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

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