By Danielle Crittenden
Published by Warner Books
May 2003; 0-446-530743-; 368 pages
IT HAPPENED every time Amanda came home: she felt asphyxiated by her small house. She stood for a moment in the front hall, her arms full of grocery bags, pushed from behind by two small children and thwarted from moving forward by a minefield of rubber boots, stuffed animals, and scattered blocks.
"Ugh! Kids! Why do you leave these things right here where Mommy can trip?" Amanda dropped the bags on the floor and turned sideways to allow the children to burst past. "Just go-go upstairs, do something, watch a video, I don't care."
Amanda bent down and swept aside the offending objects. She did not glance into the living room, knowing it to be in even worse condition than the hall. She would get to it later, after this -- but when? And where would it all go? The children's shelves were already full. The area beneath Sophie's bed looked as if it had been attacked by Suicide Bomber Ken: plastic body parts, shoes, purses, and broken pieces of doll furniture were strewn everywhere. Amanda knew from experience that to sort toys consumed as many trash bags as it did hours, and still you were left with uncategorizable little piles of childhood detritus -- goggly-eyed fast-food figures, tiny cars, baseball cards, rubber snakes -- objects that you couldn't throw away, but you didn't know where to put exactly, either. Four years spent earning a bachelor's degree had not prepared her for a career as a domestic curator.
"And don't make any more mess!" she called up the stairs, to no reply.
It took two more trips to the car to bring in all the grocery bags. Amanda stacked them wherever she could find room in the kitchen: on the narrow counters, the stove, the breakfast table, the floor.
The kitchen, like the rest of the house, remained in what the real estate agent had described as its "original condition." Amanda and Bob had bought the house during the Washington real estate slump of the mid-1990s. The "three-bedroom, Old World charmer/lots of detail" turned out to be a typical Woodley Park semidetached brick job from the 1920s crammed up alongside another semidetached brick job from the 1920s. There wasn't much to recommend it except that it was not -- repeat not -- a tract house in the suburbs. Never mind that if she and Bob were different sorts of people they could have afforded a spanking-new, Palladian-windowed, four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath "Manor Home" in a development named Badger Run Estates. They had looked at such a place precisely once during their transition from apartment-dwelling, one-child family to house-dwelling, two-child family, and had driven away so quickly that their car left tire tracks in the freshly planted sod.
"I don't want to spend my life commuting," Bob muttered as they sat waiting for the light to change at a six-lane intersection near a strip mall where you could buy, right away, with no money down, a reclining mattress.
"I don't want to be more than two blocks away from a good cup of coffee," Amanda replied, and that was all they said for the next forty-five minutes until the bridge that would take them back over the Potomac hoved into view.
By comparison, the Woodley Park house had seemed charming: the plaster moldings, the slanting walls, the cubbyhole kitchen, the urban backyard of flagstone, bushes, and gap-toothed fences. "Eventually you might want to push out the back here and create a sunny breakfast room overlooking the garden," the agent said airily as Amanda wondered whether they could afford to pull up the scuffed linoleum.
That was before Amanda knew Christine Saunders and her custom-built mock Georgian on its two-acre ravine lot, with its "media room," "chef's kitchen," and "in-law/au pair suite" in which Christine stored her holiday decorations. Christine lived in the suburbs -- but not the suburbs that advertised in weekend supplements. Her neighbors were artfully hidden behind the glades of an adjoining golf course. Inside her house everything vanished as well: children, toys, noise, even Christine's husband, who kept an office somewhere in the vast basement. The few times Amanda had met him were as he emerged, blinking like a ferret, to ask if anyone had seen his car keys.
Amanda no longer felt any of the defiant pride she had once taken in the clutter of her own house, the clutter that announced, I am not a homemaker. I am "at home" to care for my children-not to "make a home." One day I will be returning to the office, where I belong. Until then we can get by with the pressboard bookshelves from college and the pullout loveseat we bought when we moved in together, and my grandmother's lamp, and the milk crates we thought made creative record holders. As for the toys everywhere, they just show what affectionate, nonauthoritarian parents we are. It was the same pride Amanda had once taken in driving an old Volvo wagon instead of the suburbanite's vehicle of choice, the minivan.
Now, as Amanda stared into the overcrowded racks of her twenty-year-old refrigerator, wondering where the new gallon of milk would fit, she felt a nasty pressure building inside her head. She had spent most of the day by the swimming pool at Christine's club. It was the first Tuesday after Memorial Day, and the children had been given one of those mysterious holidays from school ("Teacher Resource/Development-no classes" according to the soggy flyer retrieved from Ben's knapsack). She had stood all morning, knee deep in the kiddie pool, trying to look dignified as Ben spat arcs of water and Sophie screamed in terror at the tiny ripples lapping at her shins. As usual, Amanda and her children were the only ones creating a spectacle. The other mothers rested upon their chaise lounges as still and majestic as the gilded figures on Egyptian sarcophagi.
At lunchtime Christine commanded her nanny to take the children to the clubhouse. Amanda joined Christine by the adult pool, where she eagerly accepted a glass of white wine. (Christine was a firm believer in "maternal restoratives," and Amanda was pleased to find that the wine worked upon her like a mild sedative.)
"They can bring us a sandwich here if you like," Christine said, shielding her eyes from the sun.
"Thanks -- I'm not hungry yet."
Christine resumed her talmudic studying of the latest issue of W; Amanda closed her eyes, lulled by the distant hum of a lawn mower perfecting the tenth green in the valley below. "Aren't you loving this weather?" a voice called out. Amanda turned and squinted. A tall woman in a black string bikini was passing by their little encampment of bags and towels. The bikini set off, like jeweler's velvet, the glistening facets of the woman's figure. Amanda sucked in her stomach. Her own practical one-piece was faded and stretched after many summers of propelling toddlers through the shallow end of her public pool.
"Fabulous," Christine replied. The woman drifted away. "She looks too good for fifty," Christine commented.
"Her?" Amanda sat up to take a second look at the disappearing form of the woman.
"No-her." Christine pointed to a photograph of an aging starlet in the magazine, hunched catlike on a bed and dressed in a plunging leopard-print bodysuit. "It's either surgery or airbrushing. What do you think?"
"I can't tell."
"I'd say both."
Amanda took another gulp of wine and settled back into the cushion but it was no use; she still felt self-conscious. She picked up the novel she had brought along, an experimental work by an expatriate Chinese woman-highly praised by the Times-but she could not concentrate. She could only think about how the white dimpled skin of her thighs resembled raw chicken.
"You want a swim?" Christine asked, rising. "I'm burning up."
"You go. I'm fine."
Amanda watched Christine weave her way through the prone bodies, marveling at her sense of ease. Christine had been a lawyer in an earlier life, specializing in intellectual property, "before it was fashionable," as she put it. Bob told Amanda that his colleagues at the Department of Justice still cited an article Christine had written for the Chicago Law Review. Yet in the year since the two women had met, at a play date demanded by their sons, Amanda had never once heard Christine express doubt about the surrender of her career. The only time Christine ever made reference to it was to remark how poorly her job had prepared her for motherhood: "It's not like knowing the doctrine of contributory infringement helps me get Vaseline out of Victoria's hair."
It was not an ease Amanda could share. All her life Amanda had felt herself on a steady trajectory toward some professional goal. The goal wasn't always visible, but she knew it was there. It was why she had studied calculus and biology. It was why she had made herself ill with worry after a poor exam. It was why she and Bob had spent the past ten years paying off her student loans rather than saving for a bigger house. (Her mother had been so proud: a daughter at Brown!) And it was why, at age thirty-five, Amanda could not lie beside a pool on a weekday afternoon without feeling restless.
What of these other women? Amanda cast her eyes over their gleaming haunches. They reminded her of prized thorough-breds, retired from the track, content in their new vocation as broodmares. When they were not grazing by the pool, they were wandering serenely over the landscaped grounds, hair glinting in the sunlight, a genetically perfect clone or two trotting along at their heels. Personal trainers kept their bodies buffed and sculpted purely for aesthetic pleasure, not because the women had any need to exert themselves physically. Where would they exert themselves if they could? Out here in the suburb of Potomac there were not even sidewalks. When a woman was not at the club, she was chauffeuring her kids, flexing, at most, her right foot upon a gas pedal.
Christine reappeared, dipped and glistening. Amanda attempted the first page of her book. In the tiny village in Szechwan province where I was born, there were no dreams. My childhood was dreamless. This is the first thing you must understand about me. A burst of howls announced the return of her children.
Good God, it was nearly six. She had to get dinner started. The broiler chicken she had scooped up on the way home suddenly seemed ambitious. Maybe they should just order takeout -- although it would be the second time this week. How would she justify it to Bob? Sorry, but I spent all day drinking at the club and didn't have time to make dinner.
Her head pounding, Amanda looked through the cupboards for something that would be easy to prepare. Pasta. Canned tomatoes. They had been eating a lot of that lately. She opened the fridge again. Despite the fresh infusion from the supermarket, there was still little that would constitute dinner for two adults: peanut butter, bread, yogurt, juice boxes, eggs, the congealed remains of last night's cheese pizza. Amanda searched through the fridge drawers but came up with only a head of Boston lettuce, some apples, a bag of carrots, and an unripe avocado. Her elbow knocked over a full container of grated Parmesan, coating everything in the fridge with white powder, like a snow globe.
"Uh-oh, Mommy use bad word." Sophie wandered into the kitchen stark naked, trailing one of Amanda's scarves.
"Sophie," Amanda said tensely, "why did you take off your clothes?"
"I'm playing Indians with Ben." The little girl shook her long brown curls. "I'm an Indian princeth. Will you tie this on me, Mommy?" She held up the scarf.
"No, Mommy will not tie this on you. It is Mommy's good scarf," said Amanda, snatching the scarf away. "And you are not Indians," she added irritably. "You are Native Americans." Sophie burst into tears. Amanda sighed and wrapped the child in her arms. "B-b-but I want to be an Ind-d-d. . . a-a-a Natif Merkan princeth."
Amanda dabbed at her daughter's tears with her sleeve and draped the scarf around the thin, shivering body, arranging it, as artfully as she could, to resemble a three-year-old's conception of what Natif Merkan princesses would wear if Natif Merkan princesses shopped at Nordstrom's. "Just this once, Sophie. Next time use a towel."
"Natif Merkans don't wear towelth."
"Well they don't wear Mommy's good scarves either, sweetie. Off you go."
"I'm hungry," Sophie replied. The telephone rang. Upstairs, Ben began shrieking for his lost princess. Sophie did not budge. "Go!"Amanda pleaded.
Amanda answered the phone. It was Bob. "Hi, hon. What's going on there? It sounds like you're surrounded by Apaches."
"Actually, I am." Amanda pushed Sophie out the kitchen door and closed it, keeping it firmly shut with her foot. A second set of shrieks joined the first. "Can you talk for a minute?"
"Do you think we could go out for dinner tonight? Alone? I've got some great news."
Amanda brightened. "I'll have to find a sitter-"
"Maybe Hannah could come over from down the block. We won't stay out late."
"Okay, I'll call you back. But what's the news?"
"I'll tell you when I see you."
Amanda hung up and fetched the vacuum cleaner from the hall cupboard. She stepped over Sophie, who lay theatrically on the floor weeping, and ignored Ben's howls. The only upside of vacuuming, she realized, was that it drowned out the screams.Copyright © 2003 Danielle Crittenden
Reprinted with permission.
For every woman who has made The Big Decision to Quit Work and Stay Home, traded lattés for juice boxes, power suits for spit-stained sweats, and the designer tote for the diaper bag -- in other words, chucked it all for motherhood -- this novel is a must read. Poignant and wickedly funny, it captures the frustrations, the loneliness, the rage, the guilt -- as well as the ultimate joys and triumphs -- of being a mom today.
Amanda Bright's college degree from an elite university didn't prepare her for changing diapers or removing peanut butter from her daughter's hair. Once on the career track, she's now "@home," putting the needs of her son and daughter first. But her emotions keep catching her by surprise: the way she feels when her best friend dates a billionaire and her lawyer husband is awarded the case of the decade, not to mention what she secretly wants to do to her son's perpetually disapproving teacher -- the one who's convinced her son will never amount to anything due to poor "scissoring skills."
Valiantly trying to, as the magazines put it, "own her housework," wondering if she should flirt madly with a stay-at-home dad, and telling herself that sex with her husband should not be just another item to cross off her to-do list, Amanda picks her way through a minefield of scattered toys and dreams, and struggles to embrace the demanding and sometimes demented life that's hers.
Danielle Crittenden has written an honest, hilarious, and bittersweet valentine to every mother who's had to choose between going to work and leaving a career to be with her kids. The first novel ever to be serialized by the Wall Street Journal, AMANDA BRIGHT@HOME brilliantly illuminates the dilemmas today's women face and the sacrifices they make to follow their hearts.(back to top)
Danielle Crittenden is a journalist and the author of What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us, a book that resulted in Vanity Fair declaring her one of the most important new writers and thinkers about women. Her articles and essays have appeared in many publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, and she is a frequent commentator on national TV and radio. She lives with her husband, author David Frum, and their three children in Washington, D.C.