Finding my creative work-life balance in a taco

By Samantha Shanley

Last summer, on the final day of my two-week writers’ residency, I was in the kitchen, thinking about food. I am the mother of three children—most days of my life begin like that.

Nestled inside my postage-stamp-sized plot of refrigerator real estate, there was a small bowl of chickpeas, a bunch of asparagus, a baggie filled with walnut pieces, a tablespoon of leftover pineapple chutney, and finally, the prize crown: a short stack of corn tortillas.

I had learned while living alone for two weeks that you can fold whatever you want into a tortilla and call it a taco—I had a dinner plan after all.

When I returned home and became enmeshed again in my busy life as a single, working mother, it was hard to hold onto the empty spaces of time that I had found for thought and creativity during my residency. Real life fills those up with leaky faucets and fallen tree branches, wet laundry and clumps of cat litter. What’s more is that upon entering my regular life again, I realized anew how hard I had been working to maintain two entirely separate identities—that of a mother and that of a writer. Each of those parts of myself required so much focus and concentration that they seemed to be mutually exclusive.

One afternoon, my neighbor, an artist and also a mother of three, came to my door with a plate of cookies. She asked how things were going with my writing, and my life, so I told her how I felt.

“It’s hard to be a mother and an artist,” she said, acknowledging that it almost feels unfair to your children when, as an artist of any kind, you take time to dive in and concentrate on your own work. When you do that, she said, you’re not really available to anyone else.

While I agreed with her, I had to confess that my transition back into my real life, therefore, felt awkward and incomplete. I had known how to be a good mother. I knew for certain now, after the residency, that I could submerge completely into my creative work as a writer when I wasn’t mothering. How would I ever manage to hang onto one part of myself without losing hold of the other?

In the meantime, I needed to come up with a dinner plan for my kids.

My two younger children, both boys, had been struggling at dinnertime lately, whenever I made anything aside from my go-to staples like quesadillas, pizza, or pasta. If I tried to mix up the menu at all, by adding spinach or corn to a quesadilla, or pesto instead of red sauce to the spaghetti, my boys would arrive at the table and refuse to eat. They’d look at their plate and begin making all sorts of declarations about what was wrong with their food, such as the fact that one thing on their plate was attached to another something, or that the whole culinary palette was the wrong shade of green.

This reluctance, I knew, was just one of the ways my sons were attempting to control their ever-changing world. They were also tired at the end of each day, and not up for the mental challenge of trying new things. On a deeper level, I imagined they were afraid that everything in their lives would fall apart if they stepped out of their culinary comfort zone. Still, in order to push them into developing this life skill, I had employed a variety of parenting strategies, most of which had been offered over the years by my children’s former preschool teachers, who seemed to have the answer for everything.

One of those strategies had translated into a solid rule in our house: everyone must try at least one bite of dinner. After that, if they preferred, they could finish cold leftovers from the night before. This edict created some movement—occasional progress, even. Still, on many nights, we would backslide, with at least one of my children behaving as though I had tossed everyone a handful of nematodes from the garden.

Suddenly, I envisioned a new strategy, one I’d recently learned on my own.

During my two-week residency, when I was separated from my children and their needs, I had received the gift of time, and the choice of what to do with it and when. It was no accident that simultaneously I had also fallen in love with the idea of the humble tortilla, a safe, pantry basic to which one can add any odd combination of things to create something intriguing and new: the holy, compelling taco. For me, the taco itself had become an easy vector of choice, creativity, freedom, and therefore power. Perhaps it could be so for my children as well.

That night at dinnertime, on my kitchen counter, I laid out an assembly line—a series of small, colorful bowls paired with teaspoons. Inside the bowls, I placed some of the usual things—scraps of vegetables left over from the night before, cheese, olives, beans, and avocado. I also set out several other items: braised cauliflower, sautéed carrots, sliced apples, and a portion of the savory granola I’d made earlier that day.

Whatever a taco is now, it’s most definitely not just the crispy-shelled, Tex-Mex party food of my youth.

My children stood next to me in the kitchen, looking doubtful.

“Take what you want,” I advised. “It’s your taco.”

My kindergartener stacked four tortillas in the middle of his plate, on top of which he put a handful of romaine lettuce and cheese, scattered about like duck feed. My daughter loaded a single tortilla with something from each bowl, including most of the black olives we both loved. My middle son selected orange peppers, orange cheese, and orange carrots for his fill, and made his way to the table, chuckling to himself at his own wit.

We looked around at each other, our little quartet, each of us plumped and satisfied by our plated oeuvre. For a moment then, I felt a peculiar sense of relief, as though I had just let go of something I hadn’t been aware I was holding onto before.

It was fear—panic, even, that if I blended my creative life with my mothering life, one or both of them would fall apart, or cease to exist. Maybe I didn’t have to expend energy keeping those parts of myself separate; maybe, if I chose to, I could fold the two together from time to time. There was power in that—a new freedom. If I could feel that freedom so thoroughly, reflected in the power of choice, surely my children would, too.

Samantha Shanley is a writer and mother of three who lives in the Boston area. Her essays on parenting and relationships have appeared in a number of publications; currently, she is working on a memoir. 

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