It’s A Deal!

Writing the Book, Post #1

I’ve hit my version of nirvana: I’m going to write a book on one of my favorite subjects.

For money!

A few years, a whole other job and one child ago, a publishing company in London tracked me down. I had written an article for National Geographic magazine about a family of cheetahs that had survived for three generations in Kenya. (Very rare. Despite their speed, those cats are fragile). The company was in the process of securing rights to photographs of a similar tiger family in India that had been captured by a film crew in the process of shooting a BBC documentary. Would I be interested in writing the text?

Does a cat purr?

A bobcat blocks my vision.

I know a fair amount about cats, both the jungle kind and housebroken variety. The obsession started in childhood with a lonely kitten a friend gave me for my birthday when I was about five and has been in full force ever since. Truthfully,  watching any animal in the wild and contemplating its behavior and motivations can fascinate me for hours. But my first love is the cat. It never really leaves you.

Flash forward again. When I worked as a reporter for Reader’s Digest, I traveled to the plains of Colorado to profile a man who had spent decades and every dime he ever made building a 160-acre sanctuary for unwanted and abused wild animals. Along with lions, leopards, grizzly and black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, and a sole emu, he had 75 Bengal tigers on this property. Let me say that again. SEVENTY FIVE Bengal tigers, in all their black and pumpkin-colored glory.

Do you realize you could never EVER see 75 tigers in their natural habitat? Or maybe any where else on earth? These animals had no where else to go. Bred or imported for circuses, roadside attractions or idiots who think they can raise—and feed—a 600-pound wild animal, these cats came to Pat Craig sick, injured, malnourished, fearful and angry. Pat and his crew nourish them back to health, serves them food specifically designed for their needs and, yes, hangs out with them. He can actually pet one.

Two Bengals from the Wildlife Animal Sanctuary. The hand is mine.

Through a massive chain-linked fence, I touched one, too. That gorgeous coat bristles more than you’d think and these cats live in relative luxury, having their nutritional needs met, never hunting their own food. I looked into its golden flecked eyes at close range. I watched the muscles and sinews flex. They are truly awesome.

This story, plus the cheetah tale and various other bits I’d written, got me to thinking about the precarious plight of the big cats.  It’s easy to love them. They’re beautiful, their cubs are freakin’ adorable, their coats look soft and cuddly (a myth, but we’ll chat about that later).  But most of them–cheetahs, tigers, etc.–may not be around on their planet for much longer. I’m no pessimist, but with dwindling habitats where they can thrive, their survival is simply not a guarantee. Why this is so is no real mystery: Man.

My publishing friends in London tell me that India has taken the bold step of reducing tiger tours, a fairly lucrative revenue stream for them no doubt, to allow the big cats some privacy. Maybe this book can help, too. Most of the profits we make will go to big cat non-profits working to save their existence. (Read about Dakini Press’s super-human efforts to get this project off the ground.)

I’ll be blogging about the writing process, learning lots more about the cats and undoubtedly working out some of the kinks in the text as I go. All feedback welcomed. As long as it’s civil.

Riding Away

Riding Away

mother child sign loveBy Carol Kaufmann, Mama Tricks

Months after my son’s first day of school, I can honestly say I haven’t moved past the initial sendoff.

The crunch of the holiday season should have pushed memories of fall on the cerebral back burner, but it’s taken some time to process that my baby is now a student. Each morning he rides off with other, bigger kids to a place where I’m not. Thinking about that initial shock still fills me with both head-swelling pride and full-blown anxiety.

At 8:20 that morning, we stand at our door, set for the big departure. It’s a crisp September morning. But I’m afraid that, somehow, we’ll miss the pint-sized preschool bus. I don’t know how small it is, exactly.

I look at Luke, my Big Proud Three-year-old in his maroon hoodie and slightly big-around-the-waist khaki pants, carrying a small canvas book bag embossed with Star Wars action figures, all ready.  How is this possible?

We’re on time, miraculously, for the big day. We’ve eaten our cereal, brushed our teeth, we’re dressed. Even Baby Sister Sara Clare—all of two—has her play clothes on. I write “we” not to imply that I am in any way together, much less ready for work, but because I still think of my kids as part of me.

I peer out over the front stoop, making sure the bus isn’t at the stoplight, though with a screen door full of transparent glass, there’s really no way I could miss it. I keep looking back at Luke to make sure he’s still there, still my little boy.

Then, he announces he wants eggs.

My God, his wheatie O’s must not have cut it because clearly I’ve not given him a good breakfast. To the pan! No time for whisking in a separate bowl that makes the eggs light and fluffy! Milk goes right in skillet on top of the sunny-colored yolks. Five minutes later, both children have scrambled eggs, buttered toast and more milk in their cups. But at 8:25 with the bus due at 8:30, there’s no time to actually dine at the kitchen table, yards away from the full-on view of the road.

“Special treat!” Mama uses the code words that capture their attention quicker than our fat cats jump at the sound of dry cat food ringing in porcelain bowls. “We’re going to make egg sandwiches, guys! On the stairs!”  In front of the door.

Anything that smacks of a picnic brings the troops to prompt attention. The kids toddle to the steps, plop down and attempt to fold a single piece of bread over their scrambled eggs. A mixed success, yellow morsels fall over the carpeted stairs and, of course, begin to grind their way in.

The kids looooovvveee eating those egg sandwiches on the steps. Big brother helps little sis by cramming tiny pinches of bread into her mouth and they’re giggling. I’m having fun, too, though I hover over Luke’s spanking-clean school clothes, all the while keeping an eye out for the bright-yellow kidnapping machine that will interrupt. I now hope it will roll merrily by.

Eggs finished more or less, we go outside. Sara immediately runs into a neighbor’s yard, out of my reach. Luke begins to dismantle a dead butterfly.

“Look, Mommy! His legs!” Luke holds up sad bugs appendages. The kids drift further away physically, but in other ways too. I try to put a positive spin on this realization and figure that with Luke’s dissecting abilities, he’ll ace biology.

Anxiety crowds in. Maybe it’s because somewhere in the recesses of our minds, mothers will always be preparing their children for the next step, though unsure about how the hell to do it. I don’t know how my little guy will react when the bus pulls up. His preschool is in our church so he’s seen his classroom, but this is different. New teachers, new kids, new smells, new structure.  Though he’s only three, school implies expectation and I don’t know if I’ve prepped him well enough to compete or thrive with his peers who will have minds and three-year-old agendas of their own. And I can’t decide if it matters.

I check the sky, actually hoping for a sudden downpour. Luke has developed a sudden fear of water and yesterday a monsoon had moved in. “It’s getting deeper!” Luke wailed at the gushing water and clung on to me. We don’t know why water scares him. I hear that toddlers develop irrational fears without warning and I pray school’s not one of them. But, here on his first day, there’s no rain. No excuse to keep him inside in my cocoon.

When the bus comes, chills run down my damp back, which always seems to have a layer of permanent sweat these days. The miniature bus looks like a third of the size of school buses I remember, with twelve tiny toddler seats, belts dangling, their buckles clacking. I love it, I hate it.

My big boy climbs on, big as you please, with Mommy escorting him, per bus rules.

“I do it myself, Mommy.” He buckles up the belt with no help from me.

Snapped in place, he smiles so big my heart crumples into a million bits. His excitement is palpable—and hopefully contagious because the other kids looked kind of dour. I click a few pics for the memory book.

Sara Clare climbs on too, and plops in the seat opposite her brother. Getting her off the bus is no easy task. “Sara go to school!” she insists.

“Next year, baby.” Or maybe never.

As the bus pulls away, I hold her on the sidewalk as we look through the small windows and see a silhouette of Luke’s curly blond hair framed in the window. His hand is waving, he’s looking straight at me. He grins like Candy Land is awaiting him. And who knows? Maybe that’s how he sees it.

At least, that’s what I’ve told myself every day since.

Carol Kaufmann regularly shares her “Mama Tricks” with The Well Mom. Her work has appeared in Reader’s Digest,National Geographic, The Washington Post, and in the anthology, A Woman’s Europe.  She lives in Alexandria, VA with her husband, two children and two obese rescue cats.

CK&Luke

First appeared on thewellmom.com, January 6, 2010.

Iron Mom

By Carol Kaufmann, Mama Tricks

I stood in front of an upright ironing board, glaring at the basket load of button-downs, clean but wrinkled. Mother of toddlers, working professional, schooled and world-traveled, a credit card holder, a second-time homeowner.  And I am… ironing my husband’s shirts?

This is not who I am.

Like many 30-somethings who entered the work world during the age of excess, I formed a certain ideal of what life would be like once my career was on a roll. I saw examples of the good life flourishing in the D.C. metro area: Manicured lawns done by gardeners, regular help cleaning the house, spiky, animal-skinned shoes, lunches on white tablecloths, black-tie charity events, and vacations at places with names like Guanacaste and Essaouira.  I heard the stories. Sometimes I even had a taste of them myself.

But last fall as the national depression sank in and sparked our fears, my American dream spiraled down the potty along with the country’s economic outlook. Now, I’m happy to have a job, given the front-page Post stories of massive layoffs, spiking unemployment and two-parent households with not a job between them.

I know my job and my husband’s are guaranteed only by the thinnest wisp of commitment from our companies. These days, we’re very replaceable—at least that’s how our employers think.  The reality is if our jobs go, we’re a few missed mortgage payments away from financial Armaggedon.  Every month, our bank account creeps dangerously close to negative numbers, thanks to a preschool deposit, a sink that backs up on a Sunday, a spot on my arm that needed removing or any variety of home/child/health crises.

Yes, when it comes to money, control seemed just beyond my grasp—except what lurks within the four walls around me. And within this lair, I find opportunities to save bucks everywhere and  battened down our hatches.

Hubby, who’s up first, makes bag lunches so we don’t waste cash at our favorite sandwich haunts. We’ve weaned our addiction to lattes. I learned to like natural-colored nails instead of manicured ones, eliminated most dinners out, and now think of vacation not as a trip to the beach but as absence of work.  I even enjoyed my frugality, now in full force. Doing more with less has become a game, an exercise in creativity to find the best deal, amass the most effective combination of coupons.

But ironing?

Shall I also don an apron while I assume the classic position of a 50s housewife?  Watching the hyper-inflated suffocating predicaments of every female character on the 1960s-based drama Mad Men is enough to drive me screaming down the block. Now, I felt like one of them, a slave to the times. (Only not as nattily dressed.)

It’s not as if I’m a spoiled, holier-than-thou princess (OK, maybe a little) who doesn’t know how to roll up her sleeves and do the hard work. But my work, I thought, was to use my brain to create content and read Beginner’s Dr. Seuss, not pushing metal to and fro over seemingly permanent wrinkles.

I remember so well watching my mother, a child of parents who saved pieces of aluminum foil and reused jars during the Depression, diligently pulling out the ironing board, creaking the lever into an upright X, and tackling the laundry basket of Dad’s work shirts. Even before age 10, I realized Mom was enduring a necessary evil.

As I grew, Mom continued to iron. She’d drive right on by the fairly convenient dry cleaner, even though she was as busy as all get-out raising kids, teaching school, volunteering for this and that, taking covered dishes to new neighbors and shut-ins. I’d ask why she didn’t just drop off the laundry and save herself a little time? “Because I can do it myself,” she’d tell me. “Why waste the money?”

The more I learn to discern the fragile moment between a perfect crease and an iron imprint, the more I understand her question. Why spend the money, indeed, when times call for using it for more important purchases—quality fruits and veggies, college accounts, credit-card debt reduction—and in these days especially, a few bucks for someone who could really use it.

And why do all important lessons seem to come from our mothers?

As it turns out, I like seeing a line of freshly pressed shirts hanging along our furniture, a visible, tangible reminded of a job I can do. My husband, who takes his turns at the board, is tickled—even thinks it’s hot, for some odd reason—when I press the shirts and pants he’ll wear that week.

I had grown too big for my britches, as Mom would say. I had forgotten a basic tenet of good living that my hubby and I swore in our wedding vows we wouldn’t lose sight of—that it’s the simple things, after all, that provide a quick jolt of peace. So I iron because I can.

Hard times purify. They force those of us who think we’re above little details, to get over ourselves and put some muscle back into work.  They remind us that being able to take care of ourselves because we’re capable of doing so is a gift.

Copyright 2009 Carol Kaufmann

CK&LukeCarol Kaufmann regularly shares her “Mama Tricks” with The Well Mom. Her work has appeared in Reader’s Digest, National Geographic, The Washington Post, and in the anthology A Woman’s Europe. She lives in Alexandria, VA with her husband, toddler, newborn, and two obese rescue cats.

First appeared on thewellmom.com, September 7, 2009.

The Real Sex

Mama Tricks: The Real Sex

By Carol Kaufmann, Columnist, “Mama Tricks: Wrapping Your Head Around Motherhood“
As every woman age 45 on down in America knows by now, Sex and the City, the film, opened a few weeks ago. Judging from box office sales, I was one of the few to
not see it that opening weekend. And I’m glad. But not because I don’t love high heels as much as the next gal.

I had the ideal opportunity. I was in Los Angeles, movie-city, onbusiness. I was sans children. And I was with one of my oldest anddearest, The Well Mom herself, Heather Cabot, whose husband had volunteered to watch her kids so we could have a girls’ night.  Knowing I’d be there, Heather and I practically erupted over the timing of my visit. The premiere of Sex and the City? Just us girls? Could the world be more perfect?

When it came time to get the tickets, Heather found that about a million others had the same idea, too. I wasn’t at all disappointed. And the reason why is also
the reason why I’ve seen every episode of the iconic HBO series at least three times – including the edited versions on TBS.

Much (way, way too much) has been made of the show’s/movie’s stream of designer fashions, $500+shoes, closets that could serve as evacuation shelters, the quartet’s self-absorption, and quest for meaningful (or not so much) pairings. I believe all
the articles, editorials and talking heads have missed the point.

True, our larger than life characters lead glamorous lives that constantly seems to be whirling out of control.  But the center for Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha is each other. The one constant throughout the show’s six seasons is
iron-clad friendships and – here’s the kicker – TIME to spend on them. Many nights as I sat watching, I didn’t get pangs of jealousy for Carrie’s latest stilettos,
but pangs of nostalgia for a time in my life that these four embodied. A time when my friends and I talked about the messy terrain of relationships, the
struggle with careers, and nothing in general. Perhaps we weren’t clicking Cosmos at the latest trattoria, but certainly there was a margarita or two involved.

I love high heels as much as anyone, but really, does anyone care that much about what those four are wearing? And does anyone really think that Carrie
earns enough from those columns to afford such a wardrobe – even with her maxed out credit cards? (Not on a writer’s salary!) We know this show is fantasy. But
what rang true is something that is undeniably real, and often lacking, in the lives of us newish mothers with our soiled diapers, chronic fatigue, and steady
stream of Visine: The nurturing of girlfriends. The show made me heartsick for a time in my life where lunches at a diner and meandering conversations claimed a significant percentage of my week.

Heather and I went out for dinner that Friday night. We had several glasses of wine (or maybe that was me) and talked for hours about our kids, careers, husbands, problems and hopes. Instead of watching what we craved in a darkened theater, we lived it.  No trick involved.

Copyright 2008 Carol Kaufmann

Carol Kaufmann regularly shares her “Mama Tricks” with The Well Mom. Her work has appeared in Reader’s Digest, National Geographic, The Washington Post, and in the anthology A Woman’s Europe. She lives in Alexandria, VA with her husband, toddler, newborn, and two obese rescue cats.

First appeared on thewellmom.com, June 14, 2008.

Looking Back on Early Motherhood

By Carol Kaufmann, Columnist, “Mama Tricks: Wrapping Your Head Around Motherhood”
Since I had so much “free time” while I nursed during my daughter’s first few months on the planet, I tossed the book Eat, Pray, Love in my cart at Target one harried Saturday during a diaper run. Oprah said every woman in the country had read this travel memoir (except me, evidently) and I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. I’m glad I did read the book, albeit in fits and starts while Sara Clare was nursing, for one sole reason.

In the Italy/Eat section, the author is musing about her new-found home, Rome, and says she wants to be like this city, regally self-assured, grounded, “amused and monumental,” when she’s an old lady. At this hectic point in life, my aspirations aren’t so grand, but her analogy did give me an idea for a Mama Trick.

Imagine yourself older, say, the age you’ll be when your kids move out of the house. Imagine older-you remembering current-you right about now. Right now in the midst of stinky, never-ending diapers and toddler gibberish you wish you could interpret.

Ask yourself this: How do I want to remember my first years as a Mama? The question is about YOU – not how you want to remember your kids. (Hopefully, the answer to that is fully and completely, though with the sleep deprivation, slim chance without the saving grace of modern digital camera and video recorders.) Ask yourself this because sometimes it’s just not enough to make it up as we go along. Sometimes we need a little vision.

I’ll bite: How will I remember me as a new mom?

When I first tried this type of “projection assessment,” I imagined older me tried and tested, thus wiser, savvier, more together and finally organized. (I’m a true optimist).  Older-me looked back on myself with kindness and compassion because that’s how older-me looks at young mothers who don’t know what the hell they’re doing. Still, I didn’t like everything that I saw.

Certainly, I took a huge amount of pride in my new family. But I also felt regret. That all-encompassing feeling of fatigue descended over every muscle and fiber when I mentally reviewed the beginnings of my children’s lives. Visions of an exhausted, stretched thin, strung-out nutbag came to mind. How much time did I lose wondering if my energy was ever going to return? (It did). Can I never get back the time I spent complaining to my husband and girlfriends about stubborn baby weight and nonexistent personal time? (No, silly question). And how many hours did I spend mourning the loss of the old me? (The new one’s better).

But there were also glimpses of a woman who smiled much more than she used to, in a deep, very genuine way. I saw scenes of me turning tantrums into ripples of giggles by making funny faces. I knew very well my ridiculous poses were an entree into the epicenter of my children’s comfort zone. They were the precursors to hugs that banished the sting of scraped knees and hurt feelings. And the hugs would eventually lead to soft strokes of the face that would put them to sleep. I knew this is the Mama I wanted to remember.

Now, at times their cries are like little stabs of pain and I pull the blanket  further over my head. But when I think of older-me remembering current-me, I have much more incentive to pad down the hall into their rooms and morph into those silly looks that I know make my wee ones explode with laughter.

I know what I want to remember most: The sounds of their cackles and their pure smiling faces, the essence of children that cameras can’t ever capture. So when I am that older, wiser dame and think back to these days, I hope I picture a smiling, though admittedly tired, woman gazing at her kids with a ridiculous look on her face, trying to memorize every gesture.

©Copyright 2008 Carol Kaufmann

First appeared on thewellmom.com, April 9, 2008

What Was I Just Doing?

By Carol Kaufmann, Columnist, “Mama Tricks: Wrapping Your Head Around Motherhood”
I swear – the following paragraph was not intended as a clever way to start this Mama Trick. doing

I kept meaning to write a column on Memory Loss, but I kept forgetting. New moms know I’m not lying. The notebook where I scratch out all my rough drafts was, somehow, never near my computer. And when I did remember where I had left it – the notebook, not the computer – in the time it took for me to get the laptop and fire it up, I forgot what I was doing. I also had many things to say about how children can zap your memory bank, but I also kept forgetting to write them down. Anyway, this topic is long overdue.

Since Day #1 of living in Kiddietown, I’ve been forgetting. All day long. I forget the simple, easy information I’ve known all my life and simple, easy information necessary to function in the modern age. Like the year. It happened when I was writing a check. It wasn’t January, or even February, when it’s permissible to slip up. This brain freeze happened in SEPTEMBER. Was it 2006, or 2007? I stood there, pen in hand, staring at the check made out to the hospital (for my never-ending C-section bills – what else?), and honestly didn’t know.

But at least this happened in the privacy of my own home.

A week later, I was running errands on an exceptionally beautiful fall day and choose to walk from store to store instead of driving. Fresh air is good for the soul! The walk is the beginning of the path back to physical fitness and normal weight! I can feel like me again! Hey, I’m looking good! But my euphoria evaporated when I was in a jewelry store getting my watch repaired. I peered behind the counter at the horizontal mirror there and noticed that my shirt was on inside out, the tag protruding ungracefully out of the bulging side seam. I had talked to many people that day.

The next weekend, my mother was visiting. Appropriately, she oooed and ahhhhed and would barely let anyone else hold new baby girl. At one point, I noticed she was no longer holding the baby. Confused and somewhat alarmed I asked, “Where’s Sara Clare?” I then realized Mom had given the baby to me and I was nursing.

Then, shortly after, I was compiling a list of my friends who have kids so I could tell them about the launch of The Well Mom site. I put my friend Heather on the list. Heather is The Well Mom.

I’m not even going to mention all the items we’ve lost because they remained on the roof of the car while we drove off down the road. Those are a given. And fortunately, we’ve never pulled a Raising Arizona and driven off without one of the kids. Still, the flirtations with insanity are daily reminders I’m losing control over something that, unlike my body, time, physical space, energy, is exclusively mine. My mind.

And while I really don’t like not remembering my ATM pin and the reason why I drove to the grocery, I do manage to feed my newborn daughter, laugh at my son escaping from a diaper change and streaking through the family room, and, on most days, shower (though often have to use bar soap on my face because I’m always forgetting to buy facial cleanser.)

Food, laughter, cleanliness. I win.

As for the other stuff, I vow to reduce my mental inventory since the ol’ mind just isn’t what it used to be. Plus, I have a job, one in an office where I have to commute, wear dry-cleaned clothes, and rely on firing synapses. A co-dependency with a caffeinated beverage of choice will just have to do.

Copyright 2008 Carol Kaufmann
doing
Carol Kaufmann regularly shares her “Mama Tricks” with The Well Mom. Her work has appeared in Reader’s Digest, National Geographic, The Washington Post, and in the anthology A Woman’s Europe. She lives in Alexandria, VA with her husband, toddler, newborn, and two obese rescue cats.

First published on thewellmom.com, February 15, 2008.

Your Own Personal Daily Show

By Carol Kaufmann,  Columnist, “Mama Tricks: Wrapping Your Head Around Motherhood”

I’m grateful for The Daily Show. As Jon Stewart turns the absurdity of current events into a joke, I turn to Hubby and say, “Thank God for them.” Stewart and his talented crew get it – in a way you know is spot-on, but you, in your sleep-deprived existence could never express. Powerless to stop the constant stream of headlines that makes me slap my forehead in incredulousness, at least I feel not so alone each night when we press play and watch our beloved Show recorded from the day before.  Sometimes all you can do is laugh.

daily showAnd this, fellow mommies, is what gave me the idea for another Mama Trick.

Think of all in your life that now just doesn’t make much sense – all that is just a wee absurd, which is, admit it, is most of it. I can tick off a few choice items without much thought:

My toddler threw up exactly where one of the cats did which required more color-zapping stain remover on the navy blue carpet. Speaking of cats…

One also threw up in my purse.  And it’s hard to get off hairball detritus with a baby wipe when you’re late for work. Speaking of work…

I fell asleep this week at my desk, sitting up, reading a perfectly interesting article. Even better…

I got lost five times going to the office yesterday because, I guess, my automatic pilot is in permanent “off” position. And…

I was gloating that I made it to the gym during my lunch hour until one of my nursing pads flew out of my jog bra during a male-led, male-attended Butts, Guts, and Guns body sculpting class. Then…

I forgot to put infant diapers in the go-bag so Precious Baby had to wear her two-year-old brother’s size 6, like an actress wearing a fat suit.

I mean, can we make this stuff up?

daily showWhat if, at the end of each day, we could insert our own events into a Daily Show dialogue and rewind them in our heads, like a cerebral TiVo?  Imagine a mini Jon Stewart perched on your shoulder, ticking off all those motherhood incidents that bring you to near tears and laying them out there for a laugh. A personally tailored comedy routine would help us feel part of a greater community, happy to know that others get the joke, too.

daily showThere is, in fact, a whole group of creative talent with a deft understanding of the inherent absurdity in mommyhoodland. You have a team standing right behind you, nudging you to throw up your hands and laugh about it all. Though we can’t see them when reading a column on the internet, they’re all around us – the thousands of mothers who have been there and done that, and, after much practice, mastered the art of laughter through tears.  If we listen closely, I bet we can even hear the chuckles.

Copyright 2007 Carol Kaufmann

Carol Kaufmann regularly shares her “Mama Tricks” with The Well Mom. Her work has appeared in Reader’s Digest, National Geographic, The Washington Post, and in the anthology A Woman’s Europe. She lives in Alexandria, VA with her husband, toddler, newborn, and two obese rescue cats.

First posted on Thewellmom.com, December 5, 2007.

Wrapping Your Head Around Motherhood

Mama Tricks: Wrapping Your Head Around Motherhood

busy momBy Carol Kaufmann
I had the chance to go on a retreat for work. It was to be held at my boss’s weekend house, with promises of creative brainstorming (which I love), socializing (which I love), and good drink (which I could use). A further bonus: helpful hubby encouraged me to go, thought it would be good for my career, and was willing to go two-against-one with our bundles. Problem was – it was a three-day trip and my baby girl wasn’t yet three months old. Aside from the obvious problem all nursing mothers have – pumping and storing milk – I had a bigger one: Precious Baby doesn’t like her bottle, no matter what’s inside it.

When it comes to trips, I go. A weekend jaunt, a last-minute air deal to London, trekking in the Sahara – I’m there, suitcase packed, passport ready. And I’m a relatively ambitious career gal who would never minimize the importance of meeting colleagues face-to-face, especially since all my bosses are in New York and I work in a satellite bureau. To them, I’m a one-dimensional picture on our phone directory. Passing up any trip, especially one like this, would have been unheard of two, three years ago. Then again, babies have a way of redefining you. The best decision was to stay home. Fortunately, my boss understood. But the subsequent guilt over bypassing this chance to be an adult stung.

This recent decision highlighted a gnawing life trend that I know has grated on many moms since the advent of two-income families and streamlined personal technology that only makes your life busier. The pangs of choosing.

No matter what I’m doing, I question whether I should be doing something else. If I’m with my kids, I feel the tug of work. If I’m working,  “irresponsible mother” eeks out my pores. Then, once that balance is as good as it can get, I start thinking of other deserving life-priorities: phone calls to friends, visits I owe extended family, exercising, buying healthy food, (then there’s fixing the healthy food) and saying yes to my exhausted husband who’d love for us to actually make it through a whole movie before falling asleep.

All good choices. But it kills me that there MUST be choices and I’m never comfortable making any of them. I’m not comfortable always being torn.

I was expressing this frustration to my hubby for the 64th time. He told me F.Scott Fitzgerald once defined genius as being able to hold two opposing views in their minds at once. Hmmm.

Genius I’m certainly not. And with the permanent effects of sleep deprivation, I’m sure few new-ish moms would make such a claim. But we can dare to emulate the intellectually gifted. Why couldn’t we hold the idea of being a full-time mom, full-time professional, full-time friend, volunteer, daughter, medic, housekeeper, and fill-in-the-blank at the same time? Why couldn’t that imagery always be present in our minds, available for recall at a moments notice.  Isn’t believing also being?

Imagine yourself a fully functional mom, a professional who can bring home bacon, and whatever other identity you value. You are these people all of the time, whether or not you’re wearing that particular hat at the moment. While you’re fully engaged holding your infant or rescuing a toddler from a tumble off the sliding board, your dormant professional is still there ready to take up residence when called. So is the loyal friend, house nutritionist, the amateur athlete. One identity is on and the others work subconsciously. Just like a diamond – no matter which facet of the stone is in the light, the whole gem shines.

So while I missed the brainstorming retreat, I did come up with a few new ideas for work that weekend. It happened when I least expected it, during a full-mom moment at home, sitting on my juice-stained couch, while my toddler was streaking through the kitchen and I was feeding Precious Baby. I also figured out what we could eat for dinner. Genius, indeed.

Carol Kaufmann will regularly share her Mama Tricks with The Well Mom. Her work has appeared in Reader’s Digest, National Geographic, The Washington Post, and in the anthology A Woman’s Europe. She lives in Alexandria, VA with her husband, toddler, newborn, and two obese rescue cats.

First published on thewellmom.com on October 17, 2007.

Pre-Inauguration Angst

As the inauguration approaches, my inner-grump begins to emerge. I remember past Inauguration Days all too well.  The freezing temperatures, the huddled cold masses of bodies searching for available viewing spots and Port-o-Potties. I distinctly recall leaving off that crucial layer of thermal underwear because I thought someone might actually care about my bulky, unsightly jeans.

This particular year, worst of all, the District is cautioning residents daily to not rely on our normal modes of transportation–the fabulous Metro, Buses, our cars–because security will be so tight and the lines so long, that chances are we’ll be outside the security perimeter come swearing-in.  I can’t even go to work that day because our building is way, way to close for comfort and will be shut down.

Then there are the Don’t-Get-Me-Started Balls. First of all, they’re not balls. At a Ball, the coat check isn’t a mosh pit with hundreds of long, black wools ending up on a grimy floor. At a Ball, it’s possible to dance without smelling what the couple next to you had for dinner. Oh, and at a real Ball, there might actually BE dinner…not wine in a plastic cup that costs $5.00 and boxes of peanuts and a white bread sandwich for a few extra bucks. These, er, gatherings should be called exactly what they are: hysterical parties. This is all perfectly fine—for those who have extreme bladder endurance, coats they don’t give a hoot about, and have learned over the years NOT to wear anything full-length because it will inevitably wind up with at least one large footprint or unsightly tear.

See? The inner-grump emerges.

Yet, this year, there’s just no way I can sit home. My mother announced she’d be traveling to D.C. to take my darling 10-year-old niece to witness this event of history. Mackenzie is over the moon about the trip and has persuaded her teachers to let her go, a full report promised upon return. My mother says she’s never been more excited about a president since JFK–and there was no way she could go to that inauguration when she was 10. Being smack-dab in the middle of these generations, how can I not witness what shall surely be a spectacle?

But as fun as our adventure getting to the Mall might be, I know deep down they’re only part of the reason I’ll make the trek. Even though the economy is teetering on a precipice, even though everyone I know (generally parents with small kids) aren’t buying a thing because they’re scared of spending, and even though many people I know are in serious danger of losing their homes, not to mention their jobs, there is something stirring. In the midst of all uncertainty, this president-elect is ushering in a palpable, undeniable feeling of hope. The hope has spread across this huge and multicolored continent and tomorrow it will emerge in human form in one three-mile stretch from the Capitol building to the Lincoln Memorial. Touching that, being a part of that illogical optimism that might actually make perfect sense, will be well worth the cold feet.

This Inauguration—this beginning—is also the time for me to depart Shared Space (Those corporate budget cuts run deep!) I’ve loved spending time with you. Thank you for writing in, sharing your thoughts, and being a part of something that is bigger than all of us.

First appeared on rd.com, January 7, 2009.

A Mother in Iraq

Today, my post is a bit of a departure. Last fall, I had the chance to talk with Linda Robinson, a wife, mother, and long-time volunteer from Dallas, Texas. Linda had accepted the mission of opening the first USO center in Iraq. The center is located at Balad, an enormous American base in one of the most hostile parts of the country. Linda and I continued corresponding through email once she was there; she’d graciously answered my questions, though managing the center demanded nearly all of her time and energy. She has a special interest in taking care of the troops in Iraq; her son is about to be one of them. Linda gives us a glimpse of downtime during war, reminding us how some Americans are spending their new year.

Here’s her story.

I had never been away from my family so the thought of being this far for this long was a big decision.  My husband knew that I did not just flippantly decide one day to leave it all and go to Iraq. He knew that coming here was a deep calling that I felt from God.
Linda in Iraq
Linda poses with two soldiers in Iraq. (Courtesy Linda Robinson)

Even though this is the first USO Center in Iraq, we still have troops come in who are surprised to know there is a place that provides them some of the comforts of home. All the snacks! My friends in Texas organized a chocolate drive and shipped us over four hundred pounds of chocolate. It was devoured in less than a month! We try to keep peanut butter and jelly out for them. They would rather fix a PB&J and sit here than go to the dining facility where there is every kind of food imaginable. I think they love being in a homey environment and having nurturing women to talk to.

We have this beautiful theater room with comfy chairs and yet the soldiers seem to prefer to sit in the lounge where the staff members and volunteers are and watch movies. I think it is because they are hungry to have someone to talk to…I should say to have someone listen. I hear the stresses that many of these troops face, the broken homes and financial struggles. In a typical day, we see pictures of their children, hear stories from R&R, and console a few broken hearts.

United Through Reading continues to be one of the most popular programs here.  This is a program that enables the troops to videotape themselves reading a book to their children.  The USO then sends the videotape/DVD and the book to the soldier’s family so their children can have the experience of their parent reading to them while they are still serving away from home.  It may sound a little strange, but it is one more thing that we do to try and keep the troops and their families connected. The response here has been overwhelming.  We filmed 601 recordings in July alone.

United Through Reading

A soldier in Iraq reads a story to his child as part of the United Through Reading program. (Courtesy Linda Robinson)

The troops need to know that the American people back and support them! I would encourage others to find ways to encourage the brave men and women serving in our military. It can be something simple like sending a care package or prepaid phone card, participating in a deployment or welcome home ceremony at the local airport, or supporting the wide range of USO programs, all of which make life better for our young men and women serving in uniform.  Whatever you do, our soldiers will appreciate knowing that you took time to think about them and their needs.

I love being here with the troops. They are all my sons and daughters. My son, John Micah, is at Fort Stewart, Georgia, and will leave for Iraq again [soon] for another tour. I see my [him] in so many of the troops. I watch them and wonder what my son would say or do in similar situations. I see the lines for phones and computers and marvel that my son would be so patient to wait in a line like that to connect with us when he was here in 2004. As I drive around the base, especially out by the wire that protects me from what is outside, I find myself praying for my son’s safety even now before he is deployed. I know the reality and know my son will possibly be out there and plead with God now to protect him.  My husband has been my greatest encouragement. I am sure there were times when he would have liked to have told me to pack it up and come home, yet he supported me through the tough issues. Several times a week he sends me poetry.

First appeared on rd.com, December 23, 2008.