Two Horses

Life Lessons from a One-Year-Old, Motherhood, We Are In This Together

My 15 month-old son taught me a valuable lesson a few weeks ago at our local fair. He demonstrated, in living color, the profound truth of one of my favorite sayings: You can’t ride two horses with one ass.

We had just gotten to the front of the line for the big, beautiful circus carousel filled with glossy painted horses of every color. Long flowing manes cascaded down their necks, and fancy “saddles” beckoned, calling out “Pick me! Pick me!” to every little boy and girl who ran up onto the platform.

Hank meant business when they opened the gate, and he latched on to the first horse we came to, claiming it as his. I was just thrilled that he picked one on the outside row, as I had strategically placed his daddy on the other side of the fence with our good camera, hoping he would capture this magical mother and son moment.

Hank sat up proudly on his fiberglass saddle, gripping the golden pole for dear life as his horse started to rise and fall in those graceful waves around and around.

My little boy was in his element. And I was too, soaking up the sheer joy he exuded as he galloped slowly around in carousel circles while the tinny circus music played.

Once his toddler attention span ran out though, the novelty of his white horse wore off and he started considering his other options. Hank suddenly decided that he wanted to try out the horse galloping up and down right beside his. He started reaching for its golden pole with everything he had, squirming out of my tight hold on his chest.

I figured it would be easier to switch him over there for the rest of the ride than to fight with him about staying where he was. I scooped him up and plopped him down onto the middle horse’s saddle. This thrilled him for a bit, but the excitement from mounting his new steed quickly turned to wails of frustration.

Hank frantically pointed back to the first horse and tugged on my arm. He let out an angry squeal to convince me to listen, so I scooped him up again and plunked him right back where he started, on his original mount. But the tears kept coming.

The ride slowed to a stop, and as I carried him back towards his beaming crowd of fans (daddy and his grandparents) he proudly puffed out his chest and a big smile appeared on his face. He was already thinking about the next ride.

All through the rest of that fun-filled fair day, I couldn’t stop thinking about his carousel ride, and how I fight that very same battle. I completely understood his dilemma. Life often leaves us wanting to ride two horses at once, but once we choose, we often wish (mid-ride of course) that we were on the other one!

My two carousel horses these days are motherhood and my career. I am blessed by the fact that I have the best of both worlds: I have a fulfilling (and most importantly, flexible) job, and I also get to be somewhat of a stay-at-home mom. (Two days a week and on weekends.)

Sick baby? I can work from home, and snuggle him.

Emergency at work? I can drop him at grandma’s and run up to the office at almost a moment’s notice.

But-even with the amazing flexibility I have in my work/family life, I do often struggle with whether I am doing what I should be doing.

I always dreamed of being a wife and a mother, raising babies and making incredible home-cooked meals each day; my perfect little family all gathered around the dinner table at the same time each night like clockwork.

But in reality, my perfect little family is a big crazy blended family of SIX, and our schedule is sheer chaos. We bounce around daily; juggling shared custody of my husband’s three sons and his work-travel schedule and my three days a week at the office and a toddler and football and baseball and naps and school and doctors appointments. Somewhere in there we manage to buy groceries and cook meals, but it’s certainly never like clockwork!

In my craziest moments at home, when the baby refuses to nap and I have a long list of important voicemails I still haven’t gotten to yet and my checkbook needs balanced and dinner needs figured out and I can’t get the Tick Tock song to quit playing in my head–all I want to do is drop the baby off and head to my quiet office where I can actually get something accomplished.

But then there are days at the office when I am dealing with taxes or plumbing emergencies or unhappy tenants and I would give anything to be at home with my son, singing silly songs and reloading his t-ball tee for him 50 more times.

And if that doesn’t complicate things enough, there are also days when I drive by the little rural school Hank will go to in four short years, and I miss teaching. On those days I feel guilty for not using my Masters in Education that I worked so hard for. The one I earned proudly and then put on the shelf so I could be the best mom I could be in these important, formative years. (And selfishly, so I could savor this precious time with my one and only baby.)

On those very same days, I see my friends posting their first day of school pictures on Facebook and I actually cry tears because I don’t want to think about the day when Hank will be old enough to go to school; when I will have to give him up for seven hours a day. Five days a week.

Five days a week that will mean that I have all the time in the world to go to work, or teach again, or both–and I will be wishing I was home with my son.

I know this is going to happen. But if I can already guarantee that I will feel this way in four years, shouldn’t it be easy to be present, right now? 

Shouldn’t it be easy to enjoy every second of playtime or mealtime or snuggle time with my baby, who–overnight–is no longer a baby?

Shouldn’t it be easy to move thoughts of work or responsibilities or dreams-on-pause to the back of my mind? And just be in the moment, fully present; a focused, relaxed, FUN mom?

And shouldn’t it also be easy to enjoy the fact that I have a job that I love, that I am good at, that makes me feel accomplished and helps keep our lights on and groceries in our fridge? Without feeling guilty for missing out on three days a week of Hank time?

The answer to all of those questions is yes. Yes, I should be able to do all of those things. But the problem is, I can’t.

I should be able to ride one horse at a time, because I only have one ass. I fully realize that I can’t ride two horses at once, but just like my little boy, I want to.

My answer to the ages-old motherhood struggle of stay home vs. go to work is this: There’s no right answer. Whichever you choose will still be hard. Because as mothers, no matter whether we are staying home, or working, or working from home, or some ever-changing random combination of the above, we will always feel like we aren’t doing enough. Like we should be riding two horses at once.

Being a mom and having a career aren’t mutually exclusive–but at times it can definitely feel like they are. Especially when you want to do an exceptional job at both of them.

Hank taught me in one short fair ride, that as long as you let your heart lead, and spend some time on each of those horses–you will come out smiling. (Even if you do regret your choice from time to time. Sometimes you simply have to ride it out.)

Just like those pretty fiberglass horses; sometimes you will be up and other times you will be down.

But no matter which horse you’re on, you will still keep moving forward.

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Life is a beautiful, crazy ride – Hold on tight!

I Get to Call Him Daddy Now, Too

We Are In This Together

I always felt weird calling my husband “Bill” when I talked about him to his boys. It felt so formal. I didn’t feel comfortable referring to him as “Dad” though, either, like they did, because I wasn’t “Mom.” To them anyways. They already had a Mom, and I have always been perfectly happy being “Step-mom” or “Dad’s wife” to them (although they usually just call me Erika). I like that more than “Step-mom” anyways; Step-mom just has such an awful stigma to it. Thanks a lot, Disney movies, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for making us all wicked! (Even though some of us are really nice!)

I realize I am the only one in my modern family who probably gives any thought to what we call each other. But I did for a long time, (probably from all the step-family parenting books I read back when I was dating Bill which TOLD me I should think about it,) and so I settled into referring to him as “your dad” to the boys. Not Dad, not Bill, but your dad.

Hey guys, where’s your dad?

Or – Yeah, you better ask your dad about that.

But then Hank the Tank came along.

Suddenly, I was Mom. Hank’s mom. And Bill was no longer their dad, he was suddenly just Dad. No more possessive pronouns in our house. And I had no idea how much that one little grammatical change would mean to me.

Being able to refer to my husband as Daddy is one of the biggest privileges I have had the honor of experiencing in our marriage. It’s a whole new level of awesome – being this much of a team. He is that much more my best friend now. Of course, hearing that wonderful man, and our amazing little boy, call me Mama is music to my ears and an honor as well. I wasn’t sure I would ever get to be anyone’s mama, so now I am savoring it!

This Father’s Day will be a special one. Last June, we were still in the post-partum tailspin and I don’t even remember processing the fact that Bill was now suddenly Daddy again, or how this time, I was in on the deal. I am not even sure that I remembered to get him a card. But the past 13 months have been life-changing for me. And since I have had some time to think about things other than when the baby needs fed next, or if I will ever get any sleep ever again, the true significance of this upgrade to our relationship is sinking in.

My first Father’s Day with Bill was an odd one, because I hadn’t even met his boys yet at that point. He was still sizing me up, making sure what we had was built for the long haul; that I was good enough for his remarkable children. But I already loved that man fiercely, so I felt like I needed to celebrate his fatherhood somehow. I bought him a funny card and what I thought was the most perfect gift – a set of Star Wars pancake molds and a batter bottle so he could make the world’s most awesome pancakes for them. And in doing so – I thought maybe he would be even a little bit more perfect in their eyes. They were obsessed with everything Star Wars, so I figured it would be a slam dunk.

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May the force be with you

My dad makes us Darth Vader pancakes. Can your dad do that?

It worked. He sent me a text with a picture of the most adorable Yoda-shaped pancake that Father’s Day morning, so my heart swelled for him. He was proud of his culinary masterpiece and told me about how cool the boys thought it was! (In hindsight, I probably could have skipped the batter bottle though, as I later discovered that it had been re-purposed into a bath toy.)

“Please tell me this doesn’t go back and forth between bath water and pancake batter, does it?” I asked him when I saw it sitting on his bathtub ledge a few weeks later. He said no. I think I believed him.

Giving Bill Father’s Day cards in the years that followed – once I had actually gotten to know his boys – still seemed important but always felt more like a back pat, like I was simply telling him good job at being a good daddy to his own kids. I couldn’t thank him for what he was doing like a mom would – appreciating his help raising kids together – because they weren’t my kids. It wasn’t my place to thank him.

It is also hard to find an appropriate Father’s Day card, I later found, when you are married to a dad but you are not the mother of his children. (Apparently Hallmark needs a card writer who is a step-mom! I may have to look into that for a side gig!) I have spent hours scanning over cards in the ‘To My Husband’ area of the aisle, reading the messages and putting them all back, frustrated.

Dear Hubby, Thanks for not messing up our kids too much! Haha. . .nope.

To the Father of Our Children. . .no again.

To My Loving Husband on Father’s Day. . .Ok this sounds promising, until I read the four flowing cursive stanzas inside about (yet again), being the father of our precious children.

Happy Father’s Day, Good job raising those kids of yours!  Love, Your wife, (Even though she’s not their mom).

Said no card, ever.

So, once I finally give up on the ‘To My Husband’ department and enter the generic ‘Dad’ card aisle, I have these remaining options: Dad the Super-hero, Dad the amazing golfer, or Dad-champion of burping/farting/drinking beer/changing the TV channel in the La-Z-Boy. You know, the classy Father’s Day cards.

That said – by the grace of God, this year is different. I DO have a new appreciation for him, because we are finally in this together. We are equal parts Hank’s parents. I can finally grab one of those Father’s Day cards that reads like Mom high-fiving Dad. Because I am finally Mom, and he is (still) Dad. But not just his kids’ dad. He is our kid’s dad now, too. Just Dad. And I finally do get to say thanks (with all my heart!) and not just good job. I owe him the moon and the stars, for giving me the gift of our son. He is kind to him, patient with him, funny, loving, sensitive, and strong – everything a Daddy needs to be. Hank is completely enamored with his Daddy. And I am so grateful for this simple fact: Along with all the joys that come with my new shared role as a parent with my husband, I get to call him Daddy now, too.Daddy reading to Hank