This Is Your Real Life

You might mistake the inside of my car for a landfill.

Empty travel coffee mugs and half-filled water bottles in the cup holders. Shoes, umbrellas and reusable grocery bags strewn across the floor. Pens that are missing their caps commingling with loose change and cough drops on the center console.

Dum Dums and Airheads wrappers everywhere.

“Yuck,” I said, opening a back door for the girls. “We really need to clean out the car.”

Grace and Anna were arguing about something, and didn’t reply. I made sure they were both buckled into their booster seats. Then I hopped in, too, and started the engine.

We were driving home from Dunkin’ Donuts. A little sugar rush to go along with all those Dum Dums and Airheads wrappers. #momoftheyear

From the backseat, the girls’ voices became louder. Grace was giving Anna advice, which Anna disagreed with. “No, Grace,” Anna said. “Come on. This is my real life.”

I smiled. This is my real life. Even 5-year-old Anna knew to take it seriously.

A little sugar rush to go along with all those Dum Dums and Airheads wrappers.

Sometimes I think it might be helpful if, along with the obligatory signs depicting miles per hour and where to stop, there were roadside displays with additional, equally indispensable messages. Inspired by my younger daughter, I think “This Is Your Real Life” would be a good one.

We all know, on a cognitive level, that we have one life. This is it, right here, right now. We know that.

On a day-to-day level, though…in the midst of actually living, getting things done, getting everyone where they need to be…the philosophy of “one life to live” can get lost in the practicalities of preparing meals, doing our jobs, signing kids up for summer camps, wiping up crumbs under the kitchen table for the seventh time that day and remembering to buy our spouse something delicious like a Cardona’s cannoli for Valentine’s Day.

One day this past week, Anna told me about something that was bothering her. I knelt down so that we could see each other eye to eye.

Oftentimes, my instinct is to talk—greet, break the ice, tell a joke or story, reassure, brainstorm next steps. It’s the communicator in me. Just as often, I need to remind myself to listen.

We tend to underestimate listening.

That day, I listened to my daughter. I asked some questions, but mostly, I listened. After a bit, Anna seemed less troubled, so I asked, hopefully, “Are you starting to feel better?”

Anna nodded. “Just talking to you.”

My heart melted; I gave her a hug.

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We’ve all probably heard that there are many benefits of eating dinner together as a family. Stanton, the girls and I try to eat dinner together as much as we can, but it doesn’t happen every night. Some evenings, one of the girls will have an after-school activity, and I’ll make one of my famous meals-to-go (their favorite: macaroni and cheese with bacon) for the car ride home. Other times, Stanton will have a business dinner. And very rarely—again, I can’t stress how rare this is, friends—I’ll have dinner plans that don’t involve the three people I live with. 😉

When the four of us do gather for a family dinner, though, I love that time together. I love hearing Stanton and the girls tell the stories of their days. I love telling my own stories too.

Every now and then, one of the girls will spill their drink. As odd as this may sound, I also appreciate moments like this, moments of imperfection. I appreciate the opportunity to remind the girls, “Accidents happen, and that’s OK.”

Every now and then, too, my phone will buzz from the kitchen—a text, a news alert, a notification of some kind.

“Mom, your phone!” the girls will say.

“I’ll get it after dinner,” I’ll say. I don’t want to miss any stories (or spills).

This is my real life.

I don’t want to miss any stories (or spills).

I am not, of course, always making-eye-contact attentive or cool-as-a-cucumber calm. But I try to make an honest effort.

This past Saturday, I did some birdwatching. If you told me, 30 years ago, I’d grow up to become an amateur birder, I wouldn’t have believed you. In fact, I’m pretty sure my younger self would have said, “Boring.”

Sometimes we grow up and surprise ourselves.

I went to Five Rivers, a nature preserve near our home. Five Rivers is breath-of-fresh-air beautiful, in all four seasons.

Saturday was cold but sunny. Through the windows of the visitor center, as well as outside on the grounds, I stood birdwatching. I easily could identify the Eastern bluebirds and yellow-bellied sapsuckers (a kind of woodpecker). The Eastern bluebird is my favorite—its vibrant blue color is truly breathtaking. I saw other species of birds, too, but couldn’t tell what they were (still an amateur, you know).

During the winter, these local birds often gather near a patch of Christmas trees that the naturalists at Five Rivers have set up. They can shelter from the cold among the pine needles, and feed on the seed bells that have been attached to the trees. Birds that rely on seeds rather than fruits and nectar for food don’t migrate south in winter, which I only learned recently.

I like birdwatching because it’s calming, cathartic. It’s a back-to-nature break devoid of Dums Dums wrappers, to-do lists and phone buzzes. All it asks of you is that you look—really look.

It’s a back-to-nature break…

This spring, Grace and some classmates are participating in a lip sync. The song they’ll be performing is “Party in the U.S.A.” Lately, our family has been listening to the Miley Cyrus hit on repeat.

When I originally searched for “Party in the U.S.A.” on my phone, YouTube helpfully recommended other up-tempo favorites for my listening pleasure. Gotta love Big Data. The other night, as I was washing dishes and listening to music, “Pour Some Sugar On Me” started playing, a YouTube recommendation.

I felt like I was at a college party, a thought I later shared with Stanton. Stanton and I actually met in college, at a party. We reminisced about that night and the college-party-playlist songs that were popular then, in the early 2000s.

There was “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” of course, and “Come On Eileen.” “Like a Prayer” by Madonna, the first song Stanton and I danced to. Not to be confused with Jon Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” another classic. “Whenever, Wherever” (Shakira, before the Super Bowl halftime show with Jennifer Lopez). And you may remember that kids back then loved J. Lo and Ja Rule harmonizing in “I’m Real.”

The list goes on, as seemingly endless as a stack of red Solo cups.

Eighteen, nineteen years old—coming of age, although we keep moving forward, unfolding, evolving. Surprising ourselves, no matter the decade we’re in.

…coming of age, although we keep moving forward, unfolding, evolving.

I’ve made mistakes. I’ve done some thoughtless things. There are times I could have been a better person, or a smarter one.

The thought has crossed my mind, how nice it might be to have a rewind button. Go back to that moment, before I made that mistake, and live that slice of life better. Take back something I said. Most of all…be there. Be there for the people I love(d).

There are no rewind buttons in the real world, though. Luckily, there’s “next time.” Next times. Opportunities to do better, thanks to the wisdom earned from past experiences—from life, and living.

This is your real life: a messy car that’s been going places; a hug from a child that makes you feel like a million dollars; stories and spills, in equal measure; moments in nature that take your breath away; old songs you’ll always love.

Look around. Really look. You see it, right?

This is your real life, and it’s beautiful.

“…remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned—the biggest word of all—LOOK” (Robert Fulghum, page 3, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”).

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.

Once Upon a Time: On Life/Art

The chrome escalator wound up three floors. On the third floor, Tinseltown-inspired red carpet flowed forward, toward the hallway of smaller theaters. Life-size posters of the latest blockbusters and box-office bombs lined the walls: “Toy Story 4,” “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” “Men in Black International.”

Stanton and I had come to see “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino’s newest film. The last time we had seen a movie in a movie theater together was—shake your head if you must, friends—more than four years ago. Little kids, work, Saturday-morning soccer games, visits with family and friends…all good things, but movie-theater date night had tumbled toward the bottom of our list of priorities, right there with meticulous personal grooming. 😉

I shared all this with the bespectacled young woman at the ticket counter. “The next time we’re here, it will probably be four years later,” I added. She smiled politely, and slid our two admission tickets across the counter.

“You can’t help yourself, can you?” Stanton said, as we walked away hand in hand. The pervasive, ultra-buttery scent of movie-theater popcorn seemed to fall into step with us.

“I can’t help telling stories to strangers,” I agreed. Then I gasped. “Maybe a title for a blog post?”

“Mel, no.” Stanton gestured around—just a regular day in our life. “This is not a blog post.”

Instantly, we looked at each other, eyes wide. Stanton smiled, sighed. “OK, that’s a good title.”

And it was, until Grace and Anna told me they liked “Once Upon a Time: On Life/Art” better.

“I can’t help telling stories to strangers…”

I try to update this, my website, with new writing (in the form of blog posts) at least twice a month. I’m always working on longer pieces behind the scenes…er, screen. These pieces take more time, though: fiction such as short stories, nonfiction like corporate press releases. I want to keep my site as fresh as possible, which Stanton knows. Thus, he knows that I often “think in blog posts.” What a cool quote, cool launching pad for my next post.

I don’t want to exploit my life for my art. It’s a common dilemma among writers, musicians and artists of all kinds. Personal experiences spark creative turns in our professional work. An aha moment hits us, and we try to create something from it without debauching the beauty of our real world.

Of course, truth is stranger than fiction. No doubt. The conscientious writers among us, however, recognize that some stories aren’t ours to tell, no matter how much we camouflage the identifying details of our characters. (We also balk at starting family feuds, or being banished from friends’ speed dials.)

Sometimes, I wonder how many bestselling plots and million-dollar lyrics never saw the light of day (or pages of The New York Times Book Review or Billboard Hot 100).

There’s art, and there’s life.

Then there’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

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I’m not a film critic, so I won’t share an amateur-hour movie review here. All I’ll say is wow. Talk about conflating life and art—this quasi-historical, pop-culture fairy tale centers on Sharon Tate and the Manson Family murders, with a twist…actually, several twists. Totally engaging plot, complicated yet relatable characters, and white-hot, feels-like-L.A. lighting.

And oh, yes…Brad Pitt. Wow again. Wow for both churning out a super-cool yet charming performance and—sigh—still looking mighty fine at age 55.

For our first Valentine’s Day together, back in college, Stanton gave me a “Fight Club” poster featuring Mr. Pitt in all his shirtless, prime-of-life glory—pretty super-cool and charming of Mr. Leddy himself, I’d thought. My college boyfriend turned standing Friday-night date knew I was a fan of the two-time Sexiest Man Alive, as well as “Fight Club.” (I’m not a rom-com girl, which often surprises people. Give me David Fincher, QT, Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson any day…although, like everyone else, I do enjoy Nancy Meyers features for the interior design inspirations.)

Coincidentally, this past weekend I stumbled upon an old photo album from college. And there, in the album, was a picture of my very first, freshman-year dorm room. And there, in that picture, was the “Fight Club” poster on the wall.

That was 17 years ago, and it felt like yesterday.

Seventeen years. How did that happen?

And there, in that picture, was the “Fight Club” poster on the wall.

I believe very strongly in living in the present, making the most of the here and now. From time to time, though, I can be sentimental. I can have a moment of nostalgia.

I had a moment then, friends.

I flipped through a few more pictures. Smiled at the late-teen/early-20s faces of some wonderful college friends, who grew up to become wonderful life friends.

There was another picture, of myself with a good friend who passed away much too soon. He had his arm around me, and we were both laughing, the carefree moment freeze-framed forever.

This person actually introduced Stanton to me, and meant a lot to us both individually and as a couple.

I held the picture out to Stanton. He looked, and gave me a little smile. Half happy (for the memory) and half sad (because we’d never again have more than that).

“We were all so young and happy,” I said.

“Yes.”

He had his arm around me, and we were both laughing, the carefree moment freeze-framed forever.

The girls and I were at our town library three days in a row this week. It just kind of happened; there was no grand plan. One day, we returned an overdue DVD; another, we stopped by after playing at a nearby park (and stumbled upon an outdoor concert on the green, complete with complimentary popcorn and temporary tattoos for the kids).

The girls marveled at our good luck. We are lucky, I agreed. And not just for the tattoos and popcorn and music.

The guitarist was strumming the chords to “Edelweiss,” from the classic motion picture “The Sound of Music,” and singing along, the lyrics coasting across the library green: “Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow, bloom and grow forever…”

I said hello to a librarian I know, and mentioned that we often ended up at the library.

“It’s not a bad place to be,” she replied with a smile.

I smiled back. “Totally agree.” (I knew I’d put it in a blog post.)

Where do we end up? What are we doing? How does it all happen?

These can be hard questions, but at least one answer is easy: It all happens fast.

We are lucky, I agreed. And not just for the tattoos and popcorn and music.

The girls go back to school after Labor Day. “Summer went fast,” Grace noted. “I remember the first day of summer vacation.”

Tell me about it, girl. I mean…I remember college. I remember my “Fight Club” poster; I remember 17 years ago.

Once upon a time, we were all so young and happy.

I’ve had some dark days, but overall, I am happy. And incredibly grateful. Not as young as I used to be, though.

I wrote much of this post freehand, old-school in a notebook with a pen, at a park this week, while the girls were playing. It was a picture-perfect summer day, and I did snap some memories. As I did, a quote crossed my mind, and it beautifully sums up the message I’d like to share today:

“One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure it’s worth watching.” (Gerard Way)

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.

When You Have the Choice to Laugh or Cry

Summer is freeze pops, sunscreen and swimming. Lots and lots of swimming.

Grace, Anna and I were at the pool. My older daughter was swimming—actually swimming. My younger daughter, meanwhile, was alternating between adjusting her goggles, blowing bubbles and throwing a plastic ring for Grace to “fetch”—the myriad activities that little kids engage in when they’re in the water. Then Anna grabbed my arms and began bouncing up and down on my thighs.

“Mom!” Up and down, up and down. “You’re a trampoline!”

“No.” It was one of those moments when you could laugh or cry—it could go either way, equally. “I’m not.” Moms everywhere understand: I’m a person. A person.

Not long after, Anna overheard me tell another mom that I appreciated that my new swimsuit had adjustable straps. Minutes later, I felt the metal hooks on the adjustable straps zoom down.

“Anna!” I stopped my upper body from tumbling out of my swimsuit, as Anna continued to tug on the hooks. “Stop, honey.”

“But Mom, you have adjustable straps.” Anna smiled. “They’re fun.”

Laugh or cry…laugh or cry.

Speaking of my new swimsuit: I ordered it online. When it arrived in the mail, and I tried it on…well, let’s just say I wasn’t #twinning with the model from the website. I peered in the mirror.

Huh.

“Ooh, you got a new bathing suit, Mom!” As always, the girls were nearby.

“Mm-hmm. What do you think, girls?”

There was a pause.

“It’s OK if you don’t like it,” I assured them.

“I like the bathing suit,” one daughter (I won’t say who) said. “But I think it’s for someone who isn’t a little fat.”

Ouch.

“Yeah,” the other daughter (also anonymous in this story) agreed. “It’s just that, you look like you have a baby in your belly.”

Laugh or cry, laugh or cry…

“But you don’t! We know you don’t, Mom. You just look like that.”

I mean, whew. I just look pregnant in my new swimsuit.

“Mom.” Concerned, Grace hugged me. “I love you.”

Anna threw her arms around both of us. “I love you too, Mom. And I love your big, soft belly.”

We group hugged.

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The truth is—actually, there are two truths here. The first is, I do have belly fat. I gave birth to two children, am getting older and do zero (and I do mean zero) lower-ab exercises.

Stanton and I also just got into “The Wire” (15+ years later), and I’ve been spending many an evening beside him on our couch, engrossed in the show and munching on a bowl of raw Brazil nuts.

Just kidding, friends. You know I’ve got Cheetos or Doritos in that bowl.

😉

So I accept my body, as is. Could it be toned? Yes. Should I curb my late-night junk-food habit? Definitely…sometime soon.

Am I, overall, healthy? And happy? Thankfully, the answer to both those questions is also “yes.”

The second truth is, I’m glad my daughters were honest with me. Children usually are honest—brutally honest, one might say. Ask any parent, aunt, uncle, teacher, babysitter, and they’d probably all agree: honest, to a fault.

As we grow up, we learn to temper our honesty with tact, diplomacy. I’ve worked in communications for years now, and I understand why finesse matters, in both professional and personal relationships. I get it.

I get it, and after our group hug, I told the girls they can always be honest with me. Even if they think the truth might hurt my feelings. I’d rather my daughters not be diplomats with me. I’m their mom. I want them to know they can tell me anything, talk with me about anything.

They do now. And I hope they always do.

I’d rather my daughters not be diplomats with me. I’m their mom.

Stanton, the girls and I recently went to the beach. All four of us had been looking forward to our family vacation, but Grace and Anna especially. And we did have a wonderful time—jumping waves, building sand castles, visiting a nature center on a rainy day.

Our last day there, I was swimming in the deep-blue water of Long Island Sound. Stanton and the girls were on the beach. It was late morning in Madison, Conn., and we were some of just the handful of tourists and locals there. The water glided over my shoulders, and when I looked ahead, I could see for miles—the open sea, endless. Since time began, human beings have been drawn to water.

“What was your favorite part of our vacation?” I asked the girls, once I came ashore.

Grace and Anna had been digging in the sand. Grace paused, considered the question. “Breakfast,” she decided.

I grabbed a towel. “Breakfast?”

“I loved breakfast at the hotel,” Grace said. “Especially the waffles.”

Stanton and I looked at each other. “Honey, we make waffles at home. What about the beach, the sand castles…”

Grace shook her head. No, definitely the hotel waffles. “That was my favorite part.”

“Me too,” Anna seconded.

Well, what do you know—the hotel waffles. (Laugh or cry?) “That’s great, girls.”

“That was my favorite part.”

Every blue moon, Stanton and I get a chance to go on a date, just the two of us. So we were out, sharing Irish nachos, drinking Shiner Bock draft (him) and red sangria (me). We’ve been each other’s date for 17 years now, and still enjoy each other’s company, which I’m deeply grateful for.

That being said…17 years is a haul. People know each other well by that point. So when, soon after our entrées arrived, Stanton said he was full and ready to head out whenever I was…I knew he wasn’t telling the whole truth.

“Honey.” I narrowed my eyes at him. “You want to take off your pants, right?” (This is all G-rated, friends: I promise.) When my better half comes home at the end of the day, he immediately changes out of his dress pants into a pair of athletic shorts.

Stanton smiled. “Right.”

“Do you ever even wash those shorts?” I wondered.

“That’s the wrong question.”

I nodded, understanding. “How often do you wash them?”

Stanton nodded back. “Bingo.”

Sigh. Not often.

Laugh or cry?

We both laughed.

Life is short. Despite its imperfections, life is beautiful too. The people we get to share it with are gifts.

That’s why, when I have the choice to laugh or cry…all things considered, I usually lean toward laughter.

“I just got one last thing: I urge all of you, all of you, to enjoy your life, the precious moments you have. To spend each day with some laughter and some thought, to get your emotions going.” —Jim Valvano, 1993 ESPY speech

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.

All the Beautiful Pictures

Tubes of sunscreen on the back porch, flip-flops piled up nearby, the freezer stocked with ice cream and the lazy Susan cabinet with sugar cones—summer has settled in at our house, and yours too, I’m sure.

Summertime presents a picturesque backdrop. The other evening I was taking a walk alongside rows of century-old evergreens, and the pink-tinted clouds outlining the setting sun took my breath away. It was an Instagram-worthy moment, to be sure, and I almost did take a picture. But then I thought, no…be present, enjoy the moment.

Probably about half the time I’m present, enjoying the moment…and the other half I’m taking pictures, documenting life.

(Partially, I consider my picture-taking habit part of my “mom” job description. If I left the photographic record-keeping to my husband, we’d probably have only a dozen or so images of the past ten years…the majority of them shot tilted upward, which women everywhere know shows our thighs from the most unflattering angle. P.S. Love you, honey! 😉 )

During a different walk, with the girls, Grace asked for my phone. She wanted to take a picture of a butterfly. I told her I had left my phone at home.

“So we can be present,” Grace grumbled.

“Agh,” Anna added.

Huh. “Right,” I said. “Be present together.”

The girls groaned.

Everything in moderation, I’ve tried to explain to my daughters, from screen time to swimming to ice cream. We don’t want to zone out, wear out, sugar-rush out. And I try to practice what I preach.

If I left the photographic record-keeping to my husband, we’d probably have only a dozen or so pictures of the past ten years…

I’m a people person, though, and I do love keeping in touch with family and friends, sharing pictures through text, email and social media. I try to strike a balance between good days and not as good, moments that are both “proud mom” ones as well as “I can’t believe this happened.”

I try not to be annoying, or brag, although I’m sure I’ve done both at some point(s).

A while back, the girls gave me a sticker from a weather-themed sticker sheet. The sticker depicted a sun with “No Bad Days” scrolled underneath. We were driving in the car, on our way to somewhere, and I stuck the sticker under the car radio.

“Do you like it, Mom?” the girls asked.

Of course, I told them. I loved the cheerful-looking sun, and I appreciated the positive-thinking sentiment: “No Bad Days.” There are bad days, though, I told the girls, and that’s OK. We just make the effort to move forward from them.

Recently, I shared a picture, and a friend replied, “Beautiful!” It was a beautiful picture: summer, sunlight, glorious colors and smiles galore. And I thought…all the beautiful pictures.

Each of us may be, consciously or not, on a journey to collect beautiful pictures.

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We want to remember our good times, and our iconic moments. The first day of kindergarten, the time we arrived at the crown of the Statue of Liberty.

All the times we arrived.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, though, and beauty can be found, too, in the moments we wouldn’t adorn with a “No Bad Days” sticker—in the times people showed up for us, were there for us in our darkest hours.

Still, our for-posterity’s-sake photo albums trend toward years of memories cast in perma-sunlight. Mine do, anyway. Why memorialize dusk?

A weather forecast of “Mostly Sunny Forever” sounds enticing. And if a fortune teller looked into their crystal ball and divined for us a lifetime of “No Bad Days”…who wouldn’t want that, at first glance?

My lifetime of 36 years thus far has run the gamut of “Clear/Sunny” to “Cloudy,” with wind speeds ranging from light to strong. There have been some scattered showers, and even a natural disaster or two. It has not been a lifetime of “No Bad Days.”

But if I had the chance to do it all over…I really think I would do it all over, even the truly dark hours. Because I’m not sure I could have ever known what happiness meant, until I felt sorrow too. “Inside Out” told this story too, several summers ago—and it wasn’t the first time a children’s story had a powerful truth to share.

A weather forecast of “Mostly Sunny Forever” sounds enticing.

Movies, we know, are pictures in motion. In high school, I loved the movie “Meet Joe Black.” It was long, clocking in at three hours, and a “box office bomb,” according to IndieWire. But I loved it then, and love it now. “Meet Joe Black” asks questions about life and death, love and family, and includes an awesome coffee-shop scene.

One of my favorite scenes is between Brad Pitt’s Joe Black character and an elderly Jamaican woman who is ailing. Her time on earth is winding down. She tells Joe, “So take that nice picture you got in your head home with you…If we lucky, maybe, we got some nice pictures to take with us.” Joe asks her if she has some nice pictures; she says yes.

This summer, every season, let’s celebrate our beautiful pictures. Every gathering with loved ones, each beach trip, all the ice-cream cones too. Every pink-tinted sunset we pause to photograph, or simply savor as a memory in our head.

All the beautiful pictures represent our Mostly Sunny moments, and every one of us deserves some of those.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.

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.

My Life Is Not a Pottery Barn Catalog

Every evening after dinner, Stanton usually takes a walk with the girls to our neighborhood mailboxes, just down the street and around the corner. It takes the three of them about fifteen minutes to walk back and forth—check the mail, chat with some neighbors, “find the moon” (Grace loves pointing it out to Anna).

These fifteen minutes give me enough time to run the vacuum cleaner through the kitchen and adjoining family room, the part of our house that is concentrated with crumbs, dirt and random disposable clutter by 7 p.m. I often try to sort a load of laundry into the washing machine too. And I always take a minute to enjoy a square of my favorite dark chocolate bar—guilty pleasures, guilty pleasures.

A few evenings ago, Stanton and the girls returned from their routine walk. “We got the mail, Mom!” Grace announced, depositing it on the freshly vacuumed family room floor. Anna squealed and ran through the pile, ripping some junk-mail flyers and leaving a trail of shredded paper in her wake.

“Thank you, guys,” I said. Then I noticed one of the pieces of mail on the floor: the newest Pottery Barn catalog.

Ah, the Pottery Barn catalog.

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Like many suburban moms, I enjoy flipping through the Pottery Barn catalog. Every page, every artfully staged person-less scene offers an escape into a serene space (free of crumbs, dirt and clutter). Simultaneously, all of these picture-perfect settings remind me that I’m far from achieving the aspirational Pottery Barn life.

The Pottery Barn brand is classic, gracious and organized—very organized. If you live a Pottery Barn life, for example, then you come home to this fashionable yet functional storage system:

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This scene looks so bright and inviting, I’d love to jump right into it. Unfortunately, the mud room entrance to my house looks more like this, especially after the girls and I get back from the pool. Yes, not quite as Instagram-worthy:

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Please don’t judge me too harshly, friends. 🙂

After an afternoon of swimming, what better way to chill than to hang out in the family room, right? Who wouldn’t want to kick back in this Pottery Barn family room—clean, cozy and wonderfully coordinated:

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Now let me introduce you to a typical afternoon around here:

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Cue “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”

Finally, a tale of two dining rooms. First, the Pottery Barn prototype:

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Versus…hello, home sweet home:

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For the moment, my beautiful dining room table serves as a landing spot for several loads of laundry. Hopefully these clothes (and other odds and ends) will get put away by the weekend. And hopefully we’ll break out our own candlesticks and wine glasses for a well-appointed family dinner sometime soon.

When you fill the scenes of your life with people, you also open the door to everything that those relationships bring about: beach towels on summer days, picture frames and greeting cards in the family room, and life happening everywhere.

My life is not a Pottery Barn catalog. I am so grateful for the people who make that possible. What about you?

Photo credits: Pottery Barn

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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.

Book Review: Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter

Unfinished-BusinessLike other women who’ve tussled with how to combine work and motherhood, I read about this topic when I can. Consider others’ perspectives. The past few years have given us plenty to consider—“Lean In” (Sheryl Sandberg, 2013), “Maxed Out” (Katrina Alcorn, 2013), and “Overwhelmed” (Brigid Schulte, 2014).

And those are just the books I’ve read. There are lots more, including Arianna Huffington’s “Thrive” (2014) and Sophia Amoruso’s “#GIRLBOSS” (2015).

Now we have one more in the mix, “Unfinished Business” by Anne-Marie Slaughter. Some background: Slaughter was the first female director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department, her dream job that she accepted in 2009. Her boss was Hillary Clinton. Slaughter gained universal attention in 2012, however, when she wrote The Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”

Slaughter notes that her work/family piece became “one of the most-read articles in the 150-year history of The Atlantic, with an estimated 2.7 million views” (page xxi).

“Unfinished Business” expands upon that piece, at times in moving prose that I didn’t expect (a pleasant surprise!).

I really appreciated this book. Slaughter is successful both professionally and personally, and yet she writes with sensitivity and thoughtfulness on the importance of care in personal and family life. I found her writing from this vantage point to be a bit unexpected, and wholly refreshing. Because taking care of those you love is hard work, especially when they’re needy (young children, or older parents). Appreciate and value the economy of care—this is the central idea of “Unfinished Business.”

Meanwhile, here’s an example of Slaughter’s sensitivity: “As I have tried to put myself in others’ shoes, I have confronted again and again the obvious but too often overlooked point of just how much money matters…Money buys a safety net, relieving stress and providing resources and resilience against the buffets of fate. Yet millions of American [families’ choices]—whether and how much to work versus whether and how much to stay home to care for children or parents—are not really choices at all; they are driven by economic imperatives” (page 4).

Slaughter is right: Money does matter. Money also helps make life easier for high-achieving working mothers, such as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who often use it to buy help around the house (and who often prefer not to acknowledge it). A 2013 Daily Beast article entitled “The True Cost of Leaning In” explores this topic more. To engage in both work and motherhood, a woman probably relies on a helping (hired) hand (or two, or maybe three) for babysitting, cooking and housecleaning. Historically, less privileged women of color have provided these services.

How refreshing for Slaughter to acknowledge this—to acknowledge that in an endeavor to have it all, it seems impossible to do it all.

To this point, Slaughter opens up a dialogue about the term “womanism,” which author Alice Walker coined “as a larger umbrella term that included feminism but focused more on the experiences of women of color and oppressed groups more generally” (page 88). Questions that I have for a book, and a movement, like “Lean In” are, “Are you speaking to all women (or just white, educated, upper-middle-class women)? And are you acknowledging the women unlike yourself who have helped you along the way?”

With “Unfinished Business,” Slaughter does reach out to all women. She acknowledges them. Again, how refreshing.

Another of Slaughter’s moving passages, in which I choked up, is this one: “Often caregiving is about reliability: simply being there when being there is important to your child, your parent, or your spouse. And it’s about support: focusing on someone else’s needs and figuring out how to meet them, whether finding a lost sock, book, or cellphone or offering a genuinely attentive ear” (page 103). This passage moved me because personally, I agree with it, in its poignancy and simplicity. And somehow, this passage resonates even more with me because a woman of Slaughter’s stature—an expert in foreign policy and mother of two boys—wrote it and believes in it, too.

I feel as though Slaughter might be able to relate to what I myself wrote in this recent blog post, “The Detours in Your Life”: “Sometimes, I feel as though I’ve been driving along a detour for four years now, since I became a mom. In that time, I’ve tried to combine two things I love: writing, and taking care of my children. It’s been tricky. I’ve worked on lots of freelance projects, cobbled together with various child-care arrangements. No situation thus far has been a seamless fit.”

A seamless fit. Slaughter devotes much of the second half of “Unfinished Business” to how families in the U.S. might be able to find a work/family fit that, while not seamless, at least isn’t “Maxed Out” or “Overwhelmed.” The second half of her book focuses on “Changing Lenses” (working toward valuing caregiving more) and “Getting to Equal” (which includes insights such as “Don’t drop out, defer,” “Focus on results,” and “Vote for more women”). In the final few pages, she reminds us of her solutions to America’s “Unfinished Business” with a section about “The Care Economy” (pages 240–244).

Overall, “Unfinished Business” by Anne-Marie Slaughter is a thoughtful read and refreshing addition to the literary realm of work/family reflections.

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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.

So Everybody Knows You Here, Right?

The other day, my hubby and I stopped by the coffee shop across the street. He’d been there a few times before. I, on the other hand, head over with the girls a few times a week.

“So everybody knows you here, right?” Stanton said.

“They do.” Then I noted, “That’s a good quote.”

“It’s the song from that show. You know.”

“Well…not exactly.” 🙂

How wonderful, though, to be somewhere “where everybody knows your name.” What a comfort to walk through the door and feel at home.

Besides your home, what are the “places” in your life? The spots that are like second nature to you? Your hangouts, or your kids’?

I remember moving here to San Antonio in 2009. The only people I knew then were Stanton, his parents, and his two best friends. I remember feeling small in a big place.

I had a similar feeling a couple of weeks into my freshman year of college. One evening, I walked outside. I found myself at the Greek Theater, one of many beautiful spots at the University of Richmond. And among all that beauty, I began to cry. I just didn’t feel as if I belonged there.

Until I did. Until I found my “people,” and my places.

Writing connected me, both times, to my two new worlds. In college, I found a home in the English Department. I was a proud bookworm, working on creative writing projects and later spearheading the literary magazine. And in San Antonio, I started a blog about being “Not From Here.” “Not From Here” put me in touch with other writers and, ultimately, a full-time writing job. I loved that job as much as I loved the new colleagues I got to know there.

My people, and my places.

Coffee-Shop-2015

Beginnings are hard, usually. The beginning of something new.

College. A new city. Any transition in your life.

In every transition, finding your new routine can be helpful. Life-saving, even. And finding your new people—that’s life-saving for sure.

I transitioned from working part-time, and having routine conversations with various writing clients, to staying home with my daughters earlier this year. I said indefinite good-byes to those clients, those conversations. I never expected that for this season of my life, I’d find my new people at the coffee shop across the street.

But then again, I never expected I’d meet my standing coffee date in college either, a few months after that night in the Greek Theater.

“What’s that saying, God laughs at man’s plans?”

I looked across the table at Stanton. “Something like that.”

“Well…you know.”

Yes. I did.

“OK, chai tea latte and coffee.” Tricia set our drinks down. “Enjoy, guys.”

I took a sip of my chai.

“Good?”

“Always is,” I told him.

What are the places in your life? And who’s been there with you?

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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.

YOU Are Blessed

I brought Baby G to her two-month checkup a few days ago. She measured in at the 55th percentile for weight, and 7th for height—nearly opposite of Little G. I smiled at our pediatrician. “So where Little G is tall and thin, Baby G is …”

“Perfect,” our pediatrician said, hugging Baby G. “She’s perfectly healthy. You have two healthy daughters. You are blessed.”

You are blessed.

My first thought was, how interesting to hear a doctor speak the languages of both medicine and spirituality, simultaneously. My second thought was, YES. Blessed.

When are we most aware of the blessings—or gifts; the good things—in our life? Maybe in quiet moments—rocking a child to sleep, feeling their breath against us. Or in noisy moments, like celebrations with loved ones.

Day-to-day life challenges us constantly, especially when we’re caring for young children. In the hustle and bustle, it can be easy to take our family and friends for granted. Health for granted. Life for granted.

Until someone reminds us, in sometimes the most unexpected of places: YOU ARE BLESSED.

You are.

Blessed.

One of my favorite quotes is this one, compliments of writer Thornton Wilder: “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”

What are the treasures in your life?

Beyond that … beyond tallying up our treasures … why don’t we make them count? Pay forward the kindnesses done to us?

About two years ago, my hubby and I stumbled upon the Sunday morning church service we now attend every week with our two daughters. Sunday after Sunday, we’ve gotten to know the other young families there, too. And after Baby G was born, our church friends wrote out a meal schedule and alternated evenings for bringing dinners to us, for several weeks.

What a blessing, as any new parent knows.

And the next time I can bring a dinner to a friend who could use it, I will. Pay it forward. Make it count. “One can never pay in gratitude; one can only pay ‘in kind’ somewhere else in life,” Anne Morrow Lindbergh said.

You are blessed.

Now be a blessing, too. ❤

YOU Are Blessed

(Many thanks to my good friend Kathleen for sending the beautiful bouquet pictured above for my recent birthday. Yes, she’s a blessing in my life!)

Real Life Can Be Messy

I’ve worked in the writing industry for nearly 10 years now, and along the way, I’ve learned that art goes hand-in-hand with text. Pictures help tell stories, make them come to life. The story can be anything from a press release to a magazine article to a business proposal—it doesn’t matter. More often than not, words need imagery for readers to say, “Aha! Got it.”

This is especially true for blog posts, including those on lifestyle and women’s blogs. (Examples: The Nest Blog and Bizzie Living.) It’s why I’ve been trying to incorporate more (and hopefully better!) pictures into my recent blog posts, particularly when I write about everyday life and family activities.

Then one afternoon earlier this week, I felt compelled to take this picture:

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Little G was sick that day, with a runny nose and cough. By lunchtime, I was tired from getting up with her several times the night before (and the night before that) to help her blow her nose. Then Little G informed me she didn’t feel like taking a nap, even though she (and I!) really could have used the rest.

You know what I thought. That’s right: “Great.” 🙂

By the end of the afternoon, you might have mistaken our living room for a landfill. And something inside me said, “Take a picture.”

Because sometimes, media ranging from blog posts to alumni newsletters to the Restoration Hardware Baby & Child Source Book can represent life in somewhat of an unreal way. Filtered, Photoshopped, staged. And sometimes we can come across these (mis?)representations on social media, too, where the pictures from family and friends may hit closer to home. (“I wish my New Year’s Eve snaps had turned out as festive as theirs!”)

So along with my recent mood-lighting-enhanced representations of writing thank-you notes in the serene evening hours, and baking Orange Dark Chocolate Blossoms as a cozy mommy-and-me activity with Little G …  moments like the above “my living room/day looks like a landfill” happen in my life, too.

Real life can be messy. And mine is no exception.

It seems that life gets messier as we get older. We have more responsibilities. More people count on us, especially our children. It also seems that we’re most needed in the messiest of moments.

For example, a sick day—never fun. But as a parent, you have to be there for that. You have to show up. And you have to show up for all the other messy moments, too. What do you think, friends?

A short time after my hubby and I got married, I started a new job, associate editor at a magazine. There were some cool perks, such as appearing on local TV shows and attending VIP events around town. Meanwhile, my hubby got a promotion. We had just closed on our first house. A family member told us, “Everything’s coming up roses for you two.”

Yes, for a while. Then Stanton’s Fortune 500 company filed for bankruptcy; he was laid off. And the cool perks at my magazine gig didn’t cover all our living expenses, so we eventually sold our first home together.

I love this quote from Oprah Winfrey: “Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.” It’s probably unromantic of me to share, but this is what I think about when I think about Stanton, a.k.a. my standing Saturday night date for 13 years and counting. If given the choice, yes, we’ll opt for the limo, but we have no problem with public transportation.

Life is a series of ups and downs, of building and rebuilding, of taking the cushions off of your living room couch and putting them back on again.

I think our children can learn a lot, maybe even their most meaningful lessons, from moments of messiness, too. A sick day. Seeing their mom or dad take care of them. Measure their medicine; read them their current favorite story over and over again; cuddle up to watch the same “Sofia the First” episode together. Caring, patience, unconditional love.

Runny noses, buses sometimes, topsy-turvy living rooms.

This is real life.