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Women behind Listen to Your Mother walked interesting paths

Stacey Conner and Elise Raimi settled with their husbands in Spokane in the mid-2000s, and started families here, but felt doubt, disappointment and even despair about the Inland Northwest.

“I came here kicking and screaming,” Conner said.

“When we visited Seattle, I was embarrassed to say I lived in Spokane,” Raimi said.

Now, they are working to make sure Spokane is more welcoming to mothers with young children.

Next Sunday, Mother’s Day, a show they produced and directed – “Listen to Your Mother Spokane” – will feature local mothers sharing their stories about motherhood.

The stories contain much joy, but also the doubt, disappointment and even despair mothers sometimes feel.

Conner said: “When you sit in the audience at ‘Listen to Your Mother,’ and (mothers) give you their real stories, we start to break down this idea that we’re all in these isolated pockets.”

Meeting of minds

Stacey Conner, 39, never saw herself living in a small city.

The Air Force “brat” grew up all over the world. She became a lawyer and married her high school sweetheart, Matthew Conner, a pharmacist. The two began to build their careers in Washington, D.C.

“We never saw each other,” Conner said. “We were so stressed out.”

Her husband took a pharmacy job in Saipan in Micronesia, and Conner worked there for the local government. Three years in “paradise” passed and when a pharmacy mail-order company in Liberty Lake had an opening, Matthew took it.

The couple bought a South Hill home and remodeled it, Conner got pregnant, miscarried, and worked through her grief volunteering at a Haiti orphanage, where the couple hoped to adopt.

As the adoption went forward, Conner discovered she was pregnant again. The couple’s two oldest children are the same age: biological son, Garrett, and adopted daughter, Saige, are both 6.

The children kept her busy, but Conner felt disconnected from other Spokane mothers. People here are friendly on the surface, she discovered, but often reluctant to invite newcomers more deeply into their lives.

Then she met Elise Raimi.

Raimi, 35, grew up in North Carolina, the daughter of two professional musicians. After graduating from Tufts University in Boston, she worked in Nepal for an organization that placed medical volunteers from the United States in clinics there.

She met medical student Jeremy Graham, and when Graham accepted an internal medicine residency in Spokane in 2001, Raimi moved here with him.

“I knew no one,” she said. “I applied for a job at Starbucks and got rejected.”

When she was accepted into Harvard University’s public health master’s program, she happily fled to Boston. She and Graham married in 2004 and settled in Spokane for good in summer 2005.

Raimi met Conner at Manito Cooperative Preschool in March 2007. They discovered much in common.

Both Jewish, both East Coast dwellers at one time, both had traveled the world, both had advanced degrees and left careers to stay at home with young children. Both had also adopted daughters from other countries. Conner’s Saige from Haiti and Raimi’s Zeni from Ethiopia.

Conner said: “We clicked instantly.”

Rehearsal time

It’s a Tuesday evening, late April, and the 10 women selected to read their five-minute motherhood stories gather to rehearse at Bing Crosby Theater in downtown Spokane. (Raimi and Conner will also read their stories.)

The women are nervous. Raimi and Conner calm them down with gentle encouragement.

The women approach the podium, one by one, and tell their stories.

One mom, given away as a baby, describes the forever hole inside.

Another gives voice to all moms who desire more travel, more alone time, more creativity but can’t do those things “with the kids.”

One mom buys drinks for seatmates on planes, so they will be kind to her children.

Another is leaving the father of her children, her house and the beloved sofa where she nursed her children.

One mom of three boys miscarried a fourth child. Perhaps her only girl. She misses her still.

One mom, raised by a gay man in San Francisco, appreciated her father’s maternal instincts.

Toward the end of the rehearsal, Conner shares her story.

Six years ago in Haiti, Conner adopted another child, in addition to Saige. The boy was then 5 and so damaged by institutional living that he raged most of the time; one day he hurt one of the Conner babies.

The boy was eventually placed with another couple. Some told Conner it was wrong to give a child back, as if returning merchandise to a store.

Don’t judge mothers, Conner says, because you don’t know what happened that morning to the mother exasperated with her screaming child in the grocery store line, in the park, in the car next to yours.

Conner finishes her story. There is a moment of silence before applause and tears erupt among these women who will share their doubt, disappointment, despair – and joy – with 400 strangers a week from today.

Making Spokane home

Stay-at-home moms can feel displaced in our working-mother society; according to 2010 census data, just 23 percent of women with children under 15 don’t work outside the home.

Raimi and Conner realize their initial dislike of Spokane was partly due to isolation. They worked their way out of it, before and after they met.

They sought out other mothers with similar interests and now have a weekly wine night – sans husband and kids.

They connect to a national network of women through BlogHer, an online community, and both women also blog. Conner at “Is There Any Mommy Out There” and Raimi at “Harvard to Homemaker.”

Conner met Ann Imig, the creator of the Listen to Your Mother initiative, at a BlogHer national convention and lobbied for Spokane to be one of the event’s locations. This is its second year here.

Through the event, Raimi and Conner have connected with dozens of new women. While seeking out sponsors for the show, they met women running their own businesses. Raimi said, “It’s showing me how I can shape my life here.”

She gives this advice to other mothers who feel isolated at home: “Join a cooperative preschool. Leave the house. Use your kids as an excuse. Sign them up for a class. Sit with other parents.”

And give back in some way, they urge; 10 percent of the show’s ticket sales will benefit the Women and Children’s Free Restaurant in Spokane.

Raimi said if she lived in a bigger city, “I would have to work, or never see my husband, because he would be commuting four hours a day.”

Conner said: “I became the happiest stay-at-home mom who sings Spokane’s praises. No traffic. The parks are awesome, the schools are good. There couldn’t be a bigger turnaround story.”

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