What Where’s Waldo? Taught Me About Work and Life

My 3-year-old daughter was this close to nodding off for a post-preschool nap. Her head rested against my chest. I kept rocking—slowly, slowly—and reading the story I’d been reading for the past twenty-five minutes, my voice singsong like a lullaby.

I could almost taste the freedom of the upcoming nap. I’d make a fresh, hot cup of coffee (OK, two cups). The house would be quiet.

Best of all, I’d have time to work on a writing project. About two hours before we needed to walk down the block to pick up my older daughter from the bus stop.

I was so close to that happening.

Yes, cliffhanger revealed—it didn’t happen. Like many a maternally disposed freelance writer before me, I took a deep breath and resigned myself to working on my project later, much later, that day, after the kids had fallen asleep…but before one of them woke up in the middle of the night, in need of a sip of water or comfort from a bad dream or myriad other things that moms address with Sandman fresh in their eyes (while dads somehow, mysteriously, manage to sleep through all the 2 a.m.-ish drama).

Instead of napping, Anna wanted to find Waldo. She grabbed the puzzle book from the table and began looking for the bespectacled adventurer. “Where is he?” she wondered.

I peered at the page, a chaotically colorful beach scene. “Hmm.” I readjusted my gaze to the top of the page and started scrutinizing every square inch from left to right, top to bottom, as if I were reading again.

“Where is he?” Anna repeated.

My all-in strategy wasn’t working. Frustrated, I blinked. When I opened my eyes, I saw, instantly, the elusive character.

“There he is!” I pointed; Anna beamed.

I turned the page. Again, I didn’t try so hard to answer the question, “Where’s Waldo?” I simply looked at the page, as a whole, and once again, Waldo seemingly jumped out at me.

There he was, again.

My all-in strategy wasn’t working.

Some days, I struggle to find time to write. I depend on a pieced-together schedule of school, naps, babysitters and Burning the Midnight Oil to do everything I want to do, and need to do. My work/child-care puzzle resembles a page out of a “Where’s Waldo?” book.

But…it works. If I don’t let myself get bogged down by all the stuff—a displaced two hours here, not enough contract work there—then I can see that the puzzle that is my writing life as a mom works. I just need to look at the big picture, as I did with my daughter and her “Where’s Waldo?” book that afternoon.

The big picture shows me that motherhood has made me a better writer. More than anything, motherhood has taught me patience (oh, has it taught me patience). Bring on the impossible-sounding clients, tasks and deadlines—they’re nothing I haven’t already handled with my usually demanding and occasionally irrational children.

Motherhood has given me perspective. My early-20s, first-job-out-of-college self would shake her head or reach for the Tylenol Extra Strength if something didn’t go her way—if an assignment dared to unfold less than perfectly, or a chain of emails unraveled out of control, misunderstanding everywhere. The early years of parenting have clued me in to a liberating pearl of wisdom: To progress, you have to go with the flow.

And sometimes, you have to hit the pause button—not the panic one.

Perfection is an even more elusive needle in the haystack than Waldo.

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As I was proofreading an earlier version of this essay that you’re reading now, Anna climbed onto my lap, reached for the laptop keyboard and said, “I want to push buttons.”

“No, honey.” I moved her hand away.

Anna wrestled her hand back. “Yes, I do!”

I closed the laptop. “You…drive…me…”

“Crazy!” Anna laughed. I must have said it a time or two (maybe three) before, if my preschooler could finish the sentence/sentiment.

Sometimes, work and life with kids is crazy. Everyone needs to be out the door by a certain time in the morning, when someone spills their cup of milk. Then someone else accidentally walks through it. Just as another family member gets a text about an on-the-job crisis. And then inevitably, someone will say, “I can’t find the shoes I want to wear today!

“Where are my shoes?”

(Always.with.the.shoes.)

…sometimes, you have to hit the pause button—not the panic one.

I can only speak from my experience, which by nature is limited. But in my experience, what I’ve come to learn—what moments like “Where’s Waldo?” with Anna have taught me—is that motherhood has given my work heart. Maybe it’s given your work heart too.

Being a parent has opened my eyes to emotions like joy, and concerns like environmental justice. I’m not perfect—not even close—but I’m more aware than I was before. I want to make the world as good as it can be, however I can, because my children (and, maybe someday, their children) are here in it.

When I write now, as a mom, it’s with this outlook in mind. How might this story I’m working on uplift someone? What lesson might it teach?

How might this grant proposal I’m editing make a difference in someone’s life, if the nonprofit I’m collaborating with wins program funding?

In my 13 years as a writer (half of those as a mother/writer), I’ve read articles and perspectives seeking to pinpoint why women writers’ journeys can be more challenging than their male counterparts’. The answer is fairly obvious.

The novelist Kim McLarin said, at a PEN/New England discussion on the topic of “Mothers & Writing,” “Stephen King has said that to get his writing done, he has to just close the door. Easy for him to say…If I close the door, someone’s calling child services on me.”

Kids do seem to contribute to the professional differences between (many, if not most) women and (many, if not most) men—not only in writing, but also in other fields, from science to law enforcement to sports. Once a woman becomes a parent, she’s a parent in a way a man simply is not, at least for the time she takes off to recover from childbirth. A mother experiences more of a pause in her life and in her work, even if for only a few days, or weeks, or months.

(Let’s not even consider here who usually hears and responds to the kids’ crying out at 2 a.m., knows the names and contact information for everyone from pediatric dentists to best friends’ parents, and remembers to schedule the munchkins for annual well visits, after-school programs, etcetera…)

Not every family, of course, consists of a mom and a dad. And not every family welcomes their children through childbirth; physical recovery isn’t an issue in these cases.

Generally speaking, however, motherhood can sideline professional goals, for a little while or, perhaps, longer.

Sometimes you hit that pause button, right?

…motherhood has given my work heart. Maybe it’s given your work heart too.

On the other hand, motherhood can inspire even more admirable professional goals. Seven years later, I’m still a little surprised at the wild success of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” I get that its early electronic versions made “Fifty Shades of Grey” easy and discreet for people to read. I understand erotica is a popular genre (it’s not my favorite genre, but I have read it). But the writing—the writing, friends.

The writing of “Fifty Shades of Grey” is bad. It is, objectively, bad. And it’s fan fiction, basically. I wrote fan fiction of my favorite TV shows when I was in high school (not something I like to brag about!)…and it was bad too.

According to Forbes, however, E. L. James has a net worth of $95 million. (My net worth? Like yours, nowhere near there.) The bottom line: The general public doesn’t care about the bad writing that is “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

I care, though. I care about the work I do. I care about leaving a legacy of writing that—if they read it someday—my daughters can be proud of.

Last week, a magazine let me know they had accepted a short story I had submitted to them. The story is about a woman’s despair, and surprising endurance. I think Grace and Anna will enjoy reading it someday, and I hope it will be an inspiration for other women much sooner.

The magazine will be publishing my story in about four months. I almost couldn’t believe their email of acceptance to me—I’ve had a humbling streak of rejections with my creative writing lately.

My family knows this, and so when I shared the good news with them, they were happy for me—especially the girls.

“Yay, Mom!” Grace cheered.

“MOM!!!” Anna yelled, clapping her hands. And one second later: “I want pizza!”

Work, life and kids can be crazy. Can be a hot mess. Can be a scene straight out of “Where’s Waldo?”

Every now and then, it helps to hit pause. To take a breath. To look at the big picture.

When you look at the big picture—your big picture—what do you see, friends?

Wherever you are right now, if you’re somebody’s mom or dad, then what you’re doing, whatever it is, it’s for that little person (or little people). They love you more than anything, and they count on you for everything. Whatever kind of work you do, whatever puzzle your work/life looks like, so much of it’s for them.

They may not know that yet. Possibly they won’t know it for years, not until they have a family of their own. So let me say then, on their behalf…because it took me a long time to recognize all the love and sacrifice my own parents put into my childhood…let me tell you, on your little people’s behalf, THANK YOU.

THANK YOU for where you are right now. THANK YOU for what you’re doing, and for everything you did, and for everything you will do. THANK YOU for making our world a better place.

(And a million other things too: It’s OK you can’t chaperone the field trip. I’m sorry I was rude. I’ll listen to your advice next time. I’ll stop rolling my eyes all the time. I know you tried. You were right. You were right. You were right. I love you.)

But mostly…THANK YOU.

(P.S. Where are my shoes?)

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.

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How Do You Do It?

On a recent morning, I woke up to Anna kicking me in the head. (Who needs an alarm clock when you have kids?)

Some nights, Anna sleeps in her bed, contentedly, until morning. Other nights (most nights), she yells out around midnight or 3 a.m. (depending on if she napped that day), “Mom! Dad! MOMDADMOMDAD!” and it’s easier to snuggle her into bed with us rather than rock her back to sleep. (A motto for this season in my life could be, “I give up.”)

Now, Anna is a petite 2-year-old, and she weighs less than 30 pounds. However, she takes up a lot of space in our queen-sized bed. Her preferred sleeping position is smack dab in the middle, at the top, across both pillows, arms flailing and legs kicking, without rhyme or reason, throughout the night. Good night, and good luck.

She also notices if I get out of bed. Not Stanton—who often escapes to the guest bedroom or family-room couch—but myself, “Mom.” When I get up to, God forbid, use the restroom, or make coffee, I soon hear a small yet accusatory voice from atop the two pillows: “Mom? Come…back!”

Mornings can be rough, in my home and maybe in yours too. Everyone needs to get to where they have to go—clean, dressed, fed, with all their stuff…and preferably on time—in a short span of time. There is little wiggle room, and occasionally some (lots of?) stress.

On that particular morning, the one where Anna kicked me in the head, Stanton woke up with a sore throat. He had a full day of presentations ahead of him, so I rifled my Yogi Throat Comfort tea out of a kitchen cabinet. “Here, have some of this, and take extra with you,” I said.

“I don’t need it,” he replied.

“I promise it will make you feel better,” I said.

“I’ll be fine,” he promised instead.

OK.

I pointed to the guest room doorknob. “Did you see the new dress shirts I bought for you? You can wear one today.”

Stanton looked at me, bewildered. “I already have shirts.”

Current life motto? That’s right, friends: “I give up.”

Puzzle Pieces 10-4-17

Now, the subject of clothes didn’t end there—no, not that day. Because that day just so happened to be “Dress Like a Farmer Day” at Grace’s elementary school, and “Wear Red Day” at Anna’s preschool. Grace was learning about agriculture; Anna was learning colors.

The night before, I had pulled out a pair of jeans and a white top from Grace’s dresser. I had also rummaged through several boxes in the basement, in search of a pink cowgirl hat I knew was down there…somewhere…which I did eventually find. I also found, in the dining room hutch, a green gingham cloth napkin that could double as a bandana. Grace and I had agreed that these items would work as her outfit for “Dress Like a Farmer Day.”

But come morning… Grace tossed the cloth napkin on a counter. “I wish it was pink, like my hat,” she said. “Pink is prettier than green.”

Grace has got her colors down pat.

Anna, meanwhile, didn’t like her red pants. “No…have…pockets!” she shouted.

Grace prefers pink; Anna wants pockets. I sighed.

At this point, Stanton amiably waved goodbye. “See you in a couple of days, girls. Love you!”

Because that day just so happened to be ‘Dress Like a Farmer Day’ at Grace’s elementary school, and ‘Wear Red Day’ at Anna’s preschool.

It was about 7:30 a.m. I needed to take a quick shower. “Girls…you can watch TV together while I get ready,” I said. “Just one show.”

“Yay!” Grace ran to the family room.

“I love TV!” Anna shouted, running after her. Then, as an afterthought, she shouted with the same enthusiasm, “I love Walmart!”

(This is a true story.)

What would other moms think of me if they heard my preschooler’s crack-of-dawn declarations? Love for TV? Walmart? Let me just say here, in my defense, that I turned on PBS Kids for my daughters that morning. Educational TV, OK? So…there’s that.

But yes, it’s true: Under the Supermom entry in Merriam-Webster’s, you won’t find my name.

Grace’s and Anna’s schools start at the same time, which is—to say the least—logistically inconvenient. So we get Grace to school on time, and Anna is always, reliably, 20 minutes late. But as everyone from my own mom to Anna’s teachers have reassured me…it’s preschool.

Speaking of my own mom, I asked her, “How did you do it?”

My mom had four kids; I have half that. My mom worked full-time; I’m a freelance writer (which, depending on the month, is a synonym for “unemployed”). Both my dad, throughout my childhood, and my husband, now, travel(ed) for their jobs. It’s difficult (and unhelpful) to compare one family situation to another, but for sure, my mom had a lot to do.

“How,” I wondered, “did you get everything done, every Monday through Friday morning, for years?”

My mom laughed and replied, “By the time I got to work, my body felt ready for a nap.” I could believe it. Especially now that Grace has started kindergarten—real school, real accountability—along with all the usual doctor’s appointments, sports practices and games, and family commitments as before.

(Later this week, by the way, is School Picture Day/Early Dismissal.)

How do you do it, friends?

Under the Supermom entry in Merriam-Webster’s, you won’t find my name.

Let me be the first to acknowledge that I do it, but not always well. Some days are great, even the mornings. Other days, I raise my voice at my daughters…or I’m distracted when they’re trying to tell me something…or I forget to buy something for someone’s school project.

A woman I very much respect recently said something that struck me. She was telling the story of someone—a nonprofit leader, I think—who, when asked about the toil of his work, said, “It’s not something I’ve got to do; it’s something I get to do.”

Not something I’ve got to do; something I get to do. I loved that. I try to remember that every day.

One evening, I was rocking Anna to sleep. (In several hours’ time, she’d probably be kicking me in my bed, but for the moment…) She was almost asleep. Then, unprompted, she said, “I really love you, Mom,” before snuggling against my chest and nodding off at last.

Moments like that, I feel I’m the luckiest person in the world. I understand the “get to do this.” The price you pay for the privilege.

This story started with clothes, and that’s where it’s going to end too. So…School Picture Day/Early Dismissal. Grace and I were looking through her dresser, picking out contenders for her School Picture Day photo. “And remember, Mom,” Grace said, “we get out early too.”

“Yes,” I said. I had written it down on the calendar.

“If you forget to pick me up…”

“I’ll be there,” I told Grace.

She looked up at me and smiled. “I know.”

“I give up,” and “Happy.”

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “This Is Just a Story.” Fun, timely and thought-provoking.

Moms, Make Time for Your Friends on BonBon Break

I’m so happy to share that my essay “Moms, Make Time for Your Friends” has been published in the wonderful online magazine BonBon Break. Head on over to check it out! Hope you enjoy, friends.

Many thanks to the lovely folks at BonBon Break for this awesome opportunity to collaborate.

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Don’t miss Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “This Is Just a Story.” Fun, timely and thought-provoking.

Marissa Mayer’s Two-Week Maternity Leave: Why Do You Care?

This past week, I read that Marissa Mayer, Yahoo CEO and reigning Silicon Valley fashionista, gave birth to twin girls. She plans to return to her high-powered job after a two-week maternity leave, according to news reports. She also took a two-week maternity leave following the birth of her first child in 2012.

Two-week maternity leave. Well, lots of people have lots to say about this. The opinions (and headlines) range from skeptical and NSFW (“Marissa Mayer’s Two-Week Maternity Leave Is Bullsh*t,” compliments of The Daily Beast) to supportive (TIME’s “Marissa Mayer Is Setting a Good Example With Two-Week Maternity Leave”).

Every woman is different, and every mom mothers differently. The decision to go back to work or take more time at home after having a baby usually comes with a measure of uncertainty, compromise and hope. Because all moms hope for the best for their children.

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My older daughter was born in 2011. I took a three-month maternity leave and went back to my job. I loved my job, loved my colleagues, and also wished I could be with my new baby at the same time.

An impossible wish.

So I walked away from a wonderful job to become a stay-at-home mom/freelance writer.

Some friends of mine have made similar decisions, while others have continued building their careers while raising their children. I respect all of these women tremendously because I know, from personal experience, that all of these paths—working out of the home full-time, staying at home full-time, and blending both professional goals and caregiving—they’re all hard.

Being a mom is hard, however you do it.

So when I read about Marissa Mayer and her two-week maternity leave…initially, I raised my eyebrows. Wow, two weeks, I thought. That seemed short, to me.

I’m me, though. She’s her. And you’re you.

We need to take care of our own lives, and our own families, instead of speculating on those of others.

We don’t know the variables (and sleepless nights) that go into others’ decisions.

Sometimes we’re quick to judge others because we question our own, different decisions. And we seek reassurance that the sacrifices we’ve made, in terms of time and/or money, have been worth it.

For me, I’m glad I was there when my daughters were little. Glad, and grateful.

I also wonder if I’ve done enough to stay in the game professionally while primarily staying at home with my daughters these past four years. Because I’d love to work more and write more someday.

So I wonder. Have I taken on enough writing projects? Have I tried as hard as I could? Should I have said yes more, instead of passing on opportunities that could have made a difference to me personally, and to my family financially?

Have I made mistakes?

The answer, of course, is yes. Yes, I’ve made mistakes. Maybe you have too. Because being a mom is hard, however you do it. And we’re all doing the best we can.

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s e-books, available on Amazon.com. Writing at its most heartfelt.