Finding Peace in the Smallness

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There’s an inspirational quote that has made the rounds in my social media networks:

“You are bigger than what is making you anxious.”

The statement is painted in vibrant red and orange stencils against aged brick facades and emblazoned across oversized coffee mugs in chic metallic script. It is an uplifting statement, designed to help those of us plagued with daily stress and anxiety to rise above the seemingly trivial triggers that undermine peace.

But there’s an adjacent philosophy that makes this all a bit tricky.

Women in particular are constantly being urged to take up space, to pull up a seat at the table, to speak loudly and unabashedly, and to make no apologies. Aggressively squash the imposter syndrome, and where you have very real knowledge gaps, fake it ‘til you make it. LIVE LARGE.

Undoubtedly, employing these mantras are necessary to revolt against the social conditioning that has pushed so many of us to shrink away from the spotlight, to be talked over, passed over, and marginalized. 

But then, here I am, seemingly an outlier of these social norms. I assert myself. I take up space. I speak up. I cozy up to “the table.” I make the tough calls. And I’m anxious, sad, angry, and stressed precisely because of the boisterous assets that are propelling me forward.

“Your bigness is what is making you anxious” is what my cover image should say. Forget the cheeky brick wall stencils – instead, Banksy should spray paint a woman with a big mouth and sleep-deprived blood shot eyes, painfully stretched across three chairs at the proverbial table.

In the words of the young people: It me.

And I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately. The anxiety runs deep, coursing through every vein of my practical, middle America suburban existence. The stakes feel tremendously high, and every decision I make – from what to order from Uber Eats to what my 3-year strategic plan looks like at work – weighs on my shoulders in equal proportion.

Yes, I’m a 21st century Rosie the Riveter, the portrait of modern femininity (ordered off Etsy from the #Empowerment category, packaged in a shiplap frame). Maneuvering middle management. Navigating the pressures of breadwinning. Mothering a pre-adolescent daughter who wears “Girl Power” buttons on her jacket and just started wearing deodorant – Dove deodorant, which, incidentally, is the leading consumer packaged goods brand in fourth-wave feminist marketing spend.

“You can’t know everything,” I explained to her little angelic type-A face after getting a tire patched up at a local auto parts store. That’s what I said to the condescending little twerp behind the counter after he asked me some stupidly specific question about my vehicle that he, as a subject matter expert on automobile parts, should absolutely know but instead chose to attempt to knock me down a few pegs for not knowing the answer.

“I can’t know everything, okay?” I lobbed back at him. “Look it up.”

But despite that momentary surge of defiance, I’m routinely beating myself up for not immediately landing on The Answer to Everything in every facet of my life. In my preoccupation with stomping out my imposter syndrome and faking it ‘til I make it, I’m incapable of asking for help or accepting support or admitting failure. And to support these deficiencies, I’ve built a personal “brand” of wisecracking self-deprecation. Though I’ll let you in on a little secret: it’s mostly just repressed anxiety masquerading as self-assurance.

It’s a mode of self-preservation.

And sometimes, it hurts.

When Anthony Bourdain died, a tidal wave of quotes surged through the 24-hour news cycle, Instagram and Twitter, and celebrity tributes. (We sure love our inspirational quotes, don’t we?) One quote in particular jumped out from my newsfeed and to this day, I can’t shake its resonance in my own life:

“The more I become aware of, the more I realize how relatively little I know of it, how many places I have still to go, how much more there is to learn.

Maybe that’s enlightenment enough – to know that there is no final resting place of the mind, no moment of smug clarity.

Perhaps wisdom, at least for me, means realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.”

Such calmness these words have brought to me. In a world where you’re being pushed to be big, you need the strength to accept how very small you actually are.

Smallness can be a comfort, alleviating the pressure to have all the answers and halting the grind on all cylinders. And, most importantly, smallness frees up space for others to sidle up next to you – whether at “the table,” at the bar on a lonely Sunday afternoon, or in your bed during a sleepless night – where the demons can be unrelenting until a familiar arm pulls you towards a heart that recognizes your own.

Live from a Chick-fil-A: Play-by-Play of a Failed Sex Talk

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ANNOUNCER 1:

We are LIVE at the epicenter of Chicago’s beautiful suburban sprawl to bring you another round of “Failed Attempts at Good Parenting.” Today’s match-up? A mom and her pre-adolescent daughter, who are about to have a riveting exchange about the birds and the bees.

ANNOUNCER 2:

That’s right, ladies and gentleman. After nearly a decade of insisting to her children that Jesus places the baby in mommy’s tummy through a series of magical spells, Mom has suddenly realized that this story will not play well in the junior high locker room.

ANNOUNCER 1:

Many sources credit Mom’s recent horrified binge of HBO’s teen sex drama “Euphoria” as the turning point. Apparently that Zendaya girl is a real pistol.

ANNOUNCER 2:

Yeah, turns out there’s a lot more fentanyl and group sex on HBO than there is on the Disney Channel.

ANNOUNCER 1:

Let’s turn our attention to the dining room of a local Chick-fil-A, where Mom has chosen to have The Talk. Can’t tell if this was purposeful or totally ill-advised. This place is absolutely packed with young families.

ANNOUNCER 2:

It’s the Baptists. They really show up for their people.

ANNOUNCER 1:

Well, it’s a bold strategy. Let’s see if it pays off.

ANNOUNCER 2:

Looks like they’ve settled in with their food. Daughter has crispy nuggets, Mom has grilled. Adhering to Weight Watchers even under the height of pressure. Good for her.

ANNOUNCER 1:

Wow, the tension in the air is thicker than that honey mustard sauce.

ANNOUNCER 2:

WHOA! She jumped right into it! Mom skipped the small talk and went straight to asking her if she knows what sex is.

ANNOUNCER 1:

This woman is a loose cannon. Most experts would advise a gradual warm-up period. Sure hope she doesn’t pull a hammy out there.

ANNOUNCER 2:

Daughter’s face seems to imply that there is more foundational knowledge about sex in place here than previously assumed. The big question is, where did she get this information?

ANNOUNCER 1:

I wouldn’t be surprised if that harlot Zendaya has something to do with it.

ANNOUNCER 2:

Mom’s initial gusto is rapidly devolving into a red-faced fluster. She’s trying stick to a fact-based anatomical overview, but she’s haphazardly bouncing back and forth between male and female genitalia without any sense of direction.

ANNOUNCER 1:

Pre-event polls predicted that Mom was going to take a more pragmatic approach but we’re only five minutes in and the word scrotum has been said three times.

ANNOUNCER 2:

Experts would tell you that’s at least two times too many at this juncture.

ANNOUNCER 1:

As an aside, Daughter has not even touched her nuggets. However, when we zoom in on Mom’s tray…oh my. All her nuggets are gone. That was a 12-piece box. That’s got to be a stress eating record.

ANNOUNCER 2:

We’re at an important part of the conversation now. She’s getting into the mechanics of intercourse.

ANNOUNCER 1:

Daughter’s neck seems to have completely disappeared as her head sinks right into her torso. Her skin color is rapidly changing to a strange green hue as she realizes that intercourse has occurred between every adult couple she knows.

ANNOUNCER 2:

This is electric. You can actually see the flicker of pain in her eyes as she runs through the roster: parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, teachers, karate instructors, the President…

ANNOUNCER 1:

On the upside, Mom seems to be slowly regaining her composure. She got through the tough stuff and managed not to use any grotesque hand gestures. Her posture seems more confident as she sips on her Diet Dr. Pepper.

ANNOUNCER 2:

WAIT, what’s that? Hold on…a follow-up question just came out of left field. Did you catch that?

ANNOUNCER 1:

Yikes. Daughter is asking about same-sex intercourse.

ANNOUNCER 2:

UNBELIEVEABLE! A MASSIVE FUMBLE. Mom didn’t caveat that this overview was in a purely heterosexual context. No mention of the broader sexual spectrum. She should have seen that coming. Wow. Where’s the preparation?! Stunning pivot from offense to defense.

ANNOUNCER 1:

Yup. And in the words of Bear Bryant, defense wins championships.

ANNOUNCER 2:

And what about consent? Not a single mention of boundaries.

ANNOUNCER 1:

It’s almost as if Mom hasn’t read a single sex-positive think piece leading into thing. I mean, it’s not like Alyssa Milano is out there tweeting about bodily autonomy for her own health.

ANNOUNCER 2:

I gotta say, the Chick-fil-A decision is really backfiring. This is the absolute worst place to teach your 10-year-old daughter about gay sex. I don’t care how good their chicken is.

ANNOUNCER 1:

Especially now that you’ve got Popeye’s making big moves. Have you tried their chicken sandwich? Dynamite.

ANNOUNCER 2:

Well, it looks like things are winding down. Mom’s expertly deflected any additional follow-up questions and is now delivering an after school special speech about how she is always there for her if she has questions or wants to talk about anything.

ANNOUNCER 1:

We’ll give her some credit here. This is a remarkably solid ending to what was an otherwise flimsy parenting performance.

ANNOUNCER 2:

Be sure to join us for the next live parenting event: “Substance Abuse is Bad Except for When I Do It”

Oh No, My Metaphorical Carcass Is Splitting

Creativity, Parenthood, Working Mom

When women return to the workforce after maternity leave, there’s this immediate focus on maximum efficiency hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute. Never a moment wasted “on the clock,” for wasted moments during the work day lead to workload spillover at night, thus infringing on those precious few hours that can be enjoyed with one’s darling children.

Creativity is a lot like that child begging for attention at night (and, in my case, is in addition to actual human children). I constantly yearn to do more than what has already been deemed excessive by most definitions of work/life “equity.” It would be far less emotionally taxing to not feel so compelled to CREATE and instead remain focused on that maximum corporate efficiency during the day and the dutiful parenting at night.

Instead, I often feel like I’m strapped to one of those medieval limb stretching devices, being yanked to the north, south, east, and west until my carcass cracks and splits and pops open like a piñata.

Yes, it really would be so much more pleasant to not feel driven to stay up until 1 AM to write a bunch of meandering metaphors about screaming babies and splitting carcasses, but here we are.

It’s been 454 days since I last wrote an original piece of my own. It’s been two years since I last produced a sketch show. I recently discovered that I’ve forgotten how to read music and my muscle memory as a pianist is all but gone. This is more than a little dry spell. This is my own personal artistic Sahara Desert, all 3.6 million square miles of it. (Yeah, I’m using a lot of metaphors but I fact check the hell out of them.) And while I’m in the middle of the desert, something is pushing me to find that oasis that will rehydrate me and propel me out of the dunes.

I’ve been feeling an overwhelming sense over the last many months that my next big creative “a-ha!” is right around the corner. I think I just needed to let that crackling pig skin tear open. In the desert. While a baby screams for attention. As a crappy rendition of “Chopsticks” clangs in the background.

Wow, I am really rusty.

Okay, Pokay. Time to get to work.

The Most Hated Girl in Watermelon Culottes

Adulthood, career, Childhood, High School, Motherhood, Self-Help

When I was in 2nd grade, my dad signed me up for recreational soccer with the local park district. This was in the Deep South, so the rest of my girlfriends were either in Girl Scouts or were ballerinas. I, on the other hand, was the awkward girl with very thick plastic prescription goggles and a slobbery mouth guard. I was the only girl on my team, so I had to hustle and endure a bit of teasing to get ahead. But being as though I’ve always been a bit thick-skinned, the downsides to this arrangement were trumped by the euphoria of competition.

Back at school, the boys would organize soccer games on the field during recess. A kid in my class named Darius was the self-assigned captain. One day, I decided to take the skills I had learned in the community league and show them off to my male classmates. Rather quickly, I found myself head-to-head with Darius during a very dramatic scuffle for the ball. Ultimately, I maneuvered the ball away from him, he stumbled and fell, and I scored. The glory of the moment was short lived. As Darius stood up, covered in red Alabama mud, he started to scream, “I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU SO MUCH.” The rest of the boys glared at me. There was no acknowledgement of my awesome moves, just universal distain for the girl who ruined their game by daring to play. The bell rang and we returned to our classrooms. Just as recess had ended, so began my entrance into the world of likability politics.

Scientific research has shown that men and women are liked equally when behaving in a participatory manner, meaning collaborating and sharing in an experience. Yet, when positioned in equally authoritative positions, women are disliked far more than men. Data shows us that high-achieving women experience social backlash for simply exhibiting the very behaviors that nurture success. That’s because those behaviors, such as forcefulness and decisiveness, violate traditionally feminine attributes such as warmth, gentleness, and friendliness. Perhaps it would have been warmer, gentler, and friendlier for me to let little Darius trot around me on that soccer field, allowed to easily score while I shot sunbeams of encouragement and approachability from my eyeballs. Instead, I played fairly, Darius tripped on his own two feet, and I promptly became the most hated girl in watermelon print culottes east of the Mississippi.

And the soccer fiasco of ’91 is only one of many examples in my life where I’ve been caught between wanting to be liked and having an inherent desire to compete and lead. Between the angry letters I got at the high school newspaper office when I was the opinions editor, to the eye rolls and condescending scoffs I experienced during the fiery debates in my political science classes, I am acutely aware of what it’s like to “rub people the wrong way.” And when I tried to shake things up and be the fun, loveable girl, I was nicknamed “ponytail” at my first job out of college, which I hated much more than any of the much more crass names I had encountered when I was my more authentic, bullheaded self. Yet, turns out that “ponytail” gets invited to more meetings and gets more promotions, so that has been the identity I’ve aimed to take on over the course of the last 10 years.

The truth is, as a society, we put a premium on charisma and charm. I mean, okay — when you’re 20, shiny hair and a solid hip-to-waist ratio can go a long way in getting people on your side. But pop out a couple of kids and get some adult-onset acne and you better hope you’ve got a decent personality. That’s why I’ve smiled and played the likability game like a champ. Rational pushback is often replaced with gentile diplomacy. Confrontation is avoided at all costs. Instead, I often take on the laborious task of massaging a harsh message to ensure that the person on the other end of the phone line doesn’t feel attacked or threatened, even though they themselves are the repeat offender of the most egregious of office crimes.

Maybe Dave thinks it’s appropriate to call me five times in two hours, requesting that I do his work for him by end of day. Maybe I want to tell him that his unrelenting disrespect will no longer be tolerated. Instead, I’ll scream in my lumbar support pillow, take a deep breath, and say: “Yes, Dave, really appreciate your rigorous follow-ups and your investment in this project. Moving forward, please kindly note that we typically require a 72-hour review period on such requests. However, given these special circumstances, I will get back to you by close of business. Thanks so much.” This has been my life. Every. Day.

But an interesting revelation has begun to take shape inside of me as I’ve been pondering where I fall along the spectrum of likability. Over the years, when I’ve shirked conflict, I had always convinced myself that it was because I was actually a nice girl who didn’t like confrontation. I always assumed it was the conflict in and of itself that brought me pain. But the truth is that I’m actually a bull in a china shop, trying too hard to be the graceful nice girl. That’s really where the dissonance lies. Likability is a tool I’ve been using to get ahead — because I know it will make me more palatable, not because it’s right or rewarding or even the most effective way to operate in the world.

Some of the women I admire most are the least conventionally “likable” people. Authors Roxane Gay and Lindy West are both prolific feminist writers, thinkers, and internet troll destroyers. They speak truth to power without apology, all the while knowingly alienating thousands of “haters” who think they should mind their mouths and stay in their place. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, another renowned feminist writer who I deeply admire, once addressed young female writers, saying:
“Society teaches young girls the idea that likability is an essential part of you, of the space you occupy in the world, that you’re supposed to twist yourself into shapes to make yourself likable, that you’re supposed to hold back sometimes, pull back, don’t be too pushy, because you have to be likable…and if you start thinking about being likable you are not going to tell your story honestly, because you are going to be so concerned with not offending, and that’s going to ruin your story.”

This is great advice not just for young girls, but for all of us who want to occupy our space in the world with not just grace and charisma, but with honesty and authenticity. I still struggle with this daily. But as I reflect on that time when I put myself out there with all those boys on the soccer field, motivated only by the same love for the sport that they had, I think about my own daughter, who also happens to be 8 years old. If she came to me today and asked me if she should join the boys on the soccer field, even in the face of the very real chance that she could get teased or even screamed at, I would tell her to go for it, every time.

And that’s my litmus test. If I expect my own daughter to live her life authentically, then I should expect it for myself. At the end of the day, I think I’d rather like who I am and exist in that space alone, then to barter my truth in exchange for being liked by everyone else.

That’s my honest story and I’m sticking to it.

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.)

PencilHead_art-01 (1)

“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.

PencilHead_art2

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