Friday, October 11, 2013

How Does She Do It? Embracing Chaos

To paraphrase radio host and viral blogger Matt Walsh, being a mother is hard work. So it is for moms who are the primary full-time carers of their kids, as well as for those who are juggling paid work, full-time or part-time, in or out of the home, with the demands of raising happy and healthy kids. 

So how does the modern mom do it? The answer is obviously: a hundred million different ways. To get a taste of some of those ways, and to give my own voice a break, I asked a few friends a simple question: how do you manage to work and also care for your kids, both in a technical sense (how the time is divided up), and an emotional one?

My first taker is the talented and eloquent Clare Jacob, lawyer-turned-novelist and mom to three. In the piece below, she explains how her career evolved, and the challenges of working around her children's schedules. Thank you, Clare.

Embracing Chaos

When I started having children I was a lawyer.  There were not many women where I worked, and no new mother had taken more than three months off.  There was a kind of bravado about how quickly the women came back to the job, how little the arrival of a baby had changed them and how seamlessly they picked up their careers again.  Even before my son was born I guessed I wouldn’t be like this. Six months, I said I needed, not because it corresponded with a planned and managed retreat from motherhood but because that was the longest time I thought could get away with.  

When my son arrived and demanded constant feeding at my breast I was all too ready to give in.  His affection and will prevailed over my ill-defended proposal.  How I remember the bitter-sweetness of those first nine months, the sense of being, at last, really needed, but also of being adrift from the world that had filled my days. It was like being cast up on a desert island with no company but a very friendly animal. I was half infantilized myself; in the evenings my husband cut my meat so I could eat one-handed over the baby’s head. 

But by the time I did go back to work my son had become all too human, full of sounds and games, and leaving him felt like an act of violence to us both.   I was back in court but now I couldn’t prepare my cases at home in the evening or early mornings; I’d be sucked back into the feeding and cuddling. The next day I staggered through work only half present, worrying because my child refused the bottle and seemed so miserable at my departure.

By this time I’d acquired a nanny and it seemed natural to have more children now I was accustomed to chaos, to dashing in and out of work and motherhood,  to finding all barriers broken down.  So I had another child almost straight after going back to work, and then, very soon, another. ‘You are like a machine!” a friend said, but I felt more like an overflowing pot of porridge. And a new fear ate away at me: that I wasn’t doing anything well. There was too much crying. The first nanny said she was jealous because my son loved me more than her.  She couldn’t cope with three kids on a bus. Nor could her successor. It all seemed strained and wrong.

At the same time something else was growing inside me: a realization that there was something more that I wanted to create, something I could do without leaving the house, without the tears and panic when I was stuck at court and no one was at the nursery at pickup time. I wanted to write.   

It took some years before I made the transition from lawyer to writer, and my children, now old enough to have opinions, were initially skeptical.  These days they ask me how many words I write in a day and then use their arithmetic to tell me that I should on their reckoning have finished three books in the time it’s taken  to do one.  They fail to factor in two key things: 1) how much I chuck away and 2) how long the school vacations are which stop me writing altogether.  My problem now is not that I arrive at court with sick on my collar but that I’m abandoning a half-done scene to bicycle to school or I’m putting aside a book just as I reach its crisis because it’s holiday time again.  

This is the rub. You break your link to the work and then can’t find it again. You go back, you spot weaknesses but lack the momentum to make the right change and so your confidence ebbs. You lose your will and your focus. But not always.  Sometimes my children's words, stories and characters feed the imagination. After all, what a waste it would be to confound ourselves with love and chaos and not to make it our own.  

Clare Jacob, criminal lawyer turned writer, reveals the pleasures and disasters of law and family in her novel  Ophelia in Pieces.

[How do YOU do it? Be in touch, I'd love to hear your story of balancing family, work, and life.]

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