Making Peace With Mom Guilt


This is the dance I’ve been doing every year since my daughter was two: Eagerly embracing the return of the “school year” (which for us means affordable childcare). Then, wallowing in guilt when I drop them off.

I told the school supervisor today, that I’d feel sad if I didn’t send them because I wouldn’t get to work. But I feel sad for sending them because I’m leaving them to work.

She laughed and said, “Parents always cry harder than the kids.”

It’s true. I know it’s true. But its the same every year–the dance of parent guilt.

I feel guilty for sending them too activities or guilty for not signing them up for them. When my daughter was little she and I did everything from music lessons to story time and art classes. I felt guilty for not giving her unstructured playtime. Now, with my son, he has a lot of unstructured playtime, but I feel guilt for not giving him music class and art class.

Part of me is convinced this is a personal defect. Maybe I am just a waffler. Someone who overthinks and second guesses. I mean, you should see me trying to pick out a new brand of mustard. What is stone ground? Do they actually use stones? Are stones better? Does it taste like stone? What kind of stone? Because for $2.89 that better be ground by A-grade, pure cut granite. 

But knowing I’m a serial pontificator doesn’t help. I met a mom today, who told me quite pointedly, “I have no guilt leaving my child” And then, I lit her on fire. RIP other mom.

There are a lot of articles about parenting guilt. Overcoming parenting guilt. Blaming other people and Pinterest for your parenting guilt. But look, I’ve tried to overcome my guilt but that just makes me guilty that I haven’t overcome it and it’s a vicious cycle and enough. I imagine Ma Ingalls felt parenting guilt. And you know those moms complaining that a vast government conspiracy caused the Black Plague felt it too. Maybe guilt is just part of the necessary dance we do to always be conscious of balancing our lives.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the context of faith and doubt and I’m wondering if doubt isn’t somehow a necessary motivator to keep us always thinking and learning and questioning. Guilt too is a facet of this. Of course, it has the potential for negativity, and pain, and hold on while I nail myself to this cross of motherhood. So, yes, fear the dark side. But everything has a darkside. Too much happiness and you are ignoring the realities of our world and all your friends have blocked you on Facebook for being annoying as hell. So, can’t guilt be good too? Can’t it be that little reminder to be more conscious? More aware.

I don’t know that I have something particularly wise to say here except that I’m tired of being told that this guilt, which seems like a natural part of the parenting journey, is so awful I have to expel it from me with holy water and some internet advice. Maybe, instead of wallowing, or fixing, maybe, I’ll just let it be there–my little reminder that I am not perfect, neither is my life. But it doesn’t have to be the best, just my best, which is all I am doing right now.

Missing My Baby’s Birthday


On my baby’s second birthday I was 1,600 miles away from him drinking with other writers at a writing workshop in Oregon. Back in February, I had been accepted to a prestigious writing workshop and I leapt at the chance to go discuss what I love to do with some of the best writers in the nation. Technically, I was working. But also, not so technically, I was not. I was enjoying myself. But no matter how you parsed it, I was away from my son on the day that marked his second birthday.

I thought a lot about this decision. On one hand, I hadn’t spent more than three nights away from him in the entire two years of his existence. Plus, would he remember? I mean, really? On the other hand, it was his birthday.

The laws of parenthood dictate that we do not miss our children’s major milestones. As a writer and reader, I know that fiction and memoir are rife with the troubled rememberings of children whose parents abandoned them at crucial moments—choir concerts, theater performances and yes, birthdays.

I discussed this choice with friends and family. Would my son look back on July 15, 2015 as a crucial moment in his childhood, when his mother gallivanted off to the Pacific Northwest, and left him to the cold, comforts of hot dogs, boxed macaroni and his father’s care? Or would he instead, focus on the day a few weeks later, when his mom would make him waffles for dinner and procure a bounce-house for his delayed party? Or would he not remember anything? Instead focusing on some other unloved moment? Some other missed opportunity that I would unknowningly bestow up on him?

“You are fine,” my friend Mel reassured me. “You are home with him every day of his life, missing a week is not going to traumatize him.”

Another acquaintance was less comforting. “Well,” she said as kindly as she could, “I wouldn’t do it. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.”

I went anyway. I felt guilty anyway. If I had stayed I would have wished I had gone. I went and wished I had stayed.

We have decided somehow as a culture what a good mother does and does not do and as caring parents we closely follow these dictums as best we can: Kiss the wounds, soothe the heartbreak, cheer the sports games, celebrate the first steps and the birthdays. We hope that by following this checklist everything will turn out okay. But what if it doesn’t?

What if I screw up everything and my son comes out okay regardless? What if I screw up nothing and he becomes a mass murderer? I am not sure what is in my control and what isn’t.

It’s the easy lie of culture that we can blame the parents. It’s our go-to judgement because sometimes the line from troubled serial killer to sad child is easy to trace. Other times, it’s less clear. Sometimes the killer had happy devoted parents. Sometimes the president grew up in a troubled home. But we still blame the parents because it is easy. Because it forces a narrative on our lives that follows the path of childhood to adulthood in one easy-to-understand arc of cause and effect.

But life isn’t always so easy. Devoted parents can fail. Cold parents have their moments of warmth.

The day before his birthday, I sat in a lecture where Dorothy Allison, the famed novelist and poet told a story of her son being beaten up by the son of an agent at a literary party. “See,” she said. “We all fail, even when we are right there.”

Her story comforted me to some extent. But also terrified me. She had been right there. She had brought her son with her to the event. She had still missed a crucial moment. One that he liked to tell and retell to the embarrassment of his mother. I suppose that no matter who we are or what we accomplish, we are little more than the memories of our children. It’s no wonder there are people who don’t have them.

When you don’t have children there are fewer people to fail, to disappoint, or lose in the ever-present battle between the things you need and the things you want.

I don’t have sure answers. Right now my baby is so little. He was happy to see me when I came home. And I was happy to see him. And we had a big party a few days later with a bounce house and lots of cake. Perhaps this moment is one that will be lost forever to our mutual history. Perhaps it won’t. All I know is that searching for surety, it’s more about me than them.

How Being A Mother Made Me A Better Writer

A year after my daughter was born, I was talking with my friend Anna about some new writing jobs.

“…but” I added, “they are all mom sites. They only like me for my uterus!”

It was a self indulgent whine to be sure. Look at all the places I’m writing! But they’re only for moms! Waaah! In my whine, was the fear that no one would ever take me seriously outside of writing about parenting.  I was afraid that this is all I would be, some words and a uterus.

“Maybe,” Anna said, “you are just getting better. Maybe being a mom is just making you better at writing…”

I hated her for saying that. Like expelling a human out of my vagina makes me somehow better at things?! Come on, Anna! But her words have hung over me these past three years. I know she is right. Motherhood has broken me. It’s rebuilt me. I cry more. I laugh more. I sleep less. I work harder. Sometimes, I tell people that just watching my children grow so rapidly, is a visual reminder of my own quick walk to the grave. It makes me waste less time.

But there is something else, too.

Before my daughter was born, I had been writing professionally for five years. In college, I set out to be a lawyer. But I started working for the newspaper as a columnist and I got addicted to writing. It’s not that there were all of these people pulling me aside saying, “You should write.” Actually, there were none.

Mostly people just screamed at me in the cafeteria or while I got coffee in the commons. Sometimes, I had things thrown at me. More than once, guys would come up to my table in the campus coffee shop and block my exit, telling me to tone down the way I talked about the Greek system or the campus Republicans or the Greens. It was a little scary and absolutely exhilarating.

For the first time in my life, I felt like I had a voice. People were listening to me. My words could make people laugh, make them yell and in at least one case that I knew of, make them cry. I come from a family of yellers. Thanksgiving dinner at my house is kind of like the real life version of the Huffington Post comments section. So, no, I wasn’t scared, I was amazed. Writing meant, I could be heard over the din. When you write and people read, there is silence. They have to focus. They have to think. And my words, they were thinking about them.

So, I decided to be a writer. Of course, god bless my liberal arts education,  I had no practical idea how to make that happen. And no one to ask. I knew no writers who weren’t also academics. And academia didn’t hold any sort of special appeal. Fortunately, Google was invented then, so I started there. Insert five years of freelancing, working as a proofreader, copyeditor, blogger, marketer, assistant editor for a taekwondo website and a social media manager for a love and sex website.  But in those five years, I never went anywhere much. I had gotten in, but I was floundering. I watched my husband grow in his job and gain responsibility and new challenges, but I felt stuck. I was writing and editing, but nothing beyond one or two sites. Every thing I pitched was getting rejected. All my essays were being turned down.

Then, my town was flooded, I lost my job, the recession happened and I couldn’t even get a job at a coffee shop so what the hell, I got an MFA. Nine months after that, I had a baby. And that’s when things started to change.

Maybe it was because I finally started learning how to pitch stories. Maybe it was because I had time working as an editor, so I knew a little bit more about what worked as an essay and what didn’t. Maybe it was that in my MFA program, I learned how to write a lot better. Or maybe it was the fact that after pushing something the size of a watermelon out of something the size of a lemon, not being able to sleep and crying almost every day for a year, something in me changed.

Here is not what I am saying: to be a good writer you must be a parent. That is ridiculous. I couldn’t sustain an argument like that. There are so many amazing writers who do not have children. Who seem to have learned all the things that being a parent has taught me through other ways. I envy those women. They probably saved a lot of money and don’t pee when they sneeze. My way is not prescriptive. But here is what I am saying: Something about being a parent has made me a better writer. I don’t know what it is.

A few months ago, on a school tour, I talked to another mother about my dilemma for my four year old: Did I put her in a school where I know she would thrive? Or hold off a year, and put her in the school that had better hours for my work.

“Sometimes,” the mother said, “we have to be parents first.”

me and JQ2

I don’t think she was trying to be rude. She was just speaking from the place where she was. But it is a false binary. Motherhood is all encompassing. It has shaped how I think, the size of my ass and even, weirdly, my earlobes. It complicated every boundary that I have always tried to keep between the personal and the professional. A few weeks ago, I had to interview a source, while I walked around the park. I tossed fruit snacks to my toddler so he’d leave me alone. My four year old wanted to change her shirt because she dribbled some water on it and started wailing and chasing me. I tried to remain calm as I jogged, making mental notes and holding up my index finger behind me. “One more minute,” I mouthed to my daughter. “One more minute.” I ended up tossing all the fruit snacks on the ground and hiding behind a tree. They ate the whole box, but I got my story.

Two years ago, I did a segment on HuffPost Live. It was in the evening, so Dave was home. But before I slipped into the office, I made sure the baby was fed and everyone was happy. The talk took longer than I anticipated and my son, who was only 8 weeks old at the time, started wailing.  The door to my office has windows, so I peeked over and saw Dave holding the baby, both staring miserably at me. I began to lactate. I slipped down in my chair as milk spots formed conspicuous circles on my shirt. I remained calm. Smiling and nodding.

“Oh yes, I agree, that’s a salient point…” I began when the moderator called on me to comment. All the while, the baby screamed and milk poured forth from my chest.

I have a million of those stories–forgetting to turn off the milk pump during a call in meeting. Hiding in the bathroom while my daughter screamed for more cookies and I calmly asked Sarah Vowell more questions about her writing.

Life and work. The boundaries are never clear to me. I sometimes envy my husband. He gets to go to work. He gets to come home. Rarely do his roles bleed into one another. But when we talk about it, he say he envies me all those little moments I tell him about our day–our son dancing in a diaper and a princess crown, our daughter teaching her brother to fight dragons, catching them sneaking treats from the fridge and just letting them, because they are working together. He envies those and all the moments I don’t tell him. The ones I don’t remember, because they are so common to my life–tears at the pool, sand in a shoe, a lost toy, a misplaced crayon.

Here it all mixes–my books for review reside among pop-up books about dinosaurs. My interview notes often bear stickers and careful pen marks that I am told are the words to a magical song, so magical my daughter cannot sing it because she is afraid I will die.

I send email at the park. I jot notes as we take walks in the stroller. One source laughed when I called her, because she recognized the “Super Why” theme song in the background.

Mother. Writer. I don’t believe in the binary any more. I believe in the dissonance of that place in the middle, where boundaries blur, where chocolate milk spills on my manuscript and my interview recordings have the shouts of “Dora the Explorer” in the background.

I sometimes dream of the time, when I will once again, just be able to be a Writer. When I can just Work. When I can finally have The Time. When Motherhood isn’t the constant narrative arc of my days. But then I think, why do I want that when my best work happens here, in the middle of all of this? In this scrum of phone calls and soggy bottoms. Feminist theory and goldfish crackers. I am neither mom first nor writer first. I just am.

And by the way, I picked the school that gave me more time. I am sure it won’t affect my daughter’s Harvard application.

Not everyone needs to be a parent to be a good writer. But some people, like me, have to learn a harder way. We have to take a longer route to settle in to that place where we can create. What being a mother has taught me about writing is that there is Art and there is Life and where those things are made is in the nebulous space between.

jq the artist

Why Blog?


The first thing I was warned about when I signed with an agent was not to let my blog go dead.

“Oh, I won’t,” I said.

Famous last words.

I suppose you could blame being in the throws of book revision. I suppose you could blame children. Or paid work, blame the paid work, especially.

Because I don’t get paid for this blog right here. I used to earn money with ads and some sponsored posts. But I quit that when I realized that it compromised what I wanted to say. I felt bad getting things in the mail and having to tell the PR people that I couldn’t review them because never in a million years would I buy my children $4/pouch yogurt, or $50 T-shirts for babies (who will crap on them!) because we aren’t freaking Beyonce over here. And neither are you and what the hell? How can I write a post that’s all, “My life is great now that my baby wears clothes worth more than my life!”?

One day, I got so frustrated, I just took the ads down. I  let PR people know that I was out of the game, unless they were Coke-a-Cola, or Cheetos (which will never happen, but not because I don’t consume enough of their products, amirite?), I’m done with WRITING A BLOG FOR PROFIT (and I have been for over a year now). And I like that.

There have been a lot of bloggers quitting this year. Big bloggers. Bloggers who made the genre. They are done. They blame the caustic comments and the heavy pressure of putting their lives on display. In the game of click-throughs its easy to lose. Because we all know the formula something racy+list+mom judgement=click gold. Better yet if you can make a passive-aggressively condescending letter out of it. “Dear bitchmom I hate but I’m going to pretend not to hate because I’m a bigger person” is my favorite genre of post. Right next to, “Dear woman I observed doing something normal but inspired me to live more freely and better than you.”

So many blogs and blog style sites I love have fallen victim to and gotten lost in these tropes. Or even lost themselves to a kind of self-parody. Like style aping style. It’s like how my imitation of my mom is more my mom than my actual mom. I’m trying to avoid that.

I have half a mind to start my own mom site, something that is more than “Good Family Meals That Cost A Million Dollars And Have Kale Because It’s On Trend!” And product round ups and baby name round ups with a dash of, “ENJOY EVERY MOMENT BECAUSE ONE DAY YOUR KIDS WILL LEAVE AND YOU’LL HAVE TO ACTUALLY LOOK AT YOUR HUSBAND OMG SAVE US!” Something that is funny and complicated that speaks to the experience of motherhood without being drowned in it. Something that allows women to be who they are as mothers but also the other manifestations of themselves–ghost hunters, witch lovers, historians and whiskey drinkers. But I don’t have the money. That’s really the only thing stopping me.

Plus Dave tells me the internet will end one day after China blows it up.

I have this idea that one day in the far future, I’ll be visited in the old folks home by my great-grandchildren and I’ll be all, “Did granny ever tell you what and internet is?” And they’ll put down their post-apocalyptic hatchets and bonnets and sit still while I tell them of that one time on the Huffington Post when I went viral.

They probably won’t care. And it won’t happen (because they won’t visit, I know them). Nothing is over. Life happens in cycles. It’s boom it’s bust. But people who love writing, who can’t stop writing will always write. Blogging is a genre now, no more, no less. It has its absurdities and its purities. I love it for what it is, a place for me to place things that I cannot place elsewhere. It’s the sum of thoughts and jokes and moments that I want to share.

Last year, I bought two journals to write down memories for my children. The things I won’t share here. Things that might be embarrassing or too intimate to reveal. Or at least, too intimate for me to make that decision to reveal. I’ve been filling them up. I love them. That too is a different genre and a different mindset.

I’ve always said as my children grow older and their stories grow separate from me that I will have to find new ways to talk about them and me, ways that walk a line of respect and love, but also honor the intricacies of our lies. I’m not sure how to find this place. So, I find myself in a time of listening, to my children, to other writers, to ideas and thoughts and voices. And I think of what I want to say here. What do you want to hear here. And I almost feel flummoxed by possibility.

But maybe I hit on it before. Maybe that’s just what I do, keep writing things here that honor motherhood and all the other iterations of self–ghost hunters, witch lovers, historians and whiskey drinkers.

One time, after something I wrote got a lot of attention, someone asked me why I wrote it on my blog. “Because,” I said, “it’s the place I say things that no one will pay me to say.” She was confused and I realized that she wanted me to say that I was inspired by something or another. But I wasn’t really. I had just been wanting to say it for a long time and I kept pitching the essay but no one bought it, so I pooped it out on this blog. Voila.

But I keep going back to that thing I said to her. This is the place I say the things I really want to.

I’ve tried to quit blogging before. Once when I was 20 and my blog had become a little too big for me to handle. I was getting creepy emails and comments that I couldn’t handle at the time, so I shut it down.

I started again a few years later, when I was unemployed and bored. I kept it anonymous because I thought that’s what truly serious people did–they hid themselves. But I gave up that ruse because it was unnecessary cloak and dagger. Say what you need to say, don’t hide it.

Then, I came here. I think I’ll stay here. Even if it takes fits and starts. Even if I pause now and again to do work that actually pays, because, again, I’m not Beyonce, I need the money.

But here, you aren’t money, you aren’t clicks, here we are all just people, eating Cheetos, talking about life in a place where no one pays us to say it.

Fancy Dancer

me and ellis

I won’t do this ever again. I promise. But I originally wrote this for my Tiny Letter newsletter because apparently it’s all early aughts again. Anyway, it’s where I’m compiling links and updates to all my writing, interesting things on the internet, short thoughts and .gifs. I’ve titled it Eff, because it is themed with F words. ALL OF THEM. This one was titled “Fancy.” If that sounds fun, you can sign up here. You also view view the archives here.


My daughter had her first recital on Sunday. She is four. She has been begging for dance lessons since she turned two. What happened was, I made the mistake of reading her Angelina Ballerina books and she looked at me with wide eyes, “You mean, I can take a dance class?”

I never set out to have a fancy daughter. We didn’t find out her sex before she was born. And all my in-laws told me that LENZES HAVE BOYS. So, I mostly expected a boy. And then, here she came–all plump, blue eyes, blonde hair–this happy little baby girl. I was immediately inundated with bows and tutus. I sent most of them back. I returned them and exchanged them for blues, purples, neutrals, ironic onesies, boys clothes, and whiskey (you can buy liquor at Target in Iowa, be jealous). I gave concessions to grandmas on holidays, but for the most part, I did my best to keep her unfancy. Hell, I even gave her a boy’s name. The male name Emily Bronte published under, when she couldn’t find acceptance as a woman writer.

I did this for so many reasons. I am one of five girls and like so many girls, I’ve never felt at home in the world of “girl.” I was that girl, at 16, telling all my friends that girls are terrible for their “drama.” Saying that I “like boys better.” And I’ve learned a lot since then about internalizing sexism and privileging what is stereotypically “male.” But, I was determined not to ruin her. So, we had no princess things in the house. No books. No movies. No TV shows. Nothing.

But one day, right after she turned two, my daughter came down the stairs draped in my scarves and declared herself, “Princess Ellis.” I still don’t know where she got that. But from that day on, my life has been a cavalcade of tutus and dance and tiaras and princesses and fancy.

I suppose, I’m the mom, I had a choice whether to “let” her do that or not. But if I’ve learned one thing about femininity and feminism and well, womanhood, in the past 32 years is that no one has the right to define your experience as a woman. If this is what what my daughter wants, I will always give her other options, but this is what she can have. I refuse to demean pink, or tutus, or ruffles, or all the ways she is fancy just because I don’t like them. It’s taken me years to define what it means to be a woman on my own terms. I want better for her. I want her to define herself on her own terms, even if that means a tiara.

So, when she was old enough, I signed her up for dance. There is so much about being a dance mom that I hate. The ruffles. The hair. The “Well, everyone else is getting a recital shirt, so you should get one for Ellis too!” Or the “We need deep pink lipstick, that is light pink!” That kind of garbage. But I love being Ellis’ mom. So, going to this recital, seeing her on stage, knowing that it was all her, well, I damn near cried. She wanted this. She was loving this. Her wide eyes when she came out for the final bow. Her huge smile as she tromped around on the stage. Her little happy tears when I gave her flowers. “For me? Fancy roses of my own?!” I am so proud of her and of the little woman that she is becoming. And she is doing it all on her own terms.

Babies begin their lives joined with their mothers. The sleep. The feeding. It’s hard to know where you begin and where your baby ends. It’s this big muddle of dependency that suffocates and enrages and buttresses. And we all have these ideas for who our kids should and ought to be. But watching her today, I realized that she is me and she isn’t. She’s so wholly mine and so entirely her own. And whatever she loves, I will love. Whatever she needs to be the person she needs to be–whether it be a sex change or a tutu or a lifetime of writing books about how awful I am–I’m there for her. Where a mother sees a wall a daughter sees a window. We may fight. We may argue. But I hope she always breaks my walls to show me the beauty beyond.

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