Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom | Working Mothers | Work Life Balance

A Is for All I Can Handle

A dictionary for half-insane working moms.

by Kristin van Ogtrop

April 6, 2010




articulars of my life aside, there are countless mothers just like me. Women who want to succeed at work and do what’s best for their children, and who – when those two goals seem to be most at odds – find a way to flip the disadvantage. Women who know perfection is a concept but never a goal, who know there are as many ways to be a good mother as there are to get promoted or avoid going to the gym. And there is lingua franca that connects us, helping us through the times when the school secretary calls at the office because we forgot to give our kid lunch money, or the babysitter calls because she can’t find the light saber that goes with the Luke Skywalker costume, or we’re trying to answer work e-mails by BlackBerry (which certain children, not mentioning any names, call “the family killer”) as we speed to a weekend soccer game. There are things we do because we love our families and there are things we do because we love our jobs, and sometimes these things try to cancel each other out.

Motherhood and working are journeys of trial and error, and even after years of experimentation and analysis and data points, you sometimes feel like you know less than you did when you started. I for one know less about the following: why boys always say “Nothing” when you ask what they did at school that day; why husbands never turn off the TV; why you can’t fire someone just for being irritating. But I do know a few things, starting with the fact that a good many working mothers could use some sort of organizing principle, a few labeled bins to hold the chaos. Hence this collection: an alphabetically arranged dictionary of terms, observations, lists, complaints, questions, musings, and the occasional diatribe about the little joys and major nonsense that define life for me, and untold women like me, on a daily basis.


Absentee parenthood: The state of being that sometimes defines your life and is by turns depressing and wonderful.

There are wonderful things about being an absentee parent, namely taking business trips that involve staying in a hotel room all by yourself, or having vital work meetings that keep you from going on the field trip to the local recycling plant, or being generally much too busy to bake anything for Teacher Appreciation Week. Yes, it’s possible that other mothers will whisper about what a slacker you are, but you just need to learn to live with that.

But there are depressing moments too, and they can come when you least expect them. Once I was walking to school with my middle son, something we do nearly every day despite the fact that he would much prefer to be driven. I was leaving for a long business trip the following morning, and as my son launched into his routine anti-walking complaint (note: school is all of six blocks away), I said brightly, “Just think! Tomorrow I will be in California, and Daddy will drive you to school for the rest of the week!” My son looked crestfallen. “Oh no,” he said. “That means I’ll have to eat breakfast in the car, and I hate eating breakfast in the car.” And as much as I was looking forward to sleeping in a giant hotel bed all by myself, not to mention taking two long flights with no phone or e-mail access, the breakfast-in-the-car comment did dampen my enthusiasm. It may have been my son’s way of telling me without telling me that he was going to miss his mother, or perhaps he just didn’t want to have to eat breakfast in under seven minutes and arrive at school with peanut butter on his face. Depending on my state of mind, I could interpret it either way.

Accounting error: The irrevocable mistake you make when you decide to have one more child than you can actually handle, which pushes the parental sanity balance sheet from the black (a place of comfort, if occasional boredom) to the red (excitement, panic).

A few years ago I happened upon the book Where There’s a Will by John Mortimer. In one particularly delightful passage he explained the necessity of always having a child around the house. I realized I couldn’t have agreed more, which led to the ruination of the family balance sheet, in the form of a midlife crisis baby.

Our midlife-crisis baby arrived three weeks before my forty-third birthday, when I was still forty-two, which seems more than a year younger than forty-three when you’re dealing with matters of reproduction. My husband and I had talked for the better part of a decade about whether or not to have a third child; the first child and even the second were no-brainers, but deciding to have a third was really a commitment. No doubt some of my reluctance came from my mother’s cautionary words: “Having two is like having one and a half, but having three is like having ten.” (And this from a woman who could actually take care of three young daughters, throw dinner parties, and sew clothes, all in the same day.) I had had two miscarriages when I was thirty-nine, which left me wary. After producing my first two children with tremendous luck and efficiency, the back-to-back miscarriages were a giant surprise that resulted in a lot of sadness on the part of me and my husband and a lot of tears on the part of me. I felt jinxed, and I was not eager to repeat the experience.

As time passed, I began to view the miscarriages as the inevitable result of (1) a lack of enthusiasm on my part, and (2) God’s conviction that the whole third-child thing was a really bad idea for me. But the sense that someone was missing just wouldn’t go away. One day I explained the God theory to my husband, who replied, “Well, maybe God was testing you, to see how much you wanted it.” This confused me a great deal. What if he was right? When I turned forty-two I made a decision: I did not want to turn fifty-two and still be wondering if we should have another child. Having a third was also appealing in terms of my midlife-crisis options. Compared to Botox, plastic surgery, a convertible, or an affair, a baby seemed like an eminently healthy choice – no sneaking around, no facial injections, no having to run out and put the top up if it started to rain.

Given my “advanced maternal age” (honestly, can’t someone think of a better term?), each new test that came back normal was an unbelievable gift. So that was it. I informed God of my decision but didn’t let my husband know for a couple of months. I told him on our fifteenth anniversary, and I think I was pregnant about four minutes later. This time, miraculously, everything stuck: I did not have a miscarriage and the baby was not born with two heads. Given my “advanced maternal age” (honestly, can’t someone think of a better term?), each new test that came back normal was an unbelievable gift, like getting a horse for Christmas when you’re twelve. The day my third son was born felt like the luckiest day of my whole life.

One very nice thing about having a baby once your career is pretty much established is that you don’t worry nearly as much about how your pregnancy will affect your ascension to whatever height you’re aiming for. People around you marvel at how relaxed you are about the whole thing; they chalk it up to the wisdom of experience, and you don’t have the heart to tell them that you’re simply exhausted and just don’t give a damn unless something is on fire. And when you have an established, demanding career, maternity leave actually feels like a vacation. Which is perverse.

So now I have three children, with an eight-year gap between the last two and ovaries that got the job done in the nick of time. Regarding having one child too many, and a life that is perhaps 25 percent too chaotic, friends told me, “Once he’s here, you won’t be able to remember what things were like without him.” That is not entirely true. I clearly remember being able to sit down with a glass of wine before dinner on Sunday night and read a book. I also remember sleeping past 7:30, having stairways in my house that were not blocked by ugly baby gates, and being able to decorate our Christmas tree with an overall symmetry in mind, rather than with the need to keep all breakable ornaments clustered at the top. You are not supposed to admit this sort of thing when you have a baby in your forties, because if you are able to bear a child at an age when half of your contemporaries are either having hot flashes or getting fertility treatments, you should just be grateful and shut up about it. But no matter how old or grateful you are, there really are benefits to not having a toddler around.

Now, other friends told me, “Once he’s here, you won’t doubt your decision for an instant.” And, whether or not our balance sheet has gone permanently into the red, that part is absolutely right.

Actually: One of the top five most dangerous words in the English language. Beware any sentence that begins with “actually,” as in “Actually, we’ve decided to eliminate your whole department” or “Actually, I don’t think it’s the best haircut you’ve ever had.” Other dangerous sentence starters: “I’ve done a lot of thinking” and “Mom, don’t be mad.”

Adding insult to injury: When, after you’ve gone jogging for the first time in years and can barely make it up the stairs the next day, your husband – who may genuinely think he’s being helpful – observes: “You really should find time to work out more.”

“Area of opportunity”: The silly euphemism a boss or human resources representative uses when there’s something about your performance that needs improving. After all, an “area of opportunity” sounds a lot more palatable than “the thing you seem incapable of doing.”

However, I would suggest that areas of opportunity not be limited to the workplace. I have several areas of opportunity for the children I live with:

  • Feeding the cat before he starts meowing like he has his tail caught in a door – a meow that only your mother seems to hear
  • Reading a book instead of playing on the computer every chance you get
  • Putting your shoes in the closet, rather than right in the middle of the doorway, where you are inconveniencing even yourself
  • Stepping outside to feel the temperature before declaring that you don’t need a coat
  • Cleaning out your fish tank before your whole bedroom begins to smell
  • Showering, for once in your life, without your mother having to insist

Automatic writing: A trancelike state in which you have no control over what you are communicating. William Butler Yeats’s wife thought she could pull this off and so can you, only in your life “automatic writing” means dashing off an e-mail on your BlackBerry while leaning on the kitchen counter, with someone standing next to you begging for a peanut butter sandwich. And so the e-mail makes very little sense, if you’re even sending it to the right person. (Just ask my sister about the time she sent confidential company information to her neighbor Michael Bacon instead of to her coworker Michael Salmon.)


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