The Parent Interview #6: Raising kids, baking bread, seeking peace

On her blog Pan and Ink Lis Fogt shares stories about raising her two boys- Gabe, age 3, and Owen, age 2- and recipes, usually for something delicious enough to make you want to run from your computer straight into the kitchen.  In the last couple months these have included instructions for Sweet Potato and Kale Quesadilla, Apple Cupcakes with Lemon-Cream Cheese Frosting, and Cherry Cornmeal Upside-Down Cake.

In the following interview Lis explains that she sees the orderliness and precision of baking as a counterpoint to the helter-skelter rhythm of taking care of two young boys.  She also talks about the hardest four months of her life as a parent when her husband was on assignment in Afghanistan, about how spending her days with Gabe and Owen is a little like having “clanging symbols” going off in her head every 20 seconds, and about the unimaginable abruptness and unexpected rewards of the transition from childlessness to motherhood.

So, thank you Lis, for taking the time to share your thoughts on life, parenting, and baking with the Growing Sideways community.

Can you tell me where you were in life when you and Steve had kids?

Steve and I had been married for six years (and together for fourteen!) when Gabe was born. I had been an English teacher for eleven years and had recently earned my master’s degree. Steve had been a journalist for the same length of time and was just embarking on a part-time master’s program for working professionals. We owned a home and felt we had enjoyed our time being together, just the two of us, as a couple. We were fortunate to have a lot of it before the kids came along.

You stopped teaching when Gabe was born.  How did you decide to leave your career to raise your kids?

When I was pregnant with Gabe, I had no idea what parenting would be like. I knew that teaching was very demanding, involving hours of work at home on weeknights and weekends. I wasn’t sure that I could be a good teacher and a good parent at the same time, so I decided to take a year “off.”

The decision was made easier by the large cut childcare would take out of my salary, and I think my own mother’s choice to stay home to raise my siblings and me must have made leaving work a more natural choice for me as well. When Owen came along (and he turned up quite a bit sooner than we had planned), the financial benefit of my returning to work was diminished, and the reality of parenting made me even more anxious about how my returning to work would impact our family, so here we are.

Very much like teaching, I find that the more years I put into parenting, the more I enjoy it. This is, of course, because my confidence level is much higher now than it was those first couple years. I expect that I will return to teaching some day, though I am enjoying working part-time as a tutor right now, and I love having time (albeit not a lot) to write.

The stories you tell on your delightful blog Pan and Ink almost always combine parenting and baking.  Do you see similarities between the two?

I have not thought about the similarities between the two, but I have often reflected on the differences. I think I became drawn to baking after making the decision to stay home with the boys because it offers a level of concentration, control, order, and predictability that is completely lacking in my life as a parent. I love to be in the kitchen when it’s quiet in the afternoons, while the boys are napping; to wipe clean the countertop and set out my ingredients; to follow a simple recipe; to lay out cookies in orderly rows or to smooth the batter of a cake or quick bread. When I have more time, I love to make a dough, roll it out, and enclose something in it. Not only do these sessions restore me mentally, but they also produce a little treat for the boys and me to enjoy in the late afternoon.

If I were to choose a culinary analogy for parenting, I think I would tap cooking rather than baking. Whereas baking requires exactitude in its amounts and processes, cooking lends itself to improvisation, to a bit more looseness and responsiveness. To me, this is much like parenting, the way in which I’m constantly observing, making adjustments, and shifting course as I make my way towards various ends. With baking, once you combine ingredients and pop your mixture into the oven, you have to just wait and hope things turn out well. I’d hate to think parenting is that formulaic.

Last year your husband Steve spent four months in Afghanistan on assignment from the State Department.  What was it like being home alone with the boys for such a long time?

Last summer was one of the hardest times of my life. I am still processing it, but I see it as both a time of great stress and despair and an opportunity for personal growth. Being the sole parent to the kids for all those days and nights helped me to tap into reserves of strength and resourcefulness I didn’t know I had. And it reinforced one of the most important lessons I have learned as a parent: This too shall pass. I knew that somehow I’d get out on the other side if we just kept plugging along, and I/we did. The experience gave me a tremendous appreciation of what military spouses and single parents go through. And it presented an opportunity to connect with neighbors, friends, and family in a way that would never have happened had Steve not been absent. I will never forget the kindness that so many people bestowed upon me in the form of childcare, meals, the lifting of heavy stuff, and, most importantly, companionship. I plan to pay it forward.

In your post “Rescue” (which included a recipe for a Fig and Frangipane Tart) you write that after a day with the boys you often have “no mental energy available for savoring.”  That got me thinking about this question: While raising kids, there are lots of moments to savor yet a lot of the work lies in the long-term project of helping them grow up.  So how do you think about the balance between savoring and making progress towards long-term goals?

It has taken a long time, but I think I am finally learning to savor the moments I have with the kids. I attribute this to a few things: Gabe starting school and the accompanying realization that he will soon be off all day doing his own thing without me; Owen entering his two’s and a new appreciation for how much Gabe has learned and matured since he was a two year-old; and a frustratingly gradual learning curve when it comes to parenting. For me, it took a long time to come to terms with the ways in which motherhood requires you to set aside your own cares and truly put others first.

I wouldn’t say that enjoying the present and pursuing long-term goals are mutually exclusive. In fact, for me it is helpful to remember that the more I can be present and positive with my children now (rather than checking Facebook constantly or fretting about a dirty apartment, both of which I do often), the better off they will be in the long term.

You often bring up Buddhism and your search for equanimity.  In a post called “The Treat Cure” you write that before you had kids you were someone who would “dependably face challenges with composure and optimism.” If you could snap your fingers and be calm and content all the time, would you do it?

This question echoes your post about friction! And of course I agree with you that life would not be life without the friction of challenging relationships and responsibilities. I have learned a lot through the trials of parenting.

I keep hoping, however (probably in vain), that someday I will feel more in control of my life. I often feel anxious about forgetting something important or not being able to get somewhere on time. I’m sure that some parents are better at staying organized and keeping their heads on straight. If I could do this all the time, yes, I think I would.

My life right now reminds me a little bit of “Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut’s story in which citizens judged overly-smart by the government have a buzzer implanted in their brains. Every twenty seconds or so, they receive a jolt of loud noise (crashing cymbals, ten-gun salutes) in their heads that makes it impossible for them to sustain a thought. The one thing I would miss if I could return to the days before I had the equivalent of periodic cannon fire in my head would be the delightful ways in which the children combine and pronounce words, and the opportunities for fascinating, intimate conversation that their many interruptions present.

In your post “Life is Just a Bowl of…” (that featured a recipe for a Cherry-Almond Tart) you write that despite a day of tantrums, “At evening’s final reckoning the accumulated joy far outweighs the moments of despair.”  I liked that a lot and it made me want to ask: Has being a parent been the way you’d imagined it? 

I had very little understanding of what parenting would be like, and for this reason, I did not spend much of time imagining myself as a mother. When I was pregnant, I read a lot about pregnancy and labor and delivery. I was so focused on the seemingly impossible task of getting the baby outside of my body that I barely investigated what life would be like once I was Gabe’s parent rather than his incubator.

I have read about the research showing that parents are on the whole less content moment-to-moment than non-parents, instead experiencing higher highs and lower lows. The intensity of the highs and lows of motherhood is something I could never have imagined before I had children. Had I been able to time travel forward and see myself struggling through some of our hardest days, I think I may have balked at the prospect.

I recall that in Rachel Cusk’s novel Arlington Park, a character’s transition from childlessness to motherhood is likened to falling off a cliff. The person she was before she became a mother stopped existing and a new person now walks around in her body (which, of course, is irrevocably altered as well). Cusk’s portrait of motherhood is a bit dark, but I generally appreciate her honesty, which is not to be found everywhere, and I think she’s onto something with this analogy. All that is to say that, no, parenting is not at all what I imagined!

Additional posts from the “Parent Interview” series:

The Parent Interview #1: A dad looks back

The Parent Interview #2: Where Wall Street meets motherhood

The Parent Interview #3:  Wanting to be a mom and a woman, too

The Parent Interview #4: The nest is empty

The Parent Interview #5: Irrational love

The Parent Interview #4: The nest is empty

This fall Jayne B. and her husband Mark dropped their youngest son off at college in Boston.  After twenty-five years of raising kids, they were officially empty-nesters.

In the following interview Jayne talks about what it was like to return to her newly quiet northern California home, and about the emotional ups-and-downs of adjusting to life without kids around.  She reflects on the past twenty-five years, including her decision to leave a stable career to start her own business and the things she’s loved most about being a mom.  She also answers the charge, made by her oldest daughter, that the rules around the house had gotten a little loose by the time their youngest son was in high school.

[N.b. You can read an introduction to The Parent Interview series here.]

1. Describe the scene and what it felt like to arrive back home after dropping Scott off at college—your first moments at home with no kids.

It’s not the first moments that catch you. It’s about two weeks later—when you realize for the first time in twenty-five years of raising children that you are pouring milk that has gone bad down the drain. It has gone bad, of course, because you no longer need to buy two  gallons a week for your 18-year old and his tribe of friends. That’s when it hit me. And standing at the kitchen sink I found it a little hard to breath for just a few minutes. I was not fully prepared for this, it came much too fast. But then I remember that this is exactly how it is supposed to be and I am so proud of Scott and CJ and Allison.

2. With Jay and Wally both very young and Caroline still in school, sometimes it feels like we’re in the crucible.  Was there a time as parents you’d describe as your most busy/intense/stressful?

Mark and I started our own business in 1988, just after CJ (now 23) was born, and by 1995 it had grown to about 50 employees. By then we had three children under 9,  and getting out of the house each morning was a serious production. About the same time, and just to keep things interesting, we bought a 100-year old fixer-upper that needed so much fixing we couldn’t actually live in it for a year.  It was certainly the most challenging time in our marriage. Our mantra (often repeated under our breath when we could hardly speak to each other) was: “Three kids, a dog, a cat, two rabbits, and 50 employees. We just cannot screw this up.”

3. You left your job to start a business when the kids were young.  What were your reasons for doing that, and what was it like to take on the uncertainty of starting a business with a young family?

Allison was 2 years old and CJ was 3 months old when we started Essex Environmental. It was 1988 and I just could not see how it was possible to have the family life I wanted while working in a corporate job. I needed all 24-hours in the day to balance my work and family, and the 8am-5pm corporate schedule just wouldn’t work for me. Back then, flexible work schedules were just becoming part of the discussion, there was a lot of management resistance, and the technology was really not developed to provide the mobility and flexibility we have now.  So, it was not that hard a decision at the time. And for many years Essex was really a part-time deal—the real gift it gave us was the ability to grow the business at our own pace.

Oh, and as to the uncertainty of starting a business with a young family—it is pretty darn scary. But we were young  and we really didn’t have much to lose (ask Allison and CJ about the “poor stories”). It seemed, at the time, like the only thing that made any sense.

4. Allison reports that you were a lot stricter with her than you were with Scott.  If she’s right about that, do you attribute the difference to birth order? Or to Allison being a girl and Scott a boy? Or to something else?

Can we claim exhaustion?

She is probably right, and I think it probably has more to do with birth order than gender. We were pretty strict with both Allison and CJ and are probably less so with Scott. I think  it’s a combination  of realizing your family values are solid and the first two came out just fine, as well as the fact that Scott has had to, as the youngest with a gap of five years, grow up a little quicker to keep up.

It also seems to me that we (including Scott) learned a few lessons along the way from the trial and error of Allison and CJ, so there were just some things that were never asked or offered (like no, you cannot have a new car of your own when you turn 16, and no, you cannot take a road trip with your friends the summer after you graduate from high school,  and no, don’t even think about staying overnight at a hotel after the junior prom). So maybe it seems like we are more lenient because we have not had those battles with Scott—he already knew the rules of engagement.

5. How would you describe your approach as parents—what values or priorities informed the decisions you made?

Wow, big question and I don’t know that I have a really clear sense of this. Here’s the simple answer: We loved our kids from before they were born. We tried to make sure they knew that every day— we were always on their side and would do anything to keep them safe and free from harm (including things they didn’t always appreciate at the time). We placed a high value on education, and on treating people well, and on taking care of each other.  We encouraged them to explore, to work hard, to believe in themselves and each other.  As parents, we also took good care of our own relationship—which reminds me of something my dad (who has been married to my mom for 64 years) is fond of saying, “ The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” Not bad advice.

6. You and Mark are very enthusiastic about kids and family, so I wanted to ask—what was your favorite part of raising kids, and what do you think you’ll miss most now that all three are out of the house?

I loved all of it (ok, except potty training and driver training).

We had, for many years, a print hanging on the wall of our kitchen. It is still upstairs in the “kids” TV room and I can almost recite it by heart. I don’t think I can say it any better than this:

“There are lives I can imagine without children, but none of them have the same laughter and noise.”

7. And finally, though you’re now empty-nesters, your youngest is still just 18—do you feel like you’re still actively parenting, or do you feel like you’ve finished the job?

I hope we’ll never really be done. Our relationship with the kids has changed and grown, but I think our role to love and support and help guide them goes on for a lifetime. But here’s  the best news. Our kids, Allison, CJ, and Scott, have grown into really great people that we just enjoy. They are funny and warm and smart and caring.  They are kind to us and to each other. The bonus is our family continues to expand now—with Ryan and Anna and all the wonderful friends and family they bring to our lives (including you, Caroline, Jay, and Wally) . So while the house has gotten quieter, and I don’t really like that very much, our life is richer for all that our grown children bring back to us.

Additional posts from the “Parent Interview” series:

The Parent Interview #1: A dad looks back

The Parent Interview #2: Where Wall Street meets motherhood

The Parent Interview #3:  Wanting to be a mom and a woman, too

The Parent Interview #3: Wanting to be a mom and a woman, too

Ingrid H. reached her mid-thirties without plans to become a mom.  She had a career she loved, passions and interests that she was afraid a child might curtail, and a warning delivered by a doctor decades earlier that her body might not be capable of bearing children.

But that all changed one fortuitous birthday night in May 2009. The result was a baby girl named Story and an unexpected transition to family life for Ingrid and her now-husband Gabe.

Over the last two years Ingrid has chronicled her life with Story and Gabe—first in Philadelphia and then out west in L.A.—in vivid, thoughtful, and thoroughly honest terms on her blog Pop Culture Casualty.  In the following interview she talks about life as a “mom/clown,” about yearning to go back to work after Story turned one, and about what it might be like to one day tell Story about all the adventures her mom had before she was born.

[N.b. You can read an introduction to The Parent Interview series here.]

1. First of all, tell us where you were in life—how old you were, where you were living, what you were doing—when you and Gabe became parents.

In May of 2009, Gabe broke his foot in three places and was unable to walk or take care of himself.  I was sympathetic and vowed to make his life as easy as possible, including lifting the ban on unprotected sex during a very careful birthday maneuver involving little to no movement on Gabe’s part.  After all, I had been diagnosed at the age of nineteen with dysfunctional ovaries that were unable to release viable eggs.  What is the chance that one lustful encounter between an invalid and an eggless Florence Nightingale could introduce one lucky sperm to one miracle egg?  Apparently, the chances are pretty damn high.

I was 36 and Gabe was 33.  Unmarried.  Unemployed.  One of us injured.  Gabe had applied to business school in the winter, but he hadn’t heard anything back yet.  I was searching for a new career and hitting nothing but roadblocks along the path.  It was hardly a good time to get pregnant.

But we rolled with it.  We embraced it. We both understood that sometimes life hands you just what you need.  Gabe went back to work and got accepted into an MBA program at UCLA. We got married and our humble lifestyle allowed us to be present in every way for the pregnancy, the birth and the first precious year of our little girl’s life.  Though it will never be the way it once was, Gabe’s foot healed.

2. You came relatively late in life to being a mom, after living what you describe as a “full life.”  At what point did you begin to think you might want to settle down and have a family? What, if anything, prompted that change

Let’s just get one thing straight, I never wanted to settle down and have a family.  I never wasted a day of my life fantasizing about my future wedding or coming up with the names of my future children.  When the doctor told me I would never be able to have children that fit very well with my lifetime goal to have fun.

I chose a graduate degree in international relations so that I could get someone else to pay for me to jetset around the world.  I moved from one major international hub to the next until I landed in New York. I chose a career that made enough money to live in style in a city that never failed to stimulate. But then something happened.

I was transferred to Philadelphia and suddenly my schedule cleared and the horizon flattened.  Just like the empty streets outside my Philadelphia bedroom window, there was no longer a bustle of people passing through my life. The absence of constant activity in my life was a chance to invest more time in my own development.  I took writing classes, started a new blog, performed in storytelling competitions, and spent more time alone.  I also met the man that would later become my husband, and then, well…I already told the birthday story.

3. Last winter, when Story was a newborn, you celebrated 17-years of sobriety.  You wrote, “It is my hope that you will never know me as I was before I began to work the twelve steps.” When Story is older, what do you think you’ll say to her about those years of your life?

Dear Story: 

When Mommy was very young, she was a lot of fun.  Maybe too much fun.  She got in lots of trouble and didn’t like herself too much.  While she made a lot of mistakes, these mistakes made her exactly who you know today.  Of course, life would have been much easier without all those mistakes.  But then she wouldn’t have all those awesome stories to tell your friends when they come over. 

Mommy did it all, so the bottom line here is that you are going to have a really hard time pulling one over on her.  Don’t even try it.  Oh yeah, and Mom is going to make sure you get all kinds of love and stuff so you never have to go down her path.

Xoxo – Mom

4. You wrote recently about a moment at home between you and Gabe that rang true for me: Gabe got on you for letting Story watch too much television, so you went a whole day without letting her watch any.  But that night you went out, and then came home and found that Gabe had given in and was letting her watch something on the iPad. Which is a long way of asking- how has having Story changed your relationship with Gabe? 

Let’s face it, having a baby tests a relationship.  Without the foundation Gabe and I built before Story came into our lives, I don’t know that we would have survived. We schedule romance because it no longer grows wild.  It has to be planted, nurtured, and plucked at just the right time.  Preferably on a night we can afford a babysitter.

We have both had to work on work-life/spouse-parent balance.  But on the other side, our shared love for Story gives us a bond that makes us both feel safe and warm.  Having a child on a shoestring budget means everything has to be negotiated, but we are a team and support one another in a way that has drawn us even closer. 5. For awhile after Story was born you were not working and you wrote, “I am my daughter’s main source of entertainment from the moment she wakes until the moment she goes to bed.”  How did you feel about that?

I recently accepted a job that no longer makes me a full-time mom/clown.  Story is in daycare two days a week, and she gets all sorts of stimulation from the other kids and teachers.  My first week back in the professional world was weighted with fear and self-doubt.  I was certain I no longer had the skills to be credible in a corporate environment.  I feared that the other skilled candidates in my interview group would see through my crisp expensive suit and see that I was a stay-at-home mom who spent most of her days preparing mac ’n cheese and dancing to nursery rhymes.  But somehow I fooled everyone!  It turns out I didn’t forget everything I once knew.  People actually think I’m talented and have something to offer! Adults want to be around me!

Going back to work is not a choice for everyone, and it’s not something that every Mom craves or needs.  But I discovered that this Mom needs it.  Since I’ve re-entered the work force, I’ve been a completely different wife and mother.  I didn’t know how much I needed to go back to work until I did it.  Now I just have to deal with the guilt of being away from my little girl.  But I think Story will be happier with a more confident Mom.  I can only hope it’s the right choice.

6. You also write very honestly about maternity and body image issues. You said, “I worry more about how much longer it will take for me to get my waistline back, my breasts back.”  How do you think men/husbands should approach all the physical changes that becoming a mom has on women?

One of the blessings of being an older mom is that I long ago made peace with the changes in my body.  By the time I got pregnant, I no longer saw my body as my chief offering in the world.  I feel confident that I offer a complete package of sensuality, intelligence, and vivaciousness to my husband. Being pregnant and feeling my body change in so many dramatic ways was truly awesome.  The shift in my body matches the shift in my priorities from looking sexy to being healthy and happy.

I also appreciate that Gabe that hasn’t changed the way he looks at me or lusts for me.  Gabe is very intuitive about my body image and seems to just know when it’s not a good time for me, so he shows me lots of love in other ways.

7. Last question.  I was interested in what you wrote about Story can infringe on your “very precious freedom” and how you feel “selfish” when you want things above and beyond what Story provides.  How content do you feel about the opportunities and constraints of being a mom?  

During Story’s first year I was entirely content being a mom. I read books on breastfeeding, made my own purees, and sewed baby clothes after Story went to bed.  But when Story turned one, something started to change.  She was becoming more independent and her needs were changing from care to entertainment, which left me completely exhausted at the end of the day.  At first it was fun thinking of new activities.  But soon I ran out of ideas.  Story wants to learn and grow and sometimes I just can’t keep up.

And something else was happening too.  With the weaning, came some postpartum depression.  I suddenly felt trapped in a role I didn’t choose, and our financial situation made it impossible for me to escape.  I started to resent the daily rituals and crave the feedback you get in professional environment.  I watched Gabe put on his backpack and march off to school and I was jealous. I was so wrapped up in Story’s life that I lost myself.

To find my way back we put Story in daycare, which had been unthinkable even a year earlier.  For two days every week I dropped Story off in the morning, crying and wailing, and I’d go sit in the car and cry myself.  Those were the times Gabe would remind me that daycare was good for Story.  And good for me.

I used the time to see friends, go to the gym, and work on a new career strategy. Now that I have more balance in my life, I’m more than content with the opportunities and constraints that come with being a mother. I feel overwhelming gratitude to have the chance to be Story’s mom. I love knowing that my love is shaping a life.  I am helping a little girl navigate her way in the world and it is precious and beautiful and awesome.

Additional posts from the “Parent Interview” series:

The Parent Interview #1: A dad looks back

The Parent Interview #2: Where Wall Street meets motherhood

The Parent Interview #2: Where Wall Street meets motherhood

Sarah P. was 29-years-old in 2010 when she gave birth to her son Max.  After he was born she did something that no one else at her firm had done since she’d been there: She took maternity leave.  Sarah is a trader at a hedge fund in Boston, and a successful woman in a field that is only slightly less male-dominated than Major League Baseball.  When she and her husband Marc decided to have a child, she knew she’d be blazing her own trail as she tried to figure out how to balance work and maternity.

In the following interview Sarah talks about her early efforts to hide her “baby bump” and her newfound ability to pump milk and answer emails at the same time.  She also discusses her blog, To the Max, shares a few things she learned from her mom about how to raise a child, and reflects on the uncommon busy-ness and unlikely rewards of the last fifteen-months.

[N.b. You can read an introduction to The Parent Interview series here.]

1. Tell me a little bit about where you were in life when you had Max—where you were living, what you and Marc were doing, what life felt like at that time.

Marc and I had just moved to Brookline when we found out that we were going to be parents. It wasn’t a coincidence. We knew that our one-bedroom condo in downtown Boston wouldn’t work for three. Of the two of us, I was particularly sad to leave the city, and had to remind myself that we really were only a few subway stops away.

Our new neighborhood was widely acclaimed to be an excellent choice for kids – plenty of parks, trees, good schools, sidewalks wide enough for strollers, access to public transportation and town centers by foot, and other 30-somethings with young kids. It felt like a lot of change now that we were cooking more and going out less, spending more time commuting, and generally acting less spontaneously. But that was before Max (and the real change) came!

2. You’ve got a job with a lot of responsibility in a field that’s male-dominated. What’s it been like working while pregnant, taking maternity leave, and being a mom in that environment?

This was something that made me stronger, for sure. No one in my office had had a baby while I’d been there, so there were no clear signposts to follow. I stressed a lot about when to have a baby, how to avoid “showing” for as long as possible, how to avoid alcohol at company events without being conspicuous about it, and then, figuring how much maternity leave was appropriate, as it was mostly up to me. Would taking twelve weeks seem like I didn’t care about my job? I worried that I might be jeopardizing my long-term trajectory within the firm, as you lose a lot of knowledge by taking any time off.

On top of that, there’s the guilt that comes with making others pick up the slack, and then the pressure to catch up on lost time, which is especially hard when you’re a new mom. Maternity leave, as it turns out, isn’t a vacation. I remember someone asking what exactly I did during my leave. I didn’t say breastfeeding every two hours, showering once every three days, and eating like a bird!

Motherhood and job stress have gone much better than I had anticipated. Luckily, I have a lot of help, and know that Max is well cared for during the day. His nanny texts me photos of him throughout the day so I don’t miss him (as much). The transition from maternity leave was hardest – I often wondered how many “firsts” I was missing out on. But time wore on, and I got roped into the excitement of the market, and even started to feel like my old self again. Now, I run home at the first opportunity and try to cram as much in as possible in the two hours we have together before bedtime. We definitely make it work.

3. The New York Times parenting blog Motherlode recently ran a discussion about women being “torn” between their careers and their children.  Is that something you’ve felt?

I never felt torn about whether to have kids. The stickier considerations centered on timing, logistics, and money. I worried that having kids on the early side would stymie any gains I’d made up to this point (and thereby sort of negate all the hours of grunt work that I’d put in). I also worried (again, pre-Max), that I’d get caught up in the “supermom” trap, in which women find themselves adding to their already busy schedules rather than reworking them, and then becoming unhappy in the process.

Now that I am a mom the choices are more obvious (and easy). I am fortunate enough to be able to smooth over some of the rough edges by spending and outsourcing, like getting groceries delivered instead of rushing around after work. I’ve pared back my hours at the office and tried to shift what I can to the late evening, after Max has gone to bed. Unfortunately, I turn down all but the most important after-work engagements (also, in part, because Marc travels a lot and I don’t want Max to go from babysitter to babysitter).

This is tough, though, because these are good occasions for networking and learning more of the nuances of the business. At the end of the day, I think what matters most in my profession are simply the contributions that I make during market hours. Excelling at work (and bringing home “the bacon”) mean that I have something (else) to look forward to, while providing for Max at the same time. Something I can feel good about.

4. Any funny “pumping” stories from work?

Oh vey. Let me start by saying that I work on a trading floor, where even the long bathroom break can raise an eyebrow. So when I came back to work and started pumping four times a day for 20-30 minutes apiece, for the next nine months, it was pretty obvious.

The funniest part was probably telling my colleagues what I needed to do. I sent an email to those nearest to me saying that I would need to be off the desk for certain periods of time, and that they could reach me by phone, text, or email, and that I could respond in a timely manner (I didn’t tell them that I had “hands-free” pumping technology – that seemed like too much info). I got a few all-in-good-fun retorts but that was it. It was surprisingly easy.

5. Recently you undertook a “Happiness Project” which has included, among other things, a blog about raising Max.  Tell us about that.

My blog makes me so happy – I only wish I had more time for it. I started it because I wanted to find a way to share some of the funny and poignant Max moments with our broader base of family and friends. I also wanted to document as much of his early years as possible. I’d lost a lot of my own childhood keepsakes in a fire that burned down our house when I was younger – yet another reason to love the age of the Internet.

As silly as it seems, I also wanted a project, something new and exciting, and a departure from my own first-year-parent inertia. My only qualms were in opening myself up to the world, committing to posting when I have very little time, and finding the right voice.

Up to this point it has been somewhat small in scale – no earth-shattering insights or unique advice, but it doesn’t have to be perfect from Day One. I think motherhood is also a project (albeit on a much grander scale), and because so many parents must be experiencing some of the same things I am, it seems fitting to try to connect, to laugh about the failures, and take pride in the successes.

6. When you think about your parenting style, are there ways in which you try deliberately to parent the way your mom raised you? Or ways in which you try deliberately to parent differently from her?

It’s a good question, and although Marc and I have had various discussions about structure, discipline, and parenting, I don’t have a ready answer. Parenting Max, especially at this juncture, seems more like putting out one small fire after another. Take care of basic necessities – keep him clean, fed, and clothed, then try to have fun, sing and be silly, and minimize risk.

When I think about my mom’s parenting style I picture how life existed in my teens, but it also applies to much earlier in my childhood. She treated me (and my brothers, but to different degrees) like a friend, almost a confidante, and gave me a lot of independence (and responsibility). It was clear that she trusted me, and if I had wanted to test that I would have to risk disappointing her.

It “worked” differently for me and each of my three brothers. I think I will always try to incorporate her happy-go-lucky, feelings first, discipline later (or never) style. But you can also show love by pushing your kids, and some kids may need this more than others. I guess I’ll have to see what Max needs, in part. I’m keeping an open mind.

7. How has motherhood compared with the way you imagined it going in?

I certainly didn’t expect it to be this time-consuming and exhausting. I’m not sure what I was thinking! I don’t think I realized that in order to go to yoga class I’d be giving up my only hour to see Max. Or that if I scheduled consecutive after-work events, I could literally go days without seeing him. Or that the girl who loved to shop (every weekend!) would give it up in favor of trips to the park and library.

I also didn’t imagine how my life with Marc would change – how we’d rarely be able to eat dinner at the same time, or that we’d be forever “switching off” in order to give the other one some free time. This seems like it would amount to a lot of negatives, but that’s not the case at all. I’ve never been so fulfilled, so happy being mindless and busy, nor so gratified to get a hug, a kiss, a smile, or a peek-a-boo. It’s easy to quantify the number of hours sleep that you’re missing out on and the number of times (in a day) that you put the toys away – it’s harder to explain why none of that matters. I continue to be surprised.

Introducing The Parent Interview

One of the perils of blogging about parenthood is that it’s easy to get wrapped up in your own world.  Family life is by its nature insular.  Caroline and I have 800 square feet of living space to our names right now (it’s about to get bigger, though, when we move to “the Mich-gan” as Jay likes to call it) and in that small space a lot goes on each day that no one sees but us.  We’ve got our family jokes, our serial frustrations, our patterns and habits that unfold on a closed-circuit loop.

It’s also true that with parenting, as with any intense emotional experience, it’s hard to imagine that other people—in fact a lot of other people—are feeling and have felt the exact same things you do.  Before Jay and Wally were born I’d never felt what it is to love someone so completely and totally as I love them.  And because I’d never felt that before there’s some inadequate gland in my brain that has a hard time reckoning that anyone else had ever felt it either.

So that’s why today I am inaugurating a new series on Growing Sideways: The Parent Interview.  Parenting is one of the most significant experiences anyone has in a lifetime and it’s also one of the most universal.  So it made sense to me that on this blog there should be other voices besides my own.  In the coming months I’ll be reaching out to parents I know at every stage in the parenting process and I hope, as the audience for Growing Sideways continues to increase, I’ll meet new parents and be able to incorporate their voices, too.

Today The Parent Interview series begins with John B., a man I’ve known for going on 20 years.  On the first day of sixth grade in 1992 John’s son Andrew sat down next to me in Social Studies.  He’d just moved to Freeport from out-of-state and we became fast friends. In 2008 he stood alongside me as I waited for Caroline to walk down the aisle.  A year later I did the same for him as he waited for his bride Carey.

Along the way I’ve gotten to know John pretty well.  He’s a lively spirit with a twinkle of mischief in his eye.  He’s also a dad who loves his two sons—Andrew, 30, and Michael, 27—deeply.  In the following interview you’ll see some of both come out—the love and the mischief—as John talks about deciding to go back to school to “make something of myself” after his first child was born, about what it was like to parent after a divorce, and about how his taste in music has slipped since his two boys left the house.

Reading John’s interview, I found there were moments in which his experience as a dad resonated like words straight out of my own mind, and other places where I gained a new perspective on a familiar quandary.  It was a nice reminder, to me, that no two parenting experiences are completely the same, nor are they completely different.

John on his son Andrew's wedding day

1. Tell me a little bit about where you were in life when you had Andrew—where you were living, what you and Clarissa were doing, what life felt like at that moment.

We were living in her house in Bath, Maine, a house she had purchased from her grandmother.  Clarissa was an elementary school art teacher and I was a city employee in the town garage.  My co-workers were drunks and ne’er-do-wells who wandered about the town garage with coffee laced with coffee brandy getting in fights at work and regularly playing hooky from snow plowing.  In this environment I was a star performer. Clarissa pretty much disliked teaching, though she was good at it, since the little brats drove her crazy.

Life was great.  Andrew was a delight.  Clarissa has a great family and we were fairly close to them physically and very close socially.  Andrew, by dint of arriving and expecting to eat and be clothed, convinced me to go back to college and make something of myself.  So I enrolled at the University of Maine and got to be an engineer.  Clarissa has a great sense of humor and is the cheapest person above ground.  I also have a sense of humor and am the cheapest person above ground.  We got along pretty good.

John in Orono, Maine in 1984, when Andrew was 3 and Michael was 1.

John in Orono, Maine in 1984, when Andrew was 3 and Michael was 1.

2. Is there a particular memory, or thought, that stands out from those first years as a father?

Oh, hundreds.  The best one is that I still remember the feel of his little fingers grasping my one finger on his first walk around the block.  No, wait, the best one is realizing that every day when I came home he came crawling to Daddy at top speed from wherever he was in the house.  Squealing with delight, little legs just a pumping.

As a 12-14 month old he used to dive into the cupboards, pull all the pots and pans out on the floor, sit in a cake pan, pull a ski cap down over his head to cover his entire face and beat on the pots with a spoon while he sang.  It was REALLY funny.  He used to love to ride my leg, ‘horsey’ style.  He loved to bite my nose.  He would walk between my legs and laugh like crazy.  When he was a bit older he loved to drive his mother crazy singing the alphabet song with me over and over and over, loud as we could until she was ready to kill us.  I could go on and on with this stuff.

3. Were there ways in which you tried deliberately to parent the way your parents had raised you? Or ways in which you tried deliberately to parent differently than your parents had?

My mother was abusive.  She had six kids and a real short fuse and she used to beat the hell out of me and the other younger ones.  The two older got off pretty easily but by the time I came along the old girl was getting in over her head.

At first I used to spank little Andrew but I quickly became ashamed of myself.  Noodling it over I came to the conclusion that discipline involved taking away something the kid wanted.  If spanking took away the feeling of ease, it could work.  But if I was especially positive with the kid as a normal course of affairs, simply taking away the positive reinforcement that he enjoyed would act as well. So I resolved to be as positive, loving and doting as possible and to discipline him by withdrawing and ignoring rather than anything more punitive. It worked great.

And to this day there has never been a day that I didn’t tell the kids that I love them and that they are the greatest kids in the world.  On the days when that wasn’t especially true, I’m sure they felt the disappointment and were anxious to return to my good graces.  I always tried my best to show the kids respect and to treat them as I would any grown person.  Of course, at a certain point one has to pull rank when things get out of hand, but that happened pretty rarely.

4. Right now I’ve got this two-year-old who barely listens to anything I say.  What should I do?

Ask yourself why you are trying to reason with a two year old.  Their brains can’t handle the task.  They seriously have no concept of the needs of others. This will come later but at that age they are hopelessly self-centered.  If he listens to anything, be grateful.  If you need to get him out of something, he’s easily distracted.  And he will forget most anything in a few minutes.

And keep repeating this to him:  “Jay! You must never, ever, ever disagree with your father.  You must always say ‘Yes, father’”.  I really doubt that this will work but if you repeat it gravely, intently and often it just might sink in after a long while.  In the mean time it will lighten your mood and remind you of the absurdity of parenting an intransigent little boy.

5. And what about when he’s a teenager and still not listening…how’d you handle that?

In my case, I was lucky.  Both boys were very self-directed and as focused as I could have wanted.  I rather felt that too much hard work as a child would make them drudges. Perhaps my wise choices in parenting made for good teenagers or maybe not.  But since no one can disprove it, why shouldn’t I take credit?  All right then, by god, I wisely parented my children and had an easy time with them as teenagers.  Plus, when they were teenagers we were an all guy household.  Which, I don’t need to tell you, can solve a lot of problems right there.

6. You got divorced when the boys were teenagers.  What was it like adjusting to being the only adult in the house when you were taking care of Michael and Andrew?

It was exhausting trying to hold a job, run a house and take care of them 24/7.  And one goes through a lot of stress in a divorce which can tend to take it out of you.  The stress got the better of me and I went looking for a counselor to sort things out.  After many false starts, I found one that I clicked with and she taught me how to handle my feelings much better. It takes a long time to get through a divorce.  I’m glad I had such good kids while I was at my weakest.

Papa and Son

7. What would you say was the biggest misstep you made as a parent?

Jesus Christ, Hartnett.  That’s a question right out of the management interviewer’s guide to torturing prospective employees.  Matter of fact I just got asked ‘What was the biggest mistake you made as a manager and what did you do to correct it?’ last week while I was trying to close the deal on my new job.

But honestly, I should have taken more time away from work to do things with the kids.  I ceded all the school activities to Clarissa and never got involved with those things because I was always working.  And I never resolved the differences with Clarissa, which would have made for a much happier household. I can’t believe you wheedled that out of me but I should have known better than get into a battle of wits with a Harvard graduate.  I’ve been blindsided!

8. Your kids are out of the house now.  When you think back on those years when they were under your roof, how do you feel?  You miss it? You glad it’s over? Ready to do it again?

Miss it?  Jesus, yes.  I loved having them around.  Those two are a lot of fun.  I miss having them vet the music and introduce me to new stuff.  I loved meeting their friends and hanging with those guys.  And there is no one that will love you like your own kids (unless you blow it, of course).

Michael in particular is one of the most truly loving people I’ve ever met.  And Andrew is non-stop action.  When he comes into the house there is music going on over here, a phone in his ear, the Internet going over there, a video game, great patter with everyone.  They are just great people to be around.

Glad it’s over?  Hell no.  I wish I lived around the corner from each of them.  Ready to do it again?  You mean have little babies?  No, I don’t have the energy to keep up with them.  Those little buggers just go and go and never stop.  I’m too old for that now.  But do I regret having kids, would I do it again?  I regret nothing.  They were and are about as good a set of kids as a man could have.

Dad and his two sons, 2003.

9. What do you love most about being a parent?

When they were younger I loved providing for them and being the sine qua non of their lives.  I used to go do the food shopping and I tried to bring all the provisions for the week into the house in one load so I could maximize the hunter-gatherer feeling of coming home with the kill.

Now I love having two guys who really truly love me and who know me so well. It was great having kids and watching them discover the world all-new.  And it’s been great watching you young men discover parenting, too.  After having done it and observed it for a few decades one becomes more at ease with it and more certain of one’s own parenting.  It’s fun watching you guys scratching your heads over problems I faced, too, in days gone by.  

10.   Last question. Your oldest son is married now, and kids probably aren’t too (too) far off.  Any advice for him?

Oh, I think he already knows how to make babies, he doesn’t need advice on that.  He used to have plenty of picture books and magazines laying around and he learned things from movies he used to hide out in the garage so I’m pretty sure he’s up to speed on all that.  Be pretty surprising if he wasn’t!

As to how to raise them, I’d say do it just like me.  Love the hell out of them.  You’ll never regret giving a kid a hug, telling him you love him and that he’s the best.  And it makes it a lot easier to guilt him into things when you need to. Remember this phrase:  “You must never, ever, ever disagree with your father.  you must always say ‘Yes, father’ “.  Repeat intently, gravely and often.