Melissa Puente is an Emmy-winning television editor and a mother of two sets of twin boys, ages 4 and 2. With four boys under three, Melissa felt tension in her home that didn’t reflect her gratitude at having her children safely with her. She challenged herself to read parenting books and document her responses on her own website, Learning Mommy. She now takes her education as a mother as seriously as her education as a TV editor.
What have you learned from a career in reality TV?
After graduating from BYU’s film program, I moved to New York City so my husband could attend law school. In New York, I got an editing job at a little production company, working on music videos and documentaries for VH-1, MTV and Oxygen. It was really fun and I was really busy; I learned a lot. Then, in 2002, I was assigned to work on a show about the (at the time) up-and-coming musician, John Mayer. The production people were shooting the footage with handheld cameras in a reality-show format and the video quality was good enough to broadcast straight to MTV.
At the time, I was the Young Women president in our Manhattan ward and I had the privilege of knowing some of the amazing LDS teenage girls in our area. The girls were trying to develop their testimonies of the Savior and live the gospel without any support from their families, schools or communities—or even from their ward, because there weren’t many other young women. It was amazing to see how the Savior was practically the only one supporting them.
I thought it would be neat to do a documentary about these girls, using this “new” reality format I used at work. I started filming and sent a rough cut to BYU for review. They were really interested in the idea, so I wound up working on this project for nearly four years.
This was the first time many of those in the Church media industry had seen the reality genre in a Mormon setting. Up until this time, LDS media was very scripted. It was hard for some people to get used to—I got a lot of really funny comments from people, like that everyone looked “too casual.” It took a long time to get the approvals and a little funding, but “Sisterz in Zion” aired on BYU-TV in 2006.
In 2003 my husband and I had moved to Los Angeles, and I was really busy working on a lot of different shows for Oxygen, TLC, ABC and NBC. One of my favorite projects was a show called “Starting Over,” about women trying to make positive changes in their lives. It was an inspiring show to work on. Our edit team won an Emmy for our work in 2006.
I’ve been really excited about the direction the Church is currently taking with media, leaning more toward reality. It’s wonderful to have people talking about living the Gospel in their own words and sharing their own stories from their hearts. I’m currently working on a couple projects for the Church; one is a series that will hopefully be broadcast on an outside, for-profit distribution arm. It would be amazing if we could tell our own stories to those not of our faith instead of watching others misrepresent us so frequently.
How was the transition from full-time film editor to a full-time mom?
I really enjoyed working in television, but my life wasn’t going the direction I wanted it to. I quit my job, and then my husband and I experienced success with our fertility treatments and I was able to get pregnant with our first set of twins. I can’t even explain going through IVF, but it’s not fun.
Unfortunately, our boys arrived 3½ months early. Just before they were born, doctors told me they didn’t know if the boys would live—and even if they did live, there was a significant chance they’d be severely handicapped.
For most people, the day their kid is born is a wonderful experience, but for us it was the most awful occurrence of our lives. I had experienced early contractions and been placed in the hospital to slow down my labor. They gave me magnesium sulfate, an awful medication that caused a pulmonary edema (a buildup of fluid) in my lungs. It’s a rare side-effect that can literally drown you internally. When that happened, they took me off of the medication immediately, saying that it was more important to preserve my life than the lives of my babies. Once I was off the magnesium sulfate, there was nothing they could do to slow down my labor and I was rushed to the operating room.
I woke up from an emergency c-section to see my tiny and fragile babies, Caleb and Julian, weighing 2 ½ pounds each. They were beautiful to me, but truthfully they didn’t look like babies. They were unfathomably skinny and I couldn’t hold them. Leaving the hospital without them was absolutely heartbreaking, especially as I saw other mothers from the nearby maternity ward gently carrying their new babies to their cars.
We began what would become a 3 ½ month marathon of daily visits to the NICU where I was in “parenting limbo.” I was a parent, but had none of the duties or tasks most parents had – I had no control over how or when my babies ate, when they were held, even how often I could see them in the NICU.
How did you cope with having your kids in the hospital?
Having the boys in the hospital was one of the most challenging times in my life, but it was also an opportunity to come closer to the Savior to find comfort and strength and an eternal perspective. Hard times can be faith-building because we realize we’re not in control. Until then, my life had kind of gone as planned with work and everything else. Now, however, I realized I had absolutely no control and I had to put myself in the Lord’s hands.
Within the twins’ first week of life, Caleb had to be sent to another hospital for surgery on his heart valve. The transfer was traumatic for all of us, and afterwards he was even sicker. Just as he was getting better, Julian suddenly developed an extremely serious stomach inflammation that could have led to permanent gastrointestinal damage and death. He was also transferred to the surgical center and immediately wheeled into surgery.
The doctors who examined him said they were extremely worried about his chances of survival. As they took him away I didn’t know if I would see him again, alive. We cried and prayed and agonized while he was in surgery for far longer than they had estimated. But I will always remember that time because I’ve never felt closer to God. I knew God was comforting me and telling me everything was going to be all right. The sustaining power of the Holy Ghost was so real and strong I could almost see it surrounding me in the waiting room. Heavenly Father was there. The importance of being a mother and caring for children was impressed upon me so deeply; I realized that no burden was too impossible to carry in its name.
When we finally found out that Julian was okay, my gratitude was inexpressible. My attitude started to change. I became friendlier with the nurses. I stopped feeling so panicked and anxious. I taped optimistic signs on my babies’ incubators that said “Mighty Warrior” and “Valiant Hero.” My children were indeed mighty warriors fighting for their lives, and no matter what the final outcome brought, I was privileged to guide and support them in whatever way I could. People started telling me that I seemed to be handling the situation really well. Other parents in the NICU came to me for advice and support. I stopped agonizing about how many days were left till we could bring the boys home, and instead tried to develop patience. As both of my kids needed blood transfusions because of all the tests they had to endure, several friends rallied to our support. I continued pumping breast milk, something I would do for nearly their whole first year.
We had a few more ups and downs as Caleb struggled with his breathing and feeding and almost had to have surgery to get a tube placed in his stomach, and Julian went in for a 2nd stomach surgery, but on October 10th – 103 days after their birth – they were both home with us. I felt like throwing the world’s hugest celebration, but in the end we just spent the day cuddling in bed – something I had been dreaming about doing for weeks and weeks. Life was good.
Two years later, my husband and I decided to try for a girl and we ended up getting pregnant with twins again, even though we tried really hard not to get pregnant with multiples. When we found out we were having another set of twins, it was really difficult because we were so scared from the first experience. But the second time around was much better—I’d learned a lot of things I needed to do differently with this second IVF twin-pregnancy and our second set of twin boys were born without issue.
What is life like with two sets of twins?
The first year was amazing—we had four kids under age three for a whole year. I had a nanny helping me 3-4 days a week and lots of help from my ward, but honestly I’ve never been happier. Things started to get really challenging when my older kids hit 2 1/2. Each child was developing more of a will and an opinion and I found myself yelling at my kids a lot. I realized there was a lot of strain and tension in our home that wasn’t there before.
I don’t think it was anything out of the ordinary; a lot of people probably experience what we’ve experienced. But when I thought back to that time in the NICU and how grateful I was to even have these kids, I felt like I could do better as a parent. That helped me begin a journey to try to become a better mom.
What inspired you to start your website, Learning Mommy?
I’ve always loved the hymn, “Love at Home” and the idea that we can have bliss in home-life. I wanted to find ways to bring that feeling into our home. I started reading parenting books and writing insights on my family blog about things I was learning.
Not long after I started this project, a woman in my twins group gave birth to twin boys via emergency C-section at 26 weeks just like I had. Tragically, her twins died within 48 hours of birth as she held them in her arms. Understandably, she was devastated—she had been undergoing fertility treatments for five years to become a mother.
Hearing about her experience reminded me so much of my own experience and how things could have gone either way for us. But I did get to bring my boys home from the hospital and they’ve developed normally; my kids are truly living miracles in every sense of the phrase. That gave me the motivation to step it up and take my job of growing as a mother as seriously as I took my job of growing as an editor.
So I started reading all the parenting books I could get my hands on—more than 60 so far (but I buy more every week!). Then I created a blog, Learning Mommy, as a way for me to share what I’m learning.
There’s such a complete upheaval of life when couples start a family—when kids are small, it seems that they’ll always be with us and always be young. But the days of cuddling and crying and hugging and tantrums and everything else don’t last. Every day with our kids is a gift. What seeds are we planting now for our kids to take with them when they leave us?
What makes a good parenting book, in your opinion?
I choose books by getting recommendations from people I trust and reading Amazon reviews.
There are some really amazing books out there. But, one problem I’ve found is that some books focus on one system that works in certain situations and with certain kids—but it doesn’t work well across the board. Or it works for a little while, and then kids get used to it and that system doesn’t work anymore. I try to read between the lines and look for basic principles.
What kinds of principles are you learning that could work for all moms?
Lots of books say the same things differently and there’s lots of overlap. I’ve actually identified about nine principles that come up a lot and have made a huge difference in our home. Interestingly, all the principles I’m finding start with a P, which helps me remember them!
One is Play. Play is the way kids learn, how they connect with their parents, the language they speak. Play is all about being in the moment and having fun. I think as moms it’s sometimes hard for us to really play with our kids because we’re always preparing for what’s next—making dinner, doing the laundry—taking care of the things that need to get done. Kids are experts at living in the moment and it’s been fun to do that more–playing with them one-on-one or as a family. I’ve noticed that as I’ve made play a priority, my kids are happier and more responsive to me—and they get along better! Play is amazing—it’s like a magical tool.
Another principle is the importance of Planning–shaping routines, being organized, creating dinner menus. In some ways it’s the antithesis of play; I find my household is happiest when I find a balance of living in the moment and planning with the big picture in mind.
I also love the principle of Praise, as in thanks and gratitude. Our family has done a few service projects together recently and I’m seeing that kids can give people hope and love through service. I used to have this idea that young kids can’t do service projects, but I’ve been totally shocked at how wrong I was. My kids are so much better at serving than I am. When we go to a retirement home or a women’s shelter, people respond to them. They can put a smile on people’s faces in a way that adults just can’t.
How have others reacted to your study project?
When I shared my new parenting goals with my friends and with my twins group, I got a lot of mixed responses. The most common reactions were, “But you’re already doing such a good job—don’t be so hard on yourself,” or “They’re probably just going through a phase; they’ll grow out of it.”
One LDS person said, “Don’t read those parenting books. Just go by the Spirit and read your scriptures.” I remember thinking that was the oddest advice, because I know prophets have counseled us to seek spiritual help while doing our physical best. I remember a story about an early church member asking Brigham Young for a Priesthood blessing to help him overcome an illness, but the man hadn’t applied any remedies or gone to a doctor because he thought his faith alone would heal him. Brigham Young told him, “That is very inconsistent with my faith. If we are sick, and ask the Lord to heal us, we need to do all that is necessary to be done. . . It appears consistent to me to apply every remedy that comes within the range of my knowledge, and [then] ask my Father in Heaven …to sanctify that application to the healing of my body.”
That’s how I feel about parenting—we need to try to access information and resources available to us so the Spirit can work through that knowledge.
How do you make quality time for your kids with everything else you’re involved in?
One of my favorite books drives home the idea that when we are really thoughtful and purposeful about the way we use our time, we have enough time to do all the things that are important to us. I’ve really found that to be true. I have my two sets of twins who are aged 4 and 2 and I try to spend the bulk of my time with them; I also work part-time from home editing videos for the Church and I work on my blog. It’s really hard to juggle everything, for sure. It’s definitely not easy, but it’s really rewarding.
My amazing husband is really supportive and we decided to live close to his work so he can be home more. Getting extra help from him in the mornings and the evenings goes a long way. I edit when my older kids go to preschool and my babies are napping. Another way I’m able to do everything is to outsource my housework. A housekeeper comes in three days a week and does the laundry, the cleaning, some cooking. I also have really supportive friends–my kids will play at a friends’ house one afternoon and those kids will play at my house the next. I might make it sounds like it’s all perfect and neat and I have it all worked out, but I don’t. It’s a work in progress, but it’s manageable.
I wasn’t really looking to work, but I took on a few small projects a year ago for the Church and they worked out so well that I’ve kept busy with freelance work since then. For me, working a little bit has been great and I felt like it was the right thing for me to do. I feel like I can make a real contribution. It’s been very rewarding.
How has the Learning Mommy project affected your parenting overall?
I’ve been amazed at how much I’ve learned. For some people it all seems to come really naturally, but for me it just doesn’t. I have good intentions, but I struggle. I spent so many years studying how to be a film editor—that was an important job, but being a mom is much more important than that.
The biggest thing I’m learning is that parenting is a huge journey for both me and my kids. My kids are learning to master skills that are very difficult for them—like how to eat, how to walk, how to share, how to not be destructive when they’re mad. By realizing this is a process for them I know I need to dig deeper to try to find more patience to help them out on their journey.
At the same time, I am also on a journey. My kids are learning how to control their anger and how to be patient—and so am I. We’re all learning on different levels, together. The more I learn how to control my temper and use my words and talk about things, the more they will too.
Our home is totally different now, six months after I started my parenting project. My husband and I try to find the patience to teach our kids calmly when they do something wrong instead of yelling at them. In turn I’ve noticed they’re getting better about not yelling so much. They’re better at sharing and listening to each other. My husband and I become better and they become better too. That’s what parenting is about—a process of bringing out the best in all of us.
At A Glance
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Marital status: Married almost 13 years
Marital status: 4-year-old twin boys, 2-year-old twin boys
Occupation: Homemaker, TV editor
Schools Attended: BYU
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “Love at Home”
On The Web: www.learningmommy.com
Interview by Lyndsey Payzant Wells. Photos used with permission.