The Understudy

Guest post by Tarah Cammett

Writing for me has always been simple.  A therapy of the mind.  A way to release my past.  Process breakups and major life changes.  Throw it out there in the Universe and remove it from my spirit.  What I have realized as I have tried to write about my experiences so far of being a ‘Stepmother’ – or ‘Understudy’ as I so often refer to it, is that I’m struggling.  Greatly.  It’s easy to write about the past; things that no longer exist or serve me anymore.  It is however, extremely difficult to write about something deeply personal and ever present in my day to day life.  More so, how do I possibly encapsulate all that I have experienced?  How this has changed me?  How wonderful and frightening it’s all been.  I can’t.  Not in a simple blog post but I have to start somewhere.  So consider this a Preface.  An introduction.  Perhaps this will be a breakthrough and a journey into a new place as a writer.  Perhaps it will be an utter disaster.  You’ll have to be the judge.

About a year and a half ago I was coming off the tail end of my own version of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and unwinding from an incredible spiritual journey of the soul.  I had spent months traveling, talking, seeking.  Hours on therapy couches and a lot of time spent with an overly priced Shaman (which by the way was worth every penny).  My mind was at peace.  I finally felt at rest, that I had let these ‘things’ that had followed me around, plaguing me, go.  I had discovered acceptance in the not knowing and in the just being.  I was fiercely content or more so adamant about being alone and savoring every moment of it.  It was of course, in that moment, that my now husband walked into my life and brought with him his wee 1-yr old baby girl.

My life for all of its chaos has always been very controlled.  Well, because I have controlled it.  Controlled chaos.  Maybe even on some levels planned chaos.  But I didn’t plan them.  I didn’t plan on him regardless of the secret hope of one day finding someone who my soul sort of melted into but I most certainly did not plan her.

He was easy.  Every day that we spent together I fell more and more.  He became funnier.  Smarter.  Sexier. The boy that I had assured would never be anything more than a ‘buddy’ and/or ‘lover’, I found myself wanting to rush home from work to see.  He was just there, and never left and it was as if we had always been.  It just made sense.  And then, well, then I was introduced to his daughter.  She wasn’t what got me – regardless of how beautiful she was, it was the way he was with her.  So hyper conscious.  So madly in love.  So gentle and patient.  Nail in the coffin.  I was a goner.  There is nothing sexier than a good father.

She and I weren’t so easy at first.  It wasn’t that children made me uncomfortable.  I love kids.  I have god babies and nephews and until I met the Peanut they were the center of my Universe.  It was that upon meeting her I realized that I had to shift what I understood of love.  I knew in an instant that I would have to accept my place in my husband’s heart.  I would never be first.  And that was something that I had never experienced.  There would always be someone ahead of me.  It was something my ego wasn’t accustomed to.  Maybe in the beginning I was weary of her because of that.  Or because she was so painfully shy she didn’t immediately come running into my arms.  Perhaps it was the horrible relationship he had with her mother that I internally projected distaste for on to her.  All I can express, if I was to be completely truthful was that it wasn’t love at first sight.  For either of us.

It was ultimately a slow evolution of learning about unconditional love in a way that I had not yet known.  Getting to know a person, who is older and has sort of worked out their idiosyncrasies is one thing.  Getting to know an infant who’s changing every instant is another.  It was like navigating a mine field.  Ok.  It still is.  As a parent, it’s your choice and there’s a sort of genetic bond that prods you through.  As a ‘stepparent’ it’s a bit different.  This little intruder kind of appears and you’re supposed to just love them.  I guess in writing that, I just realized it is the same for any type of parent – genetic or not.  Perhaps it’s just that as a ‘stepparent’ I found myself being hyper cautious, and hyper positive.  Both of which made me feel off kilter.

Not long into it I found this weird ‘instinct’ I wasn’t aware existed.  I knew what her cries meant.  I knew what we should do for her.  I would always wake up 5 minutes before I would hear her on the monitor and wait knowing that she was about to wake as well.  As we adjusted to each other we began to play and laugh and every time I got her to smile or giggle my heart melted as my internal ego high fived herself at the minor accomplishment.  I found myself personalizing her whims less.  It’s ok if she wanted Daddy instead of me. It just makes the times that she does ask for me all the more sweet.  She became my first thought in the morning.  My last thought at night.  Her well-being.  Her future.  Loving her made me feel closer to him.  We had a shared goal.  Her existence.

Well, and then I became the cliché.  Poopy diapers, booger filled noses.  Singing weird made up random songs that made her laugh uncontrollably.  Reading books in funny accents and making silly faces to combat hers.  We became a couple.  The same way that two stranger’s sort of fall in love I guess.  Losing inhibitions, slowly being yourself.  Getting to know one another and then finally just realizing that everything weird about them is something great about you.

It’s not to say that this love isn’t without struggle.  I despise the word ‘stepmother’ or ‘stepchild’.  I don’t think of her as something in lieu of.  She’s part of my soul circle.  Souls travel in circles throughout lifetimes to find each other again and I believe she found me early on in this one because I’m supposed to teach her something.  But what?  Sometimes that thought plagues me.  I have no creepy notions that I’m her ‘true’ mother.  She has a mother.   I respect her mother’s genetic and emotional role.  I have no desire to replace it, circumvent it, or trump it.  I just want to be a positive force in her Universe as well.  Someone that she believes in.  Yes, when we’re at the grocery and the cashier wants to recap the perils of childbirth and gives me the, “Well you remember what that was like…” line, do I nod in vaginal unity?  Of course.  It’s easier.  But I am not her mother.  Maybe that does hurt on some level given my affinity for her but maybe what hurts more is that I don’t know how to ‘label’ our relationship.  To find a word, or a phrase that encapsulates it so that when it’s said people nod knowingly – that’s what I would like.    A word that means more than ‘step’ anything.

There was a moment a couple months back.  She and I had been dancing in the kitchen (we do that often).  It had just been one of those fantastic weekends where we laughed and played all weekend, everything was just happy.  We were packing her up to return her to mother’s.  It’s always a shit feeling that sweeps over hubs and I.  We don’t want it to end, but it is what it is and in essence the only way the Peanut has ever known.  I digress.  I was on my knees giving her kisses, telling her how much I loved her and that I would miss her and how proud I was of her and she began stroking my hair, then my cheeks.  “Mama” she said.  “Yes, you’re going to see Mama in a few minutes and you’re going to have so much fun with her” I responded.  She shook her head no.  She again stroked my cheeks and said, “Mama” and she stared intently into my eyes.  I knew what she meant.  It was her way of acknowledging my presence as a maternal figure in her life, she of course wasn’t calling me her mother. It was the only way at two years old she knew how to express herself.  I cried for pretty much a solid three hours after she left, just out of love, and wonder, and maybe a twinge of sadness.  I’m quite sure when I saw her a few days later she put out her hand and told me to, “Go!” so that she could be alone with Daddy but that’s how it works.  The ebb and flow.

I can’t possibly write about all of this in any succinct logical way.  One day I was wild and single and the next day I was picking out a crib and baby proofing a house.  I could create 80 chapters on each moment, emotion, phase, understanding, point of being, crushing moment of sadness, elation….you name it.  For now, I know this.  You are always exactly where you are supposed to be.  My husband brought me a beautiful gift.  A dowry if you will.  He brought me a teacher.  Someone who will challenge all that I have and will come to know and see of this world and myself every single day.  She might not be mine but god dammit she is part of my tribe and I will do whatever I can to protect her and to give her light.  My compass broke a long time ago so I’m navigating by moon phases, toddler emotions, laughter and levels of exhaustion but somehow, I still wake up every morning excited at what the sounds of the monitor will bring.  So I’m going with it.

Thanks for listening.

Tarah is a hippie corporate sell-out Marketing Director by day and a soul seeking Moon follower by night, hiding away in a tiny town by the ocean.

tarah

Wardrobe Meltdown & a Stranger’s Words of Wisdom

While Spring may technically be here, in reality, it’s still winter in New England and has been since November.

Which means I’ve been wearing the same set of clothes for work for roughly 21 weeks.

Which means I am sick to death of every item of clothing I own.

Which means that, this morning, as I needed to look respectable for client meetings for the third consecutive day (while battling a head cold), I had a total wardrobe meltdown.

Let’s call it a Working Mom Style Crisis.

In that, I have no style. And most of my clothes are either old, boring, and unhip.

My random assortment of clothes are usually selected according to the following principles: price, fit/comfort, flatteringness, color, available time to shop.

Most often, the clothes I buy are pulled from a rack in Target – without being tried on – while doing the weekly shop with kids in tow. (It helps that the women’s clothes section is strategically just across from the area where all the Pokemon cards can be found …)

Given that my style left the building a long long time ago (around about the time I became a working Mom,) I have somehow managed to feign some masquerade of style through an assortment of flashy earrings and necklaces and my kick-ass boots.

But this morning, as I lamented how much I hated all my clothes to Twitter, someone (another working Mom) tweeted to me that: “Nothing looks better on you than confidence.”

And I realized that, tatty clothes aside, I have ship-loads of confidence. And I can fake it really good too.

So, until the day comes when I have enough time and money and patience to shop for new clothes, I’ll be trying my best to wear my confidence – with style.


 

The Split Personality of the Working Mom

Guest post by Andrea Eaton

Duality (noun): an instance of opposition or contrast between two concepts or aspects of something. The state or quality of being two or in two parts. The term itself–“working mother”–denotes dualism.

The woman with a career plus the woman who mothers. The woman who shows up to the office looking (relatively) professionally polished plus the woman who, minutes earlier, had a breakdown at daycare or desperately dabbed spit-up off her shirt.

If you are living or have lived this, you know exactly how Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde or Superman/Clark Kent can feel. But you know that each persona is one you grip to, a precious part of you. Equally critical and non-negotiable.

You also know that the job of “mother” is the most stressful and seriously exhausting one there is. Angelic as your babies may be while you’re imagining them from the safety of your cubicle, let’s be honest: a few hours earlier there was at least a tiny part of you counting down until that moment you’re commuting … alone. This is not because you don’t love your kids. It’s because you do. You love them so very much, nothing is more important to you than how you care for and shape them. Their lives are literally depending on it. It’s a heavy load that you feel all the time but especially when you’re with them.

Sometimes I giggle to myself about how the “working” in “working mom” is the part that most implies duty yet feels most like a vacation. A respite from that all-consuming responsibility of rearing. Arms empty. Minds free to muse. Quiet.

Plus, we need to check in with the people we were B.C. (Before Children). A ritual of mine is to do this with the music–my music–cranked as I cruise to the office. We do it in meetings when we offer up our brilliance (which does actually extend beyond remembering to pack everyone’s hats, mittens and snacks). We do it in the hallway or kitchen when we compliment a fellow mom’s shoes. We do it when we tap creativity to help a client (which is similar to concocting an acceptable dinner out of only what’s in your fridge but different).

Schizophrenic as it may feel on our worst days–when we fantasize about how a singular focus would slash stress–“working mom” is a title we don with pride. It’s not easy. It’s a life smeared with spit-up, peppered with forgotten snow pants, injected with bits of independence and intellectualism … and riddled with rewards. “Carves some calmness out of what is mostly lovely chaos” is just part of the job description.

Andrea Eaton is a mother of two boys, 4 and 6 months. She has built a career in sales and marketing in the software industry.  Her “spare time” these days is spent playing with her boys, in class to become a certified yoga teacher and fantasizing about an alternate reality where she enjoys fame and fortune as a fiction writer.

andrea eaton

On This Bed

I’m 46 years old and, tonight, I sleep again in this bed at my parents’ house. This bed where I slept most nights during the puberty years, the teenage years and my young 20s, and here and there during my 30s and 40s as I’ve visited. And when you think about it, this bed has always supported and comforted me. On this bed:

I daydreamed over pop stars and heartthrob actors
I’d play with my sister
I’d sit anxiously waiting for a boy to call
I’d giggle with girlfriends, plotting parties, dates, outfits, makeup
I’d do my homework and revise for exams
I’d layout clothes and more than often cries tears of frustration over how I looked – or thought I looked
I’d read and read and read
I’d dream romantic dreams
I’d cry over broken hearts, altered friendships
I’d write letters and pore over photos
I’d talk on the phone for hours with friends
I’d fill out university and job applications
I’d sleep with boyfriends
I’d make love to my husband
I’d feel the kicks and hiccups of infants in utero
I’d snuggle with my babies, then toddlers, then little kids

Tonight, as I prepare to go to sleep once again here, I’m thankful for this bed.

Sweet dreams.

Coffee or Wine?

Your dental hygienist knows a lot about you, I’ve discovered. During my first few years here in the US, when I was either single and partying, or dating my soon-to-be-fiance, or enjoying the life-before-kids times, my dental hygenist would often remark about the red wine stains on my teeth. “Hey, I’m young (ish) and having fun,” I’d retort. And yes, I’ll brush more thoroughly, I’d promise as she hacked away at the stains with her evil implements.

(On a side note, may I just say that dental hygiene here in the US has been a real revelation to me. Y’all are way more serious about having sparkly whites that we were/are back home in the UK. I now feel it a necessary part of my acceptance into American society to have remarkably white teeth. But I digress.)

Dental visits over the last eight years have painted a different story. In large part, because the red wine stains on my teeth have mostly been replaced with coffee stains. Strong, black coffee stains. My dental hygienist always points this out and then, with an almost nonchalant non-sequitur, asks “So, how old are the kids now?” She knows, she gets it.

The thing is, my relationship with red wine has changed. Flash back to 1997-2000, three glorious years living in France when the wine was abundant, cheap and good. I became more knowledgable about wine regions and my preferences but, quite frankly, if it was red and in my glass, I’d drink it. Lots of it. No matter how much it cost or where it came from. And then I went and married someone in the wine industry. My supply of good wine became perpetual! Hoorah! And I became better educated and much more picky and wines I like and wines I don’t.

And then I had kids.

Child birth will do strange things to your palette (among other things.) After kid #1 was born, I went off red wine altogether, much to the chagrin of the husband. Fortunately, after kid #2 “popped out” (hahahaha) my desire for wine slowly returned and, in the almost six consequential years, has remained. But with new terms and conditions, namely:

  • I only drink the wines I like
  • I can only drink when eating
  • No more than a glass and a half or I get heartburn and/or an upset stomach
  • There will be wine on Friday evenings when I crave it most—or else
  • Cheese = wine

On the flip side, my relationship with coffee has remained consistent. While red wine is a select pleasure, enhancing specific moments, coffee is my lifeline. I cannot start the day without coffee. It is the very first thing I think of the moment I awake. I cannot exist without a large steaming cup of strong black coffee within approx 10 mins of my neurones firing up.

I was pondering my absolute and profound need for coffee the other morning and comparing it to my relationship with red wine. If I had to, I wondered, which would I give up? The answer was quite simple. But, just to be sure, I thought I’d conduct a brief poll with a few of my Twitter and Facebook pals. So I lobbed the seemingly innocuous question out there. Within nanoseconds—maybe even less—I was met with a barrage of visceral reactions! Before I share them, here was the final count:

  • Votes to keep coffee: 5
  • Votes to keep wine: 7
  • Undecided: 4

But it was the comments that cracked me up the most, including:

Are you kidding?

Is nothing sacred?

What am I being threatened with?

If my world no longer included those things, it wouldn’t be much of a world ;)

I feel like this is a trick question somehow.

I don’t know this Samantha but I don’t trust her ;)

I plan on giving up both…shortly after I give up oxygen.

So, you, yes you over there sipping your Sunday morning coffee – which would you give up, if you had to: coffee or wine?

P.S. Get your teeth cleaned.

For the Love of …. Doing Nothing

I love doing nothing. It’s right up there with eating. And watching TV. And sleeping (which, I guess, is just doing nothing with your eyes closed.) I long to do nothing.

Back in my single, pre-kid days, I excelled at doing nothing. I practiced long and hard. Put in a lot of time and effort, mastering the art and skill of doing nothing. It was lovely, indulgent, righteous. I also did a lot of stuff: partying, studying, working hard, traveling, moving to new countries, making new friends. But there was always the option of doing nothing.

These days, there is not a lot of time available for doing nothing. Kids school, kids activities, kids play dates, school vacation, domesticity, family and a career all have this horrible way of getting in between me and my favo(u)rite pass-time. Society imposes this crazy requirement for being busy, as if a full schedule is the key to fulfillment. I beg to differ. The schedule is what causes the most heartburn in my life, especially as working parent. The schedule is one of the few things my husband and I argue over. Who is picking up which kid? Who gets to stay home to cover the kids’ early release days/snow days/sick days/school vacation day? Whose meeting is more important? Whose schedule/employer is more flexible?

Because the weeks are so crazy, we try as a family to do nothing at the weekends. We try not to pack these precious two days with outings, activities, errands, parties, play dates and socializing. However it doesn’t work. There are always errands, parties, play dates and socializing. But that’s cool. As long as there are a few hours tucked away, reserved for vegging out on the couch watching a movie, hanging in the backyard, lazing in bed, taking a long bath.

There is however a really, really fine balancing act, I’ve found, between organizing stuff for the kids to do and letting them play freely. Here’s what can happen when you let them do nothing:

a. They play quietly
b. They get creative
c. They break stuff
d. They break each other
e. All or some of the above

It is currently day three of school vacation week. I’m trying to perfect a formula that mixes a variety of planned and spontaneous activities with free time for doing nothing.

So far, the kids have only broken one piece of furniture. The house looks like a tornado blew through it. Laundry is piling up.

It’s not exactly the kind of doing nothing I’d like to be doing on vacation. But it’s fun.

p.s. I’m not including a picture because I can’t be bothered to search for one.

Sweet Dreams

I didn’t realize, before I became a Mother, that I had the power to send you to sleep. That my words, proximity, sounds and rhythm held soporific powers.

As an infant, I would lull you to sleepyland with shushes, rocking, swaying.

As a toddler, I’d soothe you as you’d fight sleep tooth and nail, armed with fairy tales, lullabies and cuddles.

As a pre-schooler, I’d remove all specter of monsters and then rub your back in circles, over and over, until sleep snuck in.

As a kindergartner, we’d read, snuggle, have whispered conversations till you’d simply dismiss me, ready to welcome the excitement of your dreams.

As a second grader, you pretty much take care of business yourself, after a quick peck on the cheek, reading independently, falling asleep with your books askew on your pillow.

I have to admit that I miss the days of shushing, swaying, lullabies and stroking of backs and foreheads. Knowing that my touch, my presence was the drug you needed to transcend you from consciousness to a land of hopefully sweet dreams. It’s been an unexpected and heady privilege.

Good Night,Sweet Dreams

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My Zumba Journey

This morning I dragged my lazy derriere out of bed and to my 10am Saturday morning Zumba class. Every week, it’s the same. I really don’t want to go. It takes having a serious conversation with myself to talk (aka guilt) myself into it. Off I go, begrudgingly.

Fast forward 60-minutes or so and I emerge – sweaty, my muscles aching beautifully, invigorated and high on the having shaken my booty to great tunes! After all, I’m my happiest when dancing and that’s what Zumba essentially is.

It’s a mixed blessing that, as part of this, I spend an hour in front of a mirror forced to examine my pudgy, jiggly fleshy bits squeezed into my exercise gear. This mostly unpleasant vision reminds me why this weekly “torture” is required. However, what mitigates my negativity, is that fact that I am surrounded at Zumba my similarly bouncy, middle-aged woman. Ninety-nine percent of the class attendees are, like me, in their 40s, working Moms, trying to squeeze in an hour to themselves, trying to squeeze in some exercise, trying to squeeze into their Lycra. Some of them come to class fully made up, wearing dangly earrings. This confuses me. However,  together, we jiggle, strut, samba, cha-cha, groove and sweat, in a merry, flabby fashion. Sure there’s always at least one super skinny gal there, sporting a dancer’s body and a six-pack. I try not to look.

What I love most about the studio I go to – VavaVoom Fitness –  is it is focused on celebrating women, curves and all. Large posters on the wall display a fleshy Marilyn lifting weights, a seductive Beyonce, gorgeous J Lo performing and Shakira’s incredible body. Not a skinny waif in sight. No ripped muscles. Just images of sexy, confident, resplendent curvy woman. The goal is to motivate us to reclaim our bodaciousness, to celebrate our confidence and womanliness through dance. And given dance is something that inspires and motivates me, this is why I come here. However, putting aside inevitable self-consciousness and allowing yourself to circle your hips, grind a little, wiggle your butt, shimmy your shoulders and dance sexy is not always an easy journey. In fact, one of the male Zumba teachers often complains that his hips move better than ours!  The fact is that, in our day-to-day lives, especially as working Moms, there’s no time or, quite frankly reason, to act and feel sexy. Even long before becoming I mother, drawing attention to body through clothes or shoes was an anathema.

But every Saturday morning, for one hour, I revel in shedding this insecurity and I gloriously strut my stuff, buoyed by the music, the dance and the fact that I’m not alone in this journey.

On a Wing & a Prayer

I exist in “wing-it” mode.

Both personally and professionally, I get by thanks to a canny mixture of knowing just enough about a lot of things, being a master of the multi-task, taking life one day at a time, faking it, a large dose of silliness plus the occasional lightning strike of serendipity. Lucky for me, it works most of the time. Being in my 40s helps too – apparently I project a sense of maturity and confidence that makes people think I know what I’m talking about.

And much of the time I do! I’m not full of BS. I have experience, credentials, some wisdom and common sense on my side. But existing in “wing-it” mode is not necessarily a comfortable place. One of these days, I’ll trip up, get caught out. It’s happened before.

Once, during my University years, I remember a small, French poetry class. Just as I took my seat, it dawned on me that I had completely forgotten to read the piece we were to be discussing. Worse, I was wearing a fuchsia-colored top! I don’t remember if I fessed up or if I kept my mouth shut or just was lucky enough not to be called on. Either way, I remember the gut-curdling feeling of exposure and vulnerability.

That was when it didn’t really matter that much. But today, I have kids to raise, a household to run with a husband as my co-pilot, and a career to maintain and thrive. It’s a fragile, complex and extremely important tower of cards.

How did I get to this “wing-it” state ? I blame a combination of “having it all,” the speed of life, being just a teeny bit smart and street-wise, and Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist.”

Being a working Mom means operating at warp speed, making judgment calls about which battles to pick, who to please first, figuring priority and productivity trade-offs, constantly planning and worrying about the details. This applies to both the home and the job. It’s a state of hyper-vigilance. Let one thing go and the whole precariously constructed tower of cards could come tumbling down.

But the truth is, I actually get a kick out of living in “wing-it” mode. It’s a little like stage fright. The adrenaline of knowing that I need to put on a good performance, precisely when it matters. Recognizing a signal (per Coelho’s writings) and seizing it. The thrill of discovering luck is on my side, buoying my wings.

Would I like to slow it down? You bet. But I’ve also a sneaking suspicion, I’d be bored.

What If?

What if I hadn’t been applied to a job posting for an au pair in Paris when I was 19?

What if my host family there didn’t have a friend from the USA who was visiting London?

What if I had never introduced that friend to my brother?

What if they hadn’t got along?

What if they didn’t move to the USA several years later with their kids?

What if I had stayed in France?

What if my brother hadn’t worked with someone who’s cousin lived in Boston?

What if I hadn’t bothered to contact him?

What if I’d hadn’t dared to meet him on a blind date?

What if I didn’t say yes to his marriage proposal?

What if we had decided to live somewhere other than our town?

What if it hadn’t been a struggle to have kids?

What if …….?

Life is so full of what ifs. They blow my mind, quite literally. If any of these questions had a different answer, I would be living a different life altogether. But I believe in serendipity as well as in creating your own destiny. Every decision we make shapes the next. We make things happen, they don’t happen to us. This is my credo. What ifs are about looking over to your shoulder and marveling at the path that has brought you to today. I march forward, savoring one moment at a time.

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