Amy Finley is the author of "How to Eat a Small Country: A Family's Pursuit of Happiness One Meal at a Time," a memoir about the time her family spent living in France in 2008 -- a retreat they took on the heels of a marital breakdown. In 2007, Amy won the third season of "The Next Food Network Star" and was starring in her own show, "The Gourmet Next Door," on Food Network, but when her marriage crumbled, she walked away from it all to rescue her family.
momlogic: There is debate about women having it all and doing it well. Do you believe you can be a good mom (and wife) and have a career you love?
Amy: Hmm. In the time I've been trying to write an answer to this question, I've said about seven times, "Please, you guys! Can I just have five minutes? Five minutes! Then you can have your mama back..." (spring break started today). And finally, I've shooed the kids out of my bedroom (which doubles as my office), them looking backward over their shoulders at me in complete disgust as they walked out the door to go forage for their own breakfast. Can you have it all? I would say that, empirically, I do have it all: I write, I have a good marriage, generally speaking I have very happy kids. (I take their ability to be furious with me as proof of the security they feel in our relationship. Also, they're old enough to pour their own bowls of cereal.)
But at any given moment, I will tell you that I usually feel like a mild to complete failure on at least one front of my life, depending on what's currently getting short shrift so that other things can be accomplished -- deadlines being ignored so I can make a romantic dinner, kids blowing raspberries at me as I close the door behind them to turn my attention to an article I'm supposed to be writing, husband pussyfooting around me when he knows I'm at my most stressed out and likely to be irritable. I'm trying to take the long view of success now. If I'm juggling, then somebody... something... always has to be the ball that's coming down so that the others can go up. I try not to beat myself up too much about that. For me, the trick is to never outright drop one.
momlogic: But previously, you did drop one -- your career, first in cooking professionally, then in television -- to focus on your family. What's changed?
Amy: The juggling act only works if all three aspects are individually strong. Before, I was like that juggler who's spinning two ordinary balls and a razor-edged cleaver: you see that she's really, really careful about handling that cleaver. My marriage was like that for a long time: scary, because if I mishandled it, I was jeopardizing the kids. (My parents had an awful divorce: I swore I'd never put my children through such a sad ordeal.) Scary, because there was too much built up resentment, guilt, and blame, and very little open communication. (I felt lonely and isolated staying home, but I didn't trust that Greg would hear me when I said it. So I didn't. That didn't work out so well.) Scary, because the marriage we ended up with was so far from the one I'd expected we'd create together! I didn't know, or much like, the Amy and the Greg that we'd become before we left for France. I was a martyr. He was a control freak.
momlogic: Why didn't Greg want you to work?
Amy: I think you come at parenting as best you can, and informed by the way you yourself were parented. Greg's mother, who's French, gave up her career when his family moved from France to the United States for his father's medical practice, when Greg was in elementary school. Before that, in Paris, he was largely raised by his French grandmother. I never believed that Greg thought a woman should stay home, but without access to a stay-at-home grandmother, he did earnestly believe that a parent should. For him -- and he's a computer guy -- it was a logical equation: he made more money, therefore he should work. If he worked, then I should stay home. In part, it's because the argument was so impersonal that I had such a difficult time arguing against it -- it made sense. But also, it's because it was so impersonal that I had such a difficult time accepting it: I, me, how I felt, didn't seem to factor into it. I felt like I disappeared. You can't do a disappearing act inside your marriage. But disappearing also became a convenient excuse for me: if I disappeared, then that meant I could say that all of my disappointments were Greg's fault. It absolved me of any responsibility. See, a martyr. Ugh.
momLogic: But you're working now. What's different?
Amy: Thanks to our mutual dedication to making it so, our marriage is different. I speak up. He listens. He speaks up. I listen. No one gets their way 100% of the time. I don't disappear, even when it would be nice to do so. And of course, the kids are older now, too. They're 5 and 8. When you have very small children, I think it's hard to remember that their immediate limitations and needs won't define your life forever. I remember when I bought my first diaper bag, I really sort of felt like I had to pick the perfect one, because I was going to be carrying that diaper bag around with me for the rest of my life! And then, of course, you don't. The diapers eventually are in your purse, and then it's just some extra wipes, and then eventually all you have in there are two plastic toys, some mismatched socks, a spare hair band, and hand sanitizer.
momlogic: Indiana and Scarlett were ages 2 and 5 when you were living in France. What was the best part of traveling with them?
Amy: Kids have a remarkable ability to accept change without asking questions. Every hotel room we stayed in, within five minutes, that hotel room was home. They both loved to unpack, to colonize the room with their toys and blankets, kick their shoes off, spread their things around, give the beds a good test run to see which was the springiest. Peeking in and beholding the mess you would have sworn we'd lived in those rooms for days, not minutes. It made me realize how central Greg and I were to their comfortable sense of belonging in the world. Wherever we were was home. That continually reaffirmed my commitment to making our family as strong as possible for them.
momlogic: Do you have any tips for traveling with young children?
Amy: Don't be married to an agenda. For every road trip we took around France, I would create a chart. In the beginning, the chart had waking times, driving times, destinations, where we were staying, where and what I wanted us to eat (since we were seeking out local specialties and regional dishes), and daily notes about what we should do in each city. By the end, it had the addresses of the hotels and by what time we had to show up if we wanted a roof over our heads that night.
momlogic: Part of Greg's objection to your television career was that he is an extremely private person. How is he handling the attention given to you and the family because of the memoir?
Amy: We discussed this at length before I started writing the book. Surprisingly, Greg doesn't feel as exposed by the written word as he did by television. There's something about your moving, speaking likeness on a television screen that feels vulnerable. Like it's really you. On the page, even in a memoir, you're a character. You know it's a version of you. Plus, I had the ability to edit, to reveal what I chose in the way that I chose, but also to keep private what I felt should remain personal. And so for all that's in the book, there are details that remain just between us.
momlogic: After people read the memoir, what is the message you hope they walk away with?
Amy: We can't afford to become passive in our lives, but it is tempting to let circumstances overwhelm us. Building and sustaining a happy marriage and family is as daunting a task as eating a whole, giant country, so the trick is to make it smaller. Break it down into manageable pieces, don't try to succeed at everything at once. This takes two things: courage -- because it's scary when you see one of the balls coming down: what if it never goes back up again? -- and gratitude -- to focus our attention every minute on the many rich blessings in our life to begin with, come what may.
Win a copy of Amy's new memoir "How to Eat a Small Country: A Family's Pursuit of Happiness One Meal at a Time"!