Labors of Love
Issue #14: The Gift
Having a mother is complicated and fraught. Not having a mother is complicated and fraught. Being a mother is complicated and fraught. Not being a mother is complicated and fraught. Sending love to you today, whatever your relationship is with motherhood.
– Celeste Ng, @prouncounce_ing, Twitter, 5/13/18.
My kids reminded me last weekend that Mother’s Day is coming up, and they asked me if there was anything special I wanted to do for the day.
I’ve been craving tacos, like some really good, deep fried, authentic Mexican tacos.
So my request for Mother’s Day is tacos. A feast of tacos.
I’ve been thinking about being a mom. About having a mom. And about all of my friends and loved ones who don’t have their mom.
I’d planned a different topic for this Substack edition and the rough draft chapters of Library Confidential that I wanted to share but I ended up stuck on the mom topic and veering off, writing ten thousand words on how being a children’s librarian made me a better mom and vice-versa.
I got a little emotional and carried away - which is a good thing. It’s good to stretch and let those fingers gallop when writing a memoir.
Don’t worry, gentle reader, I whittled it down a bit for you here.
When I think of Mother’s Day, I think about honoring all acts of tenderness, care, nurturing, and growth. Anything we labor at and birth and protect and nourish - anything we create with the labor of our bodies - all of it requires midwifery and motherhood and love.
And so here I am, trying to birth this book. Laboring. Sharing a bit more of Library Confidential even though I’m pretty sure it’s all a big pile of crapola right now.
It doesn’t matter.
This is part of the process.
Keep typing, AMO. Just keep going.
Tacos are good for morale.
My kids are out of school in two weeks, and I have to admit that I am REALLY looking forward to the break - not only to spend more time with them, but so I can get more work done.
The realities of parenting as a writer is that you’re always split between the two things: The desire to be a loving and present parent for your children, and the need for clean, uninterrupted creative time to do the work.
I do really great at the first thing, but the second thing I struggle with almost every day.
Taking care of the house, meals, laundry, grocery, school transportation - let’s just say there’s a lot of encroachment and distractions. So, I do what I can do, and I’m making progress, as slow as it may seem.
But when school is out, I’ll have my mornings again to write. It’s my favorite time of day.
Life as mom now isn't as intense as those early days of diapers and potty training and head bonks and rashes. When I talk to other writers who have younger kids, I know exactly where they are. I remember. It does get easier, it’s just a different kind of intensity, now. Tweens and teens need a different skill set from you.
And as fun as it is, it’s a little bittersweet, too. They grow up so quickly, these pieces of our hearts. Ten years goes by in a flash.
Almost three years after I started as a reference librarian, I was promoted to Adult Services Supervisor. I managed the main floor and had the largest staff amongst the four supervisors. My goal was to eventually be a library director.
Two weeks after starting that supervising job, I found out I was pregnant. I was 35 and we’d been trying for a year.
Fourteen years after we met, and ten years after we married, our daughter arrived during a howling full-moon monsoon storm at the end of July.
I had labored for 16 hours (to TOOL, in case you’re wondering) and ended up having an emergency C-section. She was sunny-side up, and I’d been close to rupturing. Recuperating from labor and a major surgery was brutal. Because of that, and my age, I was pretty sure she was going to be an only child.
Then we went to Hawaii when she was 18 months old, and I came back pregnant with baby number two. I was thrilled and I knew it was a boy from the moment the pee-test came up positive.
I was also scared to death of going through another birth experience like I’d had with my daughter. It had been, indeed, quite fraught.
But I found a great new doctor, and we planned for the C-section this time. Much easier. Our plump gorgeous boy arrived after an easy and healthy pregnancy, despite me gaining a whopping 60 pounds and being completely stressed out by my job.
While I was library supervisor, I went through those two pregnancies and C-sections, a three-year long library remodeling project, the great recession, and a staffing layoff and reorganization - the first in the City’s history.
When I was 5 months pregnant with my son, my husband was in an accident that shredded his right knee, requiring multiple reconstructive surgeries.
There I was pregnant, with a toddler, with a surgically-repaired husband on the sofa for four months, with a big fat job and a lot of responsibility.
Oh yeah, and we had to pack up and move house.
To say that I was stressed out during this time of my life would be a gross understatement.
I finally hit the wall when my son turned a year old.
I’d been managing the main floor of the library for four years and working 50+ hour weeks, and I just couldn’t do it any longer. Not with the babies. Not with the stress.
I was SO EFFING TIRED. And I missed my children so badly that I couldn’t hardly take it. I’d drop them off in the morning and cry on my way to work. I hated having them in daycare 10 hours a day. HATED IT. True despair.
I’d worked so hard on my education and career, but I’d wanted a family, too. I assumed working motherhood was just part of the deal. I thought it would all just fall into place, but it didn’t. It never felt right to me. It was HARD.
For a while, I resented the fact that I even had a career. I didn’t want to deal with it any longer.
I wanted to raise my babies.
Believe me, I’d never, ever thought about being a children’s librarian. They were a different breed among librarians, not a tribe I understood at first. But as I grappled with my job situation and both kids, I was desperate for a solution.
I went and talked to my counterpart, Sherry, our long-time and much beloved Youth Services supervisor.
She’d had an unfilled twenty-hour part-time children’s librarian position hanging open in the budget, and she took mercy on me. She lent her full support as I went through the process of resigning my supervisor's job, and she let me pick my new schedule when I joined the youth department.
I was scared about taking the financial hit, but I ran the numbers over and over again. After we took the kids out of daycare, stopped eating out so much, and got rid of the weekly cleaning lady - we were just about even in terms of the pay cut.
In other words, I had been working full time and practically killing myself while paying half of my salary to other people - just so that I could work full time and practically kill myself.
Or - I could work 20 hours, be with my kids four full days a week, and not pay any of those people. I’d still be netting the same amount of money. It was a no-brainer once my husband saw the numbers. Thankfully, my mom was thrilled to watch the kids for the day and half I needed her.
Stepping away from my dream job and putting my career on hold so I could be a happier mommy was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. Amongst many hard things.
And so, I found refuge in the youth library amongst the wee folk in an attempt to save myself. And it worked. The kids were a joy.
Once I had my own babies, I had that baby fever, too. In the youth department I could interact with babies all the time, even as my own were growing up.
It turned out that I loved being a children’s librarian. I joined the tribe. I was a children’s librarian for ten years - longer than I was a reference librarian. I helped kids and teens of all ages, but I especially enjoyed working with the babies.
I took over our baby story time programs for the library in 2015.
With these programs, you aren’t teaching the baby so much as you’re teaching the parents about brain development and language acquisition. And because of that, music was always the foundation of my baby storytimes, not books.
My storytimes were anywhere from about 60-150 people every week, and because of the size of the crowds, it doesn’t really work to read a book at the front of the room while babies’ eyes are still developing distance vision. They need picture books in front of their faces, not twenty feet away.
I’d let every parent pick a board book on their way in, and halfway through the storytime, I’d pause so that babies could refocus. This is when I’d invite the parents to sit quietly for a few minutes and read to their babies.
And I’d coach them: Point to the pictures! Make the moo-moo noises! Name all the things and ask questions! Touch the body parts as you say them! Be silly!
The surest way for healthy developing baby brains are melody, songs, language, rhyming, clapping, touching - all of it helps develop the neural pathways that lead to literacy.
I loved singing to the babies. Maybe the only time in my life I felt comfortable “onstage”. I used all kinds of baby music along with shakers and scarves and a few stuffies and puppets.
At the end of my storytimes, we’d do a flash dance: I’d ask the caregivers to get up off the floor and dance with their babies while I played a baby-friendly adult song, but only for about two minutes. Babies can only take so much. It was just enough to close out the session with joy and good vibes.
My favorites songs for the flash dance were things like: Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da by the Beatles, Listen to the Music by the Doobie Brothers, Groove Line by Heatwave, and Three Little Birds by Bob Marley.
After my storytimes, I always had a playlist going, and I’d invite the parents to relax for a few minutes while I cleaned up. Many mom’s were still nursing, so I used the last fifteen minutes as social time for parents to meet each other and chat and relax with their babies.
After every storytime, at least one parent would ask me to recommend the “best'' kind of music for their baby to listen to.
I think I surprised them when I’d tell them that it didn’t have to be “baby music” or even classical music.
Whatever music makes YOU happy, Mama Bear.
Whatever you can dance and bounce and sway to. Anything you sing or move to. Anything that brings you joy.
Share THAT with your baby. That’s the best baby music.
If it’s Van Halen - GREAT. If it’s Prince, AWESOME. Garth Brooks? FINE. Taylor Swift? SURE.
EVEN SOME HEAVY METAL. Not too loud, and make it melodic. The point was to have fun and engage the baby.
The Mozart Effect doesn’t actually have to be Mozart. Almost any musical engagement will enrich a baby’s learning environment and prime their brain for language, for story, and for books.
The first sounds a baby hears while in utero are the rhythms of their mother’s hearts and the lyrics of their mother’s voice. Babies are primed for music.
This is how our ears develop and how we humans learn to talk. And eventually, to read, and to write.
It all starts with the music of our mother.
So, while my kids are out of school, I am going to try and get a fully roughed out draft of Library Confidential done, and I’m going to attempt to start a screenplay.
I know it sounds crazy, and I have to wonder if I’m distracting myself with the idea of screenwriting as a way to not write my book - but I don’t think so. It keeps tugging at me. Even though I’m at a HUGE disadvantage in so many ways.
I know exactly one person who works in TV and film. And, I don’t live in Los Angeles.
But I guess it doesn’t really matter. I feel obligated by my curiosity to explore this idea.
So, I’m learning. I’ve been reading screenplays. I’ve made it through things I’ve seen multiple times: Raising Arizona, Shawshank Redemption, Titanic, a couple of episodes of The Office. I have a lot more I want to read. And watch. But it takes time.
I’m also trying out some screenwriting software to decide which one to buy. The expensive “industry standard” that seems buggy according to some, or the cheaper one with a better interface that will do the trick? I don’t mind experimenting, but I hate wasting money if it can be helped.
From Twitter and reading articles, I’m learning about pitching, development, writer's rooms, and agents. I beginning to have a very rough idea of the general shape of things and maybe how I need to move forward.
I’ve downloaded a couple of screenwriting books which are helpful and enlightening, but of course one of them states explicitly:
NOBODY WANTS TO BUY OR SEE YOUR LIFE STORY.
Like literally, it says that right in the book. IN CAPS, EVEN.
Great. Does a memoir about a metalhead librarian count?
A writing blog that I read regularly also admonished writers who wanted to sell books to stop thinking that writing a book about their grandfather's war letters and life story will be interesting to people or financially lucrative for the writer.
Welp, shoot. Guilty as charged there too with the Papa Project.
Both of those tidbits discouraged me for about ten minutes. Not for long.
I went back and actually re-read my first book, Adventures of a Metalhead Librarian. It was a bit funnier than I remember. The word “butthole” always makes me giggle. There are a few things I’d love to change. Typos that bug me.
But I’m also really proud of it. I LABORED HARD for that book. Harder than I labored for my daughter and she was a doozy.
I mean, who says I couldn’t write a comedic take on AMHL, or write a screenplay about the early Mafia in Ohio? I’ve already done the research, and have multiple characters and storylines. I jotted down about six different ideas for movies or TV shows based on the material I already have.
But I’m not sure how to proceed with any of it quite yet.
I need to study. To understand.
I think I’m going to splurge and sign up for MasterClass so I can “Learn the craft of screenwriting from Aaron Sorkin” which really does sound fabulous. Anything that will help “flip the switch” in my brain.
I also came across a twelve-week course called “Entertainment Business School” - and I actually think it would be a perfect way to fill in my big knowledge gaps.
It covers just about everything I’d want to learn about how to develop my writing projects and market them, finding an agent, how the business works, budgets, development and production.
Of course, it’s four times the cost of MasterClass and I’m having trouble justifying the expense.
Even though I just finished editing a big client project and have that cash in the bank - I hate blowing my wad and feeling broke again. The only thing I miss about my library job is the paycheck.
But now, at least, I’ve got the time to do the work. And summertime is primetime for me.
And the truth of it is - Birthing books is HARD. Birthing screenplays is HARD. Birthing babies is HARD.
Birthing the next version of yourself is HARD.
The only thing to do is to breathe and push. There is no C-section option here.
So, for Mother’s Day, hub and I made a quick plan to go grab a big taco buffet and take it over to my mom’s for lunch on Sunday. I’ll make a pie and some fresh iced tea and we’ll all feast like Queens.
I’ve never wanted anything fancy for Mother’s Day, no jewelry or gifts. Not necessary. Not my style.
Tacos are my style.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 44, my kids were 6 and 8 years old and the most agonizingly unbearable thought to me was that they would be left motherless at such a young age.
I was not afraid of dying. I was afraid for my children. It fucking tore me up. It’s brutal enough that they had to watch me go through chemo and radiation and surgeries. They saw me suffer in ways that children really shouldn’t have to see their mother suffer, and I’ll regret forever that it was part of their childhoods.
But those children saved me, too. In so many ways that they’ll never know. Although they do know, because I tell them.
My sweet babies are 12 and 14 now.
THEY ARE THE GIFT.
I thank my kids all the time for choosing me to be their mom. I tell them that we’ve known each other for multiple lifetimes and our love is eternal and immutable across all time and space. They are used to my mushy woo-woo talk.
I thank my husband for giving me this life, those sweet babies, and for the support to write my stories and labor at the things I love.
I thank my mom for loving me the way she did. I was an only child and I got it ALL from her, every bit of her love. I’m glad I still have her around. I know how much she loves me, and those grandkids.
Every day with them all is a gift.
Living long enough to meet a couple of my own grandchildren would be a HUGE gift.
God, please. Let it be so.
I don’t know if I’ll ever feel worthy of it all, but I do feel hugely blessed as we head into this Mother’s Day weekend.
I hope you’re able to relax, nurture, and create. May the work come easy for you, the laboring, not fraught.
And maybe eat a delicious taco feast with the people you love.
Because love is The Gift. Tacos are just the bonus.
Until next time, my friends. Thank you for reading.
Comments, questions? Drop them here, or email me at email@example.com.