Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Finding a Substitue Me

It seems working women have way too much on their plates today. Having a career, having a successful marriage, raising a family, and doing it all well is the dream of many women in the workforce. What we end up with is exhaustion and guilt. How can you possibly do it all and do it well? If you’re lucky, you can afford domestic help.

I always managed to have someone to come in and clean my house a couple of times a week and someone who took care of the yard. I could afford it and it made life easier for me. At the peak of my career, as Vocational Rehab Counselor, I didn’t have any children so the hard choice of nannies and housekeepers wasn’t an issue.

When I did have a child, having seen plenty of my contemporaries going through the worry of hiring au pairs or housekeepers/nannies, I decided it wasn’t for me. I managed to work as an independent consultant for a few years but the workload was heavy and although I was ‘at home’ I felt the rush to get my work done with my usual competency and have quality time with my child. Talk about a juggling act, and subsequent exhaustion. So I chose to retire from being a counselor and be a full time mom using my areas of expertise to do contract niche jobs and it worked out much better for our family. Not everyone can make that choice.

My guest is Lori Tharps. She has a career teaching journalism on the university level and is married and raising two children. Now, she adds another job of author. Author, Journalist, Speaker, Mom--juggling at it's finest.

Her topic: if you could have a substitute to stand in for you in the home, what tasks would you have them do?


This past August, my debut novel, Substitute Me (Atria Books) hit store shelves. I’ve authored two other non-fiction books, Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America and Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love, and Spain, but completing my first novel is like a dream come true for me. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved to make up stories and reading has always been my passion. So, now I have accomplished by greatest dream. Cue the music, curtains close. Not! Becoming a published author has not changed the course of my every day life in any substantial way. I still have to go to work every morning (I teach journalism at a local university), be a great mom to my two sons and keep a smile on my face while doing it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I love my life. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I could use some help every now and again. And I mean help that my wonderful husband isn’t exactly qualified to do.

The irony is not lost on me that my book, Substitute Me is about a woman in a similar position. The same position as most working mothers. Kate Carter, one of the two female protagonists in the book, is an ambitious PR executive about to return to work after her maternity leave. She loves staying home with her newborn son, but she loves her job too. So, she hires a nanny, just like the majority of other working moms in her Brooklyn neighborhood. In the newspaper ad she places, she writes that she’s looking for a “substitute me” to “love her child as if he were her own.” Zora Anderson, an African-American woman who is trying to find her purpose in life, answers Kate’s ad and becomes Kate’s perfect substitute. Almost too perfect.

Even though in my novel the Carter household is forever altered after Zora takes over the domestic duties, sometimes I dream about hiring a ‘substitute me’ for myself. These days, that is my greatest dream.

Here’s what I’d like my ‘substitute’ to do:

  • • Make a delicious breakfast every morning, including fresh-squeezed orange juice.

  • • Make my kids’ lunches for school with a healthy and fun rotation of meals that they’ll actually eat and not trade with the kids whose mothers give them blue Kool-Aid and snacks with neon-orange cheese powder.

  • •Clean my house while I’m at work, paying special attention to the dust on all of the shelves, which I like to pretend I don’t notice.

  • • Make a scrumptious dinner that won’t make me fat, but tastes like it will.

That would be pretty much all I’d ask for, but then again, we’re just dreaming here, so why stop? If I were in the market for a real ‘substitute me,’ I’d probably also ask her to:

  • • Take the boys to karate, baseball and music lessons, so I can work on my writing while they’re gone.

  • • Help the boys with their math homework when I can’t figure out what the heck ‘new math’ really means. Hey, I’m a writer, I don’t speak math fluently.

  • • Do the laundry because I have a tendency to avoid going down in the basement because I’m afraid of the spiders and crickets that sometimes like to jump out and scare me.

  • • Join the PTA so the principal and teachers at the children’s school know how much I value my children’s’ education.

  • • Start a boy-scout troop in our neighborhood because my older son wants to be a Boy Scout and there are no local troop leaders.

  • • Go out salsa dancing with my husband every once in awhile to remind him that the spark is still alive in our marriage.

I think that about sums up what I need help with these days. If there was somebody in my life who could handle all of those chores, I’m sure I’d be far more prolific with my writing. But in the meantime, I’ll just keep up with my frenetic pace and my mind-boggling organizational skills that allow me to write in the in-between times. It’s worked so far…

  • If you could hire a substitute you, to help you find more time to write, what tasks would you assign her? Or him?


Zora Anderson is a 30-year-old African American middle class, college-educated woman, trained as a chef, looking for a job. As fate would have it, Kate and Craig, a married couple, aspiring professionals with a young child are looking for a nanny.

Zora seems perfect. She’s an enthusiastic caretaker, a competent housekeeper, a great cook. And she wants the job, despite the fact that she won’t let her African American parents and brother know anything about this new career move. They expect much more from her than to use all that good education to do what so many Blacks have dreamed of not doing: working for White folks. Working as an au pair in Paris, France no less, was one thing, they could accept that. Being a servant to a couple not much older or more educated, is yet another. Every adult character involved in this tangled web is hiding something: the husband is hiding his desire to turn a passion for comic books into a business from his wife, the wife is hiding her professional ambitions from her husband, the nanny is hiding her job from her family and maybe her motivations for staying on her job from herself.

Memorable characters, real-life tensions and concerns and the charming—in a hip kind of way—modern-day Park Slope, Fort Greene, Brooklyn setting make for an un-put-down-able read. Excerpt


Lori L. Tharps is the author of two critically acclaimed non-fiction books and the new novel, Substitute Me. She is an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University.

Please visit her website, And on Facebook 


Mason Canyon said...

Lori, your book sounds intriguing. For me, I'd love to have someone to clean the house. I tend to get sidetracked when I start cleaning. I start in one room, have to go to another for something and it's usually an hour before I get back to where I first began. Wishing you much success with your writing.

Sia, another interesting interview.

Thoughts in Progress

Tonya Kappes said...

Haha, Lori! I feel you pain with four teenage boys, three dogs, and a great husband. I too have a full time job as a child therapist, piles of laundry, a million and one sports, cooking, cleaning, picking up dog poop, taxi, author,blogger, teacher, friend, wife, sister, daughter....the list could go on and on...I must say with out all of this, I wouldn't have been forced to sit in my mini-van for two hours a day (sitting at a sports practice) and finish my first manuscript. Luckily, my husband is too good for me and does all the laudry, picking up poop, yard work, packing of lunches and many more items to help me meet my goals as a writer. I got it pretty good, with a great family who pitch out whereever needed. I pre-plan all of our meals, so maybe a chef~I'd have a chef...

Isabel Roman said...

I love your list of what a 'substitute' would do. I'd settle for just a maid, but one who (I can implicity trust) and will clean the bathroom like the Queen Mum is coming to visit, dust beneath the curio cabinets, and clean out that darn fridge. Everything else I'll consider gravy.

KH said...

I would like a substitute me to go out and work as a substitute teacher and earn a little extra so I could stay home and write. And if she wouldn't mind picking up a few items at the grocery store and pharmacy, that would be a big help, too.

~Sia McKye~ said...

I've been sick so my sub would be required to do everything right now. lol!

I do have a great husband who can cook, clean, and do laundry. I bless his mother for her training.

Substitute me would help me get rid of a couple years of clutter from when I was laid up with a knee injury and subsequent surgery. I really need a weekly cleaning lady right now, more than anything else.

When is your next book coming out, Lori? Can you tell us a bit about it?

Talli Roland said...

What a fantastic concept for a novel - and a great list. I'd love to have a subsitute, but truth be told, I don't really *need* one right now. I'm lucky to have the time to do what I need to get done, and a very helpful husband. However, it would be nice to have someone to cook and clean!

Kat Sheridan said...

The book sounds wonderful! I'm intrigued! As for a substitute me? She could hit the treadmill for me, and clean the toilets. Honest, I don't mind anything else, but those two pesky things would make me happy!

Helen Ginger said...

My substitute me would definitely have to love house cleaning because I don't.

Substitute Me sounds interesting. It would be great to have such a person, but, oh, the problems that could come with it.

VA said...

I don't mind doing any of it, but I need more time. Like the Twilight Zone episode, "Time Enough at Last". The ability to freeze time so I could get ahead of the game. I'd like a substitute that's like a tag out in ice hockey or wrestling.

Olivia Cunning said...

I think we are living parallel lives, Lori. I also had my first novel debut recently. I teach college (Anatomy & Physiology, not Journalism). I'm single mom-ing it though. I'd definitely want my substitute to clean the house. Do dishes. Go to ALL of my faculty meetings and deal with the administrative crap that comes with being the science department's faculty leader for three campuses. She could teach my classes a couple days a week. She can also do my line editing. And my taxes. That should keep her busy. ;-)

~Sia McKye~ said...

LOLOL! Olivia, I wondered what you'd use a substitute for. I had a feeling it would be those pesky Faculty meetings.

Your substitute would be worn out in no time.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Helen, I'm with you on that. I can clean and I do like my house to look nice but I'd just as soon have someone else do that part. :-)

LT said...

Thank you!!

My goodness. I feel like a sloth compared to you. More power to you and keep inspiring us all. And I'd take a chef too.

I hear you. I dream of a maid who would not only clean my house but might even leave chocolates on my pillows. And oh my, if she'd clean the fridge, I'd be thrilled. Do people really do that?

Ha! Good idea.

Thank you so much for inviting me to 'hang out" on your blog. What a great group of readers and writers. I feel so at home:)
My next book will be a YA novel that is currently slated for a winter 2013 release. It's about a teen girl who has spent her life hiding from her real life in the world of ballet. So her mother sends her away for the summer to spend time with her relatives in Philadelphia. It's an eye-opening summer and well...I have to finish the book. Like tomorrow. Wish me luck.

Thanks! Lucky you.

The toilets! Yes!

Yes, the problems. That's what the book is about. That's the question I really wanted to answer. What does a woman give up when she hires another woman to take her place in the home?

That would be so cool. And a great premise for a novel...

I hear ya. Academia can be very rewarding and conducive to the writer's life, but it is also a major time suck!!!

Thank you everyone for your wonderful comments and to Sia for the invitation. I hope everyone gets a chance to read Substitute Me and I'd be thrilled to hear your thoughts. You can always drop me a line at my website,

readwriteandedit said...

Lori, while I can imagine what a substitute me could do, I rather doubt I'd actually get anyone to step into my shoes---I don't like people in my stuff. I know, weird. But dealing with the personal stuff of my life? No, I don't want someone else's fingerprints all over my business. Great idea for a story.