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When it comes to spring-cleaning brooms, 'Pardon me for saying so, ma'am ...'

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Wednesday, April 26th, 2006 — I was looking for a broom. The walkway in our garden was buried under piles of debris, and the old broom lay in pieces in the shed.

The situation called for a trip to the hardware store. Sure enough, they had hard-core, industrial-strength brooms, brooms in fashion colors and, my personal favorite, a sweet leopard-print model. A salesman asked if I needed help.

"I'm looking for a broom, a sturdy one that I can use outside that won't fall apart."

"Sure," he said, "this is the broom for you. I use it to sweep the sidewalks and parking lot. Great broom."

I had a push broom in mind. This standard one seemed too narrow to be much good for an outside job. So I asked why he used this model instead of, say, the fat push broom right next to it.

"Simple," he said, demonstrating as he continued. "I like the shoulder action this one takes. It's easy on your back. This broom won't work you to death."

He was speaking my language. Then he moved in to close the deal.

"Pardon me for saying so, ma'am, but you'd need a young buck for that push broom."

If I'd had my wits about me, I might have asked if I could get the tough-guy broom and a young buck. Or, how about the leopard-skin broom and some rhinestone-studded cat-eye sunglasses?

Instead, I left with the sensible broom and went home to sweep up the mess in my garden.

I was getting into the joys of sweeping. Just the right shoulder action, letting the broom do the work ... when I began to realize that my clever friend at Ace had given me more than advice on brooms.

His job and tool logic shed light on another question, one I share with many women: If I swept up the various parts of my life would it make a recognizable whole?

That's the long version.

The short version is: "Who am I?"

Never before have so many women, especially mothers, been so well educated and at the same time so confused about who they are as individuals, wives and mothers.

Sometime between the delivery room and high school or college graduation, amnesia sets in. We forget that we are still in charge of our lives 0x2014> that we can, if we put our minds to it, act, think, converse and generally conduct ourselves as a responsible, self-confident adults.

Motherhood has the potential to render us soft around the edges unfocused and scattered. Intelligent, accomplished women can miss the path to self-fulfillment. Ironically, it can be obscured first by the tangle of parenting responsibilities and later by the absence of those responsibilities.

One way to get beyond this dilemma, according to the broom logic, would be to identify the job and then select the right tool. From my perspective, the task for many women goes something like this: (a) to carve out a life of one's own: (b) to be planted in the reality of family life but not defined by it.

Contrary to how it often feels, family life is not the natural enemy of all things adult. It's true that nurturing a family requires us to imagine the world through the kids' eyes. Maybe this makes us a little soft around the edges. So what? Soft doesn't have to mean fuzzy. In fact, gentleness and flexibility can improve clear-headed rationality.

If maintaining a measure of adult identity is the task, what is the tool more likely, what are the tools? Like choosing the right broom, the solution isn't muscling your way through life but letting your life work for you.

Some tools are practical, such as lowering the parenting demands and spending time with your friends. But my encounter with the broom suggested ways to re-tool the attitude, with three ideas some of us have found helpful.

First, consider asking: "Who are we?" instead of: "Who am I?" Professional and stay-at-home moms, young and old whether your talents lie in the arts, business, science or, like me, in baking killer chocolate chip cookies woman should stick together. Life isn't a contest.

Second, respect yourself. A local woman and mentor to other women put it this way: "If you want to be proud of yourself, do the things that make you proud." Not working ourselves to death does not translate into doing nothing at all. Self-respect and the respect of others depend on our picking up the broom and getting to work.

Last, life changes constantly. New learning curves are inevitable. Riding them is a sign the blood is still circulating in our veins.

For now, my new broom is just right for the job. I'm not thrilled that the time for the burly one is over, but I haven't given up on the leopard-print model. That is a learning curve for which I might finally be ready.