Tuesday, April 16, 2013

It's more than just a denigrated apple cobbler

I wrote this a while ago, but was apprehensive about sharing it.  But I'm now, after over a year of staying home with my children, contemplating returning to work.  I have a lot of mixed emotions about it.  I certainly don't want to do it to have marginally better dinner party fodder among other working adults.  But, why did this situation make me feel small?

We sat around the heavy wood table swirling our wine, talking and relaxing after a long week. The children were tucked away in a playroom, eating apple cobbler ala mode, and having a silent TV-staring dinner party of their own.  That is, until she emerged, offending dessert in her hand, complaining to her mom: “I’m not going to eat this.  The ice cream tastes like whipped cream and the cake tastes disgusting.”

“Fine,”  her mom replied, “Don’t eat it.”

We all chuckled a bit uncomfortably and then returned to whatever the discussion had been before the interruption. 

No one noticed me choking back tears. 

Over that damn apple cobbler - my contribution to the dinner party.  

But my emotions surprised me.  I’m not some easily offended baker, my pride wrapped up in the product of my oven.  Hardly.  And, Jesus, the little gourmand was probably right.  Ice cream here does taste like whipped cream and I suspected my deflated looking cobbler wasn’t all that good, and had even made preemptive apologies when I presented it to our hosts. I wasn’t expecting any compliments.

I think it was everything that preceded her outburst.

I should explain: I LOVE dinner parties.  I’m a run of the mill extrovert and feel energized and by interaction with others.  I was especially looking forward to this one, with friends who we find funny and interesting, who are great story tellers and good listeners. 

For some reason that night the conversations was largely about work.  Everyone around the table was either a researcher and/or the manager of a large research organization.  The group talked animatedly about that world, complained about the lack of incentives for collaboration in academia, gossiped about mutual acquaintances, shared insights about the latest research…..

I barely said anything. I barely had the opportunity. And the longer I was an observer to the conversation the harder it was to join in. 

I wasn’t intimidated.  I was engaged and interested, and I normally, typical extrovert, insert myself unabashedly. But this world was no longer my world.  Maybe it never was. I had been doing research and policy analysis for the last 8 years, and I was good at it. But I never got a PhD. I never carved out a name for myself.  These people had. Their discussions touched on issues I could not entirely relate to.

Anyway, my days are now with my kids. Kissing boo-boos, changing diapers, planning meals.  Those things did not come up.

I steadily started seeing myself in the uncomfortable and unfamiliar role of a wallflower. Like a note-taking secretary to their important meeting, and I felt small.  I felt a palpable sadness, a lead ball in my belly.

Unlike my dinner companions, my main visible accomplishment of the day had been that apple cobbler.  The cobbler that someone had declared “disgusting,” and no one bothered to disagree.  

I should add: the host later emailed me to say how much she enjoyed the dessert and our company.  No one was trying to make me feel small, and to a person they are all lovely people. But somehow it was still a hard night.


  1. This post rang so true for me, Kim, though my situation is slightly different. I am back at work, but have been struggling a bit to re-find my footing. Friends keep saying things like "but you had a baby!" While true, it's no kind of reassuring - work and home are such different metrics for feeling good about yourself. Know that you were well-respected at GAO - you had a name for yourself! If you do decide to go back to work now, you'll kick butt :)

  2. I'm sorry you felt that way and I think I can relate to where you're coming from. I haven't worked at all since we moved to Malawi and since we are expats here no one knows me as anything except a stay-at-home mom. It's almost as if there was no me before children but I think that's part of being an expat - you don't have the same history with people that you would if you lived where you grew up or where you went to school so the only thing to talk about is what you are doing right now and (in my experience at least) there are a lot of egos and competition in the expat community so maybe that was in the air even if it wasn't voiced. Although now I'm assuming this was a dinner with other expats and I could be very wrong about that. What helps me with those feelings is trying to let go of my own ego and realizing that there is always time to go back to work but that I won't be able to rewind and get back this time I am spending with my children. Sending hugs!

  3. Gosh -- the first image of the little girl complaining about the pie and how your emotions rose to the surface gave me a lump in my throat. For some reason I was right there with you feeling that rejection. I do have friends who has almost gone into depression staying home and choosing once again to work outside the home has brought that sparkle back to their eye. Best of luck in making your decision.

  4. Oh, I'm so sorry you went through this- I wish someone had taken a big bite of their own cobbler afterwards and proclaimed it as good as I'm sure it was! What a brat! Glad you are feeling better about things now...

  5. Kim, this post hits straight to my heart and gut. Loving seeing you on the grid and all over HUFF POST btw. I just relate to every word....at Seder this year the one dish I made actually sucked and it was just potatoes. The staying home and now I am back at work and it's all as confusing as ever. I love how you used this vignette to talk about all of that. When you come back to the USofA please be my neighbor.

  6. I'm not an extrovert, but I could still relate to the sensation of being on the outside looking in. Your words made me the feel that lead ball in my own belly.

  7. Wow, I really loved this post. I can relate so much, playing the part of the wallflower since staying home with my kids, waiting for potty training and tantrums to come up in conversation so that I can have something to add to it. After a while of being around kids all the time, you start to feel one dimensional and that itself is deflating. It's never just the cobbler.

  8. I teared up reading this. Especially the part about the comfortable (stifling!) role of the wallflower - I've actually removed myself from some situations because I just didn't have anything to offer. I thought I was past it, but this has shown me I still have work to do. Thank you.

  9. I think whatever decision you make will be courageous. It takes courage to decide to leave the workforce for awhile to stay home, and it takes courage make the choice to go back. After reading your blog for awhile, I know for sure that whatever decision you make will be exactly right for you and for your family.

  10. Its about that horrible thing everyone has felt at one time or another. The exclusion...the wallflower syndrome...Events like this one bring them all screaming back at once and who could handle that? Good luck with your decisions re work.

  11. I always have a difficult time joining and making conversation in groups of people. Even at family gatherings I sometimes feel like an outsider.

  12. I'm experiencing a pronouncement of kind of an opposite problem at the moment. We moved here for my job, not my husband's, which makes us the odd ones out and definitely causes issues for my husband in social situations. I find I am being made to feel left out of "mummy" things by other mums now - or maybe I'm just imagining it. Like, on my days off, I'm expected to run around to all the playdates and make up for all the "coffee and chat"s I've "missed out on" while I've been working. Expat husbands certainly don't get asked to do this stuff on their days off, and then looked askance at when they say they're too tired from work, or prepping for the next job. My job is still seen as a sideline to being a mum, despite me being our only breadwinner and earning twice as much as my husband. You can't win whatever you do :)

    Although, PS, you are a winner in my books for even attempting a dessert. Of any kind. It's shop cakes all the way for me.

    1. I imagine that is actually pretty hard. One of the best things about staying home has been the community of other moms I've found. I think I'd miss it. The funny thing is I can *kind of* relate to your post. There are a lot of women here with "trailing spouces" because there are a lot of public health professionals (female dominated field). I can think of at least 4 couples (and there are not a ton of expats here) who traveled here for the woman's job. No, 5! I suppose that might make it easier for the men since it normalizes it a bit.

  13. I like how you take a little detail about the dessert and make it into so much more. But, that kid! How rude! I felt angry that no adults seemed to be scolding the kid for the rudeness. I would have been so embarrassed to have been that kid's mother.

  14. That's really hard. I have been a part of those conversations, and also ones where the majority have kids and the few who work or don't have kids kind of sit there--at times it's hard to notice that someone may be totally out of the loop. I hope that you can make this hard decision (either way you decide, it's big and hard!) and find a way to sort of separate it and make it your own and not because you're left out. I know you weren't saying that's why you might return, but I do know lots of friends who first started thinking of returning to work because of feeling isolated, sort of put down and left out of conversations and groups. It's a tough thing! There's no PhD for raising kids, but there should be!

  15. Oh, I totally related to this! It's no fun to be the outsider of a conversation, and you did a wonderful job of relating all the things that happened that day and night back to your internal struggle of work vs. stay home. I know many of us have felt this way.

  16. I relate to this so much. Being an unwilling wall flower is hard enough but there's also this hard to articulate societal undergirding that the paycheck work is Real Work Doing Important Things and the people raising is not. Tough waters to navigate emotionally.

  17. Oh my, I can feel your pain through this post, and how such a small event can have such a lasting impact.

  18. oh... bad night. it's not easy feeling on the outside, judging yourself. next time bring wine. ;)

  19. My husband is a college professor and we work on the same campus, but I'm staff. It is so very strange the way some academics can be so insulated in their work that the rest of the world dissolves a bit. I'm not normally a wallflower, but I do have a pervading sense of not quite fulfilling my potential. Maybe someday...

  20. Ha. That working mom has one rude daughter. Sorry. Not fanning the fire of mommy wars but that little girl needs some manners & her grown-ups don't seem to be up to the task. Ice cream, for what it's worth, tastes weird here too. Which isn't all bad, actually, given my love of a scoop (okay, pint?) here and there.
    Your larger point, though--it's hard to be the person who isn't doing what anyone else is doing, in all contexts, I think. It may be also that your reaction was suggesting to you that yes, maybe you're ready to go back to work. But I've also noticed, for me (and of course aren't we all just like...um...me?), those feelings that you articulate so beautifully are also times where I feel very very far away from "home" and all those anchor points I could depend on, and so the feelings of uncertainty get compounded...I love this post.


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