Book Review: Heartland—A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest County on Earth by Sarah Smarsh

heartland coverThere were moments, as I was reading Sarah Smarsh’s debut nonfiction book “Heartland,” that tears suddenly filled my eyes, preventing me from reading the words on the pages I held in my hands. I felt I was there; I felt everything. Subtitled “A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth,” this book beautifully, hauntingly and honestly tells the story of the author’s impoverished yet persevering Kansas family in the context of our nation’s class politics and economic policies.

Published in 2018, the story itself is excellent, a thoughtful, thought-provoking and compelling read. It is part sociology, part poetry and wholly engrossing. Beyond the story (seven chapters), I also very much appreciated the Acknowledgments at the end.

Why the Acknowledgments? Because “Heartland” is memoir, a true story. Much of what makes it so compelling is the characters—real people from Smarsh’s life, many of them still living. Their experiences (often colorful, sometimes painful to read about) give life to this creative nonfiction narrative of living and working in the 20th- and 21st-century Midwest. Smarsh recognizes this and thanks her family in language as beautiful and important as that of the rest of the book: “With deepest reverence, thank you to my family for surviving, with humor and dignity, the difficulties that allowed this book to exist. When I asked for their blessing to tell our shared past, they bravely answered yes…Because it might help someone else, and because it is true” (page 290).

…[“Heartland”] beautifully, hauntingly and honestly tells the story of the author’s impoverished yet persevering Kansas family in the context of our nation’s class politics and economic policies.

When I write creative nonfiction, similar questions weigh on me. Why do I want to share this (true) story? For me to put something of my personal world in a public space, for me to ask for loved ones’ blessing to share, some meaning to it all has to exist beyond, “This is a good story.”

There is meaning in the stories that Smarsh shares of her family. The underlying meaning is that entrenched economic inequality can keep the American dream out of grasp for a portion of Americans (in this case, her family’s generations of wheat farmers and teen mothers). Meanwhile, “the American dream” is so entrenched in our national mythology that those who fall short of achieving it may hold themselves as individuals completely responsible, rather than considering the systemic barriers to rags-to-riches realizations.

In the first chapter, Smarsh vividly yet pointedly describes, “That we could live on a patch of Kansas dirt with a tub of Crisco lard and a $1 rebate coupon in an envelope on the kitchen counter and call ourselves middle class was at once a triumph of contentedness and a sad comment on our country’s lack of awareness about its own economic structure” (page 29). She goes on to write, “You got what you worked for, we believed. There was some truth to that. But it was not the whole truth.”

The whole truth that Smarsh goes on to explore includes issues such as access (and/or lack of access) to education, jobs and health care; teen pregnancy; and domestic violence.

Smarsh’s depictions of her female family members’ experiences with domestic violence were particularly disheartening to read, I found. Throughout “Heartland,” Smarsh notes that we may “live in different Americas and thus have different understandings” (page 39). Later in the book, she considers these differences as they relate to class and domestic violence. “In theory, women were being liberated during [the 1960s and ’70s], but the poorest of them had the least agency for independence in real life,” Smarsh writes, adding “Domestic violence occurs at all socioeconomic levels, of course, but the woman who can’t afford to leave will have more chances to be killed” (pages 217-218). Money and class can have life-or-death consequences for health, safety and opportunity.

Money and class can have life-or-death consequences for health, safety and opportunity.

A subtle yet omnipresent theme that Smarsh threads throughout “Heartland” is motherhood—her motherhood, although she does not (currently) have children. Growing up, Smarsh is pained to know that any child she has, as a poor young woman, would almost certainly grow up poor too, the odds stacked against him or her. As an adult, she achieves professional success (a tenure-track university professor job) and personal success (“a big house…with vaulted cedar ceilings,” page 283). One night, she realizes with both joy and sorrow that from this moment on, any child she has, if she does, would not be that poor child from her lifelong visions. “A cycle had been broken,” Smarsh writes, “and the place it tore was between me and you” (page 285).

Smarsh remembers that she “cried so hard” (page 285). But why? Why cry when you have achieved what you set out to do, when others might even say you embody the American dream? The reason why is because it’s hard to say goodbye.

It’s hard to say goodbye, always. To anything…even for a good thing, or a better thing.

Another recurring theme is women, and their strength, especially during difficult times. Smarsh’s observation on page 209 struck me: “In some ways, where I grew up there was less of a line drawn between men and women than I’ve found in more privileged places. The women who raised me cooked in cafeterias, drove tractors…moved boxes in the stock rooms of discount stores…The men I grew up around didn’t scoff at a woman’s capability.” The women Smarsh grew up around didn’t need Sheryl Sandberg to tell them to “Lean In”—and at the same time, they probably wouldn’t have seen the D.C.-born, Larry Summers-mentored Facebook COO as a woman with whom they had much in common.

“For the women I knew,” Smarsh adds on page 212, “work wasn’t a liberation from the home or a revelation of self. It was a way of life—familiar, essential, and unsung for generations.” Powerful, humbling, honest.

The women Smarsh grew up around didn’t need Sheryl Sandberg to tell them to “Lean In”—and at the same time, they probably wouldn’t have seen the D.C.-born, Larry Summers-mentored Facebook COO as a woman with whom they had much in common.

Smarsh reveals that the story of the American dream is a complicated one, a not-so-cut-and-dried narrative. For example, she notes in Chapter 1, “Grandpa Arnie loved working the land not for the price of wheat per bushel but because smelling damp earth at sunrise felt like a holy experience…Work can be a true communion with resources, materials, other people. I have no issue with work. Its relationship to the economy—whose work is assigned what value—is where the trouble comes in” (page 43).

Despite the complications, Smarsh’s story strikes a chord of hope at the end, for an “honest economic system” (page 288) sometime in the future.

“It’s complicated” may well describe much of the story, and the history, of Smarsh’s “Heartland.” Smarsh herself shares, “When I was well into adulthood, the United States developed the notion that a dividing line of class and geography separated two essentially different kids of people. I knew it wasn’t right, because both sides existed in me—where I was from and what I hoped to do in life, the place that best sustained me and the places I needed to go for the things I meant to do” (page 125), poignantly concluding with, “Straddling that supposed line as I did, I knew it was about a difference of experience, not of humanity.”

A difference of experience, not of humanity. What an expansive, encouraging perspective. And what if the people in charge—and every one of us, really—could give that perspective a try sometimes?

A difference of experience, not of humanity. What an expansive, encouraging perspective.

Why did I read “Heartland,” and why might you? I love nonfiction, and memoir. “Heartland” is both those things. I appreciate voice, especially a writer’s voice that is fresh, honest and evocative without veering into sentimentality. Smarsh’s voice is all those things—Hemingway-esque, at times, as in “A Moveable Feast.” I minored in urban studies in college (not that minors really matter), and have always been interested in the related topics of sociology and economics. “Heartland” is a first-person study of sociology and economics, against the backdrop of a Kansas countryside.

If you love nonfiction or memoir…an authentic voice…and/or sociology and economics, then you almost certainly will love “Heartland” by Sarah Smarsh.

Photo credit: Simon & Schuster

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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.

Answering to Grace’s Mom: A Surprising Joy

One afternoon recently, Anna and I headed over to Grace’s elementary school. Parents and other family members can join their kids for lunch, and this had been on my to-do list for, let’s see, the past year. #gettingthingsdone

Grace’s kind teacher invited me to come in a bit early so that I could read a story to the class before the lunch period.

“Yay!” Grace said.

Anna frowned. “I don’t want to read.”

“You can sit next to me on the rug,” Grace told her little sister.

Anna kept frowning.

That afternoon, I stuffed my tote bag with several seasonal story selections, lunch for Anna and me, and water bottles. Anna and I arrived at Grace’s school right on time. I like to tell people they can count on me to be right on time, or a smidge behind schedule—but definitely, reliably not early.

Grace smiled when Anna and I walked into her classroom. I knew many of the other kids from around the neighborhood, sports and other activities, and they smiled too. “Hi, Grace’s mom!” they said.

I so appreciated how welcoming the whole class was, and I loved reading a story (“The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything”) to them. The whole time, Grace kept smiling at me. After story time, Anna and I followed Grace to the cafeteria. Grace showed us where to sit. A lot of kids crowded around me, which had zero effect on my ego—I knew I was the daily novelty.

“Grace’s mom, can you open my straw?” one of the kids asked.

“Sure,” I replied.

“Mom,” Anna hissed. She was huddled beside me. “I need help too.”

I gave Anna her turkey and cheese sandwich.

“Grace’s mom! I have a sandwich too,” another kid said. “My mom cuts the crust off because I don’t like it.”

“That’s so nice,” I said.

Anna was tugging on my arm. “Mom. I don’t like crust either, but you left mine on.”

I glanced at her. She scrunched up her nose. “You’re going to be OK, honey.”

A lot of kids crowded around me, which had zero effect on my ego—I knew I was the daily novelty.

I loved dropping in at Grace’s school that day. I was there for about thirty minutes, and I loved everything about that time. I recognized that Grace was happy I was there, and I remembered that being there means a lot to people. I felt deeply grateful I was able to be there.

I also felt something I wasn’t expecting, something that really surprised me. I felt joy when my daughter’s classmates and friends called me “Grace’s mom,” when they addressed me in that way.

It made me smile. It was sweet, and innocent.

When I was growing up, I wasn’t a child (girl) who spent hours dreaming up names for her future children. Instead, I surveyed baby names websites for ideas on what to name characters in stories I was writing. I wasn’t an instinctively motherly person.

Even now, I know there are things, maternally, I could be doing more wholeheartedly. Like, play more games with the girls. (Although they often cheat, at everything from Candy Land to the Dr. Seuss Matching Game.)

Still, I could be more fun…and less selfish. During the fellowship after church on Sunday, Anna revealed to another lady, “My mom ate all our Pirate’s Booty again.” Grace chimed in that they had discovered the empty bag in the trash.

Yeah…all true stories, unfortunately.

…Anna revealed to another lady, “My mom ate all our Pirate’s Booty again.”

What touched my heart most of all, I think, in being called “Grace’s mom” is that Grace beamed. Grace was proud…of me. Despite all the things I could have done (and could do) better, she still wanted to claim me as her mom.

And I am proud of Grace. I love being her mom, and Anna’s too.

Somebody out there (a graduate student, maybe) probably could write a paper about the detriments of answering to “[insert name of child]’s mom.” I used to write papers like that back in my own graduate school days, and I can envision the discussion: loss of identity, sense of self dependent on relationship status, a note about postmodernism thrown in for good measure. Some of that would even be true.

When we become parents, we do experience a loss, of carefree-ness. We let a more carefree part of ourselves go, and settle into a more grown-up role. There is so much we gain too, though.

I’ve always been more of a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” person. Loss and gain, rather than just loss or just gain. Shades of gray, not black or white.

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Sometimes, even “both/and” comes with its own set of headaches. After Stanton and I got married, I used both last names (my maiden and married names) on everything: my driver’s license, address labels and, most importantly to me, bylines for articles I wrote.

As a writer, I cared about the continuity between what “Melissa Minetola” and “Melissa Minetola Leddy” wrote. And as a partner, I cared about honoring the love I have for the person who’s encouraged me in my writing since we were freshmen in college. Time after time, all three of those names took up quite a bit of space on identity documents, stationery and mastheads. Until I decided it was time to give readers (and the general public) more credit. People would be able to figure out who I was if I signed off as, simply, “Melissa Leddy.” (This is, of course, just my experience, and what made sense for me. Everyone’s different in what works for them.)

As a girl, I named the characters in my stories, instead of my future children. Storytelling has always been part of my life. I loved reading to Grace’s class that afternoon, as “Grace’s mom.” Just as much, I loved participating in our town’s Local Author Fair, also this fall.

It was the first time I was part of an author fair. I sat at a table with a poet on my left, and a military memoirist on my right. The poet brought a vase of fresh-cut flowers as the backdrop for her display of books (stunning!), and the memoirist unveiled a bowl of candy, which attracted lots of passersby (who doesn’t love Jolly Ranchers?). I’m going to remember these tricks of the trade for next time. I had made bookmarks, which a few folks took.

An older woman asked if she could buy a copy of one of my books. “Well, they’re e-books,” I said. “So you can buy them online.”

She laughed. “I don’t read e-books!”

I laughed a little too. “OK, well, you can have one of my bookmarks then.” She didn’t want one of those either.

At that moment, Stanton and the girls walked over, and I waved to them. They beamed at me.

“Awww, who’s this?” the poet asked.

“This is my husband, Stanton, and these are our daughters…”

“I love your book fair, Mom!” Grace said. She lowered her voice. “But that lady should have taken your bookmark.”

“It’s OK, honey…”

“Can I have a bookmark, Mom?” Anna reached for the stack.

“Hang on, honey…”

Stanton leaned over. “We’re proud of you,” he whispered.

I hadn’t sold an e-book yet, and the local older-adult population didn’t seem interested in my free bookmarks either…but I so appreciated my husband’s saying that, and my whole family’s support and encouragement. And their being there.

When someone you love looks at you with love simply because you showed up to read a story to them and their friends—that’s a beautiful feeling. It’s also a beautiful feeling when that same person looks at you that same way when you’re trying to publicize stories you wrote (with mixed results… 😉 ).

Pet names, pen names, nicknames, Twitter handles and aliases… The name game can be a intricate one. And sometimes, it doesn’t matter as much as you once thought it did.

Sometimes, someone says something, calls you something (“Grace’s mom”), and it simply feels right. And it gives you joy. You never imagined it would…but that’s life for you.

Life is full of surprises. Some good, some bad. We do our best to grow with each ebb and flow.

We do our best to be there.

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.

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.

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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.

The Secret Lives of Moms

Many a weekday morning when Stanton is out of town for work, I let the girls watch an episode of “Sofia the First” or “The Cat in the Hat” so that I can take a shower in peace.

Several times, when I haven’t used the “TV as babysitter” tactic, Anna has wandered into the bathroom and broached less-than-ideal early-morning conversation topics. For example… “Mom, your belly is so big and cozy.” And, “Mom, why is there hair on your legs? YUCK, Mom!”

Nothing like this kind of 3-year-old commentary to make me want to crawl back under the covers.

Grace also has been known to poke her head into the bathroom with an urgent question, as water is streaming down my body. “Mom, can you please find my headband with the pink bow? I need my headband with the pink bow, now. Please.”

“Girls. Girls.” I quickly rinse the conditioner out of my hair. “You’re only supposed to come in here if it’s really important, remember? Really important, or an emergency.”

Grace sighs. “Mom, my hair looks crazy! I need my headband, right now. The one with the pink bow,” she adds.

I turn off the water. “Is it possible…could you both possibly give me some privacy? For one minute?”

By this point, Anna has made herself comfortable on the tile floor, “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” or a 500-page, hours-of-fun sticker book in hand. “It’s fine, Mom,” she says, shrugging her little shoulders. “We don’t mind.”

My turn to sigh.

So yes…thank goodness for Netflix.

“Mom, my hair looks crazy! I need my headband, right now.”

The other morning, I clicked on Netflix. The girls were settled on the couch, patiently waiting for one of their favorite shows. On our Netflix, we have three profiles: Stanton, Melissa, and Grace and Anna. That morning, when I arrived at the screen of profiles, the “Melissa” one was highlighted.

The girls…went…crazy.

“Melissa! Melissa!” Grace noticed.

“Mom…is…Melissa!” Anna chimed in.

“YOU WERE WATCHING TV!” they yelled, pointing at me with big eyes and laughing, as if they had just discovered the world’s best secret.

I had to laugh too. Then I said, “Yes, it’s true, girls. Sometimes, after you go to sleep, I watch TV.”

They began laughing hysterically again. “Mom watches TV! Mom watches TV!”

God forbid I catch up on “House of Cards” or “Longmire” when I have a moment to myself, right?

Grace raised an eyebrow at me. “What else do you do after Anna and I go to sleep?”

I raised my eyebrow back at her.

The secret lives of moms.

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Our children know us so well, but we also keep things from them. I have some secrets, which are probably similar to yours.

I watch TV most nights, when I could be doing something productive instead. (If I never finish my great American novel, I have no one to blame but myself!)

When I’m couch-potato-ing, I usually have dark chocolate as my accompanying snack. But sometimes, sometimes, I give in to my true love: Cheetos.

I know you’re not supposed to eat “food” that ends in an “O” (Cheetos, Doritos, Ho-Hos…the list goes on)…but I’m a sucker for Cheetos.

My daughters know I strive for all four of us to eat healthfully…and they also know I love Cheetos. When we go grocery shopping together, I say, “Remember, girls, don’t let me buy…”

“Cheetos!” they yell.

“Yes!” I reply. “Mom does not need Cheetos.” (Gotta do something about that big and cozy belly.)

But sometimes, sometimes, I give in to my true love: Cheetos.

On a recent grocery-shopping trip, I maneuvered the cart down the “Chips” aisle to get Tostitos for Stanton. Super Bowl Sunday was coming up; he would need Tostitos. I grabbed a bag. (Original, not multigrain, of course. Why is multigrain Tostitos even an option?!)

Then I saw, out of the corner of my eye, on the bottom shelf…Cheetos.

Mmm…I could almost taste the cheesy, crunchy goodness.

While Grace and Anna were debating what they should be for Halloween nearly nine months from now, I snuck a bag of Cheetos into the cart. A little treat for me, for later.

The three of us got into a checkout aisle. That’s when Grace noticed the Cheetos. She looked at me with wide eyes, and an accusatory expression. “Mom…!”

“I know, I know,” I said. “Let’s not make a big deal about this.” I didn’t want Anna to notice too.

But of course… “Hey! Hey, MOM!” Anna pointed to the bright-orange bag.

“Anna, guess what.” Grace leaned across the front of the cart, where Anna was sitting. “Mom got Cheetos.”

“Cheetos?!” The forbidden fruit. Anna craned her body around and grabbed for the bag. “I want Cheetos! I want them, Mom!”

Great.

I tossed the Cheetos onto the checkout counter. “Anna, Cheetos aren’t healthy,” I said, shaking my head at her. “They’re junk food. Yuck!”

Anna shook her head back at me. “I love junk food! I want some junk food, Mom!”

Some of the people around us laughed. Others just looked at me. Just…great.

I exchanged a glance with Grace, who simply sighed and said, “Mom.”

Mom, you shouldn’t have gotten the Cheetos.

“I love junk food! I want some junk food, Mom!”

One last story, friends.

As you know, Anna often ends up sleeping in our bed. When Stanton is traveling, I usually just tuck her into our bed, rather than her own bed, so that I don’t have to get up at 3 a.m. (it’s always 3 a.m., like clockwork) to run into her room and then snuggle her back to sleep alongside myself. When Stanton is home, though, I do tuck Anna into her own bed so that he and I have some time together before her tiny body takes up a huge amount of space in our bed.

On one such morning, Anna woke up. Stretched her little arms. Rolled over and saw Stanton. “Dad,” she grumbled. (Like her mom, she’s not a morning person.)

“Dad!” Anna said again, pushing at him. “Dad, what are you doing here?”

I looked over. “Anna,” I hissed. “Dad’s still sleeping.”

Anna flung herself back my way. “Why is he here?” she asked again.

Why indeed, friends. Why indeed.

It very well may be impossible for our children to imagine that we, as moms, have moments in our lives that don’t involve them.

And you know, I’m guilty of this too, with my own mom. I called my mom on her cell phone once. She didn’t answer. I called my family’s landline phone. No answer again.

I remember being irrationally annoyed. Where was my mom when I needed her? What could she possibly be doing that she couldn’t drop that minute to answer my phone call?

(Do we ever grow up, friends?)

For many of us, I think we simply like to know, on a very basic level, that our moms are there. Are there for us. In an American culture where so many of us strive to stand out in the crowd, we like to know that there’s still one person who, no matter what, thinks the world of us.

Who will pick up the second we call. Who will stop showering, that second, to find our headband (the one with the pink bow), simply because our hair, currently, looks crazy.

For many of us, that person answers to “Mom.” For others of us, it’s “Dad,” or “Grandpa,” or the name of a good friend.

For my daughters, I’m that person. I love being that person to them.

But every now and then…I just want to binge-watch my favorite shows alone, in bed, with a serving size (or two) of Cheetos close at hand.

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.

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.