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.

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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

 

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