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Mother Jekyll, Mother Hyde

tantrum-insideThis is one of the very first essays I ever got published. It appeared on a now long gone website called Myria and I wrote it when my son was about two-and-a-half (he’s now 16). I was thinking about it because teaching parenting classes always makes me think about parenting guilt and how many of us suffer oh so much from it. The parents who come and see me are usually struggling with a lot of guilt — it’s part of what brings them in. And I want them to know that parenting really is hard and that I have enormous respect for their efforts. I’ve been there before, I’ll be there again. Parenting is not for sissies.

The worst thing about being a mother is confronting my flaws daily if not hourly. Since my son’s birth the lack of sleep, daily self-sacrifice and intensity of my mothering role have conspired to make me realize what a nasty person I can be. I can be selfish, impatient, whiny, sarcastic, lazy, manipulative, grouchy, unfair, and self-pitying–and that was just last Tuesday. I let my bad moods get away with me. I make decisions rashly. I blow off vacuuming to watch Oprah.

Back when I was a perfect mother (which was during my pregnancy), I never imagined I would make the same glaring mistakes that other mothers of my observation seemed to make. I knew this wouldn’t happen to me because I was so fabulous with other people’s children and besides, I read all the right books.

Of course reading child development books in theory and experiencing child development in action are two entirely different things. And hanging out with other people’s kids is nothing like locking horns with my own beloved child. Now I understand why parents give in to whining, behave inconsistently, and lose their tempers in public places because now I am one of those parents.

Sometimes I am flattened by the intensity of my anger. I have locked myself in the bathroom to cry while my son pounds screaming on the door because I knew that if I stayed out there in the fray that I would lash out physically. My husband comforts me by saying that knowing when to walk away from a situation when I’m losing control is no small feat, but I am humbled by the realization that I can now sympathize with parents who hit first and talk later. I had no idea the fury of which I am capable until I became the mother of a toddler.

I am also astonished by my selfishness. I am not nearly as altruistic as I imagined myself to be. While there are days I sail through happy to be at my child’s service, there are other mornings I wake up resentful for the lost sleep from the night before and spend the morning struggling to overcome my exasperation. It takes super-human effort to stop scowling even though I know that our good day depends on it.

But why continue to list these dirty little mommy-secrets. If you’re a parent reading this, chances are you know what I’m talking about.

Yet, even though our hideous Ms. Hyde selves are something that every last one of us confronts on a regular basis, we don’t do much talking about it. Instead we get together and talk about all those other hideous mommies; those ones who do things that we say we don’t do. That mommy over there? I hear she screamed at her daughter the other day when she dropped the jar of pickles. The one sitting by the sandbox? I heard she parks her kid in front of Teletubbies so she can get another half-hour of sleep. Tsk tsk tsk. We shove our guilty-selves aside, afraid that the minute we share our secrets, the person sitting next to us will recoil in horror.

Being the bad mommy, that’s our secret shame.

Last week my own Ms. Hyde made a public appearance. In fact, she inspired a perfect stranger to come up to me and criticize my mothering.

After a long, trying morning, my husband and I decided to go out for lunch. We figured that getting away from our claustrophobic house might help us all break out of our gnawing bad moods. Then just ten minutes into lunch, my 2 year-old son began throwing one of those huge, giant fits where any amount of intervention will only make things worse. Leaving my husband inside the market to pay for our food, I took my son to the outside seating and let him scream while I tried to figure out what to do next. The truth is, I wanted to pound him, but my extensive child-development training helped me to see that this would be inappropriate. So instead I just stood there glaring at my son, thinking evil thoughts, and wishing that someone (my husband maybe) would come save us.

The woman sitting at a picnic bench next to us started shaking her head.

“Poor thing,” she said mournfully. “What’s wrong with the little guy?”

“He threw his bagel in the trash and now he wants it back.” I answered, summing up a long, ugly story.

“Awww,” she came and squatted down next to my howling, writhing son. “You should buy the poor baby another one. It’s cruel to ruin this lovely Sunday for him.”

I was livid. There were a million reasons why I wasn’t buying my son another bagel (a choice, by the way, that we had offered and that he had rejected before the screaming began in earnest) and I didn’t want to have to explain myself to a stranger. Besides, I was embarrassed by the way my son was behaving and by the way I was (not) handling it, and I just wanted her to go away.

“I don’t need your help!” I barked. But my son — glancing at the stranger — started wailing, “Want ‘nother bagel! Want ‘nother bagel!”

“You see,” she said. “Poor baby wants another bagel.”

“Well he’s not getting one!” I said, provoking my son to a higher octave.

The woman shook her head again and then stationed herself back on the bench to keep an eye on me. I could tell she had her hand on her cell phone ready to dial 911 if I made any sudden moves toward my son.

Eventually my husband came out, we dragged our flailing child to the car, strapped him screaming into his car seat, and drove away. The whole way home I sobbed. I was furious at myself for being such a horrible mommy and at my son for being such a horrible kid, and at my husband for taking so long to pay for our stupid bagels. Most of all, I was horrified by the public shame that comes with an unplanned airing of my Ms. Hyde-self.

Mothering is not always the gilt-edged, lyrical, Hallmark card we’re promised. Sometimes it’s a nasty mirror showing us how truly horrid we can be. Sometimes it’s a glimpse into madness, a peek into an abyss of insecurity, a long cry for just one more hour of sleep. But most of the time it’s happy chaos with occasional humiliating confrontations with our petty imperfections. We all know this and we all get enough criticism from our in-laws, acquaintances, and perfect strangers; don’t you think we should be a little nicer to each other? Do me a favor, would you? Call your best mothering friend up and tell her one of your dirty little secrets. Tell her that sometimes you let your kids eat ice cream cones for breakfast because you’re sick of washing dishes, or that you put on Disney videos so you can surf the Web in peace, or that there are times when you’ve contemplated running away from home. She’ll be relieved; she’s got some dirty little secrets, too.


Step One: Make the Leap

jumpingfish-insideWhen I was eighteen I dropped out of  Ohio State and spent the next few years working and trying to get my head on straight. While I was in school I skipped a lot of classes, skipped a lot of homework and generally wasted my money by sleeping through my 9am classes. When I went back to school at Portland State University I was super committed and ratcheted my GPA up by actually showing up to class and doing my homework.

I was very proud of myself.

Towards the end of my junior year I saw a notice in the school paper that the new University Studies program was looking for Peer Mentors, which was a scholarship position for juniors and seniors. Portland State was radically changing their curriculum to be more integrated and cross-discipline and the Peer Mentors would work one-on-one with professors to help incoming students in the Freshman Inquiry classes. To qualify, we had to have a certain GPA, get references from professors and offer a writing sample.

I wanted to apply but I was nervous. Even though my grades were much improved I still felt like the college slacker I’d once been and I was sure they’d see right through me. But what the heck, I thought, it won’t cost me anything but time to apply. I took a leap of faith and I got the position.

Twenty-one of us (plus an alternate) met that first day at orientation and I was positively gleeful. I’d finally proved that I had what it took to be a successful college student! I’d overcome my lackluster college (and high school) career where my bad attitude was more important to me than turning papers in on time to arrive here, in a scholarship position that would look great on my curriculum vitae. I felt like a big shot.

It was only later that I found out that exactly 22 people applied to be Peer Mentors, which meant that every single person who bothered to fill out the application got the job.

At first I was grouchy about this. I wanted to know I was a Peer Mentor because I’d beat out a bunch of other over-achievers. I wanted to believe that I’d been the best woman for the job and not just the default applicant.

But then I got to thinking. I wondered how many people were more qualified but talked themselves out of applying. Maybe the gauntlet we had to run was applying anyway — in spite of the fear and insecurity.

That made me think about how many other opportunities I’d probably missed out on by thinking there were surely a bunch of other people who had a better shot than I did. How many other things could I have done just by being brave enough to show up?

With this in mind, I started sending my writing work out. I got rejections, sure,  but I also got a few acceptances. (My first published piece was a poem that showed up in an obscure literary magazine published by Eastern Washington University. I was thrilled. So was my mom.) Then a few more and then a few more. And so on and so on.

This is my message to you: If there’s something that you want to accomplish but you’re scared to try, recognize that the fear is your biggest hurdle. That fear will stop a whole bunch of other people and narrow your playing field but you shouldn’t let it stop you. In fact, that fear is your friend because it’s going to winnow down the competition and make more room for you to do the thing you dream of doing.

What the heck, right? Just show up. Who knows what might happen?

Query Tips

envelopes-insideI’m learning about queries from getting so many. When I’m back to freelancing, hopefully I can remember all of this. Want to know what I’ve learned? Ok, here you are:

–When those write advice columns tell you that you should read the magazine/web site before querying, they’re right. I get a lot of queries that clearly come from people who are shooting in the dark. Some of them are proud of this: “I’ve never read your magazine or other pregnancy magazines but I’ve been pregnant and think I have an interesting take on the subject.” Ummm, doubt it.

–Be specific when you query. I get pitches that are way too broad. I don’t mind it when I get this from a writer that I know and whose work I know. If they send me something that says, “Morning sickness, what do you think?” We can go back and forth and whittle it down to, say, “Morning Sick at Work” with tips for handling it. (This is a good idea actually, someone pitch it to me!) But if it’s from a writer I don’t know, I’m not really going to feel motivated to go to all the trouble working it out with them because they may not have the chops to do a good job on it. Now it’s fun to figure out topics with writers I know so go ahead and give me a great specific query and once you’ve done a really impressive job with that one, we can play around with your other article ideas. Also, if you send me a wonderful specific query that I’ve already assigned and you have good clips, it’s very likely that I’ll end up giving you another idea along the same lines. Basically I want to work with you but only if you show me that you want to work with me, too.

–Don’t waste your first paragraph. I don’t need to know your experience right up front; I want to know what you’re trying to sell me. And sell it, dangit, don’t just vaguely toss it up there and hope I have the imagination to see what a great idea it is. Again those writing books are right: Statistics are not nearly as compelling as an interesting, specific hook. I’d rather hear, “For the first three months of my pregnancy, I was throwing up in my office trash can and spraying room deoderizer because I didn’t want my boss to know I was pregnant!” than, “Did you know that most women experience morning sickness and since most women work, that must be really hard!” C’mon, you can see the difference, right?

–Your pregnancy history doesn’t mean that much to me. A lot of people finish their query with something like, “And I think I would be a good fit because I am pregnant now or was pregnant once.” I really don’t care. If you’re a good writer, it doesn’t matter whether or not you’ve been pregnant.

–Read the submission guidelines carefully. We don’t accept personal essays for the site no matter how compelling your story is.

–Watch your bias. I’ve had people rail against doctors or give me a conspiring wink about epidurals in their query. That just convinces me that you can’t see both sides of a story. I may personally be a pretty crunchy-granola person, but as an editor, my goal is to meet the information needs of our audience, many of whom have viewpoints entirely different from my own. Besides, you don’t know me. For all you know (well not really you, dearest blog readers), I could be a gung-ho, pro-epidural, homebirth sucks person. By the way, I have gotten some queries that would have insulted me back when I was knee-deep in my infertility. So watch it, folks.

–Include clips!!!! People don’t include their clips. I personally dislike attached clips because it clutters up my computer but I won’t hold it against you if you send them. I’d rather people go make a homepage or something with a link in their letter. If you don’t have professional clips, include something anyway. I know we’re a fairly low-paying market and although we have some hard-core writing professionals writing for us, we have a lot of newbies, too. I’m happy to hire newbies because I was one myself. If you’re a newbie without clips, just include something that proves you can string words together decently, ‘kay?

–Don’t assume your god’s gift to me. Confidence is fine but don’t act like you’re doing me a favor by pitching to me. Aggressiveness is a turn-off especially when you’ve never been published anywhere but your church newsletter.

–Don’t tell me that you would prefer that I came up with your article ideas for you. I’ve had several people write and say, “I prefer to work on assignment so why don’t you send me some article topics.” Listen, once we’ve worked together and found out that we’re a good fit, assignments are entirely possible even probable but if I’ve never even heard of you, I want you to prove yourself.

–Proofread your query! If you can’t spell or write a grammatically correct sentence in your query letter, I’m not going to hire you to write for me.

Whew! Thanks for letting me get that off my chest!!!

How cool is this?!?

index2I got a note from one of my Brain, Child editors today. She said an editor of a magazine in the Netherlands was interested in reprinting my “You’re Not the Boss of Me” article! I went and looked up the magazine and saw it mentioned as “an influential Dutch alternative newsmagazine” and “the Dutch incarnation of the Utne Reader.” I am so psyched!

I knew that Brain, Child was an excellent clip to have because they have a great rep in the publishing world so I was thrilled about getting them on my resume. Now if this deal goes through I can refer to myself as “an internationally published author.” Not that I would, of course. I mean, not out loud. Just to myself. On bad days I’ll go look into the mirror and whisper cinematically, “Chin up, Dawn, you’re an internationally published author!”

That is, if they take it. If they don’t, I’ll resort to saying, “Don’t let it get you down, Dawn, remember you were very nearly an internationally published author!” See, I’ll take the strokes where I can get ’em.

p.s. This is the magazine. I don’t read Dutch but it looks kinda nifty, eh?

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