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Biography & Autobiography Women

Not Guilty

My Guide to Working Hard, Raising Kids and Laughing through the Chaos

by (author) Debbie Travis

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Aug 2009
Women, Motherhood, Infants & Toddlers
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Aug 2009
    List Price

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"I want this book to read like you are getting together with your best girlfriends over a glass of wine to let loose about life and, most of all, to laugh about it all.” Debbie Travis

Debbie Travis, the beloved home decorating icon, launched her hugely successful career when she had two kids at home under two. When women get a chance to talk with Debbie, yes they want to know what colour to paint their living rooms – but most of all they want to know how the heck she did it!

In Not Guilty, Debbie describes in frank and hilarious detail the rollercoaster ride of raising two feisty little boys at the same time as working with her husband to create two thriving TV production companies and three TV series of her own. Full of laughter and tears, survival strategies and reality checks from other moms who've also had their total meltdown moments, Debbie's book will help you lose the guilt, enjoy the ride and stop being so hard on yourself.

Guess what? Even if you screw up at times, you will survive the emotional ups and downs, the incredible highs and impossible lows – and so will your kids.

About the author

Contributor Notes

Debbie Travis is the author of eight bestselling books and an internationally syndicated newspaper column. She has produced and hosted three highly successfully television series, including Debbie Travis’s The Painted House and Debbie Travis’s Facelift. Her paint and home product line, The Debbie Travis Collection, is sold in Canadian Tire outlets coast to coast. She lives in Montreal with her family.

Excerpt: Not Guilty: My Guide to Working Hard, Raising Kids and Laughing through the Chaos (by (author) Debbie Travis)

My Ten Commandments for Feeling No Guilt

1. Treat your kids like a paint job. It’s all in the preparation. Take the time to sand and prime well and the results will be as good as perfect. Don’t worry too much about the cracks or blotches — they just add character.

2. Make life as easy as possible. Do not be afraid to cut corners.

3. Learn to use the word no at every opportunity. Your children will soon get bored and move on to the next demand.

4. Burn your child-rearing books. Or stack them up and stand on them so you can reach your towering teen to be able to shout at him eye to eye. Or build a wall with them to separate bickering siblings. Or use them to swipe a naughty kid on the bum as they run for cover.

5. Be prepared for war. You need a brilliant strategy and state-of-the-art weapons to raise a family. Conquer your children early on but be forewarned, they are masters of the element of surprise.

6. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. When the going gets tough, call for real-life backup. Share your failures with other leaders as they may have more advanced weaponry up their sleeve.

7. A good tantrum clears the air. I’m talking about you here: learn from your kids that crying can get you what you want.

8. Follow your kids’ lead in laughter, games and plain silliness. They know best about some things.

9. Love the chaos. Praise your messy house daily, even pray to it, because before you blink, your children will be gone and it will be way too tidy.

10. Look after yourself. The wheels on the bus go round and round . . . and round and round. Learn to take a break. Never be ashamed to tell the family you’re leaving, and you’re going alone, even if its only for twenty-four hours. They will survive.

Mother Knows Best

When we’re young, we all vow not to become like our mothers. I remember my mum embarrassed me so much when I was a teenager that I wouldn’t even walk on the same side of the street. I would cringe when she screamed from the bottom of the stairs at me and my sisters. I despised her rage and empty threats — she did not have a suitcase packed for a tropical beach where they banned children. I thought that when I became a mother I would talk to my children with dignity, treat them like equals!

Of course, now I see her in my mind when I’m counting one, two, three for my eighteen­year­old, or when I look up from my desk and notice the card Max made me for Valentine’s Day when he was a boy. “If I could fly, I’d fly you to England, I’d fly you to your old house,” it reads — for that was my threat whenever the boys were driving me mad.

It’s hard to believe when you’re functioning so well in the outside world, building a company or running a business or performing surgery, that at home you turn into this nagging fishwife. Motherhood is such a complicated mass of mixed feelings. It is the best of times and the worst of times. It can produce such highs of happiness and joy, and such deep anger that you can hardly believe it came out of you. One minute you are this vivacious, lively woman, and the next you are your mother.

When the boys were nine or ten and home with a babysitter, I came in the door to peals of laughter ringing through the house. I have never switched so fast from being happy to blood-curdlingly furious. We had bought them two miniature rabbits as an Easter gift instead of buckets of chocolate, and they were standing at the top of the stairs sliding the rabbits down in frying pans as if the stairs were a toboggan run. They’d stacked pillows at the end for a soft landing but those rabbits were practically airborne, their little ears pinned back against their heads.

“What the hell are you doing?” I screamed.

“Mom, they’re happy, look at their little mouths.”

“That’s not a smile, it’s gravity!”

I was beside myself. “You’ll never have another pet!” I picked up the rabbits and stormed off, putting them in a laundry basket outside on the deck while I tried to figure out what to do with the boys. Within five minutes, some raccoons had eaten them.

When the boys saw the hair all over the deck they both burst into tears. “You killed our rabbits!”

“No, they’ve left home with their suitcases,” I said, scrambling to gain the upper hand. “They’ve gone on holiday from you two.”

I called Hans and told him he had to come home right away. I couldn’t deal with it. I was going home to England!

“Let me get this straight,” he said, “You took their little bunnies off them and fed them to a raccoon?”

“No! I put them on the deck and they were eaten.”

“Muuuuum, you said they went on holiday.”

“Hans,” I pleaded. “They put them in a frying pan.”

“They were cooking them?”

“No, they put the rabbits on a toboggan run.”

“But there’s no snow,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter, Hans!” I screamed. “I’m right! I’m their mother.” The kids were staring at me as I shouted into the phone, stamping my foot. “I. Am. Their. Mother!!”

I should have said, for better or for worse.

Mum, it’s all your fault!

It was 2001 and I was alone, legging it through the airport in Los Angeles trying desperately not to miss my flight. I had been in some exciting meetings with the Oxygen Network, and was feeling exhilarated, on top of the world. Still, I was looking forward to getting home.

Just as I reached the gate my cellphone rang. It was Max. “Mum, I’ve failed my math exam and it’s all your fault. I have to redo it during the school trip to Boston — which I’m now going to miss!” he wailed.

“That’s a bummer,” I said, trying to catch my breath. “Don’t worry, I’ll help you when I’m home.”

There was quiet on the other end of the line. “What do you mean? Where are you?”

“I’m in L.A.”

“Oh,” he mumbled. “I thought you were upstairs.”

I had been gone for two days.

I sat on the plane wondering how I was supposed to feel. He was eleven at the time — still a baby in my eyes, but an independent man in his own. Should I be feeling wildly guilty for not being there to comfort him, or laugh, relieved that he was so busy with his own life that it hadn’t even registered I was out of town? I’m still not sure.

But I fly a lot, and I do know that I have never seen a businessman sitting in departures sobbing into his phone about missing his daughter’s recital. I have never seen a man whispering into his BlackBerry as we are about to take off that his son’s homework is under the laundry pile, or that he’ll write the note to the teacher when he gets back. Every time I travel, I hear women still running the household via their cellphones as they move from home into work mode.

Travelling puts a huge amount of pressure on working mums — including me — but I have tried over the years to take a page from my male colleagues’ book and leave the guilt on the ground at home.

The reality is that life is one big trade-off. You do what you can to make sure your children feel loved and safe. You try to be present when they need you. But if your work is a major part of who you are, and you feel passionate about it, you have to pay attention to that as well. I stayed happy and sane (mostly) through the years because I realized early on that even if I wasn’t home all the time, even if I was working like mad to build a business, to make my own way in the world, my kids were going to be fine. Children are incredibly resilient creatures. They will get through. And they’ll not only survive but admire you for what you have achieved and the fact that you’ve paid attention to their needs as well as your own.

Leave it alone or you’ll go blind!

So you think you’re starting to get the hang of this parenting thing. Finally, after years of being woken up before any farm animal, you’re the one dragging them out of bed every morning (revenge, sweet revenge). They’re old enough to stay on their own, so you no longer need to be employing military strategy (coordinating babysitters, play dates, extracurriculars) just to get to a spinning class or a movie. You’re hitting your stride in your career. You think you might just be reclaiming a bit of that singleton freedom. But don’t get too comfortable!

I received one of the most important calls of my career when I was out with the boys buying jeans. Max and Josh had just entered their teens, and it was the day before we were to leave for a working vacation in Italy. Both kids were in the changing rooms at Urban Outfitters when my cell rang. It was someone from my office.

“Oprah Winfrey just called.” The entire store seemed to freeze. “They want you next week.”

I couldn’t contain my excitement. “Oprah wants me!” I shouted. The news started trickling through the store. Everyone was watching. Everyone, that is, except for my children, who were thumping each other behind a grubby curtain, completely oblivious. “You can’t buy the same ones as me! You always copy me!”

Shoppers and staff gathered around. The manager even turned down the pounding music so I could call Oprah’s producer. Everyone in the store stood waiting with bated breath.

“We’re really looking forward to having you, Debbie — we are such fans of your work here,” she said. “How’s next Wednesday?”

My heart sank, and panic set in. “Yes, well, I have a wee problem. I’m off to Italy tomorrow for spring break and to film some segments of The Painted House, but I’ll absolutely sort it out.”

I looked over at my beloved children, evil thoughts of abandonment and having them adopted — that afternoon — running through my head. “I’ll call you straight back. It’s so no big deal.”

I immediately phoned my publisher in New York City. “Ohmigod!” she said. “This is fantastic for book sales! Drop everything. We’ll fly you there. We’ll come with you!”

“But we’re leaving on vacation tomorrow,” I cried.

“Don’t go!”

I could hear the boys still arguing, the flimsy wall attached to the change rooms shaking because the inevitable shoving had begun. I’m just going to leave them here, I thought. No one will ever know.

I called an executive at my network. “Drop everything,” he said. “Tell them you don’t have kids.”

Finally, I reached Hans, who had gone on ahead to Italy — Mr. Doom and Gloom, Mr. Spoil Everything. “That’s great,” he said. “But there is not a chance you are ruining our shoot and the kids’ holiday. You have to come here tomorrow.”

“I could put them on a plane!” I pleaded.

“I am not taking care of those boys and doing the filming on my own. If Oprah wants you, she’ll want you in six months,” he said.

“You mean I can’t go?”

The whole store was following my conversation, going ooooh and aaaah like fans at a sporting match. I could hear people at the back of the shop who didn’t have a good vantage point asking, “What did he say?”

One woman shouted, “He’s right! If they want you . . .”

They’ll never want me again! I thought, my desperation growing.

Finally, the kids emerged from the change room and I told them what had happened.

“Cool,” they mumbled. “You should go, Mum.”

But I knew deep down that Hans was right. I called Oprah’s producer back. “I’m so sorry, but it’s spring break and we’re shooting in Italy, and I just can’t get away.”

“It’s fine. Don’t worry. We’ll get someone else.”

“Don’t get someone else!”

“No, no, it’s fine,” she said and put down the phone.

I stood there, my head hanging. The girl behind the cash burst into tears. “I so feel for you! I’ll take your kids,” she offered.

“You don’t want them!”

I practically pushed the boys outside and into the car. There was a ticket on the windshield, which I ripped up and dropped at the feet of the ticket man like a petulant toddler.

The kids didn’t say a word the entire way home. They could see I was in a zone. Don’t even look at her. Don’t say one word about her forgetting to buy the jeans.

Hans was right, of course. A few months later, Oprah’s people called me back to invite me on the show again. And not just as part of a segment with lots of designers; I was to sit next to her and talk about what I do, just have fun. Which is exactly what we did.

Dear Mum,

When you told us you were writing this book we were a bit surprised. In all honesty, at first we weren’t quite sure what qualified you to write about parenting. Our memories of our childhood are marked by rather hectic and crazy times. You always seemed to be setting the kitchen on fire, delivering us late to games and practices (if you even remembered where we were playing) and you often forgot our friends’ names — and really nothing has changed!

But, Mum, none of that matters. We grew up in our own way and became athletes and intelligent young men. No matter how busy you were, you managed to blow us away with home-cooked meals that we loved, even if the local fire department was “invited” as well. You were always unique, and many of our friends adore you, and our closest ones still call you “Mum” too!

When we were still in grade school, we would often watch you from our classroom windows as you loaded up the jeep with ladders and paint. Even then, we knew you were different — especially as our teachers would nag us to put a good word in to get you to come and do their homes. We know you as someone who is always busy, always on the go doing this and that, but through it all you have always been there for us.

You prepared us for the world by making us learn from our mistakes and giving us endless hugs. You made us who we are. A good parent is not defined by their perfection, but rather by their imperfections. So, Mum, never feel guilty for not always getting it right and often losing it — we love you anyway.

– Your naughty boys, Josh and Max

Editorial Reviews

“One of the neat things about Travis: She says things other people think…. Not Guilty is crammed with sensible advice.”
The Gazette

“A laugh-out-loud hilarious look at the struggle to juggle kids and a career.”
Edmonton Journal

Other titles by Debbie Travis