Desperately Seeking Solidarity

Motherhood, Parenthood, Uncategorized

As performed live on December 11 at Christ Church of Oak Brook, IL, as part of the “Advent: Questions of Christmas” series. Inspired by Luke 1:39-45, aka the story of Mary visiting Elizabeth.

I had my first child when I was 25. I was not ready. Now, I know what some of you are thinking, “No one’s REALLY ready to have a baby.” Well, believe me when I tell you, I was REALLY not ready. Just earlier that year, I had accidentally brushed my teeth with the same toothbrush I used to clean the shower grout. 

So there I was at 25, thrust from my life as a fuzzy-brained 20-something to a fuzzy-brained mother. 

One thing I quickly learned as a first-time mom is that EVERYONE is invested in other people’s parenting choices. Everyone has a position on everything – parents, in-laws, grandparents, friends, strangers on the internet, strangers in the Target checkout line. In my case, the well-intended suggestions quickly produced the inverse effect. I fell head-first down the rabbit hole of self-doubt and fear, another victim of public opinion. “You’re doing it wrong, you’re doing it wrong” I would repeat to myself. I knew I was doing it wrong because “they” told me so. 

At 25, holding the little baby I was trying really hard not to break.

On a rather frigid day, the baby and I made the brave trek to the mall. As we maneuvered around the pretty handbags, I started to feel like myself again. “How old is she?” a saleswoman asked as she peered into the stroller. “Six weeks,” I replied proudly as I looked at her rosy little face.  

“You know, you’re not supposed to take the baby out into public before eight weeks,” she said, snidely. “She could get sick.” 

You’re doing it wrong, you’re doing it wrong. The chant of disapproval roared through my head as I escaped the counter and rushed to the women’s restroom. My daughter could always sense my sadness and she began to cry. I frantically nursed her, my own hot tears dropping down onto her soft little head. 

Moments later, another young mother clumsily pushed her stroller into the lounge and plopped down on the opposite bench. As she lifted her screaming baby out of the mound of blankets, our eyes met. We exchanged strained smiles. “This is like, the third time I’ve had to nurse him since I’ve been here,” she said. “Why don’t we get their metabolism?” 

I let out a cackle. The joke was pretty weak but to me in that moment, she might as well have been Steve Martin. 

“How old is your baby?” she asked. 

“She’s six weeks,” I replied, timidly. 

“Wow, six weeks?” she replied.

I braced for the condemnation that would never come. 

“That’s awesome. I bet she’s going to be super well-behaved when she’s older,” she said as she stuck a pacifier in her baby’s mouth and tucked him back into the stroller. “You’re doing a great job.” 

You’re doing a great job. You’re doing a great job. It repeated in my head over and over again, effectively muting the ugly naysaying that had invaded that space for weeks.

“Thank you,” I managed to call out as she backed out of the room. 

She didn’t hear me, but her words stayed in my head. They helped carry me through the coldest winter I can remember. 

That little baby of mine is now eight years old and I’ve since had another child. All my friends are just now starting to have children, making me the old veteran. Some days I feel the urge to dispense sage advice but the memory of that woman always gives me pause, reminding me of the power of a few simple words of encouragement. Of a gentle joke. And of a warm smile. 

As we reflect on the story of Mary and Elizabeth, two women carrying the load of unthinkable pressure and responsibility, may we recognize the impact of their humility as they shared in that experience so long ago. Empathy and solidarity really do have the power to change lives, whether in Judea 2,000 years ago, or eight years ago in a department store bathroom.

You can view the companion sermon, “Why Am I So Favored?” from the fabulous Tracey Bianchi here. 

A Wedding Toast to My Little Sister and Her Husband

Adulthood, Family, Marriage, Sisterhood

As presented at their wedding reception on May 20, 2016, in Wheaton, IL

So I’ve known Stephanie for a long time. We’re talking way back in the day. In fact, I remember the first time we met. Remember that, Steph? It was a hot summer day in New England, 1988. I was wearing this ill-fitting New Kids on the Block t-shirt and pink jelly sandals. And you were wearing a cotton onesie that, frankly, did nothing for your thighs. 


I had been excited for months and months over your arrival but man, you were just so emotional back then. You cried so easily. Mom called it “colic” but c’mon. It’s not colic when it lasts for 27 years. I’m just kidding! This is your wedding day — crying is natural. Tears of happiness, tears of joy, tears of debilitating terror as the weight of the day’s commitments begin to sink in.

Bottom line: marriage is a big deal. But John and you know that. I mean, how can you not? From the moment you became engaged, you’ve had a steady stream of advice from well-meaning friends and strangers about the “secrets” to matrimonial bliss. And really, few things are more gratifying to married people than dispensing unsolicited advice to unmarried people. We love it. It’s almost as fun as spending an entire Saturday together at the Tile Outlet picking out a new kitchen back splash. Almost.

Some advice you may have already heard:

“Talk less, listen more.”
“Don’t go to bed angry.”
“Always squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom of the tube.”
“Get an ironclad pre-nup.”

But seriously, between dating, marriage, parenthood, and everything in between, the effects of all this advice has to be taking its toll. We truly live in an advice-happy society. And though it comes from a place of love and concern, too much advice starts forming in your life these markers for success that only force you to compare your relationship against someone else’s standards.

Are you fighting correctly? Are you talking and listening to one another correctly? Are you going on enough date nights, saying I love you enough, holding hands enough? And if this person that you chose to marry just CANNOT figure out how to use a tube of Colgate correctly, is your marriage doomed forever?

I don’t know, guys. That’s up to you and you alone. Hopefully your attitude towards toothpaste is more fluid than that. But I’m not here to unpack all of that for you tonight. I don’t think you need me, a person who has been married for less than a decade, to give you any more advice than I already have.

Because when I look at you guys, all I see is mutual love and respect. All that lovey dovey stuff from 1 Corinthians – patience, kindness, humility, honesty, faithfulness – you have that in spades. You don’t have to be having the “correct” amount of date nights to enjoy these things. It’s here in your heart, and in your mind, and in all the people here tonight that get the privilege of being part of your life together.

Tonight, you’re going to feel overwhelmed by all these people who came here to celebrate you. The drinks, the music, the photos, all of the lovely details are going to soak right into you and you won’t believe the joy you feel over all these tangible things that have come together so perfectly. But when you take the time to really marvel at the precise timing of when you two first came together – well, that’s the real miracle. John, you came into Stephanie’s life when she really needed you – when we all needed you. Life was tricky and confusing there for a while. But that’s because our puzzle wasn’t complete. It wasn’t complete until we had our Johno piece.

You guys each found “your person.” Now just take care of your person in the ways that work best for the two of you. That’s the only advice I have for you.

Love to you both, tonight, tomorrow, and for the rest of your life together.

Cheers.

 

Fear and Loathing in Parenthood

Adulthood, Childbirth, Mother's Day, Motherhood, Parenthood, Uncategorized, Working Mom

Once, during a meeting at work, my manager was assessing potential cross-training opportunities across the team. Did we all know how to process purchase orders? Fill out a creative brief? Change the toner in the printer? “After all,” he said. “One of us could get hit by a bus tomorrow.” The team nodded in agreement. “Right,” I chimed in. “I mean, have you seen the way these bus drivers push their way through traffic and run all the yellow lights? Sooner or later someone is going to get smashed.” The rest of the team just blinked at me. Perhaps it had never occurred to them that death is imminent. Perhaps they never really considered their mortality. But the truth was that my boss was right. By dusk, half of us could have been swept up into the heavens by The Rapture and then what? That toner was not going to change itself. 

I’ve always had a slightly heightened awareness of potential disaster compared to my peers. Fear of severe weather, knife wielding cat burglars, and clowns crept into my psyche at night. (Their smiles are painted on, I once explained to my parents. PAINTED ON.) But the fears of my youth could not match what I experienced once I became a mother. Not coincidentally, those blinking co-workers were nearly all childfree and therefore ready to seize any chance to ski down a mountain, dive out of a plane, or ride an evil rickshaw of doom (i.e., rollercoaster). I used to love riding rollercoasters. I used to enjoy the feeling of taking off and landing in a 757. I used to ride the elevator without reading the legally-required maintenance report posted above the buttons. But that was back when I didn’t have two little children at home. Things are different now. I thought about this seismic shift as I considered about what I should write about for Mother’s Day. I thought about all the ways that parenthood has changed me. What struck me initially were the typical parenting themes we always talk about – joy, exhaustion, pride, self-doubt. But what about real fear? This anxiety I’m talking about is the kind that makes you keenly aware of every bump of turbulence, every rattle of the elevator walls, and generates all those extra seconds of added hesitation before you pull into an intersection. It’s the fear of death. Of your own death, your partner’s death, or, God forbid, the death of your children. I don’t know if this is all just my own issues or if the fear comes standard for everyone who has ever had a baby. What I do know is that we don’t talk about it very much. And I feel it every day, when I’m kissing my kids goodbye in the morning or when I’m reading about a tragedy in the news at night.

 When it comes down to it, what really scares me is that no matter how much I try to make smart choices on behalf of my children and try to control their environment, I know that absolute control is an illusion. I can’t control physics. I can’t control whether a gunman enters the movie theater or if a trucker falls asleep at the wheel as he barrels down the interstate. I can’t control the weather and I can’t control homicidal cat burglars in the middle of the night.

 The only thing I can control is how many times I say “I love you” to my kids when we’re together. I can control the amount of patience I exhibit after a stressful work day and a disastrous attempt at a bedtime routine. I can control the example that I set for them in my marriage and in the way I interact with strangers on the street. I can control the way I talk about my faith, dreams, and values — and how I pass those things down to them.

 Because yes, I could get hit by a bus tomorrow and then the only thing that will matter will be the type of person I was today.

 And that’s what scares me the most.

Squats, Bends, and Pretzels: A Field Guide to Swimsuit Shopping

Adulthood, Body Acceptance, Coming of Age, Motherhood, Self-Help, Self-Image, Uncategorized

Swimsuit season is upon us. It is like Christmas for wellness-based pyramid schemes and women’s publications who ponder year after year: “What Lycra monstrosity should you deign to wear on your flawed, Rubenesque body?” I have been hyper-cognizant of swimsuit season ever since I was an adolescent coming of age in South Florida, where every day is summer and you are always minutes away from an awkward pool party thrown by some classmate named Tommy who wears too much Ck One and thinks your thighs are offensive. In those days, I wore decorative one-piece suits hand-selected by my mother. Among my favorite looks are:

  • A nautical-themed navy blue suit with Looney Tunes characters climbing an anchor up to my burgeoning bosom. Tweety smiled excitedly as if to say, “Look, she’ll be a woman soon!”
  • A red and white striped Speedo suit designed precisely to emphasize how un-athletic my build was. While swimmers have broad muscular shoulders and narrow torsos to cut through the water, my curvy body bobbed like a buoy in a rip tide as I doggy paddled across the shallow end.  
  • A neon green suit. Neon. It was neon. Look at this photo of starlet Esther Williams and then imagine the opposite of that, which is me in a neon green suit at any age. 

                      
 Yes, I’ve long since shed any illusions around swimsuit season and the body politics of summer. Over the last 20 years of agonizing swimwear selection, I’ve sported one pieces, two pieces, halter tops, board shorts, and everything in between – including maternity swimwear. And it doesn’t really matter how empowered you are, going through the trial and error process of buying the perfect swimsuit is maddening and can severely erode your sense of self faster than you can say “Why am I shopping for swimsuits at Burlington Coat Factory?”

 And so, with that, I have sketched out a comprehensive field guide to selecting a new swimsuit this season.

 STEP ONE: Get forced into shopping for a swimsuit by some impending event. You will put this off until about 48-72 hours before said event, adding extra stress to the experience. Oh, you’re going to wedding? A wedding in Florida where you will be renting an Airbnb on the beach? An Airbnb that is being shared with some old high school friends who think you’re 20 pounds skinnier based on some savvy Instagram filtering? Great. Get excited.STEP TWO: Maybe you have two kids and you have to take them with you on this excursion because you didn’t properly plan. Perfect! This is an opportunity to teach your 7-year-old daughter about body acceptance – which is to say, accepting that she and her brother destroyed your stomach. LOOK AT THIS WEIRD SKIN POUCH, you’ll say to them under the unforgiving lights of the fitting room. YOU GUYS DID THIS TO ME. Feel guilty for misplacing this rage, you proceed to buy them soft pretzels. Okay, you bought one for yourself too. At this point, what difference does it make? All hope for a Sofia Vergara sexy summer is gone. Briefly consider a swim skirt. Realize you’ve been sitting in the food court, staring angrily into space for 15 minutes now.STEP THREE: Enter store that only sells swimsuits. The people who work at this store are swimsuit experts and are ready to match you with the right pieces. You know how fun it is to go to a department store where little old ladies fit you for a bra and tell you how “sturdy” you are while leading you to the full coverage section? This will be super fun, just like that. But, instead of using a tape measure, they will use a system of fruit shapes to determine your best fit. Are you a pear like your Aunt Kathy? An apple like Danny DeVito? A shapeless banana like that shell-of-a-person Sarah who laughed at your Looney Tunes suit at Tommy’s pool party? She’ll be at the wedding too. Your jaw sets with determination. It is decided that you are an hourglass (not a fruit, this is a terribly flawed system) — and not in the Rita Hayworth way. Hourglass in the way that your boobs and hips are just incredibly large and your waist just hasn’t had the opportunity to catch up. The clerk hands you some suits with way more strategic ruching than Rita ever needed. Your stretched out gut tells you that The One is in this pile. It’s all happening. STEP FOUR: First one goes on. It has a bunch of shimmery, textured details. You appreciate the diva factor, but your “hourglass” torso looks like a Koosh Ball dipped in glitter. Next one goes on. It is a strapless suit that comes with convertible straps. You begin the initial squat and bend test. First observation: strapless suits are like an open cup handed to a toddler. One wrong move and it all spills out and the day is ruined. Second observation: squatting and bending in front of a mirror while wearing an ill-fitting suit is the ultimate expression of self-loathing. Also, squatting and bending is only the beginning of the practical swimsuit wearing experience. What if you are going to a water park and your kid wants you to go on the lazy river? It’s all fun and games until you’ve placed her on the inner tube and then you have to get up on the tube yourself and the damn thing keeps slipping out from under your butt, you snort in a bunch of chlorinated water, and bark and flail like an injured sea lion trying to get up on a rock while your child floats away in horror. Very hard to test that in a fitting room.Okay, final one goes on. It is a smoking hot black number, perfectly hugging your curves. Now, twenty years later, you finally look like Esther Williams. You look at the price tag – $150. You bristle because you know you will pay. You will take out a second mortgage to pay for the world’s most expensive swimsuit if it means being done with this process, if it means looking fine for the full 15 minutes you’ll spend at the beach during this wedding trip, if it means going another 12 – 18 months without having to squat in front of a mirror again.

 “Wow, Mommy, you look beautiful,” your angel child will say to you. She is sweet, but she also wants an ice cream cone from the place next door. As you pay for your suit, you think about how she can eat soft pretzels and ice cream without a second thought about how it might impact her body or her clothes. In fact, she already has her swimsuit selected.

A neon one-piece.

Early Dismissal

Mother's Day, Motherhood, Uncategorized, Working Mom

As performed live by Rachel Pokay at Listen to Your Mother in Chicago on May 1, 2016. And yes, this really happened. 

On a particularly hectic Thursday afternoon at my marketing job, I sat in my ergonomic swivel chair, barking corporate jargon into a phone headset so hot from overuse that my left ear was actually burning. I was leading a project so convoluted and mind-numbing that I was having nightmares about it almost every night. The call ended with me committing to an impossible deadline, as usual, and I began to prep myself for another long evening.

As I stretched my arms and guzzled the last of my extra-large coffee, I could hear my phone buzzing in my purse. It had been going off repeatedly for the last 30 minutes, but up to this point, I had successfully ignored it.  But, like a hungry baby, my iPhone would not be ignored. It buzzed so persistently that I was finally forced to acknowledge it. Then, I saw the notification that no parent wants to see – three missed calls from my daughter’s school.

Dozens of very rational scenarios raced through my head: Scarlett fever! No, Jihadi insurgents! No, a freak winter snow tornado! As I flipped through my mental rolodex of neurosis, the phone rang again. I picked it up on the first ring and yelled into the receiver: “THIS IS RACHEL, IS THIS EVA’S SCHOOL?”  I am not cool in a crisis.  “Hi, this is Eva’s school. Today was early dismissal and no one was there to get her at the bus stop. She is here in the office waiting to be picked up. But don’t worry, everything’s okay.”

“LIAR!” I wanted to scream. Everything was NOT okay. While I was busy committing to work I couldn’t deliver on, my little 7-year-old daughter was sitting alone on an office bench, wondering why everyone forgot about her. I was failing, like those stone cold working mom caricatures on TV. You know the ones – running around Manhattan in kitten heels, wheeling and dealing while Little Timmy sings a sad solo at the Christmas pageant.  

And then, something happened. I started to cry. And I don’t mean soft, delicate tears. I’m talking ugly, snot-nosed, donkey-in-a-steel-trap sobs. It came on embarrassingly strong, without warning. A male colleague peered curiously at me as he casually strolled by, wearing a Bluetooth earpiece and holding a cup of microwavable ramen. “GET BENT!” I wanted to yell at his dumb face and his dumb soup. His delicious, warm, savory soup. Dammit, not only had I forgotten my daughter, I had forgotten to eat lunch.  The sobs deepened.

Ramen

And then, another thing happened. I peed myself. Not only had I forgotten my daughter and my lunch break, I had also forgotten to go to the bathroom all day. And, after two babies, one episiotomy, and zero Kegel exercises, my entire pelvic region is basically a big, broken water balloon. I was crying so hard I was peeing, and as a result I found myself standing in the middle of an office I had worked so hard for, soaked in urine, wet mascara, and crippling guilt.

water balloon

For a moment, I considered whether Sheryl Sandberg’s kids were ever deserted at the bus stop. Of course not. Sheryl Sandberg’s kids don’t even take public transportation! They travel by way of Google-powered space unicorns or something. Eventually I composed myself, arranged for my husband to pick her up, and I headed home. As I sat in traffic, ready for a glass of wine and a change of clothes, my mind was flooded with every think piece about working moms that had ever been written:

“They’re only young once, you can pick up your career later.”

And

“Don’t take your foot off the gas! If you take a break from work, you’ll never get that momentum back.”

And

“Don’t cry in the office, it makes you look emotionally volatile.”

And

“Don’t pee on yourself in public.”

But most of all, I thought about my daughter. I envisioned her crestfallen face as she pulled up to the corner and saw nobody there. Was it just a harmless mistake? Or something worse that I won’t realize until she’s 25 and in therapy?

As I pulled into the driveway, I saw her silhouette dancing around in the living room. As I came through the front door, she smothered me with hugs. I crouched down and said “I’m so sorry I wasn’t there for you this afternoon.” Our eyes locked and I searched for signs of repressed trauma and resentment. Instead, they brightened as she wrapped her arms around my neck.

“That’s okay, Mommy. You’re here now.”

In my bag, I heard my work phone buzzing. But this time, I happily ignored its call. Everything I needed to know at that moment had already been said.  

Eva Rachel dismissal

Recalibration

Family, Mornings, Motherhood, Parenthood, Working Mom

After the relentless five-day grind of the work week, I fall into my Saturdays like a warm down comforter. It exists as this glorious standalone entity – the laborious days before it seems to dissolve into oblivion and I pay no mind to Sunday. For Sunday is the day before Monday, and therefore is the most foreboding of all the days. And so, Saturdays are sacred.

For some people, Saturdays are about laughs with friends, concerts, rock climbing, and water sports — at least that’s what I’ve gathered from every beer commercial I’ve ever seen. And then there are others who spend Saturday eating things off toothpicks at Costco or pulling weeds from the cracks in the driveways of their starter homes. But for me, Saturday falls somewhere between jet skis and Costco meatballs. It’s about slowing down, clearing the to-do list, and recalibrating my lens.

All week, I am rushing, rushing, rushing – to work, to rehearsal, to an endless barrage of red lights and road construction during rush hour. And as I rush around, my children slowly become myopic figures in a picture of cluttered obligations. On Saturday, when my kids storm my bedroom at sunrise, I rub the sleep from my eyes and watch their faces sharpen while the rest of the world blurs in their wake. There are no conference calls or deadlines to steal my attention on Saturday.

On those Saturdays in which I’m feeling particularly fresh and maternal, I’ll commit to taking the kids to the park. “Who wants to go to the playground?” I exclaimed in my SUV one such Saturday, watching the kids’ faces light up in the rearview mirror. The words escaped my lips before I considered warmer alternatives like, “Who wants to lie on the couch and watch Mind of a Chef all afternoon?” It was February in Chicago, so the ground was frozen solid and the wind had a substantial bite to it. Of course, to children, this is of no consequence; their warm blood makes them tiny little space heaters that can play tag in below-freezing temperatures for a very long time before suddenly realizing that Midwestern winters actually suck.

We parked at the playground and I was very happy to see the place empty. It’s not that I’m anti-social, it’s just that while I’m recalibrating my life lens, I don’t want to have to passive aggressively correct someone else’s kid when they try climbing up the slide while my kid is sliding down. Like, don’t be a snot-nosed tyrant when I’m trying to harness my chi, you know? So there we were in this empty park, the sky a bright, saturated blue, the trees bare and cold-looking, my two in-focus children giggling on the swing set as I took snapped photos.

This is what being a parent is all about, I thought to myself. A whimsical weekend with the kids, making it count. This was work-life balance and I was nailing it.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a car pull into the parking lot. Shit, I thought. Other people. Now I can’t take a “Having fun with the kids!” selfie without looking like an idiot. It was a minivan with a variety of school bumper stickers adorning its rear window. Surely it would be packed to the gills with kids, cold and flu strains, and a couple of dogs. Instead, only a woman in her 30s slid out. She had the Suburban Mom aesthetic down – brassy blonde hair with smidge of dark roots grown in. Her skinny jeans were tucked into UGGs and she held a Starbucks cup identical to the one in my hand. She grabbed her coat from the backseat, which I saw filled with empty booster seats. I waited for the dogs – maybe she was taking them for a walk on the nature trail – but she slid the door shut and walked over to a nearby bench alone.

“Push me, Mommy!” my daughter yelled from her swing. I kept the woman in the corner of my eye as I gave the kids another push. Who voluntarily sits in nature if they don’t have their kids or dogs along to frolic in the winter air, I thought. That’s not whimsical. That’s just weird. Then, I watched her pull out a pack of cigarettes and smack them into her palm. She drew out one, placed it between her lips, and lit it with a match. Entranced, I watched her inhale deeply, close her eyes, and blow the smoke into the same golden sunlight that was blanketing our day of family fun.

Here we were, two women sitting 50 feet from one another in the quiet epicenter of the suburban sprawl. On the surface, we appeared to be doing two completely opposite things. But, as I sat there watching her smoke that cigarette with the same determined focus as that of an artist painting her masterpiece, it occurred to me that we were doing the same thing.

Recalibrating.

While my grueling work week tried its damnedest to relegate my family to fuzzy background of my mind’s eye, perhaps her days of car lines, dinner prep, and field trips had done the same – but in her case, maybe it was she who had become a blur. And isn’t that the perpetual cycle of parenthood? A tricky balance between the needs of self and the needs of everything (and everyone) else? Most days it’s a constant exercise in zooming in and zooming out, and every once in a while – if only for 15 minutes – it all lines up.  Sometimes it takes a Saturday trip to the park, and sometimes it takes a secret pack of Marlboros.  In the end, though, we’re all just trying to make it work.

As my swing-pushing hands grew cold and the kids’ teeth began to chatter, we began the slow trudge back to the car. Their whiny protests echoed off the trees as I buckled them into their car seats, and I felt my shoulders tense in anticipation of the cranky drive ahead. As I walked back around to the driver side, I exchanged passing glances with the woman before she got into her van. We drove off in opposite directions, headed to the same place.

saturday morning.jpg

 

If Woody Allen Starred in Twister

Childhood, Family, Weather

“If you don’t get on that microphone and tell everyone that a tornado is coming, there could be catastrophic consequences,” I shrieked to the receptionist at my office, one dark and stormy weekday afternoon. “No one’s told me to make any announcements,” she replied, flipping through a magazine.“I AM. I am telling you that this is serious!” My voice shook with fear as the clouds outside turned black and began to climb higher into the atmosphere. My eyes darted west to east across the huge skyscraper windows. That’s the direction the storm is moving, I thought to myself. Which corner of the building should I shuttle associates to in order to save them from a gory death of shattered debris? No storm alarms were going off outside, but I knew crisis was imminent.

“Rachel, you’re hysterical!” laughed one of my co-workers. I stared at her with wild eyes – hysterical with fear, yes. Hysterical, as in funny because I was a nervous wreck, was probably what she meant. Either way, I did not appreciate her observation and left her to be swept up into the ravaging winds that would certainly come. The storm began to rage, flashes of lightening and torrential rain wrapped our 40-floor building. Men from the engineering department stood at the window, pressing their foreheads against the glass. They looked down at the flash flooding below, showing very little respect for the force of nature that was surely going to kill us all.

“You guys are not God!” I squeaked, forcing a laugh so they wouldn’t think I was a total freak on the off-chance that we didn’t die and had to come to work the next day. “Maybe we should move away from the windows.” One of the guys asked me what my deal was. My deal? My deal?! My DEAL was that we were under a tornado warning in a tall building, and the only way I could keep from vomiting or peeing my pants was to pace the floor and spit dramatic one-liners to everyone in my wake. Like in the movie Twister, but with Woody Allen instead of Helen Hunt. That’s what it’s like to ride out severe weather with me. 

 

It all started when I was six years old. My family moved down to Alabama from New Hampshire over Christmas break in the middle of kindergarten, a month after the tornado of 1989 wreaked havoc through our new home, Madison County. To acquaint me with our new community, my parents took me and my baby sister on a scenic drive. Nice idea, right? NO, not when houses on that route had been reduced to rubble, and all of the pretty trees on the hillside were flattened like toothpicks. I stared out my window, mouth agape, dazzled and horrified by the impact of this new “tornado” thing I was learning about. “Do you think a tornado will ever come back?” I asked my mom. I don’t remember what she said, but knowing my mom, it was something along the lines of “Probably.”

Fast forward a couple months to kindergarten naptime. I don’t think kindergartners have naptime anymore, but I remember loving those plastic mats that smelled like Clorox and lemon juice. This was in 1990, when many teachers in the south still paused before and after lunch for “prayer or quiet reflection.” As thunder rumbled in the distance, I said a little prayer as I dropped down onto that smelly mat and tried to close my eyes. It had been a particularly trying day. In my opinion, we had spent way too much time working through the “th” sound – like, try to keep up, you guys – so I was eager to get some sleep. 

Just as I dozed off to the sounds of a Peter, Paul, and Mary record, a loud POP sound hit the window above my head. I shot up and looked outside – it was dark as night and a rock had been picked up by the wind and cracked the class. “TORNADO!” I yelled, panicking. All the kids around me who had spent 1% of the mental energy I had on severe weather looked at me very confused.

Our teacher urged us to remain calm. “What’s that sound?” cried one of the little girls near me. It’s a tornado, and it’s going to make this building flat, I wanted to say. But I was too petrified with fear to speak. Sure enough, a voice over the loud speaker instructed us to line up and proceed to the hallway. As we all crouched down on the floor with our hands cradling our heads, I began to sob uncontrollably. “Mommy! Mommy! I want my MOOOOOMMMMMMY,” I yelled. My teacher, probably regretting her decision to take in the neurotic Yankee kid, handed me a wad of toilet paper to wipe my nose. My terror then set off a chain reaction of crying kids.

“What’s going to happen?” the boy next to me asked to no one in particular. I raised my elbow and peered over at him and said, “The tornado is going to make this building flat.” It felt good to finally say it aloud, as if welcoming the concept of death like a little H.P. Lovecraft. We then cried together as the miserable scene continued to play out. I called out for my mom again and again. “Your mommies and daddies are not coming right now,” said my teacher, who, looking back on it now, was kind of an asshole.

Well, little did I know that my mom, also new to tornado etiquette, LEFT our apartment and drove to the school to get me while the sirens blared outside. Like a slow motion airport love scene in an 80s movie, she walked down the dark hallway, covered in mud, while the theme from St. Elmo’s Fire played over the speakers. At that point, I’m sure my teacher just wished we’d move back to New England. Incidentally, ever since then, I have expected my mom to come save me during every severe storm. It’s not really her thing 25 years later, but I still text and call her in unbridled panic every time there’s a warning. It’s probably pretty grating at this point.

Close calls happened over and over again during our 6 years in Alabama. Most notably was the time my mom was picked my sister and me up from school, driving directly into a wall cloud. “It’s just rain,” my mom said, ignoring all the years of meteorological training I had given her as the Weather Channel’s number one fan. No, no, it was not RAIN. It was the beginnings of a funnel cloud spiraling above our heads as we dashed from my mom’s sedan to a small roadside church for protection. I ran behind her with my black flute case above my head to deflect the hail. Yes, a concert flute was my only defense against Mother Nature’s fury, quite possibly the nerdiest way to die. Imagine me in pinstripe overalls, screaming in terror above the howling wind with a flute above my head, and understand my childhood.

Today, I suffer from what fear experts call lilapsophobia. Some might suggest that I am co-opting a real disorder, but I assure you this is not true. I literally go to the bathroom every three minutes during severe storm warnings, just like your old stinky dog who is afraid of thunder.

And what happened after my office meltdown? A tornado actually did touch down a few miles away. It was strong enough to knock down some trees, put out power, and flood local streets for two days. So who was the crazy one? Well, still me, probably. But one day a tornado is going to make your house flat and I’ll be safe and dry in an underground bunker, rocking around in fetal position, listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary.

The Myth of Finding Yourself

Adulthood, Coming of Age, Party Animal

I was always a somewhat practical young woman. When the movie Hostel came out in 2005, my first reaction to the plotline of two college students backpacking through Europe and then being tortured and killed by a maniac at a transient lodge was not “Despicable! Torture porn!” It was “How entitled do you have to be to take all that time off to wander around another continent? Don’t they have loans to pay and a projected graduation date to work towards?” Backpacking anywhere was such a foreign concept to me, considering I overzealously graduated from college a semester early and jumped into the glamorous world of The Corporate Desk Job. I got a serious boyfriend right away too. We fell in love, got married and popped out my first child by 25. Four years after that, I had purchased my first house, popped out my second kid, and curated this suburban working mom identity for myself. I was hitting milestones like a detonation cord – BOOM BOOM BOOM.

pregnant

Sometime between the first and second kid, though, I began to harbor feelings of regret in having missed out on my own magical hostel story. In my version, of course, I would trade the mutilated toe plotline for, say, a photo op of me learning how to pour the perfect Guinness in Dublin, but basically the same thing. I had missed out on finding myself, I fretted. That’s what your 20s are for, everyone says. Your 20s are for making mistakes! For falling in and out of love! For jumping from job to job like that’s not a total red flag to recruiters! Well, Practical Rachel knows well enough that making mistakes leads to a paper trail, and paper trails lead to unemployment, and unemployment leads to foreclosure. How was I to find myself if I was too busy begging the Wells Fargo call center for a mortgage payment extension? It was an existential crisis.

I mean, I had eaten, prayed, and loved, but not all at the same time because who has time to for that? Maybe Julia Roberts in her Anthropologie cardigan, eating and praying and loving her way through Indonesia. I ate and prayed at the Target food court during my son’s soft pretzel-related meltdown. I loved, but only on anniversary and birthday nights after a bottle of Prosecco and before our daughter sleep walks her way into our bedroom. But doing all three at once? This was the luxury of single people who go to things like Bonnaroo and foreign film festivals. I began to have emotional, self-doubting reactions to vapid Elite Daily articles featuring pictures of blonde 22-year-old girls dancing in the rain, presumably listening to Passion Pit while discovering their calling to fashion merchandising. Talk about an identity paradox! Me, a confident Alpha Female, feeling excluded by a website that describes itself as (verbatim, I must note): “The Voice Of Generation-Y; news from your world delivered the way you want to hear it.”

Gross. Just typing that out gave me vertigo. You couldn’t be more stereotypically Millennial if you stuck Lena Dunham in an American Apparel pop-up in the middle of Coachella.

Then, one rainy Saturday morning, I sat on my couch at dawn, eating a bowl of Kix as my kids watched Cartoon Network (we do these things unironically in my house). “I should sign up for Second City classes,” I thought. I had been talking about joining the Second City writing program for nearly 10 years. Why I didn’t go chase that dream when I was childfree, I have no idea. Maybe if I had watched Hostel through another lens – “Look at those young people! Their arms are being severed by a rusty handsaw, but at least they died a slow and painful death knowing who they truly were inside!” – then maybe I would have signed up earlier.

This was it, I thought. I would finally find myself, and myself would be Amy Poehler. Or Bonnie Hunt. The heads of Second City would call me to their offices and say, “We don’t normally do this, but we see in you what we saw in Tina Fey. We’re going to fast-track you to Saturday Night Live and you’re going to bring your feminine mystique to the Weekend Update desk.” Yes, this is an actual conversation that happened in my head after I pushed “MAKE PAYMENT” button on Second City student registration site.

And now, a year later, I have found something. I found that I am not Tina Fey. I’m not Amy or Bonnie. I am Rachel. I am the same Rachel I was when I was 22, when I was 15, when I was 5. And as I started to write sketches in my classes, drawing from my varied life experiences, it dawned on me that the whole time I was worrying about finding myself, I was living out the experiences that made me who I was supposed to be all along. How could I have written a sketch about two c-suite executives on a date who can only talk dirty in corporate jargon if I never worked for The Man? How could I have written a sketch about sanctimonious cavewomen shaming one another for working in and out of the cave home if I never became a mom?

How could I have written this thought-provoking essay on how a bloody horror film framed up my life’s philosophy if I hadn’t spent 10 years of my life toiling over this crap?

I think this whole modern concept of finding yourself is a myth crafted by people trying to sell you overpriced tickets to three-day music festivals. You were already “you” even if you didn’t celebrate Oktoberfest in Germany, or if you haven’t had an absinthe-fueled one-night stand with a sexy snowman at SantaCon, or if you haven’t danced around in a culturally-appropriated tribal headpiece at an electronica festival. You’re still you if you’re perpetually swiping left on Tinder, or if you’re one half of a boring couple who is eating delivery pizza during a “Big Bang Theory” marathon instead of dry humping strangers at a nightclub. In all of these scenarios, you should be doing these things because you want to, not because you think it all feeds into some grandiose concept of being a 20- or 30-something as illustrated by a series of animated GIFs in a Buzzfeed list.

girls gif

Because, dear Millennials, when our parents held us in their laps back when we were just drooling piles of baby fat rolls, and looked deep into our round little eyes and told us that we were special snowflakes, they didn’t mean “But only if you travel to Ibiza as a house DJ, then build a multi-million dollar lifestyle brand, then buy a brownstone in Brooklyn or else you will have failed.” They really just meant you were special because there’s only one of you and they were glad you came along. That same pile of baby fat rolls is who you are today, just (hopefully) a bit more evolved. Stop chasing some romanticized identity of what you “should” be and seize the authentic moments you’re living right now, cool kid-approved or not.

Whether you want to accept it or not, the real you has been calling the shots all along. Own it and embrace it.

Razor Burn is the New Pilates

Mornings, Self-Help, Working Mom

Routine-01

At the turn of the 21st century, Stephen R. Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was the self-help go-to for middle class dreamers on the brink of greatness. Be proactive. Begin with the end in mind. Put first things first. There are four more habits, but I’m a Millennial, so I don’t have the tenacity to get through all seven for you right now. (Actually, Mr. Covey later tagged on a staggering eighth habit, God love him.) And though 7 Habits maintains its status in the American self-help lexicon, the Age of Oversharing has transitioned the motivation business from paper pages to the sumptuous feeds of Pinterest and Instagram. Hence the birth of today’s topic: The Morning Routine.

The glamorous love child of Stephen R. Covey and Gwyneth Paltrow, the morning routine is one of the most popular features in women’s publications right now, alongside “How To Be Skinny Like The French” (steady diet of cigarettes) and “Which Doe-Eyed Caucasian Actress is Our New BFF?” (hint: she’s probably tripping on a red carpet somewhere). It is designed to show young professionals how establishing an optimal weekday morning regimen can lead to sexy jobs in tech PR or museum curation. There are whole websites devoted to it. If you scroll through any number of morning routine profiles, you’ll see a number of common themes emerge: sunrise Pilates, overnight oats, artisanal coffee, and lots of time answering important emails on mobile devices while en route to New York Fashion Week.

Themes that I noted as demonstrably absent: children, plumbing emergencies, traffic jams.

Which is why I present to you, young urban professionals: My Morning Routine.

I start my day hitting the snooze button on my annoying Tibetan peace chime phone alarm approximately six times over the course of an hour. Maybe monks find those twinkling bells to be peaceful, but I find them nagging at best. I doze off and then jerk awake every single snooze session, each time thinking for a moment that it’s Friday, but sadly this is only the case 1/5 of the time. On the seventh snooze alert, I force myself up from the puddle of drool and the mound of legs and arms infringing on my personal space. My daughter prefers sleeping in our bed, where she magically expands her dimensions to ten times greater than in her waking hours. It’s truly remarkable. Ever slept with a child’s foot resting on your cheek? It’s almost like the foot is ergonomically designed to be affixed to a face. I’m usually too tired to move it, so that’s how I sleep now.

I slink past my desk, upon which workout clothes are laid out with the intention of being utilized for a morning jog, but instead will silently mock me as my ankle joints crack their way down the upstairs hallway. “I’ll workout tomorrow morning,” I lie to myself. I’m usually pretty self-aware but as far as fitness goes, I’m in total denial. As if putting a FitBit and an overpriced sports bottle in my Amazon cart is an act of wellness.

As I pass my one-year-old’s room, my arthritic gait slows to a tiptoe, so as to avoid waking him prematurely. This attempt fails every morning because all houses have an obnoxiously creaky floorboard installed directly in front of every room where a temperamental baby sleeps. “MAAAAAAA,” I hear him yell as he throws a rubber dinosaur against the door. I pretend not to hear and lock myself bathroom so my husband has to get up and go change the first shitty diaper of the day. Full disclosure: I’m an awful wife and mother during this morning routine.

I shower, shaving my legs clumsily like a zombie wielding its own severed hand. I don’t know about you guys, but shaving is really hit-or-miss for me. Some days, my legs will turn out all smooth like an Aveeno commercial, and satin curtains will swirl around me as I step out of the shower. Other days, it’ll be exactly like scraping a gravel pit with a rusty rake engulfed in flames. When my legs look like I waded through a briar patch, I’ll typically have a dress laid out. I’ll slather some Victoria’s Secret lotion on my legs, like adding perfume to the razor burn is going to make me look like Miranda Kerr, not like a person who just rolled around in a fire ant mound.

I throw on some makeup and blow dry my hair in a still-humid bathroom, which is a surefire way to make yourself looking like Tammy Faye Bakker in a rainstorm. The damn bathroom exhaust fan has one job to do and fails every time. Sure, I could open the door and let the humidity out, but then my kids would come into the bathroom, and then I wouldn’t be the awful mom selfishly hiding from her family.

I always plan to leave the house around 7:30 but it always turns into 8:30. I have no idea what I do with that extra hour — probably digging through laundry baskets of wrinkled clothes to find an outfit my daughter can wear to Hawaiian Day at school. How did I miss that it was Hawaiian Day today? Why is it Hawaiian Day? Do most 6-year-old girls have Tommy Bahama button-ups hanging up in their closets? Do most 6-year-olds have clothes actually hanging in their closets, period? We have neither, which is why I am digging through a basket of wrinkled clothes, yelling “WHERE IS THAT SHIRT WITH THE PONY WITH THE FLOWERS IN ITS HAIR?” That’s not Hawaiian, she’ll say to me, disappointed. How do she know what Hawaiian apparel looks like? We’ve never been there because I use my vacation days to get my oil changed.

Routine-02

When I was younger, I would make coffee at home and take it with me to work in a cute monogrammed travel mug. I would pat myself on the back for being so proactive. Hey! That’s one of the Covey’s habits. I was so highly effective when I was 23. Saving the environment, saving my bank account, saving time. Now I spend roughly $10,000 a year in drive-thru Starbucks purchases, and I haven’t even bothered to get the Starbucks rewards card that everyone else seems to have loaded up on their smartphones, waving it at the cashier out the windows of their Audi SUVs.  All the other stores are so pushy with their rewards cards, but not Starbucks. No one has offered it to me, and it makes me self-conscious. Is it because I don’t have an Audi? Well, one day I will have an Audi, and that barista with the ironic bowtie will say things like “The usual?” when I roll up to the drive-thru and I’ll laugh and say, “Make it a double” and he’ll wink as he scans my phone. This is how it goes for the cars in front me every morning, I’m sure of it. Jerks.

I’ll finally make it to the office, right around the time that I start hyperventilating over the fiery inferno that is surely burning in my Microsoft Outlook inbox. I’ll step out of my non-Audi, trying so hard to sashay up the walkway like Meryl Streep in beginning of The Devil Wears Prada  – only Meryl is wearing, well, Prada, and I’m wearing T.J. Maxx platform wedges that my mom endearingly refers to as “Frankenstein Clompers.” Half the time, I trip on some invisible wayward twig, rolling my ankle and spilling my coffee. I suspect the front desk has an entire folder of Rachel Falling footage that they break out during security guard onboarding and holiday parties.

Once I make it to my desk on the 3rd floor, physically battered and emotionally defeated, I’ll dial into back-to-back conference calls for the balance of the morning, exploring with my colleagues ways to maximize ROI as I simultaneously dream of getting home to play with my kids, drink a couple glasses of wine, and fall asleep on the couch. Hey, that’s one of Covey’s habits. Begin with the end in mind. I may not do yoga, eat almond butter, or get invited to runway shows, but I’m alive, awake, and doing my best. I think even Gwyneth would raise a kale flax seed smoothie to that.

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Illustrations by Kelly Riker

Not for a Million Trips to Rome

Childbirth, Mother's Day, Motherhood, Parenthood

When I was a kid, I didn’t dream about being a mom. I didn’t reject the idea, but I didn’t fantasize about it either. Instead, around the age of 4, once the concept of motherhood was introduced to me as a biological inevitability, I decided that I would have a girl named Karen. She would have curly chestnut hair and cause me to sigh with exasperation regularly, just like my mom did with me, and her mom probably did with her. Once I was satisfied with these basic requirements, I pushed the idea of motherhood to the deep recesses of my mind, and never really explored it again until my 7th grade class watched that graphic Miracle of Life video. Man, Karen better thank me every day for going through that for her, I thought to myself. Though I wasn’t fantasizing about motherhood in and of itself, maternal guilt always kind of worked for me.

I always thought I’d have kids well into my 30s, after climbing the ranks to middle management and purchasing a Volvo. I plotted out adulthood in accordance with the 21st Century WASP Handbook, which stresses that any proper American Yuppie should have later-in-life babies, swaddled in the colors of their mom’s post-graduate alma mater, nestled in a $900 stroller, sucking on a cheeky mustache pacifier. This was how I was going to do it, and it was going to be perfect.

Then 2008 happened. I had my daughter Eva (sorry, Karen) four days before my 25th birthday. I was an account coordinator at a marketing agency and the only management experience I had was managing not to have a nervous breakdown when I got critical feedback on my mid-year review. Sheryl Sandberg had not yet written Lean In, so we Millennial women didn’t know how to wield our hormones for good yet. After the delivery, I came home to a tiny little apartment stacked high with baby gifts and diapers. The floor was littered with congratulatory cards, all reminding me of what a blessing this baby was – but my own insecurities interpreted these well-wishes as “Yeesh! God gave you a human. This is really important, Rachel. Try not to screw up.”  The first night home from the hospital, I sat on the floor with my little girl and bawled my eyes out, overwhelmed by this task. My breasts, a precious commodity in the Year of Joan Holloway, had suddenly become painfully engorged mammary glands in dire need of a tire pressure gauge.  I felt like a barrel of tar had been dumped on my head and I couldn’t find my way up for air.

I looked down at my newborn child, who up to that point had been reclining peacefully in my arms, and noticed her little lips start to curl, her eyebrows furrowing. She began to cry, her little whimpers matching the rhythmic shakes of my distressed body. Oh no, I was upsetting her! I stopped crying and started to rock her, soothing her with gentle shushing that sounded so foreign to my ears. I, the girl with the lifelong aversion to hugs and tender words, was cooing. And it was working. Her tiny little fingers squeezed my finger as she let out a soft gurgle and fell back asleep. Old Rachel would have written off that finger squeeze as an involuntary reflex. New Rachel, who was born that night on the floor of that little double flat apartment, knew it was an ethereal validation of those congratulatory cards. She was a blessing. She was from God. And I better not screw it up.

For a while after she was born, I went through the typical pangs of social separation. My circle of friends shrunk as my to-do list inflated. I romanticized the lives of my childfree friends. I often recall the scene in When Harry Met Sally in which Sally talks about how lucky she thought she and her boyfriend Joe were compared to their married friends with kids – they could have sex on the kitchen floor without fear of the kids walking in, and could fly off to Rome on a moment’s notice. “But, the thing is, we never do fly off to Rome on a moment’s notice,” Sally says. And they never once had sex on the kitchen floor – “very cold, hard Mexican ceramic tile.” I knew that most of my friends were not actually flying off to Europe and were probably not having kitchen sex. But at least they had the option. And those options they seemingly had – that I didn’t – stirred up deep resentment that took me a long time to shed.

But then Eva started to blossom into this amazing little girl with a strong opinion, a penchant for impromptu dance parties, and Saturday afternoon shopping sprees with her doting mom.  We started to enjoy trips to Trader Joes, have endearing conversations in the car while sitting in traffic, and routinely belted out Annie tunes during bath time. I still occasionally craved happy hour at Sushi Samba, but came to terms with the fact that it just wasn’t in the cards for me anymore. They don’t do enough Broadway sing-alongs anyway.

There is the elusive work-life balance I still have to contend with. I have always been very career-driven, and because of that, many days I feel overextended. If I’m not filling every hour of my day with some sort of deliverable, whether it’s a corporate project or a personal writing assignment, I feel like I’m not hitting the mark. But it is Eva, not some cliché, jargon-filled LinkedIn post, who really teaches me about the right balance. I will struggle with an impossible work deadline, slamming my laptop around at night with frustration, and she’ll pat me on the back and say things like “You know what would make this better, Mommy? If you would buy me some ice cream.” Those earnest little eyes melt away the frustration and put a lot of my adult hang-ups into perspective. Guess what? Buying a little girl ice cream on a balmy Tuesday night DOES actually make things better. The next morning at the office, that previous night’s fire drill would be less urgent for some bureaucratic reason, and I’ll be so glad I chose to go buy an ice cream cone instead of hitting send on the angry, ill-advised reply all email I had drafted.

Having Eva never hurt my career –it has actually helped it. I’ve been so hell-bent on teaching her the tenants of female empowerment: setting boundaries, being confident and unapologetic.  I knew I’d be a fraud if I didn’t put those principals into practice in my own life, so every day at my desk, I look at her photo and attempt to be the woman I want her to admire and emulate as she grows up.

A few years after I had Eva, I dusted off the old WASP Handbook and saw that any proper American Yuppie should ensure their bloodline has both a girl and a boy – one to birth more WASP babies, and the other to carry on the family name. So, in 2013, I gave birth to our son, Ike. When we came home from the hospital, I was in a much better place. I had all the supplies I needed, my breasts were already a lost cause, and I knew for a fact that most of my now-married friends were peeing on ovulation strips as foreplay, so overall, the resentment factor was low. But it was still hard.

Ike is a wild child – a stunt devil who likes to nosedive off the side of the couch and drag his unsuspecting sister with him on the way down. He doesn’t nap. He has a passion for running into traffic. Unlike Eva, who was a master at diffusing my stress, he likes to ramp it up for the fun of it. But he’s also keen on attaching himself to me like a baby koala, stroking my hair in the dark as I rock him to sleep. He’ll throw a bowl of Cheerios on the floor and maniacally stomp the pieces into oblivion, but then, like Oliver Twist, he’ll sweetly hold up his bowl and say, “Mama. Mo’?” and my anger dissolves. You just can’t get mad at a kid with a speech impediment, so that’s how life goes now.

At the end of the day, despite what you might assume from the never ending online battle of the mommy martyrs (who has it worse – working moms? Stay-at-home moms? Armless, colorblind moms living in twig huts in the remote Alps?), I think a lot of moms wouldn’t change a thing. If I got rid of the exhaustion, the stress, and the Cheerios crumbs, then I’d also have to let go of the bear hugs, the joyful “watch me, Mommy!” exclamations, the nighttime ice cream runs, and the Annie sing-alongs. While it’s not the life I could have ever planned, it’s also not the life I’d ever trade. Not for a million spontaneous trips to Rome.

Mom Eva Ike