Last Saturday night I was sitting in a banquet hall filled with fellow journalists, and I felt a little out of place. We were at the annual awards banquet for the PA Newspaper Association so Chris could pick up his first place award for editorial writing, along with a bunch of other awards his paper won — so many, in fact, that he had to give a brief acceptance speech for the Sweepstakes Award, given to the newspaper in each circulation category that wins the most awards.
I’d felt a little odd last year at the same banquet, playing the role of “spouse” instead of “journalist” at such an event. I’d won a couple writing awards myself back in the days before diapers, and I remembered that bit of vanity and validation that comes with seeing one’s name on a plaque. Last year I remember feeling an urge to announce to no one in particular — and everyone within earshot — that I was a journalist too, gosh darnit, that I was a freelance writer and former newspaper editor. It was weirdly isolating to be in a room of colleagues and feel like I didn’t belong.
But this year was even stranger. I didn’t feel resentful of the people scooping up their prizes, or jealous of those trading inside jokes and anecdotes about their favorite stories and sources from the past year. I just felt like these weren’t my colleagues anymore, no matter how many freelance stories I wrote the previous year or how often I deliberately labeled myself a “work from home mom” instead of a “stay at home mom.”
When I gave birth to Kostyn in 2007, I had finally gotten to a place in my career that I was happy with and proud of. I was a features editor at a small-town daily newspaper, not to mention a weekly columnist and a published author. Not something every journalist aspires to, but all three had been personal goals of mine. I knew that stepping off the career ladder at that point would mean sacrifice; I knew I wouldn’t be able to merely step back onto the same rung several years later, once Kostyn entered school. Still, it wasn’t a difficult choice — I knew if we could swing it financially, I wanted to stay home with him.
At first my former employer had hooked me up with an instant part-time gig as an editor and allowed me to write my weekly column from home as well. Other freelance projects came rolling my way and before long I wasn’t sure I had enough time to handle it all.
But three years, one long-distance move and another child later, I’m working harder and harder for fewer freelance jobs, and the ones I get don’t often pay well either. Perhaps this slowing of the freelance workload has contributed to an internal shift in my identity. Or maybe I’m just busier now with two toddlers and don’t have as much time to worry about how small my byline is in this community. Either way, I haven’t really felt like a journalist in awhile.
I was contemplating all of this during the keynote speaker’s spiel on journalism in the digital age when I noticed someone out of the corner of my eye. All the way across the banquet hall one door stood open to the gracious hallway outside and straight across from that door was a staircase leading up to the hotel’s second floor. A uniformed maintenance worker was walking slowly down the stairs with a duster in his hand, sweeping the dust from the corners of each step — the sides of the stairs where nobody walks and nobody notices. There was a cadence to his movements, an efficiency born of hours of repetition at such a task. Step, reach, wipe; step, reach, wipe. I wondered whether his back aches at the end of his shift, and whether he gets dizzy looking back and forth and back and forth so quickly while climbing up and down countless steps.
As I watched this stranger I felt an overwhelming kinship with him. I felt like he, more than any writer in the room, embodied my life’s work. I saw the beauty in his contribution, the monotony of the repetition, and the chore of such insignificance that contributes wordlessly, imperceptibly to an overall impression of cleanliness. Friendliness. Excellence.
I thought about the diapers I change and the noses I wipe and the same picture books I read a thousand times. Step, reach, wipe; step, reach, wipe.
He didn’t appear to be bored or glum or rushed. I wondered whether he knew who was inside this banquet hall, that there were even a couple 2010 Pulitzer Prize winners among us. I doubted he cared, and that made me smile.
I still believe journalism is one of the most important vocations in the world, and I’m privileged to call it my second job. There are many days when I miss my weekly newspaper column, and many days when I start to doubt my future in the business when I can’t seem to cobble together much of a presence in it today.
But every day I thank God for where I am and what I’m doing, whether it’s cutting strawberries for the boys’ lunch or folding tiny T-shirts, again.
Step, reach, wipe.
One recent day after hearing me use the boys’ full names (probably something like “Kostyn Orrie! Evan Thomas! I said leave the cat alone!”), Kostyn started calling me by my full name too — “Mommy Robyn.” He knows my name is Robyn, and likes calling me that occasionally. But to him my first name is Mommy. Hence, Mommy Robyn.
I think it’s the best byline I could ask for. And he and his brother are the most amazing stories I’ll ever help to “write.”