Defining Motherhood

One Mom's Attempt to Find Meaning in the Madness

Long Shadows (The Whole Truth)

father and child

SHADOW: pervasive and dominant influence

My latest essay is up on Brain, Child magazine’s blog today. Here is an excerpt:

“How often do you see your dad?” she asks casually.

The question is one of many questions we’ve volleyed back and forth this particular afternoon as we sit in the sun and let our children play on the playground.

How should I answer this question I’m sure she perceives as benign?

I could simply say, “My dad visits a couple times a year.”

That’s true. Or, at least, true enough.

Or, I could say, “I see my father’s shadow every day.” That’s also true but it takes some explaining.

To read the rest, head on over to Brain, Child magazine’s blog or Facebook page.

July Rain

rain in seattle

RAIN: water falling in drops condensed from vapor in the atmosphere; the descent of this water

It’s a rainy day and, I confess, I was delighted to see the dark shadows of a nighttime rain shower on the sidewalk this morning. Partly because it checks water garden off my list, but mostly because of the way it feels.

The air is cool and clean. I breathed deep on my morning walk to the bus, trying to soak it in. I’ll be excited when the sun returns (it is summer after all) but today I’m going to relish the rain and enjoy the uneven tapping of the drops on my office window.

Loving rain is handy for Seattleites. Rain and long stretches of cloud cover are the tradeoff for avoiding things like scorpions, tornadoes, earthquakes and fancy dress codes that folks in other parts of the country tolerate. It’s a trade I’m more than willing to make.

Rain is linked with purification in some primal part of my being. Wet concrete is my blank slate. Drips from tree branches and gutters sound like forgiveness and possibility to me.

I like a good rain shower. Heck, I like any shower. I collect memories of showers the way some folks collect memories of great meals:

There were the childhood camp trips where we bathed as best we could in the campground water spigots, trying to walk the fine line between invigorating and painful exposure to the freezing water.

There were the service projects in Mexico where each day ended with judicious use of a single bag of sun-warmed water to wash away the stucco and sweat.

There were the frigid Alaskan waterfalls and streams that I plunged my head under to restore my sanity after miles of kayaking.

There were the European hostel showers that required body contortions to shave my legs.

There were the shared showers of young love.

There were the all-I-have-to-show-for-today showers of early motherhood.

Indoors or out, water from above is like magic. Water transforms people and things.  Dry to wet.  Dirty to clean.  Weary to renewed.

When a city energy audit revealed that my beloved shower had a flow rate higher than any other home in the city, I felt guilty. Almost guilty enough to install the free low-flow shower head offered by the auditor. Almost. But, not quite. Take my car. Take my Ziploc bags. Leave my shower alone.

Recently, I’ve been shopping for a shower head to install in the bathroom planned as part of our basement remodel.  Sure, I care about the appearance of the shower head, but what I really care about is the function.

Which one will make my morning shower feel like a walk in the rain?

The Backpack Hall of Fame

robot backpack

BACKPACK: a bag for carrying things that has two shoulder straps and is carried on the back

It’s looking like Son will need a new backpack for school this year. My essay about all the backpacks I’ve loved is on Brain, Child Magazine’s blog today. Please check it out.

What do you do with old backpacks?

Quitting My Day Job

take a chance

RESIGN: to give up (a job or position) in a formal or official way

I love words and take a great deal of pleasure in stringing them together, but sometimes in life’s big moments I find it easier to borrow the words of others.  This email is one of life’s big moments for me, so please indulge me while I borrow words to help me share my own.

Never lose an opportunity of urging a practical beginning, however small, for it is wonderful how often in such matters the mustard seed germinates and roots itself.1

I recently accepted an opportunity for a small beginning.  This particular beginning comes in the form of a part-time job at my kids’ school that will allow me more time for writing and more time with Son and Daughter (i.e. my source material).

My new job will begin in mid-August and I will make the transition to starving artist at that time.  I plan to use the next six weeks to close out/hand off projects at the office while I stockpile rice and beans at home.  Amidst the fear and trepidation a person is bound to feel when swapping a regular paycheck for the fickle earnings of a freelance writer and the laughable salary of a public school employee, I also feel hopeful and energized.

If we accept and internalize the fact of our own mortality, then, by definition, we have to deal with the essential questions of how we live and spend our allotted time.  We have to stop procrastinating, pretending that we have forever to do what we want to do and be what we long to be.2

Those of you not teething in the ‘80s may laugh, but the clock of mortality has begun to tick louder for me.  Time feels short and I am compelled to make good use of it.  The reasons for not pursuing writing (what I want to do) or having the courage to call myself a writer (what I long to be) are no longer as compelling as the reasons to take a chance on a personal passion.

It’s not you, it’s me.3

My choice to leave is not motivated by a desire for an ending, but a desire for a beginning.  The ending is just a necessary part of making room for the beginning I want.  I came to this firm when I was twenty-three. On my first flight to Walla Walla, I was carded to sit in the exit row (FAA regulations require you to be fifteen).  I was a wrinkle-free rookie with much to learn.  And, with grace and patience you taught me.

Now, more than a decade later, I am surrounded by teachers, encouragers, mentors and friends who have seen me through major life transitions (e.g. marriage, children) and minor ones (e.g. the arrival of a second chin and eye luggage).   It is with a mixture of joy about the potential gain and sadness about the known loss that I announce yet another transition.


Disclaimer: There is a part of me that knows this information should be shared in person.  Forgive me.  I simply couldn’t imagine doing that.  I am deeply grateful for all this firm has done for me and, above all, for the opportunity to work with such amazing (even writers sometimes can’t find adequate adjectives) people.  Walking into each of your offices to share this news was simply too much.  Plus, the carbon footprint of the number of tissues I would need seemed irresponsible.  Please forgive my cowardice.

1 Florence Nightingale

2 Surya Das

3 Boyfriends, Various

June Reads

As you may remember from my April post, my dear friend Julie mentioned that moms like her – moms with young children that make reading a postcard in one sitting challenging – need a “best of” highlight in my monthly book reviews so that they can skip right to the one book they shouldn’t miss.  This month, that book is:

Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante

Technically, this book is a murder mystery.  The main character, Dr. White, is suspected of murdering her friend and neighbor.  Dr. White is a former surgeon suffering from dementia.  The plot was secondary for me.  What captivated me about this book was the way LaPlante captured the distortion and decline of dementia patients with almost poetic prose.  If you are inclined to judge this book by the plot, my rave won’t make sense.  But, if you want a book that takes on a rarely covered subject with grace and skill, read this.

Now, for the rest of you who may have room for more than one addition to your To Be Read pile…

May Reading

Those of you paying attention will note that there was no “May Reads” update.  That’s because in May I was busy reading the following titles in anticipation of the design phase of our basement remodel:

  • The Complete Guide to Attics & Basements
  • Basement Ideas That Work: Creative Design Solutions for your Home
  • Home by Design: Transforming your House Into Home
  • Inside the Not So Big House: Discovering the Details That Bring A Home to Life
  • Common Sense Storage: Clever Solutions for An Organized Life
  • Not So Big Solutions for Your Home
  • Better Homes and Gardens Small Bath Solutions
  • Bathrooms: Plan, Remodel, Build
  • Complete Basements, Attics and Bonus Rooms: Plan and Build your Dream Space
  • Design Ideas for Basements
  • How to Live in Small Spaces: Design, Furnishing, Decoration, Detail for the Smaller Home
  • Not So Big Remodeling: Tailoring your Home for the Way You Really Live
  • Affordable Bathroom Upgrades: Transform your Bathroom on A Small Budget
  • New Bathroom Ideas That Work
  • Small Spaces: Maximizing Limited Spaces for Living
  • Beautiful Baths
  • Bathrooms: The Smart Approach to Design
  • Essential Small Spaces: The Back to Basics Guide to Home Design, Decoration & Furnishing
  • Home by Design: Transforming your House Into Home

I can confidently recommend any design book by Sarah Susanka (author of The Not So Big House and many other fabulous titles).  She rocks.

In the interest of full disclosure, the entire month of May was not lost to non-fiction reading about basement remodels.  I also lost a significant amount of time to binge-watching of past seasons of Nashville.

Oh, and I had a failed attempt to read Wild by Cheryl Strayed for book club.  I wanted to like it, but just didn’t.  I should have liked it.  Woman writer.  Yay!  Outdoor adventure.  Yay!  Self-discovery.  Yay!  And yet…

June Reading

In June, I finally made some progress on reading for fun.

Writing down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

One of the writing canon essentials I’d never read.  Technically, I didn’t “read” it this time either.  But, I did listen to it on CD.  And, it was awesome.  The audiobook version may even be better than the print version because Goldberg supplements her original writing (done in her 30s) with commentary that benefits from hindsight and additional years of experience.  This book will only appeal to writers, but if you are a writer and haven’t read it yet, get on it.

And When She Was Good by Laura Lippman

I grabbed this book from the library shelf because the title and cover appealed to me.  It’s a play on Mother Goose’s Girl with a Curl.  I found that clever and that was enough for me.  I liked, but didn’t love this book.  It’s my first book by Laura Lippman and I liked it enough to want to read more.  I love a good mystery, and Lippman is supposed to be a master, but this one didn’t have me sitting on the edge of my seat.  I liked the main character, Heloise, a suburban madam.  But, as far as character-driven novels with likable madams go, I prefer Ruta Sepetys’ Out of The Easy.

Drowned by Therese Bohman

I read a review that heralded this as a thriller in the vein of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Scandanavian author Bohman does create a thriller of sorts, but it is much more psychological than action-based.  Bohman writes a deceptively calm novel that creeps you out and sets you on edge more than it makes your heart race.  I appreciated what she accomplished with her narrative, but wouldn’t compare her to Stieg Larsson.  I hate how sexual deviance and aggression seems to be the main currency in thrillers.  This one is no exception.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (and Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

I bought this book because my vacation went better than I anticipated and I was out of library books.  There weren’t many choices at the rural Target that didn’t involve bodice ripping.  I’m a sucker for comedic essays and memoirs, so I chose this book.  And, it worked for me.  The essay topics were jumpy and disjointed, but as celebrity books go, it was a win.  Kaling is a gifted writer who has proven her comedic chops on television and now in print.

I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections by Nora Ephron

I have a crush on Nora Ephron.  I could read her writing all day every day. Her tone and topics appeal to me and she knows exactly how to hit my funny bone.  This book is no exception.  A quick but delightful read.

If I Stay by Gayle Forman

Sometimes young adult books transcend the genre and have enough depth to win over adult readers.  This one doesn’t.  I think the dominant struggle in the book – whether the heroine gives into death or fights to live – may convince a teen reader but it didn’t convince me.  The pros/cons as evaluated by the main character seemed shallow and trite and in the end I actually didn’t care if she lived or died.  I am, of course, appropriately barred from complaining that a book I took from the YA section lacked maturity.    

So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids by Diane Levin and Jean Kilbourne

This book was recommended at a lecture I attended at my son’s school.  I actually found the lecture more helpful than the book.  I was expecting more research based data, instead the book was heavy on anecdotes.  The data that is included in the book (primarily on media exposure/quantity) is troubling to be sure.  This book reinforced some of the choices our family makes but didn’t provide the data and analysis I was expecting.  For folks not living in communities where discussions about sexuality and media are occurring, this book may be helpful.  For those already having robust conversations about these topics, I don’t think this book has much to add.

The Cards Hallmark Doesn’t Make

FATHER’S DAY: the third Sunday in June appointed for the honoring of fathers 

Dear Dad,

I’ve had your Father’s Day card sitting on my desk waiting to be mailed for almost a week now.  It felt inadequate to just sign my name to the pre-printed Hallmark sentiment.  I felt the need to supplement.  But, I’ve been searching for the right words.   I haven’t found them.  But, I found these:

Father’s Day has always been tricky for me.  You don’t fit in Hallmark’s box.

Hallmark makes a lot of cards designed for dads who fix things and mow the lawn.  Since you didn’t live with us for most of my childhood I didn’t benefit from your handyman skills or lawn mowing.  Although, there was that one time you fixed mom’s car before our visitation even though you had a hangover.  Remember how she left it parked in the sun?  I guess you probably had that coming.  Sadly, Hallmark doesn’t make any cards “For the Dad that can fix a car the morning after a bender.”  They make cards for just about everything else, but not that.

There are lots of Father’s Day cards about TV watching and fighting over the remote.  We only shared a television for one day every-other-weekend, so remote battles don’t really capture our relationship.  Plus, I don’t remember feeling like there was an option to “fight” for a different show.  Did you even have channels that showed something other than John Wayne movies or did you order a custom Cowboy Cable package?

Then there are the bad puns and lowest-common-denominator jokes.  I respect you too much for those.  You love language and have a gift for words.  I can’t give you a card that makes me groan because I know it will make you groan even louder.  And of all days, Father’s Day should be a groan-free day.

So, you can see my dilemma.  No handyman, lawn mowing, television or dumb joke cards.    That eliminates about 73% of available Father’s Day cards.

But, there are still lots of touching cards with words printed on watercolor landscapes.  I wish I could buy one of those.  But I can’t.  They remind me of the dad I didn’t have.  You didn’t read me bedtime stories or teach me to drive.  You didn’t play catch with me in the yard or attend all my sporting events and recitals.  You didn’t see me off to dances or intimidate my boyfriends.  You are not my best friend.

That sounds harsh, I know.  But it’s true.  We have something different.  You’re a cowboy.  You’re tough and thick-skinned.  The love you give is equally so.  You are not affectionate.  You do not gush compliments.  I know I am loved.  It’s just not a mushy Hallmark kind of love.

It’s the kind of love that never used me as a pawn in marital conflicts.

It’s the kind of love that never forced me to turn down a sleepover invite because it was “your” weekend on the visitation schedule.

It’s the kind of love that always sent child support on time and never griped about the expense.

It’s the kind of love that rented fancy clothes for my wedding and agreed to dance in front of strangers.

It’s the kind of love that embraced the idea of honoring my brothers with the job of walking me down the aisle.

It’s the kind of love that drives four hours to take my family out to dinner.

If Hallmark printed all that on a watercolor background, I would buy the card.  But they don’t.

So, I am left searching the card aisle for my old stand-by – the small percentage of Father’s Day cards that don’t actually talk about fathers.  So, once again you are receiving a Father’s Day card that talks about how awesome I am and how lucky you are to have me.

But, this year that just didn’t feel like enough.  So I’m supplementing with this letter.

I love you.

Not for your handyman skills or the straight lines you left in the lawn.  Not for your taste in television or your golfing abilities.  Just for you.  That’s what daughters do…especially the awesome ones.

Don’t you feel lucky to have me?

Happy Father’s Day!


[A Defining Motherhood Blog Re-Run]


The Giving Tree

photo by Benton J. Melbourne

photo by Benton J. Melbourne

DEBATE: a discussion between people in which they express different opinions about something

Should we be reading The Giving Tree to our children? Lauren Apfel says yes, the book is about giving our children what they need and deriving joy from the giving. I say no, unconditional love and unconditional giving are not the same thing.

You can read our debate on Brain, Child Magazine’s blog today.

Where do you stand?

Friday Morning Sing

SING: to use your voice to make musical sounds in the form of a song or tune

All the elementary students in my son’s school gather together on Friday morning to raise their voices in song.  Read about it on Brain, Child’s blog today by following THIS LINK.

I was wrong. You were right.

MIDDLE AGE: The period of life between young adulthood and old age, now usually regarded as between about forty-five and sixty

Today I am officially the age Husband was when we met.  In those early days, I made the mistake of referring to him as “middle aged.”  He was not pleased.  I was not deterred.  I argued that men typically only live into their 70s, so mid-thirties was halfway through (in the middle).   He would not concede.

The debate has raged for over a decade.  On each of his birthdays, I ask if he is ready to claim the label.  Each year he declines.

Luckily, with age comes a little bit of wisdom and, feeling slightly more wise today than yesterday, I am ready to choose being happy over being right.  I am ready to end the debate and graciously concede that thirty-four is not middle-aged.

The Oxford English Dictionary will back me up.  It puts thirty-four firmly in the young adulthood camp and, to ease the bitter pill of my defeat, officially diagnoses Husband’s current age as deserving the label he’s been resisting since we met.


Dear Husband,

You were right.

I was wrong.



Graduation Advice


GRADUATE: a person who has earned a degree or diploma from a school, college, or university

Dear Graduate,

Remember when you were little and your parents told you to look both ways before crossing the street?  My graduation advice is similar.  Before you walk across that stage or flip that tassel or toss that pointy cornered hat that could poke an eye out, take time to look both ways.

Look forward.

How could you help it?  Everyone around you is forcing your eyes in that direction. You are assaulted with questions about your plans and goals for the future.  Grown-ups who don’t know what to do tomorrow are asking you what you will do next, which field of study you plan to pursue, and where you’d like to be in ten years.  And, depending on the level of youthful hubris running through your veins you will answer with varying degrees of certainty or doubt.  You may mention your acceptance letter as if it is proof of your worthiness or treat it as a challenge to which you hope to rise.  You may share your new address as proof of your independence or feel the painful fraying of apron strings when you recite your new zip code.  Or you might just mumble, “Plastics before you walk away.

You may have ready answers or be overflowing with questions.  Either way is fine.  You should still take time to look to the future. You aren’t a toddler anymore.  Covering your eyes is not the same as disappearing.  The future can still see you.  So, part your fingers and peak through the cracks. Let the view inspire you.  Let it scare you.  Let it impress you with its vastness.  Let it intrigue you with its tease of promise before the first bend.  Speculate. Dream. Hope. Worry.  Fear.  But don’t let it swallow you.  Don’t forget to look the other way.

Look back.

See how far you’ve come.  Saunter down memory lane and see what you can learn about your journey to this moment.  Look at the kindergarten and fourth grade and middle school versions of yourself and measure their growth.  Review the lessons you learned from books and the ones learned off the page.  Think about the people you kissed when you shouldn’t have and the ones you didn’t when you should have.  Look at the hairstyles and fashion choices you pulled off (or didn’t).Let the near-miss quicken your pulse and the didn’t even try flush your cheeks.

Take time to marinate in your accomplishment.  Soak it up.  Allow the ratio of milestones to moments to permeate you so that you will forever know the truth that remarkable destinations are proceeded by thousands of unremarkable steps in the right direction.

Take time to wallow.  Acknowledge your regrets.  Sit with should have, and could have and wish you would have until you know with certainty that they are not the company you wish to keep.

Watch the memory movie in fast-forward.  See friends enter and exit your life.  Ambitions rise and fall.  Passions grow and stagnate.  Watch how incremental changes become transformations.  Admire the beautiful parts of yourself that time’s erosive power uncovered along the way.  Notice where life’s grit has dulled your shine.

Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to march across that stage, flip that tassel, and step into the intersection at the corner of accomplishment and possibility.

So do it. Climb that stage.  Smile for the cameras.  Shake those hands. Grab that diploma. Then, apply your safety goggles, toss your mortarboard, and enjoy the airborne equivalent of running with scissors.

Your Friend and Foe, 

Unsolicited Advice



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,210 other followers