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.

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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.

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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

I’ll Drink to That

College, High School

“Mmmm, this is good,” I said (unconvincingly) to the rest of the girls. It was 1998. I was at a slumber party, taking my first sip of alcohol while Limp Bizkit played on the stereo. It was Mudslide mix, probably stolen from my friend’s parents’ liquor cabinet. I still remember the bottle – tall and slender, filled to the neck with a light brown liquid that I just assumed would taste like Hershey’s chocolate milk. It did not. It was more like chocolate powder mix combined with tepid bath water and rubbing alcohol. I took the shot like I had seen in the movies – a violent chug before dramatically slamming the cup back down on the table. Definitely edgy, I thought. Like the Tarantino films I would pretend to know a lot about later that night.

We filled our cups again and again, still commenting on how good it was. As our heads started to spin, we did what only felt right. We stuffed our faces with chips and cheese puffs while doing Austin Powers impressions before falling asleep on the floor. The next morning when my dad picked me up, I felt worse than I had ever felt before. I explained that I had eaten “too many Doritos” the night before, and that’s why I felt sick. “Ah, the old Doritos hangover,” he replied. “Ha! He bought it!” I thought, congratulating myself for being so sly as I threw up and vowed never to drink again. In reality, he had probably not bought that story, but was kind enough to let it (mud)slide. And of course I drank again, punctuating each incident with the same hollow vow of abstinence.

My high school years were in America’s Post-Zima/Pre-Cider period, so my friends and I drank Smirnoff Ice for the whole of the early 2000s. Smirnoff Ice was basically alcoholic Fresca, almost exclusively procured by the older brothers of my friends. I talk about Smirnoff Ice in the past tense because once I grow out of something, it no longer exists – like MTV or Bath and Body Works. Every once in a while, my friends would have this great idea that I should be the one to try to buy it because I “totally look old enough.” If you’re the friend with the biggest boobs and a blazer from The Limited, you will be nominated to do this at least once. I was the McLovin of my time. I failed on nearly every attempt, but was never arrested. Because, boobs.

By  college, my taste had become more discerning. My palette learned to navigate only the most sophisticated libations, such as amaretto sours, Michelob Ultra, and bottles contained in brown paper bags. I also started to fancy myself quite the mixologist. Once, at a Pakistani restaurant, I curated a new cocktail made up of Hypnotiq and red wine, with notes of hookah smoke and baba ghanoush. It did not end well for me or for Jacksonville Beach. You haven’t lived until you’ve coasted down A1A in a Pontiac Sunfire with your head pathetically dangling out the passenger window like a bulldog with heat stroke.

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I often look back on those days and marvel at my ingenuity. I had a calendar that reflected all the special nights during the week: Nickel Beer Night, Flip Cup Night, Objectify Ladies Night, Two-for-One Night, Reggae for Privileged White Kids Night. My mantra: never pay full price for a drink in a plastic cup. And they say college kids are irresponsible!

Incidentally, I went on to marry a bartender who specializes in Prohibition-era cocktails, like Rusty Nails, Stingers, and Harvey Wallbangers. If you’re looking for a drink that sounds like a dirty joke in a Judd Apatow movie, then he’s your guy. When we go out, he likes to order obscure geriatric drinks, just for sport. No one, not even the bartenders at the nicest restaurants, ever knows what the hell a Negroni is. “Is it a Mexican beer?” Simon, a grad student and aspiring sommelier will ask. “It’s an apertif,” my husband will respond with a glint in his eye, as Simon turns to insecurely fumble through the dusty apertif selection not appreciated since Al Capone’s grandma.

I think my husband is just one of those people who is hardwired to genuinely enjoy fine spirits. Conversely, even though I’m now 31, I still consume liquor for the same shallow reason as with the Mudslide incident – to simply bring cinematic drama to the evening. When you want to regale your girlfriends with sordid tales diaper blowouts and kindergarten registration, it’s much more theatrical to wave around a vodka than a Diet Pepsi. I learned this from Goldie Hawn’s character in First Wives Club. Power suit, pouty lips, and a rocks glass – the glamour trifecta.  Bonus points for ordering a round of Bushmills on your corporate card. That’s when you know you’ve made it.

And isn’t that alcohol really is? A symbol. Of success. Of failure. Of confidence that you didn’t have an hour ago, but definitely do now, so by all means, confide in your Japanese CFO at the holiday party about how you’ve always had a thing for “oriental” gentleman.

Of empowerment, as you scarf a dozen spiked Jell-O jigglers at your first college party because Jell-O is a delicious dessert from your childhood…oh man, you really miss your mom and dad and dog now, so you will just need some time alone in your dorm room to cry while you flip through old photos and listen to Sophie B. Hawkins.

Of overextension, after you spend all Friday afternoon telling your co-workers how much you’re looking forward to a TGIF wine binge, but then you spill your first glass all over yourself because you fell asleep mid-sip while watching a King of Queens re-run.

Of self-worth, as you post a montage of over-filtered mimosa close-ups on Instagram, because, in the words of Carrie Bradshaw, “the most significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself.” #brunchingbymyself

Yes, alcohol is ever the chameleon, shifting and shaping to enhance the first 90 minutes of so many diverse experiences. It is that old friend who’s fun on the drive to the party, rapping Biggie with the windows down, but a total nightmare on the drive home, yell-singing Sam Smith between hiccups. But as sure as the sun rises over that too-familiar Waffle House off of I-95, we all know loud mouth soup will be on speed dial for the next exciting fete on the calendar. So, whether you’re throwing back a Mudslide, Negroni, or a Diet Pepsi, be sure to always raise your glass to all of life’s adventures, for better or for worse.

Just take it from me – skip the Doritos.

Illustrations by Kelly Riker

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Culottes

Childhood, Family, Sisterhood

In a modest but tastefully appointed brick home in northern Alabama lived two little moon-faced girls, decked out in coordinating sponge-painted t-shirts and acid-washed ruffle skirts, rifling through a stack of cassettes. “Let’s play Reba,” decided the older girl as she adjusted her round, red, wire framed glasses. “The ‘Fancy’ song.” She popped Reba McEntire’s 1990 album Rumor Has It into a clunky Sony radio/cassette player, fast forwarding to the singer’s now-classic anthem about a young girl ascending from the depths of abject poverty into a lucrative escort career after her terminally ill mother transferred her into the care of an uptown strip joint. “That’s my favorite song!” squealed her little sister, tugging on her polka dot tights.

“I might have been born just plain white trash, but Fancy was my name!” they sang as they jumped up and down on ruffled Laura Ashley-inspired twin beds. Little Southern girls in the 90s had a distinct style – big bows on their heads, patent Mary Janes on their feet, and tales of tequila and betrayal on their tongues. And my sister Stephanie and I have always been nothing if not en vogue.

   Rachel Reindeer Sisters Stephi Rocking Chair

As kids, we couldn’t be more different. I was a dark haired, extroverted, talk-before-you-think type, while she was a blonde, shy, studious type. Four and a half years her senior, I was ever the domineering older child that child psychologists write about. A leader, I’ll call it. Even when my parents told me I’d be a big sister, I had a sense that I would need to guide that little fetus through life, position her for success. I would show her the ropes – how to fetch juice boxes for me and my friends, how always be “it” in hide-and-seek and count to 150 in the pantry while my friends and I found the hardest hiding spots imaginable so she would end up getting really frustrated and crying when she couldn’t find us, and how to always be the backup singer in my imaginary musical groups.

During the summer of my sister’s birth, my entourage and I had formed a prolific New Kids on the Block all-girl cover band but were struggling to fill the Danny Wood spot. This new little sister would be the perfect female Danny Wood, I thought. Sadly, when Stephanie emerged from my mother’s womb, she was small, pink, and wrinkly. Even Danny Wood didn’t deserve that. I was so disappointed. Yet, as a colicky baby, her lungs quickly matured, and a few years later, she was ready to play both guy parts in our Ace of Base tribute band, aptly named Ace of Base Two. She resisted these roles at first, which I didn’t understand. Why wouldn’t a four-year-old girl want to pretend to be a muscular, ambiguously gay Swedish man in a techno pop band? She would be Jonas and Ulf, or be nothing at all. She relented.

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Ace of Base Two toured our Alabama subdivision for the summer of ’93 but fizzled out by fall due to creative differences. It was during that turbulent summer, however, that my sister started to wise up to the politics of siblinghood and began to build out her own arsenal of weaponry that she would wield rather proficiently over the next decade.

In 1995, we moved to Florida and were enrolled in a small parochial school with one class per age group all the way up to 8th grade. Having both children in one school is a parent’s dream – after school activities were more streamlined, the parent-teacher community was tighter knit, and your younger kid could be a mole, spying and reporting on the older, more rebellious child’s indiscretions. This was very convenient for my mother, as I slipped into a bit of a bad ass phase around ’96.  Oh, on the drive in to school, I was a picture of buttoned-up nerdiness.  My long, shapeless hair was pulled back taut with a gray scrunchie. “Keep your hair pulled back, Rachel,” my mom said. “So people can see your face!” My face? Eyes that were magnified behind rectangular glasses. Cheeks that were peppered with cystic acne caused by the fresh, new hormones coursing through my adolescent blood.

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“You look so cute,” my dad said, as he watched me slide out of the backseat in the knee-length, navy blue uniform culottes that I paired with clunky Airwalk sneakers and a JanSport backpack featuring an assortment of parent-friendly punk rock iron-on patches.  I waved goodbye to car and walked my sister to her 2nd grade classroom. As soon as she was gone, it was goodbye, nerd and hello, hottie. As a sax solo played, down came the hair, off came the extremely necessary prescription glasses, and up went the hem of the culottes as I awkwardly rolled the waistband into what certainly looked like an inner tube of stiff fabric. I sashayed my way to homeroom like the squinty love child of Blossom and Gilbert Gottfried, excited to impress my friends with my femme fatale allure.

Yet every time I emerged from my cocoon, there was Stephanie, peering out from the behind the lockers, mentally scribbling her daily reports in her mental notebook like Harriet the Spy. My mother’s very own double agent.

Steph Diary

(My sister’s actual diary entry – May 3, 1996)

“MOM SAID YOU HAD TO WEAR YOUR HAIR BACK,” she hissed at me as she and her 7-year-old buddies walked by us on the way to gym.

“OOOOO! MOM SAID YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED TO ROLL UP YOUR SHORTS,” she called out to me as I was clumsily flirting with a boy that usually hated me but was clearly admiring my newly exposed kneecaps.

“HEY. WHERE ARE YOUR GLASSES?” she asked accusingly as she strolled by on her way to Wednesday chapel. I couldn’t see a damn thing but I knew that judgmental little voice anywhere.

“I thought you said you got contacts, Rachel,” spat one of the mean girls who was popular because her boobs grew disproportionately faster than the rest of her body parts.

This, among other offenses perpetrated by both parties, led to many after-school fights.

And when we fought, it wasn’t the girly sighs, foot stomping, “talk to the hand” nonsense of our peers. It was WWE Raw meets Real Housewives, with all the chokeholds of the former mixed with the emotional warfare of the latter. As quickly as I was able to apply an Indian burn to her forearm, she was just as quickly able to blackmail me with an inappropriate handwritten note she was able to skillfully obtain from my backpack the day prior. Screams were supersonic, piercing the balmy night’s sky, giving my father a veritable ulcer and a sense of cosmic retribution for some past dark deed he committed in some other life.

Yet, as often as we were at odds, we were also thick as thieves, spending hours and hours perfecting cannonballs in our pool, eating Dairy Queen flurries and watching Blockbuster movies on summer nights, making up original comic characters in secret sketches in the living room. Humor has always been the strongest common denominator between us, the thread weaving through all of life’s stages and growing pains. Sisters who watch Mel Brooks together, stay together, after all. While other girls were reenacting Coyote Ugly, my sister and I were lampooning Coyote Ugly and quoting Blazing Saddles and Best in Show.

Time sped along. I left town for college and my sister became more engrossed in her music studies at her performing arts high school (yes, it was just like Fame, except with way more Asian students). Our family relocated to Chicago. I got my own apartment and entered the corporate workforce. Stephanie went to college down in Nashville and became a bohemian singer-songwriter. Dairy Queen and evening movies were replaced by texts and check-in emails. We both came of age awkwardly, facing off with parents who were having a hard time accepting their daughters’ impending adulthood, as well as our own issues with a scary new world of fiscal responsibility, artisanal cheeses, and long-term relationships. Boyfriends came and went, all subject to sisterly judgment as scathing as the End Times. Some were bad, others abhorrent.

I knew my husband was the jackpot as he met my sister’s immediate and gracious approval.

He and I went on to produce two kids, also four and a half years apart — just like my sister and I had been. Our daughter is a spitting image of me, with all the sass to match. Our son is a serious, stubborn little whirlwind who, in many ways, is like my husband. Still, as I watch my daughter dance around the living room, giving choreography instructions to her little brother as he bounds around happily beside her, my mind wanders back to that moment during the summer of ’93 when my sister pretended to be a Swedish beefcake keyboardist because she loved her big sister.

I can only hope for that kind of love between my own children.

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Illustrations by Kelly Riker

This Baby Has a Pencil for a Head

Childbirth, Parenthood

The day my daughter was born was a surreal one. I was admitted to labor and delivery at 6 cm dilated, which, for those unfamiliar with the mechanics of the cervix, is too large to not be horrifying, but also way too small to accommodate a child’s shoulders (also horrifying). Actually, the cervix is almost always an alarming discussion point. Unless it’s enlarging or there’s something wrong with it, it’s an unmentionable.

I, like every other woman ready to push forth the miracle of life, was placed in a rolling bed and a very ugly hospital gown. It had just the right amount of floral print to say “I am a lovely lady” but also just enough easy-access ties in the front and back to say “I’ve lost ownership of my dignity, so by all means, bring in all of your resident obstetric students to collaboratively insert that catheter into my urethra under the blinding light of these overhead lamps.” This is why you see so many middle aged mom types brazenly walking around naked in the YMCA locker rooms. It’s not because of those Dove body-acceptance commercials. It’s because they’ve already sat spread eagle in a hospital room, f-bombing their way through vaginal birth, all grunty, sweaty, and double chinned, chomping on ice chips like a cow in heat.

I lost count of the hours between my initial admission to the labor unit and the actual birth, but I would guess about 10 hours. Ten hours of talking to my family, friends, and random medical professionals between waves of pain and pressure, gracefully easing into this now chapter of my life with poignant observations like “MY VAGINA IS GOING TO BREAK, ISN’T IT?!” and “IS THIS GOING TO HURT SO BAD, IT IS ISN’T IT, YOU CAN TELL ME THE TRUTH, IT’S GOING TO BE OKAY, RIGHT?” and “WHAT IN GOD’S NAME HAVE I DONE.” I think the nurses were glad when the anesthesiologist came in with the premium drugs, thinking I’d shut up once I was drugged up. Well, clearly none of them had ever done whiskey shots with me or they’d know that Rachel Under the Influence can’t get enough of the sound of her own voice and prefers words with a three-syllable minimum. There’s nothing more fun than being forced to hang around a partially dilated know-it-all who is slurring big words like “bowel obstruction” and “rectal floor pressure.”

Speaking of rectal floor pressure, when it was time to push, I sobered up pretty quickly. That’s a pro tip for all you bar flies who need a quick way to sober up at closing time: imagine the effect that a triple dose of Imodium would have on a seven pound pork roast lodged in your nether regions. You’ll be the designated driver in no time.

The act of pushing out a baby is highly calculated activity. You can’t just clench your pelvis all willy-nilly – you have to “bear down” at the right point during any single contraction. For people like me who experience stifling anxiety related to precision – e.g. Jack in the Box popping up on that one specific note of “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush,” runners pushing off the block exactly when the gun goes off, knowing my “Pick 2” combination exactly when the Panera Bread cashier calls me to the counter – getting the exact push time down was extremely nerve-racking.

DOCTOR: Okay, Rachel. We’re going start the pushing in a minute.

RACHEL: Now?

DOCTOR: No, not yet. As soon as the contraction starts.

RACHEL: Now?

DOCTOR: No, not yet. Wait for the contraction.

RACHEL: Now?

DOCTOR: Not yet…

RACHEL: (exhales) Okay.

DOCTOR: Now! Go! PUSH PUSH PUSH!

RACHEL: WAIT, WHAT? HOLD ON!

DOCTOR: Okay, you missed it.

RACHEL: (sobs)

This process went on for about two hours before my daughter started to “crown.” When you go to Lamaze class, birth education insiders like to call this phase the “Ring of Fire.” Because that aforementioned cervix? It didn’t get much bigger than it was 10 hours prior, but it’s still expected to do the job of three cervices. And man, does it burn, burn, burn. So as I’m lying there, pushing a turkey through a garden hose, I look at my husband, who looks like he’s on that psychedelic boat ride in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, surrounded by flashing images of millipedes and birds pecking at road kill. I’ve never seen someone look so horrified.

And that’s when the kindly nurse asks me if I want a mirror positioned at the foot of my bed and “watch it all happen.” You know, so I can also jump on the freaky Willy Wonka boat ride too. Take it from me, ladies. You do not want that mirror. DON’T OPT FOR THE MIRROR. There’s a reason OB-GYNs make millions of dollars (probably). Therapy dollars.

So what has amounted to a painful ten hour acid trip is now the moment of truth: “Here she comes!” Twenty five years of my life, culminating to what feels like 600 tons of metric pressure collecting in my lady parts. Twenty five years of living for myself, of freedom and flexibility and naps and quiet evenings reading magazines at Barnes & Noble, all about to flutter away into the night’s sky with ONE. MORE. PUSH.

Out she flew, like a glorious, screaming trout being yanked out of the murky depths. And just like in the movies, the scene turned to black and white, Loggins and Messina’s “Danny’s Song” started to play, and together we embraced our soft little Gerber Baby, tears of gratitude streaming down our cheeks.

OR,

“Her head is shaped like a pencil!” my husband cried out. (Turkeys that are pushed through garden hoses tend to have temporarily cone-shaped skulls.)

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“She has no thumbs!” my husband cried out, but only in his head this time, thank God. (She was clenching her fists. She had both thumbs.)

“You cut what?!” I cried out as my doctor stitched me up. Episiotomy. Look it up if you want to hate yourself.

The first night after you deliver your baby is confusing. You fall into deep, deep sleep and temporarily forget that you’re now a mom. I would drift into my normal dreams, weaving through lucid, baby-less plot lines. And then nurse would enter that dark room at 2 AM, holding a little baby that needed my body for sustenance and I’d jolt awake, so confused every single time. It’s a bizarre new chapter, and those first few nights really threw me for a loop.

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Still, the quiet calm of the maternity unit was so comforting. The rhythmic beeps of the monitors, the hushed voices of the attendants who would bring me breakfast in bed and tell me that I was glowing (it’s called sweating ten pints of residual fluid, but okay). Watching my husband sleep uncomfortably on a bedside cot, paying the price for impregnating me and ultimately being the reason I got an episiotomy. It was a rare moment of peace in the chaotic new reality of parenthood. If I could get all drugged up and get bedside eggs without having to deal with the vaginal stuff, I’d do this gig every year.

And that, kids, is why booze, breakfast in bed, and no sex is now a Mother’s Day tradition.

Illustrations by Kelly Riker