Desperately Seeking Solidarity

Motherhood, Parenthood, Uncategorized

As performed live on December 11 at Christ Church of Oak Brook, IL, as part of the “Advent: Questions of Christmas” series. Inspired by Luke 1:39-45, aka the story of Mary visiting Elizabeth.

I had my first child when I was 25. I was not ready. Now, I know what some of you are thinking, “No one’s REALLY ready to have a baby.” Well, believe me when I tell you, I was REALLY not ready. Just earlier that year, I had accidentally brushed my teeth with the same toothbrush I used to clean the shower grout. 

So there I was at 25, thrust from my life as a fuzzy-brained 20-something to a fuzzy-brained mother. 

One thing I quickly learned as a first-time mom is that EVERYONE is invested in other people’s parenting choices. Everyone has a position on everything – parents, in-laws, grandparents, friends, strangers on the internet, strangers in the Target checkout line. In my case, the well-intended suggestions quickly produced the inverse effect. I fell head-first down the rabbit hole of self-doubt and fear, another victim of public opinion. “You’re doing it wrong, you’re doing it wrong” I would repeat to myself. I knew I was doing it wrong because “they” told me so. 

At 25, holding the little baby I was trying really hard not to break.

On a rather frigid day, the baby and I made the brave trek to the mall. As we maneuvered around the pretty handbags, I started to feel like myself again. “How old is she?” a saleswoman asked as she peered into the stroller. “Six weeks,” I replied proudly as I looked at her rosy little face.  

“You know, you’re not supposed to take the baby out into public before eight weeks,” she said, snidely. “She could get sick.” 

You’re doing it wrong, you’re doing it wrong. The chant of disapproval roared through my head as I escaped the counter and rushed to the women’s restroom. My daughter could always sense my sadness and she began to cry. I frantically nursed her, my own hot tears dropping down onto her soft little head. 

Moments later, another young mother clumsily pushed her stroller into the lounge and plopped down on the opposite bench. As she lifted her screaming baby out of the mound of blankets, our eyes met. We exchanged strained smiles. “This is like, the third time I’ve had to nurse him since I’ve been here,” she said. “Why don’t we get their metabolism?” 

I let out a cackle. The joke was pretty weak but to me in that moment, she might as well have been Steve Martin. 

“How old is your baby?” she asked. 

“She’s six weeks,” I replied, timidly. 

“Wow, six weeks?” she replied.

I braced for the condemnation that would never come. 

“That’s awesome. I bet she’s going to be super well-behaved when she’s older,” she said as she stuck a pacifier in her baby’s mouth and tucked him back into the stroller. “You’re doing a great job.” 

You’re doing a great job. You’re doing a great job. It repeated in my head over and over again, effectively muting the ugly naysaying that had invaded that space for weeks.

“Thank you,” I managed to call out as she backed out of the room. 

She didn’t hear me, but her words stayed in my head. They helped carry me through the coldest winter I can remember. 

That little baby of mine is now eight years old and I’ve since had another child. All my friends are just now starting to have children, making me the old veteran. Some days I feel the urge to dispense sage advice but the memory of that woman always gives me pause, reminding me of the power of a few simple words of encouragement. Of a gentle joke. And of a warm smile. 

As we reflect on the story of Mary and Elizabeth, two women carrying the load of unthinkable pressure and responsibility, may we recognize the impact of their humility as they shared in that experience so long ago. Empathy and solidarity really do have the power to change lives, whether in Judea 2,000 years ago, or eight years ago in a department store bathroom.

You can view the companion sermon, “Why Am I So Favored?” from the fabulous Tracey Bianchi here. 

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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