Mr. Mom, Emeritus.

Dear friends,

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I dare you to find a maintenance technician with better legs.

In my world, when a distinguished colleague retires, he or she is awarded the title of “Emeritus” if — in fact — the individual’s service and achievements have been exceptionally meritorious.

It’s an honorary title, bestowed infrequently, to only the best.

So imagine my great pride — and melancholy — in telling you Mr. Mom is becoming an Emeritus Caretaker.

In other words, he’s retiring. From Mr. Mom-hood.

Which, in a weird sort of way, really means he’s going back to work. Outside our home.

The transition, which begins today, is more than bittersweet. I’m happy for him because he’s happy for him. He’s been toiling as our caretaker for nearly a decade and with Parker off to college now, there’s only me to care for.

(Not to make light of this. Everyone knows I require a lot of care. And feeding.)

But the last three years in particular have been difficult for him with the Mountain, and he needs both a distraction and an intellectual challenge that doesn’t involve case law or laundry stains. And there’s no denying that with two kids in college, the extra money will be great.

But neither of us made this decision because of money. We made it because — like the last time we transitioned our roles and lifestyle — our careful consideration led us to a mutual conclusion.

We both agreed if we hate it, he’ll quit. I don’t expect him to hate it. I’m not sure about me.

We live in a small town with a first-rate university, a well-respected medical system, and our fair share of manufacturing and scientific industry. It’s a great place to get a job if you’re highly educated. Not so great if you’re a highly skilled tradesman with no desire to work for yourself anymore. So Mr. Mom will be joining the millions of Americans who commute far outside their community to serve as a maintenance technician with a food manufacturing company located an hour away. He’ll be working second shift with a good deal of overtime, which means our evenings watching re-runs of Gunsmoke while enjoying a cocktail are coming to an end. In fact, it means a lot of his free time is coming to an end.

And I’m no dummy, but I think it means some of my free time is coming to an end, too, as we figure out how to divide up responsibility for things like laundry and housekeeping and grocery shopping and all the things he used to handle solo.

It’s weird when I think back about how personally challenged I was by our transition to the lifestyle I now relish. I wrote about it in this essay and, at the time, I really was confronting an existential crisis. (Giving up control of the laundry was a big deal for me, which I’m not proud to admit.) Now — it’s not that I dread stepping back into the role of housekeeper/errand runner, it’s that I’d be lying if I didn’t admit my life is comfortable and I enjoy having Mr. Mom’s full attention and energy. I’m pretty sure evenings at home alone will be lonely until I adjust.

On the flip side, I’m so proud of my mate. Once we made up our minds, he embarked on a job hunt with great enthusiasm, careful research, and impressive results. After being unemployed for what feels like a lifetime in today’s fast-changing world, he found a good-paying job with solid benefits in less than a month. He impressed his new employer on day one, while touring the plant for an interview, when he made several suggestions to improve production efficiency based on just a few tweaks to the equipment.

So . . . that’s my big news. I don’t know what to think yet. Like everything else we’ve tackled, we’ll play it by ear and adjust as necessary. I have butterflies in my stomach, which after 23 years of marriage ain’t a bad thing.

Oh — but there’s this! What in the WORLD will I call Mr. Mom now that he’s not Mr. Mom?

Maintenance Man? Hunk o’ Husband? Hot Legs? I’m at a loss for worthy pseudonyms and welcome your suggestions.

One thing’s for sure. He’s more than deserving of the title Mr. Mom, Emeritus.

With gratitude {for a life that unfolds just as it needs to, just when it needs to},

Joan, who loves that man of hers more than you can imagine

In the nest.

Dear friends,

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Kate came home last night. When she and Mr. Mom drove up just as the sun was going down, my shoulders relaxed a little and I couldn’t help but sigh in relief. I gave them both big hugs in the driveway and thought about how lucky any mother is to experience a homecoming of loved ones.

We spent the evening hauling boxes, unpacking, and listening to her funny college stories — all four of us plus her boyfriend, Jake, and her dog, SweetPea, piled on her her bed as if it were a life boat and we might drown if we left her side.

I couldn’t be more content to have her back in my nest for the summer. I hope we’ll make time for all kinds of fun, like watching old episodes of West Wing, going on float trips, participating in our annual girls weekend, making shopping trips to St. Louis, and engaging in any other activity that sparks our mutual interest during the glorious 90 days of summer she’ll spend in Missouri.

Kate’s looking for a seasonal job and enrolling in two summer classes, so her schedule will no doubt be tight. Still, just the opportunity to cook a few of my special “Sunday Suppers” while she’s home will satisfy this hen’s need to fuss over her chicks. Oh, and I hope to finish her quilt so she can go back to school knowing there’s nothing better than a mother’s love in which to wrap oneself tightly.

By the way, we had a fabulous time in Phoenix. Kate’s team lost in the “Round of 16″ but they gave the #3 team in the nation a run for their money in a very competitive match. Given the ordeal our girls have been through, I’d say just qualifying for the National Championship was a victory. They only lost one player to graduation, so they’re a young team with a highly promising future.

As you might imagine, I took a ton of photos during our four-day trip.  I won’t bore you with a travelogue, but I will share with you this favorite from the tournament awards banquet:

teamphoto

With gratitude {for my favorite girls, tennis, travel, vacation time with family, and all things summer},

Joan, who would love to hear what you’ve got planned for your summer

Tough love.

Dear friends,

I’ve got tennis fever. It’s that time of year so I can’t do anything but spread my disease to you. Forgive me, won’t you?

Here’s the first cool thing I want to share:

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My girls won their match 5-0 last weekend and now they’re headed to the Sweet Sixteen in Phoenix.

So am I, by the way. My plane ticket is purchased, my rental car is reserved and my hotel room is booked. I’ve done everything but pack my bags, which will happen on Sunday. I leave on Tuesday, and the girls start play on Wednesday. They will play every day until they lose.  I will scream loudly every day until they lose, or until I fry in the Phoenix sun, which with recent highs of 100+ might come sooner than one thinks. Either way, I’ll be in heaven even if the temps feel like hell.

Did I mention MY GIRLS ARE GOING TO THE SWEET SIXTEEN?!!!!

Oh, sorry. I’m suffering from a kind of Tennis Tourette’s and I can’t stop blurting it out.

Here’s another cool thing: My boy’s doing pretty good too.

We’ve lost track, but he’s won something like 12 straight matches. Recently, he served 11 aces in a single match. At 6’7″ tall, his serve is formidable. His doubles partner is about the same height, but weighs a good 30 pounds more than Parker. To say they are an intimidating duo at the net is an understatement.  I’ve heard tell some of their opponents are skeered. Don’t blame ‘em a bit.

The other day, one of his less experienced teammates was so awed by Parker’s serving display he later asked “Has anyone ever returned one of your aces?” I don’t mean to poke fun, but we sure got a belly laugh out of that one. You see, by definition, an ace is an UNRETURNED serve.  (So the answer is no.) You gotta love the kiddos that are working hard to learn the game.

While I’m in Phoenix following Kate’s team in the National Championship, Mr. Mom will be home following Parker’s team in District and Regional competition. Both are rough assignments, but we’re the kind of parents that don’t shy away from the hard jobs.

I know they’ll thank us some day for our tough love.

With gratitude {for two kids who make me proud every day to be their mother, not because they happen to be terrific tennis players, but because they happen to be terrific souls who also play my favorite sport},

Joan, who resisted the headline “by the time I get to Phoenix” because quoting Glen Campbell ages her more than she cares to admit

Butt Nakey.

Dear friends,

This is my boy.

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He has hops.

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Hops is what you say when you want to be urban-cool and you mean “He can jump.” I’m not urban-cool but I want to appear to be in front of my boy so I say hops.

He has big hops.

I am in love with my boy.

I loved him when he was a baby, depriving me of sleep for most of my 30s with his incessant, nocturnal restlessness and fussing.

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I loved him when, at age three, he nightly sang a song called “Butt Nakey.” I’m pretty sure he meant “buck naked” but you have to admit butt nakey is far more lyrical. He always seemed to have an ear for that sort of thing.

He sang his original composition at full volume, not surprisingly while naked, typically after a bath and before pajamas.

Sometimes he sang it while chasing his sister.

She hated the Butt Nakey song.

She also hated his second favorite song, “Here Comes the Penis,” which he often sang immediately following “Butt Nakey.” “Here Comes the Penis” required a special guitar riff, which he played, also while naked, also while chasing his sister.

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I love to remind my boy of how much I love him. I reminded him the other night, while telling the Butt Nakey story in front of company, and his facial expression suggested he doubted the sincerity of my declaration of love.

A couple of days later, he tweeted the following: I saw a unicorn today. Okay, I saw a girl who ate a meal without posting a picture of it on Instagram. Same thing.

I think he was taunting me. I think his Tweet was retaliation for talking about Butt Nakey.

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I won’t hold it against him.

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I’m too much in love to succumb to resentment.

With gratitude {for a son who has made me smile every day of his life and will forgive me for my immense love and the stories it spawns},

Joan, who has been teasing her boy of late for his “No-Shave November” beard but only because that’s her job as his mother and she doesn’t want him to know she secretly loves his beard, too

The happy thing. Part 2.

Dear friends,

Yesterday I told you about readers Karen and Wendy over at After the Kids Leave and their shout-out for Debt of Gratitude. As part of paying it forward, I’m delighted to tell you about 7 blogs I adore.

First this: I don’t read very many blogs. I’m ashamed, really, because being a good citizen of the blogosphere means reading widely and commenting frequently. Thing is, I’m a slow and tortured writer. Keeping up with my day job and composing almost-daily posts is about all I can manage. So despite my shallow knowledge of the best and brightest bloggers out there, here are 7 writers I follow, week in and week out, no matter how busy I get.

Ree @ Pioneer Woman — Yeah she’s blogging royalty and everybody knows her. But did you know I know her in real life? Her mother grew up in my hometown and is dear friends with my first cousin, Betty Marie. (Betty Marie, Joan-Marie, we like our Maries in my family.) I have memories of Ree  — who by the way is really named Ann Marie — from the time she was a pipsqueak hanging out with my younger cousin. As cool as Ree is, she’s not the most amazing woman in her family. I adore her mother (a kindred spirit in many ways) and I idolized her grandmother, a teacher that I always thought embodied grace and kindness. Several years ago, before Facebook, my cousin Betty Marie set up a “family and friends” website where we could all post photographs and exchange news. Ree joined us every now and then until one day she posted a message saying she had started a thing called a blog and invited us all over to the Pioneer Woman. I remember her very first post. And the rest, they say, is history.

Kate @ SweetSalty — She is the writer I aspire to be. Her exquisitely undulating prose startles me with its beauty like none I have ever read and leaves me breathless. There is nothing more to say except read her. Start with this.

Glennon @ Momastery — More blogging royalty and now under book contract and appearing regularly on HuffPost. I’m convinced Glennon can single-handedly change the world. She’s funny and she’s real and she’s the most moving female voice in the blogosphere. And, she manages to writes zealously about God without making me want to run screaming from the room. For that alone, I love her.

Yoona @ Yoonanimous — She’s a young working mother with a whip-smart sense of humor and crushing sense of style, who I suspect is a little left-leaning and therefore my kind of gal. Yoona is the only writer I know who can be both wickedly funny and sweetly earnest at the same time. She’s such a clear, fresh voice in the crowded blogosphere.

Sizzle @ Sizzle Speaks — I have no idea how I tripped across Sizz years ago, but I did and I’ve been reading her forever. We’re even connected on Facebook now and though I’ve never met her, I consider her my friend. When I first found her, she was single and living the kind of urban, hip life I imagined I could have if I weren’t, you know, old and uncool and stuck in the Midwest. Now she’s about to be married and she and Mr. Darcy have bought a house in the ‘burbs. I’ve loved tagging along on her journey and I’m standing firmly behind her and sending her love and light as she navigates a cancer diagnosis.

Kristin @ Going Country — She’s another woman I tripped across long ago. She lives on a small farm with her husband, mother-in-law and two children in the kind of pastoral fantasy I always dreamed about. In fact, when Mr. Mom and I were living on a postage-stamp lot in the middle of town, we used to talk about Kristen’s Blackrock and how we could so live their lives. Several years later, we’re on a acreage larger than Kristen’s, but there are no tomatoes, no sheep, no chickens, no cisterns of any kind. Turned out, we just like reading about Kristen’s Green Acres rather than cultivating our own. Go with God, Kristen, and keep sending us updates.

CJ’s Mom @ Raising my Rainbow — CJ’s Mom is the mother of all mothers, a smart, composed, my-God-she’s-a-saint of a woman writing about the “adventures of raising a fabulously gender creative son.” I hope you’ll open your heart to her and her family.

So that’s it. Seven women, seven fabulous blogs, seven ways to spend a few minutes in the company of virtual friends who will sustain and delight you. Give them a shout.

With gratitude {for writers who inspire and entertain me},

Joan, who loves her some good words and has been squirreled away writing some new stories of her own

So long sweet summer.

Dear friends,

This is how I spent my last weekend of summer –

Cooking (grilled salmon, pasta, assorted salads, barbequed chicken, baked french toast, biscuits and gravy, green chili enchiladas and more) . . .

baking (apple pie, apple-pineapple crostini) . . .

decorating (tablescapes, new arrangements for the mantle and buffet, flower arranging) . . .

and mothering (big hello and goodbye hugs,  staying up late for long talks, relaxing on the sofa with every person and critter in our household piled on with me, watching movies, passing out money and, of course, all that cooking).

It was three days of bliss I won’t soon forget. I even worked in a couple of naps, some leisurely reading, and lots of the US Open. It was the perfect end to summer, a much-needed respite before the busy fall, a luxury for a homebody who’s called away all too often.

With gratitude {for 72 hours of full-nesting},

Joan, who feels a new sense of energy and says bring on the fall

Home sweet home.

Dear friends,

I got the best surprise ever last night. Kate called after dinner to say her tennis coach cancelled their practice scheduled for Sunday and gave her a free pass for Monday — so she’s home for the long weekend!

I ‘m absolutely giddy about having my CupKate home for an unplanned visit. I made Pioneer Woman’s Baked French Toast this morning and I’m just waiting for the aroma to wake the kids.

By the way, it’s still raining slow and steady  in our neck of the woods. I feel blessed beyond measure — Mother Nature is smiling upon us and we’re all together under one roof. I’m one Mamma who couldn’t be happier.

With gratitude {for three days with the three people I love most},

Joan, who’s not leaving the kitchen this weekend and whose holiday culinary line-up includes barbecued chicken and baked beans, grilled salmon and Midnight Pasta, and green chili chicken enchiladas

Two years.

Dear friends,

Nineteen years ago, our first child was born. I can remember with vivid clarity the concentrated emotion surrounding that event. For the first two years of Kate’s life, her father and I had a laser focus on her every need, emotion, and developmental milestone. Any new parent knows the feeling I’m talking about. It was frightening in some ways, but magical in so many more. We were a family of three — perfectly contained, thoroughly in love, completely content.

Then Parker came along and the whole dynamic changed. A family of four is entirely different than a family of three. And when the siblings are born 2-3 years apart, as ours were, the children can become their own self-contained unit, far more content to entertain each other and less needy of their parents’ attention. We were blessed that Kate and Parker developed a close relationship and enjoyed each other’s company right up until the moment Kate went to college.  We’ve been the four amigos for a very long time. (Well, 16 years to be exact.)

So it occurs to me now that — just as we enjoyed two years alone with Kate when she was a baby — we will now have two years alone with Parker. We’re a family of three again — two parents with a laser focus on one child.

I know. Kate will be home for holidays and such . . . and we’ll always really be a family of four, Lord willing, but it feels once again like we’re a family of three.

For example, there’s only three voices in the dinner conversation now. And only one of them is our child, so we’re naturally more attentive. It’s interesting, lisenting to this solo son’s voice without an echo or an interruption or an aside from his sister. In some ways, he’s on his own two feet for the first time since he was born. I wonder what he makes of it. I hope he’s enjoying our  undivided attention.

I’m certainly enjoying giving it to him. I’m enjoying listening to his voice with a new ear, one not distracted by another child’s concerns. I’m enjoying his company in a way completely different but just as satisfying as that of his sister so many years ago. When Kate was an only child, I read Dr. Seuss to her. I played with her. I cuddled her. Now that Parker is an “only” child, I watch reality television with him. I discuss social media with him. I seek his opinion on politics, community events, and family priorities.

Two wildly different stages of parenting, but still one deeply satisfied and appreciative mother.

With gratitude {for two years — then and now — as well as all the years before and after},

Joan, who just discussed with her son his essay comparing the sociological imaginations of Socrates and Forrest Gump and thinks adult conversations with your children are awfully cool

Got goals?

Dear friends,

I’ve been writing Chapter 20 of The Mountain. It’s a little longer than usual and when I publish it on Monday, my story will be caught up with real time. It’s a difficult chapter to write for many reasons (not the least of which are recent discouraging developments), and I’ve felt a bit worn out by the process. Wait . . . let me rephrase that. I’m not worn out by the writing. I’m worn out by the ordeal that prompted the writing.

I’ve also been getting used to life without Kate in my home. A week makes a big difference and I don’t feel nearly as morose as I did even a few days ago. We’ve either talked or texted every single day since she’s been gone. I haven’t laid eyes on her, of course, but in many ways I feel just as “connected” as I did when she was here. So far, she seems willing to indulge my endless curiosity about what she’s making of college life and to answer my myriad questions about her courses, her professors, her teammates, her coaches. I expect the daily chatter will taper off as we both settle in, but who knows? Maybe not — and that would, obviously, be just fine with me. It still kills me, though, to walk past her empty bedroom every day. (How do mothers who lose a child ever deal with the empty bedroom? It breaks my heart just to contemplate it.)

The combination of pouring myself into the end (for now) of my mountain story and figuring out how to be the mother of a daughter at college has left me more than a little unsettled. I feel unusually rudderless — almost like there’s an urgent need to “redefine” myself but I don’t know how to get started.

I suddenly feel so one-dimensional (I should read more! I should exercise more! I should reinvigorate my social life! I should pursue a new hobby!), and I can’t decide if I’m struggling with a crisis of identity or idle time.

I keep asking myself “Who do I want to be when I grow up?” (as if I’m not). As if I haven’t spent the last 25 years vigorously and sharply defining myself as a successful executive and mother of two.

Every night last week, I came home from work, ate the supper Mr. Mom prepared for me, then collapsed on the sofa in front of the television. And that pretty much sums up my most recent weekend, too. “So that’s it?” I asked myself yesterday. I’m just going to turn into a big, fat couch potato? Where are my aspirations for an empty-nester life, for Pete’s sake?

Please tell me they’ll come later. Tell me I don’t have to chart the entire course this week. Tell me, if you really love me, that lying on the sofa for seven nights straight while eating saltines smeared with butter and watching HBO reruns doesn’t mean my life is over and that I’ll eventually get this whole-new-life thing figured out.

Or . . . you can figure it out for me, dictate it in the comments section, and that’ll be just fine, too. Sometimes a girl just needs the easy answer.

With gratitude {for a robust satellite television package and a pantry stocked with plenty of saltines and butter},

Joan, who resisted the urge to purchase a desk calendar yesterday for the express purpose of charting out “new life” goals because, if there’s anything more demoralizing than lying on the sofa eating buttered crackers, it’s lying on the sofa eating buttered crackers while failing to accomplish a single “new life” goal

Some unrelated thoughts indicative of my state of mind.

Dear friends,

So I’ve got about a thousand things running through my mind this week, none of which add up to anything meaningful but all of which are eminently fascinating to me.

Such as:

  • Parker got a job. At his parents’ urging. He’s busing tables and mopping floors at a steakhouse conveniently located one mile from our house. He’s making minimum wage. He’s busting his butt and coming home tired. His parents can’t stop smiling. Especially his mother. Especially in response to the statement “It was mayhem Mom! I mean, I worked non-stop for FOUR hours.”
  • I decided that with all my newfound spare time — what with a daughter away at college and a son at work — that I would read. Read books. Books I’ve had on my list for a while but never gotten around to. Right now, I can’t put down Gun Fight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. I was looking for an objective treatment of the subject and I’m not sure I found it, but I’m tripping over all sorts of interesting facts I didn’t know. Warning: I’m neither a “gun nut” (read: NRA fanatic) nor a “gun grabber” (read: raging liberal who wants to disarm America) that the author uses as his archetypes, but I am interested in the debate, I’m married to a man with a different perspective on the topic than mine, and I want to be more informed on the facts and not the rhetoric. I’ll let you know if I think the book ultimately has anything to add to the dialogue.  Next up: Fraud and Half Empty, both by the brilliant David Rackoff.
  • My dear sweet Kate is doing just fine.
  • My minimalist phase continues (new books notwithstanding). I spent the last couple of days de-cluttering my master bedroom. There’s now a three-tiered television stand with nothing on it but a television. It’s weirdly . . . vacant looking. But in a really calming way.
  • Does it count if I took some of the clutter to my office? I know. It probably doesn’t, but, among other things, I couldn’t bear to discard my “Tulsa” snowglobe. And yet it was imperative that I get it out of my home. Is this kind of emotional oxymoron (I must get rid of it! I must keep it!) the sign of a breakdown? Or is it merely phased detachment? If “phased detachment” (a term I totally just made up) sounds better, I’m going with that one.
  • When Kate left home, I stopped running. Remember that interval training we were doing? Yeah. I fell off the wagon without the incentive of early morning mother-daughter bonding.
  • I have bitten off every last one of my nails. I do that when I get anxious. I’ve been a nail-biter for as long as I can remember. It drives Mr. Mom crazy. I don’t care because his jittery leg syndrome drives me crazy. It’s an even trade, I figure.
  • Now that I have a daughter at college and a son at work, I joked to a friend yesterday that I would soon have to send Mr. Mom back to work. She looked at me with a furrowed brow and said “Well, you won’t get dinner served at 5:30 pm anymore.” I realized that’s no joke and I zipped my lip.

With gratitude {for my clean house, warm dinner, industrious children and long reading list},

Joan, who hasn’t cried in 48 hours and thinks that must be a good sign

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