My Mother’s Twin

me without you

When I was little, my mom would go out a couple times a month to play bridge with a bunch of girlfriends at my godmother’s house. Though infrequent, I dreaded these outings. A worrier by nature, once the sun set I started to imagine worst-case scenarios. What if she got in an accident on the way back? Mom was a notorious nervous ninny behind the wheel, and I was convinced that her too-tentative method of merging would be her doom. What if she got mugged walking to her car in my godmother’s sketchy neighborhood? I whipped myself up into a panic that was somewhat quieted by two (okay, maybe three) “check-in” calls to my godmother’s house. But the angsting did not subside until I heard Mom’s key slide into the lock of our side entrance. Until that moment, I stayed awake, vigilant, as if encouraging my gut churn would keep her safe. I prayed silently and obsessively, like a mantra or a compulsive tic: “Please, God, let her come home. Please, God, let her come home.” These moments made clear that Mom was the only real thing to me. I wasn’t comfortable with anyone else. If she died, where would I go?

One of these evenings my hand was hovering over the phone for another check-in call when it rang.

“Hey there! How’s it going?”

“Oh good, I was just about to call again. When are you coming home?”

“Wha-- ? Oh no, honey, I’m sorry. This is Lynn.”

Lynn is mom’s identical twin. When they were little, they dressed in matching outfits and white-blonde pigtails. Even they can’t always tell who is who in old photographs. As an only child for most of my adolescence, I was captivated by Mom’s twinship. She and Lynn spoke almost every day. They often had the same dreams. In elementary school, they would switch classes, each pretending to be the other. They also have the same voices — the same timbre, the same slightly Southern cadence, the same hearty laugh. This wasn’t the first time I’d confused Lynn for Mom on the phone, but the audial illusion never ceased to surprise me. And freak me out a little.

If Mom dies, I used to think, 99.95643 percent of her DNA will be living in Boise, Idaho. I imagined how much it would hurt to hear Mom’s voice on the line, the false hope it might inspire, if Mom died and Lynn called me.

In addition to sharing most of their DNA, Mom and Lynn display matching personas. Exuberant, optimistic, easy to laugh, and quick witted, being in their joint company felt a bit like watching a sitcom. They were two halves of the same brain, a near-constant stream of mirth and/or argument. Though their twin lexicon was heavy on inside jokes and shared experiences, you were never excluded from their banter. They seemed to be aware of how fun they were as a pair and wanted everyone plugged into the experience.

Lynn’s presence validated my unconventional relationship with my mother. Growing up, I somehow knew that Mom wasn’t regarding me as other moms did their daughters. She spoke to me like an adult and often didn’t shield me from adult realities. I’ve long said that I was raised to be Mom’s friend or confidant, but remembering how she was with Lynn, it’s obvious that I was filling the void of her twin’s absence. Even when they weren’t getting along, Mom and Lynn were always close, but they haven’t lived in the same state since before I was born. Being a twin was in Mom’s bones, and physical distance didn’t stop her from feeling like one half of a whole. The relationship she nurtured with me was informed by her twinned experience, the imprint of her sister a blueprint for every relationship she had.

Mom and Lynn turned 57 on Saturday. With Mom in a Florida nursing home and Lynn now living in Nevada, they are still separated by several states. Over the years, Mom’s dementia has rendered them singletons. Lynn is bravely if not reluctantly redefining what it means to celebrate a birthday, one that is no longer shared with a functioning other half. Though Lynn will never replace my mom, she has been an unexpected gift in my grieving. Over the past five years as Mom has rapidly deteriorated, Lynn and I have become closer, sometimes talking a few times a week, sharing and comparing stories about Mom, providing updates on her condition. Lynn has become a surrogate mother to me, and her likeness to mom — in both looks and humor — is a comfort I can’t articulate. We are bridges between the sister and mother of our youths and the memory she is becoming. As more years pass since the last time Mom was able to speak to me on the phone, Lynn’s voice on the line is less a copy and more an original. I see distinctions in their personalities that I didn’t detect before. Her voice lets me remember my mother’s, the voice that was imprinted on me, and allows me to speak to it as I learn to let it go.

Let Bravery Be Your Blanket

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

My father was abusive to me growing up. Not very frequently was the abuse physical (the verbal variety dominated), but it was enough to instill a fear of him into me that I've never been able to shake. When he got angry, he took it out on me, I assume because I was the only one who would ever speak up when he was being cruel to my mother or sisters.

As a young adult, he used physical violence against me once; that incident alone is etched onto my memory with crystalline precision, and I cringe every time I see a person in the throes of anger. I had thought that now, since I was an adult, he couldn't hurt me anymore, but that experience settled that false assumption. Since that particular episode, I have just zipped my lip around him and kept my opinions to myself.

We do, however, have a decent relationship now---especially given the circumstances---and I have forgiven him, though I never confronted him about it and I’m not sure I ever will.

Now, however, I am going through a period of rather extreme personal change brought about by recovering from addiction. Through all this healing, I've discovered I’m not the person I once was, with the same strictly conservative viewpoints I once shared with my parents. My father especially cares passionately for right-wing politics and strict religious doctrine---it’s a hot button issue for him, and I've gotten frightened just watching him talk about it. So far, I've hidden my new opinions from everyone so as not to make any waves, but I’m getting tired of stifling my thoughts just so they won’t “get back to them” and result in a confrontation. I want to finally be myself without shame or fear.

The thing is, though, I am still afraid. I’m afraid of my father finding out, trying to engage me on this, and me melting down. I’m not necessarily scared he will hit me, but I am afraid of not being able to defend myself against his anger.

Advice?

Confused and Scared but also Fed Up

 

Dear Confused and Scared but also Fed Up,

The experience of having the person who helped bring you into the world, the man who represents your origins in many ways, turn on you in violence is something that shakes you to the core of yourself.  So my first thought is: though you see yourself as scared, you are actually incredibly brave.  Cloak yourself in that bravery like a grown-up security blanket.  It's why superheroes wear capes.

You were so brave to stand up to him as a kid, you are so brave to work on yourself through recovery, you are so brave to move beyond the values he clings to and find your own, and you are so brave to want to want to be yourself fully, in front of him and the whole world.

You are fucking awesome.

I hope he knows that.  I think he does, and fears it.  That's why he attempted to reassert his power over you by being physically abusive to you as an adult, and with the loud tirades about his politics and religion, which I consider spiritual abuse.

People who pontificate about politics and fundamentalist religions in a hostile way that excludes all other viewpoints are really just trying to order their world.  They see the world as an out of control place, and all the structure and rules of that way of life help them to make sense in the chaos, and find their place in it.

The thing is, in that world that makes perfect sense, where there are such heavy rights and wrongs, what you lose is love.  Love is inherently risky, and folks who are stuck in judgmental worldviews can't risk the rigid walls they've put up to hold everything in place, to love someone who might act in ways they can't control.

Whenever I consider standing up to someone, especially someone with this kind of strict worldview who may not be able to hear me at all, I ask myself this question, "Do they have any real power over me?"  If they do, if they are my direct boss or my landlord or the person holding the papers that say whether I graduate or not, then I consider holding my tongue in their presence.  However, if they don't, then I feel that it is not only my right, but my duty to be a change agent in their lives.  We don't have to wag it in their faces, that we don't believe what they do, but simply and firmly being who we are will be enough.

In fact, it is probably going to enrage your father, to see you asserting yourself, expressing views that are different from his.  The whole cycle of abuse is about power and control, so to see you moving off of that wheel and onto your own path is going to rock his whole sense of self and relationship to you.

My question to you is, what have you got to lose?  It's not like you will be giving up too much if he turns on you.  You say you have a "decent" relationship with him, which sounds to me like you are still in the role of peacemaker in your family.  What would happen if you let that down?  Your mom and siblings might say, "Why are you stirring things up with Dad?" but you could answer, "Why aren't you?  Are we all going to wait until he dies to be our true selves?"

Listen, I'm not suggesting you directly confront your father, provoking his rage.  Where I think you should start is with a therapist whom you can practice expressing yourself.  Engage in some drama therapy exercises, in which you picture your dad in an empty chair, and tell him what you really think about what he's done to you and your family, and how you truly feel about the world.  Then move into the chair and embody him, playing out his rebuttal.  Then move back into your chair, and tell him, "You had no right to be violent with me.  You have no power over me anymore.  I'm going to be myself, and no amount of posturing can stop me."

Then, start simply being your bold self, even if that means you publicly express things that your dad disagrees with.  He'll yell, he'll send you crazy forwards, he'll give you the cold shoulder.  You'll scoff to yourself, "I've survived worse", and let your bravery blanket flap in the wind.  He can’t take anything away from you anymore, because you aren’t under his control, and you know who you are now.  And if he cuts you out of his life, that will indeed be very painful, but then again, you'll be free.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

Embarking on a new decade

This week I'm celebrating a birthday, my 30th birthday in fact.  I long ago discarded the idea that I should be at a certain pinnacle or milestone by a particular age; I remember vividly watching the Olympics, and seeing teenager after teenager accomplishing ‘what they had worked their entire lives’ for, and a little voice in my head reasoned ‘screw it’. But starting a new decade has brought a sense of introspection as I consider the years before, those to come, and particularly, myself. A lot of great stuff happened during my 20s.  I lived with my two best friends for a year, graduated college, moved away from home, got engaged, moved back towards home, got married, visited 5 countries, moved out of the country, moved to the middle of nowhere, started writing, and most recently, put pink highlights in my hair.

But then there’s a lot that hasn’t changed, my family is still as awesome as ever, I have the same best friends, I’m still ridiculously in love with the same boy, I still email my sister random things I found on the internet, and I still have more shoes than most people I know. These are things that are not likely to change with birthdays.  And in many ways, neither am I. I’ll be the 30 year old rocking plaid together with polka dots because they make me happy.  I'll be the 30 year old who gets excited about stickers and never misses a chance to dance in the rain.  I’ll be the 30 year old who thinks making the bed is a waste of time and photo booths are the best thing since sliced bread.  None of that changes when the calendar ticks over.  So I’m good with 30.

I’ve never had hang ups about the number of candles on a cake.  Maybe it’s because I have great role models, women who age with gusto and grace; maybe it’s because each year seems better than the one before; maybe it’s my natural optimism.  Whatever the case, while 30 is just a number, it’s also a step into a new decade; a new period, one that I’m terribly excited about.  As the anniversary of my birth draws closer and closer I’ve been thinking more and more about the woman I want to be.  For the most part she looks pretty much identical to the gal in the mirror, but there’s little things I’d like to get better at, more habits I want to develop to really become the best version of myself.  And I’m excited for that.  I’m excited to push myself, to learn more, to keep growing while I keep laughing.

A few years ago one of my friends told me about something she had seen on the internet---a blogger made a list of 30 things she wanted to do before she turned 30.  It seemed like a lovely idea, so I started making a list. Now, days away from the deadline, most of the items remain undone.  I never learned how to tie a bow tie or brushed up on my Italian.  I didn’t visit a national park or bake a pie from scratch.  I haven’t read Shakespeare and I haven’t learned all the dance moves to my favorite Blues Brothers song. But that’s ok, because there’s a lot of things that I’ve done in the last couple of years that weren’t on that list- things like writing this column and finding a job I love.  And the most important thing, regardless of what’s written on any list, I’m headed into a new decade happier than I’ve ever been.  So maybe next year I’ll bake a pie.

Thirty is, of course, not old, but then I don’t know of a number that is, unless you choose it to be. My grandmother is 90 years ‘old’, but she’s got quite of bit of youthful spirit.  For me, age is a number, and a blessing.  Not everyone has the opportunity to age, so I’ll always be thankful for another candle on my metaphorical cake.  Who knows, if I’m lucky enough to get to 90, maybe I’ll celebrate the same way as 30, with silly hats, silly straws, cupcakes and champagne, and the most important---with people I love.

Cheers to 30.

Lessons from the workplace...(part two)

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara, Last week, I started to think about the lessons and wisdoms that I have learned over the years from my mentors and colleagues when it comes to work and the workplace.  But soon I was also thinking of lessons I learned more broadly there as well.  These have served me well as I moved from one workplace to the next, and I have applied many of these same lessons from my work life to my non-work life:

  • People need to know what you’re about in 30 seconds or less: Be efficient.  Know yourself.  Know what you want.  Be able to communicate that to others.  I know it sounds simple, yet it is amazing how many people don’t know how to do it.  Sometimes when we spend a lot of time thinking to ourselves, we forget that others don’t necessarily know what we’re thinking unless we tell them.  And they’re likely not going to take a lot of time to hear us out---practice giving your “pitch”, that way it will be perfect when it matters.
  • The deal isn’t done unless there is ink on the paper:  This will happen to you.  At work . . . in real estate . . . with your local florist . . . doesn’t matter, it happens all the time.  When we get excited about a project or an offer or a possibility, it’s easy to assume lots of things just by talking about it.  When you’re on the receiving end of an offer, remember that the terms aren’t done and decided until the proverbial ink is dry.  Deals will fall through, offers get rescinded . . . until you are one hundred and ten percent sure and signed, always have a plan B. You’ll be less disappointed in the long run.  And if you’re the one doing the offering, try to keep your descriptions as flexible as possible for as long as possible.  That way, you’ll be disappointing others less in that same long run.
  • Some things will just "go away”: It’s not possible to get to everything that’s asked of us at work (or at home, or at school). Part of learning how to manage what’s on your plate is prioritizing what you know will be important and then taking your very best guess at what is less important.  As you get older and have more experience, that guess will become easier---but you will get it wrong sometimes.  This will result in some mistakes, and definitely in lots of effort as you make up for it, but overall, it should help keep workloads manageable.  Develop your radar for truly important and critical projects and requests that are priorities, and pay less attention to the stuff that will likely “go away”.
  • Check the headlines the morning of: It’s just good practice.  I don’t know if the news will still even be printed on paper by the time you are my age, but in school, in work, before big meetings, check the headlines.  You’ll be surprised how much you reference them because they are relevant or because they help make conversation while you wait for relevant things to start.
  • The best bosses aren’t necessarily the friendliest ones: As you start working , you’ll work for and with a variety of people, and you might not immediately like some of them.  That’s okay.  But there is a difference between liking someone and learning from someone, and in the end, I’ve learned the most from people who sometimes weren’t always the friendliest or the most approachable.  However, by doing good work and building up your credibility over time, you’ll gain access to them and lessons that they can teach from their experience that you will not easily get elsewhere.  Look for bosses and mentors that you can learn from.  Then one day, it will be your responsibility to teach it back to someone else.

All my love,

Mom

 

Even Vera Wang Can't Save Me Now

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I'm going wedding dress shopping with my mother tomorrow. I didn't really want to go and still feel ambivalent about it. My mother can be a loving, generous, supportive person.  However, her insecurities can easily and unexpectedly be triggered, turning her into the Witch of the West. She can be mean and offensive in the most passive of ways, making it difficult to call her out on it. I fear she'll hurt my feelings at some point and take the joy out of the moment.

I also realized recently that she's not a selfish woman but definitely self-centered: everything is about her. I’m uncomfortable with a lot of attention, and I don't ask for much from others, but I do feel the moment I try on wedding dresses for the first time should be about me.

This all makes me sad because I want a relationship with my mother and I want to share these special moments with her, but I've learned that she's so limited and I don't want to be too disappointed in the end.

I decided to bring a friend along for protection, (so sad that I need this) but I'm not sure it will be enough. And with 13 months left until my wedding, how do I continue to protect myself and set appropriate boundaries, while trying to connect with her through this experience?

Thanks,

The Naked Bride

 

Dear Naked Bride,

This is your homework, for the rest of your engagement: practice saying no.

Start small, with someone who wants you to give them money for some charity you’ve never heard of (“Not today, thanks”), or the person who asks, “can you watch my dog while I go in this store really quick?” (“No, I cannot, sorry”), or your co-worker who wants you to finish their work for them (“I can’t get to it, unfortunately”).  No, no, no, and, guess what?  No.

Then when you need to put up boundaries with people you really do care about, like your mom, you’ll be able to do it with a little more grace, because you have practiced.  It won’t come out in an adolescent rage fit in which you bring up every little way she’s hurt your self esteem since you were six.  You’ll just say, “No, I’m not wearing that hideous doily of a veil that’s been in your family for 6 generations.  I totally get it if that is disappointing to you.  But it’s not going to happen, so let’s talk about something fun we can do together.  What song do you want to dance to with me at the reception?”

It’s really sad, but true, that we have to manage our expectations quite a bit with our parents, once we are adults.  We get to this point where we can see them for who they really are, how far they’ve come, but also what their limitations are.  We want our parents to be superheroes, but they aren’t.  They’re just people.  Who had children.

Weddings are ritual events, and all good ritual is acts as a cauldron that brings out everything in people---all the ways we are transcendent beings striving to love one another in the face of impossible struggles, and all of the little wounds that are still festering, and cause us to react in unflattering ways.  They show us who we can be and also where we still need to work.  Rather than seeing this wedding as one day in which you pledge your love to your partner in front of your loved ones, start seeing it as a whole process of creation---you are actually going to become a different person through bonding yourself to another.

So yes, your mom is probably going to hurt your feelings in this transformation process.  But the ways in which she does will give you so many clues to where you are still growing, what sensitivities your partner can help you with.  The best thing to do, rather than protect yourself from all those barbs she’ll throw at you, is to catch them mid-stream, as they are flying at your face, and inspect them.  Ask yourself, “can I use this?  Can I bring this to my partner and let it draw us closer as we go through this together?  Or do I really just not need this shit right now, and need to say a hearty NO?”  Then decide whether you can take that on right then, and use it in your becoming, or not.  As the time draws nearer to the celebration, you’ll be saying “no” all over the place, as you’ll really have to focus all your energy on fighting your way out of the cocoon.

Weddings and marriage are not the smiling photo shoots we see.  They are deep transformative acts, and they unsit all of the important relationships in our lives, especially the ones with our parents.  In the end, however, hopefully it all helps us fly.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

Lessons from the workplace...(part one)

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara, Late nights at the office have had me thinking about work recently.  This year actually marks ten years that I’ve been in the work force, and in many ways I feel like almost no time has passed by at all.  I feel that there is still so much learn, and there are so many jobs I’d like to have before I would feel that I truly have the experience to be considered qualified.  But then, I look at our incoming summer interns, or the candidates that will be starting with firms here in the fall, and I know that to some degree, I’ve also come a long way.  I was that young too at one point, starting out with nerves and anticipation.

With that in mind, I’ve thought of a few things I’ve learned from some of my best mentors along the way---things I definitely didn’t know when I first started:

  • Check, check, and double check: First lesson from my first boss and I still use it today.  Of all the things that we do at work, no matter what the field, when you are new at doing them, or do them a lot, or do them tired, or have others help you do them, the bottom line is that you have to check it . . . check it again . . . and then check it once more.  Just because you “thought” something got done, or got done right, doesn’t mean that it did.  And no matter what the reason, often times you’ll find yourself being the one to explain something that didn’t.  You’ll be tempted to skip these steps, and you’ll regret.  Just check, check, and double check.
  • Don’t turn down a job you haven’t been offered yet: Same job, different boss for this one . . . It can be easy to imagine ourselves doing lots of different things in life---and that’s a good thing.  But it’s also just as easy to picture yourself not doing a lot of things . . . you don’t want to live somewhere . . . the pay wouldn’t be right . . . your skills wouldn’t be right. But you’d be surprised at how much can change between initial conversations and then actual offers.  Don’t limit your own opportunities before someone has had a chance to offer them to you.
  • Always leave the door open: Workplaces and clients and colleagues will come and go.  Sometimes on good terms, and sometimes on ones much less so.  When you’re ending a work relationship, if you have things to get off your chest about how things weren’t how you thought they would be, be sure to think twice.  End the relationship as diplomatically as possible, since the chances that you will work with that person or organization or brand or chain are high, and only getting higher the more interconnected we become.  Don’t let things you say professionally (or personally for that matter) come back to haunt you.
  • You’re not above anything:  One of the best feelings at work is the one you get when you’re promoted.  Not only does it usually mean you a make a bit more, but it’s a huge validation of your efforts.  When that promotion comes, just remember that it doesn’t make you better than others who were passed over, or who haven’t yet had theirs.  A promotion is an earned acknowledgement of your work but it’s not a free pass for all the things you’d rather not do.  Sometimes, the best way  to lead your team is to work right in the trenches with them.  Don’t put yourself above any tasks, since you never know when you’ll have to start from the bottom up again.
  • Will you live to work or work to live? Work is a funny thing . . . you will end up in all likelihood spending more time at work than you do anywhere else, including home.  But work will likely always have trade-offs between you might be passionate about and what the job actually entails.  You’ll have to pick the right balance, but just remember than in addition to finding work a fulfilling way to spend our time, it is also what pays the rent, what puts food on the table, what buys us our leisure and hobbies, and what will do the same for your own children.  At some point, the lifestyle you want will also dictate the work you need to get.

All my love,

Mom

 

Origin Story

Last week, my son, Henry, turned four. Before he was here, before he was even conceived, he was my obsession. I hit 27 and itched all over to be pregnant. Because that was the next step. Marriage, job, cross-country move, house, baby. I would like to say that my biological clock was chiming with some evolutionary imperative to make Life, to mark up a tabula rasa with all the wisdom that was lovingly bestowed on me or wrenched from my own lived experience. All of that is more or less true, but the nut of my baby fever was boredom. I'm not a terribly ambitious person, but I'm not comfortable with stasis. I come alive when something is on the horizon that requires me to plan accordingly. The promise of a baby would scratch all those planning itches. So I became hyper-fixated, which, coupled with getting off antidepressants, set off all the attendant neuroses. My petulant pessimism convinced me that I was barren, that I would miscarry, that I would conceive a child with a severe disability. My head went round and round like this until one morning, steeling myself for another one-line strip, I got two. For a little while, I sloughed off the anxiety and allowed a tenuous happiness to wash over me. But the problem with being a chronic pessimist is that eventually, experience bears out one of your many worst fears, and then the naysayers in your head feel validated. Then came the blood.

Faint pink smears on a square of toilet paper and I was histrionic and hysterical. Sort of outside of myself, repeating, But I wanted this so badly, as if the wanting it should have proved to the universe that I deserved it. I wasn't grieving the loss of any thing. How could I? I had no frame of reference, wouldn't dare compare the feel of holding friends’ babies or caring for infant siblings with actually being a mother. At this point, I think I was mourning the delusion that I could will my desire into reality. Like all good control freaks, my unconscious mind---my lizard brain, perhaps---was sure that my vigilant and incessant worrying would somehow protect the fragile thing inside me, that sleepless nights and tense muscles would hold it fast to the wall of my uterus.

I awoke the next morning hopeful that the bleeding had subsided but was defeated at the toilet, where I slipped the saddest, most sorrowful of maxi pads into my underwear. My GYN checked me out, said it didn't look good. She instructed that when I began to pass tissue and when the discomfort progressed from mild to severe cramping, I should call her. So I drove home and soaked through a pad and onto my jeans. With my husband out of town, I asked a very good friend to keep me company, to sit with me on Tissue Watch, as I maybe waited to birth pass the promise of my first child. In retrospect, there should have been fewer tears and more cigars.

I spent the remainder of my husband’s business trip moping around the house, vacillating between self-pity and self-loathing because I had friends who had gone through this, and all had been much further along in their pregnancies. When we got the positive test result, we'd decided not tell friends or family until I'd passed the 12-week mark. This seemed prudent and reasoned, as if losing it before then would be so much worse if we'd shouted the news from the rooftops. I understand now how stupid that is, the folly of believing that staying guarded would protect me from pain when things didn't work out. I was still wrecked; the only difference was that no one knew it.

I made the long commute to work one morning and managed to mostly put it out of my mind. I let my thoughts drift with the music, daydreamed while driving on autopilot in that scary way where you awaken periodically with no memory of passing a certain exit or mile marker. The AM radio station played a Bob Dylan cover of "You Belong to Me," and I finally articulated what I'd lost: something that was mine, physically and psychically, in a way I could only previously relate to my own mom, now effectively gone. I was losing an imagined motherhood, some abstraction of maternity that, until my own child surfaced to color it with our new, shared experiences, was rooted in my own memories of childhood and the feeling of belonging to someone.

It's a weird thing to mourn a son before he's born and a mother before she's passed.

So I waited for my body to catch up with the GYN's diagnosis, working in bed while I incubated a doomed thing. But the tissue and the pain didn't come. For a week I bled, felt the telltale bloat and sore, puffy pulpiness of a bad period. I saw the GYN again, this time thankfully with my husband. She inserted the ungodly probe to take a look at my insides and directed our attention to a gray, grainy screen and the well bottom that was apparently my uterus. She indicated some dark spots at the top of the screen, which looked very much at home in the alien landscape. These spots were pockets of "old blood," and as she adjusted the probe and the angles of view, more spots were visible. Next she pointed to a marble stuck to the bottom right wall of the well. This, she explained, was the yolk sac and inside, the embryo. About six weeks along, she determined. She drew on the screen with her pinky a faint but discernible line — the fetal pole — and circled a pulsing valve that resembled the open/close/open/close of fish lips out of water. Surrounded by dark clouds of old blood, the embryo remained intact. If the blood were to dislodge the sac from the uterine wall, I would miscarry. But if not, all would be fine. She suggested we remain guarded, a caveat I could now openly scoff at, but sent us home with an 80 percent chance of a complete and successful pregnancy. I imagined the tadpole inside me looking out a bay window, lazily watching a stormy sky floating, benign, overhead.

Last week I watched what was once a continuous flow of bright red blood devour a frosting-laden piece of Dora the Explorer cake. He fidgeted unconsciously while cramming bites of yellow cake into his bow-lipped mouth, which is also my mouth. The marble that held fast to my interior wall, watching storm clouds float overhead, wears size 4 muscle shirts, homemade superhero capes, and pink tights. I'm thankful he held on, got to experience a shift in the weather so that he could shed his tiny clothes and jump into the fountain at Peninsula Park, shrieking at the cold and armed only with his favorite Spiderman underwear. I'm thankful that, for a brief time, he belongs to me, and that he will pass on that sense of belonging once given to me.

Let's Talk About Breastfeeding

I want to tell you about breastfeeding, but I don’t want you to feel judged. Just know, I’ve been there. I was so nervous before giving birth about breastfeeding. In fact, I was completely sold on formula. I used it with my first son, and he had gained weight well and I intended to do it again. I even bought fancy glass baby bottles, twelve of them, in preparation and washed and readied them. I bought no nursing shirts or bras, I had no interest in even trying really. And then something happened after the labor. He was so little and helpless, and he came out so quickly and easily. I brought him right to my chest and he started to nurse. He latched perfectly and we nursed for forty minutes until they took him away to bathe him. It was so different, so easy this time. Even with having a great latch, we still struggled that first week. I even ordered a case of formula the third night after he was born in frustration. My milk wasn’t letting down and I could tell he was getting dehydrated. He was screaming and screaming and was obviously starving so I broke down and gave him a bottle of formula. He gulped the whole thing down. That’s it, I thought, that’s the end of our breastfeeding relationship. I made it three days, longer than Charley. I felt defeated from one bottle. All the La Leche League members were screaming, ‘Poison!’ in my head and I was ready to give up.

Then something happened that night. I was a hormonal mess, and I hadn’t been to that point. I cried all night, confused about whether I wanted to keep trying to nurse or not. Matt had taken a picture of me nursing Dash at the hospital right after he was born and I woke up at 5 a.m. and just stared at that picture. I was sad that I had stopped trying. I was engorged and still had milk and could feel time running out. So even though we had decided that formula was ok this time around again, I brought him to my chest and nursed him. It felt peaceful in the blue early morning light. We were the only ones awake and he was so small, like a little bird under my wing. He latched perfectly, my milk let down and that was the end of our struggles.

It’s a learning curve, and week by week it has gotten easier. I will say it has affected our sex life. I was so nervous about nursing with Charley because I didn’t want to keep sharing my body. And now, I nurse all day long and by the end of the day I don’t want to be touched by anyway. It’s truly bliss though, oxytocin is a powerful drug and I am madly in love with my little guy. I had read before that breastfeeding helps to combat post-partum depression (with the release of oxytocin) and sometimes that’s the biggest reason I continue forward with it. I feel calmer, more relaxed and less anxious than I did with Charley.

You do bond differently as well. I felt that was an incorrect statement before, because, after all, I had bonded with Charley. I never propped him up with a bottle, I always sat with him and snuggled and fed him. And I spend the same amount of time also browsing my iphone while feeding Dash as I did with Charley. (Iphone browsing while nursing is probably a topic for another column) But there’s something about seeing Dash’s little giggly face so close to my breast that always makes me smile and my heart swell. We are connected and it’s reassuring that for the most part I have the one thing that will always calm him down. Works every time. I’ve even gotten over my ambivalence about nursing in public, or even in front of other people. Now, when he’s hungry, I just whip it out, no nursing cover, just a boob hanging out of my shirt. And it doesn’t even bother me. It’s like a switch was flipped when I started breastfeeding and I see them as nourishment and not sexual. So the next time you see a nursing mother, don’t be embarrassed, just maybe keep those eyes upward and don’t stare.

The biggest lesson I have learned from my breastfeeding my second child so far is this: there is no one right way to parent. I think that’s the most important thing to remember in today’s judgmental parenting society. I cloth-diapered Charley but am using disposables with Dash. I am breastfeeding Dash (and might extend it past a year if all is going well) and I fed Charley formula. I think both kids will be fine. At the end of the day, I think most people don’t care about what others are doing, as long as it keeps their children safe and it works for their family.

A Sibyl Without a Quandary

Asking For It with Sibyl

The last few weeks, my Sibyl inbox has been empty.  I was tempted to conclude, "My work here is done.  Everyone is fixed."  Then, I encountered a whole bunch of pretty flawed and twitchy humans who could use a good Sibylizing.

Therefore, I'm going to provide you all with a little encouragement to write in your quandary to Asking For It, for Sibyl to answer.

Six Reasons You Should Write In to Sibyl:

1.  You haven't got it all figured out.  I know you---you're not even trying to pretend you have it all together.  So write to me about the things you're grappling with, and I'll help you cut through the fog and see it all more clearly.

2. The act of writing out the quandary and sending it in has helped some of my readers find their own answers, simply by sitting with it in that conscious way.  I've received follow-up emails that say, "thank you for your answer to my question---it confirmed what I was thinking, even while I was still writing it to you!"

3. Interactive columns between strangers are pretty rad.  People who don't know each other, offering wisdom and care for no money exchanged is a powerful thing.  Be a part of this random act of artful kindness.

4. We're a dying breed.  Sugar is on hiatus.  In the last few months, we've lost Dear Abby and Dr. Joyce Brothers.  The advice columnist, once called the "agony aunt" colloquially by Brits, is a classic way for women to show up for one other publicly, with the cloak of anonymity protectively in place.

5. Your friends are tired of hearing about this issue you are obsessing about, and you can’t afford more therapy.

6. Don't you have to see your family this summer?  Yeah.  Write to me about that.  Aren't there weddings you need to attend that you feel weird about?  Write it in.  I don't care how long and rambling your letter about your ex may be.  I can take it.  And your story could really resonate with another person, and help them just by hearing that someone else is experiencing that situation, too.

It's a powerful thing, knowing you're not alone in this world.  Sibyl is listening.

Lessons from Chicago...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

Sometimes when I travel for work, I have that sensation of needing to get outside right then and there.  Often when I travel, the routine involves heading from airport to hotel to office, and then back in reverse again, that it seems like I can go days without fresh air.  It happened to me again most recently in Chicago.  Outside of the huge wall to wall windows in the hotel room, I felt that I had to get some sunshine and fresh air, even if it meant working on my project until late into the evening.

I hopped out and started heading down the street, and came across the boat tours that go up and down the river and out onto the lake.  I bought myself a ticket, catching one of the last available ones for the day and had a just an hour to myself to take in the architecture and the breezes of the city and I realized:

  • Water is our most precious resource: Most of what Chicago grew to be as a city is due to the remarkable possibilities of having both a major river and a major lake.  And it’s that same lake that provides the water that comes right out of every person’s faucet, drinkable at that.  So much of our fortunes are tied to water; when a city is blessed with this kind of resource twice, it’s absolutely our job to take care of it.
  • It’s always colder on the lake: No matter how  the weather of day, you can always find a breeze on Lake Michigan.  On hot days, it’s a welcoming cool down; on cold days, it chills to the bone.  If you’ll be going on the lake, dress for it.  You won’t regret the extra sweater.
  • A good city plan both endures and adapts: As a city, Chicago is fascinating.  But what’s most fascinating is how the city’s plan has expanded and contracted while keeping its core intact as times and needs have changed.  Every city should have a plan, and every plan should do the same.
  • Public art is a public treasure: For some, art means expensive paintings that hang in dark corners of homes and museums.  But Chicago does a fantastic job of putting art “out there”.  Right in the middle of downtown. . .right in the middle of a park. . .right next to the lake.  In Chicago, where you can find people is also where you can find some of the best works of art.  They fit so seamlessly into the cityscape that sometimes we don’t necessarily notice that they were likely a huge investment on the part of the city in order to put them there.  Appreciate the efforts that cities make to keep things interesting and beautiful for the public benefit.
  • Surround yourself with smart people: While on the boat, I was thinking of how different life would have been if I had chosen to go to school there versus elsewhere.  I remember when I visited a noted university there to make my final decision, that it was the first time I realized that I was surrounded by extremely smart people everywhere I looked.   I liked that feeling, and I knew I would be smarter because of it.  I ended up choosing another place for my education, because it was a better fit for the future, but ever since then I have never stopped looking for strong qualities in others to surround myself with.  Other people’s strengths shouldn’t be intimidating, they should be something to learn from.

All my love,

Mom

RED SHOES

word traveler

What’s left when someone disappears? Only memories? What can the relatives hang on to? A sweater, a favorite book with scribbled notes, a shopping list on the refrigerator, a comb, a pair of shoes. Familiar and insignificant objects that suddenly become special when who used them every day is no longer with us.

Not much more is left from the women of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Since 1993, hundreds of women have been murdered in this desert city. Many of the bodies have never been found, no faces to be kissed one last time by the parents or the children. Estimates have been made by the local newspaper and they don’t aim to be accurate–878 women killed between 1993 and 2010. Not much has been done by the local authorities, and there are a very large number of women who are still lost.

As Haruki Murakami wrote in Dance, Dance, Dance, “Precipitate as weather, she appeared from somewhere, then evaporated, leaving only memory.

In Ciudad Juárez, pasted on storefronts and house walls, you see photographs of the missing women. «Disappeared. Contact us if you know something». Sometimes the remains are found in the vast desert that surrounds the city, sometimes they are not, and the families keep praying and hoping. The homicides continue, and the women usually come from poor families. What expect them are tortures and rapes, and cold nights and hot days in a desert that becomes their tomb.

In honor of the hundreds of women and girls killed in Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican visual artist Elina Chauvet started «Zapatos Rojos» (Red Shoes) in 2009. It's an art project that consists in lots of pairs of red or red-painted shoes to commemorate the cases of violence against women in the whole world. Her first work was realized in Ciudad Juarez—she, together with other people who acknowledged the “feminicide”, collected 33 pairs of red shoes and arranged them in place to simulate a protest march of absent women. Now it goes beyond the border of Mexico. This silent march arrived in my hometown, too, and I'm so proud about it: two installations occupied Piazza Vecchia (the Old Town Square) from May 12th till May 15th. It’s “public art” because people were making it. Everybody could contribute–many women were donating their old shoes, and painting them in red before leaving them in the piazza. It was nice to see families doing this together.

No words were needed, because those shoes were telling the stories of emptiness and torture of those who were left behind.

This quote from Murakami’s book somehow seems perfect to me:

Dance," said the Sheep Man. "Yougottadance. Aslongasthemusicplays. Yougotta dance. Don'teventhinkwhy. Starttothink, yourfeetstop. Yourfeetstop, wegetstuck. Wegetstuck, you'restuck. Sodon'tpayanymind, nomatterhowdumb. Yougottakeepthestep. Yougottalimberup. Yougottaloosenwhatyoubolteddown. Yougottauseallyougot. Weknowyou're tired, tiredandscared. Happenstoeveryone, okay? Justdon'tletyourfeetstop.” ― Haruki Murakami, Dance, Dance, Dance.

Meet the Local: Sydney, Australia

mind the gap

Meet the Local is a series designed to uncover the differences (and similarities) in how we think and live in different parts of the world.  Over the upcoming months, I’ll ask locals from places all over the world the same set of getting-to-know-you questions.  This week, we meet Ben, a hometown enthusiast who has figured out the key to his happiness.

Meet the Local Sydney

What do you like about the place you live?

A million things.  Sydney is a terrific place.  It’s a very active place mainly because we have such a great climate, even in the winters.  You can always get out and about and be in the sun.  And there’s just tons to do---the bush isn’t far away, and the whole coastline is beach beach beach beach . . . It’s a really active lifestyle.  There are a ton of musical festivals every summer, there are pop up bars left right and center.  I quite like that Sydney is geographically quite disparate as well.  There are little valleys and basins and beachy areas that have different sorts of people so it’s not one flat lump; it’s a really interesting sort of tapestry.

What don’t you like so much?

A current gripe of mine is that Sydney and Australia as a whole is a very, very big nanny state.  There are rules and guidelines for everything.  As an example, I contribute so much money to the council coffers in the form of parking fines and speeding fines---it’s just silly little things.  They’re trying to make you behave a certain way---and it’s a terrific standard of living, don’t get me wrong---but you have to play within the rules.  It gets a bit stifling, a bit claustrophobic.  If you’re not of that mindset, if you’ve experienced different things, if you’ve been to third world countries, you just find it a little annoying.  It feels intensely civilized---a little too civilized, personally, for me.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

Two pieces of toast with butter on them, and Earl Grey tea.  It used to be coffee, but I’m trying to stick to one coffee per day and I need to get over that 3 PM wall, so that’s my coffee time.

What do you do for a living?  How important is your job to your sense of self?

I’m called a Community Manager.  I work for a company called Yelp, and as a Community Manager for Yelp I do a couple of things.  I throw parties, I teach people to use the website, I write a newsletter that goes out every week (I particularly enjoy writing, so that part is really appealing to me).  They often refer to it as the unofficial mayor of the city.  You know the places that are opening, you get asked so many times: where’s the best place for tourists, or for dates, or to enjoy a summer’s day, or for a bush walk?

My job is very important to my sense of self.  I used to work in advertising agencies in the corporate world and then I got to the point where I was making ads for a living and I did everything I could outside my work life to avoid ads---I just hated them---so there was that weird disconnect there.  It was really good money, but everyone was polluted, was whinging about not having a life, and working too hard.  It was the same sort of record on repeat.  I’m a natural optimist but I heard myself getting into this really negative mindset.  So I quit my job and was looking for something else, and then Yelp came along.  I really like the idea of setting my own schedule, and try new ideas.  Being able to have that freedom is really nice.  It has a real people power, which is what I was looking for after the corporate world with everyone just chasing money.  There was a lot of talk among my friends at the time going back to when you’re young, when you have to go to school and get good grades.  Why?  To get into university.  And then you have to do well at university---why?  To get a good job.  And then you have to get a good job---why?  To earn money.  And then you’ve got to get promotions---why?  To earn more money.  Money is just the root of all evil.  What we’re doing at the moment, it’s not the antithesis of that, but it’s more about community, being hyper local.

What do you do for fun?

I like being in nature, so I play a ton of sport. Swim and surf and beaches are so close that every weekend I go for a swim.  I really like music; I go to a lot of music festivals.  I read a lot.  I really enjoy writing.

How often do you see your family?  Tell me what you did the last time you saw them.

I’m trying to buy an apartment in the city right now, which is shockingly difficult.  I think we’re the second most expensive city in the world right now to buy real estate – a half a million gets you nothing.  So I moved back home with my mum to try and save, otherwise it’s just an untenable position to be renting and trying to buy.  So I see my mum a lot.  My twin sister lives in Denver, and my brother lives in London, so we’re quite spread out, but we Skype at least once a week, maybe twice.  And we try to have at least one family holiday a year, where we all meet up in some destination.

 What’s your biggest dream for your life?

I want to keep traveling and I want to write, whether it’s for my own amusement or professionally.  Other than that, it’s fairly simple.  I don’t want to invest in properties or anything like that – I just want a house I can live in and a life in the sun, a family at some point down the track, definitely a dog – a pug – and that’s it.  That’s pretty much it.  And to live somewhere I can be in touch with nature.

 If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Why?

I really feel an affinity for second and third world countries, where the boundaries are a little bit looser and you can do more things.  You can go shoot a gun in the hills if you want, you can take a car and drive wherever you want, you can camp wherever you want, because the land is free – not everyone owns every single inch of land like they do here.  So somewhere like Mexico or Morocco would be incredible.

 What are you most proud of?

This might sound quite trite, but I’m quite proud of figuring out what makes me happy and adjusting my life to follow those lines.  I’ve figured out that the more simplistic life is, the easier it is to be happy.  If you have worries and stresses and bigger things to look after, you can’t focus and you can’t really get true happiness.  The people that have the least are the happiest.

 How happy would you say you are?  Why?

I’m a massive optimist, I can see the good in anything, so I think I’m probably a nine.  I was probably around a seven before.  The downside of being a natural optimist is that you tend to stay in situations longer than you should because you can always see the good in them, even if they’re crap.

The change happened over the course of a year.  I had a really shitty year a couple of years ago where my dad died.  He’d worked so hard to provide for the family and it was really, really sudden.  He was riding a motorbike in the Himalayas. He was a mild mannered accountant, and he went on this trip of a lifetime and didn’t come back.  That was when I sort of found myself at a crossroads, asking myself if the corporate life was right for me.  My dad was a self-made man, an immigrant from Pakistan.  He came here with nothing and built a whole life up and all of the sudden, things were taken away.  So it sort of gave me a bit of immediacy and made me value my time a bit more.  I realized you can work and be happy at the same time – so that was my epiphany.

Check out previous answers from locals in Lisbon, Sarajevo and London.  Want to participate in Meet the Local or know someone who does?  Email liz@thingsthatmakeus.com for more details.

 

Lessons from Philadelphia...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

I don’t know Philadelphia well, but your father does.  He studied for his Master’s degree there. Yet when we visit, we always seem to discover together something that’s still new to him, and this time with you with us, it was an entirely different perspective. I’m so happy that we were able to spend the day there together as a family, and as we took in the sights of the city, I hope you remember the following:

  • Principles and ideas are important: Philadelphia was home to our Declaration of Independence, and to the Constitution, and physically home to many of the men that made those two historic documents possible.  The ideas that they stand for, and the words chosen to represent those ideas were carefully chosen.  In fact, so carefully, the documents still stand today as meaningful, governing foundations.  Every generation has the opportunity to make that kind of lasting, revolutionary impact if they choose their principles, ideas, actions and words carefully.
  • Remember brotherly love: Philadelphia is known as the city of brotherly love because the greek roots of the city’s name mean just that.  But the idea that the name stands for should be part of any city.  A city is always home to many, and in that sense, we’re always a sort of family for each other.  And we need to look out for our fellow residents in the same way that we would for a younger brother or sister, an aging parent, or any family member.  Similarly, we need to look out for and celebrate the success of others in the city as well---like a cousin that wins a race or an uncle who's finally built his house.  A city can never work well if it only feels like home for a few.  It has to feel like home for everyone.
  • Bringing your own is usually better: We love to eat in restaurants in Philadelphia because of the many places that allow you to bring your own wine.  For many places, it has to do with the way the licensing for alcohol is structured, but it’s become part of the cultural experience of eating out in the city.  We go out for the experience of going out, but some experiences just turn out better if we’re able to bring part of our own choosing into it with us.
  • Be prepared to always be an outsider: In a famous stand in Philadelphia, known for some of the best cheesesteaks in town, there is a sign that displays---“You’re in America, Please order in English”.  No surprise, it caused controversy and still does.  People either strongly support it, or they are vehemently against it.  Where you stand is for you to decide---but given how much our iterant lifestyle has us move, the sign was a bi tof a reminder that you will constantly know what is like to be an outsider.  Even though we speak the language here, eventually we will go places where we don't.  So those signs will also be for us.  Because we don’t speak the language . . . because we don’ t know the options . . . because we get the process wrong.  It will happen, and you’ll feel left out.  Some things will always be easier, and frankly, more appropriate, if you do things “their way”.  Some things, if we stick to our core, will be more important to do “our way”.  You’ll have to figure out where the balance is for yourself, but the balance is easier if you are prepared for that feeling.  And when you’re visiting somewhere new, at least make an effort to meet people as close to their way as possible.  Hopefully, as good hosts, they are trying to do the same for you---but remember, the only that's in your control is your own.
  • Not everyone is lucky enough to be grateful for their freedom: Here in the US, we take our freedom, and the liberties and responsibilities that come with it for granted.  For many people, they haven’t known another way.  But visits to the many historic places around Philadelphia will remind you that those liberties are in fact very special, and continually come at a cost.  Not everyone has the luxury of such sound governing principles---be grateful for them, and improve upon them.  No one said that the work of implementing freedoms, rights and liberties is ever done, or that the work belongs to just a few.  It belongs to everyone.

All my love,

Mom

The Baby of the Family

the baby

By Maggie May Ethridge The baby of the family. To this reader, such a romantic phrase, born of the hustle and bustle, tears and drama, warmth and love, laughter and insanity of book families: Amy from Little Women, Rilla from the Anne of Green Gables series, Ginny from the Weasley family in Harry Potter, Deborah Mitford from the fascinating Mitford Sisters (a real family, but stuffed into many books, just take a google).

In our family there is my husband Mr. Curry, myself, and our four children: Dakota, Ian, Lola, and the baby of the family- Ever Elizabeth. The last child with the most daring name, the only of our children whose middle name is a family name ( my beloved Grandmother Elizabeth, who passed away years ago ) the only of our children we had to fight to bring into this world. After years of secondary infertility and then a late miscarriage, we had our Ever. Dakota was 16 when she was born, old enough to have been her father himself, though thank god he was not. Thank god because he was—is, really—just a kid himself, and more so, more so, because Ever is the last turn of the machine over the diamond, giving it a radiance and depth otherwise left behind. And so it would be for whoever was the baby.

The baby of the family brings youth to wisdom, glee to happiness, ridiculousness to fun, an immediacy to a long tale. When we are weighted with our mechanisms and warbled complaints, she is the slap dash giggle, the hysterical fit of babyhood, the one who we all must take care of. While their Dad and I take care of all of them, the children all watch over her, so she becomes the one thing we can all agree on. When we are content, she is the gossamer of sunlight over the landscape---another layer of beautiful.

We waited so many years for her, and once she arrived, all her siblings moved in to cradle and coddle her, to tell Dad 'the baby is crying, pick her up!' to tell me 'the baby is too close to the stove.' A unified purpose: protect the baby from the inadequacies of our parents.

As the baby of the family, she drags with her blanket so many things into our home: cartoons long abandoned by the older kids are rediscovered, stuffed animals under the bed are yanked out and dusted off to be shared, hobbies shed are made new: remember when we used to love to sit on the skateboard?! The baby brings an instant nostalgia for children not yet grown up but not quite children anymore; they see their childhood in a new light, and faced with a complex and confusing world,  are suddenly made more deeply aware of the value of family. No longer simply there, our family is now creating the environment for The Baby—and although we are of course still doing this for them, they can now feel it, its worth, its beauty. In watching her grow up, they see how they themselves grew, and were valued, cherished, loved. A new pride begins to form.

As for the baby, she will watch as all the children grow up, she will be the one and only of the bunch to watch from a child's perspective as each sibling argues with us, the parents, as each sibling stakes claims of independence, burrows closer for reassurance, flies, fails, meets the world from the root of this family. When they are all grown and adult, she will be the keeper of all the secrets, the one who heard from the other room the sobs, the confessions, who saw the picked noses, the awkward attacks, the endless coming together, the  procession of bathroom and kitchen scenes, bedtime snuggles, smells and sounds of children and parents moving forward. Her presence, so unobtrusive and benign, will be taking in, and ultimately, she will shock us all as she recounts the stories and reveals her opinion, possibly scathing: Mom begged for X's respect instead of assuming it, Dad moved too quickly to shutting the talk down, Brother 1 was always complaining, Brother 2 was never paying attention . . . the rest of us will shuffle and raise our shoulders, looking at this girl child we see still illuminated in the late afternoon light of a child's day. Maybe one will say 'But you're just the baby of the family. You don't understand.' And surely like a million other babies of the family, she will resent the title, at the same time she secretly cherishes it, knowing that the 'just' in front of The Baby is not diminishing, but instead a title of great importance and power, like a tiny Queen.

All My Stories

me without you

Last year, the major networks shuttered their daytime soap operas. No more stolen babies, no more evil twins, no more iconic love stories between women and the men who once — like, a really long time ago when a whole different writing staff was in charge — raped them (yep, look it up). Despite their problematic stereotyping, absurdly contorted storylines, and frequent displays of amateur acting, I miss those daily hour-long escapes to Pine Valley and Llanview, where the drama was completely predictable and utterly engrossing. Soaps predated reality TV in their associations with cheap, empty-calorie, lowbrow entertainment. But as reality TV fans can surely attest, there’s a fabulous frivolity to the daytime story, a deliciousness in the tawdry soft-core sex scenes bathed in enough diffuse light to power a Barbara Walters clone farm, and a comfort in the constantly rehashed, recycled storytelling. I began watching soap operas with my mom when I was a little girl. I knew even then that the torrid love affairs and dynastic greed were totally inappropriate for my age, but I looked forward to our afternoons curled up on the couch together, talking over the dialogue to guess which plot twist the heavy-handed foreshadowing pointed to next or to revel in the epic on-again off-again romances of Luke and Laura, Nico and Cecily, and Tad and Dixie.

The soaps and many of their principal actors followed Mom and I from Atlanta to Tampa after my parents’ divorce. During the school year, I’d be home by 3pm so Mom and I could watch General Hospital together. I remember coming home one day and rushing to the living room to catch the unfolding saga of Bobbie and Tony Jones’s daughter, BJ, who was in a tragic school bus accident and pronounced brain dead, but whose healthy heart could now be transplanted into the ailing body of her sister, Maxie. Mom and I wept as we watched Tony hovering over Maxie’s chest, listening to the heartbeat of his dead daughter in the body of his now healing daughter (seriously). The scene plucked at some unrealized ache in both of us, a glimpse into the void of a parent without a child, a child without a parent. Of one of us without the other.

But the soaps and I go back even further. As the story goes, when my mom was eight months pregnant with me, she was watching All My Children, following the machinations of the grand dame of daytime TV, Erica Kane. My mom pondered the persona of Erica Kane and decided that she wanted her daughter to be tough, to make her own way in life, and “to be a bit of a bitch.” With this spark of (perhaps misguided) feminist empowerment, Mom made Erica Kane my namesake. Though Erica Kane’s “bitch” never really took root in me (try as I might), it did articulate Mom’s grasp of what it meant to be a successful, independent woman. As evidenced by her nine marriages, men were both necessary and ancillary to Erica Kane’s success. They were footholds in the mountains she climbed, but it was her strength and ambition (and over-the-lipline lipstick application) that got her to the top. Mom had no designs on beauty industry domination; all she wanted was a patch of happiness, a home and a life that she could be proud of. But on some fundamental level, she could not conceive of attaining that without a man as her stepping-stone. Lipsticked, bejeweled, and manipulative as they were, women like Erica Kane did offer an image of female empowerment, a glamorous diversion that surely helped many a bored housewife survive the tedium of rote domestic chores, fostering daydreams of international espionage, big hair, and a smoldering passion for . . . anything.

Luckily, there were other, more fruitful moral tales to be learned from the daytime serial:

1. When someone dies but the body is not recovered, that person will be back with a new identity and a score to settle.

2. If a murder is committed as a result of self-defense, don’t lie about it. This will only lead to an agonizingly drawn-out blackmail plotline when your nemesis learns of your crime, only to be resolved when said nemesis dies in a) a motorcycle accident, b) a natural disaster, or c) a shootout on a bridge wherein a body is never recovered (see number 1).

3. Relationships are complicated. Especially when you’re drugged and taken advantage of and then lie about it to your significant other, to whom you vowed on your wedding day, dressed in a sarong in a Hawaiian cave, to never withhold secrets from.

4. Villains can always be reformed, but the good don’t go bad — they go bat-shit crazy.

5. As a general rule, there’s a 75 percent likelihood that you have a twin but don’t know about it and that said twin will appear one day really pissed that you got everything he/she didn’t, and then he/she will dump your ass in a well and assume your identity.

6. The truth will set you free, so stop trying to cover up your black-market baby.

Sadly, number 4 proved true for my mom, too. Bad guys were always evolving into good guys on the soaps (see above re: the rapists-turned-lovers plotline). For the writers spinning yarns for the same popular characters year after year, this seemed a natural progression. By complicating the villains, trading in their black hats for gray ones, the producers got more bang for their actor bucks. Sometimes popular good guys went bad, but only by way of losing their minds. Their goodness was constantly putting them in peril, and you can only be dropped down a well, suffer amnesia, or be thought dead so many times before losing your grip. Mom was undeniably one of the good ones who suffered too much for one lifetime. Perhaps retreating inward was the only way to go.

So silly and apparently unprofitable (despite scores of awkward product placements) though they were, I miss the soaps and the life lessons they taught me. I miss characters with names that should be reserved for pets or rock formations, like Lucky and Ridge and Jagger. I miss the strange familiarity of turning on the TV years after watching these shows and seeing the same people looking slightly older, like aunts and uncles who visit every few years. I miss the writers’ random forays into paranormal plotlines and demon exorcism. Mostly, I miss the passing of another relic of my innocence and the person I shared it with, the person who knew all my misadventures, indiscretions, and affairs. The one person who knew all my stories.

 

All Grown Up, Still Splitting Custody

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I'm in my late thirties and my parents have been divorced since I was 5 years old. Growing up I never wanted my parents to get back together because I knew they didn't get along well. They did a great job of never trash talking each other to us kids, but the awkwardness and unlove was palpable between them.

My problem is, the older I've gotten, the more I wish we were one, maybe crazy, but unified family.  I split the holidays, getting some time with each parent, but if I want to have a spontaneous BBQ, I have to choose between my parents because its just too uncomfortable for everyone to be together. Then, I feel guilt on top of this because I prefer my father's company over my mom's. We just relate better to each other.

I guess my question is, are there other grown ups yearning for an un-divorced family, and what is your advice on handling choosing sides?

Help!

Torn In Two

Dear Torn In Two,

We're all grieving the family we don't have.

I have a picture of my parents in my living room, which was taken before I was born, in which they look so happy that I've considered they might be high.  Their faces squished together, both grinning, beautiful, and shining with love.  The pictures I have of them in later years are stilted, posed, in which they look like strangers to one another.

Growing up, I always wished my parents would get a divorce, because their unhappiness together fell over our house like a pallor, making everything muted, even celebratory times.  But they stuck it out, for one reason or another, and as an adult I realized that you never really know what happens between two people, even if you are living in the same house with them.

My father died when I was in college, so I never got to see what it would be like to get together with them as adults.  I find myself jealous of the parents who have grandparents around all the time, and seeing the way that my child responds to older adults, I wish I could give that to her.

But there are trade-offs to everything.  I hear from my friends who have active grandparents that they are often quite stressful to have around.  Also, I think everyone has to navigate their parents' relationship, whether they stayed together, or not.

So, Torn In Two, I don't think you are alone on this.  I think we could all use some time to grieve the happy families we wish we could have, and find acceptance for the one we’ve got.

What I suggest for your dilemma of choosing which parent to spend time with is this: make a monthly date with your mom, and stick to it, no matter what, on your end.  If she's the one to drop the ball, just wait until the following month to see her.  Then, you can let your get-togethers with your dad be more spontaneous, and you won't feel bad, because you have your standing date with your mom.

As for the guilt you feel for preferring his company, you need to let that go, as I'm sure you can find real reasons your dad and you are closer.  Guilt is spiritual cancer.  Radiate that shit with love.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

April Showers and May Flowers

Growing up spring always meant a trip to the nursery or garden shop to pick out flowers for the raised beds in my parent’s backyard.  My little sister and I would wander through the rows, navigating bags of mulch or potting soil and make suggestions to my mom about what we thought looked nice. My suggestions were often refuted as I almost always failed to pay attention to the sun/shade requirements.  In the end we’d each pick out a couple of pansies or black eyed susans that we particularly liked and then it was back home to plant.

Even as a child I never enjoyed playing in the dirt.  When it came to digging holes and placing our flowers in the raised beds, I always wanted work gloves and a large trowel.  Heaven help us all if I dug up a worm.  Our pansies and mums always looked so small, almost lonely in the large beds- spread apart and dug in.  But of course as the summer went on, they bloomed and spread out in a colorful sea.

I guess that’s why whenever April and May roll around and the stores begin putting out displays of flowers for planting I get a tiny tingle and start to consider.  Maybe this year I’ll put a couple flower pots out on the deck.  Maybe I’ll grow some herbs. Maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow with the skill of Martha Stewart.  The truth is I have a black thumb.  I have exactly one plant in my house, a bamboo that requires little to no care and only an inch of water.  Even that I’ve had some close calls with.  So I’ll continue to leave the planting to my parents who have moved on from flower gardens to vegetable.  I’ll gratefully enjoy the salsa and fresh asparagus when I visit and I’ll admire the flower displays from afar.

Lessons from Monticello...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara, You won’t find a shortage of wisdom coming from our Founding Fathers.  After all, they broke with every tradition of their time to put together one of the greatest homes for the freedoms that we enjoy.  Is it perfect? Not always, but just because something is an ongoing work in progress, doesn’t it make it irrelevant.  It just makes it something you have to do your part to improve.

But I’ll leave the lessons on democracy for the history books.  When we visited Monticello last week, the home of Thomas Jefferson, I first bristled at the fact that one could see the house only as part of a guided tour.  But in the end it turned out to be so valuable because seeing his home while hearing about who he was as an individual person brought forth its own lessons:

  • Time spent in Paris is time well spent: Jefferson went as an Ambassador (well, as a “Minister”) and had some of his most formative ideas when in Paris — whether it was the structure of his house or his meals, he was inspired in so many ways.  Time in Paris isn’t always easy but it is nearly always formative in some way.
  • A home is a place of learning too:  The house at Monticello is full of books and portraits and ideas that Jefferson didn’t necessarily agree with but the presence of those items invited discussions and opportunities to teach, especially as the house was full of visitors and children.  Having these items wasn’t about endorsement but about discussion, and about teaching individual different ideas so that they could formulate their own.
  • “Meat is a condiment …to the vegetables that constitute my principal diet”: Good health comes from eating good vegetables.  You can eat meat or other indulgences, but when you count the balance of your day, make sure that vegetables and fruits constitute the bulk of what you consume.
  • We will always live at the mercy of water:  Many people find themselves at water’s mercy because they live too close.  Jefferson found himself at water’s mercy because he was too far from a natural source for his farm.  So there were years of drought and years of difficulty, and the farm always had concern about water front and center.  I say this, not because you will likely be a farmer (though one never knows), but more to remind you to mindful of the power and importance of water.  It should be respected, and also taken care of – one of life’s luxuries is constant access to clean and reliable water.  People's lives will always depend on it.
  • If you don’t invent it, adapt it: Thomas Jefferson wasn’t necessarily a noted inventor — but he was a master of taking things he saw used once and adapting for his own needs.  For example, Jefferson had tweaked the polygraph machine (the original copier) which was designed to enlarge or scale drawings, to produce copies of his letters, so that he always have one for himself.  It’s okay if you didn’t come up with the original idea, the real question is always how will you use what you have to make it your own?
  • “Avoid taverns, drinkers, smokers, and idlers and dissipated persons generally… and you will find your path more easy and tranquil.": Jefferson gave this advice to his nephew, as he pursued studies in Philadelphia and it couldn’t be more true today.  Avoid those who attract and promote trouble, especially as you figure out your own path.  The tranquility of mind you’ll gain, you’ll use as you navigate your own way.

All my love,

Mom

Anna Comnena: Byzantine Princess, Crusades Chronicler

historical woman

I first became acquainted with this historical woman of the day because she was one of the only sources for describing a bunch of historical men. Isn’t that the way the historical cookie always crumbles?

Anna Comnena (1080 – c. 1153) was a Byzantine princess, the daughter of Emperor Alexius Comnenus I, and an eyewitness chronicler of the First Crusade and some of its most prominent Crusaders. In fact, it was her dad that invited those European macho men out East in the first place. It goes like this:

A SUPER SHORT SUMMARY OF THE FIRST CRUSADE Seljuk Turks were expanding out of Central Asia and into what we now know as the Middle East. The Byzantine Empire (Greek Orthodox, concentrated in modern day Turkey, capital Constantinople) started getting nervous. Though loathe to request help from Western Christendom (you know, Europe), who were Catholic, and probably kind of a pain about it, Alexius Comnenus finally felt like he had no other options. “Come over here and help us out, guys,” he said to the Pope. “We’re all Christian brothers and stuff.”

Pope Urban II got excited, because as usual the Church was having a lot of problems in Europe, and having one big CAUSE tends to make problems disappear (or at least go temporarily invisible). So he made this big speech in 1095 and announced that everyone should go on Crusade to the Holy Land. Your soul would get saved, yada yada yada.

So Crusaders poured out of what is now France, and Germany, and England, and Italy, and walked/rode horses all the way to what is now Turkey, and some of them killed a lot of innocent people on the way in what were probably fits of zealotry and testosterone, and then the leaders got to Constantinople by 1097 and (mostly) pledged loyalty to Alexius. They had cool names like Godfrey and Baldwin and Bohemond. Anna provides descriptions of all of them in her chronicle.

But they really wanted to do other things besides just save the Byzantines. Like what was in it for them? So they poured into Syria and Palestine and set up Crusader castles and some of them stayed for like a hundred years or more (their progeny, of course. Though I do like to picture like the Indiana Jones guy sitting around in a fortress in the mountains crumbling to dust). Oh and they also killed more people.

The end. (Until the Second Crusade.)

---

Anyway. Anna provides the only Byzantine-eye view to this whole saga, in a chronicle she wrote of her father’s reign, the Alexiad. In this she reminds me of Dmitri Nabokov or Christopher Tolkien—forever in their father’s literary shadow, translating his old stuff, writing down reminiscences, safeguarding his estate. Celebrity fathers, ya know?

But Anna was more than just a woman who wrote about men that historians care about, though this is probably why her memory has been kept alive so long. She was also accomplished and educated, serving as a physician in a hospital her father had built for her, specializing in, apparently, gout.

She also had designs on the throne. At the age of fourteen she married Nicephorus of Bryennium, and as her father approached death, she conspired with her mother Irene to have her husband named the next emperor instead of her good-for-nothing brother John. However, she was outmaneuvered, and on his deathbed Alexius blessed John as his successor.

Later, she was busted for conspiracy to commit regicide or its twelfth-century Byzantine equivalent, and spent the rest of her life in a convent. This is where she hunkered down and wrote the Alexiad. Which ended up not being a bad use of her time.

So as a woman of the medieval Byzantine court, she was able to carve out an occupation, some expertise, a decent education (although she was forbidden from reading classical poetry because it was indecent), and even came thisclose to becoming Empress, courtesy her own ambition and wile. We don’t know a ton about her, but what we know is pretty impressive.

Though why do these stories always have to end in a convent?

Everything is Beautiful

I suppose I should start at the beginning. You want to hear the birth story, right? Whether I used drugs or did it au naturale? Was there water involved? A midwife or doctor? (Birth has become so politicized). Well, I’m not going to do that. You can imagine the details and I’ll just skip to the ending---I brought home a healthy baby boy on March 5th, one week before my toddler turned three. We named him Dash Oliver. No, we didn’t have any underlying reason. I gave my husband the parameters: one syllable, kind of vaguely preppy sounding? And he came up with Dash all on his own.

I should tell you that everything is so, so very different with this one. Everything I thought I knew before doesn’t matter. I should tell you that for the first time, it is easy. Perhaps even enjoyable? I wake up and his rounded baby cheeks greet me. He is a sweet bedfellow, all smiles and coos. I want to dress him in only white, pure and clean. I am reminded that you don’t need all the accouterments that are marketed to new moms. Just some diapers and a boob. Did I mention that I am breastfeeding this time around? Don’t worry, I won’t judge you if you didn’t, or can’t, or even don’t want to. I’ve been there. But this time, with this baby, I am breastfeeding, and co-sleeping too. It has been going well, mostly enjoyable, but mostly it just . . . is. People ask how the nursing is going, and I squint my eyes and tilt my head, “Well, I guess?” He’s eating and gaining weight and I am only slightly less exhausted than I was with bottles. I am reminded how children choose their own parenting philosophies. At the hospital, while I was trying to decide whether to breastfeed this time, the nurses kept mentioning how “he just loves the boob” and “this little guy decided he wanted to be breastfed!” I liked that. I liked that for once they didn’t make it about me, the mom. My first rarely snuggled and had a terrible latch from the beginning, and this one? Completely different in every way. Will it be like this the rest of their lives? This marveling at how genes could combine in such different varieties?

I want to grasp these early days and hold them tight. Every day he grows bigger and smiles more. My heart bursts. I tell my husband, “Did Charley smile this much? I don’t think he did.” He says he did. But I think perhaps it was the postpartum depression fogging my brain. I can’t remember any smiles because I wasn’t smiling. But this time, this time I have that new mother glow of happiness. I overflow with joy. There is none of that angry, resentful feeling I carried for so long with Charley and I am glad. Is this what those mothers at the library were feeling when I used to bring Charley after crying all morning? Those moms with the sappy grins on their faces that I just couldn’t understand. It’s as if the depression left a scar on my soul, deep and jagged, and Dash allows it to heal. Every day is better than the last. I’m not sure I will be able to say that forever. But every day is bittersweet as well since I know this will be my last. Who knows, I might just be the next controversial extended breastfeeding mom! Life is beautiful and so unexpected.

I am thrilled and honored to be writing in this space again all about motherhood and identity. Two kids is an adventure and the journey is life-altering.