A Stay-at-Home-Mom Speaks Out
Tracy Beckerman, author of Lost in Suburbia, talks frankly about forging her own path as a mom who chose to “lean in” toward raising her family.
By Danielle Cantor
Giving up her glamorous TV industry job and NYC zip code to be a stay-at-home mom in the suburbs of New Jersey, Tracy Beckerman found herself living far from the familiar with a husband, two kids, and not nearly enough bathrooms, all while hoping to feel fulfilled with her new role. In Lost in Suburbia: A Momoir (Perigee Publishing, April 2013), Beckerman recalls – with heartfelt candor and an irreverent sense of humor – how she strived and struggled to reinvent her life after motherhood. A nationally-syndicated humor columnist and award-winning blogger, Beckerman has appeared on The Today Show, CBS Early Show and Better TV.
One of my favorite quotes from your book: “If I wasn’t what I do, who was I?” Can a new mom who’s chosen to stop working hold on to her identity? Can a new mom who’s still working balance her work self and her mother self?
I think that we’re all always trying to look for that balance. Lately there’s been a lot of attention paid to Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, about how you have to be so aggressive and put yourself all-in to have the same opportunities that men do in the business world. Once I had my kids it just felt like that wasn’t balance to me at all. If I was going to lean in anywhere, it was going to be leaning in to my family. But it was really tough because I had this big job and I really defined myself by it.
In our culture, when you meet someone the first question you ask is, “What do you do?” And right away it gives you an idea of who this person is and what they’re about. I always got a lot of external validation from saying, “I’m a TV writer-producer.” So even though in my heart I felt like I wanted to be the one to raise my kids and have those years with them, I also felt this great sense of loss. I was meeting other people who were still working and they’re asking, “What do you do?” and I say, “I’m a stay-at-home mom,” and they get this sort of glazed look in their eyes, like, “Okay, I’m going to find somebody more interesting to talk to now.” Then I started saying, “Well, I used to be a TV producer,” and we would talk about I used to do. But that wasn’t really satisfying either.
What I learned from this was two things: First, I needed to find a way to feel good without having a job title to define me; just to feel good about being myself and being funny and spending time with my kids and appreciating everything that they were. And second, ultimately I did discover that I needed something more. It couldn’t be just about my kids. In the beginning, there is no balance, because babies come into the world completely dependent upon you and all of your attention goes toward nurturing that child. If anything is left over you put it toward nurturing your relationship with your spouse.
My husband and I define certain times in our lives as parents – like when our kids were 5 and 7 years old we designated those as “The Disney Years.” But the beginning, when the baby is first born, we call “The Give Up Years,” because you give up your social life, you give up sleeping, you give up couple time. In my case I gave up my career. And when you’re giving all that up, of course you love this child passionately, yet you can’t help but wonder, “What am I getting here?” Eventually, when you start sleeping a little bit more, and the baby can function a little bit more on its own, you start to see what you get back – and it’s something that will completely change your life. Jobs come and go, and sadly so do friends, but you will always have this family and these children that you gave birth do. That’s something to really treasure.
Do you think parents-to-be have any idea what having a child will really be like?
Nobody has any idea what’s coming. You have no idea the impact it’s going to have on your relationship with your husband, how it’s going to change your lifestyle. I had a plan: I was going to have this wonderful pregnancy, I’d be an adorable pregnant woman and look like I swallowed a little basketball, I’d feel great, I’d have the baby, go back to work in three months, have a super nanny, and my life would be the way it was, only with three people instead of two.
I was such a fool. First of all, you can’t control how you’re going to look or feel during your pregnancy. You need to work out and eat as best as you can, but a lot of it is just genetics. My mother was a big pregnant woman who didn’t feel very good, and I became a big pregnant woman who didn’t feel very good. And then, while I thought I was just going to pop this baby out, instead giving birth was 36 hours of hell. And then I had this colicky baby and I was exhausted, and then I tried to go back to work and discovered that the nanny was having more fun than I was. And I decided to quit my job. None of that was in my plan. It’s great to have a plan, but you have to be prepared for the fact that all bets are off, and you might want to change your mind about things, and that’s okay.
The main thing is how important it is to keep your sense of humor about all of this – especially in your relationship with your husband. It’s great when you can function as a team. When you’re both tired and wrung out, you sometimes turn on each other, so the best thing you can do is keep reminding each other that it’s temporary and it gets easier, and you’ll be better together if you can take turns doing things instead of being out for yourself in this. There’s actually been a huge rise in the number of stay-at-home dads recently. The women are going back to work and the dads are staying home with the kids, and they get to experience what women have been experiencing for years – this feeling of, “What I’m doing is really important and I feel passionately about it, but I kind of feel lost without a job to define me.” They’re really starting to identify with women’s struggles.
Your memoir takes place in the 1990s, when networking among mothers was very different than it is now. Has the ubiquity of the Internet made it easier or harder for new moms to be honest about their feelings and experiences – or is it a doubled-edged sword?
I think it’s both. It’s definitely helped women – moms – feel less isolated. And there are so many different mom communities online now. But in a way it can also create a false sense of connectedness. It’s not the same as getting together with people in real life. I’ve made some incredible friendships that started online, but to really get to know somebody, you have to do it in person. I think this false sense of connectedness has enabled a lack of boundaries. People will share things about their parenting, and others think that’s an invitation to criticize what other moms are doing. I don’t care if you’re co-sleeping with your kid, or if you’re breastfeeding or bottle feeding. If it works for you, that’s great. And why should I tell you how to parent your child if it’s working for you and working for them? The Internet has bred a certain amount of negativity, but I think overall there are more positives than negatives. I wish there had been mom blogs and more of these mom communities when I was raising my kids, because I certainly would have felt less isolated.
Do you think there will ever be a truce in the mommy wars?
No, I don’t, sadly. Look how long people have been arguing about what’s the best way to be a parent. Should you work or should you stay home with your kids? Should you breast feed or should you bottle feed? It’s sad that we can’t take more of a live-and-let-live attitude. I was bottle-fed – I seem to be mostly normal. I breastfed my kids for a short time, I know other people who have done it for a year or more. I don’t feel that I need to explain myself to others about the way that I’ve parented. My kids both turned out pretty wonderful. The world could certainly do with a lot less judgment.
In your book you quote yourself lamenting to your husband, “people who do have paying jobs do not respect women who don’t.” You also express your own opinion that “by the time your kids are in school all day, every day, I think you should find a way to contribute to society in some way other than looking at swatches for the chaises at your new vacation home….” You really seem to embody both the conflict and the judgment so many mothers feel over whichever choice they make – to work, or not to work.
I didn’t necessarily mean that in terms of getting a paid job. I think there are plenty of ways to contribute to society without having a paid position. We couldn’t survive without people who volunteer. What I was trying to say there was that if your kids are in school, all day every day, and you have a lot of free time, do something constructive with that time – whether it’s for yourself or for other people. We are a village – a very, very big village – and I feel everybody should contribute to it in some way. I didn’t want to come across as sounding judgmental, I just know too many women whose kids are at school and they spend all their time doing not much of anything. I guess if I practice what I preach, then I shouldn’t be judging people who choose to lead a life of leisure. My parents made me get a job to help pay for my first car, and I always earned my own money and worked – hard. And I worked hard at being a parent. But when my kids were in school and I had extra time, I felt like I needed to give back a little. I’ve volunteered for a lot of organizations, in addition to writing my column and working on the book.
What are your top tips for the new Mom in the neighborhood, in terms of making friends and feeling comfortable in a new community?
That’s really hard. What I’ve discovered is that just about every area has some kind of support group for Moms. There’s a great organization called Mothers and More. When I belonged they were called FEMALE, which stood for Formerly Employed Mothers at the Leading Edge. They have chapters in every community across the country, and they are a support group for women who have mostly left the workforce, are home raising their kids and are looking to connect with other like-minded women. They have book clubs and babysitting co-ops and things they can do with and without their children. Also, before your kids are in school, do some of these Mommy and Me-type classes as a way to meet moms. The flipside is that just because you and another mother both have vaginas and gave birth, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to have anything in common and be friends. That’s what was great for me about Mothers and More – I participated in a book group and a film club, because I knew these were things I was interested in beyond having kids. Ultimately I think you find your biggest friend base once your kids start school, because you get to know the moms through PTA and other things. The big thing right now for women is trying to do a business from home. And even though Marissa Mayer from Yahoo! doesn’t think that women – or anybody – can effectively work from home, there are a lot of women like myself who have made really successful careers that they started from their home so they could have more balance. The whole reason I started writing my column was so I could do something on my own timeframe.
At one point – when you needed a new car and were resisting buying a minivan – your husband said that “maybe it’s time to let go of all the expectations of how you think is all supposed to go and just do what feels right to you.” Was that advice as easily done as it was said?
No! That’s why I didn’t end up getting a minivan! A minivan would have been a hell of a lot easier. But I think there were some expectations I could let go of. I had this whole expectation about what parenting was going to be like and how happy I was going to be as a parent, in my apron making dinner every night. So I could let go of some of those expectations. But I could not embrace some of the things that I felt weren’t true to who I was. Even though I didn’t have the cool job to define me anymore, I felt like, “I’m a unique individual; I’m a cool person; I don’t see myself in a minivan, and I’m not buying one!” I think it’s really good to know yourself and stay true to your roots. My kids would mock me sometimes and say, “You don’t dress like the other moms.” And I’d think, “I know – and I’m okay with that!” Now I’ve got these two kids who are real individuals. They think for themselves, they don’t do what all the other kids do. I taught them that it’s a wonderful thing to be unique and think your own thoughts, and not just embrace what other people believe.
If you could do it over, would you have had two kids so close together?
Two years is a really wonderful span. It’s very hard in the beginning, but you get the tough stuff out of the way early on and then your kids have each other. And when they’re that close in age they’re real companions. My kids played so much. And now they’re really good friends.
Have your kids read the book? What do they think?
My daughter is in the middle of it, but she knows the stories. I don’t think there’s anything in there that would be news to them. My son has not read it, because he knows the stories, and I put a few things in there – like the time, when he was a toddler, he found a vibrator in my bed – that made him say, “You know, I don’t’ think I need to read this book.” There are still some things an 18-year-old boy doesn’t want to know about his mother.