She Was How She Kept Time.

By: Jen Shoop

*Image above from Claiborne Swanson Frank’s gorgeous photography book on modern motherhood, Mother & Child.

There is an episode of Family Guy where Brian (the dog) finds out he’s a father and seemingly immediately becomes a bleeding heart whenever a child is mentioned.  The subtext is that once someone becomes a parent, she/he also adopts a kind of “concerned adult” persona, emoting around the welfare of children everywhere–and that it’s a little disingenuous, a little haughty.

Mr. Magpie and I loved this snipe when we first watched it, well before mini was a twinkle in our eyes.  It was around the time the first of my friends were having the first of their babies, in my mid to late 20s.  I would watch with bewilderment as friends who had just a few years prior anointed themselves “Queen of Beer Pong,” or flitted from suitor to suitor with the unimpressed, callous air of a goddess among mortals, or involved themselves in the petty drama of twenty-something college grads would suddenly transform into sensitive, mature parents, ones who sent Christmas cards with professional photos on them and posed their children with placards indicating their age or achievements and nodded knowingly to one another about the triumphs and travails of parenting.  I would marvel at their metamorphoses, lingering halfway between disbelief and envy.  How can it happen so quickly?  I would muse, prodding at them in various unkind ways to determine whether it was an act.  Are they Brian-ing?  And at the same time: I want that.

Nowadays, Mr. Magpie will occasionally reign me when I’m wandering into prudish patronizing parent territory:

Me: “Oh my God, but with a baby involved!?!??”

Mr. Magpie: “OK, Brian.”

He’ll also call me out when I’ve talked too long about baby gear or inadvertently bored a guest to tears while talking about preschools (sorry, B).  I appreciate these rejoinders.  They remind me that motherhood is a part of me — not a version of me and not all of me — and also that, for me, matrescence did not happen overnight.  These truths of my motherhood are hard-earned and worthy of frequent revisiting — hard-earned in the sense that it took me time and soul-searching and nontrivial swells of guilt to admit them to myself, so conditioned I have been to expect certain things of my experience as a mother.  In other words, his gentle retorts are a plea for truthfulness.

But the truth is this: it is difficult to hear a story or watch a movie in which a child’s safety is at risk without immediately imagining the worst befalling my own.  I had to stop watching Sharp Objects because I found the topic and imagery sickening to the point of guilt-inducing: why am I watching this?  I don’t even want to think about this.  And when I re-read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things a year or so ago (one of the top 10 books that I believe will change your life), I felt ill the entire way through in a way I hadn’t when I’d read the masterpiece the first and second times.  I was watching the new Jack Ryan series last night and for goodness sakes, damned if I didn’t feel that familiar tug of maternal concern: ohhh, that little girl, Sara!  Get her away from that sooty black-toothed villain!  (If you watch, you know!)  When Sara runs to her mother in pursuit of comfort, I couldn’t help but transpose onto the story the many cries I have quieted in mini, the many tears I have wiped from her cheeks.  I felt something dig in: I will never stop protecting her.  I will never let trouble befall her if I can help it.

One of the great surprises of parenting has been access to deeper channels of empathy.  I feel myself connect with other moms instantly.  Just this past weekend, I saw a new mom struggling to breastfeed her two- or three-week-old baby on a bench in Central Park, and my heart softened for her.  The confusion of those early months, the rising panic I was sure she was feeling as her child screamed and she fumbled around the mechanics of the latch, the sweaty strangulation of those damned nursing covers.  I knew how she felt, and I wanted to go to her.  Instead, I just smiled and nodded at her as if to say — “you’re doing it!  you’re doing well!” — and she brushed some hair out of her eyes and smiled back.  (I should have said it, though — should have offered: “Good job, mom!”  Sometimes we need to hear it.)  More than once, I have scooped a child up off the playground floor or steered him out of the danger of kicking feet at the swing-set — and other parents have done the same for me.

But there is also another truth that I have carried with me for decades, one that brought tears to my eyes when I first learned of it years ago, before I could even remotely relate to its significance, and which now takes my breath away when I think of it because I can imagine it but couldn’t possibly endure it.

My paternal grandmother had three children, and one of them was a girl — her beloved, the apple of her eye, my vivacious and bright-eyed aunt.  Cancer took her when I was nine, and my grandmother was heartbroken.

“That was her baby girl,” my Dad said, attempting to explain her sorrow to me.  I nodded with wide eyes, sad but bewildered by the size of their grief, at the thought that an adult could be a baby to somebody else.

When my grandmother passed away not long after, my father went through the belongings in her home in Painesville, Ohio, a horrifically lachrymose task I cannot bear to imagine.  Among her possessions was a calendar she had kept marking her busy social agenda: her bridge games, her social gatherings at the country club, her dinners on the town, her visits by children and grandchildren.  My grandparents were an effervescent, socially graceful duo well-loved by their friends, their community.  My grandmother used to show me off to her friends when I’d come to visit, calling to other women in the grocery store to come see me — “Oh, Carm!” they’d say, “She looks just like a little Pat.”  And they’d chat happily, joyously with one another.  Her cluttered agenda stood as a testament to her ebullience, the richness of her friendships.

But then, halfway through the pages: “Pat died today,” written in loopy pencil script, and then nothing after.  

“That was her baby girl,” my father again explained.  “She was how she kept time.”

Oh.  I know now.  She was how she kept time.  The all-consuming centricity of parenthood, the reframing of all things, the centripetal force of my daughter.  The way I will remember moving to New York through the lens of her eight-month-old self, the cramped and harried naps she took in a pack-and-play in the corner of our hotel room, or in my arms on the unmade bed, back when she was little enough to endure my tremulous voice on stressed phone calls and still sleep soundly through it all.  The way I will think of the steps in our first home in Chicago through the prism of the sharp pain I felt ascending and descending them for the first few times after my c-section, wanting desperately to get to her but unable to move with more speed.  The way my meals, my available times for phone calls, my weekend plans conform to her waking schedule.  The way memories entirely unrelated to mini — even my first trip away from her — are in some way marked by her: the photo Mr. Magpie sent of he, mini, and Tilly in our bed, my absence from it an ache.  The thud of her feet running to greet me at the door.

She was how she kept time.

I feel in that phrase a depth of grief I can’t plumb, but I understand it nonetheless.  You might think me a Brian, but I know now.  I embrace the incongruity of existing as my own self and living entirely in her orbit.

She is how I keep time.

Post Scripts.

Hard to follow the post above with anything but a deep sigh.  I have been clinging to the image of my grandmother’s half-empty calendar for decades now, unsure of what to do with it but mourn.  But today it feels good to share it with you, along with some other random observations to buoy our spirits on a Tuesday:

+FYI — you can now search my site!  If you go to the upper right hand corner of my blog, you’ll see a small magnifying glass icon at the top right.  Click and search.  I know things can be difficult to find because I write in a longer form than is common in the blogosphere, and I often tail-end my musings with a list of various and sundry discoveries.  Hopefully this helps!

+Today is the final day of Ralph Lauren’s Friends & Family Sale.  I use this time as an excuse to buy items for mini that never go on sale — like their darling quilted jackets and cashmere sweaters.  Incidentally, this would be a great time to pick up a timeless gift for a new baby: one of these classic flag sweaters or a pair of Briley slippers.

+Speaking of Polo and sale, I have no idea why, but Nordstrom Rack currently has men’s undershirts on super sale, and this is the only brand Mr. Magpie will wear.  I stocked up majorly for him.

+I am drooling over these velvet, bow-embellished heels!  The perfect shoe for holiday parties.


+Outnet has a bunch of great new arrivals in — a lot of which remind me of #royalstyle.  (Did anyone else enjoy lingering over photos from Princess Eugenie’s nuptials?)  I love the slightly prim, old-world feel of the dressing, usually offset by a saucily tilted bit of millinery.  Anyway, Outnet has a couple of Kate Middleton-esque finds, like this sweater weather Raoul, this rich green shirtdress, and this fluted-sleeved column dress.  All good prices and all excellent picks for Thanksgiving and other autumnal festivities.

+I’ve spotted a couple of well-priced, open-weave sweaters that feel super on trend right now: this with its dramatic cuff/sleeve and this with its cheery colors.

+This topcoat is classy.

+I now own this tee in about five colors.  Perfect layering piece.

+For minis: how cute are these?!  And I already ordered these in the camel color.  Duh.

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17 thoughts on “She Was How She Kept Time.

  1. Wow. I clicked over here by way of a couple of your posts (starting from today’s) and I’m just so happy to have found you last year. I identify so much and so precisely with how you describe motherhood, and I so appreciate your earnest emotion about these topics. I chuckled at “Ok, Brian” and then welled up for the remainder of the post. What nuanced writing it takes to guide your reader between those two moments! Thank you, thank you. (And a note on generational empathy: isn’t it wild to, all of a sudden, understand how our parents/aunts/grandparents must have felt about things about which we were totally unaware as children? It goes to show that life gets deeper and deeper as we go. Imagine in 30 years, our daughters becoming mothers… wild!)

    1. Hi Susie — Thank you so much for the generous note. I am so happy to have found you this last year! I do not take lightly the gift of your readership and especially your presence in the comments! I live for the conversations in the comments! Thank you!

      I completely agree with you on reflecting on “the things about which we were totally unaware as children.” Yes! I especially think of my mother! My father traveled a lot when I was younger, and I remember one year he traveled 51 out of 52 weeks of the year. What must this have been like for my mother, raising five young children? I strain but I cannot remember a single time thinking she was overwhelmed or faltering, etc…! It’s incredible. She was carrying so much!


  2. I too started to tear up while reading this (and I’m reading it as a I take a break at work–certainly not the best place for tears!)

    I will hold this piece in my heart for a time to come. It articulates all that I have felt from my parents: we–myself and my siblings–are how they have kept time. I always felt that my parents chose to define themselves first and foremost as parents; that parenthood was truly their vocation. While I still think that is true, it is more accurate to say that they lived this calling not through transforming into entirely different people (after all, they have still lived longer as non-parents than parents), but through keeping time to the beat of their children. My heart is currently bursting with love and gratitude for my parents, and parents everywhere. Although I am years away from having a child of my own, I hope to sometime be the type of mother that keeps time by my child.

    1. This is so sweet, Molly. Sweet of your parents and also sweet of you to recognize the gift you’ve had. We are lucky to be children, right?


  3. I don’t have any children yet, but I almost started tearing as I was reading this in a public space. What a wonderful way to think about it. It reminded me of my late grandmother losing my uncle. I cannot begin to fathom what the pain one must feel at the loss of a child. It goes against the natural order…

    I am a relative new reader, but look forward to your blog everyday. Excited about the new search feature- it’ll be a great help when I want to find something you mentioned recently!

    1. Thanks, Cristina, for the kind words! I am so happy to have you here and glad you’ve found me 🙂 I was lucky to be working with/building off of good material — i.e., the wisdom and poetry of my father.

      Also, thanks for the two cents on the search feature!! I had been asked for this for awhile and am so glad it’s getting used 🙂 xo

  4. Whew. I needed to read this today. I had to get up and close my office door, so I could shed a few tears after reading this sentiment.

    I have two children – 2.5 years and 6 months – and this weekend we took them to a pumpkin patch. We were supposed to be meeting my in-laws – my husband’s siblings, their assorted children, and his parents – and by the time we got both kids and all the associated gear loaded into the car, I knew we would be late (there is nothing I hate more than being late). Then, just 10 minutes away from the patch, my 2.5 threw up all over herself, forcing us to pull into a Ross Dress for Less parking lot, wipe her down with baby wipes, and buy her a new outfit. As we finally rushed into the patch, very late, I looked over at my brother-in-law and his wife, and their 10 and 13-year-old kids, and thought “I want to be there. I want to be at the stage where I can just tell my kids to get in the car, and we go. I want to be done with diaper bags and cups and strollers and toys.”

    Reading your post, however, reminded me to never wish away time. Time has never seemed so finite as when you’re a parent, and shame on me for wishing it away, even the hard times. Thank you for the reminder.

    1. Oh, Joanna. I’m so glad this touched you/reached you, and the thought of you closing the door to shed a tear literally wrenches my heart. But also — go easy on yourself! We’ve all been there, in those trying moments, and thought things we wouldn’t normally like ourselves to think. I’m right there with you.

      All the same, thank YOU for the reminder never to wish away time.


  5. Jen, this post is so beautiful. You truly captured the many complex feelings of motherhood so perfectly. When William turned one earlier this year, I described that first year as the longest/shortest/hardest/best year of my life. After the fact, I remember feeling a little unsure of whether I should have said hard. I mean, it WAS hard, but should I have admitted it? Your post really resonated with me because you acknowledge that so much of being a parent comes from the real parts – the love so deep that you almost can’t breathe, the fear of something ever happening to them etc. They can be hard and scary, but that is what makes them so beautiful. Now I am starting to ramble so i will end with this – Thank you for this post xo

    1. Hi Katie — Yes, hard is an appropriate word though I completely relate to the conflicted feelings about its use in this context. Hard, scary, rewarding, beautiful. Such a dense mix of contradictory emotions — you are so right. Thanks for writing in and for reading along. I’m flattered and honored that you relate to my musings!! xoxo

  6. My daughter Elizabeth is 10 weeks old, and so perhaps everything is particularly fresh, but oh: your essay made me weep.

    How I feel about Elizabeth is so hard to describe – it’s ineffable, really – and I have felt that to try to do so would be to suggest that my feelings have boundaries or are finite, even in their infinity (does that make sense?). But. She is how I keep time – YES. Thank you for giving me the language to qualify but not diminish my feelings.

    1. Ahh, “the language qualify but not diminish” — what a lovely achievement for you and compliment for me. I’m so glad this reached you. I wrestled with what I was truly trying to say in this post for a week and ended up leaving it a little messy, a little open-ended, because that’s truly what the experience of motherhood is for me: nothing tidy, just a big and unwieldy cocoon of emotion. Anyway, I’m happy this resonated with you. And it made me weep, too. xoxo

    1. Yes — yes! I am lucky to have had those poetic words straight from my dad jingling around in my mind for some time now. xo

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