The Saltings.

By: Jen Shoop
We have reached the saltings. The sticky, swampy parts that nearly all of us footslog into and out of over the course of our motherhoods, unsure of footing, prey to unknown tides.

This morning, I’m republishing an essay from the archives that has been heavy on my mind since we parted (amicable) ways with our nanny two weeks ago. She was seeking full-time work, and we scarcely need two or three hours of support on weekdays. I tried, with no luck, to find a part-time replacement, before contemplating whether Landon and I could manage on our own, at least for summer, when routines are slack, and travel lays ahead. The children will be in camp for about half the summer…? The arrangement has been an adjustment, but I have been finding satisfaction in the way it feels to be at home, just the four of us. I find myself integrated in my children’s lives in a way I simply wasn’t before. I have tried to phrase that line seven different ways so as to diffuse the knot of guilt that collects each time I write it — cutting room floor evidence of my mixed emotions about its meaning. What do I do with the round happiness I feel doing it on our own? (Our being the operative word – Landon handles at least half of the afternoons each week!) Some of this must be conditioned by my admiration for my mother, a dutiful and wonderful stay-at-home mom. I realize this situation is privileged and nuanced — choosing to have a nanny, then choosing to go without. I know that many women don’t have these options. And so I find myself grappling with the very saltings I discussed below. Because I have the choice, have I made the right one for the past few years? Am I making the right choice now? Will my writing suffer? Will my patience wane? As with much of life, I will never know until I try. Onward.


A week or two ago, I picked my son up from school, which is something I almost never do. He saw me through the transom window as he was descending from the upstairs classroom, and I heard his voice — almost a shriek — “Mama!” — followed by quick footwork down the stairs (TIP-tip-TIP-tip-TIP-tip). He flew through the doors, right into my arms.

“He was so happy when he saw you,” whispered his teacher knowingly, her eyes soft. She squeezed my arm.

Later that evening, we went over to dinner at my parents’ home with my sister and her family.

Mama picked me up today. Not my nanny,” he announced loudly, and smugly, to no one and in response to nothing. He smirked and hugged his arms around himself in satisfaction.

Two mornings later, still in the miserable wake of daylight savings time, I went into his room to rouse him for school. Unlike adults, who need time to hatch and grumble about the imposition of light, children can go from dead asleep to wide awake in less than a second. His head popped up, and he smiled at me through morning eyes, and he said: “Remember when you picked me up at school?”

That night, I laid in my bed, unable to sleep, and I cried about this. What did it mean? It is not feasible for me to pick him up every day, at least in my current work flow. But could I change that? Would I one day regret all the 3 P.M. pick-ups I missed in favor of a more steady unfolding of creative time? Was it fair (to myself, to women in general) to say I “missed” those pick-ups in the first place? After all, I am working while he is being ferried home from school. I am providing for my family, and fulfilling my own vocation. I am present for so much of his life — almost every weekday breakfast, dinner, and bedtime, and we spend a lot of time together, just the four of us, on the weekends, in pursuit of our “not busy” lifestyle.

I scrambled for grounding elsewhere, plumbing my own childhood, in which my Dad dropped us off in the mornings and my Mom scooped us up in the afternoons. I don’t recall harboring or expressing any sentiment about the arrangement. But perhaps it is different when it is a parent versus a nanny.

I continued to strain for context. I reasoned: I drop him off every other morning; if I forewent that cockcrow commute regularly, would he say the same thing on the odd occasion I slipped into the driver’s seat? “Mama dropped me off today”? Perhaps he was simply expressing excitement about the un-ordinariness of my surprise pick-up, and if I were to retrieve him daily, he’d never make such proclamations–might, in fact, beg for someone else to get him.

A few weeks ago, I had drinks with two girlfriends, one of whom is a hard-working lawyer with intense hours and the other of whom is a hard-working stay at home mom with also-intense hours. The latter commented that she sometimes looks at her life and has no idea how she got here. “I went from finance to this, and sometimes I wonder about going back,” she mused. She expressed worry that she wasn’t fully living up to her potential, that she’d had a promising professional career and felt ambivalent about what it meant that she was now working in the home. My lawyer friend sighed. “The grass is always greener,” she offered. She went on to explain that her daughter had been tasked with ascribing a descriptive word to each member of her family, and that her daughter had described her as “work.”

We have reached the saltings. The sticky, swampy parts that nearly all of us footslog into and out of over the course of our motherhoods, unsure of footing, prey to unknown tides. There are no patterns here. No formulas; no bright lines. The inputs for each family are complex, individualized, and mutative. Particularly maddening: sometimes I feel I’ve struck a good, or workable balance, and then my son tells me, in twenty-two different ways, that all he wants is for me to pick him up from school once in awhile, and I feel like I’ve been yammering into a phone with a cut cord.

What then?

Deep breaths. A reminder that parenthood is a process, not a place, or a condition.

I let myself cry for a few minutes. Then I wondered about other ways to make myself available to him that would not be as challenging to accommodate in my current workweek. One such: in the afternoons, my children like to come into my studio bearing drawings, fistfuls of snacks, news of their worlds. The rule is (generally): one visitation after they arrive home, and then they need to respect my closed door. This has been a difficult boundary for both of my children, and a nearly impossible one for me. Sometimes I sit in my study wavering between furious impatience and heart-wracked agony when they are calling for me, and they know they are not to come in, and I long to retreat from my own rules, both to quiet the fracas and to give into their needs. But I am working, I remind myself — and them, when they are open to hearing it. And it is difficult (for me) to lay brushstrokes separated by small conversations. Beyond that, it is important to me to model discipline and seriousness about my craft. When my door is closed, it should be perceived no differently than when my husband is on a work call and his door is closed. And, of course, there is the bigger issue of remaining firm with boundaries.


As it turns out, there is some give in the leather.

I have started to really shut my work off when my children skitter into my room in the afternoons. I fully turn myself away from the computer, remove my hands from the keys, pull him into my lap — or sometimes walk out into the liminal space between my studio and their rooms, get down onto his eye level, and focus myself such that I lean into that conversation. My goal, when I hear the door crack open, is to give 100% of my attention to him for those five minutes in which he must tell me about the scrape on his knee, or the cookie his teacher gave him at lunch, or the various meannesses of his sibling. If I can’t be there at pick-up, then I can be here, fully, waiting for him with anticipation and warmth, when he returns to me.

So onward we go. Looking for ways to show him that he is, and always has been, at the very center of my day, no matter who picks him up from school.

Oh, Magpies. If you are standing in the saltings today: I’m right there with you, feet half-sunk in the quick-moving sand.


+Motherhood is a surfeit.

+The myth of Soteria — or, coming to terms with grief over losing some of my son’s baby days during the pandemic lockdown.

+On the notion of “remaining interesting” to your partner after having a child.

+Building friendships through motherhood.

Shopping Break.

This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through the links below, I may receive compensation. 

+I found my favorite sandals on sale in gold for under $150! (Use code EXTRA15 for 15% off.)

+I just ordered a few fun, well-priced things for summer from Shopbop: I’d rather be in Mykonos, this colorful crochet dress, and these beach pants.

+Some great clearance items at Serena and Lily right now: this beach house blanket (major #lakehousecore vibes); this scalloped rattan pendant light, and this $30 rug (perfect by a back door!)

+It’s the summer of the drop-waist dress! Consider this $40 steal!

+Our Margaux code for $35 off first time orders (use MAGPIE35) expires 6/16. I have been wearing these ankle wrap sandals constantly on the weekend. Also love this newer style they just released!

+Longchamp look for less.

+On the heels of the Doen sailor dress launch, discovered this #sailorcore dress from Staud! Super elegant.

+Obsessed with Staud bags right now: this snail (!!!), this Celine-esque moon bag, this “tackle box.”

+I own this oversized denim maxi dress and LOVE it. Would be great with bump — runs very oversized, but in a stiff, heavy denim that makes it feel substantial and fashion-y. On sale in several colors right now!

+Perfect casual outdoor dining napkins.

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20 thoughts on “The Saltings.

  1. Oh boy, I think every mother carries the guilt of wondering if she’s doing it right, because what we are all actually guilty of is looking around and watching the other mothers actions and forgetting they feel the same way we do. My husband is self employed and has some level of flexibility. I work full-time in corporate America. Nannies aren’t really a thing where we live, and so we juggle. But I staunchly leave my desk two days a week at 3:45 to do the pick-up responsibilities and I’ll be candid and say it’s for me. My son doesn’t seem to have a preference, so long as someone is in that carline, but GD-it I will have that motherhood experience – for me.

    Right now I’m wracked with guilt that summer does not get to be this fun lazy quarter because I have to work and so does my husband and our son will be floating back and forth between us. I wish there were daytime beach trips and picnics in the front yard. There’s always something to feel guilty about though, right?

    1. Jenn – You are so right. It all goes off the rails / into stressville when you contemplate what other mothers are doing instead of focusing on what’s right for YOU.

      It does feel like guilt is a part of the territory — working consciously on giving myself grace…


  2. Oh this post was so moving on so many levels. I absolutely love reading your blog and look forward to reading it every day over my morning coffee. Here I am more than a week later, reading it again. I think that I consider balance this illusive feat we are all clamoring to achieve. We over analyze the absolute crap out of our lives trying to hit this “balanced” approach that I find myself missing it. I paired this post with the post where you quoted Joan Didion and her thoughts on really living in life. Will my son remember that I was gone on a Saturday (insert any day of the week) for a hour or so doing the thing I love, probably not. He will remember that I came home and read books with him in the silly voices he likes. I think your son will remember you as the whole, not that you could not always do school pick up. Really being present in life that we have been blessed with, I think this is how balance is manifesting itself for me. I can’t try to list, prioritize, schedule my way into achieving balance. No matter how much my strict type A personality would like. Thank you so much for this thought provoking post.

    1. Ana – oh my gosh. I read this comment with an enormous lump in my throat. Thank you for this: “I think your son will remember you as the whole, not that you could not always do school pick up.” Thank you for this 🙂

      I completely agree, too, with your insight that “I can’t try to list, prioritize, schedule my way into achieving balance.” It’s going to be intuition-based. It’s going to ebb and flow. It’s going to change in appearance and duration. It is so hard when I’m seeking a “clear answer” or “set of rules.” xx

  3. I’ve been reading your blog for a while and wanted to say how excellent this particular piece was! So evocative and heartfelt. You’re an extremely talented writer, Jen.

    1. Oh gosh – thank you so much, Shari. I really appreciate your taking the time to write in, and for your loyal readership, too.


  4. Jen…. In terms of you not picking your kids up most days… think about this- you are always there at home, waiting for them. You are reliably THERE, whether school pick up or at home… you’re there for them. I can’t imagine how much that squeezed your heart, but, and if you’ll indulge this from someone who isn’t a mom yet…
    I’m sure you’ve heard this quote before, and it borders on Hallmark material but I love it…
    “There is no one way to be a perfect parent. There are a million ways to be a great one.”
    Jen, you are a great Mom. ❤️

  5. I am the queen of taping things to my office walls and computer screen to remind me that i’m doing a hard thing and i’m doing it well, trying to balance a professional job with my primary role as mom. Looking at my computer now, i see a few notes of encouragement to myself that i thought i’d share here, in case they help anyone. (1) What does love require of me today? This helps me rearrange my schedule to show up for the kids when they need me, with courage to put a firm boundary at work so i can be there for my ultimate priorities in this life; (2) Look for the peaks. This reminder helps me feel more balanced in my day – I don’t pick my kids up from school at dismissal, but i’m there to pick up from extended day. i’m looking at the peak of their day being the end of playing at extended day. i’ve rearranged my work schedule a few times to meet a different peak – visibly volunteering at a school event, class parties, prayer services, the big stuff. this helps me think less about missing the peaks of other people’s day (other moms who can pick up at dismissal everyday for example) and focus on the peaks of my kids’ day, which is when i pick up from extended day. (3) Two things can be true. I work in an intense field with high pressure and long hours AND i have two little kids who need me. I have the immense privilege of rearranging my schedule to accommodate kid activities AND my kids see me with phone in hand to answer emails at home. And finally, of course, my great guiding light, (4) Katie Blackburn’s beautiful and convicting essay “It’s Their Day Too.” For my little ones to have their own day, i need to not be there all the time. For them to grow in confidence and learn to trust others, they must be with people who are not me. At the end of everyday, they know they are deeply loved because i am very present to them. I believe my kids – and yours – to be capable of understanding the complexity of working motherhood better than I am sometimes. Even your boy, noting with great enthusiasm that you picked him up, did not say, “can you do this again tomorrow?”

    1. Wow – this is packed with so much wisdom. Thank you so much for taking the time to write these out. I absolutely love the provocation “What does love require of me today?” Like, I just asked that to myself and knew instantly what my answer for the day was. And so often I know what is asked of me but still run against its grain. This will be a helpful rearrangement.

      I also found this comment so intriguing: “For my little ones to have their own days, I need to not be there all the time.” I am going to be turning this over for awhile. Thank you so much for the food for thought.


  6. Oh Jen, Thank you for sharing so openly and honestly. I feel as though I am neck deep in the saltings…or maybe all the way under with a few fingers waving just above the surface? There is no right answer; but is there ever peace? Does any mother feel peace in the decisions she has made and is making for herself and her family? I certainly don’t. And I wonder if we were made to carry such weight? Likely not, but what then? Around and around I go, it seems…

    1. I so feel this. It’s the peace element — I’m doing my best, I’m aware there’s no answer, but I still — even after looping through so many possibilities, learning from mistakes, trying differently, find it challenging to completely settle into a tranquil frame of mind. I am always thinking I could have done more, been more, given more. It is really, really hard! At the end of many days, I ask myself: “Do my children know they are loved?” The answer is, always, yes, and I try to embrace that and go into the next day with renewed energy / a will to do better.

      Anyway, just a note of solidarity with you. A wave from the saltings!!!


      P.S. You’re probably not as deep into the marsh as you think 🙂

  7. Ahh, motherhood and its endless guilt. My youngest is 23 and for some reason I have been in a cycle of reflection and, if honest, self criticism. “I should have done more, I could have been better at…” while ignoring the fact that my daughters are thriving, successful and overall wonderful young women. If I may offer a different perspective on your sons excitement at seeing you, would he have been so excited if it WAS an every day occurrence for you to pick him up? By his reaction he obviously adores you and rather than wondering if you are doing enough (the universal mom question) take the win that you created a special moment. I appreciate your vulnerability and honesty in your writing!

  8. I totally agree, Nancy! My own son and daughter (who have littles of their own) recently told me how they still remember when I would surprise them and pick them up from daycare. They’re both in their 30’s and still recall how special it was for them to look up and see my face. I only wish I’d done it more often!

  9. Hi Jen- As one of your older followers I will share my thoughts. There is a very small window where your kids have that kind of joy to see you/share their day. Soon they will have meetings/practices/playdates after school…etc. So I might suggest if you could find one day per week to pick up each of your children (If your daughter also would like that and I am guessing she would) that might be a mid way solution to this. It sounds like where you now live it would not take a lot of commuting time to do this? Then you are back home, have had the special mom/child time and can return to work and the nanny takes over. Maybe there are compromises there…you work a bit later and your husband has the children for that extra time or those two days per week you do this you cut your lunch time away from your desk by a bit…not sure this is helpful but as someone who has been a mom of young kids (and worked part time so not the same as you I know) I would never have changed missing those moments after school when they are little and so excited to tell you about their day.

    1. This might work, it might not, only Jen can say. But I can say as someone who has a big job that is currently remote, and a school-age child – it’s never enough. You can give more of yourself until you’re gone and it will still never be enough for them. Not because they’re awful but because they’re small and they won’t recognize the benefits of seeing their parents model what it is to have a career that matters to them, or a life outside of them, until later. As parents we need to put the boundaries in place, because children can’t. Just like we wouldn’t allow them unfettered access to screens, or the cookie jar. As women it becomes even harder. My husband also usually works from home yet our child is far less likely to interrupt him or demand his attention when he’s working. Where on earth has she learnt that his time is precious and mine is not?

      Yesterday I picked my daughter up from school, went for a ‘download’ walk with her then took her to tennis where I sat and watched – with my laptop in front of me so I could get *one* thing done that I hadn’t quite finished. I looked up to see her every time she was up. And yet, halfway through, the shout rang out imperiously – “Mummy! Get off your computer!” This after I’d set work aside for two hours to pick her up. If left to your kids, it’s never enough.

      1. Hi Hayley — This really resonates. My husband and I routinely have this conversation after we’ve gone flat-out, pulling out all the stops, on weekends or around birthdays or even just on a random day we decide to bring out A game. We recently took our children to the Air and Space Museum on a total whim — like, my son mentioned it at lunch, my husband and I exchanged shrugging glances, and we piled into the car and went. We kept saying what a great idea he’d had, and he seemed so pleased. We spent an afternoon there, we let them pick gifts from the gift shop (which we rarely do), we gave them snacks, we worked to be present with them, etc. We basically gave ourselves rave reviews — ha. The minute we got home, my daughter started: “Mama, what can I dooooo?” and my son was needling me for attention. My husband and I just looked at each other helplessly. It really can feel like “it’s never enough.” We’ve had to sort of pluck ourselves out of that mindset and just realize that they have no concept for how much work it takes, how much we also need our own time, but it really feels challenging in the moment. It’s not that we need pats on the back; we just need breaks! Or balance! Or whatever! But, you’re right — “they won’t recognize the benefits of seeing their parents model what it is to have a career that matters to them [or other interests outside of the parent-child relationship], until later.”

        Thanks for sharing this. Right there with you.


    2. Hi Nancy — Thank you for this perspective. I know it goes by so quickly. I agree, there is probably even more give in the leather, or ways to meet somewhere in the middle. Thanks for the nudge and perspective.


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