Just Let Me Lie Down

Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom


By Kristin van Ogtrop

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Kristin van Ogtrop knows she’s lucky-fulfilling career, great husband, three healthy kids, and, depending on the hamster count, an impressive roster of pets. You could also say she’s half-insane, but name one working mom who isn’t.

Using stories and insights from her own life, van Ogtrop offers a lexicon for working moms everywhere. Terms and concepts illustrate the highs (kids who know where their soccer cleats are, coworkers who don’t hit “Reply All,” dogs who helpfully eat whatever falls from the table) and the lows (getting out of the house in the morning, getting along with everyone at the office, getting willful kids into bed) of balancing work and family.

Filled with amusing and resonant observations, Just Let Me Lie Down establishes van Ogtrop as the Erma Bombeck of the new millennium.



Copyright © 2010 by Kristin van Ogtrop

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Little, Brown and Company

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First eBook Edition: April 2010

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ISBN: 978-0-316-08854-1


Absentee parenthood

Accounting error


Adding insult to injury

"Area of opportunity"

Automatic writing

Absentee parenthood: The state of being that sometimes defines your life and is by turns depressing and wonderful.

There are wonderful things about being an absentee parent, namely taking business trips that involve staying in a hotel room all by yourself, or having vital work meetings that keep you from going on the field trip to the local recycling plant, or being generally much too busy to bake anything for Teacher Appreciation Week. Yes, it's possible that other mothers will whisper about what a slacker you are, but you just need to learn to live with that.

But there are depressing moments too, and they can come when you least expect them. Once I was walking to school with my middle son, something we do nearly every day despite the fact that he would much prefer to be driven. I was leaving for a long business trip the following morning, and as my son launched into his routine anti-walking complaint (note: school is all of six blocks away), I said brightly, "Just think! Tomorrow I will be in California, and Daddy will drive you to school for the rest of the week!" My son looked crestfallen. "Oh no," he said. "That means I'll have to eat breakfast in the car, and I hate eating breakfast in the car." And as much as I was looking forward to sleeping in a giant hotel bed all by myself, not to mention taking two long flights with no phone or e-mail access, the breakfast-in-the-car comment did dampen my enthusiasm. It may have been my son's way of telling me without telling me that he was going to miss his mother, or perhaps he just didn't want to have to eat breakfast in under seven minutes and arrive at school with peanut butter on his face. Depending on my state of mind (see Guilt curve, p. 83), I could interpret it either way.

Accounting error: The irrevocable mistake you make when you decide to have one more child than you can actually handle, which pushes the parental sanity balance sheet from the black (a place of comfort, if occasional boredom) to the red (excitement, panic).

A few years ago I happened upon the book Where There's a Will by John Mortimer. In one particularly delightful passage he explained the necessity of always having a child around the house. I realized I couldn't have agreed more, which led to the ruination of the family balance sheet, in the form of a midlife-crisis baby.

Our midlife-crisis baby arrived three weeks before my forty-third birthday, when I was still forty-two, which seems more than a year younger than forty-three when you're dealing with matters of reproduction. My husband and I had talked for the better part of a decade about whether or not to have a third child; the first child and even the second were no-brainers, but deciding to have a third was really a commitment. No doubt some of my reluctance came from my mother's cautionary words: "Having two is like having one and a half, but having three is like having ten." (And this from a woman who could actually take care of three young daughters, throw dinner parties, and sew clothes, all in the same day.) I had had two miscarriages when I was thirty-nine, which left me wary. After producing my first two children with tremendous luck and efficiency, the back-to-back miscarriages were a giant surprise that resulted in a lot of sadness on the part of me and my husband and a lot of tears on the part of me. I felt jinxed, and I was not eager to repeat the experience.

As time passed, I began to view the miscarriages as the inevitable result of (1) a lack of enthusiasm on my part, and (2) God's conviction that the whole third-child thing was a really bad idea for me. But the sense that someone was missing just wouldn't go away. One day I explained the God theory to my husband, who replied, "Well, maybe God was testing you, to see how much you wanted it." This confused me a great deal. What if he was right? When I turned forty-two I made a decision: I did not want to turn fifty-two and still be wondering if we should have another child. Having a third was also appealing in terms of my midlife-crisis options. Compared to Botox, plastic surgery, a convertible, or an affair, a baby seemed like an eminently healthy choice—no sneaking around, no facial injections, no having to run out and put the top up if it started to rain.

So that was it. I informed God of my decision but didn't let my husband know for a couple of months. I told him on our fifteenth anniversary, and I think I was pregnant about four minutes later. This time, miraculously, everything stuck: I did not have a miscarriage and the baby was not born with two heads. Given my "advanced maternal age" (honestly, can't someone think of a better term?), each new test that came back normal was an unbelievable gift, like getting a horse for Christmas when you're twelve. The day my third son was born felt like the luckiest day of my whole life.

One very nice thing about having a baby once your career is pretty much established is that you don't worry nearly as much about how your pregnancy will affect your ascension to whatever height you're aiming for. People around you marvel at how relaxed you are about the whole thing; they chalk it up to the wisdom of experience, and you don't have the heart to tell them that you're simply exhausted and just don't give a damn unless something is on fire. And when you have an established, demanding career, maternity leave actually feels like a vacation. Which is perverse.

So now I have three children, with an eight-year gap between the last two and ovaries that got the job done in the nick of time. Regarding having one child too many, and a life that is perhaps 25 percent too chaotic, friends told me, "Once he's here, you won't be able to remember what things were like without him." That is not entirely true. I clearly remember being able to sit down with a glass of wine before dinner on Sunday night and read a book. I also remember sleeping past 7:30, having stairways in my house that were not blocked by ugly baby gates, and being able to decorate our Christmas tree with an overall symmetry in mind, rather than with the need to keep all breakable ornaments clustered at the top. You are not supposed to admit this sort of thing when you have a baby in your forties, because if you are able to bear a child at an age when half of your contemporaries are either having hot flashes or getting fertility treatments, you should just be grateful and shut up about it. But no matter how old or grateful you are, there really are benefits to not having a toddler around.

Now, other friends told me, "Once he's here, you won't doubt your decision for an instant." And, whether or not our balance sheet has gone permanently into the red, that part is absolutely right.

Actually: One of the top five most dangerous words in the English language. Beware any sentence that begins with "actually," as in "Actually, we've decided to eliminate your whole department" or "Actually, I don't think it's the best haircut you've ever had." Other dangerous sentence starters: "I've done a lot of thinking" and "Mom, don't be mad."

Adding insult to injury: When, after you've gone jogging for the first time in years and can barely make it up the stairs the next day, your husband—who may genuinely think he's being helpful—observes: "You really should find time to work out more."

"Area of opportunity": The silly euphemism a boss or human resources representative uses when there's something about your performance that needs improving. After all, an "area of opportunity" sounds a lot more palatable than "the thing you seem incapable of doing." However, I would suggest that areas of opportunity not be limited to the workplace. I have several areas of opportunity for the children I live with:

• Feeding the cat before he starts meowing like he has his tail caught in a door—a meow that only your mother seems to hear

• Reading a book instead of playing on the computer every chance you get

• Putting your shoes in the closet, rather than right in the middle of the doorway, where you are inconveniencing even yourself

• Stepping outside to feel the temperature before declaring that you don't need a coat

• Cleaning out your fish tank before your whole bedroom begins to smell

• Showering, for once in your life, without your mother having to insist

Automatic writing: A trancelike state in which you have no control over what you are communicating. William Butler Yeats's wife thought she could pull this off and so can you, only in your life "automatic writing" means dashing off an e-mail on your BlackBerry while leaning on the kitchen counter, with someone standing next to you begging for a peanut butter sandwich. And so the e-mail makes very little sense, if you're even sending it to the right person. (Just ask my sister about the time she sent confidential company information to her neighbor Michael Bacon instead of to her coworker Michael Salmon.)


Balancing act

Benign neglect

Best of luck

Book of Too much

Border collie disease

Boredom fantasy

Borrowed time

Brain spins

Balancing act: A hilarious notion that some feminist (or come to think of it, it may have been an antifeminist) came up with to describe what any working mother must do: that is, bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan. But the skillet is very, very heavy, and on certain days you don't even feel like you can pick it up. Other days you'd like to use it as a weapon—and would, if it didn't mean certain arrest, which would have negative playground ramifications for your kids. On these days you really are just acting, to very little applause.

Benign neglect: The Bad Mother habits you eventually allow yourself to fall into once you've gotten all of the hypervigilant, 100 percent organic goody-two-shoes-ism out of the way with your first child.

Because I had our last son when I was forty-two, most kids his age have mothers who are younger than I am. The downside to this is that people might eventually come to mistake me for his grandmother. The upside is that I think I understand some things better than my younger counterparts. An example: a couple of weeks ago I was at the nursery school fair with our two-year-old and he wanted a snack. Naturally I bought him a chocolate-covered chocolate doughnut. Yes, there were healthier choices, although not many, because other parents had very sensibly already chosen those healthy things. But the chocolate-covered chocolate doughnut was what my son pointed at. I imagined the stares of judgment and horror on the faces of my (less-experienced) fellow moms, and I wanted to put a sign on my back: "I am also the mother of a fourteen-year-old. Trust me: a chocolate doughnut does not really matter."

Best of luck: The happy realization that you have accidentally stumbled upon a career that you really love.

A couple of years ago my friend Cindi had lunch with a phenomenally successful businessman who runs an international company that his family built from scratch. He told her at lunch that what she needed—what, in fact, everyone needs—is a five-year plan with clear, attainable goals. Cindi, who is a fellow magazine editor, recounted this advice to me and I immediately went into a tailspin. I've never had a five-year plan! I've never had goals! For example, right now all I know is that within five years I would really, really like to renovate our master bathroom and find a way to get the washer and dryer upstairs so I don't ever again have to go down into our creepy basement, which is something straight out of The Silence of the Lambs. I'd also like to figure out how I can make my children hang their coats on the designated hooks by the back door instead of just throwing them on the floor every time they enter the house, and I could seriously use a better face cream with SPF. As for five-year goals, that's about it.

Goals were just never on the menu for me (see "Not on the menu," p. 147), perhaps because my entire career was an accident from the start. I grew up in a household where my mom stayed at home with the kids until I was in high school and my father said things like "Why do you think they call it 'work'?" My dad complained frequently about his job, even though he was (and still is) diligent about doing it well. Still, I can't count the number of times he told me and my two sisters, "Girls, whatever you do, don't become lawyers." But what was I to become instead? In high school I was a good student, sure, but what I mostly liked to do in my spare time was write letters to my friend Anne Bardsley, pretending to be a character from a book we'd had to read for English class (my personal favorite was Mrs. Manson Mingott from The Age of Innocence), or stare moonily out my bedroom window, listening to Janis Ian records and wondering if I'd ever find true love. What kind of career did that set me up for?

After a brief flirtation with premed that ended in Cs in every math and science class I took, I majored in English. Because they are good parents, my mom and dad were supportive, but underneath their enthusiasm and encouragement, the fact that I was an English major (impractical!) nearly killed them. Maybe I would read a lot of good books, but I'd certainly never have two dimes to rub together. As I continued through college and then graduate school (for a master's degree in English—unspeakably impractical!), I was surrounded by lawyers: my father, my boyfriend's father, my two best friends. After graduate school, as I jumped from one bad impulse of a job to another, I did think, Oh hell, maybe I should just go to law school. But I knew I would hate it: I am not patient, I am not analytical, I'm probably not smart enough, and I really don't like to read anything that doesn't have the occasional exclamation point. In fact the only thing about being a lawyer that I'd be good at would be writing on those wonderful, long yellow legal pads that my father brought home with him by the dozen. (They certainly worked for Mrs. Manson Mingott.)

Then a friend of a (lawyer) friend got me an interview at Condé Nast Publications, and the next thing I knew I had an entry-level job at Vogue. Never mind that I had never really followed fashion and could not name any of the reigning supermodels. Within my first couple of months, one of the editors wore a bikini top to work. A bikini top! That's when I knew things were going to be interesting. Now, the more practical among us might argue that people who wear bikini tops to work are frivolous and possibly insane; I would argue that people who wear bikini tops to work are fascinating. And is there anything better than being surrounded by fascinating people?

Fast-forward through four magazines and nineteen years, and here I am. Although I didn't set out to have a magazine career, per se, if you keep doing something because you like it and suddenly a decade or two passes—well, you have a career. In my line of work I am surrounded by people who are funny and creative and collaborative and have very few temper tantrums or fits of ego. There are highly successful women everywhere I look, and nobody makes enough money to think she is all-powerful or exempt from the common rules of human decency, the plague of Wall Street and Hollywood. I do work for a large corporation, which means that there is a degree of bureaucratic b.s. that must be endured or, if you have the right attitude, actually enjoyed (see Corporate takeover, p. 42). But it is rare that I find myself in a work situation that is boring; my work life feels like a giant jigsaw puzzle of something gorgeous and delicious, like a huge chocolate cupcake. Sometimes I will be in a meeting, having a very serious discussion about something like, well, cupcakes, or Facebook, or stain removal, or fake plants, all in the name of work, and I will think to myself, Thank God I never really had to become an adult.

My friend Elizabeth, a successful corporate lawyer and mother of four, once said, in describing my job, "Kristin talks about colors all day." I just smiled, because she's right. Isn't that amazing? I still can't believe I get paid for it.

Book of Too Much: The overkill that occurs when you think more of a good thing is always better. I learned this concept from a stylish saleswoman who once helped me find some maternity clothes that I could bear to wear to work. I tried on a particular outfit that I thought was sort of cute. "Oh no," she said, clucking her tongue. "Now you are going to the Book of Too Much." This concept also comes in handy when describing boneheaded ideas or micromanaging colleagues or children who think it's perfectly fine to drink Gatorade followed by Capri Sun followed by Vitamin Water followed by Sprite, with no milk anywhere in sight.

Border collie disease: An affliction that affects some of your coworkers, although you are the one who suffers. Symptoms include excessive barking, nipping at your heels, attempts to herd you in a particular direction even though you know exactly where you're headed. Your only defense: bleat angrily and run away as fast as you can.

Boredom fantasy: When you think longingly back to the time when you were fifteen and had nothing to do but lie around the house obsessing over the fact that you would never have long, beautiful fingernails, hair like Claire Fleming's, or a boyfriend. You were just bored bored bored, waiting for your real life to start. Now that you are older and have a husband and kids and can even pay for a manicure, you would give almost anything to have enough free time to be bored. Just for one afternoon.

Borrowed time: The sad reality that, more often than not, it is the people around you who are really in charge of your schedule. Therefore, if you want any time for yourself—to go to the gym, say, or spend your lunch hour at your desk shopping online—you need to "borrow" the time from someone who thinks they have a more important claim to it. This sad reality has led to countless magazine articles in which experts advise you to "schedule me-time" or "put fun on your calendar," which, if nothing else, at least give you a chuckle.

Brain spins: The unpleasant phenomenon that occurs when you wake up at 3:15 a.m. and start thinking about the work meeting you are dreading tomorrow, whether or not your son will remember that he needs to take an empty two-liter soda bottle to school for a science experiment—wait, do we even have any two-liter soda bottles?!—and if you should nag your husband again about your family's lack of a summer vacation plan or just take the whole project over yourself. No matter what your to-do list looks like, you will not fall back to sleep until 4:45, and then you'll be woken up by your alarm at 6:00.


Caller ID malfunction

Child abuse (harmless)

Child abuse (harmful)

Child-care provider

Close encounters of the half-insane kind

Clothes make the woman
     … want to blow up the whole house

Cognitive dissonance

Comfort station

Cone of silence

Confidence man

Conflict of interest

Corporate seepage

Corporate takeover

Coup de moi

Creative control

Critical mass

Caller ID malfunction: When you have dialed a number and cannot remember whom it belongs to, but the phone is ringing and it feels too late to hang up, in case someone has gotten up out of a chair on the other end to answer your call. Are you calling the pediatrician? Your boss? The plumber? It's anybody's guess.

Child abuse (harmless): When you are talking to a childless person who's irritating you, and you start telling stories about your children to get rid of him. This does not always work, but when it does it's a marvel.

Child abuse (harmful):


On Sale
Apr 1, 2010
Page Count
288 pages
Little Brown Spark

Kristin van Ogtrop

About the Author

Kristin van Ogtrop is the author of Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom. The former longtime editor-in-chief of Real Simple and “The Amateur” columnist for Time, she is a literary agent at InkWell Management. Her writing has appeared in countless publications, and the New York Times bestselling collection, The Bitch in the House. She is a wife and mother of three, but sometimes loves her dogs more than anybody else.

Learn more about this author