Views from the Home Office Window
When I was close to completing this book, I found myself in the office of a colleague engaging in what I call working-mother talk. The mother of two very young children, she spoke about how in spite of loving her profession, she is acutely aware of every hour she spends apart from them. How on the days when her oldest child has tantrums from the time she walks in the door until just before bed, she wonders if being away from her children is worth the small fortune it costs in child care. How she struggles with ways to lessen her work pressures while remaining productive at the office and being there for her children.
As I listened to her wrestle aloud with these universal working mother quandaries, memories of my own struggles came rushing back. Her serious tone of voice, her knitted brow, her tired eyes were so familiar. It was as if I were looking at myself 10 years ago. As we talked, I realized I was bearing witness to motherhood at work, because even though she was miles from her children, there wasn’t a moment in her day that being a mother wasn’t at the forefront of her consciousness.
I’ve come to understand that mothering isn’t only found in diaper changing, bath giving, meal preparing, book reading and open armed hugging but equally present when a woman’s children are in the front of her mind. My colleague’s face said it all: hers was the face of the behind-the-scenes work of mothering — the human face of quality control — and watching her as she expressed her concerns over these big questions struck me as observing her in the act of mothering.
Our exchange also clarified why I was so determined to put together this collection of pieces. I realized that all of the grappling, the musing, the pondering and the struggles that went into the individual columns making up this collection was a form of mothering of my own. My writing process mirrors this invisible work of motherhood, the hard work our culture doesn’t often see, acknowledge or really appreciate.
While some women work their stuff out by running or talking or sleeping, for me, it is through writing. I am blessed to have 12 column inches and a monthly deadline in which to do so. I accomplished this for many years from what I’ll call a home office, even though for most of that time, an office would be a loose term at best.
I started writing these columns in the corner of a condominium dining room, moved into a small section of a mildewy basement with one of those sunken windows that never opens and ended up in a second-story bedroom with a window that actually let in light and air.
With each writing spot, the window was vital for my work. Where there was a window, there was perspective and possibility. For a few precious hours when my children were being watched over or engaged by family members, friends, other mothers, sitters or teachers, a window allowed me a fresh view on my mothering. It allowed me to gaze beyond my temporary working space. And at moments, while looking out at the world, I was the lucky recipient of a few moments of insight.
I relied on the vantage points that those squares provided. Along with a quiet space and a working computer, those glass-filled holes in my domestic space gave me everything I needed during the time I was writing these columns. Thanks to the publishers and editors at Adams Street Publishing, I had great freedom — except for the word count — to delve into the subjects on my mind. In 1995, when I first began writing the columns, my daughters were four and eight and I was desperate to find anything resembling a work–life balance. Back then it seemed that everything gnawed at me for attention and everything got short shrift. But not so long after, there was less gnawing, more available attention to spread and fewer demands from my children in the emergency, physical way.
As I wrote these columns, I suspected that I was not alone in thinking that the behind-the-scenes work of motherhood was potent stuff. While it was often tempting to run from many of the issues that my daughters raised, I ultimately found that facing a blank screen was more fruitful, and even useful to others from time to time. E-mail letters from readers confirmed this and ultimately became the final prompt for me to pull together this collection.
These pieces were written in stolen moments around broken legs and broken hearts, hospital stays and hospital leaves, doctor appointments, run-ins with the local police and interventions — a full range of family dramas that build the tapestry we call family life.
I selected pieces that still ring true, even if they do date back 10 years or so. I wanted only to keep what still hit a nerve with me or had moved someone to sit down and jot me a few lines. Pieces that when I returned to them offered possibilities: some wisdom or insight because, as all mothers know, there are no instructions, blueprints, maps or downloads. We get our perspective from the trenches, or maybe from other mothers’ momentarily clear sightlines from home office windows.
Ellen Blum Barish