Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Category: Identity

Week 10: The Baby Weight

You know how you feel when you wake up one morning and you see an enormous zit right in the center of your chin?

You think, Ick. This isn’t how I look.

Maybe you meet someone for the first time on this day that you have this huge zit on your face, you end up thinking, Oh, please don’t think this is the way that I always look. I usually look a lot better than this.

When you’re in the bathroom washing your hands and you look up in the mirror, you think, No… That’s not really me.

That’s how I feel about the baby weight.

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***

At two months postpartum, the uterus is done shrinking. You’ve lost the baby, the placenta, and all the excess fluids. And what remains is officially “the baby weight.”

In this pregnancy, I gained 45 pounds.

Pregnancy books will reassure you not to worry. A lot of women lose up to 25 pounds in the first few weeks!

Ha. Ha.

I’m only down 23 pounds.

Wait… Wait…

Damn it.

Trust me, it doesn’t feel so stupendous when you’re still carrying around another 22 extra pounds.

***

The first pounds are always the easiest.

After the birth, I was already down 12 pounds.

At two weeks postpartum, my body went into flush-the-system-out mode and I started shedding pound after pound. Sure, it was mostly water weight, but God, it felt good every other day to look down and see my weight another pound closer to my pre-pregnancy weight.

This is awesome, I thought. Keep on going!

Then at four weeks postpartum, my weight stabilized. I started walking 30 to 40 minutes every day and I enjoyed that. It improved my mood, for sure, but it didn’t do much for dropping more weight.

Then, at five weeks postpartum, I noticed that most of my maternity pants weren’t fitting very well anymore.  (Okay, one pair of leggings got a huge snag in them and I had to throw those ones away, but nevertheless.)

A good sign, I thought.

So I went to Macy’s and grabbed a few pairs of black stretchy athletic pants. Sweatpants? Perhaps. Yoga pants? Sure. Running pants? I was open to it. Whatever made me feel like I somewhat possessed an inkling of the figure that I had before this pregnancy.

Now, you have to remember, I had no idea what size I was anymore. I hadn’t worn anything but maternity leggings, yoga pants, pajama pants, and dresses for the past six months.

Staring at the sizes, I thought, Okay, be liberal here. Get a size above what you think you are. 

So I did. And I got the size above that one.

I pulled on the smaller size first. When the waistband hit my thighs, I thought, Oh, sweet Jesus…

I should have stopped there, but I thought, Go ahead and see if the second larger size fits.

Another bad idea. I got them up over my hips, but really, who was I kidding? My entire midsection was shaped like a shitake mushroom.

Defeated, I went back out and picked up the next larger size.

At least they’re on clearance. And I’ll be able to use my 20% off coupon that I got in the mail.

“Sorry,” the cashier said, “You can only use that offer on sale and clearance items.”

“Isn’t this a clearance item?” I asked

“Oh, actually this is a Last Chance item.”

“Oh good God,” I said.

“I know, it takes a while to know the different kinds of sales.”

“Yeah, I don’t speak Macy’s.”

“Will you be using your Macy’s card today?”

“Sure.”

After I swipe my card, I see a screen of available offers come up. Oh! There’s the 20% off one!

“Look at that!” I point it out to her.

“Oh, yeah, that won’t work,” she says as she folds my pants and puts them in a bag.

“Why is it being offered to me if it doesn’t work?”

“I mean, you can try, but it won’t work on this item.”

I try. It doesn’t work.

“Well, that’s just cruel,” I say.

“Yeah…” she agrees. “I keep telling them they need to fix that glitch.”

***

I’ve lost the baby weight before.

Okay, all but the last five pounds. But still.

I remember that it took until ten months postpartum for my thyroid to stop going completely bonkers and for all the cardio kickboxing and portion controlling to finally eat away at that stubborn extra layer week after week after week.

I remember telling my husband that I wish I had been kinder to myself at two months postpartum, when it felt like I should just stop caring. The rationale went something like this: You’re not getting much sleep, but at least you can look forward to eating all day.

Another part of me cared tremendously about seizing opportunities to return to my pre-pregnancy physical condition. And when I fell short of my own expectations, I would get upset at myself.

Today, the rational side of my brain tells me, Your body is amazing. You just sustained another life for three-quarters of a year. You gave birth to a healthy baby (without tearing!) and lost 23 pounds in eight weeks. Give yourself a break. 

***

It is hard to keep this all in perspective, but I try.

I tell myself that people don’t usually stare at the big ol’ zit. While we think they’re looking at all our flaws, they’re usually looking at the whole package of who we are. Smile. Confidence. Congeniality.

In the meantime, I’m doing the daily work of exercise and portion control. It’s hard. Especially when I need to get up at 4:00 a.m. to exercise. And all my exercise clothes are tight. And I’ve gone two weeks without any change in weight or inches.

The truth is, exercise improves my mood. So even if I don’t lose weight, I know I’ll keep doing this.

But I’ll still have to acquire a transitional work wardrobe while I’m dropping the weight.

And that means a lot of time in fitting rooms, learning to love myself through this.

Week 39: What We Learn From Pain

I’ve been thinking a lot about pain this week.

Probably because I know that, very soon, I’ll be in the presence of the Mother of all Pains.

Labor.

I bow in its presence.

What’s that saying? Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know?

In that sense, labor is a devil that I know. But let’s be honest. It’s been three years since we’ve spent any time together. And having known labor, I’m left speechless.

I know its power.

I know that it will require every last piece of my strength and my will.

And I know that won’t be enough. I’ll have to go deeper into myself, into my reserves that I haven’t had to use for years, just to hold on to the belief that I’ll make it through.

Because that’s the only way that I can transform from a doubtful, anxious human being to a powerful vehicle that brings new life into this world.

That’s what labor does. It transforms you.

***

This weekend, I was reminded of just how transformative pain can be.

In Glennon Doyle Melton’s memoir, Love Warrior, she says this about pain:

What if in skipping the pain, I was missing my lessons?

Instead of running away from my pain, was I supposed to run toward it? …

Maybe instead of slamming the door on pain, I need to throw open the door wide and say, “Come in. Sit down. And don’t leave until you’ve taught me what I need to know.”

love-warrior

Glennon spends most of her life running from and numbing pain through bulimia and binge-drinking. When her husband confesses that he has been cheating on her for years, she is thrown into a crisis that she feels she cannot solve on her own. She finally enters therapy so she can figure out how to pull herself and her family through their quagmire.

In the most poignant moment of her memoir, she finds herself in a hot yoga class. While other women express that their intentions for their yoga practice are to “embrace loving-kindness” or to “radiate sunlight to all creation,” Glennon says that her intention is to “stay on this mat and make it through whatever is about to happen without running out of here.”

As she lies on her mat, she allows the pain of her life to overwhelm her. She sees memories of all the things that have hurt her and she imagines all the terrible things that might still happen. While everyone else participates in the yoga session, she lies on her mat, weeping. She allows herself to feel all the pain that she has been running from and numbing herself from feeling.

At the end of the session, her yoga teacher tells her,

That–what you just did? That is the Journey of the Warrior.

***

I cried when I read that. Because it is exactly how I felt after I gave birth the first time.

I felt that I had just confronted all of my weaknesses and flaws, all of my fears and failures, all of my doubts.

And I had come out on the other side.

Alive. Whole. Transformed.

Before giving birth, I feared that I wasn’t strong. That I was too weak. Too inexperienced. That I wouldn’t know my own body more than my doctors. That when push came to shove, I would get out of the way and let someone better handle the hard stuff.

I feared that that’s how it would probably be when I became a mother. That I would smile in deference and listen to everyone else who knew better than me about what was best for my child.

That I wouldn’t cause problems by raising my concerns.

That I would continue to be “the good little girl.”

That when my time would come, I would numb the pain so I could listen to the doctors respectfully, follow directions like a rational person, and push on command.

Even though I so desperately wanted to be that woman who wouldn’t be squashed and silenced by norms…

I suspected in my heart that that’s exactly who I was.

Another woman who would believe the limitations that everyone else had decided for her.

***

In her memoir, Glennon echoes similar thoughts.

I realize that I have allowed myself to see it all and feel it all and I have survived…

I’d been fully human for an hour and a half and it had hurt like hell. It had almost killed me, but not quite. That “not quite” part seems incredibly important.

Accepting pain rather than running from pain is not a mainstream sentiment in our culture. We’ve built an entire culture around numbing pain. Not just through medication, but through addiction. To drugs. To alcohol. To possessions.

And addiction to distractions.

Smartphones and constant Internet access have helped to create these personal mini-universes, free from empty moments in which we might otherwise feel boredom or pain or discomfort.

But what is the human experience when we don’t allow ourselves to feel pain, whether it’s physical or emotional?

When we don’t allow ourselves to feel the pain, we rob ourselves of a rich understanding of who we are and what we can overcome.

As Glennon Doyle Melton puts it,

Don’t avoid the pain. You need it. It’s meant for you.

Be still with it, let it come, let it go, let it leave you with the fuel you’ll burn to get your work done on this earth.

Bring it on.

I’m ready.

My Baby’s Due Date is Inauguration Day

The timing of this is not lost on me.

I started this pregnancy in May 2016 to the devastating news  of the measly 3-month sentence of Brock Turner, a “man” from my own hometown of Dayton, Ohio. A man who raped an unconscious woman.

Then, the Harambe the Gorilla madness.

Then, a crocodile eating a toddler at Disney World.

Then, the Orlando mass shooting.

All of this set against the backdrop of this shitty election, the Syrian refugee crisis, and constant shootings of unarmed black Americans.

Now imagine having a full month of nausea day in and day out while living through this.

But we pulled through.

Once a Bernie Sanders supporter, I swallowed my pride and embraced Hillary.

I believed that Donald Trump would certainly crash and burn.

I think we all thought that.

And when Pussy Gate happened, I breathed a sigh of disgusted resolve.

Certainly, now, there is no way enough people can stomach the reality of voting for this numb-nuts. Look! Every decent Republican is withdrawing their support! They are finally saying he has crossed the line. They are showing that they care about women. 

And then Election Night 2016 happened.

***

We bought pizza and champagne to usher in the first female President. We invited our friends over and we were festive. It’s like Christmas morning! we cheered.

And then Ohio was called.

We shouted. We felt betrayed by our own neighbors. We looked at the electoral map by county. The only blue counties were the ones with the major cities. Clear as day, you could see Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus, Cleveland, and Toledo.

And then we understood.

***

I’ve cried a box of tissues since this news broke.

I’ve had to look my international students in the eyes and tell them, without totally losing my composure: “No matter what anyone else says, I welcome you. am not afraid of you. I think you matter. This is not the message that I am sending to the world. Please do not think that the way that Donald Trump acts is the way that Americans are.”

I’ve sat in my colleague’s cubicle, spilling my fears about the future, so thankful that she was willing to listen to me and tell me that she still believes in the goodness of people. (I love you, Jeri.)

I’ve cried all the way home from work, listening to gleeful Trump supporters on All Things Considered share their excitement that Trump was going to bring their jobs back (yeah, right) and build the wall (you seriously believe that?) and stop abortions (whatever).

I’ve cried on and off for hours, while my husband listened.

I told him that what hurts the most is that multiple facets of my identity and my values have been insulted by this man who now wants to lead me.

The pain is not coming from a different political party having power.

The pain is coming from being told that who I am (woman, academic, teacher) and what I value (diversity, humility, inclusivity, compassion) are worthy of insult.

I told my husband that I could barely keep from breaking into tears in front of my international students because I realized that I could no longer pretend that our country is the chief beacon of shelter and protection for those who are persecuted. For those who are striving to attain the civil rights that so many of us take for granted.

Canada is stepping into the shoes that we’ve kicked off and tossed into the face of the world. They are becoming the new face of a country of immigrants–and they’re doing it with compassion and community.

It’s ironic to me that so many white Americans are proud of their immigrant ancestry–yet they cringe at the thought of extending a warm welcome to today’s immigrants. They create these untrue historical narratives about our own ancestors. They say they gave up their culture and their language to become Americans. They say they came here “legally.”

But the truth is, we didn’t even have the vocabulary to consider immigration legal or illegal during the great immigrant influx of the 19th and early 20th centuries. (See Episode 47, “Give Me Your Tired…”) People just came. And we just took them. Because we needed them. The Civil War decimated our population. So did World War I.

And those immigrants took a long time to “Americanize.” They kept their home cultures for one or two generations. They spoke their native language. And they were scapegoated for problems in America, just like so many of us are doing today.

So “Make America Great Again?”

That’s a knife to my heart.

How far back should America go?

Should we go back to before women’s suffrage? Or forcing Native Americans off their land? Or Japanese internment camps?

Or how about those Leave it to Beaver days, which white Baby Boomers keep referencing with sweet, untainted nostalgia. You know. The days when black Americans were lynched for voting in the South and the Freedom Riders were attacked and killed.

“Make America Great Again” makes sense if you are a white Christian–and if you cannot imagine this country through the eyes of someone who isn’t like you.

It’s ignorant and myopic.

Donald Trump’s plans for “making America great again” creates a vision of America that looks like this:

20 million Americans stand to lose their health insurance if Obamacare is repealed.

11 million undocumented immigrants stand to be deported from their families and the lives they have built here.

3.3 million Muslim-Americans have been told that they are responsible for reporting “suspected terrorists” to the proper authorities. (Do we ask Christian-Americans to do the same? Did you just do a double-take of the word “Christian-Americans?” Did you stop to think about why?)

And this land of immigrants wants to completely shut its doors to 11 million Syrian refugees who are fleeing from ISIS. We’re completely content to turn our backs on our European allies who are struggling to figure out how to integrate millions of refugees.

***

I told my husband that I’m working through such immense grief about this election. That the last time that I can remember it being this hard to teach through my pain was on the day that my dad died.

And I still went in to teach.

I told my husband that our baby deserves better than this.

Better than sexism, racism, and xenophobia. And better than the rationales and excuses that his supporters make on behalf of this man who cannot control himself. (You’re the puppet! No, you’re the puppet!)

Better than fear-mongering and blaming and ignorance and hatred.

Childbirth is painful. Fucking painful. And I’m familiar with every bit of that physical pain because I did it without drugs.

But believe me when I say this: The physical pain of bringing this child into the world under this next American leader does not compare to the emotional pain that it brings.

Physical pain wanes. Emotional pain scars.

Emotional pain changes the landscape. It can make you callous and cynical. It can leave you hollow and numb. It can drive you to recklessness and disengagement. It can drain your expectations and your faith in others.

But there’s another side to emotional pain that survivors of trauma will unanimously tell you.

It can make you a fighter.

And every time I feel this baby pummel me in the ribs or the stomach, I know that I’m carrying a fighter.

***

My body, and thus this child, have been put through the wringer since the beginning of this pregnancy. At times, my anxiety has been high, but nothing like what I’ve experienced in the last two days. I can only imagine how much cortisol has been coursing through my system.

This morning, I strapped on the pregnancy belt and when for a third-trimester walk/jog. I was still hurt. Still pissed. Still angry.

Then, I started to notice something.

All the political signs were gone.

All the Trump signs that lined our street had been taken away.

And replaced with American flags.

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I do not have words for the emotion that I felt in that moment.

But let me draw an analogy.

It was like being punched in the face. And then as my vision returned, seeing an outstretched hand for a handshake.

In the cold, morning light, I started sobbing.

Again.

I thought I was through the pain. But no. It’s still very much there.

Do you mean it? I wanted to ask my neighbors. Does your patriotism extend beyond self-preservation? Beyond white Christian America? 

I wanted to kiss those American flags and set them on fire at the same time. 

How could we all love this country so much and understand it so differently?

This is the complexity of living in a pluralistic democracy. This is the love and this is the pain. There are setbacks, but hope lives on.

I kid you not, as I walked this path of flags, crying into my hands, not caring if the neighbors saw, perhaps even hoping they would see, this song came up on my Pandora feed.

I’ve never heard it before. It’s called “After the Storm” by Mumford and Sons. Let me share the lyrics with you.

And after the storm,
I run and run as the rains come
And I look up, I look up,
On my knees and out of luck,
I look up.

Night has always pushed up day
You must know life to see decay
But I won’t rot, I won’t rot
Not this mind and not this heart,
I won’t rot.

And I took you by the hand
And we stood tall,
And remembered our own land,
What we lived for.

But there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there,
With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.

And now I cling to what I knew
I saw exactly what was true
But oh no more.
That’s why I hold,
That’s why I hold with all I have.
That’s why I hold.

I won’t die alone and be left there.
Well I guess I’ll just go home,
Oh God knows where.
Because death is just so full and man so small.
Well I’m scared of what’s behind and what’s before.

And there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there,
With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.

***

Today, I have finally reached my enough point.

Enough crying. Enough sadness. Enough frustration and disillusionment.

Because my baby doesn’t deserve any of that either.

I remember what I once told myself on a desperate January morning in 2014.

When I woke up sick again.

For the third time in a month.

And my 6-month-old baby was sick.

And I still had to go to work.

And there was three inches of snow on the ground.

And I had an 8:00 a.m. class.

And my voice was gone.

Get up, I told myself. You are fucking fierce. You’ve been through worse. You’ve felt worse.

Get up. 

And I did.

But honestly, this time, I cannot do it alone. I’m going to need help. From my family. From my friends. Even from readers of this blog whom I’ve never met in person.

I’m going to need to feel your hands, pulling me up from the thick mud of this grief. I need to feel reassurance that many, many of us are still standing after this massive blow to all the American values that I hold close to my heart.

I need to hear you out there.

I need to know that we’re in this together.

That we are still moving forward.

To all current Millenial Parents out there and all those Millenials who will be parents in the next ten years, I say to you this:

We. Are. Next.

We are responsible for raising this next generation of children. What we teach them matters. How we talk about people who are different from us matters. Whether we are serious or joking, our children hear everything. They see what is acceptable and what is completely unacceptable.

And if our kids’ history textbooks whitewash away the pain and oppression that the ancestors of so many non-white Americans have suffered, it is our responsibility to tell those stories. Those stories matter. Those stories are America, too. Even if these stories are painful, we must tell them so that this next generation is equipped with the empathy that this country needs to engage in effective communication in a globalized world.

Let’s raise these kids to once and for all value everyone’s voice, not just the voices of those who have always been the loudest and most heard.

Let’s teach our kids that the road to our own prosperity shouldn’t be paved with the suffering of others.

And to White Millenials specifically, I say to you this:

Let’s stop churning out entitled white children who never interact with anyone of a different religion or race or language. That shit matters. It matters that our kids have friends who are different from them. Because when you have friends who are different from you, you stand up for your friends.

You don’t let people tell your friends that they aren’t what makes America great.

In 20 years, when the Baby Boomers have lost their political power and the Millenials shift the political landscape, let’s make certain that our children will not have to face an election like this ever again.

Are you with me?

What I Will Tell My Kids About Race

hands_together

“I think your daughter and Ezra are the only two left in that room,” she said.

I was picking up my then 18-month-old daughter from daycare and I had just been chatting with one of the staff members. As I walked down the hall to my daughter’s room, I looked through the window and saw three kids.

“Which one is Ezra?” I asked, looking back down the hall to where she was standing.

She looked at me blankly.

“There are two other little boys,” I said.

She lowered her voice, put a hand up to her mouth, and whispered…

He’s the little black boy.

That. Right there.

That’s where it starts.

***

Why did she feel compelled to whisper, the little black boy?

My intuition tells me that she thought we shouldn’t acknowledge his race. (Because that would make us racist?)

But whispering words like this also sends an implicit message. One that could be internalized and filed away to young ears: That being black was something to be ashamed of.

It’s a common approach that American educators–many of whom are white women (me included)–use to show that they are being sensitive. It’s called colorblindness. And to some ears, it sounds okay.

I don’t see colors in my classroom. I treat everyone the same.

I teach the kids that we’re all the same. That it doesn’t matter what skin color we have.

That might be okay to teach kids–if it were true.

But it’s not true. Race does matter.

When we create these completely alternate universes in schools where we pretend that we don’t see the shades of our own children’s skins–and acknowledge how that affects their experience in our society–we create a generation of Americans who assume that everyone has the same experiences.

We create situations like this.

In the Storycorps podcast, “Traffic Stop,” a white mother and her adopted black son share the story of the night when he was brutally attacked by police officers during a traffic stop.

What struck me most about this podcast was the mother’s words of colorblindness:

“I thought love would conquer all and that skin color didn’t really matter.”

She speaks with a mother’s love. You love your child unconditionally. No matter what. But in projecting her own unconditional love for her son onto the cultural lens that American society uses to see her son, she blinds herself to the simple fact that…

Not everyone shares her love.

Not everyone believes that race doesn’t matter.

I dare say, she thinks as many white people do–that we have reached a point in our society when racism is not tolerated anymore. We may not believe that racism is completely dead, but it certainly doesn’t reside where we live and work and play. Racism is for the uneducated and the unemployed who need a scapegoat.

And if it dares happens, people say something.

But what about the covert racism that still exists? What about our own implicit biases that shape our split-second reactions?

As Hillary Clinton pointed out in the September 24th debate, implicit bias is not just a police problem. It’s a problem for everyone.

<whisper, whisper>

He’s the little black boy.

<whisper, whisper>

I don’t want to admit that I know he’s black, but he is. It’s the easiest way for you to tell him apart from the crowd of white kids.

I don’t want to admit that I have no idea what he’s wearing or how tall he is or the shape of his eyes or what his hair looks like or what he might be playing with. All I can tell you is that he’s black.

I don’t want to admit that he’s only one of six to eight black kids that we have in this school.

<whisper, whisper>

I don’t feel comfortable saying these thoughts, so I have to whisper them.

Just in case someone overhears us talking about race… let’s use whispers.

Because race doesn’t matter.

And because it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t exist.

Right?

***

When I was in kindergarten and first grade, I went to a predominantly black school.

You read that right.

My family moved to Dayton, Ohio in 1984, well before the Internet and its amazing capability of scoping out a location before moving. We moved into a neighborhood known as Five Oaks. It had a nice ring to it, but the real draw was the fact that the rent was well within our means. For $500 a month, we could live in half of a giant duplex with four bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, a basement, and an attic spread across four floors.

Once upon a time, Five Oaks was a prestigious neighborhood for the wealthy. Which is why there were so many spacious houses available for dirt cheap rent.

Here’s a “tour” around the community, done in 2008 by a community activist.

 Because of our new home’s location, I attended Jefferson Primary School, where 80-90% of the students were black.

My best friend’s name was Princess. Like most of the kids in my class, she was black. I loved her intricately braided hair, like a curtain of beads that softly clinked against each other when she walked. She convinced her friends to include me in their games of Double Dutch jump rope. And when it was clear that 1) I really sucked at it and 2) her friends had no patience for me learning how to do it well, Princess sat with me at recess and clapped her hands against mine, clumsily at first, to “Miss Mary Mack.”

Princess was the only one who came to my sixth birthday party at my house. Even though I invited most of the girls in my thirty-person class.

My other best friend was Colleen. She carried a denim purse with a sticker of a man in a black hat. When I confessed that I didn’t know who he was, she looked at me in shock. You don’t know who Michael Jackson is? Then she showed me her moonwalk, her Rapunzel-like curly hair billowing in the wind. She was unlike anyone else that I had ever seen. Who else in the world had hair like hers?

I didn’t realize until much, much later that she was biracial.

 I knew that my skin was lighter than the skin of most of my classmates. But I had to learn that this difference had value attached to it.

***

It all started with a rock.

Thrown in my face.

My two older brothers and I were playing on the playground at Five Oaks park. A group of four to six black kids approached us and started telling us that we needed to go home.

This was their playground.

They threw rocks at us.

We cowered in front of them.

“That’s right. Get down on your knees and beg!” one of them yelled.

We ran home, rocks still pelting us from behind.

I didn’t understand why.

Why did they hate us? They didn’t even know who we were.

Did we do something wrong?

I could hold on to this memory as proof that racism goes both ways. That black people can be just as racist as white people. That I shouldn’t care about racism–whether it’s overt or covert–against black people because I “got over” the racism that was expressed toward me.

But such conclusions would disregard the larger truth that white spheres of influence are far, far more numerous and powerful. That these children could have been acting out of frustration with one of the many systems that they were just now learning were rigged against them (education, justice, economics–take your pick). Or perhaps they were giddy with the sheer novelty of exerting power over a group of white kids. I mean, really, how often did that opportunity arise in Five Oaks?

The truth is, I could leave the playground. 

I could “get over” this racist incident because I could move to a place where my race would no longer be a reason to torment me.

We could leave Five Oaks. We could move to many other communities where we would have more social capital. More power. More voice. More influence. More advantages. Maybe we wouldn’t be rich by moving, but we could at least move underneath the protection of an umbrella that would look out for “our best interests.”

In fact, we did.

Within three years, we moved to a white working class neighborhood. My new friends were named Amanda and Kristen and Jennifer. I saw new standards of beauty. No more beautifully braided hair. Instead, beautiful was straight, long hair that lay still as sticks across your shoulders and back. I admired their clothes, their shoes, their embroidered backpacks and lunchboxes.

Racism is, at the least, the inability to leave behind your low social capital.

But racism is also knowing that no matter how far you rise, there will always be someone who skews your worth because of your skin color. It may not be everyone. It probably won’t be those who are closest to you. But there will always be someone who will only see your race.

It’s knowing that your race will be used to explain any moments when you behave badly.

It’s knowing that your race will be cited to explain why you struggle in your life.

And if you dare achieve, your race will be referenced as a facet of your identity that you overcame.

Whether you struggle or achieve, you will always wonder–even if only in your own mind–if the person across from you sees your real worth. Your real self.

Racism is knowing that you will never fit into the label of “normal” since society feels the need to add “black” to identify every black person in the news, but never feels compelled to identify when a person is “white.” (Instead, white people just get to be “man” or “woman” or “boy” or “girl.”)

White people would like to believe that race doesn’t matter anymore. In our spheres of whiteness, it is easy to come to that conclusion.

But if you’ve ever stepped outside of that sphere, you know differently.

You know that Princess can never leave.

As long as we keep our circles separate.

***

When I think about what I will teach my children about race, I think most of it will not be in words.

Certainly, some of it will.

But you learn more about race by working alongside someone who is different from you.

Or playing a game together. Or singing a song. Or reading a story.

You learn more about race by sharing a meal with someone.

You learn more by engaging in a common humanity.

Racism becomes more personal and hurtful to you when you hear a white girl call the same kind of hair that you thought was so beautiful and magical–just a year earlier–“nappy” and “dirty.” You take personal offense when the white girl asks the black girl if she ever even washed her hair.

You start to take racism to heart when they hurt your friends.

And so that is one of my biggest jobs as a parent–to expand the sphere of interaction that my daughter has. Beyond white suburbia. And into spheres where she is the outsider. Where she is different. Where she needs someone to include her in a game that she doesn’t know. Where she can make friends with children who are different than her. Not just different in skin color. But different in religion. In social class. In language.

By becoming the other, we learn a lesson in humility and compassion. We learn how to redefine and question the word normal. We begin to recognize the invisible walls that we’ve built around ourselves. We begin to see who they keep out and how they do it.

We may not be able to tear the walls down with only our own two hands.

But we can help others to see the wall.

And maybe together, we can start taking the bricks apart.

For What Can We Blame Parents?

On April 20, 1999, Sue Klebold prayed “the hardest prayer of her life.”

She prayed that her son would take his own life.

Her husband had called her to tell her that their son, Dylan, was one of the shooters at his high school, Columbine High School. She knew that if he were caught, she would have to watch her son be executed.

So she prayed that her son would kill himself before they got to him.

He did.

***

Andrew Solomon describes Tim and Sue Klebold in his book, Far From the Tree, as eerily normal parents. Of all the parents that he interviewed for his book, these were the parents that he would have most likely have been friends with. They were intelligent, thoughtful, and well-spoken.

Sue Klebold

 Sue Klebold, 2016: Image credit, www.radio.foxnews.com

After the Columbine massacre, the Klebolds didn’t move. They didn’t change their names. They wanted to be around people who knew them before the shootings. They wanted to retain some part of their identities that existed before they had been forced to become the “parents of a mass murderer.”

They tell of a memorial service at Columbine High School, days after the shooting. Someone had placed 15 crosses for all of those who died: 13 for the victims and 2 for the shooters. Before long, parents of the victims ripped out two of the crosses from the memorial and threw them away.

When the school planted 15 trees to remember the dead, parents of the victims cut down 2 of the trees.

Soon, the media started referring to “13” as the total number of those who died.

***

Not only does our society have little empathy for those who commit crimes, but they also have little empathy for their parents.

Here is what Andrew Solomon says on this topic:

In our household, we brought our children up differently. That kind of thing didn’t happen… The burden of that blame is terrible. And it’s counterproductive. Blaming parents for their children’s transgressions doesn’t make those transgressions go away. It just traumatizes the parents.

To those of us with young children, still so innocent and blameless, it’s hard to imagine a reality in which our children become rapists or murderers. When the Brock Turner sentence broke headlines, his parents became equal targets for the mob’s anger and frustration. What kind of parents can raise such a monster, we wondered. How could they continue to make excuses for him? How could they continue to victimize this poor woman?

We like to think that we teach our children morals like respect and compassion, empathy and forgiveness. Parents have an incredible ability to shape the lives of their children.

But we cannot also deny that our peers also shape us.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we remember what it was like to be a teenager, when the words and experience of our peers trumped what we heard from our parents. Maybe we respected our parents, but when it came time to make decisions, we often chose on the side of what was favorable among our peers.

I remember how I chose where to go to college. I told people that I chose Miami University because it had a good education program. I told them that it had a good reputation. I told my parents that it wasn’t so far away from home.

But the real reason that I chose it was because of a boy.

Big surprise, I know.

Emotions rule so many decisions in late adolescence. Combined with a false sense of invincibility (and if you’re a white man, privilege!), it’s a little easier to imagine a reality in which our kids do terrible, terrible things for stupid, stupid reasons.

It’s a little easier to imagine becoming the parents of a child who has done something terribly wrong.

***

When a three-year-old boy was attacked by a gorilla in the Cincinnati Zoo this past May, there was a small, but vocal faction of parents who spoke out in defense of the child’s mother. Many of them cited their own personal experiences when their children had fell into dangerous circumstances and they found themselves the targets of suspected child neglect.

This also happened with the two-year-old boy was killed by an alligator near a Disney Resort in June.

It happened this way because there were enough parents willing to speak out to say, Hey, terrible things happen. They happened to me. These weren’t neglectful parents. Back off.

But when it comes to cases of rape and murder, there is far less compassion. The stigma of being the parent of a rapist or murderer is so damaging that few parents are willing to speak those words. They don’t want that identity. Who would?

And in the absence of those voices, we become an echo chamber of self-righteousness. Of course it was their fault! I mean, look at all of us. None of our children did stuff like this, so we’re clearly doing something right.

The sound of our own self-righteousness becomes so loud that we drown out any compassionate voices that speak out.

And when we lose our compassion, we lose our humanity.

 

If you liked this post, check out Becoming Mother, a great gift for first-time moms!

Walking Through the Fear

I love writing. Love, love, love writing.

But I hate networking for writing. I loathe it.

It’s not that I hate people. On the contrary, I find a lot of satisfaction in connecting with others.

What I hate about networking in the field of writing is that it forces me to move beyond my moments of paralyzing insecurity. It pushes me into the uncertainty of interacting in an arena where I am still relatively inexperienced and unknown.

I can network with teachers and mothers all day long. I slip as easily into those roles as I do my favorite pair of Ryka running shoes.

But networking with writers challenges me to fly a flag of a country where I’m not sure I’ve earned citizenship.

I don’t have a degree that attests to my skills as a writer.

I don’t have a traditionally published book that agents and publishers have agreed is worthy of publication.

But at this year’s Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop, I decided that I was going to take the next step in my journey to own the identity of writer.

***

The first night. A Thursday night. Sitting in my car, taking deep breaths. One. Two. Three.

It’s fear, I told myself. You’re afraid, but you shouldn’t be. No one is going to throw you out because you self-published your book. No one is going to laugh at you. Hell, you might even sell a book!

I walked toward the hotel lobby where the roar of several hundred people filled the room. Laughing. Hugging. Squealing.

I stopped at the registration table and picked up my badge. It was a nothing but a thin piece of paper and plastic, but when I hung it around my neck, it became my own magic feather. I looked at my name and reminded myself:

Own this identity.

You belong. You can do this.

***

Owning the identity of writer is different than owning my other identities.

As a teacher, I could fall back on the magic feather of my two degrees. I deserve to be called teacher. I’ve earned it. And two universities agree that I am one.

As a mother, I could fall back on the magic feather of my own body. I deserve to be called mother. I’ve earned it. And everyone is calling me one.

But if I’m really being honest, I know that the degrees didn’t make me a teacher. I didn’t truly know how to be a teacher until I started teaching. And although I navigated the new and murky waters of pregnancy and childbirth, I didn’t really know how to be a mother until I started mothering.

But calling myself a writer forces me to acknowledge the truth that I have no degrees in writing. I have no university saying that I’m qualified to do this. And, most of all, not many people know me as a writer. I’m more likely to be seen as the teacher who also writes on the side. Or the mom who has a writing hobby.

Owning the identity of writer requires me to truly believe in my own worth.

Without the magic feathers.

***

During the first dinner at the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop, they played this video.

In this video, Erma confesses her own disbelief in her identity as a writer. It wasn’t until her literature professor acknowledges her gift that she truly starts to see herself differently.

What did her professor say?

“You can write.”

I take comfort in this video. That even Erma Bombeck, a truly great writer, needed someone else to call her a writer before she was willing to believe it. She needed someone already in the community to invite her to the other side.

***

The journey of self-publishing Becoming Mother has forced me to wrestle with a lot of my own demons of worthiness. Not only did I have to believe that I had a message to tell and the talent to bring it to the world, I had to also believe that I had the right to do so.

Without the degree.

Without the title.

I had to believe that I had the right.

But as I move into this unfamiliar space of networking with writers, I realize that I’m still wrestling with these same demons–only now, I’m doing it in public. My private battles of worthiness are now being reenacted in real time with real consequences that cannot be rehearsed and tamed from all sides. If I succumb to crippling self-doubt and turn into an incoherent mess as I try to talk about my writing, that encounter cannot be undone. And I have to learn how to just live with it.

And move the hell on.

***

With my drink in hand, a knot forming in my throat, I looked around for a group to join in the sea of networking writers.

Maybe I’ll hang my coat up first, I thought.

“Excuse me,” I smiled at three women as I placed my drink on their table for a moment. I crawled out of my coat and readjusted my bag over my shoulder. When I turned back around, I realized that I now had a place at the table.

They made room for me.

They made room for me.

I met columnists Betsy Bitner, from Albany, New York and Christy Heitger-Ewing, from Bloomington, Indiana along with aspiring writer, Mary Hennigan from Cincinnati. We talked about our jobs and I put on my comfortable hat of ESL teacher, which can procure about twenty minutes of material if my audience is interested.

But then it was time to bridge into why I was really there.

“Well,” I said, “I actually wrote a book last year and I’m here to get some inspiration to push forward to my next book.”

“What was your book about?” Christy asked.

I gave my pitch.

“Do you have copies?” she asked.

What? Really?

My hand slipped into my bag, but I knew there was nothing but a padfolio and a folder. I was hoping to fish out at least a business card with my name on it, anything for this willing audience to not forget me as soon as I walked away.

I had one card.

I could talk easily about being a mother, so I did. I wore that comfortable hat to get my bearings and my confidence back.

And no one criticized me.

No one questioned me.

They just said, “Good for you.”

***

On the final day of the workshop, Kathy Kinney and Cindy Ratzlaff, authors of Queen of Your Own Life, shared a keynote address in which they touched on the topic of fear. Kathy shared these words (my paraphrase as I took notes):

I had to make the decision to walk through my fear. Yeah, I was afraid, but that was also okay. I mean, so what? We’re all afraid. But if you can learn to walk through that fear, you can free yourself.

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Kathy Kinney and Cindy Ratzlaff, authors of Queen of Your Own Life, April 2, 2016

Someday, I hope to fully embrace the freedom to call myself a writer, as I have with the name teacher and mother.

But like everything else, becoming a writer is a process. A lot of it is done in the dark, without cheering or even polite acknowledgement. It will take time for me to grow into this role. I still have much to learn about the craft of writing, especially if I want to grow as a fiction writer. (And thank you to Anna Lefler, Susan Pohlman, and Katrina Kittle for giving me some much-needed guidance on the craft of writing fiction!)

But I must also acknowledge that cultivating an identity as a writer requires that I build relationships with others who see me in that light. I can’t just skip this hard part.

I need to walk through my own anxiety and self-doubt because it’s my only path into this new country of writers.

The good news is… They love immigrants.

And three of them even bought my book.

 

Beautiful, The Bitch

When I was a teenage girl, I had very little in common with Beautiful.

I was sure of it.

Here is what Beautiful and I shared:

  • I was white.
  • I had long hair.
  • I had pretty good skin.

That was it.

I met Beautiful for the first time in the public library, where I spent Saturdays paging through crinkled copies of Teen. And if I was being really adventurous, it was Seventeen.

Beautiful was white, tall, and thin. She had straight, white teeth. Thin legs, small hips, flat stomach. A flat, flat stomach. I cannot overemphasize flat. She had boobs, although I had no idea what size they were. I just knew they were bigger than mine. She usually had long, straight hair, and it was usually light brown or blond. She could spin in place, her hair perfectly fanning against the wind. She wore short dresses and high heels. Her skin was flawless and her eyes were dark and drew you into her stare.

Seventeen_magazine_1994

It only took me 2 minutes to find a picture of Beautiful.

Real women were like Beautiful. Other women existed, yes, but you didn’t want to look like them because their lives were sad. They never really got what they wanted.

But not Beautiful.

Beautiful always got what she wanted. Simply because she was Beautiful. Beautiful could make a man forget everything that he valued. She could change his mind. She could consume him.

This unspoken narrative was parroted everywhere I looked.

Teen_magazine_1993

This is how I first learned that women achieve their goals through manipulating men. By using their bodies.

And let’s be clear about what the chief goal was: to be loved by a man. Being the recipient of a man’s love was the pinnacle of female existence.

My male readers (I know I have a few) might be thinking at this point, Who cares! Why are women so hell-bent on being like Beautiful? Can’t they recognize that these are advertisements? Don’t they realize that guys don’t really care about all of that?

Well, no, girls don’t really know that. Especially young girls.

Young girls gaze out at the world and see that the women who are happy in every known form of media look at least a little like Beautiful. And the ones that don’t look like Beautiful are constantly cut down to size, derided, and Internet-shamed (see Amy Schumer, Melissa McCarthy, etc.) to remind them that they are breaking the rules.

***

I was 10 years old when I first started gazing out at the world and noticing what made women happy and how. It was all so clear to me–the women who were happy and had great lives were Beautiful. They were married and had great jobs.

This was also when I first realized how different I was from Beautiful.

I tried a lot of horrifyingly awkward ways of shaping and changing my hair and my body so that I resembled Beautiful. I put my faith in Cover Girl and Pantene and Gillette.

Being like Beautiful required that I stop being free and start learning the rules.

It’s when I started caring about leg hair and body odor and matching my clothes. It’s when I learned where I should buy my clothes. And because I was too poor to buy my clothes from those stores, I quickly learned where I could buy cheap imitations, hoping that no one would notice.

I learned how to pee in a public bathroom without farting and if–God forbid–I had to actually poop, I learned how to do it as quietly and discreetly as possible, for fear that another girl would know that I was currently pooping.

I learned how to hide.

How to suck it in.

How to button it up.

Which clothes would cover my rolls.

Which ones would give me the appearance of boobs.

I learned which masks to put on. The aw-so-sweet-I’m-gonna-cry one. The I’m-so-surprised one. The I’m-so-angry-with-you-until-you-apologize one.

I learned all of these rules through shame–either directed at me or at another girl. I quickly learned the reasons that you could be worthy of teasing. And I made it my ultimate goal to never, ever be singled out.

It was the reason that I preferred to be silent much of the time at school. Most people never make fun of the girl who never talks. She’s not an obvious target. I tried to blend in as much as possible. I opened up only to my close friends, many of whom also shared the same fears.

Although I wanted desperately to look like Beautiful, I didn’t.

I was Overweight. Shy. Weak. Spineless. Powerless. Voiceless.

But I was also Pure. Good. Obedient. Trustworthy. Godly.

Over the course of my teenage years the pounds kept coming and coming until I was 50 pounds overweight in my junior year of high school.

I clung to the promise of the Ugly-Duckling narrative that was played out in countless teen movies like She’s All That. I told myself that someone, somewhere out there would someday see how beautiful I was on the inside. Because, ultimately, the world is a place of justice and fairness.

***

But when I was 17 years old, I starved my way from 195 pounds to 155 pounds in four months.

Yeah.

Why?

A boy, of course.

Even though we clicked on all other levels, he told me that he couldn’t be with someone that he didn’t find attractive.

Well, that’s it. I thought. I’m done believing that it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

Fuck. That.

I’m not terribly proud of this. It shows how much I hated myself. It shows that I derived my own self-worth through the eyes of someone else. That I thought that I was so ugly and fat that I didn’t deserve food. That I thought that the only way I would ever be happy would be if a man loved me. And I couldn’t be loved unless I stopped looking like myself and started looking like Beautiful.

So I starved myself.

And what happened?

He started to like me.

And it wasn’t just him. One of the security guards during my night shift at Target started to blush whenever I talked to him. One of the stock guys said, “You losing weight? It looks nice.” (It. Not you.) I got hit on by male customers while cashiering. One guy even had the balls to ask for my phone number, his wingman digging his elbow into his ribs to urge him on.

Holy shit, I thought, completely flushed as I clumsily declined his offer and turned away. I have to learn how to turn guys down now.

It was the power that I dreamed of.

But it made me feel like everything that I had reassured myself–that true beauty was on the inside–was nothing but bullshit.

It made me feel like Beautiful had been right.

What a smug Bitch.

***

But being like Beautiful left me feeling empty.

Now that I was like Beautiful, now that I could turn heads, is that really wanted I wanted for myself? Did I really enjoy being objectified and positively judged simply because of how I looked? Is that really the way that I wanted to spend my life? Achieving what I wanted by using men?

And if my answer to these question was yes, what kind of a person was I? I would lead a self-centered, egotistical existence, caring nothing for the hearts that I would trample on along the way. And weren’t women supposed to be nurturing? Caring? Loving?

Can you see the conundrum that I faced?

Now that I had this power, I didn’t want it. I wanted the universe to take it back.

***

But perhaps the biggest problem of all was this: Beautiful was a Bitch.

I didn’t like the idea of becoming Beautiful the Bitch.

I wanted to be better than her. I wanted to be Beautiful + 1. I wanted to have the waist, the hips, and the boobs of Beautiful because it would give me power.

But I wouldn’t use that power.

I wanted to be Beautiful because it was an implicit, persuasive argument–even if it was irrational and unfair. I knew that Beautiful was powerful. And I had seen enough to know that everyone listened to Beautiful when she talked.

But I would be different. I would be like the right-handed knight that fights with his left hand for a challenge. Even though I could use my looks, I would use my wit instead. I would surprise people. They might not say it, but they would think, Damn, she’s smart. Not what I expected. Or maybe they would think, She could be so full of herself, but she’s really down-to-earth. Wow.

I would turn Beautiful on her head. I would make people rethink Beautiful to the point that it would kill her.

***

Of course, none of that happened.

Beautiful is still alive and well.

And while I am starting to see the last ten years creep into the corners of my face, Beautiful is still that ageless, flawless wonder.

My desire to be like Beautiful has become more lukewarm these days. I have thankfully moved past those days of extreme self-denial when I believed I was undeserving. It took a relationship built on discovering and celebrating what made each of us Amazing. We redefined Beautiful to include intelligence, drive, compassion, openness, and even forgiveness.

It has changed how I feel about Beautiful.

I realized that I wanted more than what Beautiful could get by herself. Beautiful got lust, but not love. Envy, but not friendship. Pride, but not acceptance.

When I see Beautiful now, I see that she is that smug, bitchy friend who was terrified of someone realizing that she was nothing special. She never bothered to explore who she could really be because being what everyone else wanted was enough. It made her one-dimensional. If you turned her to the side, she would completely disappear, leaving not even a trace.

And that is not how I want to live my life. I want to be remembered. I want to leave not just trace, but a trail.

***

When I look in the mirror today, I see a version of Beautiful.

Sharon_2015

But I also see that 17-year-old girl, who was desperate for someone to love her because she thought it was the only way she could ever be happy. I still feel her broken heart. I still hear her vicious thoughts, full of self-loathing and shame.

Ugly. Fat. Uncool. Poor. 

Sharon_1998

1998: Tenth grade

Ugly thoughts. Truly, ugly thoughts.

I wish I could go back in time and give her a hug. I wish I could tell her to open her eyes and her heart so that she can see that Beautiful is just another way to control women and mold them into being lifelong consumers of products that will never solve all of their “problems.” I wish I could tell her that Beautiful is a Bitch and that if a guy only wants Beautiful, let him go. Because Beautiful is a myth.

And you can never become a myth when you’re Real.

I wish I could undo all the damaging messages that Beautiful has whispered into her ears. I wish I could help her be as carefree and wholehearted as this little girl.

Sharon_1991

1991: Fourth grade

This girl cared more about learning about the planets and stars and her multiplication tables than matching her clothes. She loved a good book, especially Goosebumps and The Babysitter’s Club. She looked forward to reading all Saturday afternoon at the library. When she had a question, she asked and didn’t feel stupid.

She played on the playground like it was no one’s business. She ran and sweated and got dirty. She sang out loud with abandon. She never thought twice about saying exactly what she thought because she believed wholeheartedly that people would always be kind and accepting. Because God made people. And God is love.

This girl didn’t realize that she lived in a working class family–or even that this was something that people found shameful.

This girl made decisions based on what she thought was interesting and fun, not based on what she thought other people might not tease her about.

Like all mothers, I want a better world for my own daughter. A world of diversity and openness rather than selectivity and judgment. Where the goal is to seek to understand ourselves and each other better, rather than trying to reshape ourselves so that they fit into acceptable boxes that make it easier for us to determine whose voice should be valued and respected.

I wish that there were some magical way of doing this.

I wish the hands of a Just God would reach down into our nations and instill in our cultures an equal respect for both genders. Perhaps then, women would be more equally represented in the upper echelons of our government and corporations and institutions.

There’s a saying that I hear a lot in my church. I’m not sure if it’s a Lutheran thing or not, but I like it.

They say, God’s work. Our hands.

I know that this is how real social change happens. By each of us putting our hands into the messy work of change. And every day, I am doing that. Every day, I’m showing my daughter what it means to be a woman who loves herself.

Valentine_picure

20 Years in Songs

1993

“Weak” by SWV

I am in middle school. And I have a crush on a boy. Let’s call him John Smith.

He’s in my reading class and he sits in the back left corner of the room. I sit in the front right corner.

One day, as I enter the room, our eyes meet for a moment. We don’t smile at each other. It happens so fast, I can’t even tell if he’s just looking to see who it is or if he actually intends to look at me.

Terrified, I look away and take my seat.

I spend the rest of class wondering if he wanted to look at me. Me. Just another overweight girl who was too shy to talk to anyone besides her close friends.

When the bell rings, I look around the room and catch his eye again. We still don’t smile at each other, but he doesn’t make a face or look away.

When I hear this song on the radio as I’m doing my homework, it strikes me. Maybe I’m in love.

I don’t feel like it’s safe to write about this in my diary, so instead, I write I love John Smith over and over on each of my biceps. It’s winter, so my sweaters will cover it up, I reason. I don’t know why it makes me feel better to write this on my arms. But I feel like this is what a girl does when she falls in love. She covers herself with the one she loves–until he’s the only thing she sees in the mirror.

 

1995

“Black” by Pearl Jam

I listen to the radio on my very own CD/cassette player that I’ve bought with my own babysitting money. I don’t have enough money left over for CDs. So in the afternoons, I turn on the radio and press down the play, record, and pause buttons on the cassette tape deck. Then, I wait for a good song to come on.

But I miss this one.

This song is deceptive. It comes on softly, like a ballad, and at first, I don’t think it’s for me. It’s too slow and I can’t understand all of his words, but then he sings out a line that strikes me.

And now my bitter hands… shake beneath the clouds… of what was everything

All the pictures had… all been washed in black… tattooed everything.

I wonder what it’s like to have your heart broken like this. To be so in love that losing it turns your world to black.

It makes me believe that to be so in love is the best and worst that can ever happen to me. And I want it to happen to me.

But I doubt that it would ever happen to a pudgy girl like me.

 

July 2004

“Vindicated” by Dashboard Confessionals

I’m driving in my 1990 Geo Metro with the windows down because this car doesn’t have A/C (or power steering, for that matter). My hair is pulled back to keep it from flying in front of my eyes. And this song is blaring out on the radio.

I am flawed.

But I am cleaning up so well.

I am seeing in me now the things you swore you saw yourself.

I’m in love.

I have become interesting. I am loved for my intelligence and drive. My ambition and my doubts. I have become a person with depth, even views on politics. As we talk, my thoughts and curiosities and unspoken plans come flooding out and I shock myself. I’m not putting on a face. I’m not acting a part. I’m finally articulating everything that I’ve been feeling deep in my soul.

I stop obsessing about which jeans and shirts make me look the thinnest. I start enjoying food rather than seeing it as what stands in the way of me being fully loved.

And I am loved for it.

It makes me cry. It makes me feel that I’ve been lying to myself for years. That I’ve been trying to be “the girl that guys love,” some amalgamation of images and insinuations from TV and movies and books about what makes women desirable.

I feel cheated that I’ve lost so many years playing this game.

 

October 2006

“Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross”

I’m at a funeral for a friend.

Her family gathers around her casket at the burial site and a soulful older woman begins singing this song. Soon, the whole family is singing together, a hymn that I know intimately, one that I had sung hundreds of times in my Southern Baptist Church.

In the cross, in the cross, be my glory ever

’til my raptured soul shall find rest beyond the river.

It feels like a lie.

My friend didn’t believe in Jesus. I haven’t seen her in years, but I know that much. She loved the idea of magic and truly wished that it existed in this world. She believed in the beauty of a phoenix rising from ashes. She loved symbols and ideas. But religion? Never.

She didn’t leave a note. She didn’t tell anyone what her plans were. She just did it.

With her father’s gun.

On a Friday night.

It’s not until this moment, as her body is lowered into the ground, while her family sings a song that she would have hated but is the only comfort that they can find in this day, that I begin to reconcile this stark contrast.

I begin to believe that people believe what they find comforting–or at least what validates or supports how they want to live life.

And when they can’t live out their beliefs, they destroy themselves. Or others.

And so I think that wherever she is, she is happier than she was on earth.

 

June 2010

“Idumea”

I’m leaving Piqua, Ohio, driving on I-75 South, leaving another funeral.

This time, it is my husband’s close friend and co-worker. A guy he had shared a desk with for the past three years.

It’s one of those deaths that makes you think, Really? Bled to death from a burst vein in his throat? The doctors couldn’t do anything about that?

It feels like a cruel, cruel mistake. Like he went through the wrong door and it slammed behind him before he could turn back. On one side of the door is him. On the other side is his wife, his two stepchildren, and his three-year-old daughter.

True, he wasn’t in great health. He chewed tobacco and subsisted on a diet of cheesy, meaty Penn Station sandwiches that he called heartstoppers. And, yes, he bragged about never touching vegetables.

But he was only 33.

On the way home, I continue listening to the Cold Mountain soundtrack that I’ve just bought. When “Idumea” comes on, I feel my heart tighten in my chest.

And I am I born to die?

To lay this body down!

Soon as from earth I go

What will become of me?

I think about my own mortality.

I want to know that I’m more than a collection of emotions and memory, fueled by food and organs, all covered in skin. I want to be more than all the decisions that I’ll spend my entire life either being proud of or rationalizing.

I want to believe that some part of me is more than brain and body. That part of me is immaterial. Immortal. Impossible to fall into ruin and decay.

I think about whether it’s possible for me to believe in no afterlife. But I’m not sure I have it in me to believe in nothingness after life. My mind cannot even fathom it. But I still think about it the rest of the day.

The thoughts circle in my mind for two more days.

Then, I decide to live.

In the following week, I decide to truly learn about how to portion my food, how to balance what I eat and how much of it to eat. I start drinking water all day every day. I buy a cardio kickboxing program on DVDs.

I drop from 175 pounds to 135 pounds in the next ten months.

 

January 2012

“Swim” by Surfer Blood

My husband and I are driving on the Hana Highway that runs along the northern coast of Maui when we see dozens of surfers out on the waves. We’re riding in a Mazda5 with four of our friends: Ryan, Cate, Ben, and Sarah. It’s the second day of our week-long vacation away from cold, gray Ohio. Our plans for the days are eating and doing whatever looks interesting.

And this looks interesting.

We pull over at an overlook and pile out of the car. Ryan, Cate, and I lean against the railing, pointing at the surfers’ daring moves. They paddle like fiends toward the incoming waves. We watch them stand up on their boards, wobbling until they find their balance. The waves are high. They are tunneling rolling monsters that swallow the surfers over and over again, only for more surfers to replace them. After a wave takes a few of them down, one or two of them escape the wave and skid away safely onto calm waters before they sit back on their boards, looking for the next one. Always the next one.

Holy shit! Did you see that? Get that guy! Ben points out to Doug, who is attached to his camera, angling for the best shot.

We laugh.

Somewhere nearby, a car blares this song over its speakers and it’s all too perfect.

I. Am. So. Happy.

Six months later, I hear this same song at an outdoor music festival in Columbus, Ohio. Instantly, I’m back in Maui.

 

August 16, 2013

“Taking You Home” by Don Henley

It’s 2:00 a.m.

I am in the Mother & Baby room after giving birth to my daughter. All the nurses and doctors have left. My husband sleeps on the couch next to my bed. My new daughter sleeps in her glass bassinet next to my bed. Aching and hurting everywhere, I lie on my side and watch her sleep. No music is playing, but from somewhere in the recesses of my memory, this song comes forth.

I had a good life, before you came. 

I had my friends and my freedom. I had my name.

Still there was sorrow and emptiness, ’til you made me glad.

Oh, in this love, I found the strength, I never knew I had.

I am utterly amazed by myself. That I could grow this perfect human being. That I could survive something as painful and soul-testing as birth–and then live to talk about it.

I know that everyone calls this love, but if I’m honest with myself, I know that what I’m feeling is something completely different.

It’s humility.

It’s awe.

I know now what it costs to bring life into the world.

For the rest of the night, I slip in and out of consciousness as I play this song over and over again in my mind, watching her sleep.

 

“Heartbeats” by The Knife

September 2013

I’m on maternity leave. My one-month-old daughter sleeps in her bassinet upstairs while I’m washing dishes downstairs. Next to the kitchen, the washer is whirring in the laundry room. Late summer sunlight peeks through the blinds. My eyes are so heavy. I find it funny that sleep is not like other things in life. When it presses down on you, you feel light. But when it leaves you, you feel heavy.

This song comes up on Pandora and I’m bobbing my head to it. Then, my hips are swaying. I drop the dishes in the dishwasher over and over again, almost mechanically, getting lost in the song. But that is my life now. Mechanical, repetitive movements chugging along at regular intervals. I close the dishwasher as the song heightens.

I turn it up. And up. And up some more.

It’s in my ears, in my mind, in my limbs, filling me up until I’m nothing but the notes of this song. I close my eyes and I’m pivoting on my toes, twirling and sliding, arms uplifted like the ballerina I never was.

I am lightness.

I’m in the living room, the dining room, I’m everywhere. I’m nowhere. I’m beyond this life that is now mine: endless repeating tasks, punctuated by a face that I’m desperately in love with. One that I’m forever tied to.

I’m my former self.

I’m a self that I have never been and probably never will be.

I’m above.

Until the song slows and quiets and ends. Until its heartbeat stops.

In the silence, I sit down on the ground, resting back against my heels.

Then, I cry.

 

“You’re All I Need to Get By” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell

October 5, 2014

I’m at Ryan and Cate’s wedding.

The air is chilly, but we’re warm in the party barn at Polen Farm in Kettering, Ohio. We have danced and danced. We have taken this reception by the arms and spun it around. Melt With YouCareless Whispers, Tongue Tied, Jackson 5’s ABC. I dance the shit out of this reception with Cate and Julie and Katy and Suzy. Even Sarah dances. Jason and David spend the hours knocking back beers and mixed drinks and wine. Ben and Chris are reminiscing. It’s a glorious four hours.

Then, this song comes on and we separate into slow-dancing couples. As I dance with my husband, I look over at my newly married friends, feeling beyond happy for them.

Josh pulls away from Suzy and tugs at Sam’s sleeve. He says something to him. Then, he’s on Ben’s sleeve. Then, Sarah’s. Soon, he’s got everyone gathered in a circle around Ryan and Cate.

And that’s how we finish the song. Dancing in a circle around these good friends, Cate’s face pressed against Ryan’s chest, trying to cover her tears.

I. Am. So. Happy.

For them.

 

January 2016

“Awake My Soul” by Mumford and Sons

It’s 20 degrees outside and I’m running.

It has been two weeks since the miscarriage. The bleeding is over. The healing begins. I start exercising again, but the dance/cardio-kickboxing doesn’t feel right. I suddenly realize that I need to feel at least a little sexy to want to dance.

And I do not feel sexy in the slightest right now.

So I put on layers, a jacket, and gloves. If I could run in a sleeping bag, I would.

My eyes watch out for ice and snow along the sidewalk as I run past an apartment complex, the post office, and several doctors’ offices. Past the body shop and the Donato’s. My breathing hits its rhythm and the burning in my legs has numbed.

In these bodies, we will live.

In these bodies, we will die.

And where you invest your love,

You invest your life.

And that’s it.

That simple truth makes this all the more bearable.

We love. We lose. We feel pain.

And if we’re really lucky, we find our truest selves along the way.

All of it is beautiful.

Because all of it is life.

Life_quotes

Running

I started running this week.

Normally, I stay in the warm back room of our house and work up a sweat doing cardio kickboxing, yoga, or high-intensity intervals.

But nothing has been normal for the past three weeks.

running

Image from Shutterstock

***

Shortly after finding out that our baby had no heartbeat, it was time for all the Christmas festivities. My daughter’s daycare went on a break. No rest for the weary or the brokenhearted. Mercifully, my husband took vacation so that we could share the household chores while we waited for me to miscarry.

Christmas Eve.

Cookie baking. Church. Stockings. Christmas Vacation.

Christmas.

Cinnamon rolls, sausage, eggs, coffee. Gifts. Home Alone. Cookies. Salad. Pierogies. More sausage. Wine. More coffee. More cookies.

And then the long stretch between Christmas and New Year’s. Unstructured hours with a two-year-old. Read: attention span of two minutes. Snacks. Haphazard attempts at potty-training, (No peeing in your panties!). Obvious (yet interesting?) observations. (Mama have eyes? Mi-mouse have eyes? Daddy have eyes?) Repetitive songs (Daddy shark, de-de-de-de-de-de-de, Mama shark, de-de-de-de-de-de). Tantrums (No!!! Go away, Mama!).

The weather was miserable. Warm, torrential rains. Flooding. A deep gray settled over the sky for days. I looked out the window of our kitchen and shrugged. Figures, I remember thinking.

But there was also periodic laughing at our daughter’s new stretches of speech that didn’t quite coincide with the present situation. In Target, looking at the DVD, Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, she said, Oh no! What happened to us?–perhaps asking why the Peanuts characters were screaming as they crowded together in a raft.

After the D & C, I rested. I cramped. I bled. I took the Motrin (I never could tolerate Vicodin). I stopped eating cookies and chocolate. I dumped the leftover bottles of wine. Then, I ate sweet potatoes, kale smoothies, salads, and chicken. I started going back to bed at 10:00 and started getting up at 6:00.

Daycare resumed on the Monday after New Year’s. After I dropped my daughter off at daycare, I breathed a sigh of relief. I got in my car, turned the music up, and drove home. I had one more week off before I needed to return to work.

Now, I can really take care of myself, I thought. I went home did some cardio kickboxing for 40 minutes. I felt better. I vegged out with The Office. I finished Brene Brown’s new book, Rising Strong. I ate broccoli and salmon and rice for lunch.

And then…

I decided I wasn’t done exercising. I decided to run.

And it. Was. Cold.

But I also didn’t care.

I borrowed my husband’s headphones. I put on a long-sleeved shirt and fleece-lined jacket. I turned on Pandora on my phone. I stretched.

Then, I went for it.

I knew better than to break into a sprint. So I jogged. I made it two minutes. I took a break. I jogged again. Two minutes. Break. Repeat. I watched the house numbers on the mailboxes grow higher and higher.

We live next to a huge, beautiful park and as I rounded a corner, its trees came into view. I picked up the pace. Then, I took a break.

Then, the hill.

I was going to do this thing. I was going to go as far as I could. I was tired of playing the Why me? script over and over again in my head. It was pointless and sucked up all my energy. It was time to start playing a new script.

I can come back from this. 

I won’t let this swallow the best of me.

I have been through worse. I have felt worst.

I can be a real badass when I decide to be.

Even if this happens again, I’m going to be okay.

***

In The Gifts of ImperfectionBrene Brown gives ten guideposts for wholehearted living. As I read through them, two of them struck me as the lessons that I’m learning right now.

  • Cultivating a resilient spirit: Letting go of numbing and powerlessness. (i.e., dumping the cookies, the wine, and the Why me? script)
  • Cultivating intuition and trusting faith: Letting go of the need for certainty. (i.e., having the willingness to try something new, even if I don’t know if I’ll be any good at it)

***

I pushed into the hill, taking deep breaths, pulling in the oxygen, pushing out the burning in my legs. I kept my eyes on the ground and told myself, one more step, one more, now to the next mailbox, one more step.

When I reached my limit, I was halfway up the hill. I knew today would not be the day that I got to the top.

And that was okay.

I walked the rest of the way up the hill, turned around, and made my way down.

I’m normally a cold person. I’m always seeking warmth.

But as I started descending that hill, I could feel the blood warming my fingers. I could feel the warmth everywhere. It was 20 degrees, but I felt warm.

And I had done that.

In a dark, cold season of my life, I had made myself warm.

Running is not my usual routine, and I probably won’t stick with it in the long run (pun intended). Maybe I’ll go back to kickboxing. Maybe I’ll start swimming (although I’ll need to find a pool to do that.)

I’m open.

But sometimes, to get out of a rut, to change the script, to start over, you need to do something different.

 

 

The Things You Can’t Leave Behind

I’ve spent most of my life counting.

Adding.

Subtracting.

For most of my life, everything has been numbers. Everything has had a price.

When I started to work at 16 years old, I learned that even my time had a price: $7.14 per hour. Eight hours of cashiering, standing on my feet, and pushing Target credit cards on customers–that was worth $57.12.

Minus taxes.

Plus the ten percent discount on anything I bought there.

Minus the cost of uniforms.

Minus the cost of gas and car insurance.

Plus a hot dog if I got to work the food court—and if there were any left at the end of my shift.

***

When I started college at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, I was surrounded by new rules that I didn’t understand.

Why didn’t she finish her fries? Is she just going to throw them away?

Where did this “North Face” brand come from? Everyone here is wearing it.

Am I going to what? Rush? Rush what? What are you talking about?

At some point in my freshman year, I learned that thirty percent of my classmates were coming from families with an average income over $200,000. Over $200,000.

Oh.

I couldn’t even imagine it. $200,000. It was an astronomical figure. It was fourteen full-time Target cashiering jobs. Fourteen!

I was fairly certain that my parents may have managed to pull in about $75,000 together, at the height of both of their careers (but then downsizing and disability stepped in.)

Although I moved solidly into the upper middle class when I married my husband (yes, I’m one of those kind of women), I still don’t feel like I belong. For me, this new social class is a coat that I’ve been trying to zip up for the past ten years. I can’t ever get the zipper to the top to keep everything in place because it keeps getting stuck on past assumptions and expectations.

I feel this tension at odd moments—when I’m talking with another mother who is pushing to get her 2-year-old in the next class, because he can already count to twenty. Or when I overheard a group of college girls talking about when their flights leave for home. Or how about when I was sitting with other members of my church, and they were talking about just how many activities their kids have to do to get into college. Orchestra, soccer, show choir, it’s outrageous!

I find myself nodding politely in these situations, fake smile across my face, Oh yes, that’s a tough spot.

I feel like a liar.

I feel like an impostor.

I feel like at any moment, someone is going to figure out that I don’t belong here and call me out on it.

***

It wasn’t until I got married and we joined our bank accounts that I felt like I could really breathe. I had about $50,000 of student debt from my undergraduate degree (working while going to college didn’t make that much of a dent). Thankfully, my graduate degree came for “free.” All that was required of me was two years of my youth and my commitment to teach and grade stacks of essays for first-year composition courses.

Although my husband got a job as an electrical engineer as soon as he got out of college, I stumbled around academia and the world of on-line education for five years until I couldn’t stand making $18,000 per year anymore. During those five years, my time was segmented and measured unevenly. $11.00 per hour for the on-line tutoring job. $18.00 per hour for grading standardized tests on-line. $1200 for teaching a three credit hour course for ten weeks. Multiplied by three courses. Minus any benefits. Divided by the uncertainty of knowing if I had a job in another ten weeks. No one could decide how much I was worth and so *I* couldn’t decide how much I was worth.

From my first year of teaching at a university, 2006. Making maybe $17,000 per year for teaching a full-time course load.

From my first year of teaching at a university, 2006. Making maybe $17,000 per year for teaching a full-time course load.

When will we have full-time jobs? Well… we want to stay small. And your pay is similar to what others are being paid for the same work elsewhere, sooo…

Although everyone wanted a piece of me, no one wanted to take a big enough piece that they would have to insure me. And they certainly wouldn’t take a big enough piece of me that would require them to accept any criticism or–as I call it–“guff.”

Do your job, keep your opinions to yourself, and we’ll all get along fine.

As fortune would have it, when I finally decided that I had had enough of academia, the floodgates of international students opened and ESL teaching jobs became abundant where I lived. Full-time jobs for everyone!

Benefits? Yes! Full benefits! Can you start tomorrow? Do you have friends we can hire?

Ah, life.

***

It wasn’t easy for me to make the mental shift into the middle class.

I remember a few weeks after we got married in 2005, my husband and I were shopping for a Christmas gift for my parents. We decided to buy them new sheets and a new comforter set. We stood in Target and all I could do was look at the price tags: $69.99… $89.99… Oh, here’s one that’s only $49.99! I picked up the cheapest set of sheets and handed them to my husband.

He turned the package over in his hands and then gave it back to me.

“Sweets, we should get them nice sheets.”

I looked back at the price tags. Is he really okay with spending $69.99 on sheets? I reluctantly picked up the more expensive set.

He shook his head and picked up the $89.99 set.

I was dumbfounded. That set hadn’t even been a possibility in my mind.

“You don’t think that’s too much?” I asked.

“No. They’re your parents.”

I bit my lip.

“What about the comforter set?” I asked.

“Okay,” he turned to look at the options on the shelves. “Which one do you like?” he asked.

“We’re still getting a comforter?”

“Yeah, that’s what we came for, right?”

“I just didn’t know we were spending so much money.”

“It’s Christmas. It’s your parents. How much money did you think we’d be spending?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know… maybe $50?”

***

We had a lot of these conversations early in our marriage. Me, constantly dumbstruck that we had enough money to go out to eat several times on the weekend; constantly amazed that my husband never, ever looked at the prices of food when he bought them; constantly waiting for a bill to come in the mail that we couldn’t handle.

That moment never came.

Maybe I was so surprised by his somewhat cavalier attitude toward spending money because he also came from a working class family. He was the youngest of six kids. A Catholic family. His father was a carpenter, his mother a stay-at-home mom. Money was always tight—but somehow they made it work.

And that was how I remember my childhood. My father was a baker (and later a bakery specialist).

Dad in his element, 1990

My father in his element, circa 1990.

My mother was a cake decorator. Our family of six moved from rural Minnesota when I was four to a rough part of Dayton, Ohio. We adopted my youngest sister (my biological cousin—a long story) and became a family of seven.

In urban Dayton, I learned the difference between poverty and working class.

Poverty was the children at my school who descended hungrily on their hot school lunch trays,  ripping the plastic film that sealed them, scraping the sides of each compartment clean. Not one carton of chocolate milk went into the trash.

Poverty was a friend’s house that I visited when I was six—its carpet spotted with dog shit.

Poverty was that friend’s refrigerator, warm to the touch, holding ketchup and orange soda.

I was not in poverty.

***

When I was seven, we moved away from the urban Dayton to a working class suburb, Huber Heights, Ohio. There, we rented a three-bedroom ranch house for the seven of us. My parents got a room. My two brothers got a room. My sisters and I got a room. It was 1,080 square feet of close quarters. We furnished it with a living room set from Rent-A-Center and my parents even splurged on a Nintendo (five years after its original release date).

But it was home.

Sadly, one of the best kid pictures we ever took. I was especially proud of my pink sweatsuit. (circa 1989)

Sadly, one of the best kid pictures we ever took. I was especially proud of my pink sweatsuit. (circa 1989)

***

For me, I still see the world through working class eyes. I feel deep compassion for issues like increasing the minimum wage, providing universal, affordable health care, and fighting food insecurity. I’ve seen the difference that an extra $100 can make. It means a week of groceries from Aldi. It means you can afford to stay home from work while you’re sick.

Seeing the world through upper-middle class eyes feels like an exercise in putting on someone else’s glasses. Everything is distorted. Prices seem too expensive. I underestimate how much my time is worth. But it’s more than money. I also do this with possibilities and opportunities. The world is not my oyster–at least this is my default mode. I have to jazz myself up with positive self-talk and assurances that things can change. My life can be different. I can reach the goals that I have set for myself. If I lose that rational, optimistic side of my brain, I become a prisoner to my own self-doubt.

***

Growing up as a child of a working class family shaped my core identity. It set limitations and boundaries on my dreams. (Maybe I could be one of those typists in a courtroom!)

It taught me that my chief value as a human being was determined by what I could do for others, especially when I could be used to help someone else make a profit. In those situations, I had the most value. I wasn’t explicitly taught these lessons. Instead, I learned them by observing my father put up with a stressful job his whole life, rather than looking for another job somewhere else. I saw his fear of the uncertain–the fear of redefining himself. He was a bakery specialist. That was who he was, damn it. How could he be anything else?

***

I’m keenly aware of my own struggle to define and redefine myself.

Fat girl, thin girl. Poor girl, rich girl. Retail girl, academic girl. Single girl, married mother. All of these boundaries I’ve crossed and all of those that still remain ahead of me.

And yet…

…it’s not like crossing over, as if you leave those things behind.

I’m still overweight and poor, a retail worker and a single girl.

It may have been years since others have seen these facets of my identity, but they are still there, buried beneath the others layers of self that I’ve put on over the years.

I still have all of those identities. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to leave them behind because they are too much a part of who I am.

Who I am is… every version of myself that I have ever been.

These are the things I can’t leave behind.

***

This might be the biggest weight upon my shoulders as I consider parenthood–knowing that the life that I build around my daughter is creating its own set of assumptions, limitations, and boundaries. This life that we are creating for her is also creating things that she won’t be able to leave behind.

This cannot be avoided–it is a part of socialization.

But I feel that one of my greatest responsibilities (perhaps even greatest “calling”?) as a parent is to create opportunities for my daughter to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

Because this fosters compassion.

And compassion, I believe, is the only thing that has ever changed the world for the better.

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