From Choosing Motherhood

If You Knew You’d Get Divorced, Would You Still Have Kids?

If you’d asked me twenty years ago, whether or not I’d have children, the answer would have been an emphatic of course! From as far back as I can remember, I knew that I wanted to have children. Not just one or two, either– I wanted eight of them, preferably all boys. I inherited my love of children from my mom, who never missed an opportunity to hold a baby, squeeze those little sausage legs, or play peek-a-boo while waiting in the check-out line at the grocery store. She was one of 18 children, from a big Italian family, and I always knew I wanted a big family of my own one day.

To say that I love children is like saying fish love the ocean. As a teen, I spent most of my spare time helping out on the play-yard with the kindergarteners, volunteering at the Y teaching children with special needs how to swim, babysitting on weekends (often without pay), and working as a camp counselor. In college, I taught preschool and babysat on weekends. After finishing my BA, I went to grad school to study child development, got my teaching credential, then taught Kindergarten for two years. Children were a part of every facet of my life.

When I was almost thirty, my husband and I decided to have children. We’d been married for three years. We came to this decision with much intention, partly because he was a programmer, and always considered all the consequences before he entered into anything. Some of the factors we considered were: whether we were financially stable, what we could offer children, whether we could afford to have me stay home until they were in Kindergarten. As much as I thought we were making a well-informed decision, I realize now that we hadn’t considered what should have been the most obvious question: would we still want to have children if we had to go it alone?

We are conditioned from early childhood to imagine the perfect family scenario– mom, dad, 2.2 kids, a dog, a white-picket fence. My version of this was that I’d be a stay-at-home mom , my husband would be involved and attentive to our family, and we’d have my doting Italian mother (Nonna to my kids) only two miles away. I’d had fantasies about pregnancy, too– that glow, that gorgeous round belly, people helping with my groceries. It wasn’t long, though, before reality caught up to fantasy in a dark alley and gave it the good beating it deserved.

The disillusionment began somewhere around the sixth week of pregnancy. I came to understand the misnomer of morning sickness, which was not relegated merely to mornings. No– it lasted all day, every day; and whereas for most people, morning sickness subsided after the first trimester, for me lasted five long months. I managed to gain 60 lbs with my first pregnancy and 58 lbs with the next. And that pregnant glow? Ha! What I experienced was more a putrid shade of green. Looking back, I suppose this was the first indication that perhaps having children was not going to be what I had imagined. But I got through the pregnancy, and after nine months of feeling like a bloated cow, I gave birth to a beautiful and healthy baby girl.

Those first few days were as magical as everyone says; all I wanted to do was gaze into my baby’s eyes and hold her close. Then a couple of weeks in, those magical days were replaced by anxious nights, filled with completely irrational thoughts. I was convinced that my precious daughter would get into drugs or have unprotected sex. Even after those initial anxieties subsided, I could never have anticipated all the worries that would accompany having children. In the rolodex of my mind, I filled card after card with every new worry inherent to parenting. But, despite the worries, I enjoyed being a mom. For me, the benefits far outweighed the costs.

I was fortunate enough to have been able to stay home until my daughters were six and four. I’d planned to stay home until they were both in school, but as it turned out, my husband was not happy being married. I think marriage and parenting took a tremendous toll on him. In February of 2006, when divorce was imminent, I took a job as a preschool director in a small school that offered a lot of flexibility. By December, the girls and I found ourselves in our new house without their father, a maze of boxes looming in the living room. Over time, and with my mom’s help, we settled into our new life.

My mom, who lived only two miles away, was a tremendous help. She watched the girls if I needed to run to the store or if I had a meeting. She’d make sure my freezer was stocked with minestrone and sauce. In many ways, having my mom was better than having a husband; she was more helpful and I never felt I had to walk on eggshells with her. But less than two years into my divorce, we learned that my mom had Stage IV colon cancer. The oncologist gave her 6-12 months. The surgeons performed an aggressive resection of her colon and liver. She came to stay with me for a few months while she recovered. The surgeon felt confident that he’d gotten all the cancer, and for a couple of years, it looked as if she might defy the odds. Then, after almost two years of being cancer free, she got the news that her cancer had come back. It was, hands down, the hardest time in my life. On top of being a single mom, I took on the job of being her caretaker. She stayed with us while she recovered from an aggressive surgery, and again at the end when she was housebound and on a morphine drip. I wouldn’t have traded that time with her, but it added another element of challenge to parenting. Somehow, though, I made it through.

If you asked me today if I had to do it all again, would I have kids, there would be no definitive response, rather a long, uncomfortable pause followed by an incredibly uncertain I’m not sure. I have to stop here and qualify this by saying that I have two of the best kids I’ve ever known. If they were not my own kids and I met them at a gathering, I’d be instantly drawn to each of them, and would seek them out as friends. But, here’s the thing– if I had to do it again, what I would change is the mindset I had going into having children. I genuinely thought I was making an informed decision, but the questions I considered barely scratched the surface. I couldn’t possibly have planned for the curveballs that life throws, nor could I have fully appreciated the fact that mothering is relentless. Sleep is scarce, and not just in the early years. As I write, it’s 3:30am. My 14-year-old daughter woke me because she has a fever. Even when I feel I have nothing left to give, somehow I find a way to give some more. And I don’t begrudge doing any of it for my children.

No doubt, I was naive in imagining a perfect little family. In my wildest dreams, I could not have imagined what it would mean to put my own life and creative pursuits on hold for a good ten to twelve years, let alone to do so selflessly, without harboring resentment. When my husband and I thought about having children, despite the fact that we were well aware that roughly 50% of marriages end in divorce, we didn’t consider the real possibility that we might end up divorced, and we most certainly didn’t consider the scenario of parenting without a partner. This was an oversight with consequential repercussions, for us as parents, as well as for our children. Even with the most thoughtful consideration and planning, there are always unforeseen circumstances. I know this to be true with just about everything in life. So why did I think parenting would be any different? I guess it goes back to the house, the white picket fence, the American dream, that mythical perfect family. I wanted it so badly. I tried so hard to create it, to shield my children from every pain and hardship. It took a long while for me to realize that the pain and hardship are essential to developing compassion.

I guess if I could impart a bit of advice to someone on the fence about having children, it would be to ask yourself, in complete honesty: Are you willing and able to parent your children alone, and still live a happy and fulfilled life? The answer does not have to be yes.

dimartino-headshotAnna DiMartino is a writer, artist, teacher, and mother. Her writing has appeared in Whale Road Review, Silver Birch Press: Learning to Ride, Atlanta Review (Spring, 2016), The Cancer Poetry Project 2A Year in Ink, Volume 6 (San Diego Writers, Ink Anthology); Serving House Journal: Issues 8, 10 and 12, Steve Kowit: This Unspeakably Marvelous Life, and is forthcoming in Lake Effect. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University and leads a read and critique group for Writer’s Ink. Visit her website at www.annaodimartino.com.

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How I Learned to Want to be a Mom

From the editors:  Jennifer DiGrazia describes how her perspective on motherhood shifts when she meets her partner Jamie, who is already a mom. 

Despite being a “girly-girl,” I didn’t really want children.  My dad had two more children with my step-mom when I was a teen, and I knew that they altered life.  I have memories of family vacations in a mini-van packed to the rims with the six of us, our luggage and baby paraphernalia.  The Huggies smooshed up against the back window were the ultimate embarrassment, and I hated the space taken up by strollers and car-seats and the stench of spilt formula.  I liked my half-siblings, but I quickly learned that kids required enormous amounts of work.  They totally messed up life with their constant needs.

When I was in my late twenties, finishing up my Ph.D. and starting my first real job, I married Jamie, my partner; she shared custody of her son with her ex-partner.   I first met Jacob when he was 5.  He had sparkling blue eyes, liked to brush my hair, and sat on my kitchen counter to get away from Scully, my 75-pound lab mix.  He was easy to love.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, being married to someone with a child was lonely.  Jamie and Jacob “got” each other.  We might be at a crowded park, and they would meet one another’s eyes.  Jamie would tell me it was time to go.  She just knew what he needed. Observing them made me nostalgic for something—a connection, a sense of belonging—that I had missed.  In my early thirties, I began to look longingly at women who were breastfeeding, bundles nestled into their chests, the abandon with which their babies collapsed into their bodies.

I tried to fight this urge.  I was busy starting a new career.  I thought I should feel grateful that I had never gotten pregnant during my tumultuous teens and twenties. Besides, many friends and family members didn’t exactly embrace my growing desire to have a child, and they were quick to remind me of how much I had—my partner, my pets, my step-son, a steady job in an uncertain economy. I also have major depression, which was finally controlled with with a balance of drugs, exercise and diet.  I knew all the arguments against having a child–overpopulation, the need for baby supplies and sitters, the hormonal imbalance.

But, something had shifted dramatically in my own emotional landscape.  Part of the attraction of being pregnant was that I couldn’t come first.  Previous exposure to my half-siblings and Jacob became reasons for wanting kids.  I knew, better than most, that a baby would have to come first.

There was precedent. Jamie’s partner had birthed Jacob.  When we finally agreed that we would try to get pregnant, Jamie knew how to fill out the forms and pick the “criteria” for a donor at the cryobank.  I didn’t care how we chose, so we matched some of Jamie’s characteristics: white, Jewish, and educated, with the pool of donors.  The website also gave the donors’ reasons for participating at the cryobank–some even sent a note to the prospective couple.  We read those narratives avidly, narrowed our options to three.  The first was no longer available, so we went with the second.

We got pregnant at home on the second try. I was thirty four, and I had an easy pregnancy, and nine months later, after a difficult birth, our son, Jordan, was born.

Jordan breastfed until he was over two, and I enjoyed the pressure of his sucking mouth and warm body against my breast.  I felt anchored.  My world became really small, focused on deciphering the mysteries behind his rich brown eyes and reveling in his curiosity about the world.  He said “Mama” when he was really young.  However, he rarely slept, never crawled, and at 5 months old, when he didn’t gain the requisite weight, he was given a failure to thrive diagnosis, the first of many diagnoses.

Everyone wants to know how lesbians get pregnant and these stories are interesting, important, and complicated, but of course, they don’t end there. When conception is complicated it’s easy to get caught up and lose sight of what is infinitely more important: babies become people, and sometimes they become people who don’t conform to or fit neurological, social or educational developmental expectations.

Jordan is now 8 years old, and he has a dual diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder.  He is the most precious–and complicated–person in my life.

Jordan is an enigma—a wonderful, difficult enigma.  When he is melting down because he can’t have computer time and he can’t regulate his emotions, when he is spewing invectives at me or anyone who challenges him, or when the special needs bus comes to collect him each morning at 7:00, Jamie will sometimes tease me, “You spawned that!”  He is incredibly perceptive, asking, in almost the same breath, details about the Greek god Poseidon when we read the latest Rick Riordan novel, and, “Does everyone have something like I do?”

Parenting Jordan leaves me feeling not only needed but overextended.  We endlessly consider medications, doctors and diagnoses. We read articles, consult experts and work to manage his behavior–while trying to maintain a semblance of childhood for him and life for ourselves.

Despite the exhaustion, I love being one of Jordan’s parents.  I love the sparkle in his brown eyes, the mischief in his giggle, the softness of his wavy brown hair, his boundless curiosity on good days.  As we continuously help him negotiate his way in a world intolerant of mental illness and anything that challenges the norm, I see him in increasingly complex ways.  Even taking into account our time at the hospitals, our experiences in schools, the continuous monitoring he requires, when I hear my friends and colleagues describe their own parenting trials, I realize that our struggles are the struggles of all parents who want to raise good people–just amplified.  Daily, he reminds me  what I had hoped to learn: it isn’t really about me. I am so grateful for that.

jen digraziaJennifer DiGrazia grew up in Nevada and now lives in Northampton, Massachusetts with her partner Jamie, her son Jordan, two dogs and three cats.  She teaches writing at Westfield State University.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Creativity 2.0

From the editors: Can women continue to be creative post-children? Can they be prolific? The creative and funny Leah Gotcsik says, “yes.” Read on to learn how she does it!

When I was pregnant with my first child I was performing improv and sketch comedy 2-3 nights a week in addition to working full-time as a writer at an experience design firm. I liked to think that my son was inside my belly going, “Dude, my mom is hilarious. And look at the example she is setting for me about pursuing dreams and having a family. Wait, was that a fart joke? Classic.”

Even though I always knew I would keep performing while pregnant and afterward, the choice to perform, and even the choice to get pregnant were hot topics for my fellow performers, especially the ladies. If you’ve missed the cyclical “are women funny?” rehash from the last infinity years, a lady in comedy is already fighting for her right to party, and a mom in comedy…well let’s just say that the dismissive “good for yous” from bros 25-and-under were not quite part of the “we are all just comedians” vibe I would have wished for. What began as some softball questions in a stairwell that served as a green room—when are you due? Is it a boy or a girl?—often snowballed into intense lady comedy conversations. How was I going to do it and why? How did I know that if I had a kid now “my career” would be okay?

My response then was that first and foremost, I wanted a kid. Key factor. And biologically it was something I had to be thinking about because I wanted to try and create/carry my own child. I had comprehensive health insurance for the first time in 10 years (because I took a full-time job in order to get it). And…I didn’t want to look back 20 years later and say, “Oh yeah, I could have had a kid, but I was really trying to get this 10:30 pm Tuesday slot at this comedy theater where they don’t pay you, so it didn’t happen.”

Almost 5 years and exactly two kids later I have this to add. And it’s pretty simple. If you want to have kids, and your life presents you with the opportunity to do so, have them. And if you want to keep being creative and successful you will be.

My son is now 3 ½ and my daughter is one. I still work at that experience design firm during the day, and while I still perform occasionally, I now write for children’s television at night (and during naps), for Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Creative Galaxy, and Odd Squad. My husband is a teacher—which is key for childcare purposes—and he is also a playwright. He is workshopping a play right now that has a residency at the New Victory Theater and is supported by the Kevin Spacey Foundation.

Dare I say it, and really I shouldn’t because as soon as this is posted we’ll be attacked by crows or something, our creative life is better than before we had kids, or at least more quantifiably successful.

How do we do it?

  • We sleep less, and less well, than we used to. My husband wrote the book that became his current play during the first five months of my daughter’s life…in the middle of the night while she slept on his shoulder.
  • We get things delivered. Amazon Prime. Instacart. Laundry. Anything we can do to use the time we have when the kids are asleep to do the work we’d like to do.
  • We don’t watch that show you love. I also probably haven’t seen you in a while, incredible friend who I love. Thank you for reading this. Let’s have a drink!
  • Our house is never as clean as we would like it to be, in case that wasn’t already obvious.
  • We help each other out. If one of us has a creative deadline or a project we are really focused on, the other takes the lead on childcare.
  • We have full-time creative-type jobs that help us get our other creative stuff done. My husband has summers off. My job starts at 10. Oh, and money.
  • We work with collaborators. We are naturally prone to that anyway (improvisers!) but it also helps to share the work.
  • We try not to get too freaked out. Are we working too hard? Shouldn’t we be spending all of this time with our kids even when they are sleeping? Did we just gain 10 pounds? Why the f&*% did my son just look at the dishwasher and say, “What’s this thing called again?”
  • We just do it. I have told people that I write more and better with two kids than I did with one, and way better than I did with none. I have a limited amount of time. So…FOCUS! And I am tired enough that I am pretty much always the equivalent of two drinks in, which means no filter and no worry that what I am writing will suck. Gotta be real ruthless with the spell check though.

Reality check: If you’ve read this far you might be thinking…who are these people? Why are they doing this? Don’t worry, I ask myself this question every night as I look longingly at the unread copy of “Yes, Please” by Amy Poehler collecting dust on my bedside table.

So here we go: Why do we do it?

  • We can’t stop/won’t stop. We have had ample opportunity to throw in the towel. Sometimes I wish we could—hammocks! Binge-watching! But any time either of us has a creative lull we dive right back in.
  • We know that the way it is now—two small children, multiple jobs, never enough time, endless amounts of hustle required on all fronts—won’t be forever. This is the long game, friends.
  • We’re still fun. When we got married, I cross-stitched one of our catch phrases, “We have fun, don’t we?” onto a sampler (Cross-stitching?! I guess because I love Anne of Green Gables?). The answer is still, “yeah, we do.” And so do our kids…unless we are singing, which my son cannot stand.
  • We’re proud of the example we are setting for our kids. When I watched my son run around the set of my husband’s show after my husband took a bow wearing our sleeping daughter, I was so proud. Our children will grow up in a house where doing creative work is encouraged and normal. And where working hard at something you believe in and that makes you happy is a good thing to do.

And if you are someone who likes to scroll to the end, here’s the gist: We’re not trying to be heroes, we’re just trying to make stuff we like with people we like and have a family we like at the same time. I knew a stand-up comedy couple with a 2-year-old. They were both getting up on stage 5-6 nights a week. Who was watching the kid? They figured out a way he could sleep backstage and they took turns watching him. Would I do that? Maybe not. Would you do what I am doing now? Who knows? However you approach creativity and parenthood is how it’s going to work for you. It can work. It will work. And your kids are going to roll with it.

The other day I opened my laptop in front of my son, and he asked: “What are you writing, mama?” When I told him, he said: “I want to watch that one.” And after multiple rewrites and 8-plus months of animation in Canada, he will.

leah momLeah Gotcsik writes children’s television (Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Creative Galaxy, Odd Squad) and designs experiences with ESI Design. She coordinates the Writers Group for the Children’s Media Association and was recently named the most aggressive bird in her son’s naptime story. She is always looking for more creative opportunities. Find out more at leahgotcsik.com.

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Have I Got a Deal For You…

From the Editors:  Nicole Savini, TV producer and mother of an eight-month-old boy writes about being lured into motherhood. Continue the conversation in the comments. 

I was long suspicious of the friend with kids who said things like “You have to have a baby!” mere moments after interrupting me (and my thrilling play-by-play of my latest blind date) to discipline a little one. “No, no, no… I’m on the phone. Put it down. Mama’s on the phone…. Okay, what were you saying? He sounds nice.”  (He did not sound nice, by the way.)  Why did all my parent friends make it their business to get me procreating? Why not let me do me: the cool aunt who buys their kids age inappropriate toys and dry-clean-only sweaters? What stake did they have in it?

It wasn’t until years later, when I was blessed with my own bundle of joy- a bundle whose soul-splitting shrieks only subsided when he was gnawing my nipples raw- that it dawned on me:

Pregnancy is a pyramid scheme.

Here’s how it works: You get pregnant and now you have a kid.  Hooray! But, suddenly, your fun factor plummets. Can’t go out on a whim. No plays, no movies, no parties (at least not the kind that are worth it).  You’ve lost everything you valued before.  But what if- and hear me out on this one- you could sell others on the same lifestyle?  What if, at no personal cost to you, you could decrease everyone else’s fun factor and even potentially raise your own in the process? Sound too good to be true?  It’s been working for centuries!

The more friends you recruit, the better your own life gets.  Sure, they may get screwed- lose money, lose sleep, and gain weight- but if they join, the fewer parties you’ll miss. There are no parties! At least not the kind that are worth it! And now no one is talking about that movie you haven’t seen! Who has time to see movies? And when you throw your 2-year-old’s birthday party, it takes little more than “there will be wine” to lure your parent friends over!  What’s that saying? I think it’s, “misery loves company, as long as that company brings their kids to entertain yours”?

In the dark hours, as I held my new baby, Sam, I wondered what I’d done with my life’s fortune.   I would sit up at night trying to breastfeed (I say trying because I hadn’t read the fine print on that one either: it ain’t easy, ladies) and run through the list of names in my head: Stacey, Sheila, Chrysi, the other Nicole… these are the childfree friends I would call the next day and warn: don’t buy into it!  I’m here to tell you: It’s a scam! It’s too late for me but save yourself!

I looked at people like my sister and other close friends who had encouraged me to get pregnant and thought “did they knowingly do this to me?”  I like to think their intentions were more “try this chocolate cake, it’s delicious” than “try this milk, it’s sour,” but I saw no evidence of it.  My life had taken a turn for the worse and all I could do was stare slack –jawed at the disaster unfolding. I felt doomed.

But about 6 weeks in, I got an unexpected return on investment: a smile.  When Sam’s little face lit up, my buyer’s remorse disappeared.  Don’t get me wrong, it was- it is– still very hard.  But now 6 months later, I love this new version of my life. I don’t feel duped. In fact, I feel lucky. I am exhausted. I am still 15 lbs heavier than before I was pregnant (when I was 10 lbs heavier than I wanted to be), and I haven’t seen a movie or the majority of my friends since Sam was born. I constantly feel like I just can’t catch up with life. But that thing they sold me on, that feeling that is so amazing it is “indescribable”: it’s real. The best way I can explain the feeling is that it’s like the one I used to get when I really liked someone. Whenever I’m coming home from work and I get to see Sam, it feels a lot like it used to feel when I was showing up to a party and I knew “he” would be there. A little giddy. Excited. Oddly energized. Difference is, this “he” explodes with joy when he sees me walk in the room. I can’t say that happened much (ever) before.  And that joy explosion is seriously amazing.  Dare I say, indescribable.

I can’t tell you if you should have kids. And I definitely won’t try to sell you on it.  It’s not like I stand to win a pink Cadillac if you sign up anyway. But I can tell you that I get it now.  Even when I’m the one on the phone saying, “Hold on a sec, he’s pulling my hair and biting my forehead,” I can promise you, I don’t regret a thing.  Come to think of it, I feel like I cashed in on the opportunity of a lifetime.

tia and samNicole Savini is a mom to Sam, wife to Michael, and a Senior Segment Producer to Stephen Colbert at the Late Show.  She has never been involved in a pyramid scheme but she does enjoy a good human pyramid.

 

 

 

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How Kids Changed My Definition of Fun

Happiness studies suggest that we humans are bad at knowing what makes us happy and that having kids does not; in fact, it decreases marital satisfaction, and according to one study, women rated housework as preferable to taking care of their kids. In response to these studies, some argue that there are different kinds of happiness: pleasure in the moment and pleasure reflecting on our past. Sure, they say, kids decrease daily pleasure and increase daily stress, but parents experience joy in reminiscing and the satisfaction of raising a decent and productive human being (if all goes well). But what is often overlooked in these discussions is pleasure born out of deprivation.

After living in New York City for a decade, I started to find it hard to get excited about anything. We saw live music all over Brooklyn, ate amazing meals, watched movies in the park under the Brooklyn Bridge, danced at PS1 or the Williamsburg Pool Parties, enjoyed boozie brunches, and hula hooped in Prospect Park. This list makes me drool now, but it was my norm, and my pleasure senses dulled. One night at a bar, a Huey Lewis line popped in my head, “I want a new drug.” I had gotten bored with my fun and my freedom, and ironically what I actually needed was to make my life more boring and more taxing so that the fun things would feel fun again.

I’ve always enjoyed working hard or even depriving myself to rediscover the pleasure in something: beers after a frigid New England day on the slopes, the first piece of chocolate after giving up junk food for Lent, the first cup of coffee after quitting caffeine, and sleeping in a bed after a few nights in a tent. In an episode of Radio Lab, a man hiking alone in the South Pole digs up a bag of Cheez Doodles that he buried for himself 86 days before. The video of this exhausted, starving adventurer digging this treat out of the snow is moving: he hollers, he dances, he experiences full-on bliss. Every day of having a kid is like hiking the South Pole and something as simple as dinner and a movie or sleeping in is that hard-earned bag of Cheez Doodles.

Of course, you don’t have to have kids to achieve this contrast. People find all sorts of ways, both big and small, to make their lives harder so that their free time is more satisfying. We train for triathlons and marathons, spend weeks of our vacations building houses for Habitat for Humanity, and hike the South Pole.  (It is worth noting that most of the world doesn’t have the privilege of reaching a fun saturation point and does not need to manufacture difficulty.)

My mom once said, “don’t wait too long to have kids or you’ll be too selfish.” If I waited too long, she thought, I would become too accustomed to the freedom of living single in a city, a freedom she never experienced, but what neither of us knew was that bathing in freedom can feel a little like drowning and that the limits parenthood puts on your life can actually liberate you to find fun and even excitement in the smallest, most blasé freedoms.

When I lived in New York, a birthday meant drinks and dancing with all of our friends. This past year on my birthday, my husband, a nurse, was scheduled to work 3 p.m. to 3 a.m., which meant that I would have to leave work on a dark and freezing February night and drive an hour to pick up my son at my in-laws and then another thirty minutes to get home and get my son fed and ready for bed. At the last minute, my husband called to tell me he got the night off and that he’d ordered pizza. I was ebullient.

 

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