Stewart Manor mom serves as literary mirror for work-at-home moms
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there were 5 million stay-at-home moms, down from 5.1 million the prior year and 5.3 million in 2008. And a Parenting.com article revealed that there are 10.1 million women-owned businesses in the United States according to the Center for Women’s Business Research. And while the statistics don’t reveal how many are run by stay-at-home moms, the combination of a down economy and technological flexibility points to that latter demographic filling in a large slice of that statistical pie. It is this world that author and mom Cristian T. Lopez-O’Keeffe lived in when she penned her essay, “Mama Esta Trabajando,” for Chicken Soup for the Soul: Stay-at-Home-Moms, a collection of inspirational treatises originally released in 2009 as Chicken Soup for the Soul: Power Moms.
Grappling With Guilt
As she sits in the dining room of her lovely Stewart Manor home, 18-month-old Patricia wails away, seeking succor from Lopez-O’Keeffe. The mom of three, (5-year-old Dalia Maria and 3-year-old Juliana round out the trio), expertly scoops up her toddler, produces a lollipop and for the time being, her youngest is content. It’s this kind of spontaneous problem-solving, juggling of mini-crises and daily bouts with guilt that are some of the many obstacles facing stay-at-home-moms, never mind those trying to transition into being work-at-home-moms (WAHMs).
“I think motherhood comes with built-in guilt. When you work, you always feel like if you were home with [your kids], things would be better. But then when you’re home with them, you always wish you were at a job because you look at people that are working and realize that they have that bit of sanity,” Lopez-O’Keeffe said sighing. “But you’re always dealing with the grass is greener from every side. The one who works from home is frustrated that she’s at home, can’t really be with her kids and you don’t feel like you’re giving them all you can. You feel like they should be speaking 12 languages and that you’re not doing enough. Or if they’re watching a show, you have guilt that they’re watching PBS Kids. [And while] the one that’s at work is making money and building a career, she’s missing her kids.”
The Journey To Self-Fulfillment And Family
Life wasn’t always so complicated for the Fresh Meadows native. The daughter of Cuban parents, Lopez went to Dominican Academy on the Upper East Side of Manhattan before attending the Philadelphia campus of the University of Pennsylvania and graduating with degrees in English and communications. A writer since the age of 7, Lopez-O’Keeffe became a public relations account executive before deciding to pursue her dream of becoming a published author. She accepted a job doing data entry for Christie’s auction house, working more flexible hours for less money in order to work on the novel while living with her parents. It was during this time that she met Iona computer science major Thomas O’Keeffe at a house-warming party. It was her Bellerose-born future husband who encouraged Lopez to chase her dream.
“He said I needed to quit my [cruddy] job and focus on writing or quit writing and get a better-paying job,” she recalled. “I wasn’t about to stop writing, so I spoke to my boss at work, changed my hours so I could write in the morning when I was more focused and finished it.”
The end result was Finding Francis, a short self-published book centering on a boy Lopez-O’Keeffe knew in first grade that had a birthday party at which she was the only attendee at despite other classmates being invited. Shortly after, the book’s namesake left school and was never heard from again. The concept for this semi-autobiographical tome was born after the Queens native graduated college and decided to make this project revolve around a journey of self-discovery piggy-backing on a quest to find her old classmate.
From there, the next decade plus involved marriage followed by a two-year Ukrainian stint serving in the Peace Corps and the birth of her first daughter in 2006. And while her husband wound up as a bank examiner for the Federal Reserve, Lopez-O’Keeffe landed a job in Manhattan, making a living in the global marketing department of German software company SAP. Motherhood found her transitioning into a consultancy role and becoming a WAHM, during which time she wrote “Mama Esta Trabajando,” which translates to “Mommy is working.” This short piece offers a snapshot of being in the position of being a working parent whose office happens to be at home and the misconceptions people have when they find out this is someone’s situation. When Lopez-O’Keeffe writes, “My daughter now understands [‘Mama esta trabajando’] to mean, ‘Mommy can’t be with you because she is doing something else, something more important that has to take precedence,’” the pangs of guilt are not only obvious, but palpable to any parent who’s ever had to balance work and child rearing regardless of gender.
Written in 2008, the story was typed up on the fly into the submission application while Lopez-O’Keeffe was standing on her feet with something on the stove and little Dalia Maria was wailing away. It was also shortly after piece was submitted that the part-time writer lost her full-time consultancy gig, leaving her in a bad emotional state.
“When I stopped working, I felt it wasn’t my choice. So I had a really, really rough time,” she explained. “[So] it was Christmas, I just had a baby and just got laid off from my job. I remember at one point my parents were here for Christmas, I hadn’t showered and I was in a bathrobe and my dad asked me if I wanted something to drink and the only thing we had was a can of Budweiser that was left over from a party and I was sitting there and the baby was crying. So I’m in a bathrobe, drinking a can of Bud and it’s 5:00 o’clock and I’m holding a baby wondering if this is [what my life has come to].”
It was a mindset Lopez-O’Keeffe eventually rallied past and two kids later, she hasn’t given up her love of writing. Over time, her poetry has appeared in a number of anthologies including the Sarasota Literary Society’s New Century Voices and this year’s Whispers and Shouts. She even landed a televised appearance on 2009’s North Sea Poetry Scene, a Cablevision public access show hosted by then-Suffolk County poet laureate Tammy Nuzzo-Morgan. Ironically, the theme for that particular segment revolved around domesticity, something the award-winning poet is embracing for Bunny Was a Horse, the chapbook of poems that is her current project. Then there’s an unreleased stab at writing another novel.
“It’s called Letters to Helen and it’s fiction, which I’m kind of discovering is tricky,” she explained. “It’s about two girls who are friends, one becomes a drug addict and they separate and the one who’s left behind dealing with the guilt wonders what she could have done differently to keep this person in the real world. And the book is told through letters or correspondence. But again, this is a project that’s been on the back burner for quite some time.”
With the continued blurring of gender roles and the constant evolution of parenting, it’s a conundrum that Lopez-O’Keeffe anticipates won’t be getting easier any time soon. “Everyone is just putting so much pressure on themselves to be everything.”