There is a cute gift boutique in my area. For several years now I have dropped in every time I needed a hostess gift or just a little mood lifter for myself or a friend. It’s the sort of self-consciously retro but not kitchy place that sells monogrammed wooden Kleenex boxes, or wonderful bath salts, everything is beautiful and speaks to a quieter world of the past, a world where people used floral dish towels and perfumed soaps in the guest bathroom and letter openers. Usually one of the two women who own the place are at the counter—we have chatted over the years, but not often enough for any of us to retain much about each other, especially during those years where it seemed like I was always rushing and/or they were busy with their other, also always rushing, customers.
But today I am NOT rushing. And, for some reason, the store is quiet. Today I am picking up a present for a friend, a beautiful but simple glass water bottle etched with the word GRATITUDE. It’s kind of become a cliché in these parts, but I still think it’s wonderful to see the word GRATITUDE at your table for all the obvious reasons. I choose the color of tissue paper it will be wrapped in and as the woman takes my credit card she casually asks me,
“Are you a Brentwood mom?”
I don’t, I can’t, instantly respond. Ok, here’s the easy part. I live in a part of Los Angeles called Brentwood, so that’s pretty simple, unless, of course, she is referring to the SCHOOL called Brentwood that neither of my kids attended. And yes, of course, I am a mom. But I am the “mom” of people, full, adult people who are 23 and 26, and they no longer live with their parents. Although it may feel like I was just driving carpool yesterday, I wasn’t. In fact, I haven’t driven carpool in seven years. No, even that’s not true. I haven’t driven a kid to school in six years, but I haven’t driven a real carpool since we lived in Connecticut, now, oh my God, eleven years ago.
For such a long time I was a Weston mom, Weston being the town in Connecticut where we spent a decade, where we, my husband Mitchell and I, as I think of it, mostly raised our kids, where we lived those chaotic, messy, energizer bunny years. The years where reflection seemed like the biggest luxury. And we lived in a town where 50% of the inhabitants were fifteen or under and where 90% of the families with school age children sent those children to the local public school. So I was a Weston mom surrounded by other Weston moms. There were a few dads but it was like a Cheever short story, or, more recently like Mad Men, where almost all of the husbands commuted into the city on the train and were pretty much only seen on weekends. Most of the other moms in those days, the nineties into the early 00’s, didn’t work outside of the house. There definitely were some, but it wasn’t, at least with most of the women I came across, the norm. Many of the stay at home moms had three, four, sometimes even five kids. It seemed anachronistic to me even then, especially since I had spent my twenties and the first half of my thirties working hard at a writing career that for a long time defined me, if not always to the world, then, at least, to myself. I continued to write, if not quite as regularly as I once had. Sometimes I felt like a writer more than other times. This made me a bit different from other moms I knew, in that I was still able to put energy into something I had done professionally. Still, it was no longer my main focus. Many of these moms had left careers as lawyers or investment bankers but when they left, they left. Some did keep up, on some level, with their industry with the idea that they would go back. Some knew they would never go back. Many were thrilled, after all those years of taking the subway at seven in the morning to a job that had become increasingly more stressful and less fun as they made more money and got better at it, to be the boss of their own house, their own day and, at least when they were little, their own kids, too. But many of them were stressed by the ups and downs of their mates’ careers, and sometimes those jobs were lost or spouses were transferred, and I had more than one friend who stayed in a bad marriage simply because she knew that by leaving it the whole family would suffer economically, the house would be lost, the suburban dream over. Others were tearing their hair out, happily married and crazy about their kids but bored to death in what they experienced as a 1996 version of The Feminine Mystique, feeling like they were trapped on an alien planet, this bucolic, ridiculously beautiful place populated pretty much exclusively by economically comfortable heterosexual mostly white people.
But we were all Weston moms, that much I knew.
I was, I am embarrassed to admit, surprisingly ok with it all. After living in major cities my whole life it was nice hearing birds when I woke up, spotting deer in my garden (before they ate the tulips), watching bunnies leap through hills covered in wildflowers. I loved the change of seasons and all the rituals that went with it. I lived for snow days, maybe even more than my kids. We were perched on a perfect sledding hill, so our house became THE place to congregate on those days, families dressed in ski clothes arriving often by foot with a sled or two in tow. We even got to see the dads then, because there was too much snow for them to drive to the station. I happily made vats of hot chocolate and macaroni and cheese and later the kids would pile in front of Nickelodeon, (God, remember Nickelodeon?) and as dark shadows enveloped the house the adults would move to wine or hot apple cider spiked with rum. We had gone sledding, too, had spent several hours wiping our (and our neighbor’s) children’s noses and finding gloves and zipping up jackets as we climbed up the hill, snow up to our thighs, pulling the sled along. It was the best kind of tired. I loved the look of New England, I drank in its beauty, that part never got old and I still miss it. The culture of the town made it shockingly easy to live in for those ten years. Everything was catered to what we were at that time, a young family. Our adult friends were basically culled from the parents of our children’s friends, couples we didn’t mind hanging out with while our kids participated in field days or theatre rehearsals or swim meets. A lot of chats in parking lots waiting for those kids to come out of after school programs, or at the neighborhood school bus stop. We had good friends around the corner who held an annual Harvest moon square dance in their barn and hired a “caller” for the occasion. This was done with no irony, and was a crazy amount of fun.
But I think what made those years so happy for me was that I knew my place in the world, I really knew it. I was shocked at how easily I let my professional goals move to the wayside, and how crazy in love I was with my family and my life. I knew that at parties some people dismissed me as a woman obsessed with raising her kids and building family memories, and they weren’t completely wrong. While I read “real” books, kept up with what was going on in the world, worked on my writing projects and even got involved a bit in local politics, I was happiest at home and I found my husband the best kind of company and my children and their ever expanding world endlessly fascinating and entertaining. So, yeah, I was a Weston mom.
But, it wasn’t forever, it wasn’t meant to be forever. I had a few friends who kept on, into their forties, having kids and I know some of it was simply to elongate this lovely stage. I thought about it, but a pregnancy “scare” when I was forty and the very mixed feelings it brought up convinced me that after two, I was done. But it was a magical, pre cell phone era, looking back we couldn’t have known that we were the last generation to be raising our kids without the constant distraction of a screen. I would literally spend hours with my girls at the Town pond catching and releasing tad poles and building sand castles, and I wasn’t bored doing it. Aware that I was very lucky that we were financially comfortable enough for me to be able to do so, I completely surrendered into full time motherhood. I didn’t worry too much about the future, if I wasn’t leaning out I certainly wasn’t leaning in. It felt right for me.
Although autumn was spectacular with the leaves changing colors and winter had its stark, white beauty, it is my memory of the summers I cherish the most. Maybe it was how late it stayed light, the way the humidity made the air feel like it was giving you a hug, the dramatic and violent summer thunder storms, the fire flies, the picnics every July the 4th on the middle school field before the town fireworks, the decision on a Wednesday late afternoon, AGAIN, to not bother to leave our local pool and cook dinner at home, but to get something from the snack bar and just watch the sunset with other families while the kids continued to play before the place closed at 8. Commuter spouses would join us straight from work, some still in their business suits. It would be, again, an impromptu party. There was a sense in those summers of whiling the time away carelessly, of not thinking of time as having any limit. There was always more of it to spend.
When we moved back to California, our daughters were twelve and fifteen, no longer small children, no longer needing their noses wiped or their homework checked. I met parents at their respective schools and liked many, but it wasn’t the same.
I wasn’t the same.
I was still a mom, of course, but that wasn’t my whole identity anymore. I went back to writing more seriously, tried to get some new and old projects off the ground, and found myself spending much of my days thinking thoughts that were no longer completely centered around my children. (Although for long stretches they did center on my aging parents.) Whether this identity shift would have happened if we had stayed in Weston, I am not sure. One thing I suspect is that it would have happened more gradually. By moving our family when we did we robbed our daughters of the experience of keeping their childhood friends in their daily lives as they moved through their teens and we lost our “village” of other parents who had known our kids since they were tiny. We lost those snow days and lazy summer evenings abruptly and prematurely. We would have lost them to adolescence eventually but rituals and traditions might have been carried on for much longer, anchoring our sense of belonging to a place and, oddly, perhaps, even to each other. But there were huge positives to the move, as well. The parents I was meeting were a much more lively and diverse group, and almost everyone worked at something outside of the home, even if “outside” was running a business from their kitchen desktop. Everyone’s lives seemed bigger and fuller and ours became that way, too. Our kids became more worldly, no longer living in a tiny bubble. It’s hard to know if this was just LA or the change in the culture from technology or the fact that our daughters were teenagers. I’ll never know if moving back here was the “right” decision, and there is no point in trying to figure that out now.
So…NO, I say to the very nice woman. I answer, almost apologetically, I’m not a Brentwood mom. I kind of was, sort of. How about you?
Since I didn’t have the experience of working, at least working full time out of the house, as I was raising my kids, I can’t speak from personal experience (although I have plenty of friends who can) to what it’s like for other women who worked full time and raised, or at least co-raised with a husband or partner, a family. Nor can I really speak to the experience of being a truly full time homemaker, because I never really even knew one. Nobody in the nineties obsessed about the shininess of their kitchen floors, they were too busy volunteering in the schools or at homeless shelters or mentoring lower income women who were breaking into their industry, or writing political columns for the town newspaper or….I think you get it.
But I do know that from the time my oldest daughter was born (in Los Angeles) to the time, fifteen years later, when we moved back from Connecticut I thought of myself, primarily, as a mom. That period is long past, and that all encompassing identity no longer fits. I have always struggled with labels, I think they can be reductive. but the Weston mom label, I have to admit, it fit, it felt good, and I wore it happily, with a sense of something like relief. I had found my role. It was like the world was saying, you are good enough. Just doing this. Just today.
At this stage of my life I am trying very hard to give myself, as well as the people I love, the message that I heard during those years in Connecticut, that no matter what you do, you are enough. And also trying to de-label myself and others. I am many things and I play many roles and so do you. But I admit that there are times when I will spot a woman in her early forties or late thirties filling her cart to the brim in the market, wearing a T shirt and yoga pants and calmly managing a whiny second grader whose dirty fingers are leaving prints on said T shirt. When I see her I think, whether you work full time out of the house, full time in the house, or part time out of it, you are in that stage of life. In these parts, you are a Brentwood mom. And, yes, the cliche holds, the days are long and the years are short. This time of life is hard and wonderful and brutally tedious all at once. And you will miss it once it’s gone.