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.

needle-in-a-haystack-1752846_960_720

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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Look, Mom: I Wrote a Story Too

I shut the top lid and press “on.” The old coffeemaker grumbles awake and begins brewing several cups of my favorite blend.

From the adjoining breakfast nook, my daughters are bickering—something about whose turn it is, or isn’t, to use a certain stamp. I poke my head around the corner. “Share, girls,” I say.

My older daughter crosses her arms. “I have been sharing,” Grace says. “She hasn’t.”

Rather than pleading her case, my younger daughter says, “Mommy! Hold me!”

I give Anna a hug and then settle her back beside her sister. “Girls,” I say, “there are a million things you can do in here. Color. Play with your Shopkins. Finish your cereal, maybe. Do something while I pack up your book bags.”

My 3-year-old frowns. “I don’t want to go to school today,” she says.

“You’ll have fun once you get there,” I reply.

She shakes her head. “No, I won’t. I want to stay with you, Mom.”

“I don’t,” Grace announces, for the record. “I want to go to school.”

My coffee better be ready soon. “Look,” I say. “Everyone has to go to school today, because Mom needs to write and Dad is working too. So…” I gesture to the crayons, construction paper and myriad amusements covering the table. “Please do something while I get your things ready for school.”

Anna sighs, but picks up a crayon. I return to the kitchen.

Story Image

For all I have to do to secure my writing time—the two different school drop-offs, snack and lunch preparation beforehand, the pleading (and, occasionally, yelling) for the girls to get along and remember to brush their teeth and, of course, find their shoes—I wonder if it’s even worth it. Especially considering that the majority of the writing I do now—essays submitted to literary magazines (and not always accepted), short fiction that I self-publish on Amazon, every post on my website here—is creative, a.k.a. not that lucrative.

The coffeemaker sputters to a stop. I pour myself a cup. Outside the window above the kitchen sink, the sun rises. The thought flickers across my mind, again: Is this even worth it? Or should I do something different?

“Mom. Look, Mom.”

Anna’s voice draws me back in. I turn; I look.

She’s smiling, proud. And she’s holding up a piece of blue construction paper, marked here and there with lines of crayon. “I wrote a story too,” she tells me.

I take in a breath. Then I smile; I kneel down. I look at the paper. “Wow,” I say. “You did.”

“Just like Mom,” Anna says. She drops her story at my feet, then runs off.

I pick up the paper—my daughter’s story. She wrote it because I write stories. She sees something of value, something worth mimicking, in storytelling. Just like when we visited the local firehouse for a field trip, and the girls spent the rest of the day pretending to be firefighters.

I hang her story up on the refrigerator, with Grace’s soccer-picture magnet from last season.

I could never not write creative nonfiction, or short fiction. I simply love telling stories, both those that are true and those I make up. It makes me happy when someone reads something I wrote, and lets me know it moved them in some way—made them laugh, or encouraged them during a difficult time.

And during difficult times in my life, writing has been healing to me. Either in helping me to make sense of my journey and to find meaning within the pain, or in escaping, for a moment, to a world of my own making. Often it’s easier to give fictional characters’ “Aha!” moments, rather than to stumble across our own.

I pick up the paper—my daughter’s story. She wrote it because I write stories. She sees something of value, something worth mimicking, in storytelling.

Originally, I submitted a version of this essay to a literary magazine I really like and read. Yesterday, the editor let me know it wasn’t a good fit for them right now. During dinner that evening, I shared with the girls what she said.

“What was your story called?” Grace asked.

I told her: “Look, Mom: I Wrote a Story Too.” (Based on a true story, as all good stories are. 😉 )

Grace smiled sympathetically. “Awww, that sounds cool, Mom.”

I smiled back. “Thanks, honey.”

Eventually, every creative type has a come-to-Jesus conversation with him- or herself. Is what I’m doing worthwhile?

I’ve been thinking about this, and the answer is—like many of the answers I arrive at—yes and no. Pros and cons for everything, shades of gray everywhere. But for sure, more “no” than “yes,” friends.

I want to contribute more financially meaningfully to our family’s life. E-book royalties and token payments for magazine pieces, while holding out hope for a big break à la Cynthia d’Aprix Sweeney, don’t go very far toward summer camps and retirement savings.

Worth and value can be subjective, and are, but bottom lines don’t lie.

I’m excited, then, to dedicate more time to seeking out the kind of contract work I’ve done before, proposal editing and copywriting. I’m good at that stuff; I can do it. Fingers crossed, I can do it from home.

I’ll still do the creative writing I love, just more on the back burner.

Yet…Anna’s story still hangs on the fridge.

Kids…love…stories. We grow up, and we still…love…stories. We tell stories every day—from our quickest conversations with our neighbors, to our end-of-day heart-to-hearts with the ones who know and love us best.

I believe there is unity, and understanding, and love in storytelling. Deep down, we all might believe that.

That’s why I’ll never give up on it.

In the meantime…if you know anyone who could use some editing or writing help, send ‘em my way. 😉 ❤

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.

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.

Do What You Love, But… Career Advice for Our Kids

I’m looking for a job. Actually, multiple jobs—freelance writing projects that I can complete when I’m not taking care of my two small daughters.

The other day I was scrolling through job listings on Indeed. Somehow I scrolled past a listing for a finance position. “$20,000 signing bonus,” it said.

I did a double-take. As a part-time freelance writer, I’m glad to earn $20,000 in an entire year.

Hmm…maybe I had picked the wrong profession.

I’ve always loved writing. I wrote my first poem, “Magic,” when I was 5 years old. Like most first poems, it was terrible—cheesy, full of clichés. I dreamed of becoming a writer, though, so I kept writing.

Then at age 9, I wrote a short story called “Boris Takes Over” for my local library’s annual fiction contest. To my surprise and delight, “Boris Takes Over” won first place in the third/fourth grade category. My blue-ribbon award was bragging rights, plus the privilege of having my story hardbound and added to the library’s permanent collection.

As I grew up, my friends spent their summers at sports camps. I, on the other hand, went to writing camp. (Yes, there really is such a thing!)

In college, I was named editor-in-chief of the campus-wide literary magazine. I began to feel some confidence, some affirmation that I really could have a career as a writer.

During the past 10 years, I’ve worked in writing positions for a magazine, nonprofit organization and marketing company, among other side gigs. I feel a jolt of childlike joy every time a publication accepts a piece I’ve submitted.

It’s “Boris Takes Over” all over again, every time.

I feel thankful I’ve been able to do something I’ve always loved. I’m also conscious, when I see notes about $20,000 signing bonuses for finance positions—as I’m trying to generate enough supplementary income to pay for my older daughter’s summer dance camps—that creative fields aren’t always lucrative.

Compare, for example, the annual salary range of an entry-level copywriter ($42,750 to $60,000) to an entry-level Web analytics specialist ($72,500 to $99,750) in the marketing industry (source: Robert Half). In terms of bigger-bucks paydays, numbers games often trump the arts.

After one of Grace’s dance classes recently, she pirouetted across the kitchen and announced, “Mom, when I grow up, I want to be a dance teacher just like Miss Phaedra.”

“That sounds great, honey,” I said. I meant it.

Dance teachers are similar to writers in that both work in creative fields. Through their work, creative professionals have the opportunity to inspire people. To recognize and encourage talents within them, as teachers do. To move them with words, as writers might.

Do What You Love, But...

Creative professions, of course, traditionally pay less than their more “practicum” counterparts—medicine, business, engineering. Grace is still years away from declaring a college major, but the thought crossed my mind in the kitchen that day: Should I really encourage her to do what she loves as a profession, when that profession may not pay the bills as handily as another one?

The answer, for me, is yes. For a couple of reasons.

First, you never know where life might take you. Amazing things can happen when you’re doing something you love. As a dancer, or a writer, or anything in between, you may find yourself someday just one step away from your big break—one step away from directing a world-renowned dance program, or from garnering a PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Years of practice, dedication and, yes, a little bit of luck—energized by your love for what you do—may lead you to your dream come true.

Second, we don’t know how much time we have in this life. We should spend it, then, doing something we care about.

I’m a practical person, however. Money isn’t everything, but it is important. It allows you to live in a safe neighborhood, to eat nourishing food, to give your children experiences that will enrich their lives.

Money is important. For that practical reason, then, I’ll encourage my daughter to pursue her dance aspirations with an eye toward realism, as I’ve had to be realistic.

This will be my message to my daughter, and maybe it will be your message to your kids too: Do what you love, but if and when needed, do what you have to do too.

Didn’t make the cut for the Lyon Opera Ballet? Then work in arts administration, possibly, until you’re ready to try out again, or try out with another dance company.

Every experience will make your creative passion that much richer, that much more rewarding.

Every now and then, I pull up a document I’ve been writing and rewriting, on and off, for years. It’s a nonfiction story, untitled as of yet. I want this story to be part of the legacy I leave behind as a writer.

In the meantime, I have a family to help take care of. I need to be there physically for my daughters, preparing their meals and washing their clothes and doing the millions of other little things that children need done. I need to be there financially for them too, no explanation needed.

Consequently, I gladly apply for and gratefully accept freelance writing projects related to copywriting, corporate communications and Web content development—nothing to do with the writing aspirations I’ve had since “Magic.” I do all these things to earn money to help take care of my family, while constantly doing the writing I feel meant to do whenever I can.

Do what you love, but if and when needed, do what you have to do too. Your life and your legacy will both be richer for it.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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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.

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.

Marissa-Mayer-Yahoo

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.