In Praise of Puttering

1.  to busy or occupy oneself in a leisurely, casual, or ineffective manner: to putter in the garden.

2.  to move or go in a specified manner with ineffective action or little energy or purpose: to putter about the house on a rainy day.

I have reason to hesitate in extolling the virtues of a mother’s seemingly purposeless activity around the home. Housework was considered “ineffective” when I was growing up – when our culture discouraged women from working solely for the comfort of their families. With today’s post-feminist moms it’s much more controversial.

The two basic pillars of my argument for what was puttering in the ’80′s have revealed themselves by way of deprivation. After ten years of being what some marketers call a “WAHMie.” (work-at-home mom) and bragging that I was so busy with volunteering, nurturing my child and freelance magazine work that I never once lay at home and ate bon bons, I decided to go back to work full time on site at the local newspaper/multi-media outlet.

I was quick to point out how I’d never been a housewife on the couch. The couch was the domain of my husband who had worked in construction all week and done home improvements all weekend, and my daughter who had become increasingly addicted to carefully monitored children’s TV, game and internet consumption even as her amount of homework was blossoming. No, as a stay-home mom I was ever on the move, around and around, touching base at laundry, kitchen and bedrooms, “keeping house.”

I’d learned from my own mom to call this puttering. And Mom has a great vocabulary ­– she was once going to be an English teacher (before keeping house for a family of five took over). Picking up after a man and children that are used to it can certainly seem, I’ve recently learned, quite ineffective. So I believe Mom used the term accurately.

These are my two main discoveries, however, about a house where a mom putters:

1. You can see the evidence of her attention everywhere you go. She’s touched each spoon and sock with her loving care. The sense of her presence is in everything and permeates your environment on a spiritual level.


2. She knows where anything is. Just ask Mom in a pinch if you have trouble finding it. In fact, don’t even take trouble to find it! She keeps masterful control. It’s all within her seemingly omnipotent reach. Her continual rounds keep close tabs on each and every occupant and item great and small.

When she’s gone all day things lose their luster, and the mommy fairy dust disappears from places she now neglects to peruse. The toothbrush holder is not aligned just so with the sink. The cordless phones are out of their stations. Dust settles around knick knacks that aren’t thoughtfully reordered on shelves from time to time.

Sure, the dishes and laundry get done before she guiltily collapses on the couch (or straight into bed). Every creature has at least been fed. But the throw pillows aren’t carefully ordered into proper array. The blinds may stay closed all day.

Once moms get other, out-of-home jobs it’s the loving, attentive tidiness that falls first. Those tasks never really made it to the essential “to-do” list for moms anyway. But I posit that Mom’s puttering presence was certainly a virtue, if one that’s still of questionable value in society. It’s something a cleaning lady can never replace.

Possibly the top 6 reasons moms should head back to work

I’m not sure what is still making me feel guilty when I pick up fifth-grade Junior from after-school day camp at 5:30. Is it the disapproving look she gives me, learned so well, as she murmurs “You said you would come at five?” The sad eyes the day I told her Daddy would be picking her up? My complete lack of steam some evenings when homework has to be finished and dinner cooked? The sad state of the front lawn when I pull in at night, the one I used to mow occasionally?


Thankfully I was never really a super-mom. I certainly did plenty of crafts, baking and volunteering – that part was extreme. Those pressures taper off quite a bit by middle school anyway. I was rarely averse at home to leaving dirty dishes in the sink and not making the beds. Having grown up with a feministic sort of mom, my homemaking skills are not highly valued. Volunteering just served a need to hover and to socialize. I did enjoy the crafts and baking when I had energy.

But I don’t believe that’s where the guilt is coming from. I’m going to have to pin it on Junior herself, who seems perfectly safe and well cared for. I guess her sadness is ’cause she loves and misses me, the little bugger.

And why not? Who else is going to notice her every need, every moment? And that, my friends, is the number one reason moms should go back to work:

1) Junior is learning not to constantly have someone’s devoted attention. She is finding out that her mom is a person, not a personal servant.

2) Your grown nephew tells you that he  wished your sister-in-law had just gone to work like everyone else’s mom.

3) People accept and understand that you do not to have a perfectly tidy house and yard. Now that you work all day, it’s the best excuse ever.

4) You also have an excuse to say a firm, definitive “NO” to constant requests for help from schools, coaches and church.

5) You look prettier, more often, with your hair done, wearing make-up and shoes.

6) You talk to grown-ups … all day long, in fact. So you act more like a grown-up and Junior learns how, too.

When she is little your life can revolve around her. She needs you more, and she’s soaking up who you are so that as she grows apart, you remain part of her. We all still hear our moms’ voices in our heads, right? For better or worse.

I think by ten and a half, she’s got it. I can tell by the perfect disapproving look she gives me.



Drop-out Mommy

I’ve just taken a major step in my transition to stay-at-work mom. It has taken a few months, but I’m hitting the delete button big-time on almost all our structured activities.

Junior used to be in scouting Wednesday nights, I the ever-present volunteer parent. She had dance or theater class another night, piano on school half days and usually an evening sport we helped coach (at various times softball, cheer, swimming and volleyball). Our limit was three weekly activities per season, but seasons overlapped sometimes and we ended up with four or five! Not to mention big-time school and church involvement.

Rear view of family on couch watching television

As we say good-bye to kid-world responsibilities, I realize how much my whole family has to change to accommodate my new schedule. How all three lives are simplified because I’m getting needs met at work. I’d forgotten how much the work place resembles a family, and how we form bonds with co-workers that satisfy our need for chit chat. I haven’t called my “mommy friends” in weeks.

At the office and further from my child’s world, I’m glad I didn’t bail on being Super Mom any sooner than fifth grade. And my focus during evenings and weekends now must be catching up with Precious and her father. This is fine – our family schedules no longer have to fill my own need to socialize and to shine in the world.

I guiltily brought up an idea to Hubby about job-sharing, after my new boss offered me more hours. I declined to work more than 40 hours a week, but what if I were to find another graphic artist to share my job, and we each work 25-30 hours? Hubby was awestruck with the idea of getting me back working precious hours at home for our family.

I have to admit, though – the simplicity of the full-time working life is very appealing. Deleting those repeating activities on the calendar, things we paid dearly for in time and tuition, and separating myself from that mommy scene … feels pretty darned OK.

I haven’t changed how much I’m working at all – just who I’m working for. I can see the upside of allowing my husband to cook and do dishes, letting my daughter be more independent (with friends I don’t even know, yikes!!) and less scheduled. Of letting other parents be the Super Mom or Super Dad volunteers. Of having a life that no longer revolves exclusively around family activities and my role as a parent.

Stay-at-work Mom

Honestly, I didn’t realize how long it had been since I wore shoes every day.

Or since every morning at 7am I had styled my hair, applied make-up and donned grown-up clothes. As my ten-year-old gets herself ready, now Momma’s got her own routine to get through.

Stay-home So-Cal moms know, we can wear flip flops for months on end, and then maybe go a month or two in Uggs. We don’t have to brush our hair unless it’s volunteer day at the school or something. Monday through Friday I drank some coffee, brushed my teeth and rushed my Precious to school in the same divinely comfy sweats. I’d turn right around to do laundry, dishes and freelance graphic design work, while other cars turned onto the freeway.

After ten years, it was time for Precious to get ready without my assistance. And one of the highlights of my returning to an on-site office for the first time in her life, is our being side-by-side at the double vanity prepping for our days apart in the world.

working-momsI had worried about her being in day care for two hours after school, and all day during vacations. Truly I miss picking her up at 3pm and hearing class gossip over froyo, after having chatted with other moms in their flip-flops waiting for the bell.

But the past year or two moms of  “upper grade” kids had been scarce. Parents at the school gate had babies, toddlers and preschoolers in tow (I watched their antics, rarely wistful). I spoke wisely to them of years to come, watching with interest as my own peers’ offspring walked home in self-reliant groups to let themselves in and wait for mom to wearily arrive from the office. (I know that shock now: to come home in the evening to the other work, to be the mom in the grocery store at 6pm with the child sprung from day care: “Can we go home now, Mommy?”) What unsupervised ten-year-olds do for those after-school hours,  I only imagine. But I’m willing to bet it’s the same thing my child did with me busy nearby with laundry or freelance work:  they finish homework, snack, watch TV or play computer games until dinner.

I have decided to spend half one of my new paychecks on the after school program, where perky young “counselors” with admirable energy levels lead group activities and chat with my girl. They seem wholesome enough, and the behavior of her fellow after school “campers” runs the same gamut as classmates’. Precious proudly tells me she is making new friends from her school who haven’t been in any of her classes, or whom she’d never have gotten to know during the school day with its restrictive cliques and minimal free time.

Are the friends a good influence? Are the counselors? Would she be better off just with me (and TV and computer games) for those hours? Even though at this point I no longer have a choice, I’m coming to realize that it’s one of those things Providence has worked out for the best. She has company, safe supervision, less TV time, and those ten years she had just with me are a part of her now.

As for dance class, cheer, sports and all the extracurriculars that gave her structured play time with other kids, evenings and weekends are just for us nowadays. Come junior high, day care will be replaced by whatever after-school activities are offered on campus.

Unless my stay-home business takes off again, that is. More to come from the newly out-of-home mom.

Why I Love Specs

A new generation of visual artist has arisen alongside user-friendly, consumer desktop publishing. Apps now let you make a nice document without a thought to even basic concerns like margin width or type size. Great for writing the letters we used to type on a typewriter, with the ability to add things like color, an image or a special typeface.

Office apps magically “wizard” you through creating corresponding labels and envelopes. You can open a template with pre-formatted flyers, business cards … a whole variety of marketing materials for which you once got a titled “commercial artist” at an advertising firm, back in the day. Now print everything at home on your DeskJet printer! Buy card-weight or glossy paper at Office Depot and you’re good to go!

Someone who is a bit visual and creative notices, of course, that you found a template with a pre-made layout, used clipart, and printed it at home or even at FedEx Kinko’s. So the more creatively inclined might venture into Photoshop or InDesign to make something unique and special to bring to a real print shop. Everyone with a creative notion has become The Graphic Artist with no training or experience necessary.

Those poor printing reps. When I give them clean, professionally prepared files they are increasingly awestruck (and then a little teary-eyed), because someone knew how to produce something they can print. Day after day these valiant warriors battle for the ongoing relevance of classic offset printing, against legions of amateur “designers” waving creations that in-house graphic staff must replicate in usable form. Phew! And try to tell a customer-artiste that they will need to either change their masterpiece, or pay for the time it will take to fix it. Hell hath no fury like the client whose artistic notion hath been scorned.

I have something that might help, if we can pass it on to our clients. It’s a little-discussed assumption of how the brain works. Basic neurology states that a brain will seek novelty, and will tend to overlook what it’s seen before. Hence all media push the envelope of what’s considered “shocking.” Unfortunately, amateurs believe everything in their design has to be novel to get attention.

This is where you get today’s design cliché that something “POPS.” It gets attention by standing out against the backdrop of standards and assumptions your target audience ignores. But in order to pop, a chosen element must have something to stand out from. And here is the biggest secret amateurs (and hacks) fail to understand (shhhhh):

It can’t all pop.


Making all your type caps or bold or italic or bright red or yellow will not make it all pop! You have to choose and then pay attention to things like consistent margins, limited typeface varieties, and having your boxes line up. Your audience will be attracted to nothing in your work, if it’s just a random array of popping things vying for the brain’s attention.

Something has to be standard, in order for anything to stand out. (Think how an edgy, borderline vulgar TV show used to stand out, back when TV had standards.) That’s why  professionals study classic rules – we learn the standards and try creative ways to break them for effect. Break all the rules all the time and the effect is just bad. Not just unattractive, but often not even usable.

Appreciate how actual designers take the time to study and practice industry standards, and how good design chooses what needs to “pop.” You don’t want the poorly printed, messy quality of your final product to be the thing that gets noticed!

Who knew there were rules to being unique. Let some brains chew on that one. :-)

Fitting It All In (Part 2)

School is about to start for my 5th-grader, and my list of tasks for next week is really growing. Last week while my vacationing child slept in, I prepared by listening to some wisdom from the The Mompreneur Summit hosted by Jill Christensen. One of the “WAHM” coaches (Work At Home Mom) I’d started following tweeted, what did I plan to do for my business, once I get my precious offspring out of here again? Finding support and accountability from other women juggling business and families is a great thing, and apparently very hot right now!


But while I ponder the wealth of information from all these mom entrepreneurs, as well as my current reading in The Cause by mobile marketer Tania Mulry, I try to remember to glean just what I need right now from this available abundance of advice. One thing I don’t like is living with an agenda all the time – I want to succeed but thankfully, as a creative, I can tell myself that freedom of thought is helping my business. Sharp business women may call it lack of focus, I call it using both sides of my brain.

Balance is key and I think if I laser-focus only on success, my work is going to suffer. So I can let go of that guilt for my overflowing to-be-filed box and my stale web site this summer. Distilling what I plan to do for my business next week, I simply plan is to give it some hours of uninterrupted focus again (without worrying that Junior is playing Minecraft too long).

One Mompreneur and “WAHM” I especially like from the Summit was Kim Constable, CEO and Founder of the Work at Home Mums Network. The quality I found appealing was that she didn’t fit the mold of a woman trying to be like a hard-driven businessman. While driven to succeed, she also seems in her blogs to like a good dose of fun and girlish frivolity in the mix. Maybe I’m partial to her Irish-ness too.

Just when I think I’m ready to throw in the towel and march back into a corporate cubicle, my membership on Our Milk Money gets me on the mailing list for the Mompreneur Summit. I call it a blessing and a sign for me to stay the WAHMie course. :-)

Fitting In All the “Fun”

My relationship to my screen is getting confusing. Is it just me, or do there seem to be two camps pulling us simultaneously to be spending more time online on one side, and to swear off our devices on the other?

My husband and daughter refuse to believe that it’s my job to be online. Hubby just got a work-provided iPhone to replace his battered Blackberry, so he’s beginning to understand. They seem to think when I’m hunkered over my phone or my laptop, it’s my selfish time away from them. As if I’m on Minecraft or Candy Crush (OK, once in a blue moon I am playing Candy Crush).

I get what it feels like to be neglected in favor of a screen, believe me. It stinks. When I’m the victim it’s more often the TV screen, though maybe half the time now it’s the iPad or another laptop stealing my loved ones. (See for how to make sure media time supports kids’ learning and doesn’t hurt them.) But my phone and laptop are the life lines to my home-based freelance work, and that distinction has been tough for us.

Because even though it’s work that’s taking me away from them, it’s having the same effect as if it were something fun. It’s so unfair! It’s not like I wouldn’t like to unplug – the idea of National Screen-Free Week (is that over now?) sounded just fantastic to me. Having long ago chosen a job in the media, however, such a week doesn’t ever seem remotely possible.


Who’d have thought growing up that we’d be taking our beloved TV and our phone with us wherever we go. I majored in communication in the 80′s because I LOVED my TV and my phone! Something changed big-time when I got a home computer and cell phone in ’98 though. Work had come home a little with the dreaded pager, but suddenly it was home all the way.

I know some folks with separate work and home lives, but they are fewer and fewer these days. At least I feel I can text my clients that I will get to it as soon as I get the car serviced or pick up my daughter from school. Or please excuse all the cheering, I’m at a swim meet but can I call you right back? The worst is squeezing social media research and commentary into every single spare second.

I love what Christin says in Joyful Mothering about setting limits online today. There’s only so much we can do in a day, and we can’t disconnect from all our face-to-face relationships in the name of advancing our virtual ones. To me the term “social media” is just an enormous joke sometimes, ironic that I have to use it for work and can only use it during “business hours” because it looks too much like “fun” media to my family!

A quality problem – that what I do for a living looks like fun. When your child says she wants to do your job when she grows up, I guess that’s not such a bad thing.

(Photo note: I was visiting and don’t have a bar, don’t drink and the MacBook’s been upgraded. Cat is current however. ;-))

Meaning of Style: Relax! Be Practical

Well this started out as a simple blog about another component of our style choices – how we (consciously or not) determine our modes of expression in dress, décor and for me, print design.

It has become far more philosophical.

Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.










I’m seeing how choosing style relates to my essential mantra from trade school, “Done is Beautiful.”  Yes that was trade school, not some tony fine arts institution – which is kind of the point, I guess. My instructor, an ad agency veteran, was bestowing worldly practicality upon us that was far more valuable than any high art hoopla.

I had to meditate on this mantra a bit. IS the good the enemy of the best, when it comes to style? (I’m sure Voltaire who said this was very stylish, being French.) Mustn’t we ever strive for the very best style? The edgiest, the most meaningful? Ever pushing the envelope of self actualization and expression in the universe … ?

Um, I really don’t think so.

On a day-to-day basis I think we’d get exhausted, really. Why do you think celebs with enough money, hire “stylists” for pretty much every little thing that can possibly be styled? And how would any of my project deadlines, realistically, ever get met in the never-ending quest for the meaningful statement?

Here I’ve come up with three easy criteria to help you make style choices, beyond delving deeply and narcissistically into, “What is the world hearing me say?”  Because, after all, what’s wrong with saying to the world that you’re sort of practical?

RECYCLE. That’s right, find something pre-owned (by you or someone else) that you really like and check a couple style magazines. Chances are some variation of it has cropped up yet again, and you can make use of it with retro pizazz.

GO STURDY. It’s really just the teeny boppers that use the throw-away trendy stuff – who wants to invest in something that seems like it’s going to fall apart any minute. Either literally or style-wise.

THINK CONVENIENT. Is it going to be useful to you? Are you going to have lots of opportunities where it suits your purpose? No point investing in something that makes you feel uncomfortable most of the time. Go with what you’ve learned works for you!

Now, didn’t that feel good? No over-thinking involved really. I am a little worried that the Gen X slacker in me could be overtaking my angst-ridden Boomer perfectionist side but hey. Times are changing.

Meaning of Style 2: Popular Opinion

“And by the way, Momma. People say you can’t wear pink when it’s red or blue.”

We were rushing out the door to school on the fourth day of Cross-town Rivalry Week.

“Your friend Nik agreed, honey. Hot pink is mostly red with just a touch of white in it. And he’s a person, isn’t he? Who are these people who said you can’t wear pink, anyway?”

Turns out the “people” were sports fans in her class who owned plenty of the red, blue, gold, maroon and whatever colors were de rigueur for sports rivalry, if you tried.

And therein lies the rub. If you try at all, ya gotta go all the way. Dabbling a bit or trying to show just a little spirit, i.e. the red color family for USC rather than blue for UCLA, certainly doesn’t cut it for the Style Police. And as I brought up last week, even punks who fancy themselves anarchists can prove to be legalistic lemmings when it comes to following fashion. One thing style comes down to is just wanting to fit in. And part of feeling like you fit in somewhere, sadly, is making other people feel left out.

So you start out being a rebel, refusing to follow along. Say my daughter decides not to dress up for Cross-town Rivalry Week anymore (actually she persisted, wearing lavender for Lakers Thursday :-)) She becomes a non-conformist and decides to wear black on school spirit days … Hey! That’s kind of what I finally started doing!

Then a bunch of kids think that’s cool, ’cause they don’t have the right sports apparel either. But then one poor kid says yeah! I wanna be one of them! But lo and behold, he has the wrong hair cut or a song from the wrong song list, or whatever. He lacks commitment to the Cause. Throw him out!!

Another ingredient that adds true meaning to style is this: passion. When you have a lot of feeling about how you express yourself, it comes across with pizazz and tags you as part of a movement. Given this element of style my friends in high school were right: I was no punk. Frankly neither were my friends in high school, though I suppose they were as close as spoiled, sheltered high school students could get. We often identify with the passionate creators of a style, and then water it down and express it in the mass consumer way that’s available to us. At least in my corner of urban-fringe-suburbia.

A couple weeks ago I was on the fence about whether to use a cool soapstone countertop in my modern kitchen remodel. The soft new stone would bring a lovely contrast to all the hard sharp lines and shiny steel. But in the end, gray concrete won out. It looks cooler because it makes a statement.

Maybe it’s not as lovely and my inner earth girl will be left unstated. But the quartz comes out stronger – it’s passionate in its modernity. I settled for softness of hue rather than material and did what I tend to do well in my design work: Balance passion and harmony.

More musings to come on the Meaning of Style …

The Business of Family

Families and business go hand in hand. Contrary to the old corporate mindset, families have been quietly doing business for … well, forever. Consider how families came to America to embark on new lives with small enterprises in isolated frontier communities.

In an earlier time here, women and children worked hard in the home while men did battle in the world of men. As notable 18th century philosopher John Locke wrote, American men and women had equal roles in a marriage but even educated women were expected to focus strictly on their family.  Sophisticated Republican Mothers of the 1800′s proclaimed the sanctity of their business bringing up citizens of integrity. Their husbands, meanwhile, handled that dirty work of outside industry.

By the 20th century our clamor to be heard more “out there” became deafening while the genders’ two realms of influence were still distinct places. Finally Mom was free by the 70′s to leave her insulated realm of the hearth, where her job of growing ethical citizens often went the way of latchkey kids and TV dinners. But more and more we bring creativity, connectedness and compassionate leadership to all areas of public life as never seen before.

Now real respect for this realm of the family is coming back, as smart young parents of both genders tend to babies’ needs with a vengeance in an exploding new cult of domesticity. Mommies band together both virtually and in their local communities like never before, turning to virtual communities like with daddies who also value being present in their kids’ lives. Professional couples appreciate today that work and family co-exist in the same sphere.

Newsflash: Staying home with young children is not “dropping out” at all. When you add the family work arena to your resume it’s a lateral move, and the value you add to the outside world by working in harmony with the home is value that translates anywhere. Husbands and wives are in this business together, now working side by side to make a successful home and raise citizens of integrity. The skills we learn in the business of family are real. As Deborah Spar wrote in Newsweek, between 1965 and 2000 the number of working mothers in the United States rose from 45 to 78 percent of all mothers. During this same era fathers tripled their time spent on primary child care, from two and a half hours per week to nearly eight.

I love how Spar writes, “These men may do the household chores differently than their wives would. They may leave the playroom messier or abandon more socks in the dryer. But, given the vast changes afoot in household organization, those socks might just be worth sacrificing.” :-) For business to soar outside the home nowadays, company policies have had to change their way of doing things rather than being at odds with the needs of mothers and fathers.

Larger, older corporations could be slower to discover what has come about in the home and in progressive companies in the last 50 years … the skills of connecting, ethical leadership and pulling together that have always existed in small “Mom and Pop” operations. They must come to embrace the very same values that go into successfully raising a family, for the survival of us all.

How does your business embrace family values – things like nurturing people, ethical behavior and support for raising healthy citizens of tomorrow?