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. 

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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