On Having Kids and Not Being Dicks to Those Who Do Not Have Kids

About ten years ago, I was lucky enough to meet Julia Smillie, a writer, who was so full of wit and compassion and whose sense of humor was so on-point I simultaneously wanted desperately to be friends with her and was terrified of doing so. I just didn’t think I could “keep up.” (I guess it was sort of the adult version of being a freshman and having some cool junior who talks to you sometimes in class.)

Dear Julia,

As a person who “has kids,” I try to avoid certain, easily avoidable cliches and other annoying behavior. For example, while having a child has changed my life, I do not assume that it is the Most Life Changing Thing that Can Happen to Anyone Ever, nor do I consider myself or my husband more important than other people, simply because we are parents. I do not expect special treatment, on an airplane, in a grocery line, or anywhere else simply because I have a toddler on my hip. I WILL apologize if my kid is being loud or walks directly in front of someone. (I GET the whole “kids are kids, we were all kids, we shouldn’t have to apologize for them” mentality, however, I AM AN ADULT, and I can recognize inconsiderate behavior as such, and then apologize for it on my kid’s behalf.)

Essentially, when I talk to a person who doesn’t have kids (people in their 20s don’t count, and people in their 30s count, but to a lesser degree than those 40 and up, as the list below could be in the present tense), I try to assume two things simultaneously:

1. They wanted terribly to have kids and they tried and it just didn’t work out.
2. They never wanted children, ever, and always knew it.

Keeping these two things in mind at the same time is a bit of a mindfuck, and probably results in some garbled sentences on my end as I wrestle with the right way to phrase something.

So, Julia, my question for you today is: What can people who have children do to make the world easier for people who don’t, in general AND in conversation? Is it okay for me to tell stories about how delightful she is? Can I talk about how f**king tired I am? (I TRY to do it in a way that doesn’t assume parental tiredness is somehow closer to pure martyrdom than non-parental.) Is it okay that my husband sometimes posts multiple pictures a day of my kid on social media, or should I talk to him about it?

Love,
Amy

Hi, Amy!

I’m so glad we’re finally getting to do this, although as a childless fortysomething woman in a child-obsessed culture, I’m deeply offended that you would even broach this topic with me.

Kidding.

I’m actually really glad you asked, because I often feel lost, too, in trying to navigate the world as a childless person. As much as you don’t know how to act toward people without kids, I often don’t know how to respond to the constant inquiry into my procreation status.

Which brings me to your two assumptions, which are thoughtful, but also problematic as they leave out a lot of grey area. See, some of us without children are conflicted. Some sort of wanted kids but when it didn’t happen, they accepted it. Some were brought to their knees by the impact of infertility. That makes it tricky for you as an Obviously Thoughtful Person. (Henceforth known as an OTP, which sounds a lot like a Scientology status that Tom Cruise has already achieved and we never, ever will. I assure you it is not.)

I live in that grey area. Which takes us back to my not knowing how to respond to questions about my lack of offspring. What do I do? Let people look at me with their pitying gazes? Or deliver my honest answer which is pretty long and boring and would be something like this: “Well, when I was younger, I was recovering from addiction and carried a lot of shame and assumed I’d be a lousy parent and didn’t wanna do that to a kid and then by the time I felt grown and mature enough and decided I would be a good parent after all, I was 39 and my body wouldn’t cooperate and even though there were heroic and unbelievably expensive lengths to which we could have gone to force nature’s hand, and while it was the most difficult, painful decision of my life, we ultimately determined we weren’t those people and that we would think about other ways in our lives in which we could parent, not ruling out fostering or adopting at some point, and some days I feel really at peace with that and other days I feel full of self-pity and regret. But I really, really don’t want you feeling sorry for me, so I’m going to play it off like it’s not that big a deal. Thanks for asking!”

At which point the person asking the question has keeled over from boredom.

In other words, it’s just too complicated for you or anyone other OTP to be able to reasonably assume why anyone doesn’t have children, as kind as that instinct is. And, on a bigger level, it’s not your job to make the world easier for people who don’t have children. It’s our job to learn how to navigate a procreation-focused society. That might be cruel and unfair, but people have all kinds of challenges in life and I’m a firm believer that we’re responsible for taking care of ourselves and our own situations.

But while it’s not your job to cater to us, at the same time, I’m so, so incredibly grateful for your sensitivity and caring. I love that you’re not so blinded by your own ability to bear fruit that you can’t see how it might be difficult for someone to care about it. I feel really good about the fact that someone as empathetic as you is out there raising children. It gives us all hope.

 Thus, you can and should talk about anything you want…but your instinct to curb long child-focused diatribes around childless folk is right on. But that’s less about your knowing what I’m going through and more about conversational courtesy.

To wit, as I mentioned, I’m a recovering alcoholic. It’s a central fact of my life and one of the things I’m most proud of. Contrary to what many non-addicts think, my recovery affects all aspects of my life. So I find myself talking about it a lot, even when that’s not the direct topic at hand – which can get tricky with people outside the recovery community. Their faces go blank. They get squirmy. (I promise you, my admission of addiction is much more uncomfortable to you than it is to me.)

What, then, do I do? Not talk about it? I’ve thought about this a lot, and I decided that’s just not an authentic representation of who I am, just as consciously avoiding talking about your children is not an authentic representation of who you are. But I do try to be alert to the reaction of my listeners, their degree of openness and level of interest, all the while bearing in mind this truth: my recovery is just not nearly as interesting to those who have not experienced it as it is to those who have.

Similarly, I have friends who cannot stop talking about their children, as though there is nothing else to their lives. I object to this not because I can’t have my own, but because it’s boring as fuck.

 Love,
Julia

Julia,

I’ve been sitting on this, and I think I know why. Because what I wanted was a bulletpointed list of what exactly I should and should not be doing to offend people. And I, of course, see how this is 1) impossible, and 2) contrary to everything I love about this blog, where I like to invite ladies to be nice and supportive to me and each other and, you know, tout the sisterhood in general. The tone of this blog is, I hope, very much the tone of your email, which is to say: Let’s all just assume everyone’s trying their best and go from there.

So, keeping all this in mind, and then putting a fine point on the fact that I am ASKING for annoying parental behaviors (like, for example, asking a childless person to speak on behalf of ALL childless people), I’ll just say, if you have a list or could quickly come up with one, please do, as I think it might be for the Greater Good. (We parent-types have an Official List of Annoying Behaviors Exhibited by Those without Children, including — and I am not really supposed to share this with you, but in the interest of a free market, here goes — sleeping ALL THE DAMN TIME, going to movies WHENEVS, and not smiling admiringly when you are within earshot of my kid doing something I deem adorable.)

Or we can just open it up to the comments.

Your pal,
Amy

Dear Amy,

Okay. Let’s be clear. I’m only compiling this list because you asked for it. And I am doing so with trepidation – fear of offending very single friend and family member I know who has children.
  • Don’t dismiss out of hand our opinions about child-rearing. True, we do not have first-hand experience, and we cannot possibly guess what that parent-child relationship is truly like…but we were children once, and we had parents. We are not without agency in this arena. We occupy the world in which your children live and operate. In some ways, that gives our thoughts extra weight, unburdened as they are by any protective bias. 
  • We wanna hear about your life, and we know that includes your kids. But be mindful of how much you talk about your children. I joked before about how it’s simply boring to some of us, but it’s also deeply painful to others, a constant reminder of what isn’t. You don’t have to read our minds or be prepared to accommodate the deepest corners of our bruised psyches. Just be sensitive to our responses. People who don’t want to talk about kids will change the subject. Consider being open to that. 
  • You know how some dog owners think it’s absolutely adorable that their dog spends dinner under the table with his nose in your crotch? A lot of parents seem to have lost perspective about how their kids’ behavior may be off-putting to others. This area seems like a minefield to me. I’ve tried bringing it up on occasion, but it never comes across as anything other than an indictment of the person’s parenting. I don’t even know if what I’m suggesting is possible for a parent – but try, just for a second, to see your child through your friends’ eyes and perhaps be willing to intervene if necessary.
  • Here’s a toughie, and one that probably just makes me sound like a dick: I’m not your kid’s playmate. I’m your friend. I get invited over to a friend’s house and once there it seems I’m expected to entertain the kids, get up from the dinner table to play a round of Chutes & Ladders. Or we meet at a restaurant and I’m seated between your children and expected to pull funny faces for two hours. Um, in short: no. 
  • Some of us adore children and want you to disregard all of the above suggestions. So don’t lump all childless folk together. Let us set the tone, and follow that lead. If we gleefully jump up from the table to roll around with little Britney-Madison, then clearly we don’t mind. If you sense hesitation or reluctance, then throw yourself between me and your child as if she were a hand grenade. My general sense is that the more people understand I’m not automatically in love with their children and all their quirks, the more I tend to like and be interested in those children. Ironic, no? But then I suspect parenting is chock-full of ironies.
There. You happy now? Please, oh child-having readers, be kind to me in your responses.
Love,
Julia

Dear Julia,

Yes, I am happy now. Thank you!

Love,
Amy

Julia Smillie is a writer and editor living in Ann Arbor, MI. She recently received her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University and is currently at work finishing her first novel. You can read more of her writing and laugh about how rarely she updates her blog at readjulia.com

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On Control

My friend Angela is, above all things, whip-smart and super funny. She and I once had a tumultuous fall together where we figured out how to run a non-profit by doing it and occasionally cried.

Dear Angela,

I’m thinking of YOU for a Mom & Not Mom. I know you have talked about working on not being a control freak. Have you “fixed” it (LOL), or might you have strategies that work? Basically, I’m thinking a lot about how being impatient and a control freak make me VERY ill-suited to parenthood.

And I’m wondering if you have advice.

Also, how are you?

Love,
Amy

You terrify me with this assessment, because I ALREADY KNOW that it makes me ill-suited for parenthood, and you just confirmed what I hoped was B.S.

Yes. I will write something. Do I just start now and send you an email?

— (one hour later)

Dear Amy,

A long time ago I used “noiamnotacontrolfreak” as an internet handle, because my propensity for control freakiness was, at least in my mind, my dominant personality trait. Side note: someone told me that due to character limits my name showed up as “noiamnotaco” in his inbox. I stand by that statement as well. I am no taco.

I consider my need to control everything a Great Flaw, but one that has served me well as a Business Woman Who is Not a Mother. Being a control freak means you get shit done, and you get it done the way you want it done. Not because you have deadlines, or funding, or ample resources. Because your brain will collapse on itself like a dying star if there is any outcome other than “done to my satisfaction.”

Since the internet is forever, here is a non-work-related example: my husband asked me to marry him on April 17, 2013. We both wanted a fall wedding, and I had just lost a bunch of weight. However, we had also just purchased a house and were not flush with cash (you may know that we are not independently wealthy). I wanted to get married in six months because I also wanted to have my current body on my wedding day, and didn’t know whether I was going to keep the weight off — weight seems to be one of the things I cannot control, but I digress. He was (rightfully) concerned about our lack of dough, but…

Get married in six months with not a lot of money? Please. That’s not even a challenge. We collected and cut wine bottles for almost-free centerpieces; put Mom to work in a sweatshop making jewelry, purses, table linens, hanging backdrops, etc.; designed, printed, and spent hours cutting programs, name cards, and schedules; and begged and borrowed so.many.things. My string quartet performed for the price of dinner, as did the bagpiper and officiant. I became so obsessed with a gown for which I would in NO WAY pay retail, that I scoured the internet until I found it (unworn) for a fraction of the cost on idonowidont.com, then DROVE TO INDIANA to try it on before agreeing to purchase it for pennies on the dollar.

And we truly had the wedding of our dreams. But you know what almost gave me an aneurysm? Those effing trees. Most of the reason we wanted to get married in the fall was to have an outdoor wedding with the beautiful colors around us.

October 12, 2012 (a year before, for those bad at years) was PEAK color at our house. I know this because we had our housewarming party on October 5, 2012, and the following weekend we looked at the foliage and said, “Damn, this would have been a much better weekend.” So we picked October 12, 2013 and assumed that if it wasn’t peak, it would be close.

But alas, the weather of 2013 was total insanity. On October 8, 2013 nary a leaf was yellow, red, or orange. In the days leading up to the wedding I just sat and stared out the window for hours, furious at those damn trees. I could barely think of anything else. I LITERALLY Googled whether putting pounds of ice around the base of a tree would coax it into giving up its chlorophyl. My poor husband-to-be said, “Honey, you can’t let this ruin our wedding.” I mean, he actually thought that the fact that I obviously cannot control nature would ruin my experience of becoming his wife. SADFACE. Super sadface. For the record, my response was, “I won’t. But I’m going to let it ruin tonight, okay?” I needed at least a night of hate.

Amy, I bring all this up because it scares me about parenting. I tell you the wedding story because it’s fresh in my mind and people love weddings, but I could also give you a million examples involving housecleaning, which no one wants to hear. I am persnickety, and at times terrible with guests because they change things from the way I had them. I absolutely hate this about myself, but I can’t stop it. My cup runneth over with anxiety when it’s not the way I had it. And it’s not even like my house is that clean!

Knowing all this, and being painfully aware that I am far, far from perfect, I’ve had to actively coach myself in letting go. Is that email marketing piece not laid out as well as I would like? It’s okay. It’s not embarrassing and it’s going to be on time, with all the right links and stuff. That sort of thing. Delegate and shut up about it because the other path leads to burn out. Not metaphorical dying star burn out, but real emotional and physical burn out from work at a job where I’m in marketing. I’m not a surgeon, lawyer, teacher, etc. People’s lives or livelihoods are not in my hands.

BUT WHAT OF MY FUTURE CHILDREN? Amy, they will undoubtedly break the pretty French doors in my house. I’ve looked at those doors and thought, “We’re going to have to take them down for years,” and then spent thirty minutes woeful because I won’t see those doors for a little while, even though the tradeoff is a friggen miracle. An actual, for real miracle.

Maybe that’s not so much control freaky as selfish. I agonize about that, too. That I’m just so despicably selfish that I shouldn’t even be allowed to think about having children.

Is the need to be in total control just selfishness thinly disguised as intensity? Am I despicable?

Oh God, I’m despicable.

Despicably,
Angela

— (two minutes later)

Amy, everything I wrote after “BUT WHAT OF MY FUTURE CHILDREN” is still about me and not the fate of those darlings. Is there any hope for them?

Dear Angela,

The fact that you have a sense of humor in the midst of what is clearly a controlling and anxiety-ridden personality WILL SAVE YOU. Will it save you as a parent? Maybe not, but it will help.

That-nonprofit-I-work-for (you know the one, the one where we met?) turned me into a control freak, and then — after a few years — turned me into the opposite of a control freak. I went from delegating and hating the results to NOT delegating and feeling pretty good about things (albeit without a life outside of work) to feeling stressed out about All the Things to having a baby and going back to work and delegating and feeling pretty good about it. It’s not how I would do it, but it’s done, and it’s FINE.

I would like to say this has bled into my homelife too, but I’m afraid it’s been the opposite. Having a kid is different than delegating. It’s different than something where you can have any semblance of an expected outcome. I can ask her to do something (clean up her toys, go to the park with me, do an art project, put down that knife), and there is, literally, no telling what will happen. It’s not like, if I ask an intern to make a flier for an event, for example, at the end of that “ask,” I’ll have a flier in my hand (it may have Comic Sans and clip art on it, but it will be a flier). Raising a child, asking for something simple, or even something the child SHOULD want to do (go for a bike ride) can yield a seemingly infinite number of responses (super-polite, embarrassingly rude, inexplicably blase — last week, when I asked her if she wanted to go to the Hands-on Museum [one of her favorite things], she very nonchalantly said, “Not quite yet,” and went about her day, never to return to the topic).

And of course all of this has affected my life-as-a-partner. I delegate but I am often nagging about having to delegate, or complaining about the end result (how long it took, how well it was done). I am pretty sure this is because Jason is the ONE person I live with who is a rational, reasonable human, so I sort of rely on him to “balance out” the toddler.

I can’t tell you, of course, the long-term outcome of any of this. I like to think it’s broadening my horizons, challenging me, helping me to grow, making me a better person. At work, I THINK this is the case. I’m much calmer, much less control-freaky, easier to get along with, not a stress case. At home, it’s made me squirrelly and impatient and short-tempered and (Jason’s assessment) “angry.” (I put that in quotes because I think he misappropriates my frustration as anger.) I’m also despicable. But I’m working on it (you are too), and I think that’s what matters.

Here’s where we went wrong, and we can discuss this at length on this blog soon: We MAY HAVE waited too long to have children. I had Violet when I was 35. That means I had almost 15 post-college, “adult” years to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted (more or less). This, I suppose, creates an inadvertent form of selfishness. I got used to having things my way, and THEN I erroneously supposed that because I had been a grown-up for so long, I was somehow SUPER qualified for parenthood.

Um, oh yeah, I think I’m supposed to advise you on your future children. You’ll do fine. You’ll freak out at your lack of control, you may become frustrated about it, and, eventually (I do not have evidence of this yet, but it seems important to mention I AM CERTAIN IT IS COMING) come to grips with it all and be an in-charge, on-top-of-it but also able to roll-with-the-punches, spontaneous, fun-loving mom who enjoys spending time with her family (and also enjoys being alone sometimes). As you point out, liking control comes with a bevy of good things, too.

That sense of humor? We are both SO LUCKY to have it. I’m pretty sure it will save us both.

Love,
Amy

Angela Kujava is married and has one cat. The unconditional love she has for her cat, and the ability to clean up semi-weekly poop/puke accidents without resentment, give her hope that maybe she might have it in her to someday be a not-despicable mom. In her free time she likes taking on projects that can be completed quickly like sewing infinity scarves, cooking things in a pressure cooker, and doing other people’s resumes.

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On Bravery

Sometimes, when you ask someone a question, it takes you a long time to figure out the question that you mean to ask. Over the summer, I corresponded with Colette Alexander. That, in and of itself, was a remarkable act of bravery on my part, as I’ve been an admirer of her for the better part of a decade. And it took me a while to figure out what it really was that I was trying to get from her, by which I mean to say: this is the first part of a longer dialogue, yet to come. Enjoy!

Hi Colette,

At Mittenfest this year, we had an extremely brief conversation about how you, quite suddenly it seems, fell in love and moved to San Francisco from NYC. (Am I remembering this correctly? Maybe there was a job in there too? Also, something about Lyme’s Disease?) Years ago, I watched you move from Ann Arbor to NYC, then travel the world (or so it seemed to stationary me).

I don’t really do resolutions or anything, but I am currently testing out the idea of “2014: The Year of Living Fearlessly.” I read something recently that asked, What would you do if you were not afraid? And reading that question made my brain explode in every conceivable direction. And when I put my brain back together, I saw what felt like an infinite list.

So, Colette. Are you REALLY as fearless as you appear? I look at the list of things you’ve done, places you’ve been, places you’ve moved, crowds you’ve performed in front of, decisions you’ve made. How skilled you are as a cellist. (And please know, as a “cellist,” I’ve learned that mastering an instrument — NOT THAT I’VE EVER DONE IT — is in itself an act of fearlessness.) The fact that you’ve been on the Tonight Show. And if you ARE as fearless as you appear, have you always been that way — is there a Fearless Gene — or was it something you worked on and cultivated (read: Is there hope for me?)?

Love, Amy

Dear Amy,

Your idea for a Year of Living Fearlessly sounds terrifying!
 
In all seriousness: if someone ever tells you they’re fearless, please run the other way. They’re either lying or they’re not at all self aware. I find either of those two traits rather abhorrent in people.
 
I think everyone has fear. Probably at first, out of the womb, we have less of it (you could confirm that better than me, as a mom). Then, I imagine, over the period of growing up and experiencing some of the awfulness of our humanity on the planet, we accrue more and more fear. We’re taught fear, by people, our environment, and just pure bad-old-luck. Mostly I think that people teach it to us, though — whether our parents or co-workers or lovers or friends.
 
I dive into the somewhat depressing origins of fear, because to me, understanding where fear comes from is the beginning of a conversation with it. I talk a lot to my fear. Probably sometimes too much. So, in a step-by-step, usually here’s how it goes:
  1. I know I’m afraid.
  2. I try to figure out why I’m afraid.
  3. I *listen* (to fear, to instinct, to as much as I can, internally).
  4. I decide whether or not my fear is worth listening to as I move forward.
Sometimes fear is good! Sometimes it’s based in reality, and we should all heed those parts of our fear. Often, though, I find it’s just noise, and it’s preventing me from constructing what I *want* to be my reality, or it’s keeping me from having some serious fun. Discerning the difference can feel a little bit like drawing straws sometimes, but it’s worth the try.
 
And, not to get too meta, but I think the secret to overcoming fear is whether you feel like it’s worth it to try. To just push through. To know that you might fail, fuck up, hurt someone, or get hurt, and to go on anyways, because what’s motivating you to move forward feels bigger and more important than that fear. For me, music will always be more worth it. Music saves my life every day, probably because it allows me to overcome fear without the need for anything else but a beautiful song or a just a note drawn long on my cello. Love is more complicated for me than music.
 
I *did* move to San Francisco. A job offer and falling in love seemed to coincide (along with crazy health things that I’m still dealing with) to point me in the direction of the bay area, so I decided to give it a whirl. It turns out that neither the job or the love were what I expected (which, at the age of 33 is probably what I’ve come to expect from launching into so many new things). The job is something I’m still working on getting better at, and still trying to use as a way to improve my knowledge about what I might learn from a non-music-career (answer MIGHT be “nothing”).
 
The love thing didn’t work out. I could write pages to you about why I think that’s the case. Instead I’ll just say: I don’t regret overcoming my fear to try, and if anything, I regret any fear I might have allowed to enter into my experience of the relationship, and sit like a poison inside of it.
 
Which I guess leads me to marriage and kids: you’ve done all of that, and I honestly can’t comprehend the fears related to being married, and then to get pregnant and be responsible for another living being on the planet. I would argue that that is a far braver act than showing up for hair and makeup at 1 PM and playing a 4 minute song in front of some cameras. But both do come with sets of fear, and their own consequences, good and bad. My dad always said having kids was the best but hardest thing he’s ever done, though, and I think I’ll take his word for that over my entertainment industry experience.
 
Whether it’s in music or love, I know my radical vulnerability (which some people read as bravery, others as stupidity) has consequences: things hurt really bad when stuff goes wrong. REALLY bad. (For instance, about an hour ago I realized that I liked a boy more than he liked me, and needed to go into a bathroom at work and cry for a second)
 
As I’ve aged, I’ve learned that being radically vulnerable comes with a set of things you need to do alongside it, in order to not be torn down by it all:
  1. Learn to be kind to yourself. Kinder than anyone else might be. (I SUCK at this sometimes)
  2. Decide to learn from the hurt and from the failure.
  3. Don’t be afraid of the decision to stop doing something or to quit, especially if it’s to protect yourself.
So — now I get to ask, right? This is how this works? How do you see your kid learning or un-learning fear? Was there anything that you were afraid about when it came to having V that you’ve since realized was unfounded? Or absolutely relevant?
 
love,
-colette

Dear Colette,

Radical vulnerability. I love that. I have never thought of bravery in those terms but it makes so much sense.

Vi is sort of . . . cautiously fearless, and it’s one of my favorite things about her. Doing something for the first time, she is slow about it, she wants to hold my hand, she’s a little nervous. Once she realizes she can do something, she’s fearless. (Maybe we’re all sort of this way? Maybe the difference is she’s too young to talk herself out of the cautious trying? And maybe that’s because she doesn’t have a ticker-tape list of all the crazy things that could go wrong to run through?) As it happens, it’s actually sort of hard for a kid to REALLY hurt herself, say, on a playground, so if anything, I work on erring to the side of letting her go a little too far (much to the chagrin, it sometimes seems, of the other moms around me [dads seem to get it]).

Right now, she’s toying with the idea of fear. She says she’s afraid of things from time to time, but it’s this kind of mock-drama. I’m not sure how I’ll deal with her actual fears. I want to honor her emotions, but I also don’t want to encourage them, especially stuff like monsters, fear of the dark, etc. I want her to be tough, but not hard. (I’m hard, but not tough. Although I only learned this recently.)

As for what’s happened since becoming a mother, well. For my pregnancy and the first year of her life, I was afraid of EVERYTHING related to having a kid. Like, almost literally. Now, I am trying to take it one day at a time, stay calm, model good, moderate behavior. The truth is, I think motherhood is taking so much out of me that there’s not much energy left over in that part of my life for fear.

In other parts of my life, it’s grown. I don’t really know my purpose anymore. I used to throw myself so completely into my job that I felt fulfilled by it; I’m no longer able to do that. I’m afraid to “put myself out there” artistically (I have a bunch of photographs of peeled fruit I had every intention of selling online but I can’t bring myself to do it, for example). I guess at heart I fear that people will think I take myself too seriously (and I don’t). Which, now that I’ve typed it, is silly. And certainly not behavior I want to model for my daughter. Which, I guess means it is a fear not worth listening to (thank you for that tidbit, by the way, which I’ve thought about a lot since reading your letter).
I’ve thought a lot about a lot of stuff you wrote in your letter, actually, and all I can say is that it’s been really helpful. So if you have anything else to share (right now or whenever), I’m always available.

Love,
Amy

Dear Amy,

Your description of Vi and her cautious fearlessness is awesome! The idea of allowing children to deliberately and regularly step out of their comfort zones by loving them and supporting them is probably one of my favorite ways I’ve heard parenting described. It also sounds like motherhood is transcendent for you in the sense that it obliterates the opportunity for more fear — even if it’s because you’re so tired at the end of the day, or because you’re so focused on the details of getting it right — whatever it is about that energy, it sounds like it pushes the fear out to the sides and sweeps it away. Sometimes I think when we focus on just getting things (or, better yet, just one small thing) done, we’re able to overcome the fears that paralyze us. God, now I’m starting to sound like a stupid self-help book.
 
And now, as a little humor/music break, everyone should go listen to this, which is my current hype-song-to-feel-good-and-inspired.
 
“You have to walk through the fire . . . you walk through the fire, and then you own it, and you go ‘Come for me, bitches’ ” gets me every goddamn time. To me it seems like anything that’s *worth* doing (motherhood, love, friendship, playing music) always involves walking through the fire (sometimes over and over again).
 
Your line about worrying about people thinking that you take yourself too seriously struck home pretty hard. I struggle a lot with caring too much about what other people think, and it’s often paralyzing. What I love about that Richard Simmons sample at the beginning of the music clip I linked to is where he points out that often when people (or your internal critic) hurl criticism at you, it’s actually a reflection of them and their insecurities and not really about you or your own work at all. Being armed with this knowledge is often my shield when I go into battle with my fear. When I realize other people’s potential (not even actual!) criticism prevents me from making art it seems . . . well, exactly as you put it: silly. Nothing any of us do is ever perfect, either. Perfection is a dangerous lie perpetuated by people (and internal voices) that are hell-bent on keeping us locked up and paralyzed with fear.
 
From where I sit, you’re leading an incredibly rich and busy life. When you write about struggling with not having a purpose, do you think that it has to do with finding ‘balance’ (ugh, I hate that term) between all of these things? Or do you think that a purpose is more functional: “I wake up every day and deliver x and feel y because I have a purpose.” ?  Being on tour and playing shows always did the latter for me. But that was addictive, I think — having that release and expression and pure function every day seems an easy stand-in for purpose, but I’m not sure it ever actually was truly a purpose, as much as a thing I could do every day that reminded me I was alive and part of humanity/the planet. So, not a bad thing, but also not the complete answer to what purpose is. I wonder what other kinds of things I can do to put myself there. When was the last time you felt like you had a purpose? And what’s the definition of ‘purpose’ for you?
 
I keep coming back to what you describe as cautious fearlessness with Vi — and I wonder how we can enable that space for ourselves, within ourselves. Brené Brown (ugh, TED talks, I know — but give it a chance) speaks about a lot of the stuff we’ve covered – vulnerability, shame, fear – and how actually getting there and interacting with all of that stuff makes people have the ability to innovate, create, and ultimately be happy. Shame is key when it comes to vulnerability, which is why I linked to that particular talk. Shame goes back to the Richard Simmons clip and that line about how those critics (internal and external) say things to try to keep us down, and what that’s really about. Your photographs of peeled fruit or whatever other piece of art you put out are you showing up in the gladiator ring and fighting the fight, and they’re your vulnerability.  I need to see them. You need to see them. We all need to see them, and we all need to make our own and be kinder to ourselves and others who are vulnerable with us and for us every day.
 
Love (and apparently Richard Simmons and all other self-help cliches I could pack into an email),
Colette
 
Dear Colette,

Ah! Call my life anything JUST DON’T CALL IT BUSY. (I’m so over busy. I’m on very much on board with the movement of people thinking “busy” is the new way of saying “I’m important.” If anything, I am ACTIVELY trying NOT to be busy, or to ever say things are “crazy” [another pet peeve]. I spend too much time watching Netflix and reading for fun to ACTUALLY be busy.)

A FUNCTION. That’s it. It’s not that I don’t have a purpose. I guess you’re right, I have many. But I want to feel USEFUL. When I was working full-time at that cool place, pre-Mom, I could really throw myself into it. It was my life. It made me feel useful. It wasn’t even that I had any delusions that I was changing the world. I just felt that I was doing a small, good thing, and it was the nucleus that my life revolved around. Now my purposes are divided between too many things to make me feel useful in the way I am used to. But it’s a pie, right? I want the pie to be uncut, one function. But I need to come around to the fact that, even though it’s in pieces, it’s still a PIE. (I see your Richard Simmons and raise you a clunky and unoriginal food metaphor!)

You are a glass-half-full kind of girl, and I respect that. I strive for that. And you are so right about how when people throw shade it’s their own insecurities, and I have to keep that in mind.

I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to post this, but I think I’ve figured out why. Because I didn’t ask you the question I actually wanted you to answer. Watching you play with Matt Jones at the Ark a few weeks ago, I thought of all the hours in your life you’ve practiced that instrument versus the number of hours in my life I’ve dicked around. And I, of course, wished that I could trade those hours so that I could get up in front of a crowd and dazzle and amaze the way that you do.

So. At the end of this very long entry, the question I REALLY meant for this to be all about, is: How do you cultivate a sense of DISCIPLINE, around anything? At this point, I lack discipline almost completely. And I realize, mastering anything takes more than discipline, it takes a combination of discipline and CONFIDENCE to truly succeed. Which takes a sort of bravery, which is where I think I got off track.

Anyway. Thanks for engaging with me on this sort of Quixotian exercise. I’ll wrap my brain around this discipline question — you start thinking on it, too — and we’ll discuss, soon.

Love,
Amy

Colette Alexander began playing the cello at the age of four, and has studied classical, contemporary classical, North Indian and Persian Music at Interlochen, Meadowmount, Sarah Lawrence College, and the California Institute of the Arts. She has recorded and performed with many artists, including Jens Lekman, Josh Groban, Sara Bareilles, Angelique Kidjo, Rilo Kiley, Rachael Yamagata, Greg Laswell, Girls in Trouble, Au Revoir Borealis, and Drafted by Minotaurs.  With a primary focus on writing/arranging for and performing with pop/rock bands, she’s toured extensively in Europe, the U.S. and Asia, and appeared on many recordings. She currently resides in San Francisco, but is about to move to Portland.

Uncategorized

On Adoption

This post is a long time in the making, and, as such, it’s long, but I hope you will find it worth it. Becky is a long-time and extremely important volunteer at that-non-profit-writing-center-for-kids I work at. In February, she wrote me about her plans to adopt a child. 

Dear Amy,

About a year ago (or was it already two years ago? Jeez . . .) I planned to write you a letter asking how you knew when you were ready to become a mom. Although I had the vague notion that I wanted kids someday, I was very afraid that I would never actually feel ready, that there would always be a reason to put it off, that proceeding would always feel more terrifying and nauseating than just staying put.

I realize that this feeling is hardly unique. Probably every person on earth who has thoughtfully contemplated parenthood has felt this way. But I think I was more anxious about it than most, for a couple of reasons. One being that I am just an anxious person. (But who isn’t?)

The other reason is that I knew — and have known, for years — that we would not be able to have kids biologically. There would never be a sort of gray area of “not not trying” or “letting nature take its course” or “seeing what happens.” We would have to be deliberate, proactive, and ready to invest major time and resources into whatever path to a family we decided to pursue. And at the same time we knew that our timeline would probably be long. Maybe years. So probably we should actually get started before we really wanted to, counting on the fact that we might have to wait and watch and want for a very long time.

As it turned out, the problem of feeling ready ultimately solved itself. In my experience this is nearly always what happens. When the time is right for something, you just know. You’re still scared and you’re still unsure, but the desire to move forward finally starts to work against the inertia of sitting still. Proceeding might still be difficult, overwhelming, and terrifying, but it starts to feel natural and right and exciting, too. If it doesn’t feel that way, if counteracting inertia makes you feel seasick, that’s probably a good sign that it’s not time yet.

We were lucky in that we got to this place at more or less the same time, and were ready to move ahead together. It’s really hard when that’s not the case. And so we’re doing this: we are trying to adopt our first child. We’ve jumped through the hoops and filled out the forms and been inspected. Our cat has helped us out by creeping up over the shoulder of our social worker and licking all of our home study papers. We are approved.

And now we wait.

We have been waiting since the first week of October, which is both a long time and no time at all. A lot of people in the blogosphere refer to this limbo as being “paper pregnant.” I guess this is to help the prospective parents, as well as their family and friends, feel hopeful and expectant and to familiarize and normalize an unfamiliar process. But it doesn’t feel right to me.

I’ve never been pregnant, but I will tell you that I don’t think this is what it’s like. It’s very strange to think that we could get a call tomorrow saying a baby has been born and we need to pick it (it?) up immediately from the hospital. Or we could be invited to meet with a woman thinking of placing her baby for adoption, spend weeks getting to know her, see the baby born, and she might decide to parent after all (as she absolutely should, if she’s able to). Or we could take that baby home, and this little stranger will join our family forever. I know that pregnancy comes with its own set of uncertainties but there’s a concrete reality and physicality to it that is just not in line with what we’re experiencing right now.

I want to be clear that I’m not saying this from a place of grief or bitterness. There is grief, sure, in realizing that you will never carry a child yourself, and never see the unique product of your genes and your partner’s. I’ve been coming to terms with this, on and off, for years, and I probably will continue to deal with it, on and off, for the rest of my life. At the same time, I am excited about and preparing for the kind of family that we will have, which I hope will be a rich blend of surprises, comprised of people old and young who choose to love each other for their shared experiences, history, and mutual affection, if not their DNA. (Although indeed, I have heard rumors that raising kids that *did* come out of your body is also prone to surprises and requires you to choose love even when it doesn’t feel natural or easy. Can this be true!?!?).
I resist comparing adopting to pregnancy not because one is more valid or more special, but because they are different, they just are, and I think they should be understood and celebrated on their own terms.

But there’s another reason why I feel its dangerous to pretend that going through the adoption process is the same as or analogous to being pregnant: this sweeps under the rug the fact that when you’re trying to to adopt, somebody else actually *is* pregnant, and wrestling with a heartbreaking decision.The more I read and learn about adoption, the more I am horrified at the way this institution/industry has manipulated and exploited vulnerable women to secure cute babies for infertile middle class families. (Google “baby scoop” if, like 12-months-ago-me, this is something you’ve never thought much about. Or see Philomena, I guess.) I do feel that our agency is very ethical — this is something we looked into closely. There’s no doubt that in *some* cases adoption really is the best path for all of the parties involved. And we as a couple are deeply committed to maintaining open, honest lines of communication with the biological family of the child we adopt. No secrets, no shame. But there is so much historical baggage (and present day baggage) related to adoption practices that I wonder sometimes if any of this is okay.

I’m afraid both that we’ll never be chosen, and also that we will be and I’ll, like, convince the mom not to place her child with us. Or that everything will go through smoothly, but I’ll somehow fail to hold up my end of the deal to protect, preserve, and do right every day by this baby.

It’s weird to try to prepare. How do you do it in the abstract, with no timeline? We have a crib at home just in case. It’s been shoved into the middle of our second bedroom, between the ancient laptop that no one uses and my bed frame from when I was in grad school. It’s a very charming look. I’m sure the baby will love it in there. We have a carseat in a box in our basement. Our cats think the box makes an excellent scratching gym. We want to be ready, but not obnoxiously overzealous.

Amy, I have nothing to compare this experience to. I know that pregnancy is also overwhelming and stressful and full of uncertainty and fear. And, you know, joy and excitement, which we are also feeling, when we let ourselves feel it.

I guess I don’t have a real question for you except this: as a mom, do you have any advice for me as we wade through this wintry mix of a new kind of not-knowing?

Your friend,
Becky

Dear Becky,

Let’s start with the good news, which you already know. NO ONE is ready or prepared for parenthood. Truly, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a new mom lament that “no one ever told [her]” the first few months would be so hard (and — in at least two cases, I HAD TOLD HER), I don’t know, I’d have probably $2. Which is a lot of nickels!

I am convinced there IS no way of preparing. As a pregnant lady, I fooled myself into thinking I could be prepared by becoming VERY focused on the birth. I read, I watched, I took classes. This is, I see now, the parenthood equivalent of spending lots of time planning a wedding but none really thinking about a marriage. (That said, and this is an important distinction, when you get married, you KNOW the person, to some degree. ANY degree is more than you know the baby, who, yes, is full of surprises, I am coming to realize, FOREVER.)

While pregnant, I remember Jason telling me about friends who adopted, and how they had to buy a car seat on the way to the airport TO PICK UP THE BABY. This struck me, at the time, as insane. And scary. We had a car seat, a crib, a high-chair, an exersaucer, a bouncy seat, a play gym, MONTHS before the baby was due. This is, I see now, one of the ways I convinced myself I was prepared. We had stuff! PILES of it! All over our apartment! We were PREPARED.

But having two different kinds of infant bathtubs and a crib does not mean you’re prepared (or that the baby is going to be easy to bathe; ours wasn’t, still isn’t). Truth be told, we didn’t even put the baby IN the crib until she was about three months old.

Pregnancy takes forever. I started out “I want to savor every moment of being pregnant” and ended with “MY GOD I NEVER REALIZED HOW LONG NINE MONTHS IS.” I think this is nature’s way of “preparing” you. Basically just making you FEEL done with pregnancy, thereby, by default, ready for parenthood. (Perhaps “paper pregnancy” is a similar phenomenon?)

And now, we are trying to make another baby. So you and I are sort of in the same boat. Trying to conceive is, in its own weird way, similar (to a point), because we have no idea how long that will take. If it happens, then we have a reasonable idea of a countdown, which is where our paths diverge. (We started in January. So far, one person in our family is not sad it hasn’t happened yet.)

I don’t know where this fits in here, but it seems worth mentioning. The hardest part of parenthood, for me, has been how much of my life has been taken over by it. I think that everyone likes time alone. But there are people who “like” time alone, and then there are people who “need a lot of” time alone. I fit into the second category, and I’d wager that this second category is the one where you find the most people who have a hard time adjusting to parenthood.

There are other things too. And I know — from experience — that there is NO convincing a woman who feels “ready” to have a baby to rethink it (AND I AM NOT TELLING YOU TO RETHINK IT). But. What everyone says about not sleeping anymore? IT IS SO TRUE. I miss sleep so much. I miss having ANY SEMBLANCE OF CONTROL over how much sleep I get. It is totally out of my hands now.

And I really respect how empathetic you are being about the situation. I, for one, cried through most of Philomena and then came home and wept openly as I described the plot to Jason. I like to think those days are behind us. I’m not going to Google “baby scoop” because I don’t want to know. Here’s what I DO know: You are doing an altruistic, kind thing for good and loving reasons. You are, as you say, going to do right by this baby. And THAT is what matters, no matter how you got there.

My advice, I suppose, is to dig into whatever you feel like digging into. What is your mind fixating on? Indulge it. While, ultimately, all my research on giving birth didn’t make the baby spring joyfully from my uterus while I visualized a beach, it was the very thing that helped me deal with that wintry mix, that not-knowing you asked about. What aspects of your new adventure are you obsessed with?

Love, Amy

Hi Amy,

Oh man. I love sleep. And alone time. And personal space. And eating and not eating whenever I want to. And sleep. And silence. And not being touched all the time. And . . . whatever the opposite of yucky smells and textures is. And sleep. That won’t be a problem, right? Ha! Hahahahaha.

No, really, I hate when people compare pets to kids — they aren’t, they aren’t — but I do have a cat who cries in the middle of the night and proudly poops wherever she wants and a dog who wakes up startled and has to be soothed and then kicks over her water bowl when she wants more (What’s the magic word, Daisy?), so EVEN THOUGH IT’S NOT THE SAME I do have some practice with the neediness, the noise, the mess, and how it’s all totally and completely worth it.

Not gonna lie, I’ve been sleeping with wild abandon and no regrets since we started this journey. I feel like we’ve been embracing life in other ways, too — on my own and together we’ve made several trips and visits to far away friends in the last 10 months that we’d been talking about for years and not taking. In between compulsively refreshing the website for the adoption agency and reverse-looking-up every unknown phone number that calls my phone, I feel like we’re doing a pretty decent job of living our lives fully while we wait.

By the way, that automated message from a correctional facility that I thoughtlessly hung up on last weekend did turn out to be a scam, and not the moment shit got really real. It’s weird to no longer have any trustworthy filter on what’s legit and what’s not. Apparent call from prison? This could be it, although admittedly I had never thought about this scenario until I thought it was happening to me. Cryptic, unintelligible text message obviously written by a teenage girl? This could be it. I am texting and calling back every freaking wrong number, reverse-looking-up every missed call. It’s exhausting and disheartening. And leads to counterproductive, if sometimes hilarious, text message exchanges with teenage girls who don’t believe I’m not the guy they’re looking for.

So what else? That changes from week to week. Back in the fall I was reading everything I could get my hands on, from Dan Savage’s The Kid to Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish their Adoptive Parents Knew to Chocolate Hair / Vanilla Care (it’s possible that our child will be a different race from us — we don’t know — and I’ve been focusing a lot on the political, social, cultural and, well, cosmetic implications of this).

You will see that in all this research on adoption, I have not read anything at all about, you know, babies. Like you said, a class or a book can’t prepare you fully to be a parent. But it seems like maybe I should have a clue about how much they should eat. Or something. I’d like to take an infant parenting class, but it would be nice if it were one geared toward adoptive parents. There’s so much I could learn about taking care of a little baby, but honestly I’m not sure I care to sit through, like, four weeks of Lamaze (do people even do Lamaze anymore?). Any suggestions on how to find such a thing? So far Googling has been remarkably unhelpful.

For a long time I actively resisted buying any stuff at all, convinced I would somehow jinx us or that, worse, we’d look desperate and pathetic and lame, with our empty nursery. Then it started to sink in that I was making this choice based on anxiety and fear — fear of being judged, fear that this will never happen. That’s not the kind of atmosphere we want to welcome a child into — nor is it the one we want to immerse ourselves in for however long this takes. So, with hope, faith, and expectation, we are slowly starting to gather things as the opportunity arises. We bought a carseat/stroller combo when it was on clearance at Target. We found a crib + changing table on craigslist. Although superstitiously, I have not bought and will not buy a single piece of clothing. Which is dumb because that’s literally the first thing we’ll need, except maybe diapers. But I just can’t do it.

This weekend, we are clearing out our guest bed, which is really the bed I bought for myself when I moved to Ann Arbor for grad school. It’s a little bittersweet to let it go — this is the only big piece of furniture I’ve ever bought myself, only for myself. It also feels like an act of faith. We only have the one spare bedroom, the one spare bed. So we’re saying, we believe that this room will need to be a nursery sooner, and more, than we need to rely on the guest bed. Or at least before next year’s yard sale.

My mom is also coming this weekend to paint a mural on the wall of what is now like almost halfway a nursery. I’m so excited about this. We’ve had plenty of long talks with our parents about this whole process, but this is our first real opportunity to include them in any concrete way. This is also the first gift my mom will give her future grandchild. That makes me excited, and warms my heart.

I first wrote to you back in February. It’s June now, and with summer I remember so many of the reasons I want to be parent. Sidewalk chalk. French braids (Ha! I bet you could school me on toddlers’ tolerance for *that* kind of nonsense). Ice cream. Swimming. I don’t think it’s an accident that we started the application process to adopt in July last year. In the summertime I feel like the world has so much to offer a child, and we want to be a part of it all. Amy, you called me altruistic in your response, and that was really kind of you, but I’m not sure it’s right. We’re doing this because we *want* babies. Because we *want* to be parents.  If and when this happens, we will be the lucky ones.

Speaking of that, we don’t have any real news on the adoption. Nothing has changed, really, except that we know our agency ran out of copies of our profile, which means it’s getting handed out. So that’s good news. An abbreviated version is also on the agency’s website. But still, we wait, and hope, and keep our eyes and ears open for possibilities because, we have learned, a match can come from anywhere. Most of the time, this constant, slightly elevated adrenaline level feels like the new norm. I guess that’s just one more step toward preparing for parenthood.

I turn 29 tomorrow. Suddenly everyone I know is pregnant (I knew this was coming. Everyone talks about it. But I didn’t anticipate that it would happen so obviously and abruptly!). I am hopeful that 2014 will turn out to be a big year for us, and for you, too!

What is your little family up to this summer, Amy? Do you also find that your June self almost doesn’t recognize your February self?

Becky

Dear Becky,

I think the URGE for wanting a child is almost inherently selfish. And I guess that’s the ironic part, because the ACT of parenthood doesn’t allow room for selfishness. But I think — you mentioned you haven’t thought about BABIES that much because you’ve been thinking about the PROCESS — you’re already proving your unselfishness. I honestly can’t imagine going through this sort of . . . waiting to get chosen? Texting with teens? It shows an amazing amount of STRENGTH and unselfishness. We are just, you know, having a lot of sex, and while I can’t say it’s ALWAYS “fun,” it is undeniably more selfish than what you’re doing.

My June self barely recognizes my February one, you’re right. For starters, my June self has been sleeping (oh, I am so terrified of jinxing something by typing that, but last week, Violet slept through the night — 9ish to 7 or 8ish — SIX NIGHTS). Also, this weather? Amazing. I DID manage to French braid her hair, by the way. It happened “on the move” and lasted about 25 minutes:

Only known photo of Violet's French braid, April  12, 2014, 9:35am-10am.

Only known photo of Violet’s French braid, April 12, 2014, 9:35am-10am.

And then, as you know, I cut what felt like about a foot of hair off Vi’s head. (I had to come to grips with the fact that 2.5 year olds are not SUPPOSED to have that much hair. It was just always full of yogurt, and she hated having it washed or combed.)

ANYWAY. Keep me posted. I’m thinking about you and all the TRULY EXCITING (and terrifying) stuff you have ahead of you, and I’ll be sending good thoughts your way as you struggle through the hard parts of this process. (Also? Mural with your mom?!  So great. And ahead of you? Ice cream. Swimming. And that indescribable feeling of your child hugging you with those strong, skinny arms.) And I’d be delighted to talk more with you about any of it, here or elsewhere.

Love, Amy

PS Happy birthday!

Becky is a not-mom librarian who has one dog, two cats, and many, many pairs of earrings. This month she enjoys swimming, spicy hot V8, and not cooking on Thursdays. She sometimes (but not lately) writes about movies, clothes, and other things at http://chameleoninboots.wordpress.com/.

Uncategorized Aside

ON ORPHANHOOD

Today’s Not Mom, Tyler, is unofficially my brother-in-law. We met almost seven years ago when he started volunteering at the robot shop (before it opened). He officiated my wedding. He’s a dear friend, one that I love to talk to about movies and music and beer. He’s one of those “I have to tell/ask Tyler about ______” people that you can never have too many of. Three months after the unexpected death of his father, I sent him this email. He responded almost immediately, and through reasons COMPLETELY my own, I am just now posting this.


Dear Tyler,

You recently lost your father. And, before I even met you, you lost your mom. I know you know this already, but this makes you an orphan.

I have three things I want to discuss with you.

1. Do you have any advice for people like me who have not yet lost a parent? I can make myself cry just, you know, driving around in my car on a Tuesday when I think too long or hard or specifically about my mom dying. Should I be taking more pictures? Asking more questions? Are there things you wish you had done that you hadn’t?

2. At some point, if things work out as they are supposed to, I guess, everyone becomes an orphan. One thing I’ve been struck with as a 38-year-old is how little I feel like an adult. Different things that I thought would make me feel like an adult (getting a career, having a baby) didn’t. If you feel similarly, does one feel more like an adult after the loss of a parent? (I don’t feel like I rely on my parents too much, but, especially now that I HAVE a child, I understand the parent-child dynamic more completely.)

3. You are, literally, the sixth close friend I’ve had lose a father in the last year or so. It’s a trend. In your twenties, friends start getting married; in your thirties; they start getting divorced; in your late thirties, dads start dying. What are the best/most supportive things friends can do when this happen? What are the worst?

Love,
Amy

Dear Amy,

It’s been a dream of mine to be a part of “Mom/Not Mom” since its inception. I’d hoped I could find a backdoor in even though I have an extra Y chromosome, and here we are! Hooray! I got here by being an orphan, so, I guess, boo.
But as you said, this happens to everyone if things go according to Hoyle. It happened to me earlier than most which is lamentable, but there are many things that make it . . . let’s say palatable? I’m going to run with that even if it might be distasteful phrasing. Anyway:

1. Advice? My initial response is, listen, you’ll have regrets no matter how everything shakes out. I ultimately can only speak to specifics, so here’s one thing I did that’s been great, and one that will forever be an “I wish . . .” The first is that as my mom started to get sick, we sat around a lot and looked at old photo albums. It was kind of like a long, protracted wake, with the deceased still around to give some context. Anyway, I started taking all of those old photographs and digitized them. It served the grieving process and now I can go look at the entirety of my parents’ lives from any computer. I find it comforting. On the regret side, I had planned for years to start visiting with my dad for an “oral history,” recording all of his old stories so they would be preserved forever. I never got around to it, and now I can’t. It seems trite to say “Don’t put shit off,” but that’s the crux of it.

2. I may be an anomaly here, as I had a kid when I was 19 (19!). That’s left me feeling like an adult for the last 20 years, but one that’s kind of looking in from the outside? If that makes sense? Since I never got to be an “unencumbered” adult and say, go backpacking in Europe or take a job where I make no money because who cares, I’m in a perpetual state of adolescence, trying to make up for “lost time.” I think I finally wrapped my head around being an adult when my kid became one. There’s no denying it now, I’m an old man, even if I act like a juvenile most of the time. I don’t think losing either parent had much effect on my feelings of being adult, but maybe that’s semantics, because both times it made me feel utterly alone. I suppose those things are intertwined, but that’s probably another conversation.

3. OK, so as a veritable “expert” on this, I can unequivocally say this: there’s no wrong thing. Outside of someone asking something of you during those times, anyone who says or does anything is nice. Especially if you have the mindset of “these people care about you and your family, and letting them help or express something is as much for them as it is for you.” I prefer physical cards to facebook posts or emails, and a donation to a charity I think is nice over flowers, but those are personal preferences. What meant most to me though was people sharing stories about my parents. Shared ones, personal ones – even people who didn’t really know them but would write to say “I always remember you talking about . . .” After all is said and done, memories are really all we have, so reminders of those or adding to them is the literal best thing you can do.

I guess in some ways losing a parent is like becoming one? It seems an impossible task that you ultimately muddle your way through. I can still well up thinking about my parents, and I know I will absolutely lose my shit next fall when football season rolls around and I don’t have my dad around to share it. But I mostly think about how lucky I was to have such amazing parents, and how I can always lean on all the things they instilled in me. That’s why I’ve kept this picture on my desk at work ever since my dad passed.  Sometimes it makes me cry unexpectedly, and I’m OK with that. Mostly I look at them and think “I want to party with those cats” and the fact that I got to for such a long time is worth celebrating.

Image

Dear Tyler,

I know you know this, but your mother was a Stone Cold FOX.

Also, thanks for all of this.

Love, Amy

Tyler Brubaker has lots of opinions on sports and music and politics and beer, and he’ll happily tell you about all of them on his blog.

On Orphanhood

Uncategorized

On Marriage

My friend Holly is getting married this summer, and she’s seeking advice. I’ve done my ham-fisted best here, but we both invite you to add as much marriage/long-term relationship advice as you can to the comments section below!

Dear Amy,

I’m getting married. You know this. You’re coming to the wedding.

People seem very concerned about the mechanics of our marriage: Can you even do that in Michigan? Is it legal? Will you get a partner visa for Singapore?

And the mechanics of our wedding: Will you wear a dress or a suit? At which hotels have you reserved blocks of rooms? How many friends can I bring to support me? (- my little brother, who seems to find this gay wedding thing very distressing.)

But, so far, no one’s really talked with us or with me about marriage itself. Over a series of dinner dates at our favorite Indonesian restaurant, we went through the NYTimes questions for people who are getting married (here and here). I started to read a book about marriage until I discovered how religious and gender-normative it was. And sometimes I read the NYTimes stories about the really old couples who’ve made things work for 50+ years. That’s it so far.

I have friends who are married and married parents who are pretty happy together now but didn’t always seem so happy when I was growing up. Emily, my fiancée, has divorced parents and is herself divorced. She’s scared shitless. I’m not, and that worries me somehow, like maybe I’m missing something.

When I was younger, I thought I’d never get married because (putting aside the legal difficulties as well as the bigger political question of whether marriage should even exist and whether opting into a cornerstone institution of heteronormativity and patriarchy is counter to queer ideals) promises are really important to me. I couldn’t conceive of making such a huge promise based on so little experience. I currently swim everyday, but I would never promise to do so for the rest of my life. I’ve been a writer for a decade, but I don’t know that I’d promise to do that for even another decade, let alone a lifetime, and I really like being a writer. But here’s a promise that is bigger than those because it involves another person, and potentially more people down the line. And I’m going to make it, in spite of only limited evidence (2 ½ years as a couple and 13 years as best friends) that I can keep it. And that doesn’t scare me. At least not yet. And other people do it, too, all the time. Are we insane?

Emily and I live together, have moved to a different country together, and have been best friends since we met at 16. The transition from best friends to cohabitating partners was a tough one, and I can’t imagine the transition from partners to spouses could be that much harder, but again, maybe I’m missing something.

Amy, please talk to me about marriage.

Love from Singapore,

Holly

Dear Holly,

I’ve only been married since 2010, so I don’t have a lot of time-tested advice. That said, I have opinions. Which is probably why you asked.

Act One. Other People’s Marriage Advice and My Assessment of It

  1. Never go to bed angry. While I like the idea of this, I just haven’t been able to do it. Sometimes it feels GOOD to go to bed angry. Usually, by the time I wake up, I feel better. I’d say, instead of “never go to bed angry,” “try not to wake up angry.”

  2. My friend’s wife just wrote this piece for Glamour, and I think it’s got some pretty good points, even ones that haven’t been my experience. (Our first year of marriage was remarkably easy, maybe the easiest year of my life. We stopped fighting because there didn’t seem to be any stakes anymore. When you’re NOT married and you fight, there’s always this little voice in your head thinking this might be the end. Once we were married, I felt like, what’s the point in fighting? We can’t break up about it. It wasn’t until we had a baby that I learned how impatient and selfish I am. [To be fair, at this point, we’ve had a baby for MOST of our married life. It’s hard for me to separate my life as a married person from my life as a parent, but I think the distinction is probably important. At any rate, I’ll save my thoughts on that for another entry.])

  3. At a friend’s wedding, I heard someone say, “May today be the day of your marriage you love each other the least.” It struck me at the time as an odd thing to say. Then, on my wedding day, I GOT it. The day you get married, you are surrounded by friends and family and love and you feel so sure of yourself and your decision. It is really a profound feeling. Since then, I always write that phrase in wedding cards (SPOILER ALERT).  That said, I am pretty sure it is ACTUALLY IMPOSSIBLE to make it happen. There have been plenty of days that I’ve loved Jason more than on our wedding day to be sure, but there have been a fair number where I’ve loved him less. At any rate, it’s worth keeping in mind and working toward.

  4. I’ve said this on here before, but my friend Chrissy once said something to the effect of: everyone’s tired, everyone’s busy, so just assume your partner is and assume your partner knows that you are and don’t talk about it. I love that.

Act Two. What I Have Learned as a Married Person, Written in the Second Person to Acclimate You to These Marriage Truths

  1. You will be the only person to throw old food out of the fridge. For the rest of your life. You will also be the only person who really sweeps or mops or cleans things with cleaners. You’ll be the only person who cleans the shower. For the rest of your life.

  2. You will get a LOT more backrubs than you give. Like, A LOT more. So many more it’s not even funny; it’s not even a contest.

  3. At least twice, you will have to pack your spouse’s wound. This means you will have to shove a bunch of gauze into an open wound on your spouse’s butt until it “feels full” (as far as I can tell, the medical term). Every day, you’ll have to pull out the old gauze and put in new while your spouse writhes in pain. As you do it, you will probably think, I didn’t sign up for this. (Guess what. You did.) I recommend having at least two glasses of wine before you do this.

Act Three. Our Advice. (The NYT knows what it’s talking about, to be sure, with that list of questions. Here’s a top-ten Jason and I just put together.)

  1. Always kiss hello and goodbye (or whatever your couple equivalent is). Even if you’re in the midst of a fight, even if it’s in front of your parents.

  2. Eat at least one meal together every day, or as close to that as possible. This is easier than it sounds.

  3. It’s not a contest, but if it makes you a better partner to think of it as one, go for it. (Jason says, for the record, “It’s not a competition, and if you think that, there’s something wrong.” To which I say, I SAID IT’S NOT A CONTEST, and also, if you think there’s something wrong with it, YOU’RE LOSING.)

  4. Try to know yourself and what you want and need as much as possible, and ask for it. Out loud. In words. Help Emily to do the same. (I feel like there should be some flashing lights around this one.)

  5. As with all things, there are highs and lows, ups and downs. Enjoy the highs and ups, get through the lows and downs.

  6. Take vacations together to places where you don’t know or are not visiting other people.

  7. Hang out with each other’s friends and make them your friends.

  8. “Yes and” whenever possible (and it’s always possible). This is especially important in social situations, and this is especially important when it is just the two of you.

  9. Relatedly, don’t step on or contradict a story your partner is telling in a social situation, even if it DID happen differently, even if you’ve heard it a million times.

  10. If you have people you vent to about your marriage (and you should), make sure you also tell those people all the good stuff too.

Epilogue. My assessment of my parents’ marriage is similar to yours. But now I realize that, as a 12-year-old, a) I had a highly idealized and unrealistic view of what a happy couple looked like and b) I was terrified of divorce, and every time my parents fought, a sign in my brain flashed THIS IS THE END over and over.

I don’t know how much the length of time you know someone actually matters. I always thought it did, but the fact is that people change (and don’t change), so you marry one person and then twenty years later, you might be married to someone different, or exactly the same, and you might be different, or exactly the same, and there are a million permutations and I don’t want to say it comes down to luck, because there’s too much work involved to pass it off as such, but, you know, sort of it’s just luck. My parents dated for six months, got married, and 43 years later are still happily together.

People talk about how marriage is hard because it IS. This is something I’ve learned, that when MOST people say something, it’s usually true, despite my initial stubbornness in regards to thinking I can beat the odds. Marriage is hard. It’s also awesome.

Love,

Amy

Dear Amy,

The NYTimes often stalks me and only publishes articles about what I’m thinking or worrying about RIGHT THEN. Recently, it’s been printing a lot of stuff about marriage and I’ve finally mustered up some level of anxiety about my upcoming nuptials.

 Specifically, the NYT printed an article about Northwestern’s “Marriage 101” course. They get them early so they start by teaching them how to be decent people and how to know what they need, which seems like an ambitious and worthwhile endeavor. Then they teach them how to find someone who’s compatible, and implicit in this is that compatible is important, even maybe essential. In fact, one of the required texts is a book on how, no matter how well you communicate and compromise and work on your marriage, if you’re not initially compatible, then you’re basically screwed. I have some doubts about this based on 1) all the arranged marriages that seem to work out (though there’s a selection issue in that those people are probably less likely to divorce anyway), and 2) that people change over time, as you said, so that initial compatibility is somewhat irrelevant given that people aren’t static beings. But still, I get freaked out because I want to believe that anything, including marriage, can be worked on and improved, and that what you start with isn’t some incontrovertible sentence on how you’ll end up.

I should clarify that I don’t actually believe, based on the Northwestern criteria of 1) sexual compatibility, 2) day-to-day compatibility, and 3) big life questions and values (e.g., God, religion, or lack thereof) compatibility, that Emily and I are incompatible, but the fatalistic notion that some people could really, really want to be good together and yet not actually be able to make that happen scares me to a perhaps irrational degree.

And so, more generally, I wonder what you think about that. Excluding the amorphous concepts of fate and destiny and “meant to be,” is it possible that some genuinely loving couples just won’t make it, no matter how hard they try? And, assuming that you didn’t take the Northwestern marriage course at 19, how do you know if you’re one of those couples? Or, if you can’t know, how do you carry on unafraid enough to not sabotage the relationship and tank it out of fear?

Love,

Holly

P.S. One of the vows Emily is making is that she will always clean the hair out of the drain in the shower and the sink. Because hair in the drain grosses me out big time for a reason you don’t want to know. (Have you ever bailed puke out of a clogged, overflowing sink?) So that’s something I’m going to have going for me for sure.

Dear Holly,

I think I have good news for you. Or at least I have an opinion that you’ll like. It is my albeit un-researched opinion that “genuinely loving” couples, especially those willing to try hard, will make it. To back this statement up, I think the fact that I just turned 38, and that I’m sort of a cynic by nature (in other words, a) I am not young and naive and innocent, and b) I have an inherent inability to think anything “will just work out”), gives me, in this case, a fair amount of credibility.

(And as for tanking it out of fear, just DO NOT DO THAT. That is the shit teenagers do — “I’m afraid to love you” — because it sounds good and dramatic and, goddamn it, everyone’s been hurt and being hurt HURTS and is scary. That is not what marriage-bound adults do; marriage-bound adults know, sure, love can be scary, but in tying our lives together, we’re SAYING WE ARE NOT AFRAID.)

When I got married, if you had asked me if we would ever get divorced, I would have told you, “Absolutely not! Nothing would surprise me more!” I’m sure that’s the answer for 90 percent of people who marry. If you were worried about it — or, more to the point, if I had been worried about it — I just wouldn’t have gotten married. By virtue of the fact that I felt I wanted to do it, I felt it would work out. Yes, I am the same cynic I just mentioned. But this is how I felt.

Now that I have been married and had a child, I see how many moving parts there are in a marriage. In a way that you really cannot see ahead of time. There’s the marriage itself, us as a couple, of course; and the kid, of course; and our respective careers; and getting all of this to work together. All of this I was prepared for, more or less. But there’s also how each of these parts change over time, especially when you throw “sense of self” into the mix. I was unprepared for how much getting married and becoming a mom would mess with my sense of self.

And because of this, marriage has already changed me in unanticipated ways. I nag more than I thought I would. I don’t remember seeing myself as “hard,” but I’m hard on Jason, I’m hard on me, I’m hard on Violet. Now that I’m (in no particular order) a “wife” and a “mother” and have a “career,” I don’t really know what else it is that I want, but I DO know that I don’t feel “fulfilled.” (Maybe fulfillment is a myth? Something to ponder another day, I guess.)

So what I’m trying to say is that I think I STARTED OUT a genuinely loving partner, but that has changed over four short years, and THAT is the part that scares me. So, yeah. If you can MAINTAIN being genuinely loving people, kid, you got it made. And if you figure out how to do that, please keep me posted.

Love,

Amy

PS Write your own vows. I know you didn’t ask for wedding advice, but here’s a bit of it anyway. Write your own vows, and make them as specific to the two of you as humanly possible. And have them easily accessible throughout your marriage, not in a “you said you would do this” way, but in a “here are reminders to me and reminders to you of what we promised we would do” way.

Holly Painter is a writer, reader, and wearer of dinosaur t-shirts. She lives with her partner in Singapore. They will be married in June whether Michigan likes it or not.

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On Meeting People

Over a year ago, my friend Mary Margaret and I discussed our experiences as nannies. Today, we get into the physics of meeting people.

Dear Amy,

Why did you never have to online date? Okay, I don’t know that you never did. But it seemed that way knowing you as a coworker several years ago, and from all social media pics, updates, and blogs, which is how I’ve mostly known you since.

You have always seemed like you were dating some pretty great, sweet, creative man, that you guys had all sorts of great indie adventures, and that you never really struggled, as so many of us do, with finding a good guy. And now you are permanently with a great guy. I know I’ve only technically met Jason once, but I have a pretty great Facebook stalker eye, and I can tell you, Amy, he’s pretty great.

Clearly, I’m standing on the street peering into the candy store window, here. And surely all was not always a sharply written and edited, funny, endearing romcom for you, since you, and the gentlemen you’ve dated, are, you know, human. I guess that’s what social media does–makes us jealous of the illusions of others’ lives.

Still, it seems like it’s been harder for me. The reasons are elusive, though I regularly try to discover them with my therapist. I figure I must have some serious psychic wall up or some serious emotional fears, but it’s the guys’ fault too. I swear. I tend to find myself with men who think a relationship with me will negatively alter the trajectory of their creative life. For a woman artist who finds herself most creative when in the security of loving, stable relationships, these rejections are especially offensive. Or the guys just aren’t over their exes, and that sucks for anybody.

All this leads to where I am today. Which is online dating.

Online dating is a microcosom of life; you have to have a good attitude about it or nothing good will come of it. But it’s really effing hard to have a good attitude about it sometimes.

I’m not talking about the indignity of attempting to sprout the seed of my most significant, intimate relationship through the same interwebs where I shop for discount underwear, block pop-up ads, and that wasteland known as myspace still exists. That part you just have to get over. You just have to suck it up.

I’m talking about the hair gel. Amy, there’s so much hair gel on these guys. There are a lot of tee shirts with shiny, nebulous, almost Chinese-dragon-looking designs (these are usually worn at the club). There are a lots of pics of dirt bikes. There are a lot of selfies in bathroom mirrors. There are way too many pictures of dogs. Guys, as much as your pet can be an important part of your family, a pic of your dog is not a pic of you. I’m happy to see a pic of your dog, as long as the only other two pics are not you wearing sunglasses 50 feet away from the camera at a wedding in a pack of other best men and I can’t even tell which one you are and you looking out over the Grand Canyon on vacation with your back to the camera. I need to see you FACE. You’re not willing to show me a clear picture of your face but you want me to reach out to you so we can possibly become best friends and know each other more intimately than we know any other person?

And then there’s the personality synopsis. I guess I’m somewhat of a writing snob–a man’s written voice is important to me in a way I’m guessing it’s not for most ladies. So there’s some phrases that send me to the “archive” button real quick.

“Work hard, play hard.”

“I never know what to say in these parts.”

“It’s so hard to write about yourself.”

“I’m a hard-working, fun-loving guy and I’ll fill this in more later.”

And then there’s this one:

“I’m looking for a girl who doesn’t take herself too seriously. A girl who likes sports, and can just laugh with me and have a good time.”

This one really fucking gets me. What’s so wrong with taking life seriously? Life is a serious thing. What do you think? I hate to laugh and have a good time? Jackass, I just realize life is a messy mix of beauty and suffering, joy and devastation. And what I’m looking for is another human who is willing and happy to love me in the good times and in the times when things suck and things are hard and we hate each other. And I’ll do the same for him. And no, I don’t like a lot of sports. There’s no great speech behind why not. I just don’t. Except baseball. I like baseball.

There are some good guys on there. (A lot of them are highly active hiker/kayaker/rock climber types and I get tired just looking at their profiles). I’ve gone on some dates with them. But nothing has ever taken off yet. Usually what happens is that you find yourself on a date with someone you do match with on paper, you have a lot in common, you could talk to them for hours, and have a really good time, but there’s no romantic, sexual chemistry there. And while I’m certainly looking for a best friend, I’m also looking for a lover.

I continue to go on dates with guys I meet online. Because I’m smart enough to know that I don’t know from which direction my partner will appear, and I’m hopeful. But I admit, I do it somewhat to feel I’m at least doing SOMETHING while nothing happens more organically.

Love, Mary Margs

Hi Mary Margs,

Sorry it’s taken me a bit to respond to this. As it happens, I spent a while thinking you were asking for dating advice. I have a fair amount of that — albeit of the “do as I say, not as I did” variety, and I was working to make it reasonably coherent when I reread your letter and realized you’re asking for advice about MEETING people.

I’m not the best person to give advice on this particular topic. Mainly because I had a fundamentally unrealistic understanding of the physics of meeting people. I mean, on the most basic level I understood that I was not going to meet anyone just sitting around my apartment, but I think some part of me (perhaps the part that watched movies?) REALLY THOUGHT IT WAS POSSIBLE that some funny, smart, attractive guy was just going to ring my doorbell someday.

After I graduated from college, meeting men became more difficult than I could have imagined. I had an instinct that once you were done with school, you met people at work, but I worked in the basement of a university press (my “office” was the boiler room) and was easily twenty years younger than any of the men I worked with, who were also, it should be noted, married. Later, I got a job at a restaurant. In my experience, in restaurants, you meet a lot of sassy, charming, mid-twenty-something-ish women (I include you in this group, and, really, most of the women I’ve been friends with for more than a decade) and teenage boys. (Where are you working these days?)

THEN I started doing freelance editorial work. I lived in an old farmhouse on a dirt road, and, even if that funny, smart, attractive guy HAPPENED to come by, we didn’t even HAVE a doorbell. (This was around the time I stopped answering the phone and, honestly, if that guy had come and knocked, I probably would have hid in the bathroom.) At this time, internet dating was relatively new and had a horrible reputation. There were no compatibility quizzes, percentages, recommendations. At a friend’s behest, I signed up for the Onion’s personals. This resulted in me reading some profiles and feeling uncomfortable and ended when someone sent me a message saying he thought we could “make beautiful music together.”

Online dating has come a long way. Or so I have heard. My experience was in the paleozoic era. It struck me at the time, and still does, as an odd way to meet people.

So. You were hoping for suggestions, right? My advice is simple and terrifying: You have to go where people are. If the people there are doing something you like to do, that makes it even better. And then, you have to be fearless. You have to talk to these people. You have to keep an open mind. You need to quiet that middle schooler inside you who thinks that if you get shot down EVERYONE will know and they will never forget it. And you need to remember that dating is full of contradictions. You know no one is going to be perfect, but you don’t want to settle. You want to give someone a fair shot, but you don’t want to waste your time.

In terms of PRACTICAL dating advice culled from my own experiences, I don’t really have it. I met Jason because he started volunteering at the non-profit writing lab where I work. (I don’t want to tout this as THE place to meet people, but I WILL say there are a number of smart, kind, interesting, and community-minded boys who volunteer there, some of whom are even single. And yes, we are accepting applications.) Despite creating a persona (I sort of think of her as a “character” I play) at work who, at best (I hope) appears extroverted, fearless, and friendly, and, at worst (I hope) appears loudmouthed, too-talkative, and pushy, the truth is I’m an introvert, full of fear, and only a little bit ACTUALLY friendly. (I’m also loudmouthed, too-talkative, and pushy.) Lucky for me (MOST of the time), there’s alcohol. And in my experience, that helps. (Albeit with diminishing returns WHICH IS A LESSON I KEEP HAVING TO LEARN OVER AND OVER. Are you listening, Amy? Are you??)

Other than that, probably the best luck I had dating after college involved a car that continually broke down, forcing me to visit Enterprise Rent-a-Car regularly enough to get a crush on, get to know, and go out with one of the guys who worked there. So you could try that? Their motto is “We’ll pick you up,” which we found pretty hilarious for the two good years that we were together.

Are you still playing gigs? I WANT to say that’s a good way to meet people, but four years in an often-touring band taught me otherwise. (Why is that, by the way? Does anyone know?? The dudes in my band would have women falling over them, but the women in the band — and I have heard this from other female musicians — almost never got hit on.)

I don’t know if this is useful advice or not, but I want to say: There is no one person who is perfect for you. My mom, who’s been happily married for 43 years now, used to tell me that all the time. I was young, and I found it horribly depressing. But now that I am older, it’s comforting. I said a few posts ago that your choices don’t matter that much. Of course who you choose for a life partner MATTERS, but I think there are a good 10-20 possibilities in your general area who would yield basically a similar result.

You’re right: I did good. Jason is a catch. He’s nice to me and he makes me laugh and he’s a great father. But he also never puts anything away. When he comes home from work, he pulls his socks half off, and then walks around like that, with his socks just sort of dangling off his feet and his heels exposed. It takes him two hours to do almost anything (including running up to the corner store to grab something). When he cooks dinner, he manages to use every pot and pan in the apartment. I don’t know anyone as artistically talented as he is who does so little with it (outside of his job as a teacher). What I am trying to say is, he drives me crazy in these ways that feel VERY specific, but the fact is: I am sort of a loner, so sharing my space with ANYONE is challenging, and I also have gotten very bad at applying my own artistic talents, so I need a scapegoat. And so on. The “problems” I have with him are not HIS fault, they’re mine, and I’d find similar things to fixate on if I were with someone else. (I am, I feel the need to say, working on it, though, being a good partner.)

Basically, IF you want to have a partner for life, it comes down to knowing yourself, and figuring out what you can and cannot live with. I’ll save “the rest” of my hamfisted dating advice for another entry.

Or you could let me set you up on a date with the one seemingly decent single guy I know.

Love, Amy

Dear Amy,

Yes, when you’re young it’s somehow depressing to hear there’s no one person for you. It breaks your romantic heart. Now I think, THANK GOD.

I’m back working at Seva, where we met, only the Detroit location and a manager this time. Some of the good guys here are taken. Some are gay. Some are much younger than me (I got a little old in the last decade). And there’s the thing of being their boss.

I also work at a nursing home, wheeling wheelchairs, administering heart and dementia medications, wiping chronically loose stools from butts. Some of the male residents flirt with me, but they are invariably married and, you know, ninety. As yet, I haven’t met any available sons or grandsons.

So you are right. I must go where the people are. Go where people are doing things I like to do too. This part is fairly obvious and not that hard. It’s the next part. The part about being fearless and talking to people and staying open. Some people are gregarious, easy-going, and make fast friends wherever they go. These people are not me. Some people can enjoy another’s company without knowing exactly where things are going or what the future looks like. This is a skill I must develop. As much as I’d prefer to meet someone binge-watching Homeland on my couch, I realize I have to put myself out there. And preferably in the real world. Kind of a terrifying project, but at least I’ll meet some great new friends.

That nonprofit you work at sounds like a great place to meet people. If I get into nursing school at U of M, and therefore live in the area, I will definitely put in an application to volunteer.

So yes, set me up with that guy. Then if things go well we can do a momandnotmom on that dating advice you have.

Whoever things work out with will have to be okay with the fact that I too use every pot and pan in the kitchen when cooking. He will have to love me anyway.

Love, Mary Margs

 

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On Aging

I worked my way through college at a restaurant, where I learned how to stop being shy, how to shotgun a beer, and how to cook meat with very large sticks. At that restaurant, I worked with today’s collaborator, Rhonda, who was — I think? — the same age then that I am now. As I am now in my late thirties and working with a lot of college students, I can empathize with Rhonda in a way I couldn’t have conceived of when I WAS a college student. If Rhonda thought we were silly or overly dramatic or wrapped up in ourselves, she didn’t let it show. She also didn’t feel the need to constantly point out “how much older [she] was than [we] were,” which I am hoping to learn how to do. I’m pretty sure these are important pieces in that elusive puzzle of “aging gracefully.”

Dear Rhonda,

This morning, I found two white pubic hairs. What do I do?

Love, Amy

Dear Amy,

This is definitely troubling. Where, exactly, did you find them? Because of the potentially embarrassing nature of telling me “exactly,” I’ve given you some options:

a) in your shower stall
b) in your spaghetti bolognese
c) your nether regions
d) none of the above

Love,
~ Rhonda

PS You may substitute (b) as oatmeal if needed — as I have just realized that only an Italian or an Australian would eat spaghetti bolognese in the morning.

Dear Rhonda,

Thank you for putting things in perspective. I suppose that is probably the only way to age gracefully, which is what I’m hoping for. My love to Gordon and the dog.

Love, Amy

Rhonda (nee Furner) Martin was born and raised in Sydney, Australia — land of Milk and Honey (beer and meat pies).
Currently residing in Los Angeles, California — land of Swimming Pools and Movie Stars (Botox and drive-by shootings).
Currently employed — though not very often, thankfully — as a Driver for Cast and Crew in Hollywood. See lots of Botox, but fortunately only one real dead body, so far . . . Interested in just about everything. But especially the science of the universe and her dog’s poop.

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On Vulnerability

Speaking of vulnerability, I happen to have an appropriate story about this week’s Not Mom, Frances Martin. I met Frances several years back when she began volunteering at the nonprofit I work for. About a week after having a one-on-one orientation with her, one of my biggest fears happened: I ran into a volunteer (Frances), at the Y, in the locker room, while I was basically naked. She’s now a co-worker of mine, a (VERY) dear friend, and someone I wouldn’t at all mind running into in a locker room, naked, basically naked, or otherwise.

Dear Amy,

Do you know about the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon? It’s that thing—I think we all have experienced it—where you learn some interesting piece of information; then you keep coming across it until it seems like it is EVERYWHERE and you think to yourself, How did I never notice this until now? Am I blind?

Most recently that has been happening for me with the subject of vulnerability, kicked off by a TedTalk on the subject by social worker Brene Brown. Of course, I knew about vulnerability before watching this, but I sort of always, below-the-surface regarded it as bad, the scary thing to be avoided or, if necessary, endured with teeth clenched and armor up. Other times it seemed like that ooshy gooshyness that sentimental people are obsessed with, but that I was too smart/tough to be fooled by.

But every time I turn around these days, I am smacked in the head with the message that the willingness to be vulnerable is necessary for everything important in life—you know, little things like connection, creativity, and happiness. As Ms. Brown points out, as a society we often come to equate vulnerability with weakness, danger, and even gullibility.

In reality it is the opposite—vulnerability is all about courage and taking risks. The more I think about this, the more I consider that large parts of my personality have been constructed around avoiding vulnerability. Growing up, I realized that being a quietly well-behaved, nice, perfectionist may not make me popular, but who wanted that? I opted for invisible, inoffensive, and irreproachable. These meant safe. These were the best armor I could create as a kid against being hurt.

And I have carried so much of this with me into adulthood: An avid reader, but not a writer, the biggest fan of the creative endeavors of my friends while always staying on the sidelines, a 4.0 GPA student through grad school, with no exceptional academic accomplishments, and a difficulty being comfortable and openly myself around new folks. I didn’t even have a Facebook page until recently, which may have been construed as a principled action, but really was so much more about not opening myself up to the world at large.

For the record, I have come a looong way. I am not nearly so shy as I used to be and more willing to do things that scare me and that I am not necessarily good at—like writing blog posts, for example. This recent Baader-Meinhof experience has been inspiring me to make a concerted effort to be bolder and more courageous.

As I take over aspects of work at that-non-profit-writing-center-we-work-at that have previously been your domain, I can’t help but be aware that I do not have the magnetic personality that you do. Volunteers, teachers, pretty much everyone is drawn to you and I worry that I won’t be able to be as effective without that magic. My guess is that you are SO willing to be vulnerable, to tell joke after joke even if some of them flop, to make a fool of yourself, to throw out a million ideas without fear that a few are not good, that not only are you hilarious and creative, but people easily connect with you.

So why am I bringing this up on momandnotmom? First of all, because I thought that baring open these thoughts is itself a good exercise in vulnerability (though do not doubt that the perfectionist in me, alive and well, has fretted over sending you these words). Thank you Baader-Meinhof, and thank you food poisoning that allowed me only the energy to sit on my couch and type this today.

Second, because I am wondering a couple things: Does my assessment of your willingness to be vulnerable ring true for you? And mostly, because this blog is about motherhood and not motherhood, how has being a mom changed your feelings of vulnerability?

I had previously imagined when I am a mom it will be lots of work, sure, but that that relationship between me and the kid would straightforward and free of vulnerability. I realize that this is silly—all relationships require vulnerability; the more emotionally intimate they are the more they require. Amy, how has motherhood intersected with vulnerability for you?

Love, Frances

Dear Fray,

Girl, you sent me this in 2012, do you realize that? I have a couple of entries in the pipeline, and yet I have been sitting on this for all of 2013. I can’t post one of the other entries until I respond to this. I can’t respond to this because I don’t know how to.

Or, I supposed it’s not that I can’t. I haven’t. Actually, that’s a lie. I’ve responded to it. About a hundred times, about a hundred different ways over the last year. Here is something about being a mom: To call it a roller coaster would be VASTLY UNDERSTATING IT. And, for the record (and I’d be surprised if this were a surprise), I have all the same safety mechanisms that you do. I too have avoided being or feeling or—god forbid—appearing vulnerable.

In an effort to move on with my life (and this blog), as it were, I’ll just give you a bullet-pointed list that succinctly (perhaps this is what I was looking for?) sums up some of my hundred responses:

  • When one’s child is as smart and funny and lovely as Violet is, one can—for brief, glorious stretches of time—feel the opposite of vulnerable; in fact, one can feel almost superhuman in one’s ability to procreate. (One cannot, however, even during one such glorious stretch of time, use the first person when discussing it.)

  • Sometimes, when I look at my daughter, it feels like I have created a tiny version of my most terrible self. Every frustrating or bossy or mean thing she does, she learned from me. It’s like having a living, breathing incarnation of your own vulnerabilities as a roommate. A truly odd roommate. Who you have to spend almost all of your freetime with. And feed. And soothe in the middle of the night.

  • I have never been so weak in my life.

  • I have never been so certain that fates align as I have been since having a baby. Everything about it—that weird science that involves the odds of a certain egg and a certain sperm which is the only recipe to create a certain baby who seems so made for me—is covered in cheesecloth and accompanied by a string-laden soundtrack.

  • I had been so focused on having a baby for the last five years or so that 1) I was unprepared for how hard it would be (yes, EVERYone tells you it’ll be hard but I DIDN’T BELIEVE THEM) and 2) I stopped thinking about other things. I don’t know what my purpose is. I know a hundred things that it could be. But I don’t know what my next goal is, and I’m realizing how important it is to have one in mind.

  • Having a baby has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and sometimes I am really, really bad at it.

  • Having a baby has been the best thing I’ve ever done, and sometimes I am really, really good at it.

  • That-non-profit-writing-center-we-work-at may have allowed me to develop a persona who has a very magnetic personality, however, that-non-profit-writing-center-we-work-at has changed me into someone ill-suited to life with a toddler: Goal-driven, focused, impatient, task-oriented. Sometimes I feel like, if I hadn’t gotten so accustomed to putting on my that-non-profit-writing-center-we-work-at costume, I would be a better mother.

  • I don’t know what I would do without that-non-profit-writing-center-we-work-at in my life. Go crazy.

  • AND SO ON.

  • AND SO ON.

  • AND ON.

Social media gives you a chance to present your life however you want to. Maybe that’s what nine months of procrastination comes down to. I may err too much on the side of posting positive things (although I like to think that this blog is one place I don’t do that). I’d imagine I’m one of those people who appears to “have it together” on social media (or at least, I hope so; truly, I guess that’s what I’m going for, but what a thing to admit on social media). I have it together about half of the time, maybe a little more. But MAN, I do not want to be one of those people who’s always complaining about their baby not sleeping (but Frances, Violet is a toddler and SHE IS STILL A TERRIBLE SLEEPER) and therefore, they are so tired (but Frances, my god, I AM SO TIRED), and while we’re at it, let’s throw in something about how busy they are, and how crazy things are (but Frances, I AM SO BUSY, THERE IS NEVER ENOUGH TIME).

Conversationally, being a mom is tough. If I talk about how great she is, I’m bragging. If I talk about how challenging she is, I’m complaining. And then there is the expectation that motherhood magically completes you, makes you somehow more whole. I would love to tell you that becoming a mom changed my life into light and color, but that would be lying. There is more light and more color, sure, but there is also a lot more frustration and doubt and worry. I realize, now that I have a baby, that I could have lived my life childless and been just as happy (the freedom! the sleeping!), but I had to have a baby to realize that. Ah, life. You always get the last laugh, don’t you?

The best marriage advice I ever got was from my friend Chrissy. She said something about how EVERYONE is tired, and EVERYONE is busy, so when you have dinner together at night, just assume that those two things are a given and don’t talk about them. It was great marriage advice, but I think it’s good life advice too.

Frances? I’m tired. I’m busy. But I don’t want to talk about. CAN WE ALL JUST AGREE NOT TO TALK ABOUT HOW TIRED AND BUSY WE ALL ARE? I’m all about self-expression, and putting out whatever you want to put out. But being tired and busy is just so…tired. Sometimes when people talk about how “crazy [it] is” I just want to start screaming. It feels like that’s the new way of saying your life is important, that you are important. And OF COURSE you are. (And OF COURSE you aren’t.)

And Frances? If you’re still wondering if I feel vulnerable, then worrying for nine months about not knowing how to answer this question was valid. Vulnerability and motherhood do not intersect. There is no intersection. There is just a long stretch of road, one right on top of the other.

Your friend, Amy

PS Oh, and as for your assessment of my willingness to be vulnerable: YOU have developed your OWN magnetic that-non-profit-writing-center-we-work-at personality over the course of the last year. As for me? My magnetism is fading away. Here was the secret, though: People love to laugh. Be willing to do ANYTHING for a laugh. That’s what I always did. And, to avoid making anyone ELSE the butt of the joke (no one ever won friends or influenced people doing THAT), make yourself the butt of the joke. People will probably see it as courage or strength or confidence or at least a devil-may-care attitude. It is, of course, only a mask that looks like such things; it is the opposite of such things. It is the sort of vulnerability offered up by tight-rope walkers. But it works.

Dear Amy,

This was like a little time capsule! I haven’t looked at that letter since I sent it last year. How interesting to read about things that I’d forgotten ever thinking. It makes me realize I should write my thoughts more often, so I don’t always have to think them up again from scratch.

Since I wrote to you, so many things have changed! For instance, I now wear gold lamé pants in public on a regular basis. Also? I don’t beat myself up as much when I make mistakes at that-non-profit-writing-center-we-work-at because I know that when you do something hard and worth doing, you will make some mistakes.

So many things have also stayed the same! For instance, I am still not a mom and can only begin to pretend to understand what that might be like. I also still think that you are doing something hard and worth doing, and maybe you shouldn’t beat yourself up quite as much when you make mistakes? Especially because you do such a darn good job so much of the time, whether this can be discussed in the third person or the first?

Because I can only begin to pretend to understand what being a mom is like, and how it relates to vulnerability, I am deeply grateful to you sharing your thoughts on the subject. “Just a long stretch of road, one right on top of the other”—what a beautiful and haunting image. And girl, you KNOW how I love a bullet-pointed list. Also, tired and busy? Though maybe I won’t know the true meaning of these words until I am a mom, they are a part of my daily existence for better or worse.

In fact, I frequently wonder if we are always tired and busy (and I mean you and me, but also EVERYONE) because we are doing so many worthwhile things that require vulnerability, like making things, like being moms and not-moms, like doing the day-to-day maintenance required for all of our rewarding but time-consuming emotionally-invested relationships, and working at fulfilling jobs at certain non-profit writing centers to pay for all these wonderful things?

Or, are we always SO busy and tired, because it makes us FEEL like our lives have purpose and meaning, while still letting us avoid doing really hard things, things like having a difficult conversation with someone we love, or sending out our poems to publishers, or writing in our journal about experiences we’d rather not think about, or sitting quietly with our uncomfortable feelings of anxiety or sadness or anger.

As with any dichotomy, I’m sure the truth is somewhere in the middle. Or perhaps, busy/tired and vulnerability are just a long stretch of road, one right on top of the other. And of course, tired and busy are not options when it comes to being a new mom, they just are facts of life. But Amy, you know how we have started sharing weekly goals with each other? Perhaps, this week we can make a goal that we will spend just a little less time on the tightrope, trying to hold everything together in precarious balance, carrying out an elaborate circus act, and just a little more time sitting quietly, armor down.

Love, Frances

Gurl,

Of course you managed to put the smartest, most positive spin on something I’ve been feeling pretty negative about. Yet another reason I’m so glad to know you.

Love, Amy

Frances Martin coordinates volunteers, manages programs, and holds an MSW from UM. She is also an expert canner, horse drawer, and cat costumer.

Uncategorized

On Fear

Hi friends,

I’m going to be honest, because, why not? In a few days I’ll post an entry that Frances Martin sent me almost a year ago, partly about the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. It’s got something to do with learning something and then suddenly finding it EVERYWHERE. Lately my life has taken on a couple of variations on themes.

The primary one has to do with life being short, living a little, being unafraid, not talking myself out of doing things, not making up excuses. Not thinking about other choices, other lives. Quieting the insecure fourteen-year-old living inside each of us. A piece Tim Kreider wrote sums a lot of it up. (His line, “Life is, in effect, a non-repeatable experiment with no control,” has been echoing in my head for days now.)

So does all the Joan Didion I’ve been reading, especially The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. I watched the new Ricky Gervais series, “Derek,” in little more than a weekend. Have you guys seen Amour? (I don’t want to talk about it.) I’ve been lucky enough to not have had to spend much of my life thinking about death. About aging. But through a series of actual and near coincidences, it’s lately occupying my much of my mind.

I’ve realized many things, but here are the two biggest pieces:

1. Since having a child, I’ve wasted a lot of time fretting about all the time I wasted before I had a child. Which is, of course, still wasting time. I’m sick of wasting time. I’m sick of being afraid and being tired and talking myself out of trying and taking chances.

2. Adults are who they are. I don’t think circumstances make that much difference. If you are prone to sadness (as I am), you will find things to be sad about. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, if you’ve got a partner or are single, if you’ve had kids or are childless, if you have a career you like or not. If you are prone to anxiety (as I am), you’ll find it. Whatever you’re prone to will follow you no matter what paths you choose.

Yes, sure, there are choices that are better for you and worse for you, but, overall, I don’t know that your choices matter so much. PERHAPS if I hadn’t had a child, I would’ve gotten around to all that writing and all those art projects I’d been planning. Probably I wouldn’t have, though. PERHAPS if I had moved somewhere else, I would’ve lived a glamorous and very social life. Probably I wouldn’t have, though.

My point is: Hey! This blog is back. At least, I hope it is. I’ve got a backlog of entries to respond to and post. I’m not OLD, but I am too old for a few things. Pigtails. Keeping up on new music. Worrying that putting my ideas “out there” will make it seem like I think my ideas are important. I don’t know if my ideas are important. But they are my ideas, so I may as well share them. People will read them or they won’t. They’ll like them or they won’t.

What I have learned from Didion lately, friends, is this: We need to write everything down. It’s the only way we’re going to remember anything.

So let’s keep writing. Let’s keep sharing our experiences. Let’s keep having ideas, and let’s stop worrying if they’re important or not. I’ll start doing it again if you guys will. And so, in the spirit of comradery and goodwill, I’m going to quell my constant desire to over-think and JUST POST THIS. Here. We. Go…

Talk soon, Amy

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