Archive for Working Motherhood

Self Publishing, Work-Life Balance, Working Motherhood

I Know What You Really Want For Mother’s Day

I have an issue with Mother’s Day.

Kate Hilton, Mothers Day, The Hole in the Middle, Best Selling Author, Book Club, Book Clubs
Has there ever been a holiday better designed to elicit seething resentment than this one?  It is a day that promises a warm bath of gratitude for your maternal contributions to the family, but more often delivers teacher-assigned crayon-and-construction paper cards, along with a gift certificate obtained by your frazzled husband after running out to the nearest store on foot while leaving you with the kids (on Mother’s Day).

And then there are the other mothers: your mother, your spouse’s mother, grandmothers and various hangers-on who believe, perhaps fairly, that it’s their turn to have a decent Mother’s Day celebration, now that there is a grown women in their lives capable of delivering one.  That’s you, by the way.

In fact, I’ve concluded that the only person who can give you what you really want for Mother’s Day is you.  And it’s not a spa day, or chocolate, or flowers, although they each have their place in a woman’s life.

I think what you really want for Mother’s Day is to know that there is still an essential ‘you’ that exists outside the many roles that you occupy – mother, wife, daughter, friend, boss, employee, volunteer – and to know, also, that your particular, unique, imperfect you is someone worth celebrating.

Exactly a year ago this week, I gave myself an extraordinary gift for Mother’s Day.  I self-published the novel I had been writing secretly for four years.  That novel, The Hole in the Middle, explores the inner life of an overburdened and dissatisfied working mother who feels that she is failing on all fronts.  And even though it wasn’t, and isn’t, autobiographical, it took a staggering amount of courage to put it out into the world, to claim a new identity for myself as a writer, and to start talking about the complex feelings that many, if not most, women have about motherhood and marriage.

How many of us truly understood at the beginning that a wedding is the opening chapter of a story, not the conclusion, and that the narrative arc of a marriage has joy, yes, but also rage and sorrow and disappointment and misunderstanding – even in the happiest of unions?   How many of us knew that we would love our children so much that it would terrify us, but that we would also resent the erosion of our independent personhood, and wonder why our husbands didn’t feel similarly eroded?  Or how much more often we would dwell on our failures than on our successes as wives and mothers – and how angry it would make us that our spouses weren’t similarly afflicted with self-doubt?

Few of us, I would bet.  Which is, perhaps, why we lie so much to each other and to ourselves about how satisfied we are with our Facebook-picture-perfect lives.

The gift I gave myself a year ago was to step beyond the safe territory of roles and give my essential self some room of her own.  It’s been scary, often, because change is hard even when necessary and welcome.  But mostly, it’s been liberating.

It’s been liberating to hear women from across the country tell me that my work makes them feel less alone.  It’s been liberating to know, not just believe, that I have a creative talent in me that needs expression.  It’s been liberating to show my kids by example what it means to work hard for a dream – and make it happen.  And it’s been liberating to celebrate my own particular, unique, imperfect me.

This year, give yourself a Mother’s Day gift that matters.  Step outside the roles that you perform so very, very well, and give yourself the gift of self-knowledge, of self-expression, and of self-worth.  No one else can give it to you, and you deserve it.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Work-Life Balance, Working Motherhood

Mom Blog: The ’80s Edition

Kate Hilton, Madonna, 80s, The Hole in the Middle, Book ClubI was already annoyed when I pulled into the driveway in the Plymouth Voyager, having returned empty-handed from the video store.  Friday afternoon at 4 p.m., and all the copies of Risky Business and The Bounty were already gone, leaving me with the choice of renting Meatballs II or The Gods Must Be Crazy for the third time. So much for my plan of vegging out on the couch with Brian and my two fave fantasy husbands, Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise.

When I got inside, I found Amy and Stephanie watching Y & R.  I switched the channel to Muppet Babies and told them to clean up their toys or I’d throw them in the garbage.  I went into the kitchen and discovered that Michelle hadn’t cut up the vegetables for the stir-fry after walking the other girls home from school. I felt my temperature rising, so I mixed myself some Crystal Light and vowed to be more like Clair Huxtable.

I found Michelle lying on her bed, talking on the phone.  I nearly tripped over the cord as I walked over, removed the receiver from her ear and hung it up.  She was furious.

“What is your damage?!!” she yelled.

“Don’t you take that tone with me, young lady,” I said.  “My house, my rules.  You don’t like them, you can find somewhere else to live.”

“As if,” she said.  “If I weren’t around, you’d have to quit aerobics and pick up Amy and Stephanie yourself.”

I reflected for a moment on my neighbor Linda’s advice to think of myself as a friend to my children, but decided instead to take away Michelle’s phone privileges.  I left her sulking in her room, playing Like A Virgin over and over again on her ghetto blaster.

I admit that I may have been a little edgy already, on account of being on the Scarsdale Diet (again).  All that grapefruit was obviously getting on my nerves.  So I did Jane Fonda’s 20-minute workout in the rec room to calm down, and then I went to the bedroom to fix myself up.

I threw my legwarmers, my purple spandex leggings and my oversize T onto the Laura Ashley bedspread, and exchanged them for some black stirrup pants, a neon pink blazer with great shoulder pads and some chunky clip-on earrings.  Then I took out my banana clip, shook out my perm and applied some bright pink lipstick.  Linda had her colors done and she says that I shouldn’t wear pink because I’m an Autumn, but who wants to wear brown and goldenrod for the rest of her life?

I went down to the kitchen and got out the wok.  I love all of the international flavors you can cook with now!  Just dice up some chicken, throw in some red peppers and bean sprouts, and pour half a bottle of soy sauce over everything, and you have real Chinese cuisine.  Or is it Japanese?  I can never remember.

While I cooked, I poured myself a glass of California Chardonnay, added some ice cubes, and thought about Michelle.  What wouldn’t I give to go back to the days when our biggest parenting problem was finding a Cabbage Patch Doll for Christmas! She’s living in the best time ever in history, with nothing but progress as far as the eye can see, but does she appreciate it?  No: it’s all acid rain and apartheid and black eyeliner.  I remember fighting with my brothers over who would get the maraschino cherry in the fruit cocktail, and now?  Red peppers from South America in the middle of winter.  Totally amazing.

I blame Madonna.  If I had five minutes alone with her, I’d tell her what kind of example I think she’s setting for young girls. Like a virgin, my A-S-S, pardon my French.  Thank goodness her 15 minutes of fame are just about up.


Work-Life Balance, Working Motherhood

The Balance Myth

Kate Hilton, The Hole in the Middle, Best Selling Author, Work-Life Balance, Book Club, Book ClubsIs there a more over-used and empty phrase in modern life than work-life balance?  I can’t think of one.  Perhaps that’s because I am asked several times a week how I achieve it.  I’m trying to find a happy medium between giggling uncontrollably and giving an answer that sounds creepily like Tilda Swinton’s wound-tighter-than-a-drum character in Michael Clayton (“Who needs balance? When you’re really enjoying what it is you do, there’s your balance.”).

When you are trying to do a lot of things well, simultaneously, you are going to be living with organized chaos, and hoping that the organization outweighs the chaos on any given day.  I’m comfortable with the pace of my life because I’m not what you’d call a relaxed person (and I’d be so delighted if people would stop telling me to become so).  I don’t consider ‘busy’ a four-letter word, other than in the literal sense.  It gives me pleasure, and a sense of purpose, to operate at full capacity.  That’s my choice.

Some days I feel that I’ve succeeded in my work.  Some days I feel that I’ve succeeded as a parent, or a spouse, or a friend, or a daughter.  But I rarely feel as though I’ve succeeded on all fronts in the same 24-hour period.  Do I have work-life balance?  Have I achieved a guilt-free equilibrium between all of the many roles that I play in my life?  What do you think?  (If you require additional information to answer this question, please refer to my novel, The Hole in the Middle.)

When my friend Luisa was pregnant with twins, her prenatal instructor encouraged her to adopt a ‘good enough’ parenting philosophy.  Isn’t that refreshingly old-fashioned?

Back in the day, so-called career women could feed their children Hamburger Helper and Kraft Dinner and never show their faces in the schoolyard, and it was considered acceptable.  Stay-at-home mothers may have felt extravagantly sorry for the families of that generation of working women, but there was no expectation that the working moms would run the parent council at school, fit into skinny jeans or bake gluten-free cupcakes for the class on birthdays in addition to working full-time.

We’d all be better off if we could ditch the idea that there’s a mythical state of balance out there, and that others have succeeded in achieving it.   They haven’t.  We are all trying to find the right combination of rest and action, of family and work, of ambition and acceptance, and of engagement with and retreat from the world.  Some days we’ll get the formula right and feel like superwomen and other days we’ll get it wrong and feel like dismal failures.

The only wisdom I can offer is this: if you aren’t having any fun, your expectations of yourself are probably too high. Or, as Lil Parker says in The Hole in the Middle: “No one is going to hand you a medal at the end of all of this because you ran faster and harder than everyone else.  The point is to enjoy it.”  So forget about work-life balance, and try instead for joy in the midst of chaos.  It sounds like more fun, doesn’t it?  And even better, it’s actually achievable.

Family Dinner, Working Motherhood

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Kate Hilton, The Hole in the Middle, Best Selling AuthorOur guidebook advises that Panzano is the loveliest hill town in Chianti, and we see no reason to disagree.  Perched high above a valley dotted with olive groves and vineyards, Panzano is note-perfect, right down to the clusters of local men who sit in the town square drinking and gossiping all afternoon and rising only occasionally to ring in sales for tourists.  Nevertheless, Panzano’s charm is just gravy on the main attraction: we’re here to see the butcher.

Much has been written about Dario Cecchini, arguably the most famous butcher in the world.  A passionate advocate of forgotten and unappreciated cuts (think beef knees), Cecchini believes in using and enjoying the whole animal.  Thanks to Bill Buford’s memoir Heat, which dedicated several chapters to the charismatic and volatile butcher, the Antica Macelleria Cecchini has become a required stop for North American foodies in Tuscany.

My husband, Rob, has planned our trip so that we can sample the five-course beef tasting menu at Officina della Bistecca, one of the three restaurants that Cecchini operates within steps of his shop.  “The first course is beef tartare,” he tells me.  “The second course is beef tartare that’s been passed near a flame.”  Shortly before we leave for Italy, while trolling Cecchini’s website in anticipation, he realizes that we can do more that just eat in Panzano; we can work at the butcher shop for the day.  “We get a souvenir apron!” Rob tells me.

All travel involves some compromise between spouses.  I, for example, am making Rob rent a car and navigate roundabouts, an activity that nearly ended our marriage a decade ago.  So I’m prepared to accumulate some goodwill at the butcher shop.  I tell Rob to book it.

When we arrive, we meet Cecchini’s wife, Kim, an American who has lived in Italy for 25 years and Cecchini himself. Apparently, very few people sign up for Butcher for a Day, and they seem genuinely delighted to have us there.  Kim gives us our schedule: a tour of the meat locker and the restaurant kitchen, followed by some hard labor making sausages in the shop.

At the meat locker, we are handed off to Liam, an apprentice butcher from Saskatoon, who has a tattoo on his neck of a heart wreathed in sausages: he’s obviously committed to the project. Liam is spending a year in Europe, refining his culinary techniques, and hopes to return home to Canada eventually and open a French restaurant in Montreal.  For now, he takes us into the cold room where four men stand around a table, butchering huge slabs of meat with elegant efficiency.  It’s fascinating, and oddly peaceful to watch.  Liam introduces us, and adds that Orlando, the eldest in the group, has been a butcher for 60 years.  “He taught Dario’s father,” Liam tells us.

Liam asks what brings us here, and I mention Buford’s book.  Orlando (lionized in Heat as ‘the Maestro’) pauses for a moment, raises an eyebrow, and then continues gliding his knife over the filet that is emerging from the carcass on the table.  I think I’ll keep the fact that I’m a writer to myself.  The knives are remarkably sharp.

Next, we stop in at the kitchen to watch Simonetta making olive oil cakes.  Actually, she is making batter for four cakes, each the size of a manhole cover.  Anyone who has slaved over a cake only to watch it collapse knows that you deviate from a baking recipe at your peril.   The ‘recipe’ for this cake, though, is entirely in Simonetta’s head, and begins with 90 eggs, a few macerated oranges and three kilos of sugar.   At one point, she declares that the batter requires an additional kilo of sugar.  When I ask how she knows, she shrugs and tells me she can ‘feel’ it as she whisks.  Then she adds most of a cask of olive oil and something in the neighborhood of three-quarters of a bottle of Italian brandy, and sprinkles a few pine nuts on top: “Not too many; they’re expensive.”  Later, I confide to Kim that I think Simonetta is a genius.  Kim agrees, and tells me the recipe changes every time, but is always delicious.

Now we are deemed ready to make sausages.  We put on our aprons.  Miko, our supervisor, pours two huge bags of ground pork on a marble table along with a considerable amount of minced garlic and indicates that we should start kneading it.  When this is done to his satisfaction, he leads us back to Dario for the preparation of the final ingredient.  Dario pours salt and pepper into a bowl and begins working the mixture with one hand.  After a minute or so, he holds it out for us to smell, and it is astonishing: the heat of the hand-mixing has added a hint of something smokier, more complex.  Are there other ingredients?  Cecchini nods.  “Amore!” he says, “Passione!” We take the magic elixir, and return to our station to stuff and tie the sausages into links.

We lunch at the communal table upstairs, gorging ourselves on porchetta and Tuscan meatloaf, not to mention the spectacular olive oil cake.  As we stop by the shop on our way out, Miko is behind the counter, selling our sausages.  Dario presents us with our aprons, which he signs with a flourish, and embraces us when we tell him what a wonderful day we’ve had.  As we leave, we hear the American tourists behind us negotiating for the purchase of an apron.  “You can’t buy them,” Kim says firmly.  “You have to earn them.”

Together, Work-Life Balance, Working Motherhood

My (First) Midlife Crisis

Kate Hilton, The Hole in the Middle, Best Selling Author, Book Club, Book ClubsTowards the end of my thirties, I experienced a period of professional malaise.  By ‘professional malaise’ I mean that I was threatening to quit every few days.  Since most of my threats were issued at home, the only person who was actually affected by them was my husband, but I think it’s fair to say that I diminished his quality of life.

I have held many different jobs.  I’ve been a fiction editor, a secretary, an adjudicator, a litigation lawyer-in-training, a university administrator and a fundraiser.  I know how to gut it out.  I once won a national trial advocacy competition while in the grips of a serious public-speaking phobia.  (That’s how I figured out that I didn’t want to be a litigator.  But I digress.)

The hardest thing I’ve ever done professionally is to try to raise fifty million dollars for a capital campaign in the middle of the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression.  This is what I was doing when my midlife crisis hit.  Many have suggested that I am a bit young to refer to 40-ish as ‘midlife’.  I note that all of these people are baby boomers.

Raising a massive amount of money in a dire economy is like climbing up a sheer rock face with your fingernails.  (I imagine.  I have tried many things in my life, but not this.)  Every inch is agonizing, takes all of your effort and leaves you bleeding.  And then people come by and say things like, “Wow, you really aren’t making much progress, are you?  Maybe you aren’t very good at rock climbing.  Maybe you should hire a professional rock climber.  There’s probably a reason why professional rock climbers are men.  They’re stronger, right?  And better?  So you should think about hiring one of those rock climbers.  I’d love to help you, but I’m fully committed to supporting other, more successful rock climbers, or I would be if the economy weren’t so lousy.  So let me know when you get close to the top, and then we’ll talk.”

As I may have mentioned, I dabbled in feminist theory in the early nineties.  I am therefore well-equipped to identify subtle and unspoken forms of discrimination.  But these skills were not required.  No one was being remotely subtle.  They just came right out and said things like, “You need to be realistic.  You’re out of your depth here.   You’re too nice for this.  You need someone who can shake people down.  You should talk to [fill in name of powerful male with no professional fundraising experience].  He knows how to do this stuff.”

I am pretty nice.  If you met me, you would think so.  Most people do.  I have good social skills.  But these experiences didn’t make me feel nice.  They made me feel angry.  Feeling angry, in turn, made me feel uncomfortable.

I suspect this is because I’m a girl.  Despite all of my years of feminist theory, I consider anger to be an inappropriate emotion.  I’m more of a crier than a yeller.  I tend to turn negative feelings inward.  I rarely raise my voice unless I believe that people can’t hear me (literally, not metaphorically).  But now I was steaming.

My friend Bronwen is a couple of years older than I am.  We have been friends for more than twenty years and have seen each other through some major life events – marriage, divorce, crippling heartbreak, the loss of a parent, a near-fatal medical crisis and the births of our children.  We know where the scars are.

I took her out for a drink in a hotel bar, and I told her my troubles.  Was it me, I wanted to know?  Was I doing something wrong?

“No,” she said, “It’s not you.”  She leaned forward and looked me in the eye.  “They’re called the Fucking Forties for a reason, Kate.  Every woman I know is pissed off as hell.” We drained our drinks.  And then we ordered another round.

And then I went out and raised $50 million.

I don’t know if this story has a moral.  When I first posted this story, it was gently suggested to me that I take it down because it might embarrass people.  So I did, but it bothered me.  Because here’s the thing:  I think people should feel embarrassed when they tell women that they aren’t up to the job by virtue of being women.  It’s not OK.  And my not telling anyone about it suggests that I accept it.  I don’t.  And that’s why I’m posting this blog.

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