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Friday, November 8, 2013

The Having It All Project: Meredith Napolitano

Meredith is a former music teacher who left her job after her daughter struggled with health issues. She blogs at "From Meredith to Mommy" - and it's comforting to know I'm not the only one who likes washing dishes! Here's how Meredith is having it all.

Briefly describe your life and what you think makes it unique.
I’m a stay at home mom of two little girls – 3 and 20 months. I’m no longer employed, but I’m trying to grow as a writer and find the time to do that. We’re home all day with my husband, who although part of corporate America, works exclusively from his home office. It’s unique these days to have the entire family home, all day, every day. When the girls get to kindergarten age, we’ll be homeschooling, so this will be our life for many years to come.

I was an extremely driven public school music teacher before having my girls. I took on extra projects, for little (or even negative) compensation, and poured my life into my students and my subject. I never thought I would be able to leave that role. I loved it.

I always planned on continuing, even after having my firstborn. I worked part time for a while, then went back full time. When my second was born only eighteen months after my first, my principal had a chance to show me her true colors and what she really thought about that work/mom balance, and I knew that as long as I stayed in that school, I would always be letting someone down. I hated feeling like I never saw my daughter while she was awake, and I knew I would only be stretched even thinner when I was balancing two. I hated feeling like I was never doing enough at school. Sure I have moments where I miss it, but I’m happy with the choice I made.

What are some of your favorite tips and strategies for coping with the chaos?
I plan, plan, plan. I have schedules for errands, for household chores, for laundry, for writing. I have lists upon lists.

Do I always follow them? No. Not even close. So my second tip is to forgive yourself. It is far too easy for women to beat ourselves up for not coping well enough with the chaos of family life. I forgive myself, adjust the plan, and try again.

I also give myself me time every day. No cleaning, childcare, writing, laundry. I take a bubble bath every night with a good book (and sometimes a glass of wine!) to get myself relaxed and centered.

I accept help when it’s offered. My husband working from a home office means that his hours are unbelievably long, but have a degree of flexibility. He’s offered to get up with the girls every morning and I gladly take him up on it.

Finally, I embrace the chaos. I could choose to stress myself out, or I could choose to find a balance I’m comfortable with. I love a neat, organized house, but with four people home every day, two of whom are toddlers, I need to relax my standards.

Please share a moment where it all broke down, and how you got through it.

When my first daughter was just shy of nine months old, we had a health scare, on top of a professional nightmare. Our little girl had been struggling with ear infections. We just couldn’t seem to get – and keep – her healthy. I was missing a lot of school to stay home with her and bring her to the pediatrician over and over again. Finally we got the blessing to visit an ENT, who took one look at her and sent her in for surgery that day. He told us we’d made it there just in time, and would see an immediate difference.

We didn’t.

Long story short, it turns out the ears were merely a symptom of an underlying problem. Two days after the surgery – just after missing another day of school for my grandfather’s funeral – she was admitted to the hospital. We were there for five days while they took vial after vial of blood, pushed IV antibiotics, and tried to clear the infection out that had taken deep root. We were finally discharged with explicit instructions to keep her in isolation and consult with a hematologist as soon as possible. She wasn’t allowed to go back to daycare, so I couldn’t return to work. My principal wasn’t happy, didn’t really understand, but accepted the situation. I’d long since run out of family health days, so I was placed on unpaid family leave. Not ideal, but we were more worried about our daughter.

Then my husband was let go.

Although it was never stated explicitly, we believe his boss though that he was interviewing elsewhere and that the “my baby is in the hospital” story was a clever cover up. In less than a week, we went from two salaries to none, and from minor childhood illness to frightening blood and bone marrow tests for a condition we didn’t know anything about.

Nothing was right. Everything was broken. Our baby was sick in a way we didn’t understand, our ability to provide was gone. My husband was seeking another job, and I suspected my principal would never look at me the same again (I was right). We didn’t know what we were looking at in the future. It was hard to find anything to grab onto.

We got through it by compartmentalizing. I threw my focus into researching blood and immunity disorders, researching treatments and side effects, finding message boards, getting advice for coping with the isolation. My husband threw his efforts into managing our finances, and job hunting. He knew I was on his side, I knew he was on mine. By dividing and conquering, we weren’t overwhelmed. It was so easy for our tempers to be short, our nerves shot. It was so easy to slip into panic and despair.

And we got through it simply because we had to. I never could have imagined being the parent of a truly sick child, but when it happened, you aren’t given a choice about whether or not you’d like to deal with it.

Do you have any balance role models? Anything you try to avoid because it wouldn't work for you?

I really don’t have any role models. I follow bits and pieces of what works for others and adapt it to my life, but there isn’t anyone I would say I try to emulate. Everyone’s situation is different and you need to find what works for you. I had a colleague who also stepped out of the public school system when she had children, but who was able to create a business for herself with private lessons and early childhood classes. I love the idea of keeping a foot in the teaching business, but she has four retired grandparents who fight over babysitting duties – for free. I don’t have that option, so her life wouldn’t work for me. I could resent that, or I could find another path that works for our life.

The only thing I try to avoid is people who try to tell me the “right” balance to have or the “right” way to live my life. There is no right way – there is your right way.

Think back to your 18th birthday. How is your life different from how you expected it to be then?

I was actually one of two high school students featured in the local paper a few weeks before graduation, where I was interviewed about what I wanted to do with my life. I looked back at it to see what I said. I was on the cusp of leaving for college to get a music degree, and I talked to the reporter about my love of being on stage, and how I couldn’t wait to work with high school students on the other side of things – directing, conducting, and leading a group of focused, dedicated, musical teenagers. I liked children, but I could never picture actually being a mom. I wanted to be a successful musician and teacher and that’s where I poured my focus.

Now that I’ve seen the life of a professional musician, and what a teacher in a high quality performance art is expected to do, I know that sort of all-consuming life is no longer the life I’m striving for. I don’t know if any 18 year old really knows what they expect, but I do know that I expected to feel fulfilled and happy – and I do.

Relate to what Meredith is saying? Leave her some love in the comments. Read other posts from The Having It All Project here. Questions? Send me an email at havingitallproject@gmail.com.

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