Sarah Copeland is a hands-on kind of woman. She lives in the Catskills with her husband, András, who designs and builds furniture, and her two “rascally babes,” Greta, age 5, and Máytás, age 1. She’s a full-time mama, a cookbook author and the food director of Real Simple. She's also a writer, gardener and self-described "picture-taker," whose Instagram feed is simply beautiful.
In one of the loveliest, most heartfelt interviews in this series to date, Sarah shared her honest thoughts on what it takes to be both a full-time mom of two and a woman doing her work in the world. Enjoy her insight and wisdom—there's so much to take away.
Why did you decide to become a mom? Was it a hard or easy decision?
I’m only half joking when I say this was the only easy decision I’ve made my whole life. Some days I can’t even decide if I want pancakes or eggs, but I always, always knew I wanted kids. Throughout many other dreams and visions for my life (doctor, missionary, writer, shop owner), mother was the role that most clearly drew me, the constant tug that was mental, spiritual and physical. I knew in every fiber it was for me.
You had a fulfilling career going before you became a mom. What drew you to continue giving to your work after you had your daughter?
I didn’t have my daughter until I was 33, so I had already spent over a decade in pursuit of a career that had fed me in so many ways. As much as I wanted that baby girl in my arms and everything that came with it, it felt almost unnatural for me not to keep pursuing many of my passions and goals. It was a feeling that I wasn’t quite prepared for—I always planned that I would be more than willing to put my career on hold for a few years. That I couldn’t immediately shut off that part of me scared me a little.
I had a very different reaction after my son was born 4 years later. I had experienced how fast babyhood goes, and the fleeting nature of those baby at home with mama years was very real to me, and still is. This time, I felt an opposite drive to slow down, and pull back in many areas so I can be even more focused at home for both of my kids.
What’s clearer now is that honing in on my personal mission in life—around work, yes, but around everything I do, is opening paths to let go of what’s just busywork (or things cleverly disguised as important work) versus the work that is actually meaningful to me and my whole family in the long-term.
What drives you to continue giving to your personal mission in life?
Love. Love of my little family. Wanting to give them all I can—experiences, opportunities, joy, varied influences and, most of all, my best me. And love of my work. So much of my work life is just part of who I am that I would do it (cook, write, garden, take photos) even if it wasn’t my job.
Sometimes it makes me crazy trying to volley back and forth between my professional world and my mama-world. But engaging in this other mission—bringing a healthier lifestyle through cooking into the homes of so many women—brings an element into our lives and our homes that is predominately positive, despite the fact that I sometimes fanaticize about what a calm existence I think I could give our kids if I could focus on just them.
In some ways work fuels me and in some ways it grounds me. I could very easily get lost in making dandelion crowns with my five-year-old and homemade baby food and expect home life to be perfect all of the time if I wasn’t forced to leave my home to meet with other adults—I know that’s my tendency. I think that might put way too much pressure on my kids, and me. And I have that inner tug that says I’d be burying some of the gifts that were meant to be shared outside our family.
Right now, while working at my desk at home or in my office in New York City, I’m reminded of my blessings. The days with my colleagues remind me how uncomplicated, pure and dear my children are. The days with my kids help me appreciate my sometimes complicated but mentally challenging adult life. Having both gives me more perspective and makes my goals more clear.
My career definitely looks different now than it did a year ago, or two or three. I’ve let a lot of opportunities pass me by that just don’t have the same draw they once did, or maybe will again in the future. I don’t have one regret about that. Sure, there were moments in the last year, for example, where I wondered—will my voice disappear? But I know that’s an illusion. What’s happening in front of us—the tears and smiles and these tiny people showing up 100 percent hoping in us each day—that’s very real.
This intense juggle is a very small portion of my life, one I can never go back and relive, so I’m willing myself to be present and grateful and forgiving through it all.
What challenges did you face – real or self-imposed – when you decided you wanted to be a mom and a woman making a difference in the world?
There are so many! The constant shoulds were my biggest challenge (I should write thank you notes, should feed my kids more vegetables, should invite the new neighbor over for dinner). But I’m getting closer and closer to letting those shoulds go the more I connect with and talk to women whose perspectives I admire. The goal of letting the shoulds go is so delicious.
One big challenge I faced this year was the willingness or the will to feel gratitude rather than disappointment for the opportunities I couldn’t tackle this time around, or for those that I did, despite what little moment I might have missed at home that day.
You’re right to say that some of these challenges are self-imposed. We judge ourselves so harshly—and the lists of the un-dones and should dos could just go on and on if we aren’t very, very clear about our mission. And believe me, I have to check myself and pray and quiet my mind weekly around my mission or I will lose that clarity.
The most freedom has come in remembering that every decision in life is a trade off. Some days we need to just focus on the essential, and let everything else go. Some days what’s essential is just not clear, and that’s tough—that’s what is so appealing about being predominately with our kids—what’s essential is obvious. Feeding them, hugging them, loving them, listening. When we weave in a mission that goes beyond our family life, things get more muddy and complex. If we can stop once a day and ask ourselves what’s really essential (and make peace with letting handfuls of non essentials go) we suddenly open up time to laugh with our kids, sit and patiently allow them to stumble through tying their shoe instead of swooping in to do it for them, and to respond to our urgings to make real, lasting contributions outside of our homes, too.
It’s so important to know that we can make small course corrections if one of our choices about what’s essential each day puts us off track. It’s okay to stumble a little. It’s okay to slog through occasional icky feelings. It’s ok to change your mind.
In motherhood, hard as we try to imagine what something might feel like—say, taking that first trip without our kids, or working a couple of days out of the house—we don’t really know how it will feel until we do it. Sometimes you simply have to take a step forward in one direction to get clearer. If it’s not for you, be graceful and honest with yourself and others and move forward. In 20 years, that difficult conversation you might have needed to have to find your way back to the better place for you will be ancient history.
What strategies do you use or what habits do you practice to make space and time to define yourself outside of motherhood?
I’m not myself if I don’t write a little at least every few days. When my son was born, and motherhood demands doubled, I was both exhausted and strangely exhilarated—or maybe delirious. Sometimes I would get up after a 3am feeding and sit down and write for an hour simply because I had to maintain this part of me. But as babies grow and move more and sleep less and demand our attention—both because they become more engaging and need more constant attention to keep them safe—sneaking in the self becomes harder.
When my firstborn was tiny, I could wrap her onto my chest and go out and walk, have lunch, take the subway, write or meet with friends and she slept, contented and undisturbed, through it all. My son was so different. And once babies start crawling and needing to move all day long, we can be more limited in some ways, constantly chasing them and responding to their new needs. Putting aside time for anything—exercise, rest, exploring your creative self—becomes a challenge you have to keep going after.
The trick is to never stop adapting—what works one week or one month likely won’t the next, but keep chasing it.
I am very, very willing to let go of rules and let my baby sleep in the car one day if I’m dying to go to the garden store I love 20 minutes away and let him sleep in the stroller the next day, so I can get my walk in, because both those things feed me and help me be infinitely more present and loving when he wakes up.
Also, I’m just starting to do this: I ask my husband for me time every week (and we make sure he’s getting some, too). Don’t wait until you’re exhausted or resentful and about to snap to realize, gosh, I really, really need a run. Here’s the thing: A happy mama is gift to the whole family.
What advice do you have for moms who want to start prioritizing their needs or pursuing their purpose beyond motherhood but don’t know where to start?
Invest in yourself, just one tiny bit, and see how it feels. If it feels good, build on it, little by little.
It is very hard for me to take time for myself to exercise, get a pedicure or have a solo date with a friend in the first year of my baby’s life. I feel something like antsy-ness or impatience—I actually just want to be with my baby all the time. Of course, I loved when a friend visited or I could take the baby with me somewhere new and refreshing, but that solo time wasn’t something I inherently found value in.
But just before my son turned one, I was feeling really depleted and not my best physically. I decided to cash in on a reflexology appointment I’d won in an auction and it was just so luxurious to close my eyes for a whole hour and not think about anyone’s needs but mine. Then to have someone rub my feet. Then paint my toes! I felt so greedy about it I didn’t even tell my babysitter where I was going.
But it was just what I needed to jump start much-needed better self-care. The next week I went to acupuncture. And then I started back at yoga twice a week and I can’t imagine how I ever went nearly whole year without it! I don’t know if my kids notice anything different, but I’m laughing more and wayyyyyyy more chill about the fact that my son wants to scoop handfuls of dirt from all my indoor plants all over the floor about 6 times a day.
The same could apply to pursuing a passion. Take a class on a topic that inspires you—leaving the house once a week by yourself is not too much to ask. If it feels good, add to it. Keep inching closer and closer to the life where you’re treating yourself and your interests with as much love and care as you do your children.
How do you define self-care and what does it look like in your day-to-day life?
I wish I could say I loved exercising. I’m working on that. But the mental self-care is important too. Taking quiet baths (alone!), talking to your spouse or friends without interruption, reading, sipping a slow-tea, taking time to dream and fantasize—these things refuel us.
Recently, I explained it to my husband like this: one of the hardest things about motherhood is the loss of pure pleasure, for pleasure’s sake. I feel joy, gratitude, love and happiness all day long—among some challenges of course. But simple, selfish pleasure—like, say, enjoying an ice cream without interruption (without sharing it with a toddler or simultaneously nursing or having someone climb on you while you try to savor just one bite) is much harder to come by. So self-care, I think, could just be finding a few ways to enjoy yourself, without having to care for someone else at the same time, at least a few times a week.
Let’s talk about that elusive thing we call balance. Is it possible? And, if so, how have you created a better balance in your life?
Balance is so tricky. A lot has been written about it, and still there’s no answer. I wonder if we replaced balance with peace, or peacefulness, if that’s a more attainable goal. Right now, I’m striving to be peaceful in my home life. At peace with the stage we’re in. At peace with the state of the house, or the state of the day, or the state of our progress professionally in light of how much we’re giving to our little people at home. That’s my goal for this year.
If you could change one thing about how our culture approaches motherhood, what would it be?
We’re so lucky that many of us can afford good healthcare, and that we have so many opportunities and the best nutrition in the world available to us. But, as a country and as a culture, we are enormously lacking in support for new mothers. We don’t speak truths about the demands on our bodies and minds, the so-called work-life balance, the challenges of nursing (including how and where we can openly nurse our babies, as well as support for pumping when we can’t be with them), and a dozen other details of the complicated business of mothering. Our companies aren’t supportive enough. Our culture isn’t supportive enough.
We tell women they can have it all. We tell them to lean in—then we praise ultra celebrities for stepping back from their careers to raise their kids. Everyone should have that opportunity if they choose. Then we praise a mother for walking a runway 3 weeks after giving birth, but not the mother who is home quietly, unglamorously feeding, bathing, nursing and loving her baby around the clock. Where does any of that that leave the mother who feels bad about her body, or a little bit blue about her new altered life, the mother who is struggling to produce enough milk, or the mother who desperately wants to be home with her baby but has to return to work, or the mother who wants to return to work but can’t find childcare she trusts?
We have so many terribly unsupportive double standards.
I think women are starting to talk a lot more openly. I believe the best thing you can do as a mother for another mother is to be honest. Be honest about your struggles and your triumphs. One of the ways my personal mission has shifted in the last year is that I want part of my life’s work to be about supporting other mothers, in any way I possibly can—starting with being more real about what’s been hard or heartbreaking or surprising or triumphant for me.
This, of course, doesn’t touch the much-needed lobbying, or pushing corporate culture to take better care of families or any other major game changers for our country, but I believe it’s the thing we can all do to help each other. It’s a great place to start.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers or any requests you have for them?
Keep talking, keep sharing, keep asking and keep loving. Keep believing in yourself. What you’re doing at home and in your world is of enormous importance. You’ll find your way. We all will!
Thank you for being here Sarah and for sharing your thoughts and inviting us to continue talking about these very important topics. If anyone in this community is hungry for more, where can they connect with you?
I’d love that. On Instagram and Twitter, I’m @edibleliving. And let’s all stay in touch! I am in the very early stages of working on something exciting that I hope speaks directly to so many of these questions, and I’d love to share it when I’m ready.