From the sweet and touching to the funny and unforgettable, a myriad of moms submitted their sentiments about this journey called motherhood for our first ever reader essay contest. Although we enjoyed reading each and every one of your essays, these are the stories we couldn’t wait to share.
“And what do you hope to get out of this class?” the woman asks me. She has already identified herself as Cathy and is a master seamstress, though I won’t absorb these details until later. After several nights of broken sleep, punctuated by a wailing 5-month-old baby battling his first ear infection, I’m too tired to remember much of anything.
I fumble through an answer, but the truth is that I don’t know exactly why I’m there, nor do I even care if I learn a single stitch. I am taking cover from the unending demands of my baby and his older brother, a preschooler, and my new job as a stay-at-home mom, a gig that has left me feeling both exhausted and inept.
I’d spotted the sewing shop while out hunting for a baby gift, and the sign—a giant pink flower—caught my eye. The cheery oasis with turquoise walls lined with bolts of fabrics bursting with color and pattern were so different from my dark mood—I had to go in.
I was dressed in what had become my uniform: black boot-cut yoga pants with a small bleach stain on the thigh and a black cotton T-shirt. (There were two benefits to this outfit: It required no dry cleaning and it appropriately camouflaged my postbaby flab.) My brown hair, in need of a dye job, was pulled back in a ponytail. I’d skipped makeup again.
I stepped into the shop. A woman greeted me and asked if she could help me pick out some fabric or a pattern. “You could,” I said, “but I wouldn’t have the slightest idea what to do with them.”
“We have sewing classes,” she offered, studying my preschool-aged son, who was rearranging a display of buttons, and the baby affixed to my chest in a sling. “It might be nice to get away,” she added. She slid a flyer into my hands.
It was the best invitation I’d had in awhile, and it seemed like a legitimate excuse to hire a babysitter. I hadn’t used one since quitting my job in PR three months earlier, after the birth of my second baby. Hiring a babysitter felt like cheating. Wasn’t this my job now? Plus, “babysitter” was not a line item in our tight budget. I hadn’t planned on quitting my job. We needed the money. But the reality of working and balancing two kids, coupled with an often absent husband who worked 90 hours a week as a medical resident forced me to make a choice. Our family was running on fumes. My husband’s job had the higher earning potential. It made sense for me to be the one to step back. “It’s the best thing for my family,” I said to my boss, when I gave him my resignation eight weeks after coming back from maternity leave.
I attacked the job of full-time parent with the same gusto with which I’d approached my career—to-do lists and plans in hand. I surrendered my home office, turning it into a playroom. I was going to knock this motherhood thing out of the park.
As the weeks turned into months, my enthusiasm faded quickly. The days fell away, morphing into endless stretches of laundry, errands and the ceaseless demands of small people. (Was it Tuesday? Wednesday? Did it really matter?) Unlike at the office, where I could at least drink my coffee in peace, there was no time to recharge at home. The job was 24/7, as I was often reminded in the middle of the night by a crying baby or a preschooler haunted by a bad dream. According to every silver-haired woman in the grocery store, this was a time I was going to miss later. I was wondering if I would survive long enough to miss it later.
So though I didn’t know the first thing about sewing, I looked at the class flyer with interest, then convinced my similarly frazzled stay-at-home mom neighbor to join me. We enrolled in a private lesson once a week—three hours of quiet bliss in a place that looked like the first days of spring.
Cathy guided us through stitches and patterns, teaching us how to do a zigzag and a French seam. I loved the hum of the machine, the reassuring way that it responded logically to my commands. I gave it a direction, and it followed. It did not need to be negotiated with, pleaded with or placated. It just was. I managed to shower for class. I wore a colored shirt. I put on makeup again.
As we cut and stitched, Cathy gave us advice. Her own four kids were nearly grown and we asked her what it was like raising them. Would she do anything differently?
“You’ll make mistakes, that’s a guarantee,” she said. “You’ll think later that you should have done this differently, or that. But all you can do is the best that you can, in the moment … and carve out some time for yourself.”
Time for myself. It had come to feel indulgent in my post-office life, but here was a veteran, telling me it was OK. Cathy came to sewing, like I did, searching for a reprieve. She said she remembered one particular day when her husband got home from work, and she told him she was leaving. “Will you be back?” he asked. The answer was yes, but for a split second she wasn’t sure. I told Cathy about the time when my own well-meaning husband had come home after a long call shift at the hospital, when I’d been alone with the kids for the better part of three days, and haplessly left a dirty plate sitting on the counter. I tossed it at his head. (I missed.)
But time at the sewing shop made me feel like myself again. The class fee and the babysitter were a small price to pay for my sanity, though my hobby stretched our measly budget to the limit. And learning how to do something with my hands other than change diapers gave me a new sense of purpose. I made a pillow and cloth napkins and an apron. But the things I made didn’t matter as much as the fact that I was finishing them. Like the project work I used to do in PR, these things had a beginning and an end. And in that, there was satisfaction—a certain kind that I had trouble finding at home in the cyclical nature of running a household. At home, things are never finished.
When I returned to my family after class, my patience was restored, my tone with the boys—and my husband—more gentle. I no longer had the urge to fling dinnerware. And being a good mom, I realized, did not mean surrendering all of myself, even though the job of mothering would take all of me, if I let it.
Now, three years and two children later, I’ve reclaimed some space. The unused dining room is now a home office, separate from the play room, where I write and my sewing machine resides. And every week, I carve out chunks of time for myself. If you live in my house, these chunks of time are obvious—the dishes are piled high in the sink, and the house is a wreck. But I’ve written that day, or made something with my hands, or have read a book, checking my guilt at the door. Having young children is not a life that is given to balance—so it must be boldly taken, at the expense of the to-do list.
My grandma, like one of those silver-haired women in the grocery store, reminds me that I’m lucky to even have the choice to stay home, with so many families struggling in this uncertain economy. But the truth is that staying home, for now, chose me. It was the call of the family I committed to raising, and yes, for now, it is best. Five years from now? Ten? Who knows? All choices entail compromises.
But this choice has also given me unexpected gifts. I know now that perfection, at any job, is not only impossible—but that striving for it can be unhealthy. Had I never been pushed to the limit as a stay-at-home mom, this might have never happened in my “other” career. I often think of Cathy’s advice—to do the best I can, in the moment. By the end of my session in Sewing 101, my projects were not perfect, either—the stitches a little awkward, the mark of a novice. But the pieces stayed together, and I had done my best. There was beauty in that, and it was enough.
Christy Rippel lives and writes in Roanoke, Virginia, where she works from the home she shares with her husband and four children. She prefers the term domestic goddess to stay-at-home mom, and when she isn’t buried in a laundry pile or racing to meet a deadline, she still manages to power up the sewing machine. You can read more of her writing at christyrippel.com.