Cyma Chats with Samantha Parent Walravens, editor, TORN
1) In your new book, “Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood,” you feature 47 women who have, at times, found ingenious ways to combine motherhood with a career. What compelled you to write this book?
The inspiration for TORN was a moment 10 years ago that I like to refer to as the “Box of Cheerios Incident.” I was working long hours at Silicon Valley SW company, with a two-year old at home and another baby on the way. My husband traveled quite a bit for his job and my family lived across the country, so I felt very alone and unsupported as a mother. Got home one night at 8 p.m. after a 12-hour day to find my husband and two-year old at the kitchen table, asking me what we were having for dinner. It was at that moment that my “inner Superwoman”—who thought she could DO IT ALL—snapped. I grabbed box of Cheerios, slammed on table, and told them to make their own dinner.
It was at this moment that I realized that I couldn’t DO IT ALL. I was raised in the 70’s and 80’s—post- Gloria Steinem—and women of my generation were told that we COULD DO IT ALL—pursue a career, get married, have kids, give back to the community by volunteering, and more. What our feminist foremothers didn’t tell us was that DOING IT ALL was a recipe for a nervous breakdown!
2) What is the single most common trait that these mothers share?
The women who wrote stories in TORN are college-educated and career-minded. That doesn’t mean that they are all affluent, by any means. Most of the women work out of economic necessity. Not all are still working, but they all had jobs at one time or another.
3) What is the single most common experience that these mothers share?
I’m not sure if I can pinpoint a common experience. I can, however, pinpoint a common feeling– that of “mommy guilt.” There is a whole section in the book titled, “Got Guilt?” It’s interesting how guilt is part of the female lexicon– whether we work, stay at home, or do both. Why don’t we ever hear about “daddy guilt?” In one of the stories, “Moms Just Can’t Win,” the writer talks about the “S” word—“Should.” As women and mothers, we get so much unsolicited advice thrown at us about how we “should” raise our kids, how we “should” stay in shape, how we “should” feed our kids organic, unprocessed food, how we “should” find a healthy balance between work and family. All of the “shoulds” that bombard us every day are driving us mad!
4) With the increasing pace of technology and the often resultant isolation these women feel, what have you/they concluded about their seeking commonality/community among other women?
I wrote this book, in part, because hearing the stories of other women struggling to meet the demands of home and work life made me feel less alone. My hope is that the stories gathered in this book will benefit the thousands of mothers who struggle with the same concerns day in and day out. Many of us are too exhausted at the end of the day to find the time and energy to meet up with girlfriends to share our experiences, and many of us lack the opportunity to learn from one another’s efforts.
Knowing that WE ARE NOT ALONE when we cannot seem to handle a particularly difficult situation will go a long way in helping us avoid self-blame. Knowing when our expectations of ourselves—and others—are unrealistic will also help us to avoid feelings of self-doubt and frustration. And appreciating that there sometimes ARE no perfect solutions—that sometimes GOOD ENOUGH has just got to do—will offer us comfort.
5) Midlife mothers are, perhaps, in one of the most problematic situations. (Often) already immersed in very successful careers, motherhood becomes an even greater struggle given their own accomplishments, especially when combined with other external forces such as aging parents, perimenopause, etc. What do you suggest for and conclude about for this group?
Women who have children at a later age have often achieved a level of professional success and financial security that younger mothers have not, and, in many cases, are very ready to welcome a child into their lives. But older or younger, having a child rocks your world. Just the day-to-day tasks that you once took for granted– sleeping, eating, showering, exercising, working—become difficult and sometimes impossible to accomplish when you have a tiny, helpless human being clinging to you for survival. On a more spiritual level, your visions and hopes for the future can be dramatically altered. You are no longer living for just YOU. Being responsible for the life of another human being makes you think about the things like global warming and the future of our planet, the chemicals and hormones that we put in our food, the safety of the water we drink, the federal deficit and the economic stability of our country. We want to leave the world a better place for our children to live in.
6) A reviewer noted that the women in your book need to balance the “need to nurture with the need to work.” I love that thought. Can you speak further about this dilemma?
TORN is all about women speaking the truth about motherhood today. Sure, you can go ahead and keep telling all the women in your book group how beautiful your whole life is, but for me, it was time for a reality check. I didn’t realize that being a mother would make me feel so unsuccessful. I didn’t realize that motherhood would involve so many sacrifices. I didn’t know I’d lose control. I didn’t know the skills I honed at work would not be transferable or, worse, would be transferable in really unappealing ways. As one mom told me, “I was on an important conference call one day when I watched my two-year old—through glass doors—paint the white dining room furniture RED. When my husband asked me later on what had happened to our beautiful dining room set, I told him I was just ‘multitasking.’
Women need to get real with each other and admit that: 1)Motherhood is really, really hard; 2) No one does it perfectly and, 3) There IS no real balance when it comes to kids and career.
Just when you think you’ve figured it out and life is rolling along smoothly, something WILL happen to throw you off balance.
7) It appears as if many of these high-powered women, who are accustomed to success, must often restructure their thought-processes and often accept defeat — that is, the realization that they just can’t “do it all,” or “do it all well.” What are your own personal thoughts about this?
Sure, you can go ahead and keep telling all the women in your book group how beautiful your whole life is, but for me, it was time for a reality check. I didn’t realize that being a mother would make me feel so unsuccessful. I didn’t realize that motherhood would involve so many sacrifices. I didn’t know I’d lose control. I didn’t know the skills I honed at work would not be transferable or, worse, would be transferable in really unappealing ways. As one mom told me, “I was on an important conference call one day when I watched my two-year old—through glass doors—paint the white dining room furniture RED. When my husband asked me later on what had happened to our beautiful dining room set, I told him I was just ‘multitasking.’
The illusion that often clouds our vision is that other women are doing it better. Other women are getting it right. They are managing to have it all, with energy and spirit to spare. Yet the very fact that this illusion exists does a great disservice to the majority of us who are striving to get it right and just can’t figure out how the heck to do it.
And that’s why I wrote this book. When I reached out to other women to find out how they were managing the demands of family and career, I received a passionate response from so many of them, who told me, in their own inscrutable words—“WE ARE NOT DOING IT ALL! And who the heck ever told us that we should be doing it all in the first place?” That’s not liberation. It’s hell!
8) As the mother of four children, you must have experienced much of what was written. How did writing this book help you in your personal search for answers?
I wish I could tell you that I’ve discovered the “magic elixir” for achieving balance in my life, but alas, balance is an elusive dream. I remind myself to “let go” and not seek perfection in all that I do. My kids will be fine if they don’t eat an organic, made-from-scratch meal every night. My house doesn’t have to look “guest ready” at every moment. I try to compartmentalize my work– since I work from home– and work from 9-3 when the kids are in school. That is where I fail most. I call my iPhone my “5th appendage.” I have a hard time putting it down and not constantly checking emails. Lastly, my husband and I try to go on “date night” once a week. Keeping your marriage intact through the craziness of kids and career is tough.
9) What single piece of advice would you give new midlife mothers regarding combining careers with the desire for new older motherhood?
JUST LET GO.
If there is one message you can take away from this book, it’s that THERE IS NO ONE RIGHT WAY TO DO motherhood. Women need to stop judging each other for the choices others make—and stop judging ourselves. We are our own worst enemy. The women who are the happiest are the ones who delete the SHOULD word (I call it the S word) from their vocabulary, and do what is best for them and their family. Also—the issue of work-life balance is not just a women’s issue. Until men take part in the conversation, change won’t happen.
Samantha Parent Walravens is an award-winning journalist, writer and mother of four children. She started her writing career as an editor for PC World magazine, where she covered business and technology, and launched the magazine’s first web site, PC World Online. She left journalism to chase the “Internet dream” in the mid-1990s, helping to grow a small Silicon Valley software start-up into a multi-million dollar public company. She has since returned to her true passion, writing, and has authored articles on topics including politics, business, lifestyle and women’s issues. TORN: True Stories of Kids, Career &the Conflict of Modern Motherhood is her first book. Samantha is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Princeton University and has a Masters in Literature and Women’s Studies from the University of Virginia. She can be found at http://samanthawalravens.com/main.