My 9-year-old daughter recently managed to drop one of her socks in the toilet while simultaneously removing them from her feet and going to the bathroom.
Luckily, she also has a habit of not flushing. So I spotted the floater and fished it out with a plastic bag wrapped around my hand, before this unsavory situation became a calamity.
I was particularly relieved because the last time I was making small talk with the plumber while he unclogged our toilet he exclaimed, “Wow! You’re 44? I wouldn’t have guessed you were a day over 39!”
And I was feeling especially vulnerable to this kind of backward compliment because I was about to turn 45 and had just discovered that my 20th journalism school reunion—not high school or college, but graduate school—was arriving in a couple of weeks.
I suspected that I was already experiencing a sort of mid-life crisis, suffering from a depression that I guessed might have to do, at least in part, with the hormone shifts of early menopause.
I also noticed that my neck had started to slacken over the past few months and that by pulling up the skin around my cheeks in a poor woman’s pantomime of a face-lift, I shed years from my appearance.
I can no longer read my iPhone without the aid of magnifying glasses, the prescription for which I recently had to boost. And my youngest child will start full-time school in the fall, while I still have no career to speak of, after spending nine years as a stay-at-home mother of three.
“I like your mom posts,” a former journalism school classmate said the other day. “Those are pretty funny.”
Though his remark was good natured, it also touched a particularly tender nerve, since my blogging over the past several years has served as a lifeline—a reminder that I still have intellectual skills I can exercise in the world—even though my approach, more often than not, has been tongue-in-cheek.
I merely want to write. And on my rational days, I tell myself that every time I compose a coherent piece, that effort in and of itself is a success, regardless of where it ends up in the blogosphere.
I wasn’t always so unsure of myself. As a newspaper reporter for several suburban dailies, I used to fantasize about investigating heroin epidemics and sex trafficking rings for The Atlantic Monthly or The New York Times.
Instead, 15 years later, I am writing about toilet training and tantrums with the hope that my narratives about the unrelenting nature of motherhood will find an empathetic audience.
I would kill for my first newspaper job, covering local politics for an 8,000-circulation paper in Manassas, Va. And now I face the prospect of joining other Columbia Journalism School graduates at our 20th reunion, where I will hear about their latest book deals and cover stories.
After years of reporting for the New York Daily News, one classmate has just extended his contract with NY1. Another friend has written a popular column for The Wall Street Journal. Another has had a long tenure at People and just shadow wrote a book for Teresa Guidice, one of the most volatile Real Housewives on Bravo TV—practically the only channel that, in my degraded state, I now watch.
I have to admit that while I am genuinely happy for my former classmates and impressed by their accomplishments, I have also often felt demoralized by them.
In this state of diminishing self-esteem—bleary from being up all night with our twins when they were babies or dousing the flames of their resentment at our introducing a third child into the family—I have found it hard to congratulate myself on my own hard work.
The grimy reality of parenting day in and day out with no paycheck and often little more reward than slender arms hugging me at bedtime sometimes just doesn’t feel like enough. Which is why I have continued to write, even if mostly for myself and mostly about my “beat” of the moment, the slice-of-life parenting material at hand.
During my bouts of self-doubt, I remember that when I became a mom, I was lucky enough to be able to make parenting my ultimate priority. Although raising three kids has proven rocky at times, on some fundamental level, I do know that my husband and I are succeeding at creating a safe and loving home. And while my career may seem at a standstill, my children have enriched my life and deepened my capacity for empathy in ways no other kind of job ever could.
So when I hear about another Columbia graduate’s exploits in a war zone, I try to recall Leo Tolstoy’s admonition that “happiness does not depend on outward things, but on the way we see them.”
I remind myself that success assumes many forms and that life has many chapters—and that perhaps I will soon begin to write my next one.