In light of Mother’s day – or because we’re both moms and we like to talk about motherhood, work, balance, and life – my friend Jess (from Sweet Amandine and author of, Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home) and I had a lengthy conversation about becoming mothers and what all of that really means. We talk about our initial desire for motherhood, the striving for balance (and subsequent giving up on the idea) and we attempt to remind ourselves about what we are doing right in parenting rather than parading our failings.
I adore Jess’ perspective on life and motherhood. Talking with her I’m reminded that each day is a gift; one to be treasured and enjoyed. I so enjoyed talking with Jess and I hope you like reading through our (edited) conversation.
Jess and I are thrilled to be teaming up to offer a special Mother’s Day package that includes a signed copy of her book and a NWS Chocolate Chip Cookie mix, beautifully packaged.
Join the conversation in the comment section for a chance to win a package or check out the Not Without Salt Shop to order one for yourself or a special mother in your life. I’ll randomly select a winner on Monday, May 2nd – which also happens to be the last day for placing your order if you hope to receive it in time for Mother’s day.
We have a limited number of these pretty packages so be sure to get your order in!
Jess: I remember when we first met, at the home of a mutual friend. I was there with my 1.5-year-old and was still figuring out how to parent while socializing with other adults. Meanwhile, there you were with your THREE awesome kids, seemingly totally at ease. Also, you brought homemade peanut butter cups! I remember thinking, this woman is such a natural, obvious mother. Did you always know you wanted to be a mom?
Ashley: Yes, I did always know I wanted to have children. I have vivid memories of seeing pregnant women on TV or women with newborns and I’d think, “I want to experience that.” This may sound a bit morbid but as a young child I was fearful of dying and I’d think to myself, “as long as I live long enough to have children I’ll be okay.”
Jess: That is such a powerful feeling you describe.
Ashley: Well, the other thing is that I was surrounded by women having children. I grew up going to church and all of the women in my life had children so by default, I guess, I just assumed that’s what we did.
Jess: That’s amazing to me, always wanting it.
Ashley: You didn’t?
Jess: Thoughts about whether or not I wanted to be a parent just weren’t on my radar for a long time. Certainly not when I was a kid, though I did have strong ideas about what I wanted to happen in my life: I wanted to move to New York City. I wanted to go to college. I wanted to work hard at something, and get really good at whatever it was.
Ashley: So was it when you and Eli were dating that you started thinking about having children?
Jess: [laughing] It was when Eli and I were dating that I started thinking about marriage! My parents separated when I was seven – maybe that’s why, before I fell in love with Eli, I never thought that I absolutely would, or should, get married and have kids. How old were you when you married Gabe?
Ashley: Oh man. We were babies. Gabe and I met when I was 18 and he was 19. We got married when I was 21. Our first baby came three years after that. A total surprise. I was having health concerns that I thought would prevent me from having children, or would require me to undergo medical intervention in order to become pregnant.
Jess: So when you found out you were pregnant, you must have been thrilled.
Ashley: Thrilled and terrified. We had just bought a convertible in L.A. because I had said that when I became pastry sous chef, we would celebrate with a car we really couldn’t afford. (We were young!) Two weeks after we bought the car, I found out I was three months pregnant.
Jess: That’s amazing.
Ashley: We were so far away from where I thought we would be when we had kids but yes, at the same time, I was thrilled. Something changed in me when I held my positive pregnancy test. Suddenly it wasn’t just me asking myself “what do you want for breakfast today?” It was “what is the best choice for the baby?” The moment I found out there was a baby in my belly, I felt like a mom. Did you feel that?
Jess: [laughing] Oh no, no, no… I mean, for me, all of this is wrapped up in the crazy health thing that happened to me.
Ashley: Yes, of course.
Jess: I was 28. Eli and I had been married for not-yet three years. I went for a run one morning, and an aneurysm ruptured in my brain. We had just decided we were ready to be parents. I’d been off the pill for two weeks.
Ashley: Oh my goodness, I hadn’t realized the timing of it all.
Jess: It was nuts, because for so long I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a mom. Then that summer, Eli and I realized we were at a place in our lives and our relationship where we felt absolutely ready. And then… ka-pow! For a while, we were told that it might not be safe for me to be pregnant. Then, at the follow-up scan months later, we learned that the tiny bit of aneurysm that remained after the surgery was gone, and I’d one day be strong enough to carry and deliver a child. Anyway, my feelings during pregnancy were less about motherhood, and more about my body proving its strength. I thought: I can’t believe I get to do this. I’m not even supposed to BE here. (I actually still think that all the time.)
Ashley: So when did you feel like a mom?
Jess: I think my identity as a mother emerged alongside the slow but steady rebuilding of confidence that I am healthy, strong, and here for my children. I associate being a parent with being invincible, or at least seeming so to your children. Not in a let’s-set-impossible-standards-for-ourselves kind of way. Just, how thinking that your mom’s a superhero is a beautiful part of a young child’s love. That feeling a child has, like: “You are my world!” The illness and near-death in my past made me worry that I might not be able to be that for my kids. I have two little girls now, as you know, ages 4 and 2. My new identity crept up on me. I’m not sure when. But now I definitely feel like a mom.
Ashley: Are there any preconceived notions about yourself or being a mother that have flown out the window since you’ve had your girls?
Jess: You know, the way I work definitely shifted post-kids in ways I didn’t think were possible. Before I had kids, my best working hours were early in the morning. I’d wake up at 5am and go straight to my desk and work for a couple of hours, then crawl back into bed for a bit with Eli, who would be just beginning to stir. That sounds like such a luxury! Now I spend those early morning hours either with my kids, or trying to sleep a bit after a night of nursing and musical beds. When I became a mom, I realized that I had to dispense with the idea of a “best” time to get work done. I had to learn to work whenever I had the chance. In terms of motherhood, hmmm… I didn’t picture my life with kids much before they actually came along, so I didn’t have many preconceived notions. But I can tell you one thing: I love being a mother so much more than I thought I would. What about you?
Ashley: I think I had this naive, “I got this!” attitude at first. Wooooosh. That went out the window quickly. And I’m glad it did, because that has taught me how to ask for help, set up my community, my village, to humble myself in front of my children and say, “I don’t always got this, but I’m going to do the best I can and we’re going to be alright.”
Jess: That’s so wise, Ashley.
Ashley: Well, I can’t do it all. That’s hard to admit. The longer I live the easier it becomes, though. For that I’m grateful. It’s good for my kids to see that I can’t do it all and to hear me admit it, so that they can be easier on themselves down the line. You do the best you can where you are, continually reevaluate where you’re putting your energy, adjust, and try your best again.
Jess: I’m always so curious to hear how other women do it. Literally, what it looks like on the ground. I remember talking to you when we were both knee-deep in the process of writing our books. You had an incredibly tight deadline. The entire manuscript -recipes, photographs, all of it- was due in something like six months, is that right? And you did it! How?! What did a day in the life of Ashley look like then?
Ashley: I had eight months. It was tight but totally doable because one, I have an amazingly supportive husband and two, I had a dear friend who helped immensely with the organization of it all. The boys were in school at the time and Ivy was in preschool. I would take the morning work shift and work until it was time to pick up Ivy. I think some of the days I worked all day while Gabe was with the kids. I divided the book project into three different tracks – the recipes, the photos, the words. It felt like three separate projects that eventually morphed into one. Our little family knew that this was a big deal for Mom. We worked out our family schedule so that my writing the book and doing the very best I could was top priority. My days weren’t necessarily balanced – which is an elusive rainbow-colored unicorn of a creature that simply doesn’t exist. I gave up on daily balance and now look at my whole life as the thing in which I want to have some semblance of balance. That season was heavy on work, for me. Now we’re nearing the summer months and I’ll be more towards the mom role. It eventually balances out.
Jess: Yes! Eli and I take the long view of “balance,” too. We’re like, this is what we’re doing right now: starting a company, writing a book, taking care of young kids. It’s a lot, and we’re often tired, but we’re happy tired! And we know as the kids get older, it won’t always be this way. We’re rolling with it. I think that’s my version of “having it all:” having as much as I can at any given moment, knowing that the definition of “all” is always in flux, and feeling profoundly grateful.
Ashley: Ooo, I remember being in the throws of diapers, nap schedules, mid-day kids’ TV, constant food on the ground, and thinking, this is my life from here until eternity. You, with little ones, are really in the thick of it now. But it really is temporary.
Jess: That’s what I tell myself! What are your days like now that your kids are older?
Ashley: The kids are up by 6:45 am and then out the door by 8 am. I usually use the first hour to get my coffee, sometimes I exercise, but most often I journal, listen to something inspiring and just breathe. It’s very hard not to jump into email and get started, but I really try to start the day with a bit of calm. From there, every day is different. Sometimes I’m working on a recipe for the blog or a client. Other times I’m preparing for a cooking class. I try to offset the work time by getting together with a friend for coffee, and once a week I meet a friend who is teaching me French. That’s probably my first New Year’s resolution that has ever lasted until May! Evenings are for homework, family time, baseball practice, and downtime.
Jess: So you basically organize your work day around your children’s school schedule? Are all three in school full-time now?
Ashley: This is the first year that all three of my babies are in school and that really is amazing. I’m incredibly introverted so those six hours of quiet are so sweet.
Jess: Six hours alone in the house? Amazing…
Ashley: Yes! Even with all that time to work I had hoped that I’d be the cheery mom, eager to greet them when they arrived home from school. I’d open the door with a smile on my face, chocolate-smudged apron around my waist, and a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies in hand. I think I’ve maybe done that once. Nope, I’m lying. Never. They walk in the door to find me on my computer frantically trying to finish something, or in the midst of a huge pile of dishes from a shoot earlier in the day. They come home to my chaos, but my intention is always to close up shop and be there for them. It’s hard though, isn’t it? Especially when you are freelancing and you are the boss – I mean, to just turn it off?
Jess: It is hard. I think that’s one of the best things that has come out of making sure I have enough childcare: being able to feel okay about shutting down the work part of my brain when I’m with my kids so that I can be fully present.
Ashley: What does that look like for you?
Jess: Have I told you about my parenting life in the early days of writing my book? When I signed my book contract, I was still enrolled in my PhD program at Harvard, teaching undergrads, working on my dissertation. My first daughter was 9 months old. People – mostly other women! – would say to me, “You’re so lucky that your work has flexible hours. You can be a full-time graduate student AND a full-time writer AND a full-time mom!” I’d think to myself, oh, okay, I’m supposed to be able to do this. Why is this so hard? Why do I feel like I’m failing at everything? We had four hours a day of childcare, which felt like a lot, but of course, it’s ridiculous to think that I could teach, and write a book, and write a dissertation, and be a mom and, you know, clean the house, get groceries, pump my breasts, maybe shower sometimes… all in a 20-hour work week.
My husband had just left his company to found a start-up, so money was tight, and I felt guilty getting more childcare. But Eli helped me understand childcare as an investment in my professional future and in who we wanted to be for our children: people who are passionate about their work, who are making the things they want to see in the world. So I went on leave from my graduate program in order to focus on my manuscript, we increased our childcare to 30-ish hours per week, and though I still had to work late nights, I was in a much better place.
Ashley: So how do you care for yourself in the midst of all that — motherhood, work, and everything else that life throws at you?
Jess: I refill by spending time alone inside my brain. I know this sounds workaholic-y, but honestly, when I get a long stretch of time to write, and get to come out the other end having made something, I feel good as new. Guarding my writing time as best I can is probably the #1 thing I do to take care of myself. What about you?
Ashley: Because I have so much time during the day now I give myself the permission to do things that are not work and just for me. So for example, French lessons feel like something for me. It’s a personal goal and I’m choosing to spend my time working toward that goal. Also, I’m trying to build more time for painting and drawing into my day. It’s a creative outlet that, for now, comes with no expectations. I get to open my journal, put color to the page and then close it up. I have an incredibly supportive husband who is always encouraging me to build in the time to take care of myself. It feels much easier to do that now that my kidlets aren’t so little. It’s also a practice I want them to see me doing because yes, I want them to learn how to care for themselves.
Jess: I love the awareness you have of modeling for your children.
Ashley: I think we’re starting to have this culture within motherhood where we feel free to admit where we are failing. I think that’s important. I mean, it’s freeing to shout our “failings” from the internet rooftops, saying, “I fed my kids boxed mac & cheese!” or “I let my toddler eat cereal off the floor this morning!”
Jess: We’ve talked about this before, and I remember your saying something smart: that by calling these things out as “failures,” we’re condemning our very humanness. Man, if feeding my kid powdered cheese is my biggest parenting “failure…” Sounds okay to me!
Ashley: The next evolution of motherhood I want to see is “admitting” to ourselves and each other what we do well.
Jess: Yes! How are we doing this motherhood business right?
Ashley: You first.
Jess: You know, I think I really came into my own as a parent when my kids started talking. Newly verbal toddlers get so frustrated and angry when they realize that they can communicate their desires, but don’t yet have the skills to be 100% effective! I think I’m really good at being present with my girls during meltdowns, helping them find their way out, and back to an emotional place where they can communicate.
Ashley: That’s amazing. It’s so inspiring to hear that. Okay, now it’s my turn, I guess. Why is it so much easier to talk about what I’ve done wrong? Recently I started journaling with each of my children. It’s a space for them to feel free to tell me about what’s going on. It’s a safe place for them to voice fear, concern, happy thoughts, sad thoughts, whatever they need. For me it’s a sweet point of connection and it’s something that is very personal to each of us.
Jess: And, uh, you also bake them awesome treats all the time!
Ashley: I do. And you do too!
Jess and I would LOVE to hear what you are doing right in motherhood. We both feel strongly about changing the message and celebrating one another for our strengths. We all know we can’t do it all but rather than wasting breath considering what we aren’t doing let’s spend a bit of time appreciating what we are. Believe me – this was the hardest question in our conversation. Jess had to repeatedly remind me to rid my mind and sentences of qualifiers. Then, when I answered I felt light, lifted and encouraged and when I heard Jess’ response I was eager to celebrate her in her strengths and inspired by her patience and gentleness towards her little ones. It’s freeing to admit we can’t do it all but it’s life giving to honor what we can and are doing.
What are you doing well today? How are you doing this motherhood business right? Answer in the comments! Let us all be encouraged by everyone’s strengths.
Jess and I are thrilled to be partnering together in creating what we think is quite possibly the perfect Mother’s Day gift: A signed copy of Stir and Salted Chocolate Chip Cookie Mix all bundled together in a tidy little package. Give it to your mom, or a dear mom friend, or hell, give it to yourself!
Chickpea Salad with Shaved Fennel and Herbs
Last week over on my Facebook page, Molly Wizenberg and I had a fun conversation on motherhood (it’s a recurring theme around here) and how we feed our families. We both rely heavily on a can of beans. The day after our talk this was what I did with my can of beans. For dinner I served it alongside a platter of fresh vegetables, and sliced salami, a bit of cheese, and bread.
Serves 2 for lunch, or 4 as a side
1 small fennel bulb or half of a larger bulb
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 cup roughly torn fresh herbs (mint, dill, parsley, chives, basil)
1 cup arugula
1/3 cup crumbled sharp cheddar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon Nigella seeds (you could also use poppy seeds, toasted cumin, fennel, caraway or sesame)
Thinly slice or shave the fennel. A mandoline makes quick work of this.
In a medium bowl combine the chickpeas, shaved fennel, fresh herbs, arugula, cheddar lemon juice, olive oil, salt (start with a 1/2 teaspoon and go from there) and the Nigella seeds.
Stir everything together well then taste and adjust the seasonings