When I offered to review Three-Ring Circus: How Real Couples Balance Marriage, Work, and Family, I felt a mild curiosity, a sense that, while I would not seek out this book on my own, here was a chance for me as a stay-at-home mom to see how the other half lived. After a few essays I realized how much the media’s “Mommy Wars” had warped my thinking.
The mere mention of “work” and “couples” on the cover got me thinking it would be all about two-career families. On the contrary, this anthology makes a spectacular scramble of the “Working Mom vs. Stay-At-Home Mom” dichotomy. Editors Dawn Comer Jefferson and Rosanne Welch present 27 essays that demonstrate some of the complex interplay between the need for meaningful (or at least sustaining) work, the couple relationship, and the strain and joy of parenting.
My curiosity about working mothers’ experiences was sated by this set of vivid and memorable portraits. Take “Mile High Mom,” in which Rosanne Welch draws us into her sleepless night at a hotel, where she is on a business trip thousands of miles from her young sons. It plays like a bad acid trip. She can’t shake a sudden fear of her plane crashing, her son standing over her grave while people shake their heads: “Poor little boy. He had such a selfish mother.” Welch expertly conveys her own separation anxiety by painfully counting down the last hours of the night.
Welch and many of the other authors here pursue work outside of the home out of a desire to hold onto an identity outside of parenting. They seem to seek a combination of creative self-expression, contribution to the larger world, and the feeling that there is more to them than the singular and engulfing role of parent. This I understand, as I lock myself in a room to tap away at my keyboard.
For some, work outside the home provides an antidote to the grind of child and house care. In “Home Day,” Alisa Gordaneer honestly and humorously chronicles a day at home with her sick kids. Here she portrays work as dry ground as she narrowly escapes drowning in the wildly wonderful and profoundly irritating world of parenthood and house care. Stealing a moment to drink her now-cold coffee while the kids do artwork, she contemplates her life and her choices. It’s a brief moment before cat and kid collide in yet another disaster du jour.
Shriek. Yowl. Crash. I run into the kitchen, apply kisses, Band-Aids, catnip. It’s 9:24. Somehow, we get through the morning. By the time my husband comes home, the kids are eating a nutritious lunch of cold cereal and I’m feeling pretty competent. I’m also extremely glad to kiss them all and head off to work. “You don’t look so hot,” says a co-worker. “Are you coming down with something?” “Kids,” I explain. They nod, and back away.
Although my whole life is “home days,” I still know just what Gordaneer means when her son asks “Can we have a home day every day?” and she says, “No, sweetie. That would make Mama crazy.” Far from balking at this characterization of the stay-at-home option, I agree. Yes, I think. Exactly. I have chosen a path that makes me crazy. I take a moment to envy her release, her alternative universe in which she can play adult.
But the working world does not always come off like a sanctuary. There is plenty of craziness to go around in this anthology. An essay later, in “It’s About Time,” Morrey McElroy shows just how hard it is to swing the transition from home to work. As a teacher sent to the principal’s office for excessive tardiness, McElroy is faced with the infantilizing task of explaining her late arrivals on a form. She considers writing:
1. Toddler, who is potty training, pooped on the floor. 2. Infant daughter, who refuses to take a bottle, needed to be nursed. 3. Blouse, covered in spit-up, had to be changed.
Ah, yes. That would be me. They may be different worlds, but the planets of work and family do not seem to stay separate very well. As McElroy puts it, “My husband and I liked to imagine that we blended in with the adult world around us, but our parenthood keeps showing like a cheap slip under a dress.”
For many the push to work outside the home is a matter of making ends meet. In “Sleepless in Southaven,” Dessa Patton describes how she had three children by a previous marriage when she met Heath. Two paramedics working opposite 24-hour shifts, they had the courage and audacity to add a baby of their own to the mix. Patton takes us through the dizzying days of swing-shift parenting: she drives their van full of kids to the fire station where she relieves her husband at the end of his shift, exchanging their kids and the van for her shift and the ambulance. She updates him on the kids; he updates her on the ambulance, and off they go. The creativity and rigor of their arrangement says so much about these parents’ ability to make family life and work fit together despite the odds.
Sometimes the odds are dizzyingly bad. Christine Jahn, in “That’s not Farrah!” takes us into the free-fall of a single mom who is an hourly employee with kids home sick for the week. There is no childcare safety net among her family and friends, so she faces the outrageous predicament of leaving her young children home alone or losing her job, unless she and her newish boyfriend can come up with a new solution. In this immense crunch there is barely a moment for tears:
I went to my room and cried. I didn’t want my babies to see me upset. Since the divorce, they had seen me get emotional too many times — like when child support didn’t come for a year and I ended up having to donate plasma in order to feed us. I knew I had to keep this job, for them. I also knew they needed me to nurse them back to health. The sobbing continued until Angela’s next bout of vomiting, when I was called back to active duty.
Jahn’s voice is so clear and her writing so passionate; I could easily identify with her. In fact, by the end of the book I realized that in one way or another, I could see myself in every single essay, regardless of how closely the particulars matched my own juggling act.
In the engaging and eloquent “Remember Who You Wanted To Be,” an essay that fits nicely with the anthology’s circus theme, Dallas Jennifer Cobb plays with the image of juggling:
We likened parenting to the task of juggling while more balls are tossed in rapid succession. Somehow, we were supposed to catch each new ball, and work it effortlessly into the routine. . . . Engorged breasts — catch — breast-feeding on demand — catch — sleepless nights — catch — postpartum depression — catch — and the endless slipping away of who I used to be.
These dangers — depression, loss of sleep, and loss of self — are real, and this book, though often witty and colorful, is also unflinchingly honest about the pain and risks we humans take when we cross the threshold into parenting. In the haunting essay “Middle Passage,” Juliana Min Kim-Grant takes the reader into the dark in-between land as she reels from the transition into motherhood:
I am neither here nor there. I am neither mother nor writer. I am neither wife nor girlfriend. I am stuck in a netherworld of in-betweens. It is a terrible place to spend one’s days. When I think about what it is I want, I am struck by how little of what I used to want makes any sense now.
This essay, more than any other, shows the risk of the couple drifting apart, and the mother falling apart. As the essay moves relentlessly on, I find myself tasting the writer’s despair, and although she gives a glimpse of a new horizon at the end, she does not let the reader off easy. When I was reading this book, I was in the middle of a marital crisis and rebirth, after seven years of nonstop intense parenting and juggling my partner’s work and my writing. Too few of these essays, it seemed to me, delved into the challenges presented by keeping the marriage ball up in the air.
Like most anthologies, Three-Ring Circus is uneven. Some of the essays, like Lynnell Mickelsen’s “Love in the Time of the Toddlers,” are pleasant but fairly superficial explorations of a theme, not adding much more than what one might get out of a playground gab session. And while all of the essays are written quite competently, only a few of them distinguish themselves with truly beautiful prose. But if a few essays suffer from a lack of depth and artfulness, the ensemble compensates with impressive breadth. From African American parents trying to prepare their son for a racist world, to parents getting through their son’s cancer treatment, to a two-mom family deciding to be a one-kid family, a surprising and intriguing variety of journeys unfold within these pages. Although one can readily imagine niches unfilled, it is out of a sense of the limitless possibilities. And that, more than anything, is this book’s great strength. Three-Ring Circus skillfully captures a broad view of the plight — and the strength — of today’s parents.
By halfway through the book, I realized that I was holding in my hands a terrific response to the Mommy Wars, the media’s incessant pitting of working moms against stay-at-home moms. In Three-Ring Circus, as the moms and dads take you into their yearnings, joys, and excruciating choices, you realize that, as different as each story is, there is a startling vein of similarity running throughout. They — we — are all essentially doing the same things: trying to keep the family afloat, to nurture and enjoy the children, to stay connected to our significant other, and scrabbling to hold on to a part of oneself, to not get wholly lost in the blizzard of conflicting needs.
Three-Ring Circus: How Real Couples Balance Marriage, Work, and Family is a book I would want to share with any parents looking to better understand their own three-ring circus, and to feel that they are not alone. And for a mama-writer who has nearly overdosed on parenting-related writing, this book does what I wasn’t sure any book could do at this point: it tells new stories that are both surprising and familiar, reminding me that regardless of the details of our juggling act, we’re all essentially in it together, discovering as we go along what it means to be a struggling, loving, human.