Beating the Tam-Tam-Tam-Tambour, and the trials and tribulations of work-at-home motherhood

I am knee-deep in finalizing sewing patterns, instructions, packaging, samples… And waiting for a shipment of something that should be getting here from the printer any day now. In the meantime, to take a break from all that, I’ve been learning to embroider with a tambour needle:

tambour embroidery

I’m working on a Róza variation, hopefully done by next week. And: there’s going to be a free embroidery pattern in it for you guys, it won’t require any weird equipment to be hunted down on ebay (that’s where I got the tambour stand – I’ll give you all the details when ), just a simple chain stitch with a plain needle and any thread you’d like to use. The pattern will come graded to fit the correct pattern piece for each size of the Róza… And honestly, it’s VERY quick and easy to make! (Just… I like to make my own life hard and make things using tools I have to learn how to use before I can actually, you know, use them.)

Right now I want to write about something else, related to all of this, and kind of difficult, and you could look at it as a kind of political statement, although really, it’s just stating reality.

I need to get something off my chest: work-at-home motherhood is hard, people. And sometimes lonely, and exhausting, and though I’d like to say I wouldn’t trade any of it (there are parts of it for which that’s definitely true), I think the truth is more that we have yet to create a better alternative.

I mean, I know how lucky I am. I get to give myself the space to work on things I really love and still be here for all the important milestones of my babies’ lives. But it’s also kicking my tush (as Zsuzsi would say – yes, we’re in New York). For example, my “studio” is a closet (the kids call it my factory). I love that I have a large closet I could set up as my workspace, but it is still a closet – see above: we’re in New York. There’s no natural light so I’ve had a few surprises with thread colors, for example.

There’s also no escape from the noise and other people in the household. My lovely daughters often come over to ask for things in a tone of voice that leaves little room for debate. I love them, of course, but paying attention to so many things simultaneously does occasionally make me feel like my brain will explode.

Look, this is what’s behind my cutting (aka kitchen, dining, kids’ drawing) counter (my closet doesn’t photograph quite so well):



Then again, the girls see me work away on something that absorbs me completely. And whenever I do that, they set down any iPhones or iPads and get out their markers or play-doh or legos or my scarves that they like to drape all over the apartment, and get absorbed making something themselves. I swear that they seem liberated by watching me work.

I also wish I was younger. Full disclosure: I was born in 1972, and I had two, almost three “careers” before getting started making patterns and embroidering. I think even friends of mine don’t realize I have a Ph.D. (in literature, of all things), and had meant to be a college professor. (Before that I worked in educational technology and for non-profits. And way, way before that I’d been an interpreter and translator. I guess you could call me indecisive. Or just a late bloomer, then again, this is New York and New York is full of those.)

I gave up on the college-professor idea the year the recession started, when I realized there was pretty much no chance I’d ever get a job that would pay more than the cost of transportation getting to and from work. I’d just gotten pregnant with Zsuzsi and we were hunting for a new home to have room for our family. It was a good moment to quit.

I had no idea what I’d do next.

It was a few years (and one more baby) before I realized I should probably work on something that had always been a part of my life: making things. I sewed most of my own clothes in high school and, you guys, I actually went to folklore camp in Hungary. I get so absorbed in sewing and handwork I easily forget to eat. (Hmm – maybe it’s a good thing my daughters are rather loud and assertive… Otherwise I might forget to feed them too!) I wish I’d figured this out much sooner. I mean, I could have gone to FIT when I was 18, not 40! I constantly feel I have so much lost time to make up for, even if I’m beyond glad I DID figure it out and that I have a chance to do what I love now.

But I do wish I was younger. For one thing, f I was younger my mother-in-law would still be around. As in: an hour’s drive away. She died right before Eszter was born. There are few things I’m more sorry about when it comes to having my children kind of later in life: those two should have known each other.

Which reminds me: another thing that was hard for me was admitting I needed help. I mean with the children and around the house.

For years I had so much guilt not doing it all myself: I wasn’t bringing in any income so what’s the justification for having a babysitter come for a few hours every day? But the first year I had Zsuzsi I did do it all myself. And it nearly killed me. OK, I exaggerate. But it was very, very hard.

You see, Andy travels quite a bit for his work. So there’s this problem: what happens if I get sick? I don’t mean some little illness that one plows through but something like, say, food poisoning, when you can’t get up off the bathroom floor. Because if Andy’s in, say, Nebraska for a few weeks, and I’m so sick I can’t get up off the bathroom floor, then who takes care of the girls? (Yes, this kind of thing really does come up.) My parents live in Hungary and Andy’s parents passed away years ago. I don’t know what I would do without our babysitter.

It took a few years to find someone who really clicked with our family. Not that we had any real problems with previous babysitters but I think it’s like finding a friend, or any meaningful relationship: not everyone clicks. You have no idea what a load off my mind it is to have someone like her around: the girls adore her, and so do I.

(This is the one political sentence I will write in this post: what are we thinking, as a society, that we don’t acknowledge the very real work these amazing women do, along with the work that mothers do, and pretend our lives and work and economy don’t depend on it?)

Having a reliable babysitter did free me up to start taking seriously the things I love to do. So I started working on it at home, and I finally did go to FIT, and now I’m frantically trying to finish up some tasks while Zsuzsi’s in school and Eszter’s with our babysitter, and I’m in my little closet. I have to do it when I have the chance, when no one needs a cuddle, or admiration for a house they’d built or picture they’d drawn, or dinner made.

So I hurry up and do as much as I possibly can because when one of the kids gets sick I’ll drop everything for a few days because of course no matter who else is around, I’m the one staying up nights with my sick children, and I can’t do anything productive on no sleep. And also, sick children seem to want to sit next to their mommies and do very little else.

I often wonder how others do it. Indie patternmakers who have children, like Megan Nielsen. Although I think probably like I do it, in fits and starts, is how. And occasionally overdoing it (I remember Megan wrote about that) and then having to step back.

So… not perfect, not at all. But it’s still the best of all possible alternatives. OK, time for me to get back to work (and daydream of tambouring I’ll do tonight)!

tambour stand and needle



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12 Responses to Beating the Tam-Tam-Tam-Tambour, and the trials and tribulations of work-at-home motherhood

  1. Jeri says:

    Not so different from moms that work outside the home. I have worked for nearly 18 years over an hours drive from home so I’m on the other end of the spectrum…feeling guilty that I was not there for every minute of my children’s lives. They are 23,20 & 16 now. All well adjusted and happy. I did purposely choose a job that did not require lots of travel so I could be there for as many activities as possible but sometimes still wish I had been able to work at home.

    Regardless of which life you choose as a mother we all sometimes wish for peace and quiet to recharge our batteries and get our creative juices flowing. I for one love your designs and am certainly willing to wait an extra few weeks until you get the time to fit it in!

  2. Dora says:


    I have to second what Jeri said, I love your designs as well and can wait.

    Life is a constant juggling act. We make promises and try to our best to keep those promises. Children, health, husband, family life, your sanity should always come before work.

    I for one has promised you a post about the Roza blouse – which I finally made, but something always comes up and it seems impossible to have it clean when I could take some pictures or find my camera or not have some kind of emergency or mess to clean up or fight to break up or snack to make – and the moment is gone, forgotten and then if I ever succeed in taking pictures find the time to blog as well which is now very random for me.

    You are doing great. I am excited to see your new pattern.

    • kata says:

      Thank you. I can SO relate to everything you say!

      • Dora says:

        I came back to re-read your post without a wriggling baby on my lap and read my comment – sorry for leaving out a few words. Can’t even manage to write a simple comment without messing it up!

        Anyways, after re-reading your post I just wanted to say that we make choices every day. We have to live with those choices and the consequences. We cannot do it all, have it all and look fabulous doing it and make everyone happy around us. Priorities change and you need to be flexible.

        I think women in general struggle with the I-can-do-it-all attitude. We all fall into the same trap and we all have it hard one way or another. Be easy on yourself, you are doing your best – and even if not at times – well, you can change and fix it if that is what you need to do. Also, just remember, the world of blogging is a mirage. Not real, only a tiny snippet of it. I bet if you ask anyone, no matter how popular their blog is and how successful they appear that they are struggling with something in their life.

        Example…few years ago I had a friend with small kids. No matter when I went over to her house, even unannounced, her home always looked picture perfect. No mess. Ever. Later I learned that if she cannot do the dishes right away, she puts them in the oven. She had a few closets with baskets on the bottom and as she walked through the house, she was constantly picking up random stuff and throwing it in the nearest closet, into the basket. And when she had time, she would grab the basket and put things away from there. So her home always appeared clean, picked up and organized. The mess was simply hidden.

        • Dora says:

          Oops, got distracted and clicked “Reply” a bit too early.

          To continue…and her children watched a lot of TV and played video games so they would not make a mess.

          Nobody has it together. Most bloggers appear that way – but you cannot see what is really going on in their lives.

        • kata says:

          I love the idea of just making the mess disappear into a closet (not the oven… I like to bake stuff in it!). Except I don’t think I could make myself prevent the kids from making a mess! They have so much fun doing it. (Which is not to imply that they never watch screens…)

  3. Starr White says:

    Well, I have to say, this is really refreshing! I’m in the same boat – two young boys and a part time job which is really more like a full time job some weeks. I’m 42 and didn’t decide to seriously pursue a creative career until I turned 40!! Talk about a late bloomer! Add to this the fact that I have no formal training at all and no opportunity for formal education – I’m literally teaching myself everything from scratch. Some days I just think, “Who am I kidding?” but then other days I feel like I can do it if I work hard and don’t give up. I was so delighted to discover your blog and the work you are doing. And now, knowing all of this, I’m even more inspired than ever before!!! We are a sisterhood of creative moms, and we have to help support each other. So, you go girl!! I will be ordering some patterns from you soon (probably after Christmas 😉 You have just what I’ve been looking for. thank you for sharing this very personal struggle – it makes me feel not so all alone :))))

  4. TinaD says:

    Sounds like you took a page out of my playbook. I telecommute, singl-ish parent, teach, and flail away at a dissertation simultaneously. After 3 different companies in 3 different industries downsized, reorganized, or “redefined expectations,” I went back to graduate school. At 36, with two school-age children, I was the oldest student in my program–there were professors younger. Then my husband took the kind of job that means working months or years in places I have to consult a map of the world to find (and they say it pays better, but after travel costs and living expenses and impulse spending, it really doesn’t), and suddenly I have to start thinking about “okay, if I fall down the stairs dead, will the children know what to do, how long will it take for the nearest far-flung relation to get to them, will they end up in government care while they’re waiting,” etc., etc. So I totally understand your single-mother-but-not position. The good news is that it gets better, slowly. The kids get older, and come to understand the importance and the boundaries of the job, and how to handle emergencies, rather than create them. (Okay, some do. My center-of-the-universe youngest is still wrapping his head around boundaries.) You get more streamlined at the chainsaw-juggling of your existence. And it sounds like you’ve got the two most important bits already–analytical self-awareness, which lets your distinguish “the moment is crazy” from “I am crazy” and keeps you off of interesting pharmaceuticals, a substitute to tap in when the game gets hairy, and the embroidery, which gives you someplace to go in your head that is “not here.” (I used to go sit in flat-pack furniture store room scenes once in a while and pretend I was somebody else and this was my sane, uncluttered, Swedish-speaking existence. Now I knit or stitch. It requires less driving.) So, good luck, and thanks for the peek behind the curtain.

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