Mothers everywhere feel like they know Anna Quindlen. And they feel that Anna knows them. She was, in effect, a mom blogger before there was an Internet, writing about the joys and isolation of new motherhood in weekly installments in her "Life in the 30s" column for the New York Times.
Before that she had been one of the paper's best writers and one of its first rising-to-power women editors. Afterward she would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize as an op-ed writer and to pen six novels and a few books of simple, resonant wisdom. Threaded throughout is her worldview that being a woman, being a mother, changes the way you see just about everything. By sharing her own truths, she shaped and clarified ours.
And she is back to do it again, with a memoir bearing the make-you-smile title "Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake." While most of her columns were from the trenches, this book is a look back with a widened lens -- and her message, as she prepares to turn 60, is that it just gets better (hence the cake).
She looks back on the insanity that has become "professionalized" motherhood, and thanks the "people who stepped in and forced me to abandon my inclination to meddle, micromanage and coddle," a list that includes "my children's father, who sat me down and told me in year two that I was going to create a little monster if I continued to act as though 'no' and 'I don't love you' were synonymous," and "the high school college counselor who told the junior class parents, to the sound of strangled gasping, that they were forbidden to go on college visits with their sons."
That does not mean she was perfect at stepping back. In fact, she admits, it was a struggle, which makes us love her more. And that doesn't mean that now that her children are grown, she doesn't still have her moments. "The cosmic questions," she writes, are "more cosmic, more critical, more terrifying. Who will they marry? What will they do with their professional lives? Will they have children and will those children thrive?"
But with a broadened lens, she assures us, comes heightened self-awareness and peace. "Having and raising my children made me better than myself," she writes, "but they did something else as well: they helped me learn to grow older."
And, as she makes clear, there's all that metaphorical cake.
Yes, everyone feels they know Anna through her words. I was also lucky enough to know her as an editor (without her support I would likely never have gotten my own job at the Times, and without her advice I would never have left there for the Huffington Post). At the Times she was an example to me that women could climb what had been a very male ladder. When she left to write novels, and "Life in the 30s," she was an example of how life isn't linear and success is how you define it. And when she roared back as an op-ed columnist, she was beloved by the younger women in the newsroom not only because she was a champion on the page, but because she had a couch in her 10th-floor office where we could hide during the exhausted early weeks of pregnancy when we weren't quite ready to share things with our bosses yet.
In "Plenty of Cake," Anna writes of a friend "who has always provided dispatches from the foreseeable future because her children are just a little bit older..." Anna has always provided those dispatches, those glimpses, for me.
These latest give me hope.
Thanks, again, Anna.
WATCH: My Interview With Anna Quindlen
To see another segment of our interview, in which Anna Quindlen discusses aging, click here.
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A friend sent me this Anna Quindlen column. It's from years back. I've read it many times, and every time it makes me cry. I love Anna as a writer, and I love what she writes about motherhood. So often she puts into eloquent works exactly what I'm feeling.
This is one of those time. Click on "continue reading entry" to read her column.
On Being A Mom
By Anna Quindlen
All my babies are gone now. I say this not in sorrow but in disbelief. Itake great satisfaction in what I have today: three almost adults, two taller than I am, one closing in fast. Three people who read the same books I do and have learned not to be afraid of disagreeing with me in their opinion of them, who sometimes tell vulgar jokes that make me laugh until I choke and cry, who need razor blades and shower gel and privacy, who want to keep their doors closed more than I like. Who, miraculously, go to the bathroom, zip up their jackets and move food from plate to
mouth all by themselves.
Like the trick soap I bought for the bathroom with a rubber ducky at its center, the baby is buried deep within each, barely discernible except through the unreliable haze of the past.
Everything in all the books I once pored over is finished for me now. Penelope Leach., T. Berry Brazelton., Dr. Spock. The ones on sibling rivalry and sleeping through the night and early-childhood education, all grown obsolete. Along with "Goodnight Moon" and "Where the Wild Things Are," they are battered, spotted, well used. But I suspect that if you flipped the pages dust would rise like memories.
What those books taught me, finally, and what the women on the playground taught me, and the well-meaning relations --what they taught me was that they couldn't really teach me very much at all.
Raising children is presented at first as a true-false test, then becomes multiple choice, until finally, far along, you realize that it is an endless essay. No one knows anything. One child responds well to positive reinforcement, another can be managed only with a stern voice and a
timeout. One boy is toilet trained at 3, his brother at 2. When my first child was born, parents were told to put baby to bed on his belly so that he would not choke on his own spit-up. By the time my last arrived, babies were put down on their backs because of research on sudden
infant death syndrome. To a new parent this ever-shifting certainty is terrifying, and then soothing. Eventually you must learn to trust yourself. Eventually the research will follow.
I remember 15 years ago poring over one of Dr. Brazelton's wonderful books on child development, in which he describes three different sorts of infants: average, quiet, and active. I was looking for a sub-quiet codicil for an 18-month-old who did not walk. Was there something wrong with his fat little legs? Was there something wrong with his tiny little mind? Was he developmentally delayed, physically challenged? Was I insane? Last year he went to China. Next year he goes to college. He can talk just fine. He can walk, too.
Every part of raising children is humbling, too. Believe me, mistakes were made. They have all been enshrined in the Remember-When-Mom-Did Hall of Fame. The outbursts, the temper tantrums, the bad language - mine, not theirs. The times the baby fell off the bed. The times I arrived late for preschool pickup. The nightmare sleepover. The horrible summer camp. The day when the youngest came barreling out of the classroom with a 98 on her
geography test, and I responded, What did you get wrong? (She insisted I
include that.) The time I ordered food at the McDonald's drive-through speaker and then drove away without picking it up from the window. (They all insisted I include that.) I did not allow them to watch the Simpsons for the first two seasons. What was I thinking?
But the biggest mistake I made is the one that most of us make while doing this. I did not live in the moment enough. This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs. There is one picture of the three of them sitting in the grass on a quilt in the shadow of the swing set on a summer day, ages 6, 4 and 1. And I wish I could remember what we ate, and what we talked about, and how they sounded, and how they looked when they slept that night. I wish I had not been in such a hurry to get on to the next thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less.
Even today I'm not sure what worked and what didn't, what was me and what was simply life. When they were very small, I suppose I thought someday they would become who they were because of what I'd done. Now I suspect they simply grew into their true selves because they demanded in a thousand ways that I back off and let them be. The books said to be relaxed and I was often tense, matter-of-fact and I was sometimes over the top. And look how it all turned out. I wound up with the three people I like best in the world, who have done more than anyone to excavate my essential humanity.
That's what the books never told me. I was bound and determined to learn from the experts. It just took me a while to figure out who the experts were.