Validation That Has Nothing to Do With Parking

Oooh, you live in California?” “Wow, Colorado, that’s so cool.” “DC? What was that like?” 

Oklahoma, huh. I’ve never been there.” 

I can still smell the salt in the air. I can feel the last warm fingers of orange sun cupping my face before they stretch, palm open, below the horizon of Monterey Bay. I can feel the unevenness of the earth under my feet in our little front yard — a relief map of the JD vs. Gopher battle that raged for three of the seven months we lived in our little blue house in Santa Cruz. 

I can picture ‘Pleasure Point Pam’ waving from a giant plastic float that gently knocks from side to side of the inflatable swimming pool colonizing half of her front yard. 

I wave hello to Doug, a decades-long Point local living in a multi-million dollar home a block from the ocean. Doug spends every day driving from Pleasure Point to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk packing every square inch of his rusty blue Buick with giant black bags full of cans rescued for recycling. His cheeks are turned to leather by the sun, and his greeting is always cheerful, especially after a holiday weekend that’s filled the beaches with tourists and the park bins with depleted beer cans and designer coffee cups. 

I feel the sand packed beneath my feet and hear Jude’s squeal each time he breaks free of my grasp and charges at the waves that lap at the anemone-covered shore at low tide.

And then I remind myself that my feet aren’t on that pock-marked grass of our front yard. That the ocean is hundreds of miles away. That the neighborhood full of front doors thrown wide-open is still existing without us.

I hate change. Loath it, really. It tips me off balance and fills me with “what ifs.” For me — maybe for most of us — it takes years to settle into a place. To fill our circles with friends, to build routines that soothe, to feel at home. 

JD and I have spent much of the last 10 years ripping ourselves up by the roots and replanting in new places. The benefits have been the opportunity to live in a lot of beautiful places, to try on different lives and discard the ones that don’t fit. But the cost has been increasingly shallow roots, isolation before it was mandatory, and an ache for more than just a place we love. 

Each time we’ve moved, I find myself laying in bed at 2 AM frantically running through a series of diagnostic questions: “Does this change take me further?”Will it make me better?”Will it contribute to a life that measures up to my completely arbitrary expectations?” 

For many years, I’ve relied on the place itself, the job itself, or the circumstances themselves, to answer those questions for me. When folks have asked where I live, I’ve gotten to list off a shiny, usually new place, name-drop a good job, and let their responses validate the worthiness of the choices I’ve made. 

And here I am, back in the place that made me. And the responses have changed. There are no questions about what it’s like to live by the ocean or the mountains. No questions about what brought us to the Bay Area. There’s usually a “Huh. Oklahoma, alright.” and then we move on. 

There’s no inherent value placed on my response, and at first, that left me feeling a little hollow — or it amplified a hollowness that had lived there for a long time. 

Sometimes the amount of change this year has brought us stops me in my tracks. Often, what follows are deep feelings of joy and thankfulness. Other times, thick, grief-filled tears slide down my cheeks reminding me of what all this change has seen us leave behind. All it has cost.

There’s always work to do, and I think that maybe this is the work I need to do right now. To study those hollows within me, rebuild their foundations, and remove the need for external validation that my choices are enough. 

On Unhealthy Boundaries

I don’t think I’m the only Bible-Belt bred woman to have seen one primary future modeled: Wife. Mother. Caretaker. Pure. Modest. Beautiful. Submissive. 

There’s nothing wrong with any of those characteristics. I know and have been inspired by many women who exhibit them dynamically, joyfully. But I never experienced a natural inclination toward many of them. And that was a flaw I felt deeply reflected within myself. Even as I grew into the realization that I could be something different, I struggled to disentangle who I was from the boundaries I’d been socialized within. 

That if I was not a virgin, my marriage would suffer. That if I was not a caretaker of my husband, he would cheat on me. That I would deserve it. That if I did not submit to the “head of my household,” I would be responsible for an unnatural marital foundation that could not be sustained.

Oh, here’s a good one: That I should always have a roommate before I was married, so that I wouldn’t get too comfortable living independently. That sending my child to daycare would make me less of a mother.

I have a vivid memory of a fill-in-the-blank test answer in high school, “________ is a sin.” The answer, in case you were wondering, was “Yoga.” 

I remember taking my very first yoga class (on a Sunday morning, no less), waiting to be struck down with every “Ohm,” I silently mouthed.

We set a lot of boundaries for ourselves as we grow up. We also have a lot of boundaries set for us. Those boundaries can be healthy reminders and lessons that help us develop safely and confidently.

But some of those boundaries can stunt, shame, and confuse us. They may have crammed us into molds we don’t still belong in — and maybe never did. 

Some of those molds are easier to break out of than others, like that brief period of time I considered beauty school instead of college when my high school’s college counselor told me I shouldn’t aim too high.

Thank God I went to college and discovered that I was simply more interested in political science and English literature than filling in “yoga” as a sin on tests.

It’s difficult for me to disentangle my relationship with God from the relationship I had with these unhealthy boundaries. That’s one of the risks of a fundamentalist education. But there is freedom and relief in dismantling unhealthy boundaries and setting new ones. 

That I can have a marriage that’s a partnership instead of a patriarchy. That independence has strengthened my relationships instead of weakening them. That having childcare doesn’t lessen my motherhood. That yoga is a gift that empowers and exalts my body. That I am smart and capable enough to aim higher. That I can set these healthy boundaries and beliefs for myself and still want to nurture a faith. That most days, I still don’t know what that looks like.

I hope you’re able to set aside the boundaries that don’t serve you. It’s hard work, I know. I hope you don’t give up. It’s worth it.

Healing Is Not an End State

I’ve long associated healing with the culinary term ‘mise en place’ — ‘everything in its place’ or ‘to put everything in place.’ 

To heal, I needed to put all of the pieces of myself, or a particular part of myself, in place again. Until I’d done that, I couldn’t truly rest. Until I’d finished putting those pieces back where I’d found them, I couldn’t heal

I like finality. I like neatly wrapped endings. I like closing a carefully organized box, and putting it on a tediously organized shelf. But that’s simply not what healing is, is it? 

We’re all continuously healing, and what we need to heal is always changing. In therapy, I talk to many different ‘parts’ of myself. There’s the anger part, there’s the anxious part, there’s the judge. Each of these parts is a different age. Each part exists to serve a purpose.

To speak to each of those parts is to acknowledge them as valued and purposeful, but maybe not as necessary these days. My therapist regularly asks, ‘If this part were to stop serving its purpose right now, what would be the result?’ Most of the time, the answer is … ‘life would continue, and I would still be safe.’ 

What would you do with that extra energy, now that the part doesn’t need it anymore?’ she asks. My answers here vary but, usually, allowing that part to expend less energy on worrying, controlling, or pleasing allows more time for reading, cooking, accepting, and loving. 

These are the things that heal me right now. More time cultivating joy in my life and in the lives of my husband and son. Less time cultivating control and order. More time accepting that my 60-pound dog will likely try to lick your face off and sit on your lap at least five times during your first hour in my home. Less time feeling shame and guilt around imperfection. 

More time breathing through toddler tantrums and talking my son through what he’s feeling, why it’s alright, and how we can healthily channel those big two-year-old feels together. Less time trying to force growth that’s simply not going to happen overnight. 

More time realizing that there will absolutely never be a moment in my life when everything is in its place. And that even if I tried, those pieces of myself are always changing shape and form, and I’ll never be able to put them back together in quite the same configuration. 

That I’ll always be healing. 

Living our lives means continually gathering an assortment of scars and lessons. Healing, for me, is not giving up. Continuing to gather my pieces and appreciate them just as they are. 

So when I think through how I’ll heal from everything 2020 vomited into my (the collective our) lap, the answer is — by acknowledging the value that the parts of me served this year, and by letting some of those parts rest now. 

Losing My Religion

How do you think about trauma? Do you think about trauma? Can you live a perfectly happy and privileged life and still wake up one day unable to get out of bed and unsure why? It took me years to admit I had anxiety. It took me even longer to understand the root of that anxiety was firmly attached to trauma. 

“It’s not that bad,” I’d tell myself. “Trauma is something reserved for survivors — people who have really been through something.” 

I still can’t step into a church without wanting to rip my insides out. It’s not because I don’t believe. I have spent the last 10 years breaking apart my beliefs and stitching them back together. I picture myself grinding down the judgement, fear, and shame I carried with me for most of my adolescence. Crushing them into a fine powder, almost like the ashes of a loved one — maybe even myself. I carry these remains in my outstretched hands with deep, deep grief. I let them drift into the wind, only lowering my palms when every last grain is gone.

What’s left is belief in a God that loves and accepts all of us, regardless of what we call Them, what sexual orientation we are born with, or what belief system we die with. It’s the sort of patched together spirituality my high school Bible teachers would have best disdainfully labeled “Universalism.” Something that was wrong. Something I’d go to hell for believing. Something that was “of this world” and not of God.

I’ve been afraid to write about what I believe, because I don’t have it figured out, really. And something deep inside feels I should be able to defend it.

I spent more than two decades doing and believing what other people, mostly men, told me to. But it didn’t start to unravel until my last two years of college. I started working at a local coffee shop. It plugged me into a new community and introduced me to people I’d never met going from Sunday church to Tuesday worship to Wednesday church to Thursday Bible study. I began to feel known and connected to myself, and others, in ways I’d never felt before: independent, empowered, and accepted. 

But a guy from the campus Christian fraternity told me I should quit that job because it was taking my attention away from “more important things.” And so I quit. I stopped dating a good Christian guy and other guys told me, “It’s OK, we all make mistakes. I bet you can make it right.” I led him on for months because I thought something inside me was wrong. Broken. I hosted a Christmas party, and had someone pull me aside to tell me they’d never thought they’d see alcohol in my house. I stopped hosting parties. 

I started dating my husband, and then I second-guessed it. Years of Bible studies (starting in middle school) had conditioned me on how and for whom I should save and prepare myself. My prince charming was supposed to single me out, “pursue me,” make me feel like the white-lillied princess I’d spent 20+ years cultivating myself to be. JD didn’t go to church, called me on my bullshit, and treated me like an adult, not a delicate flower. I broke up with him almost immediately and turned an empty bedroom in my college house into a ‘prayer room’ as my rebound.

And then, one day, I stopped listening to them

A guy from that same Christian fraternity came into the coffee shop and tried to greet me with a hug like he’d probably done dozens of times before. And I couldn’t. I physically shrank away from him, backed behind the counter with my hands actually outstretched to keep him at bay.

I muttered something about customers not being allowed behind the counter and needing to get back to work, while he looked confused and slightly embarrassed. I didn’t know what had happened. All I knew was that in that moment, this unassuming man represented all of the hurt and judgement and shame I’d felt from “The Church” over my lifetime. And I suddenly felt like even a warm hug from someone in that community would burn me alive. 

I’d like to say that I was empowered with an immediate sense of self — confident in my decisions and beliefs — but every day after that otherwise unremarkable day I have struggled with what I believe and how it impacts every other aspect of my life. 

I can tell you that I started picking up shifts at the coffee shop again. That JD and I reconciled two weeks later over tacos and Cokes. That my final months of college were some of the warmest, fullest, and most meaningful of my life. Full of acceptance and belonging. 

I can tell you that I stopped going to church. And that learning to cope with transition and life outside of organized religion remains the hardest thing I’ve ever done and continue to do. 

In my first session with my California therapist, she asked me what I believe. It was physically difficult for me to choke out the words, “I pray.” That might not seem like much, but it has taken me many years, innumerable therapy hours, and a lot of courage to get there. 

I’m seeing a new therapist here in Oklahoma, and for the first time, we’re working specifically on my experience with religious abuse. Trauma. 

We’ve started with what she calls “parts work,” where I speak to certain parts of myself — in this case, the religious part. She asked me to visualize what this part of me looks like. 

That was easy. She’s around 19 years old, her beliefs are changing, and she’s isolated in grief. She doesn’t have anyone to talk to because she fears judgement, and she feels alone. 

Give her someone to talk to,” my therapist said. “Tell her she’s alright. Tell her she’s safe. Tell her you’ll listen.” And then, she hit me with it: “Tell her you won’t judge her.” I realized immediately that I’ve judged that 19-year-old girl for almost 15 years. 

So I’ve been checking in with that “part.” I’ve been asking her how she’s doing. I’ve told her, “Look at you now. Look at how strong you were then to challenge your whole worldview and keep yourself safe and growing. Look at you fighting and softening and not giving up. I see you, I accept you, and I believe in you.

On Moving Home

We moved back to Oklahoma last month. There was no dramatic impetus. We were just sitting on our sofa one night and JD looked up at me and said, “Why don’t we move back to Oklahoma?” 

I’ve always derived a great deal of self-worth from the fact that I left home. For a lot of valid but equally vapid, ego-filled reasons, it felt important to me. In some ways, I think I needed to put as many states between myself and the religion that raised me as possible. 

In other ways, I wanted to escape the illusion that I’d never really amount to much. I never did very well in school, I didn’t really know what I wanted from a career, and when I graduated from college, the only thing I knew for certain was that I wasn’t the Bible studied missionary I’d found my identity in for so long. 

But during my last full year of school, a blue-eyed townie walked through the door of the local coffee shop where I worked. He sprawled for hours at the bar, ordered lots of coffees, and tipped terribly. I fell in love with him, and he loved and respected me in a way I’d never known. More than that, he believed I could do a lot with my life. 

We got married a year later, and, at 23 and 26, we left home together. We spent the next decade moving from Cairo to DC to Denver to Oakland. Somewhere in there, we had a little blue-eyed boy of our own, and a year-and-a-half ago, we landed in Santa Cruz — a small surf town about an hour from the over-egoed Bay Area. 

It filled up our cups. It let us rest. It taught us to surf and to slow down. It showed us a whole sandy-footed life we never dreamed of for our family, and in February of this year we bought a little home we thought was forever. 

Two weeks later, we went into quarantine with everyone else. 

Our lives changed in many ways, sure. But in a lot of ways, they didn’t. When you move around a lot, your roots stay pretty shallow. We found it hard to forge meaningful relationships when we were only in a place for a year or two. 

What did change was that all of the sudden, we couldn’t travel to see the people we loved most. Like much of the internet, we tried to fill those voids with more Zoom calls. But it only highlighted what we were missing. 

We could walk to the end of our street and stick our toes in the ocean, but we still walked right back home again missing the family and friends who loved us best. 

That and I’d lived with a decades-long nagging to go home, to put all that therapy, self-worth, and hard work to test. To free myself from the idea that going back meant I’d have to pick up all of my old stories — and the stories others told me about myself— again. To break that cycle for myself and to make sure it stayed broken for Jude.

For us, quarantine stripped away everything that had been important to us. Left behind were two families in Oklahoma who love us unconditionally. 

When this year and this pandemic is over, we’re hoping that what fills our schedules up is a whole lot of the mundane. Nephew baseball games, random swing-bys on a Tuesday night, weekends visiting parents at the lake or on the farm. To give support to our family members when they need it and to receive that support when we need it. To be here. 

Over the last few weeks, I’ve watched Jude discover thunderstorms and splash around in red-dirt puddles. I’ve been able to drive up and spend the afternoon with my parents and still be home in time to tuck Jude in for bed. 

Most of us rebel against our childhood at one point or another, but I needed to accept that it’s OK to go home if you need it. There’s something cathartic about carving out your own life in the place that formed you. 

To take all you’ve learned and put it to work. And to let the rest go.

The Balance Does Not Exist

A year ago, JD and I did what we do best: made an impulse decision. We sold our house in Oakland, packed up our three-month-old son, and used my last few weeks of parental leave to move 70 gridlocked miles south to a little surf community called Santa Cruz.

We spent two years trying to make the Bay Area work, and I hated almost every minute of it. Living there felt like cramming my feet into shoes that were too small, or maybe, in this case, too big.

So we moved. And it was one of the best decisions we’ve made in our almost 10 years together.

But the previous two years had left their mark. My parental leave was coming to an end, and I was still wrapping my head around the balance of being a mother, a wife, and a person in this new reality.

As I went back to work, I set a vise-like focus about maintaining my life as I knew it. Balance was the goal. Balance was the priority. Balance was what I would achieve.

First up: spend all my extra time with Jude. Surely I must not miss a moment of him at this precious age of staring at me blankly and drooling 93% of the time. I adjusted my work hours to 6 AM to 2 PM to maximize our time together. Great, one down.

Next: self improvement. I was still trying to read the New York Times every weekend and spend several hours in the evening devouring a good book. Got it. Another step towards balance bites the dust.

Next: a fulfilling career. When I returned to work, I went from managing a team of one to managing a team of five. It was an incredible opportunity but, you know, it took a little of my time.

Finally: self-care. Are you even a privileged, 30-something white woman if you’re not self caring for yourself at least three hours a week? Masks, filtered water crammed with enough cucumber and basil leaves to dam a lake, and yoga three to four times a week. And, of course, a life-giving hobby. In my case, I took up fresh pasta making. Because, as the old adage says, “there’s no time like when you have a newborn to start hand crafting noodles.

How was all this going, you might ask? Well, reader, really fucking terrible. I was so exhausted from starting work at 6 AM every morning that, most afternoons, I just hoped Jude was ready for a nap when I got off work.

You’d think I was going to bed earlier to prep for my early mornings, but those last hours of the day were when I finally had time to read. And my writing — when was I supposed to find time to write my great American novel? I mentally flogged myself for not making the time. Because all the writing books and blogs I’d read expounded on “doing the work” and “writing every day, no matter what.”

You see, I did write every day, but it was for my job. And when I finally closed my work laptop, I had a hard time opening my personal one. Most weeks, I cried myself to therapy after running out the door and passing the fresh pasta baton to JD as he walked in from his hour-long commute home.

I was on one of my mandated “fun” walks with Jude to the beach one day when the woman several yards in front of me stopped, turned to the far-out, sun-setting horizon, closed her eyes, and swept her arms out wide. Her back arched and she stayed there for what seemed like five jealous minutes.

I stopped, stunned, and watched her. And in that moment. I realized I was weary. Weary because I felt I hadn’t rested in two years and there was still no bed in sight. Weary because my first thought when I saw that woman turn to the ocean letting the fading sun wash over her smiling face was, “I hope that’s me someday.” Weary because I was the only thing stopping me from being her today.

I wish I could tell you I immediately re-balanced my life but, in many ways, one year and a quarantine later, I’m still figuring out.

I love the concept of wholeness vs. balance in an old issue of Magnolia Journal (Joanna Gaines is a queen. Don’t @ me). “The hidden truth about balance,” Joanna says, “is it requires that everything in our lives be equally distributed at all times. It insists that the needs of our marriage and our kids, our work and our relationships, be completely proportional at every given moment.”

She continues, “Ultimately, I decided that balance is way too meticulous a science to get just right in my daily life, and that it wasn’t something I was very interested in for myself. In its place, I sought wholeness for my family and for my work. Because both of these pieces are integral to who I am, both meaningful and sacred in their own right …”

The idea that I don’t have to be one or the other feels like a giant exhale. That being a mother doesn’t make me less of an editor. That being dedicated to my career doesn’t mean I’m less of a mother. That sometimes I work more than I parent, and sometimes (like in the middle of a global pandemic) I parent more than I work. That it’s OK if boxed brownies and frozen fish sticks are the extent of my quarantine culinary adventures.

And that I don’t have to wait for some special blissed out frame of mind to stop, face the green, kelp-laden ocean before me, sink my toes into the sand, swing my arms out wide, and take a moment to appreciate all the things that keep my life unbalanced and full of, well, life.

Shelter in Place

What happens when the world is forced from its routine? Forced to slow down or halt completely. Forced to speed up. Ripped from routine that sustains life — or at least livability. I don’t know. I don’t think any of us do. What I do know is that it’s taken a global pandemic to shake me out of my own small, silent routines.

So many humans right now are worried for their survival. For the survival of their loved ones. For the survival of their livelihoods or those of their communities. It feels self-serving to think about anything other than the gut-wrenching horror so many of our people — and we are all each other’s people — are living.

But then there are the shaky videos of Italians singing to each other across courtyards and raising instruments together up and down packed windows in empty alleys. There are the impromptu concerts and there are the acts of kindness. And maybe it’s OK that those of us seemingly not directly threatened are able to stop and take stock. Let the bare bones reality set in that while most of us will be alright, none of us, of this, will ever be the same again.

Over the past five days, I’ve gone from a full-time working parent to a full-time working parent and a full-time parent. I’ve spent more time with my son than I have since I came back from parental leave (which is such a gift, but simultaneously scratches those internal windows of my brain with nagging guilt). I’ve watched him wallow in mud and peer through earth-caked hands while opening and closing his fingers in wonder at the clay encasing them. I’ve watched less television than I have in years, and I find myself sitting night after night in conversation with my partner playing each other songs that give us hope over the big speaker in the living room.

I’ve FaceTimed with my parents twice this week while Jude played a hide and seek game that spanned through a computer screen and a thousand miles. I’ve never had so many people tell me to ‘take care’ while checking out at the grocery store, paying for a takeout sandwich, or grabbing my mail … and really, really mean it. I’ve had conversations with small business owners in our community I’d never spoken to before as I placed online orders and wished for them with all my heart to ‘hang in there.’

I’ve worried about a recession worse than the one that fought so hard not to welcome me into its workforce a decade ago. I’ve watched as 70-something of my colleagues and executives signed into a video conference dedicated to dialoguing about anxiety and depression while Kacey Musgraves’ ‘Rainbow’ played over someone’s fuzzy speaker. I’ve cried tears of thankfulness that I work for a company that livestreamed a delightful Irishman called “Rainbow Phil” to lead a St. Paddy’s Day sing-a-long for all the kids at home with tired parents watching on.

I’ve felt so much heartache and devastating thankfulness for the human race over the last week. We fuck up a lot. But I love us. I love us because of how we show up for each other during the greatest threats. I’m frustrated that it sometimes takes the greatest threats to shake us out of our routines and remind us to show up for each other. I’m thankful that we continue to fuck up and show up. So here’s to a few more weeks of showing up (without physically showing up).

And to channel Rainbow Phil when he raised a pint of Guinness somewhere around the time he launched into ‘Baby Shark,’ here’s to taking care of our people and shaking up those tired old routines.

This Bitter Earth

Throughout my pregnancy, I thought a lot about the kind of mother I wanted to be. I’ve spoken with so many women who’ve been mothers for years and are still asking that question. Maybe you never quite know until it’s over.

I thought I’d figure it out during pregnancy. But, for me, those nine months seemed to amplify my flaws, weaknesses, and failures. They left me feeling like the bitter earth: dry, cracked, and beaten down.

So I looked for the rain, and I began to think of the strong women in my life, many of them mothers. I took comfort in the fact that none of them ever quite had it figured out — and I likely wouldn’t either.

One memory was as present as my craving for Oreos dipped in cookie butter. It was a memory of my own mother on an ordinary night that took place after an ordinary day. I can’t remember what I had for breakfast that morning or how I passed the day, but the answers were probably buttered toast and barefoot. I remember digging fingers still warm from the Oklahoma June sun into cool evening earth as my mother and I worked store-bought, nutrient-rich soil into the hard red clay of her flower beds.

I remember how she ripped the spiked holly and sharp box hedges from the ground to make room for free moving native grasses and Chinese lanterns and black-eyed Susans. Cutting her hands and streaking her face with clay and blood. She grew what was hardy and what she loved. The only woman on our block to use instinct over uniformity.

I remember that this is where I came from, and I remember that it was not perfect.

I was born of bitter red clay earth that stained my feet in the summer, became hardened and resistant every winter, and welcomed my mother’s hands when the rain softened it each spring.

Even as I work to figure out who I am in this new phase of life, this memory reminds me how important it is to be resilient. That while I feel my inadequacy acutely, there’s never been a more important reason to move forward, move past, and encourage a resilience that doesn’t wait for the seasons to change. To stretch and grow and forgive in ways I hope will be baked into my son.

I know I can’t hide my imperfections from him forever. But I also know you can enrich the soil that made you. You can make it better. You can rip out the shit that came before, nurture using instinct over uniformity, and find your face streaked with the earth you grew from and the stuff you’ve chosen to plant there yourself.

The “C” Word, No … Not That One

When I went to church, the word “community” was thrown around a lot. It referred to your church, your friends, the town you lived in, the people you were expected to “minister” to. I had community everywhere.

Then, I stopped going to church.

My community was church. It all stopped. And much of that was because of me. I needed space. I wanted distance.

I graduated college, got engaged, moved to Egypt, got married, and moved to Washington D.C. — all within six months. In a matter of months, I’d burned down the life I’d built over 23 years and scattered the ashes across two continents and a couple of states.

Around this time, I also created an account on a new social media platform the kids were calling “Instagram.” Suddenly, I had unlimited access to people I’d known for years, only met once, or had never met.

I saw others post about their “tribe,” share barrages of images from music festivals, share novel-length captions about their experiences, deep conversations, and profound realizations.

Everything was glossy. Even their struggles seemed perfect to me. There was always a friend’s shoulder to cry on. Someone to reflect their worth or listen to their weeping. A cross-country road trip to heal a difficult moment.

And there I was. Working my first post-college, post-wedding, mid-recession job asking girls my age if they wanted paper or plastic for bottles of eight-dollar wine I knew I couldn’t afford.

My community was a husband I was still getting to know and a self I’d dismantled and wasn’t quite sure how to rebuild.

Therapy, time, and respect for myself have rebuilt the way I view the world and my relationships. But I still find myself getting sucked into the community social media whispers everyone else has but me. The kind of community that rights all wrongs and turns all your problems into life lessons you contemplate while watching the sun rise.

If having a child has taught me anything (and it has), it’s that we’re all craving relationship with people in the same life stage. We want to be heard by people who won’t judge us for not being able to breastfeed. Who will say, “I’ve been there,” when all we can do is cry because life seems too big. Who know the victory of simply getting out of the house with a tiny human. Or getting out of the house without a tiny human. Who will sit with us and love us without pity or fear when we tell them we believe in God but don’t believe in the church. We want to be known by people who just … know.

For many of us, that doesn’t look like the plastic pictures we see on social media. It looks like a lot of text messages answered a week late. Cross-country trips getting postponed because the money just isn’t there. Virtual baby showers. Cautious emails that beg its readers to love, to care, and to answer without judgement.

It means finding yourself a little lonely a few times a week. It means giving value to the communities you’ve been a part of through the years.

One of my communities lost a friend last week. As we’ve been grieving together and sharing songs and memories and photos and validation of our right to mourn someone we haven’t seen in years, an email chain we’d all been on surfaced. I soaked in my lost friend’s words, wished I could email him back, and cried grateful tears for having had him as my community, even for a few years. Here are his words:

… There is a magnificence to “everyday” life that often goes overlooked. Something miraculous that somehow two elements of Oxygen combine in the outside world, enter our bodies because of pressure differentials created by the contraction of a muscle, the diaphragm giving the tiniest parts of ourselves, cells, respiration.

Then from there to neurotransmitters that allow neurons to fire between other neurons a series of chemicals that we know as thought. Here are thoughts. Written on a window I can’t really touch with my own finger, but I have to type on some buttons a few inches from this elusive “window” … that’s only possible because of muscles in these fingers. There is a person behind all this. Not the person in my thoughts — someone above these thoughts who so desperately wants to let me in on what He intended life to feel like. A Divine Conspiracy of sorts, eh?

That most of the time, we never realize the man behind the friggin’ curtain. If we only understood that the curtain was torn in two and that all things in heaven were released into our reality … wow. How much differently would we live. Smaller things would matter more than we make the larger things to be. Home-cooked dinners with your family would mean more than making a drop of shoes in an impoverished country.

SO this is it. I’m learning that there is no such dichotomy between the person I want to be and the person I am. The dream I have for the future and the life that’s there right between my eyes. Between what I think is important and what I don’t. Stop making divisions. You may not be changing the world explicitly in your day job, but you’re learning just how pretentious it really is to claim to be changing the world when you have a hard time changing yourself to live more fully. I know this sounds maybe sad, but to me, I’ve never felt more inspired – ever. I’ve been talking in my sleep about a dream … I’m awakening.

And it’s you … all of you that I love more than anything. Keep going, friends. I want to hear you.

Keep cultivating community. Hold tight to the ones you love — whether you told them you loved them two minutes or ten years ago.

Find wholeness is those moments or seasons of loneliness. Others are there, too. Always keep reaching for the light and the community that pours into you exactly what you need. Keep going, friends. The world wants to hear you.

A GoFundMe page has been set up for our friend’s wife and sweet baby boy. Click here if you’d like to donate.

Female Guilt and Motherhood

It started before Jude was even born. I’m well-versed in female guilt and shame, but I thought I had mom guilt’s number.

Then, somewhere around 34 weeks, JD and I found ourselves sitting in a “supportive” circle with five other couples also in the panicked twilight weeks of their pregnancies. “Let’s go around and share what kind of birth you plan on having,” the facilitator cooed. Couple after couple uttered words like “natural,” “tub birth,” and “doula.” I’d like to report that when it was our turn I proudly said, “Epidural, please!” or “A birth where baby and I are both healthy!” But I did not.

I let our turn pass and the group moved on to an equally uncomfortable hour practicing supportive labor positions — an exercise consisting of more grunting and quad work than even the crossfitter next to me was comfortable with.

For the rest of the seminar, however, I found myself looking at these other mothers and judging. Not judging them for being proud of the births they had chosen — that’s every woman’s right. I judged myself.

I wondered why I wasn’t strong enough to attempt a natural birth. How was it so easy for them? And why had it been such an easy decision for me?

From that day on, I soaked up guilt like a newly unpackaged, super-absorbant sponge. My plans to be the picture of #self-care and #health dwindled to a once-a-week walk JD scraped me off the sofa to complete and an ever-present pan of brownies I carried around like my true firstborn. And my goal to greet childbirth calmly and rationally was replaced by raging hormones that gave me the emotional range of Pennywise the Dancing Clown.

I’m sorry to say guilt doesn’t lessen when your bundle of joy arrives. From the moment he or she exits your body, you’ll hear “breast is best” as least three times a day (more if a well-meaning lactation consultant is within a one-mile radius of you or your child). Even the security guard at my neighborhood Walgreens yelled after me, “Are you going to breastfeed?” as I was making a quick getaway with more Halloween candy and hemorrhoid cream than one self-respecting pregnant woman should ever need.

And then there’s the entirely self-manufactured guilt of wondering if your child is eating enough, growing enough, happy enough. All questions that lead back to the one that really keeps you up at night: “Am I enough?

I also watched other mothers “snap back” immediately as I still spilled over my maternity jeans while pushing a shopping cart heavy with cookie butter through Trader Joe’s — a look that doesn’t elicit quite as many charmed smiles once your baby is actually here.

Finally, there’s the guilt about feeling guilty. Because not everyone who wishes to carry a child in their belly is able to. And guilt, while certainly not reserved for privileged white women, is something women like me have the time and resources to indulge (and write angsty blog posts about).

But perhaps my greatest moment of guilt came approximately a half-hour before Jude was born.

On my third day of labor and my third hour of pushing, the doctor told me it was time for a C-section. And for the first time in three days, I cried. I wept because I felt like a failure. I wept for having already fallen short as a mother.

The nurses wheeled me into an achingly bright room. Blue note jazz played from some unseen corner. And the beautiful blue eyes I married peeked out from behind full scrubs. Some 10 minutes later, a new set of bright blue eyes was laid on my chest. And I didn’t feel guilty.

I mostly felt tired … but I also felt profound love, accomplishment, and completeness.

There will likely be thousands of hours of guilt ahead of me. But I know there will also be those sturdy moments of love and hope. The decisions I make, and the mistakes that will certainly follow, are enough. I’m enough. And even in the broken moments, you are too.

P.S. I’ve never experienced something more painful, emotional, or difficult than breastfeeding. I’d write a whole post about it, but a dear friend shared this one and I loved it. It’s nice to be reminded that if I hadn’t been able to breastfeed or *gasp* suddenly chose not to, my child wouldn’t sprout a third eye and still has a pretty fair shot at a decent life.