Mommie dearest

Looking back, that briefcase episode should have been the first sign of trouble.

It was October 1995, and I was slated to return to my job at the Dallas Observer after a 10-week maternity leave. I wasn't anywhere near ready.

As only the Secret Society of New Mothers knows, the presumed Bahamian vacation that is maternity leave is anything but restful. In my case, it consisted of the usual sleepless nights and constant nursing, plus an obsessive post-natal exercise routine, a complete roof replacement on my house, an exhaustive search for a new full-time housekeeper, and the usual 24-hour-a-day pandemonium that comes with keeping a lid on three children who are all under the age of six and each committed to a life of spewing fluids from every orifice.

Which is why I bought the briefcase.
A fancy new briefcase, I figured, could pull me out of my brain-numbing domestic existence, jumpstart my seriously weakened enthusiasm for putting on control-top pantyhose, and replace the juice-stained black handbag filled with diapers, drool cloths, teething and rash ointments, and countless loose, lint-covered Cheerios. (These all-important cereal bits are what we frantic moms dust off and shove into our kids' screaming mouths on three-hour airplane flights--all to keep childless people like you from glaring at us.)

With all of this in mind, I zoomed up to NorthPark and forked over $392 plus tax to a saleswoman at the Coach store. Like the guy who buys his first bottle of Rogaine hair stimulant, I was eternally optimistic, triumphant, confident that this one purchase would make things right again. I saw myself charging off excitedly to interviews--briefcase in one hand, breast pump in the other. (During those first months back, Dallas school board member Jose Plata was by far the most relaxed about leaving his office for a few minutes so I could pump a bottle.)

What I hoped was that the briefcase would fire me up, awaken my professional ambitions, screw my old work head on straight. Armed with this sleek new piece of luggage, I would blow through my office door, suck down 10 cups of black coffee, and return instantly to that woman I'd been just three months before--a maniacally intense, perfection-seeking, schedule-juggling, somehow personally and professionally fulfilled female basket case who was often overheard by her office neighbor yelling into the telephone: "I know you're bored, but I'm busy. Go turn on the computer, and I'll be home in three hours. OK?"

Unfortunately--or fortunately, for my family--I wasn't able to return to my old ways.

The coffee did come in handy--not only on the first day, but on many days after that. (It's that third pot of hazelnut coffee on your 10th hour after the rest of the office has gone home that really clears the creative cobwebs.)

But the fancy new briefcase never came out of its cardboard packing box. To this day, it sits out of sight, out of mind atop the highest shelf of the hall closet. I've never taken a peek at it, let alone seriously considered using it.

And I know why. Because I have no business being back at work. I'm on my third--and last--child in the 10th year of my marriage, and I have a whole lot of family business to take care of. To sum things up, I'm out of whack. My life has lost its balance. I'm tired, stressed, frazzled, disorganized, guilt-ridden, and short-tempered with the last people I want to be short-tempered with--my kids.

I've got a husband--a lawyer and state legislator--who travels constantly to four different cities. I've got a morning routine that requires me to be out the door and in the car at 7:15 a.m. each day to get my two daughters to school. My house needs new gutters, cleaner windows, more organized closets, and the dining-room rug we've been too busy to shop for since we got married. My kids' extra-curricular activities read like the day's event postings on a QE II cruise: dance, piano, sports, acting class, French and Hebrew lessons.

Still, month after month for well over a year, I've steadfastly denied--to myself, my husband, and my kids--that I'm stretched way too thin. I've soldiered on, week after week, zealously pursuing stories that were important to me, churning out complex articles of up to 11,000 words in length, working nights and most weekends, and pulling the occasional all-nighter at the office to get a story just right.

It was a valiant effort, to be sure--I'm confident that somewhere out there, a large macaw or a small Doberman is defecating on some small portion of that voluminous Paul Fielding story I wrote four weeks ago.

But I just can't kid myself any longer. I've got to admit that for months I've been having these secret fantasies--they play like old movies in my head the minute I finish one column and set about writing the next.

I'll be sitting there at my desk in the old KLIF radio building downtown, staring at the long list of unanswered telephone messages, when suddenly the daydreams begin.

In the first one, I'm gliding up to the carpool line at my four-year-old's school. It's two in the afternoon, and as she stares at my car curiously, I assure her that I am her mother, and that we're--pinky promise--not going to Mommy's office, where my kids know they have the attractive options of either coloring on copy paper or crashing on my office floor. No, I say, we're going to the Discovery Zone. (For the benefit of non-parents, Discovery Zone is a disgusting, chaotic, overly colorful place built just for idiots and small children. The only place worse is Chuck E Cheese.)

In my next fantasy, I'm running home before lunch to rescue my 16-month-old from his daily diet of old Barney tapes, which he watches over and over and over while my devoted housekeeper Bea changes the beds, folds the wash, scrubs the tub, and puts a chicken in the oven for dinner--all before loading the baby into the car to head north to fetch the older siblings from school.

Then there's the one where I'm smiling as I hold a metal cookie cutter aloft and mouth the words "OF COURSE I CAN, DARLING" as my six-year-old looks at me plaintively and asks for the 26th time this year: "Can't you come volunteer in the cafeteria like the other kids' moms?"

So that's it--those are the reasons I'm taking a year-long leave of absence from column writing. I'm going to smell the coffee, drink the wine, crack the novel, don the apron, and be--oh, this would be sweet--the first one to walk into the children's department for Neiman's Last Call.

By the time you read this, I'll be at the Discovery Zone. I'll be slopping hash--in an ugly hair net, if necessary--in my kid's lunchroom. I'll be yanking the baby out of the high chair and taking him, well, anywhere--the zoo, the mall, maybe even Dallas City Hall. I'm not talking about the reflecting pool on the City Hall plaza, though. No, I want my kid to get his first gander at what Mommy used to write about--say, esteemed public servant Chris Luna as he yammers into his telephone, advising a North Dallas topless bar to buy a certain type of nipple pasties so it can successfully circumvent city ordinances prohibiting lewdness and nudeness. For this favor--I will explain to the baby--Mr. Luna has received a beach vacation invitation and a $5,000 campaign contribution from the titty-bar owner.

Now that's an education Barney can't provide.
No, I'm not writing another thing until I've done at least one insufferably cute birthday party, complete with face painting, heart-shaped sandwiches, and a candy hunt on the front lawn.

I'm not coming back to this space until I sit in a dark theater with two kids and three boxes of popcorn watching 101 Dalmatians at three in the afternoon on a school day.

I'm not putting pen to paper until I can be one of those women I've always wanted to pluck to death with a sharp pair of tweezers--you know, the ones poised delicately on the couch at Borders books in perfectly pressed denim skirts on a rainy Monday afternoon, enjoying their second cup of cappuccino as they read a beautifully illustrated children's book to their impeccably dressed and ridiculously well-behaved toddler. (You remember me, don't you lady? I'm the frantic one tearing past you in search of the latest edition of the Fort Worth Mapsco because my 1989 version doesn't list the suburban street of Michael Irvin's old girlfriend, who lives there with their illegitimate child.)

People who know me, of course, think that my surprise foray into domesticity proves only one thing--that I'm out of my goddamned mind.

"You--a full-time, stay-at-home mom?" they say. "You--pressing tulip bulbs into spring soil; holding the baby's little hand as he squats on his play toilet; penning pleasant thank-you notes on pastel-colored notepaper? (I do hereby take this opportunity to apologize to all my children's friends who, over the past three years, have logically come to believe that their unacknowledged birthday gifts simply disappeared into some big, black sinkhole in my backyard.)

My editor, Glen Warchol, upon hearing the surprise announcement that I was taking off the rest of the year to fawn over the children, offered this sober analysis of my future: "You'll either be back here in six months, begging us to let you back in the paper, or you'll be drinking vodka out of tumblers and having an affair."

Now that's a vote of confidence.
What was I going to do, Warchol asked in wonderment, with all the free time I was suddenly going to have on my hands? Well, here's an admission or two: I haven't sent out holiday cards in four years (several old friends have now totally given up on ever hearing from me). I haven't cracked a cookbook in four years. I haven't balanced my checkbook in three years (hello, NationsBank). I haven't settled family health insurance claims in one year. I haven't touched two big boxes filled with my kids' snapshots and school memorabilia--all of which need to be glued into the three completely empty scrapbooks I bought when each of my children was born. And finally, I have done nothing about that mysterious, night-biting yard critter who has spent two long years feasting on my backyard row of once-healthy acubas.

Until the third child came along, I thought all this chaos was OK--a badge of honor, really, for the noble working woman. Sure, I loved my husband and kids, but my love for my work was so strong that I never, not for a moment, considered giving it up or scaling back.

A mere two years ago, I had complete and utter disdain for non-working moms--my two sisters-in-law included. I mean, what did these people do all day? The California sister-in-law had a law degree, for God's sake; the London one was a bright, well-educated woman from New York. Get a grip, I used to think; get a job; earn your keep.

I knew, of course, that there was another, equally extreme type of mother out there--and I didn't want to be that either. Back in the summer of 1979, when I was a college student working at a magazine in New York City, I remember going to a luncheon hosted by Ruth Whitney, the editor-in-chief of Glamour magazine. She had been asked to address a roomful of summer interns like myself on the topic of how to successfully juggle a fulfilling career and a blissful home life. She had it all figured out, she told us proudly--she knew the secret to being a great mom. Then she launched into this pitiful, absentee-parent scenario whereby she said she made it a point never to leave home in the morning until she'd given her baby the first morning bottle--and then she'd dash home in the evening so she could pop the bottle back in for the last feed. Listening to that story, I made a vow right then never to be a Ruth Whitney.

Well, needless to say, that old vow has been haunting me.
Last Mother's Day, when Dallas Family called me for my two cents on being a busy mother, I found myself blathering on about how working moms, no matter how hard they tried, could never be as good as stay-at-home moms--that no matter what they did, it was, of course, totally inadequate compared to a full-time mother's efforts. A friend of mine, Debbie Barnes--once a high-powered couture buyer for Neiman-Marcus, now a devoted mom and disgustingly efficient keeper of the home flame--wrote me a note, thanking me for the surprise sentiments, obviously startled to see this thawing of the heart from a former career vulture.

Then, last September, when my husband and I stopped participating in various neighborhood carpools to get our kids to school, I experienced yet another sign of impending career trouble. Suddenly, the 30-minute dawn drives to school with my two girls were, hands-down, the best part of my day--holding little fingers; buying bananas and doughnuts at 7-Eleven; singing, loudly, to those great songs on The Remix Collection CD from Boyz II Men; driving away from their schools, staring in my rearview mirror as I notice, wistfully, how big they're getting.

Yes, I'm outta here--but only for the rest of this year. That's how long I think I need to play catch-up on my life. That's how long before the four-year-old enters kindergarten and the baby starts preschool in the mornings. That's how long I estimate it will take before the political games at Dallas City Hall--and the dismal coverage of them in The Dallas Morning News--make me so incredibly angry and frustrated that I can no longer sit back and privately stew about them. (My husband is looking forward to everything about this leave of absence--except sitting at the breakfast room table with me each morning as I read the daily paper.)

And in case anybody's out there popping a cork right now--Al Lipscomb, Ray Hunt, Thomas G. Jones, Ray Nasher, John Vance, Ron Kirk, and all you other high-profile marvels come to mind--don't get too comfortable. Not only has the Observer agreed to hold my job open until I return, but I'm keeping my office at the paper, where the phone rings daily with colorful tips about you and everybody else who deserves public scrutiny for varying degrees of bad behavior. I'll be passing on story ideas as I get them--returning calls for a change, now that I have time--and I'll be offering those ideas to my fellow reporters, who are only too ready to publish them in the only media outlet that isn't afraid to tell it like it is in this town.

That reality--that this small newspaper consistently prints the truth about the sleazy, stupid things that people in power do in Dallas--is what kept me toiling away like a madwoman these past five years, even as my family and my responsibilities grew larger all around me.

Since graduating from college 16 years ago, I have worked for bigger newspapers--The Miami Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Daily News, and Dallas Times Herald. But I have never worked for a better newspaper. The company that hired me five years ago to publish every single thing I found out about this city and the people who try to run it is unique in the industry. New Times, Inc. has built a national reputation for investigative reporting, hard-hitting column writing, and magazine-style feature stories. It has won dozens of national awards for its journalism. In October 1991, when New Times came to Texas to buy the Dallas Observer, this paper was a frivolous arts publication filled with futon ads, flaccid news stories, and filthy personals.

When one of the company's two owners, Michael Lacey, flew from Phoenix to Dallas that fall to interview me for the columnist job at this paper, I was certain I was just what he was looking for. After all, I had recently written a cover story in D magazine accusing Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price of sexually assaulting four women; failing to pay child support on his largely ignored son; illegally using campaign funds to pay personal debts; shaking down local companies for money and business deals for himself; and working as a troubleshooter for a large rendering company that had a desperate need for a pimp like Price who could contain the constant criticisms the company was getting from the low-income, largely minority neighborhoods where the company's 35 smelly plants were located nationwide.

"Your stories show some style," Lacey told me over lunch at Parigi's restaurant in Oak Lawn. "But I don't know if you're aggressive enough for us."

I've thanked God for the Observer ever since--as should everybody else in this town. Not only are there no sacred cows to dodge when it comes to covering stories--an unheard-of scenario for most journalists in this country, I promise you--there are no space limitations when it comes to important stories, and no editorial intervention from saber-rattling advertisers or the various powers-that-be. Best of all, the reporters here operate in the shadow of that soporific beast across town, The Dallas Morning News, which has more money and less guts than any newspaper in America. The News thinks nothing about publishing page after page of watered-down, business-driven, publisher-blessed, knowingly disingenuous, racially and politically correct--and therefore inaccurate--articles that this newspaper is only too happy to correct.

With the Herald gone--and unfortunately, in the end that paper was no better--there are few opportunities to learn the truth about the most important issues of the day. I would argue that they are limited to this newspaper and the occasional, hard-hitting TV expose by a Robert Riggs or a Brett Shipp.

I can't tell you how many times I've been asked over the past five years, "Why do you work for that little rag? You could go do TV or go to a bigger newspaper." The answer is simple: If they bothered to read the "little rag," and if they cared at all about what really goes on in this town--at Dallas City Hall, at Dallas school board meetings, in courtrooms, and in countless closed-door meetings--they would know the answer. I'd suggest they start with today's cover story.

Yes, today I'm walking away from the best job in journalism to go mail those holiday cards--four years late. But when I'm through--when I'm real sick and tired of the Discovery Zone, and when my kids no longer look at me as though I were an apparition--I'm going to make up for the lost time away from this space.

I'll be back, with a vengeance. And you'll recognize me immediately--I'll be the one with the new briefcase.


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