A tall woman of 38, with long, cascading dark hair and an upbeat manner, Ana is the daughter of Cuban immigrants. She lives with her husband and two kids, 4-year-old Alexander and 19-month-old Josefina, in a small house in Columbia, where they moved after Josefina was born and their one-bedroom apartment in Alexandria began to seem like a holding cell. It was a stretch, but they found a place they felt they could afford and were surviving -- until Ana's husband, Hal, lost his job when a business venture with a friend went sour. Since then Ana, a hairdresser, has been the family's main breadwinner.
Hairdressers at the better salons generally keep only about half of whatever the client pays, plus tips. On her best days, Ana has made $400; on her worst a mere $75. Because hairdressers are independent contractors, they get no health insurance, no 401(k), no sick leave. When Alexander was born in 1993, Ana was able to take three months off by saving up vacation days and using Hal's holiday bonus. By the time Josefina arrived in April 1996, there was no cushion whatsoever: Ana was back at work when Josefina was 2 weeks old because they needed the money. "I was breastfeeding, and it was very important to me, but I had to give it up at six months with her," she says. "That was devastating. I had no quality time with her. I hardly got to hold her when she was a baby."
Since Hal's job ended, they've had no medical insurance. When Josefina and Alexander get sick, their pediatrician gives them samples from her medicine closet, and charges a reduced fee. Ana hasn't been to a doctor herself since Josefina was born. The past year has put a major strain on the marriage, too. Eight months ago, Ana recalls, she and Hal were "at each other's throats." Divorce was in the air. And then one night there was an extraordinary heart-to-heart talk at the kitchen table, just the two of them, and from that talk emerged two people more strongly committed to each other than before. Hal, a tall, dark-haired man with an athletic build and an easy smile, gets watery-eyed when he recounts the same story.
The more I hear about Ana's life, the humbler I feel. Being tortured about the choices before you, I realize, is a luxury.
What would Ana's ideal life be? "I'd work out of my home, doing my bridal consulting business," she says promptly. It's clear she's given this extensive thought. "I'd work here maybe two days a week and use this place as my base. I'd still be a working mom, but I'd have the joys of going on vacation and not having to worry about money." Could she ever imagine being a full-time stay-at-home mom?
She laughs. "I wouldn't know where to begin."
I had never thought of myself as a full-time stay-at-home mom, either. But it was lovely, being at home. "You're so lucky," my friends in the newsroom would say, and even if some of them thought of maternity leave as a kind of vacation, they still had it right. When Emma was about 2 months old, I found a new-moms support group, and it was a lifesaver. I met new people; Emma made it past the newborn stage and became a settled baby; and, like countless mothers before me, I discovered this new job could be fun. I spent a lot of time every day lying on the floor next to her, making nonsense sounds, watching her discover her toes. I'd put my face up to hers, and she would try to bite my nose, making little baby pants the whole time -- Hah! . . . hah! -- and squeals of delight. Some mornings, I would steal into her room and find her quietly awake, amusing herself. When she saw me, her whole body would go rigid with anticipation -- mouth a perfect O, arms and legs outstretched, waving: Pick me up! Come play!
Once Emma and I had recovered from her birth and my Caesarean section, I turned into a low-rent Martha Stewart. I loved cooking. I even loved folding laundry, making neat, sweet-smelling piles out of what had been a mound of dirty clothes. My house was clean, windows open to those first glorious days of spring. It reminded me of my childhood, when life was ordered and time seemed expandable and the house smelled of broiling pork chops and the dinner table was set with a cobalt-blue bowl of nasturtiums in the center. A whole new world was opening up to me, and it had a new cast of characters; several of the women in my support group were becoming close friends.
What struck me about these women was how kind they were to one another -- kinder than I was to other people in my head, lots of times, and far kinder than I usually am to myself. On a couple of occasions someone in the group wept over some problem, and there was no orgy of pity, no competing to see who had a bigger problem, no wallowing in "what-are-the-childhood-roots-of-this." Just a piece of tissue and a moment of genuine sympathy, and then collective brainstorming: What would help here? Motherhood was an intense and all-consuming job, I was learning; it was easy to get mentally backed into a corner, too stressed to think. We helped one another out that way.
I never wept in that group, though I sometimes felt like it. Mostly, what made me want to weep was an increasingly urgent question: What was I going to do with the rest of my life now that Emma was here?
David and I had easily agreed that I'd be the one to stay at home for a while; I wanted to, and he was just reaching cruising speed in his career. But I needed to work. I needed to do this not just for the money, which was becoming tight without my salary, but also because work had defined me for the last 20 years. Being a writer was almost as intrinsic to my identity as my gender. Yet the kind of writing I had always done had meant long hours in a downtown office, tramping around the city. How could I reconcile the demands of that life with the delight my days with Emma had become? It was a problem we talked about often in support group; the consensus was that dealing with a colicky infant was a piece of cake compared with figuring out how to pick up your old life where you left off.
The most obvious answer to my dilemma, though by no means the easiest, was to persuade The Post to give me another unpaid leave to write another book -- at home. I had had no trouble getting my first book published, and if sales didn't exactly set the charts on fire, the experience convinced me that I could at least make a little money.
That spring, I set to work on a book proposal about motherhood after 40. "I thought the market was pretty much saturated with books about motherhood," said my friend Danny, the war-on-drugs author. I paid no attention to the warning; my agent was enthusiastic. I spent weeks reading, refining my ideas, figuring out whom to talk to, coming up with a rough outline of what I hoped to accomplish. As I pushed Emma in her stroller on long walks through the neighborhood on those sunny June days, I revamped and rewrote in my head. The day that I finally shipped off the proposal -- my future and Emma's in a plain manila envelope -- I stopped on my way to the mailbox to rub it on her little bald head. "For luck," I said.
I had prepared myself for the possibility that I wouldn't get a terrific advance; I told myself all I needed was something. What I never expected, in my eager innocence, was to fail utterly. But I did. Not a single publisher made so much as a low-ball bid. I had put all my psychic eggs in this particular basket, and managed to narrow the future down to one of two melodramatic possibilities: a successful book, or a dreary life of getting up at 6 a.m., hauling Emma off to some faceless day care, returning home exhausted at 7 p.m. after fighting the rush-hour traffic, getting to spend maybe half an hour with her before she went to bed. Now that Plan A was gone, it was July, and Plan B loomed like an execution date.
The day the last hope of the last publisher died, David came home to find me sitting disconsolately on the living room floor. Emma, then 8 months old, was playing nearby. "Talk to me," he said, and all my self-doubt and fears and anguish came pouring out. I saw exactly two bleak options: either consign my daughter to long days at some impersonal day-care center, or give up my cherished career. No rational thought about other options could penetrate that fog, at least initially. So I sat for a long time on the floor, sobbing, David holding my hands. After a while, Emma came scooting over to us on her bottom and started lightly patting my leg. David said later that if he hadn't known better, he would have sworn she was trying to comfort me.
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