets. She also knows she is tired. Always. Using stories and insights from her own life, she provides a lexicon for the half-insane working mom in her book, “Just Let Me Lie Down.” An excerpt.
Over the years there have been many ridiculous moments in my life as a working mother, but I suppose the worst was the Hutchinson River Parkway Incident. I was nineteen weeks pregnant with my third child and rushing home from midtown Manhattan to catch the annual Halloween parade at my son’s elementary school. I was taking a taxi, something I didn’t do very often, but at the time it seemed a wiser choice than the train: I hadn’t missed a Halloween parade in seven years and I wasn’t about to start.
The driver was a lovely man who, I was later to learn, had four children of his own. He was also, unfortunately, one of those drivers whose foot seems constantly to thump from accelerator to brake and back. You know the type. You probably also know that if you are inclined to throw up, this kind of driving is going to make you throw up faster. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I felt a bit queasy when I got in the car; I had just eaten an enormous bowl of minestrone before we embarked. As we made our way through Manhattan, acceleratingbrakingacceleratingbraking, the queasiness got worse. I tried focusing on the horizon, closing my eyes, sucking on the cinnamon Tic Tacs I found in the bottom of my purse — nothing worked. I swore to myself that when we got to the Hutchinson River Parkway and ceased with the stop-start driving, everything would be fine.
Alas, everything was not fine. Things went downhill fast when we hit the open road. I croaked, “Sir, I think I’m going to throw up,” and the driver screeched across two lanes of traffic and skidded to a stop in the gravel on the side of the road. Just picture an otherwise respectable-looking woman in a pretty silk blazer with a mandarin collar, trying to pretend she was someplace else. Passing motorists no doubt glanced over and said to themselves, “Oh, go home and sleep it off, you old drunk.” Except for passing motorists who happened to be women; those drivers looked over and said to themselves, “Oh, poor thing. She’s just a half-insane pregnant working mom, trying to make it to the Halloween parade.”
And that, dear reader, is the work-life balance at its best.
Maybe the most annoying part is that it was the only time I threw up during that pregnancy. The only time! At nineteen weeks! Naturally, I blame it on Halloween itself. The driver was kind and understanding and went on to tell me about his wife and her four pregnancies filled with morning sickness and that the only person who had ever thrown up in his car was Paris Hilton’s boyfriend. Which for some reason — even though I can’t for the life of me remember my checking account number — I have not forgotten to this day. I made the parade, and I was only five minutes late. A small triumph in the life of this half-insane working mom.
Five lessons to be learned from the Hutchinson River Parkway Incident:
• You can throw up in the second trimester, even if you didn’t in the first.
• Tic Tacs are pretty much worthless: too small to be a legitimate breath mint, and they don’t prevent vomiting.
• Halloween is just a nightmare on so many levels.
• There is often an empathetic older gentleman nearby when you are in distress.
• Things work out in the end, if you have the right perspective.
That last lesson is the key, of course, for anybody trying to fit a demanding job and a demanding family into the same life. But how did I get to that place: a respectable woman, throwing up on the side of the road in my silk jacket with the mandarin collar?
My story is like that of so many women I know, and it goes something like this: You were an overachiever from the time you were in diapers, always trying your hardest, nose to the grindstone, if at first you didn’t succeed ... you know how it goes. Maybe you got a little wild in your early twenties, but really, just a little — it’s not like you ever got arrested for anything. Then you calmed down and got married and landed a great job and eventually had kids and everything was going along just fine until BAM came the day when you didn’t quite know how to communicate a very basic thing to your child’s babysitter. You could hire people and fire people and control budgets and manage up and manage down in the working world, but you couldn’t figure out an effective, kind, nonjudgmental way to tell your babysitter that it’s actually not a great idea to let your toddler go to nursery school when he has pinkeye. Suddenly you wonder: What is wrong with you? Why didn’t they offer a college course in that?
Like any good student, all my life I have relied on reference books, guidebooks, dictionaries, illustrated histories, you name it. My whole existence can be charted by books like Our Bodies, Ourselves; Your Pregnancy Week by Week; What to Expect the Toddler Years; Labrador Retrievers for Dummies; even that collection of New York Times real-estate-section columns detailing all the places to live in the Greater New York City area (which, in retrospect, doesn’t really tell you any of the important things, like whether your neighbors will plant lots of ugly, brightly colored plastic toys in the front yard). Whatever life threw at me, I’ve always navigated it with a handy book.
But when you are throwing up by the side of the Hutchinson River Parkway, or trying to write a note to a babysitter who doesn’t realize you can practically transmit pinkeye by looking at somebody the wrong way ... well, there’s just no guidebook for that. There appears to be a mystifying and completely unhelpful hole in the reference-book canon when it comes to mostly happy but partly crazy working moms and their daily lives.
I was in a meeting the other day when a colleague remarked that for women, the whole working-versus-not-working tension was “over.” Women today just “do their thing,” he said, and the assignment for all of us, whether we are working or not, is to find our own happiness in a landscape that is wide open. Like millions of women, I think I’ve found that happiness, even if it means I have given up half my sanity in exchange. I am extremely lucky, blessed with a job I love and a family I love even more. I complain that my job gets in the way of so many things I want to do, but it also helps me forget the chaos that reigns in my very old house, filled as it is with three rambunctious boys (ages fourteen, eleven, and two — not a typo; see Accounting error, p. 14), a fairly messy husband, a giant shedding dog and an elderly cat, hamsters and fish that quickly come and go, and various unwanted representatives of the wild kingdom (including a renegade squirrel that once actually ran down the stairs of the house and into the room where I was standing, an episode that is too painful and embarrassing to include in this book).
Particulars of my life aside, there are countless mothers just like me. Women who want to succeed at work and do what’s best for their children, and who — when those two goals seem to be most at odds — find a way to flip the disadvantage. Women who know perfection is a concept but never a goal, who know there are as many ways to be a good mother as there are to get promoted or avoid going to the gym. And there is a lingua franca that connects us, helping us through the times when the school secretary calls at the office because we forgot to give our kid lunch money, or the babysitter calls because she can’t find the light saber that goes with the Luke Skywalker costume, or we’re trying to answer work e-mails by BlackBerry (which certain children, not mentioning any names, call “the family killer”) as we speed to a weekend soccer game. There are things we do because we love our families and there are things we do because we love our jobs, and sometimes these things try to cancel each other out.
Motherhood and working are journeys of trial and error, and even after years of experimentation and analysis and data points, you sometimes feel like you know less than you did when you started. I for one know less about the following: why boys always say “Nothing” when you ask what they did at school that day; why husbands never turn off the TV; why you can’t fire someone just for being irritating. But I do know a few things, starting with the fact that a good many working mothers could use some sort of organizing principle, a few labeled bins to hold the chaos. Hence this collection: an alphabetically arranged dictionary of terms, observations, lists, complaints, questions, musings, and the occasional diatribe about the little joys and major nonsense that define life for me, and untold women like me, on a daily basis.
Now for the caveat: although my path through adulthood has been fairly traditional, I do not presume to speak for all working mothers. In my life, hard work (and luck) have reaped real rewards, and not everyone is so fortunate. My husband is remarkably tolerant, and when my children are annoying, it rarely lasts long. Because my struggles are not all that serious, and almost entirely self-induced, I try to laugh when things go wrong (unless I am too tired to laugh, which leads to charmless and unattractive outbursts that I usually regret later). I hope this book allows you to recognize your own daily struggles and to respond to them with a laugh. And if you are too tired to laugh, well, I recommend lying down and trying to squeeze in a little nap, before everyone around you starts to protest.
Excerpted from “Just Let Me Lie Down” by Kristin van Ogtrop. Copyright (c) 2010, reprinted with permission from Hachette Book Group.