Sunday, April 28, 2013

Identity Theft

Regardless of what you may read in the newspapers, the term “identity theft” isn’t really new; most moms have known about it forever. What woman, upon giving birth, hasn’t wondered what has become of her former identity or marveled at the little scoundrel who seems to have lifted it? Overnight, our clothes are different (sweats and elastic waistbands), our hair is different (lucky to be washed let alone blown-dry), and even our name has changed. All of a sudden we’re not known as Kathy or Sue or Evelyn. It’s “Mom” or “Mommy” from now on (possibly, even to your husbands!). Our previous selves have been stolen, apparently never to return.
            The abrupt change in identity that arrives with motherhood is common knowledge. But what “identity theft” experts may not realize, is it gets even more complex as time goes on, especially if you’re the mother of three, four or more kids, not just one baby. For instance, when I attend Back to School Night each year, I’m not sure whether I’m going as the mother of my outspoken boy, the shy one, or the sly one. The truth is, I’m the mother of three very disparate personalities and sometimes this is baffling. When a teacher approaches, I don’t know if I should apologize for one child’s late assignments or glow because of the other’s leadership skills. (If the three have shared the same teacher, I’m verging on multiple personality disorder. Just call me Sybil.)
            For me, the identity problem is compounded by the fact that I’ve chosen to keep my maiden name for professional use. But my married name is the one I employ in Mommyland, so invariably when the two paths cross, no one can figure me out. Then there are those women who’ve decided for whatever reason to hyphenate their names. I like the theory behind this practice, but you have to admit it’s awkward when a child’s three-year-old friend attempts, “Can I have a cookie, Mrs. Wallington-Wasserstein?” Matters are complicated even further for working moms, stay-at-home moms, and moms who work at home. Who are we, really?
            But there’s a flip side to this identity dilemma (isn’t there always?) A friend of mine who recently moved and quit her job to stay at home, has found establishing a new identify as a mother to be extremely liberating. No one in her new town knows she was a former school administrator, so she happily goes to PTO meetings, school parties, to fundraisers and Cub Scout meetings, dressed down and sporting her new identity. She’s found a heady freedom in simply being known as “Michael’s Mom.”
            Even though we sometimes long for our non-mom pasts, and feel tempted to go out dressed incognito in shades and a trench coat (hoping we won’t be recognized as the mother of the boy who threw apples at the school window or as the mom of the girl who chewed gum during the spring concert) our motherhood is what really allows us to explore who we are.
 Finding your true identity within motherhood—trying not to cloak or escape it—is the key to maternal self-discovery. Yes, we’re the innocent victims of a profound and unparalleled identity theft, but we’re also the proud recipients of a new and glorious self, one defined and expanded by the best name on earth: Mother!

It’s coming soon…Happy Mother’s Day!
Excerpted from All About Motherhood: “A Mom for All Seasons" and Other Essays available here. Copyright Kathryn E. Livingston 2011.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Out On a Limb

Not even consciously thinking about the fact that “Earth Day” is upon us, I looked out my window yesterday and felt an inexplicable urge to jump my neighbor’s fence and bury myself in the glorious magnolia petals that were piling up beneath her tree. If I were a kid, that’s exactly what I’d do. But, as of woman of a “certain age,” and not knowing my neighbor all that intimately, I decided to stay in my own backyard. Nevertheless, my overwhelming desire to be smothered in magnolia blossoms (not literally smothered, of course) got me thinking about how kids really “get” trees. And sometimes, grown-ups just don’t.
            What is it about children and trees? As a child, I could think of nothing more exciting or better than a tree house. For a time, the kids next door had one in a huge old maple tree behind my garage. Climbing up there was the scariest and most magical experience. It felt incredibly dangerous (though it wasn’t all that high), yet once on the platform between the tree’s thick branches we could see for miles (or so it seemed).
           For years, as a child, I spent hours gazing at trees. From my prone position on the grassy knoll in front of my house I stared up into the branches of three tall, ancient maples for hours, imagining fairies and elves in the shapes of the leaves. I spent hours under the dogwoods in the back of the property, sweeping the dirt floors of my imaginary “house.” We hid under the prickly branches of junipers, and spent long afternoons in the fall raking leaves just so we could jump in them.
            Even though kids today are hooked into computers, cell phones and iPod’s most of the time, I think they still understand the majesty and magic of trees. My youngest son (who is no longer a youngster) could always be found climbing trees (mulberries were his favorite). If I couldn’t find him, I’d just look up, and there he’d be.
            I guess I’m just a tree hugger from way back. In fact, I once got into a bit of a tiff with my neighbor across the street; for some inexplicable reason the man saw fit to chop down a tall pine that was home to my favorite mockingbirds. Never mind that they woke me up every morning at 4 a.m. with their chatter; the day that tree came down was a sad one for me (and no doubt, for them).
 So, since it’s “Earth Day,” which really should be every day on this planet, here’s to trees!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Love of My Life

I fell in love with words when I was four years old. I clearly remember hunkering down on the living room rug with a sheet of my father’s tracing paper. I placed the paper over the words in a Little Golden Books story, and began to trace. I knew right then and there that I wanted to be a writer. My parents thought I was just being “cute.” Little did they know.
            I wrote my first “book” with a friend when I was in fourth grade; it was called “The Adventures of Katie and Lonna Tile,” an illustrated (and much shorter) takeoff on the Nancy Drew mysteries to which we were addicted at the time. Later, I produced a community newspaper called “The Gillespie Street News” on my father’s typewriter (above). I believe I sent out all of two issues. But from there I moved on to writing plays for my grade school, and in junior high, high school and college I took journalism and creative writing, and always wrote for the school newspapers. I went from there to being a newspaper reporter, then a magazine editor, and last—but not least—a freelance writer. Since the age of four, I have never stopped writing (my voluminous journals are yet further proof).
            I don’t usually write about writing, because, well, writing is what I do, it’s not what I write about. But reading the work of a particularly gifted writer recently (who is struggling to find a publisher for her book) I realized how brave writers really are. As a writer, if you don’t spill your guts (but not too many guts) and pour your heart out, people will know. There’s no hiding in words. Either you give the reader everything (but not too much), or you fail.
 The reader knows when you’re holding back, when you’re lying (or, if they don’t know right away, they will find out from Oprah later), when you’re not being honest with him/her or yourself. Not to pat myself on the back (although a little patting will be in order when my memoir comes out soon), but writers really have to be willing to take chances. I suppose heading for the typewriter every morning (or these days, the computer), and staring at the blank page doesn’t seem as scary as say, piloting a plane or heart surgery, but indeed it can be frightening. Just to prove my point, look at the number of people who say they want to be writers, but never write.
            Another strange thing about writers: we live our lives according to deadlines. “Dead” is a word I don’t especially like, and yet it’s constantly on my mind. It doesn’t do the reader or the writer, and certainly not the editor, much good if a writer doesn’t meet his or her deadlines. In fact, missing the deadline as a constant habit is a good way to end a writing career.
            That said there is nothing else I would rather do (nor, I might add, is there much else I am capable of doing after all these years). So please bear with me, dear readers, as I continue this life-long and very public romance.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

In Full Bloom

At this time of year, many of us are awaiting the true arrival of spring. Yes, I know the calendar has proclaimed it has already arrived, but in my book spring is not really here until my pear trees bloom.
            At a yoga class last week, one of my favorite teachers was talking about how we are always striving, reaching for, wanting something to be here that’s waiting in the future. But we can’t “make” most things happen; some things come in their own good time. Nature is a perfect reminder of the fact that a seed needs time to grow.
            Same with the seeds we’ve planted in our lives. We may want to get that book contract today (ahem!), get that degree, get that job interview over with, get that raise, or find that perfect soul mate, but maybe the time just isn’t ripe yet. I remember, as a child (a rather naughty child at times) plucking the heads of the peony flowers from my mother’s garden long before they were ready to bloom. I’d snap off the top of a flower and begin peeling it apart, only to realize that now it would never blossom. Needless to say my mom swiftly (though kindly) put an end to this practice!
            My kids did the same sort of thing in my vegetable garden. I recall chasing after my toddlers, who seemed to think that tiny green tomatoes were just the ticket (while some folks like fried green tomatoes, I was awaiting some fat, juicy red ones). I’d have to keep a close eye on the garden at all times (and on the kids, of course) if I wanted my tomatoes to make it to the end of the growing season.
            My newly (if modestly) renovated kitchen is another example. For years, I’ve lamented the sorry state of my deteriorating kitchen cabinets, counter, and floor. But with three kids to put through college, a kitchen rehab was not in the cards. Nor would it have been wise, as my three rambunctious boys often climbed on the counters, spilled their milk, knocked over chairs, scratched or marked the floors with their cleats or sneakers…you get the picture. But now that they’re all grown we’ve finally managed to make some improvements. It was a long time coming…but the time was just not right before.
            So…even though April can be a challenging month (it can also be a beautiful month) and it can be difficult to wait for both real and metaphorical flowers to bloom in our lives, it’s good to remind ourselves that life isn’t about the waiting, it’s about the living. “Don’t wait for life to happen—life is happening now,” a friend once admonished me. And she was so right.