Journalist. Mother. Denver’s First Lady. In three short years, I lost the self I’d always known. Could I ever find my way back?
My husband hammered out a family-friendly schedule that let him come home to put our son to bed four nights a week. John relied on found lullabies, adult songs put to new purpose. My favorite one, which I would listen to him sing over the baby monitor, was an old Bonnie Raitt tune about the border:
Your sweet and shining eyes
Are like the stars above Laredo,
Like meat and potatoes,
He also found us a part-time nanny. She took our son in the mornings, which let me work for a few hours, and then I spent the afternoons with him.
That’s how I accidentally became a part-time everything: part-time stay-at-home mom, part-time professional journalist, and part-time political spouse. This is like trying to maintain residences in three countries at once. One evening, while I was visiting my parents in New York, I was home alone with my son when my cell phone rang. I had just sat down at the computer to check email. While I answered the call, my son noticed where I was sitting, and cried, “Mommy! Don’t work!”
“This is Ira Glass,” somebody else said simultaneously. “Did I catch you at a bad time?”
I had recently pitched a radio story to Glass’s show, This American Life, and now he was calling to talk about the project. He had another producer on the line, and they needed to discuss the tapes that I’d sent to them. “Oh, no, this is a great time to talk,” I told Glass. My son, who was now 2, bellowed again that I shouldn’t work, then disappeared down a flight of stairs.
“If this is a bad time, we could talk later,” Glass offered.
“Oh, no, this isn’t a bad time,” I insisted. I wanted to be a full-time journalist again too badly to put the phone down.
I found my 2-year-old in my parents’ bathroom, where he was emptying containers of beauty products onto the floor. Glass said he wasn’t sure that the radio story was going to work, given the material that he’d heard so far. My son rubbed hand lotion in my hair while I made the case for why I should reinterview the subjects that I’d interviewed once already. By the time the producers agreed, the goop in my hair had hardened into a firm crust.
I don’t know what to call myself these days. I’m not a stay-at-home mom, and I’m not a working mom, either. The best that I can come up with is a hyphenated identity, part one thing and part another—the stay-at-home-sort-of-but-still-working mom. Most of the moms that I consort with are expatriates from the land of work, too. They are in different fields (an architect, a college professor, an attorney, a food vendor, a psychologist, another writer), with different income levels, but they’ve all cobbled together schedules that divide their time between the office and the play date. We are bemused by the public debate between working moms and stay-at-home moms; we see both sides. We’re the women in the middle, the ones who’ve found a third way.
All of us had children far later than our mothers did, and this is not a coincidence. To become an expatriate from the land of work, you have to have been working for a while. I had been a journalist for 16 years before my son was born; my mother, on the other hand, had worked for only three years when she had me. “I could be in your world entirely,” my mother said. “I could enter totally into the make believe. But I was in my 20s then.” I have not been able to surrender to motherhood so completely. Practically speaking, what this means is that my formerly coherent identity has now fragmented into distinct parts. Before my son was born, I had only one persona, which kept things simple. I had one set of clothes and one set of friends and one kind of life to lead. Now I have play clothes, work clothes, and the political spouse wardrobe, and I spend an inordinate amount of time changing.
Once, my husband told me that he figured that I could handle a political campaign and motherhood at the same time because I was the daughter of immigrants. I think he meant that I am good at managing dislocation. And my parents’ belief that the Atlantic was no longer a significant obstacle must have played a part in my conviction that I could inhabit multiple worlds at once. Still, it has taken me three years to see motherhood for the blessing and the undoing that it is. Now that I have made an uneasy peace with my hybridization, I look back on that trip to Ireland differently. I misread the conflict: I thought that I was arguing with my husband, when actually I was at odds with myself over the question of how much I wanted to give to my son. America had told me that I, too, could put my career first, but Ireland gave me a mother who had put her children before anything. In the end, I find that I am more Irish than I expected to be, even if I am not quite as Irish as my mother still is. I am tethered to the past, I can’t let go of her legacy, can’t surrender my tie to that farmhouse. Otherwise, I fear that I will fail my son, who is going to need his humble heritage. My boy—my blood, my heart —is going to grow up a rich kid, the son of the mayor. Who will offer him warm milk in a cracked coffee mug, straight from the cow?
Helen Thorpe is a journalist, mother, and the wife of Mayor John Hickenlooper.