I’d like to introduce you to my cousin Jennifer. There are a few things you should know about her. First off, she’s really, really smart. Or as they say in Massachusetts, where she lives and where I’m from, “wicked smaht.” Like, she could’ve gone to Harvard. But didn’t choose to. Which brings me to my next point: She doesn’t care about fancy, superficial bullshit that doesn’t matter in the end. She wanted to stay home with her daughters, four-year-old Marley and 14-month-old Rudy, and made sacrifices to do it.
Jennifer, sharing a moment with Marley and Rudy
In addition, Jennifer faces challenges that many moms don’t. Her daughters have a health condition that, while not life-threatening, requires extra care and calm on her part every single day. Oh, Jennifer’s mom also has severe health issues requiring not only lots of extra care and calm, but (as you’ll learn below) life-saving measures from as far back as when Jennifer and her sisters were in elementary school. Maybe that help explains Jen’s toughness. In any case, Jen handles motherhood and life in general with grace and a sense of balance and realness that I truly admire.
She very rarely, if ever, complains about anything–okay, unless hard cider is involved. She can laugh just about anything off. To quote Tim Gunn (someone her daughter Marley can do a pretty darn good imitation of without even trying), she makes it work.
Life and Times of Stella: Your blog is a very honest and uplifting take on motherhood. How did you come up with the name “Sweet Futility“?
Sweet Futility: First of all, it’s weird that anyone who wants to check out my blog won’t be able to since I made it private about a month ago. Someone I didn’t know left a comment that may have been innocent, but I felt like protecting my kids just in case it wasn’t. Maybe eventually I’ll open it up again. In the meantime, anyone who’s curious can leave their email in your comments section and I’ll send along an invite? I guess? (Life and Times of Stella notes: Or readers can just email me, and I’ll relay the info to Jen at Sweet Futility.)
A friend actually uttered the phrase “sweet, sweet futility,” during one of Marley’s tantrums. He was witnessing her wrath for the first time, and foolishly trying to dismantle her craziness. I told him it was futile, and then he called it sweet, and right away I thought that it was a fairly accurate description of parenting. Because really, as parents we’re in charge of some things, but ultimately, our kids are going to be who they’re going to be. And it would be wrong to take that individuality away from them. Which is what I tell myself when my daughter Marley asks for things like POM-POMS and swoons over anything pink and sparkly.
Life and Times of Stella: On your newly exclusive blog, you revealed that Rudy and Marley have a condition called x-linked hypophosphatemic rickets. How does it impact everyday life for you and them?
Sweet Futility: This form of rickets affects their bone development, and my understanding is that without treatment, their little bones will bow as they grow and cause them a lot of stress and pain. The condition can affect their stature, which may be why my girls are in the first or second percentile for height. Daily, I have to make sure that they’re taking phosphorus and vitamin D supplements; frequently, I take them for blood work and check-ups with their pediatric endrocrinologist; annually, they have x-rays and ultrasounds to monitor their growth.
Because my husband has this condition, and because it’s x-linked, we knew that any girls we had would have rickets. I think that helped me to take it in stride. It wasn’t a surprise or anything. And while all the medical appointments are time-consuming and therefore, often irritating, I know that this isn’t anything life-threatening. I mean, I worry that like their father, they’ll have terrible knees and have to deal with pain and maybe not even have the option of going for a run if they want, but I know that in the grand scheme of things, my kids are healthy, and I’m lucky.
Life and Times of Stella: Rudy and Marley share a room. What was behind that decision and how is it going?
Sweet Futility: After Rudy was born and I asked the doctor and nurses to confirm that she was a girl, I was crying and murmuring, “I’m so happy that Marley has a sister.” I have two sisters, so of course that’s all I know, but I just think they’ll have each other’s backs, growing up and as adults, in a way that a brother and a sister can’t. (I know that’s a valuable relationship, too, of course. I’m just saying.)
I want for Marley and Rudy to be silly little buddies, and I think that a shared room can nurture that, at least while they’re young. I also think a shared room is a way to teach things like sharing and cooperation and appreciation in both subtle and dramatic ways. Already, Todd and I hear them in the morning talking to each other, and it’s hilarious. I mean, Rudy’s pretty much saying, “Be-beh” [baby], and “Nuh-Nuh” [pacifier], but Marley’s got this full-on monologue going, and they’re laughing, and it’s great.
I shared a room with my younger sister my whole life. The first time I had a bedroom to myself, I was a junior in college. (That was a little too long to wait, for the record.) But it helped me to fully appreciate my own space, and I certainly wasn’t spoiled in that way, and I don’t want my kids to be either. Plus, now we use Rudy’s old nursery as a family office, where most of the kids’ books and art supplies are. At least a couple of times a week, Todd’s up there working at an adult-sized desk, and Marley’s at her little table, doing her preschool homework or concocting imaginary dinner parties and making elaborate invitations for them.
Life and Times of Stella: In addition to taking care of your daughters full time, you help take care of your mom. Ever get overwhelmed? How do you cope?
Sweet Futility: Hoo boy. My mom has early on-set Alzheimer’s, and she’s a type one diabetic, which is a pretty terrible combination. Because she and my father are separated and he’s in Florida literally doing things like basking by the pool or ocean and enjoying week-long cruises with his lady friend, my sisters and I have taken on the responsibility of caring for her. My older sister especially, because my mom lives with her.
Because I’m a stay-at-home mom, I’m responsible for bringing my mom to daycare when my sister’s at work, and I handle all of the doctors’ appointments. It’s tedious, and depressing, but it’s also nothing new to my sisters or me. My mom didn’t do a great job of taking care of herself and managing her diabetes when we were growing up. We’ve brought her out of hypoglycemic shock more times than we can count, since we were really young. It’s the kind of thing that you think is normal when you’re young, and then, when you’re in therapy you learn that it’s not right to be constantly saving your mother’s life when you’re in elementary school.
My sisters and I are a great team, and sometimes we’re bitter and angry, but we support each other and we can laugh about the ridiculousness of our situation, too. Mostly, we just get the job done and keep the focus on our kids. And we take care of ourselves and each other because we know what can happen when moms don’t. Ugh. Next question.
Life and Times of Stella: How and when did you decide to be a “stay-at-home mom” and leave your teaching job?
Sweet Futility: My last full-year teaching, I was given three classes of eighth graders. It was not hard to walk away. Seriously. The people who teach middle school kids because they “just love that age” are saints.
When I started teaching high school English, I had sweet classes like creative writing and AP English Language and Composition. I loved teaching those kids. They were mostly nerds and overachievers like me, and they loved reading and writing. I got into the profession because of my love of grammar, not because I watched Dangerous Minds and wanted to teach inner city kids poetry. This makes me sound like an elitist jerk, so I should mention that a part of me did absorb Dangerous Minds when I was becoming certified to teach, and I will always love Stand and Deliver. Defy the odds! Like in Rudy!
When I was pregnant with Marley, my husband and I were both full-time teachers. And teaching is a full-time job. Especially for English teachers. The day is over at 2 p.m., sure. But then you’re not really out of the building until almost four, and you’ve got this gigantic pile of mostly mediocre essays to read and grade, and that’s at least three hours of work, and so we knew that if we both worked, we wouldn’t get to hang out with our kids at all. And I really, really wanted to be at home with them while they’re little and funny. So we have been stretching our dollars ever since, and I still coach, teach a night course twice a year, and fit in private tutoring whenever I can to keep us afloat.
Life and Times of Stella: What is a typical dinnertime in your home like? What’s on the menu in terms of food, conversation, and antics?
Sweet Futility: Dinnertime is not where I want it to be right now. Unless I’m really on my game, it’s suddenly five o’clock and I’m just getting something going for Todd and me (and Marley) while I’m microwaving small plates for Rudy (and Marley). We try to overlap our eating so that we’re all sitting together for at least five or ten minutes, but that doesn’t happen as often as I’d like.
And I know there are all these people who say, “I’m not making six different meals,” and “If my kids are hungry, they’ll eat it, and if not, they can eat again at breakfast,” and I certainly agree with that in theory. But Marley and Rudy are both wee kids, and every time we see their pediatrician, she’s on me to be sure that they’re eating healthy and gaining weight. So right now I’m balancing filling their stomachs the best I can with what I know they like, and making sure they at least try whatever Todd and I are having, too. I’m hoping that in about a year, we’ll really and truly be sitting together and eating the same things.
That doesn’t really answer your questions. So I’ll tell you that the other night we had chicken thighs braised in white wine, stock, and some dijon mustard, toasted basmati rice with shallots, cumin, and coriander, and some green beans. And tonight, we’re going to drown ourselves in french fries and bacon cheeseburgers at Five Guys, and I’ve been thinking about it ALL DAY! We eat healthy food, especially fruits and vegetables, as often as possible, and I don’t really buy junk food for snacks. But I use lots of butter and salt when I cook.
One of my absolute favorite cooks is Nigella Lawson. And I was once watching this documentary about her, and she said how it really affected her when her mother got cancer and said something like, “Well, now I guess I’ll finally eat what I want without worrying about my weight.” And clearly it’s affected me, too. Why deny yourself? I still don’t think I’m answering your questions the right way. I have a lot to say about food, I guess.
Life and Times of Stella: What do you find most challenging about motherhood?
Sweet Futility: I think it’s hard to be the kind of role model I want to be. I want to show Marley how to maintain a sense of calm when she’s mid-tantrum, but sometimes I still blow my top. I want to exhibit things like kindness and compassion, but that can be difficult depending on who I’m dealing with. (Ahem.) And I want to be assertive and stand up for myself, but I also really hate confrontation. So it’s probably the same stuff a lot of moms feel: I’m setting some impossible standards for myself and just doing the best I can to meet them as often as possible.
Life and Times of Stella: Tell us one thing about each of your daughters that you admire.
Sweet Futility: I love Marley’s spunk. Even though it can drive me bananas, her feistiness is something that I really admire. I don’t see her ever having trouble standing up for herself. And at the same time, she’s such a little lady. She will know more about how to properly apply eyeliner at age fifteen than I know now. I don’t even wear it, for crying out loud. She will be truly embarrassed by my ensembles in the next year or so unless I stay on top of things.
Rudy is a model of living in the moment. She is slow and deliberate and sweet. Sometimes I call my sisters with her, and they’ll answer, “Hello?” And then Rudy will say, “Hiiiii.” And then Heather or Danielle will realize who it is and take in this sort of pleased and contented breath and then say, “Hi!” and then Rudy replies, “Hi. Hiiiii. Hi!” And these greetings can go on for about three or four minutes. I feel like when I’m holding Rudy and she’s smiling and taking things in, my blood pressure goes down.
Life and Times of Stella: What is your biggest wish for Marley and Rudy?
Sweet Futility: I want most of all for Marley and Rudy to be truly, deep down, happy with who they are and what they’re achieving, throughout their lives. I want them to laugh as often as possible.
Life and Times of Stella: In closing, can you recall a proud mothering moment, when it was clear that something you’d done as a mom was definitely not futile?
Sweet Futility: That’s a tough one. I think it’s still too early for me to answer this as far as Rudy goes, but I’ve got a few examples of Marley making my heart swell. Or melt. Depending.
The first is something I didn’t get to witness. When my sister Danielle was watching Marley last year while the Boston Marathon was on TV, Danielle pointed out how fast the female runners were going. And Marley said, “Yeah. Girls do sports. My mommy does lots of sports.”
Last week, when Marley and Rudy and I were wheeling our red carriage toward the registers at Target, I was trying to get Rudy to say, “Buh-bye.” So I was all, “Bye! Bye, Target!” And Marley, skipping alongside the carriage, said, “Bye, Target! I love you!”
And every time I drop Marley off at preschool, she has to give me a hug and a kiss and squeeze my nose, and then she does the same thing to her little sister. It’s adorable, I promise.