The Most Hated Girl in Watermelon Culottes

Adulthood, career, Childhood, High School, Motherhood, Self-Help

When I was in 2nd grade, my dad signed me up for recreational soccer with the local park district. This was in the Deep South, so the rest of my girlfriends were either in Girl Scouts or were ballerinas. I, on the other hand, was the awkward girl with very thick plastic prescription goggles and a slobbery mouth guard. I was the only girl on my team, so I had to hustle and endure a bit of teasing to get ahead. But being as though I’ve always been a bit thick-skinned, the downsides to this arrangement were trumped by the euphoria of competition.

Back at school, the boys would organize soccer games on the field during recess. A kid in my class named Darius was the self-assigned captain. One day, I decided to take the skills I had learned in the community league and show them off to my male classmates. Rather quickly, I found myself head-to-head with Darius during a very dramatic scuffle for the ball. Ultimately, I maneuvered the ball away from him, he stumbled and fell, and I scored. The glory of the moment was short lived. As Darius stood up, covered in red Alabama mud, he started to scream, “I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU SO MUCH.” The rest of the boys glared at me. There was no acknowledgement of my awesome moves, just universal distain for the girl who ruined their game by daring to play. The bell rang and we returned to our classrooms. Just as recess had ended, so began my entrance into the world of likability politics.

Scientific research has shown that men and women are liked equally when behaving in a participatory manner, meaning collaborating and sharing in an experience. Yet, when positioned in equally authoritative positions, women are disliked far more than men. Data shows us that high-achieving women experience social backlash for simply exhibiting the very behaviors that nurture success. That’s because those behaviors, such as forcefulness and decisiveness, violate traditionally feminine attributes such as warmth, gentleness, and friendliness. Perhaps it would have been warmer, gentler, and friendlier for me to let little Darius trot around me on that soccer field, allowed to easily score while I shot sunbeams of encouragement and approachability from my eyeballs. Instead, I played fairly, Darius tripped on his own two feet, and I promptly became the most hated girl in watermelon print culottes east of the Mississippi.

And the soccer fiasco of ’91 is only one of many examples in my life where I’ve been caught between wanting to be liked and having an inherent desire to compete and lead. Between the angry letters I got at the high school newspaper office when I was the opinions editor, to the eye rolls and condescending scoffs I experienced during the fiery debates in my political science classes, I am acutely aware of what it’s like to “rub people the wrong way.” And when I tried to shake things up and be the fun, loveable girl, I was nicknamed “ponytail” at my first job out of college, which I hated much more than any of the much more crass names I had encountered when I was my more authentic, bullheaded self. Yet, turns out that “ponytail” gets invited to more meetings and gets more promotions, so that has been the identity I’ve aimed to take on over the course of the last 10 years.

The truth is, as a society, we put a premium on charisma and charm. I mean, okay — when you’re 20, shiny hair and a solid hip-to-waist ratio can go a long way in getting people on your side. But pop out a couple of kids and get some adult-onset acne and you better hope you’ve got a decent personality. That’s why I’ve smiled and played the likability game like a champ. Rational pushback is often replaced with gentile diplomacy. Confrontation is avoided at all costs. Instead, I often take on the laborious task of massaging a harsh message to ensure that the person on the other end of the phone line doesn’t feel attacked or threatened, even though they themselves are the repeat offender of the most egregious of office crimes.

Maybe Dave thinks it’s appropriate to call me five times in two hours, requesting that I do his work for him by end of day. Maybe I want to tell him that his unrelenting disrespect will no longer be tolerated. Instead, I’ll scream in my lumbar support pillow, take a deep breath, and say: “Yes, Dave, really appreciate your rigorous follow-ups and your investment in this project. Moving forward, please kindly note that we typically require a 72-hour review period on such requests. However, given these special circumstances, I will get back to you by close of business. Thanks so much.” This has been my life. Every. Day.

But an interesting revelation has begun to take shape inside of me as I’ve been pondering where I fall along the spectrum of likability. Over the years, when I’ve shirked conflict, I had always convinced myself that it was because I was actually a nice girl who didn’t like confrontation. I always assumed it was the conflict in and of itself that brought me pain. But the truth is that I’m actually a bull in a china shop, trying too hard to be the graceful nice girl. That’s really where the dissonance lies. Likability is a tool I’ve been using to get ahead — because I know it will make me more palatable, not because it’s right or rewarding or even the most effective way to operate in the world.

Some of the women I admire most are the least conventionally “likable” people. Authors Roxane Gay and Lindy West are both prolific feminist writers, thinkers, and internet troll destroyers. They speak truth to power without apology, all the while knowingly alienating thousands of “haters” who think they should mind their mouths and stay in their place. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, another renowned feminist writer who I deeply admire, once addressed young female writers, saying:
“Society teaches young girls the idea that likability is an essential part of you, of the space you occupy in the world, that you’re supposed to twist yourself into shapes to make yourself likable, that you’re supposed to hold back sometimes, pull back, don’t be too pushy, because you have to be likable…and if you start thinking about being likable you are not going to tell your story honestly, because you are going to be so concerned with not offending, and that’s going to ruin your story.”

This is great advice not just for young girls, but for all of us who want to occupy our space in the world with not just grace and charisma, but with honesty and authenticity. I still struggle with this daily. But as I reflect on that time when I put myself out there with all those boys on the soccer field, motivated only by the same love for the sport that they had, I think about my own daughter, who also happens to be 8 years old. If she came to me today and asked me if she should join the boys on the soccer field, even in the face of the very real chance that she could get teased or even screamed at, I would tell her to go for it, every time.

And that’s my litmus test. If I expect my own daughter to live her life authentically, then I should expect it for myself. At the end of the day, I think I’d rather like who I am and exist in that space alone, then to barter my truth in exchange for being liked by everyone else.

That’s my honest story and I’m sticking to it.

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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. 

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

 

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