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PREPARE FOR TAKEOFF
Not long ago i was on an airplane with all six of my children. We were in that purgatory part of the trip between the use of electronic devices and the use of electronic devices. The plane was still being prepared for takeoff, but the area around our seats was already a disaster. Katrina herself couldn’t have made such a mess so quickly. The floor was littered with crushed Goldfish and the wrappers from candy bought as appeasement gifts while waiting to board the plane. My husband was in the row behind me with our middle two children, who were engrossed in the age-old argument over the window seat. His row was equally trashed. My two oldest sat across the aisle from me, all wired up like cyborgs, both of them gripping their respective iDevices, the sound of music leaking through headphones momentarily suspended, the sound of clicking thumbs ditto. They simultaneously looked over at me with withdrawal and longing, somehow expecting me to amend the FAA’s policy on airwaves.
I noticed over the cacophony that a woman in an ill-fitting polyester pant suit was standing in the front of the cabin, making strange hand gestures and trying to tell me something. I also noticed that she was holding an oxygen mask. My interest was piqued and her droning words came into focus.
“When traveling with children, please secure your own mask before assisting a child.” Clearly, this woman was an oracle.
The other passengers seemed to have missed her message, but it made such clear sense to me: provide yourself with oxygen first, or you will be of no use to your children. If you run your own life, pursuing your own successes and coping with your own failures, you won’t find yourself dwelling on missed opportunities or attempting to undo mistakes on the backs of your kids. Yeah, I thought, if Mama Rose had spent more time pursuing her own career, wouldn’t Gypsy have been able to keep her clothes on?
The oracle went on to say something like “The nearest exit might be behind you,” which, I have to be honest, didn’t ring as clearly as the oxygen advice, but that was okay, I’d already gotten way more out of this trip than I could have imagined. I gained a sense of sanity: come what may, if I chose to do what I needed for myself, rather than trying to gauge beforehand what my parents, my mate, my friends, or society expects of me, I would be far more likely to make better choices, and to be happier with them. I not only learned that but also got the invaluable advice to remove my Manolos before exiting the plane onto a blow-up ramp. Equally important information if you simply don’t want to puncture your life raft, or lose your favorite shoes in the ocean.
Being a mom in the twenty-first century can be a mixed bag of ugly. There are so many opinions about the job you’re doing, offered freely and yet at great cost. There are books and blogs and radio programs and mom groups and lactation consultants and magazines and on and on. Never has there been so much accessible and contradictory information floating in the ether of parenting, and never has the concept of “my way or the highway” been so brutally administered. We have collectively micromanaged our pregnancies and written our superfluous Birth Plans and succumbed to the pressure of feeding our kids 100 percent organic hand-milled baby food using a reduced carbon footprint. These unrealistic goals have created a population of neurotic mothers whose neurotic kids inevitably end up at my house on a playdate.
I have chosen a more retro approach to parenting. For one thing, I have six children, a very old-fashioned number. And by having so many I have discovered one of the great secrets to being a perfect mother: there is no such thing.
From the day my mother picked up her first Dr. Spock guide to the onslaught of the How to Expect What Your Baby Expects of You types of titles, there have been scores of books on every facet of the parenting equation. When I was first pregnant, twenty years ago, times were different. There were no Internet chat rooms or message boards where women felt free to demoralize other mothers. But with each child I’ve produced, there has come an increasing tide of perfectionism that has slowly overtaken basic human instinct. Don’t get me wrong; I like a healthy, well-adjusted child as much as the next person. But do I really need an owner’s manual? Don’t you just turn it on and fix it when it’s broken?
Call me crazy, but it seems to me that the spike in postpartum depression has occurred hand in hand with the increase of parenting advice available to new moms. The plummet of hormones and the uptick of expectations cross over each other in the most fragile of environments—a healing mother and a helpless, squalling bundle of nerves. Childbirth sucks, and it’s frankly a miracle that we’re not all dead from it—it’s no wonder some women walk away with invisible scars to go with the visible ones. But childbirth is a cakewalk compared to motherhood. The women I know who keep focused on their own survival typically break through the web of high-strung mothering that has unfortunately become the norm. Why on earth would a complete stranger ever ask you whether you breastfed or not? I might be a throwback, but I think who sucks on me and how often in the privacy of my own home is my business.
I have consistently put my neck on the chopping block, both as a mother and as a woman—most famously during a stint on a reality show called Project Runway, where people compete to be the next top fashion designer. I had zero related experience when I auditioned for the show, but I loved watching it so much I thought, Why not me? I got myself in the room, and went further than I could have ever imagined. Through my actions, I showed my kids what was possible, and though they may have gone unbathed those few weeks I was away, I assure you they survived.
I am frequently asked, How can you possibly manage six children? And work? And look so put together? When pressed, I will admit that my approach is twofold: I always take care of myself, and I parent my children my way, not the way others expect me to. I get my oxygen first. When I stop and think about it, I often find that my worst days are in direct proportion to how far I let myself drift away from that yellow plastic mask. Motherhood is the hardest job in the world. Around kid number four I realized that the only way to survive it is to have a sense of humor. After all, the tragic often becomes comedic in the retelling.
If by modern-day standards I have a lot of chil-dren, then by New York City standards I have single-handedly created a population explosion and ruined any chance for other families to attend private school due to my abuse of the sibling preference policy. A family of eight in Manhattan is practically grounds for forcible commitment to Bellevue. How could we be so crazy?
To me, having six children is completely normal. I don’t really get couples who choose to stop at one or two. That’s like going to Vegas and only playing one hand of blackjack, or throwing the dice twice. My curiosity gets the best of me: I want to see what genetic cocktail Lady Luck has to offer.
As if I needed another reason, every package of eight-pound baby comes with a special toy surprise—a designer handbag, an art deco bracelet, or a pair of fabulous shoes. My husband’s gifts are incentive enough to endure nine months of pregnancy. And I look at each occasion as my last chance. Once we get a new baby home and are faced with the added expense, I figure there will be no more gifts.
Having so many children was hardly a conscious decision, not something I set out to accomplish, but it has taken the pressure off all of the concerned parties. I don’t have to be so meticulous about every little thing. If I lose one somewhere, there are extras. We have an heir, a spare, another spare, and three more spares. I’m not really sure how that happened. Of course I know, technically, how it happened, and I admit I didn’t do anything to stop it. Sometimes it was a matter of “Oh, look, honey, the baby is walking! He has grown so fast. Time to have another!” Those were the planned ones. Then there was the time my husband, Peter, came to me with a urine-laden plastic stick emblazoned with a magenta plus sign and asked, “Is this yours?” I replied, “I’m pretty sure it’s yours.” That was a surprise one.
Planned or not, however each one came about, on most days I am happy to have them. And so I find myself with six dependent souls and the responsibility of getting them safely from infancy to adulthood with minimal mental damage to them or me. Of course if one of them gets into drugs, or we run into the occasional disability, it’s no big deal. I don’t have all my eggs in one perfect little basket; I don’t need every child to be a straight-A, Ivy League–admitted music-and-sports prodigy. I have the luxury of accepting each of them as they are, quirks, disabilities, genetic mutations, and all.
“Where did you get that?” I asked, waking from a nap to a familiar smell.
“I called Domino’s,” my daughter answered with a shrug.
“Where did you get the money?” I probed, groggy and bewildered.
“The bottom of your purse.”
“Did you tip?”
“Twenty percent.” She winked, radiant with pride. “I got your favorite.”
Cleo was five years old. We’d been watching something on the television and I had dozed off, overwhelmed with fatigue-induced narcolepsy. It was a common occurrence for me in those days. I had been living in Texas and I wanted out of my marriage, so I formulated an escape plan based on higher education. When I was accepted to the graduate program for architecture at Columbia University in New York City, I took my daughter, left my husband, and moved north and east, suddenly becoming a broke, single working mother and full-time student. Cleo had spent the first four years of her life in a booster seat under my drafting table at the University of Houston; she would spend the next few lean, exhausting years in the first character-building situation of her life. And build character she did. There were days when we had to walk to school across Central Park because we didn’t have $1.50 to take the bus, but being penniless and raising a kid by myself never felt like obstacles. I was living in Disneyland for grown-ups, swinging from chandeliers with Cleo right beside me, fixture for fixture. Of course there were times when she was the adult, a doppelgänger of Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon right down to her little banged haircut.
“Get up, Mom, you’ll be late for work,” she would prod.
“You’re not going out with that loser again, are you?” she would accurately judge.
“You are not leaving the house in that dress,” she would scold. I barely had time to parent—much less overparent—but, thanks in good part to my abject neglect, Cleo has grown into an independent, self-sufficient, and fearless adult.
When Cleo was nine, she announced at Thanksgiving that she was a vegetarian and would no longer be eating anything with a face. This is not that unusual, particularly among girls who love animals as fiercely as Cleo does. The only thing I take issue with is her choice of terminology. If she wants to be accurate, she should call herself a “pastatarian” or a “Cheeriotarian,” as I cannot recall an actual vegetable ever clearing her front teeth. Corn on the cob and French fries don’t count, in my opinion; they are starches, devoid of nutrients other than the dirt or the occasional corn worm that evades detection. If you ask her brother Truman to describe his sister, he will say, “She has big boobs and only eats cereal.”
When I met Peter, he instantly understood that Cleo and I were a package deal. Things moved quickly; we married, and in three years we had two more children. With the body count steadily growing, Cleo decided it was time to strike out on her own—she wanted to go to boarding school. It’s possible that she was too embarrassed by the repetitive proof of her parents having sex, and needed to get out of town, but I think the reason was more likely her insane love of horses. What horses do for girls is buy time, giving them a few extra years before they must discover boys. I do mean the “buying time” part literally, because those years don’t come cheap. Ever industrious, Cleo helped by mucking out the neighbor’s barn upstate in exchange for riding lessons. I was not at all surprised when she started on her own to research boarding schools that offered riding as a centerpiece of the curriculum, and more than a little relieved that we wouldn’t have to go through the grueling school application process in Manhattan. Being her usual assertive self, she compiled a list of options and set up appointments for the three of us to visit. She also filled out all the applications and wrote the necessary essays completely on her own. Talk about low maintenance. In the end she chose Foxcroft, a beautiful all-girl high school in Virginia, and achieved her double goal of riding every day and wearing pajamas to class.
Many friends and family attended Cleo’s graduation, but I couldn’t be there, sequestered as I was for Project Runway. She wore a long white gown that I sewed for her. As I toiled in the workroom at Parsons, a captive of reality programming, I occasionally had enough mental acuity to think about Cleo. I realized that sending her off to boarding school was the greatest sacrifice I had ever made in my life. The moments I missed with her—watching her dress for a date or celebrate after a victory on the hockey field—are lost to me. She thrived, grew, cultivated friendships, and gained worldviews that have formed her life, and I was not a part of the process. It would have been selfish to keep her from leaving when she was clearly so ready, but it was nearly unbearable to let her go.
From the Hardcover edition.