Susan and Courtenay with LeVar Burton at a Reading Rainbow assembly – after reading a book they co-created with him.
The balancing act of being a working mom, can be quite tricky. At Real Mom Daily we’re sitting down with mamas around the world to capture a glimpse of how they walk their daily tight-rope and still keeping it together…mostly.
Name: Susan Schaefer Bernardo
First names & ages of kiddos: Brendan (19), Charlie (13)
Occupation: Children’s book author, poet, and independent publisher
Occupation description: I’ve always loved to write poetry and stories, since I was a child, but I didn’t make it my career until age 45! I went to UCLA for my BA in English Lit and to Yale for my MA…but the focus in that degree is on critical analysis, not creative writing. Prior to having kids, I worked in a variety of jobs that kept me writing tangentially…I was an assistant to a television writer, a language arts teacher and a public relations account executive. After my kids were born, I became a stay-at-home mom, and I kept writing- everything from the school newsletter, to booster club fundraising letters, to jingles for my kids’ birthday party invitations. In 2012, my divorce catalyzed something in me, and my creativity blossomed as I sought ways to cope with anxiety and painful emotions. My friend, Courtenay Fletcher, and I spent a lot of time consoling each other (She had just lost a friend to breast cancer, another mom with a young child.), and we were both looking for ways to reassure our kids that love keeps us connected forever, even when we are apart. The result was our first picture book, Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs.
Most embarrassing job you ever had: When I was working in PR, I had to dress up as the Easter Bunny for a restaurant client. Kids either loved me, or they were terrified and ran screaming in the opposite direction. I lost about ten pounds sweating inside that fake fur costume!
1 How do you balance WORK & being a mom? I am fortunate that my work allows me to stay at home and have flexible hours. For the past six years, I have shared custody with their dad, so I try to arrange business trips, etc, when the kids are with him. My oldest son is off at college now, and my younger is 13 and very resourceful and independent, so that really helps, too.
Most importantly, my creative collaboration with Courtenay Fletcher is an ongoing blessing in my life. It is amazing to work side-by-side with a friend you trust and admire so much – especially another mom with the same values and sense of humor! We have so much fun together, and we also keep each other motivated and excited about each new project. We support each other if a kid gets sick. If one of us needs extra work time, the other can pick up both of our kids from school. Little things like that make a huge difference.
2 How do you balance SELF CARE and being a mom? I confess, I was TERRIBLE at this when the kids were little. I was the epitome of the frazzled mom, with a husband who worked insane hours as a film editor. The one self-care thing I really did right was to surround myself with other wonderful, frazzled moms so I had a “tribe”. (It really does take a village to keep a mother sane!) When my first son was just three months old, I joined MOMS Club and was hooked into a playgroup with five other moms who are still dear friends of mine, 19 years later. Having that circle of support saved me. But regarding pampering myself, well, I’d say I didn’t get back in touch with my inner goddess until my marriage exploded and I began having massive anxiety, insomnia, and panic attacks. Hitting rock bottom impelled me to make significant changes. I cut back on my volunteer commitments, started therapy, and began making time to do things that lifted my spirits and energized me, like ecstatic dance, painting, and sculpting.
3 How do you balance RELATIONSHIPS/ROMANCE and being a mom? I separated from my husband and father of my two kids six years ago, and we are now divorced. He cheated on me and had a baby with another woman while we were still married. That was a devastating blow to my intuition and my self-esteem – it really shattered my world and what I had understood my life to be (faithful wife, good mother, maker of home).
On the other hand, after the separation, I suddenly had “me” time to remember who I used to be. As I mentioned, I took art and dance classes and did a lot of journaling and soul searching. I started to put the pieces back together a little differently, to let go of worrying about what my life looked like from the outside and start doing what felt right to my heart.
A year after my separation, I began online dating and met an incredible man who really loves me and supports my dreams. We live together, and for now, I have no intention of getting remarried. It has been a delicate dance of integrating as a family – he has grown kids from a former marriage – but our chief modes of operating are kindness, respect, and transparency. That works. And – allowing myself to FEEL it all – the pain, the fear, the new joy — and then using my writing and art to transform the emotions into poetry and story – that is what has propelled me into this new career.
I am very conscious of how beautiful and blessed my life has become these days. My partner and I both nourish our relationship all the time. We spend time doing things together, traveling, having adventures, puttering around the garden. And I think, most importantly, we appreciate each other out loud – every day, we literally stop and gaze into each other’s eyes and say “thank-you for loving me.” Because choosing to love and be there for someone – that’s an incredible gift. It’s what we do for our kids, too.
4 Your mom struggles and or issues: I was a stay-at-home mom for fifteen years, and going back to work after my divorce has been tough, especially since I followed my heart and became an author/entrepreneur rather than taking a sensible, steady job with benefits, like my parents urged. On the plus side, I did a ton of volunteer work during my SAHM years, which kept my skills sharp and helped me develop a network of amazing moms who’ve really supported this new venture. On the con side, I am used to “giving away my time” and lack confidence about asking for what I am worth. If I could do it over, I think I would have worked at least part-time outside of the home – but I am grateful, too, for all the time I had with my kids and loved volunteering at their school.
I try not to sink into fear about the future – just focus on doing the best I can and trust that the Universe has my back. I have learned that the most painful moments sometimes fuel the most beautiful breakthroughs. For instance, collaborating on The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm with LeVar Burton – a picture book specifically intended to help children cope with trauma — gave me an opportunity to process the pain of betrayal and loss of my marriage, so all that grief and fear fueled my poetry and helped me find the light again. And I am blessed with a strong safety net in my parents and my new partner.
5 Sh%tty Moment: (A particular parenting moment that you wish you had handled differently.) A particular parenting moment that you wish you had handled differently.
I have an ongoing battle with clutter. I am pretty hopeless in that arena. (Recently, I said to my partner, Kevin, “I am a terrible housekeeper.” His response was the reason I love him so much. He replied: “You’re not a housekeeper, you’re a children’s book author.”) Still, I frequently get down on myself for being such a mess – but worse, I yell at my sons and shame them when their rooms are a mess….even though they get that trait from me. I can’t seem to stop, even though I know I am a total hypocrite! Working on The Big Adventures of Tiny House was eye-opening – tiny dwellers can live such big, adventurous lives with a minimum of space and stuff. So I bought that Marie Kondo tidying-up book. It’s around here somewhere, probably under a pile of unfolded laundry, or miscellaneous art supplies, or junk mail…
6 Your mom tips: Don’t forget that you’re a goddess. Seriously, moms are AMAZING. We grow new humans inside our bodies – how cool is that? We have the most important job on Earth, but we often treat ourselves like dirt. That whole “put on your own oxygen mask first” metaphor really does apply – so figure out the activities that light you up, and find time to do them. If you are a blocked creative like I was, I highly recommend reading The Artist’s Way to jumpstart your passion, maybe even getting a group of friends and meeting weekly to support each other’s creativity. I spent twelve years volunteering as an art docent in my kids’ school – and it didn’t dawn on me to take an art class for myself until my marriage fell apart (At which point, I signed up for three classes in one semester at the community college!).
7 Unicorn Moment: (A particular parenting moment for which you keep patting yourself on the back.) I love seeing my kids learn things, it’s the teacher in me. Last summer, my partner, Kevin, and I took my son, Charlie, to Ireland and Scotland – in part to do research for a young adult novel I am writing. Charlie really wanted to see puffins – and so we tracked them down to a bird preserve on Rathlin Island, north of North Ireland – it was so cool. Facilitating him having that adventure felt great. Later in the trip, we did a falconry lesson on an Irish hillside – it was magical having hawks and owls glide over and land on our wrists. I guess that’s my favorite part of being a mom – getting to share with my child all of the amazing wonders of the world: Looking at caterpillars, seeing rainbows, gathering eggs from the chicken coop, seeing the geysers at Yellowstone, and teaching the dog to sit. It all seems like a miracle when you think about it – this journey of being a human.
Susan Bernardo and her son, Brendan, at his high school graduation in 2016.
On a trip to the magical Hill of Tara outside Dublin (son Charlie, Susan and partner Kevin)
Susan and her illustrating partner Courtenay Fletcher promoting their new book at the Los Angeles County Fair.
You can find Susan at: www.susanbernardo.com @SusanBernardo on Twitter and SunKissesMoonHugs on Instagram. You can also learn our more about her books and find great healing art activities at www.sunkissesmoonhugs.com. Have some working mom tips of your own? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org