I had one last year. Which is maybe a strange way to put it, because it’s not like having the flu or having COVID, which I also had last year. It’s a thing that stretches backwards and forwards from the moment it’s official. It can’t be pinned down to a series of days or specific symptoms.
It stretches backwards, in that the fog starts to clear on the pathway that led the two of you to that moment. It goes forwards, in that the path that leads away from that moment is quite different than the one you imagined you were on. There’s a different collection of people on it. A different amount of money. A different living arrangement.
And the moment itself is so… quiet. It’s clicking “yes” to put your e-signature on a document and then texting your former partner a cheers emoji. It’s reading books to your child that evening the way you always do and wrangling them back to bed an hour after bedtime like you always do. It’s watering a plant and wondering if it’s your plant or his plant. “Who bought this plant?” you think. “Should we have been keeping track of who bought this plant?”
It’s not a ceremony. It’s a slow pitter patter through spreadsheets and assets and schedules and then a soft little sigh.
As far as divorces go, ours was easy. It was respectful and straightforward and free of drama. Much like our marriage, in all honesty.
This is difficult to explain to people. These things should be hard. “Well. Other things were hard,” I say. And people nod politely.
Someone asked me once how I felt about having a failed marriage. Did I feel like a failure? It wasn’t a mean question. It was a curious question. But it had never occurred to me that our marriage had failed. It was successful and then it ended.
Can a successful marriage end in divorce? In my case, we released ourselves from our legal contract before we were angry and resentful. We took care of ourselves so that we could take care of our child. Together, but in separate houses. The same combination of care and emotional independence that was present in our marriage is now present in our divorce.
Things aren’t perfect. But they’re very good.
I travel around the bed at night sometimes. I find myself sleeping across it the wide way or in a diagonal or with a limb trapped partially under my cat. When I wake up and realize that I’ve traveled, I feel distantly curious about it. Was I dreaming? Have I always traveled but maybe I held myself in place with the barrier of another human body? Sometimes on my “parent nights” I wake up and my son has crawled into bed with me and lodged his feet into my stomach, where it’s warm and soft. It’s both comforting and annoying.
I ask myself periodically if I’m lonely. Like, “Really, how are you?” And the answer keeps coming back that I’m good. I’m settled. I’m grounded. My child is settled and grounded. I’m still vaguely salty that I had to relinquish my retirement account and the nice car. But that salt will dissolve. What’s left is the feeling that we did the right thing.
Earlier this morning, I read Zoe Scaman’s essay, Mad Men. Furious Women., about misogyny in the ad industry. It’s a stunning, infuriating must-read. (Grab a glass of water and sit down before you do. Trigger warning: sexual assault. Tbh, you might as well grab a glass of water for this piece too. Trigger warning: sexual harassment, infertility.)
In her subtitle, she says, “Far from dissipating over the last decade, misogyny in the ad industry has simply mutated into something insidious, invisible, lurking in the shadows. It’s time to fire up the floodlights.”
I’ve been thinking about that all day. Insidious, invisible, lurking in the shadows.
When I was 22, I worked 40 hours a week at the front desk of a hotel in downtown Minneapolis, 20 hours a week at my unpaid non-profit internship, and pursued my professional dance career in the in-between times. I was young, a little tired, and very ambitious. After finishing my hotel shift at 10:45pm one night, my boss, Kyle, asked if my coworker (also male) and I wanted to go out for a drink. I said sure. I’d only lived in Minneapolis for about a month and didn’t know very many people or places.
We headed over to what I assumed was a bar a couple blocks from the hotel. When we walked in, it was into a dimly lit strip club where the bouncer knew Kyle well enough to guide him straight to “his booth.” Still wearing my hotel vest and Marriott nametag, squished into a booth with my boss and coworker, neither of whom I knew well, I was mortified. It was extremely uncomfortable. I remember feeling like I couldn’t just get up and leave, for risk of seeming like a prude or, worse, a bitch. I sat nicely through a private dance Kyle ordered (for me, which he watched), had one drink, and got the heck out of there.
The next day when I came into work, Kyle asked if I wanted to go back again, but this time just the two of us and we could throw in dinner. I laughed and said that my (not real) boyfriend probably wouldn’t like that. I made sure our interactions after that were nice but brief, and I avoided him whenever I could. He left a few weeks later and I got a new boss, a woman, and started sleeping better at night.
That whole experience sucked. It really did. And looking back, it was obviously bad. Since then, I’ve never experienced something so overtly terrible at work.
But the insidiousness of misogyny is that it can be cloaked in good intentions, by people who are thoughtful and respectful of women, who are progressive in their beliefs and attitudes. By people who aren’t Kyle.
So that’s what I want to talk more about. The slippery stuff. The not-overt stuff. The hundreds of incremental “no big deal” moments that build and build into a rolling boil that becomes hard to cool. As Zoe points out, a lot of women in the ad industry deal with it by simply leaving. Sometime before 40, they get too angry and too exhausted, and they opt out.
We should obviously not be okay with sexual harassment, assault, and discrimination. But what else are we talking about here?
Below is an incomplete list of experiences from a variety of roles and companies, with examples of things that feed the fire. Most are mine. Ones that aren’t are shared with permission. I’m not unique. And I’m not calling out places or names because I’ve already made my frustrations known to the people involved. Plus I like these people.
But I think it’s important to talk about this publicly. Because a lot of this is hard to recognize when you’re not on the receiving end of it. And you can’t change a whole culture by only stopping the really bad things.
So what’s the other stuff?
It’s male-led teams leading brands that are made for women.
It’s coming to work exhausted after maternity leave, with a busted body and a newborn baby, and being asked if you had a nice break.
It’s a male boss asking how much the rent is at your first non-shit apartment and responding to your answer that you must be overpaid.
It’s presenting to an all-male board.
It’s presenting to an all-male client team.
It’s over-preparing to present to an all-male board or client team and getting sidelined.
It’s being constantly interrupted.
It’s being told that you (not your work, but you) are too passionate, too idealistic, too invested, too cold, too cerebral, too emotional. Too much.
It’s being “thrown off the deep end” as a form of mentorship you didn’t ask for, in a direction you don’t want to go.
It’s struggling quietly with infertility and anxiety, while overhearing male leaders joke about how much new pregnancies are going to cost the business.
It’s putting your whole self into an organization, getting overloaded, and having your loyalty and ability questioned when you ask for support.
It’s knowing the data, knowing your value, knowing what others comparable to you in the company make, asking for a raise, and being told by a male leadership team, “You’re not quite there yet.”
It’s being a working mom and listening to a male colleague explain that his role is to “bring home the bacon” while his wife takes care of everything at home.
It’s presenting a thoughtful, equity-based policy-change suggestion to an all-male management team only to have them joke about it in front of you, for days, with no answer.
It’s watching more companies, in 2021, be formed and founded by all-male teams.
That relief I felt when my new front desk manager was a woman – a responsible, problem-solving, detail-oriented woman – that relief is something you don’t really know you need until you have it. It’s why women in leadership matters. It’s why non-white women in leadership matters. Non-binary people in leadership matters. Giving women the keys to the cars they been helping drive from the backseat matters.
And we all have our own stuff to work on. Myself very much included. I am still reckoning with the ways I participate in racism, classism, and internalized misogyny.
But that’s just it. We all have our own stuff to work on. It’s going to take more than just fixing the obvious to move an entire culture forward.
I have no idea who will read this and worry it’s about them, who will be sure it’s not about them, who will get angry with me, who will say these things aren’t problems, or who will take it to heart. But it felt wrong to stop myself from sharing it out of fear of how it’ll be perceived. I don’t want my own habits to be part of the problem.
To paraphrase a dear, funny friend of mine, paraphrasing dear, funny author David Sedaris – you should write about something only once you think it’s funny.
I think it’s time to write about breastfeeding.
Lest I set you up improperly, this isn’t meant to be a gut-busting post. But the beauty of waiting until you think something is funny is that, at minimum, you aren’t going to set fire to your computer or get tear-salt stuck in your keys while you recount the experience.
So. Breastfeeding. Here’s what we know:
We’re told that breastfed children experience everything from fewer allergies to higher IQ. In reality, there’s very little evidence that breastfeeding improves long-term outcomes for children. When they’re babies, breastfed kids may have slightly less bouts of diarrhea and ear infections than non-breastfed kids, but we’re talking a single-digit reduction in likelihoods. And let’s be honest, when there’s a trail of poop from the car to the garage, through the backyard, into the house, and all the way to the bathtub, there’s not a huge difference between 12 diarrhea poops and 13.
There is real evidence that breastfeeding results in a sizable (20-30%) reduction in risk of breast cancer in women who do it for longer than 12 months.
(For citations and more on this topic, as well as some nice debunks of guilt trips around Sleep Training and Working Moms, see this NY Times piece on The Data All Guilt-Ridden Parents Need.)
But when Joe and I took a breastfeeding preparation class when I was pregnant, we left with the understanding that breastmilk is The Ultimate Magic Elixir. And that it would help cure our child of any daycare ailment whilst prepping her to be smart, strong, kind, caring, successful, and super-human in most ways.
As life progressed, we had to come to terms with the knowledge that breastmilk is one potential ingredient of many potential ingredients in the much larger recipe for helping a baby thrive.
And when I say “come to terms,” I mean come. to. terms. My brief but tortured experience with breastfeeding no longer feels like the single biggest failure of my life but – it’s up there.
(The “coming to terms” thing is an ongoing thing.)
I think it’s important to talk about this stuff, because I don’t think many of us anticipate how physically and emotionally complex it actually is. And it’s something a lot of women deal with on their own – in the middle of the night, attached to a machine, while exhaustedly poking, prodding, and coaxing what feels like bruised rocks out of their boobs.
My Mom Crew used to call that last part Boob Maintenance. Every mom’s experience with Boob Maintenance is different – but it may or may not include: heating, cooling, pressing, rubbing, and squeezing clogged ducts and milk blisters; making and applying custom ointments to your cracked, blistery nipples, comprised of all kinds of weird stuff you’re pretty sure your baby can’t put in their mouth; creating little tents in your shirts and bras to avoid any/all contact with fabric or – god forbid – water; and ongoing pumping sessions that simultaneously relieve built-up pressure and stimulate more pressure to build up.
And that doesn’t include actually feeding the babe.
I’m going to pause here and acknowledge a couple things:
1. I clearly tried to breastfeed. Many women don’t or can’t in the first place. Major, major props to the woman who stays tuned in with her own body, brain, and needs while helping a newborn thrive.
2. Breastfeeding is universally challenging, during at least some point in the process. I haven’t met a mom yet who disputes that. But many moms ultimately find it to be a beautiful and fulfilling experience that they can maintain for months or years.
My limited experience wasn’t beautiful.
Here’s the thing about my sweet, funny, stubborn, curious, ball-loving little boy – he tried to flip my nipples inside-out while he ate. It was freaking terrible.
When, at our lactation consultant’s advice, I begrudgingly paused breastfeeding after two weeks in order to let myself heal for a bit, I did it with the depressing realization that it was the end of the road for me. Over the following weeks, I tried keeping up with Mars by exclusively pumping – but Joe was back at school at that point, so Mars and I spent our days with me attached to the pump and him lying next to me, whimpering and waiting. When we hit a stage where I couldn’t hold him because my chest was in so much pain, I called it for good. It took another three weeks of periodic pumping and stuffing my bra with ice cold cabbage to fully wean (DM me and I will happily extol the virtues of cold cabbage to you).
I remember my (honestly amazing) husband telling me week five that he wanted Mars to have breastmilk for at least six months, and that if he were in my position, he would tough it out.
I remember a nurse on the other end of a help line asking me repeatedly if I was “sure I wanted to stop” when I called her, sobbing, asking for weaning advice.
I remember people I’m close with telling me they thought I’d “just chosen not to breastfeed” in ways that made me feel selfish and weak.
I remember looking at my beautiful, healthy, incredibly fast-growing boy, and thinking, “I thought I’d be able to do anything for you.”
The realization that you can’t live up to your own expectations of motherhood, let alone anyone else’s, is powerful. It socks you in the gut. It forces you to acknowledge your own humanness, which is counter to the “Mom as Superhero” myth you’ve been sold.
But “Mom as Human” is a far more interesting character. She’s compelling. She’s unpredictable. She’s experiencing some stuff. And her relationship with her kid isn’t defined by the kind of liquid he drinks.
So, whoever you are, if you have thoughts about breastfeeding and they’re anything other than, “It seems like one of many great options,” I encourage you to find another self-talk track. Because moms are hard enough on themselves to begin with.
Sometime between my world being rocked and right now, something shifted. I think it happened between weeks seven and nine of Mars’ life. He grew and grew and grew, and all of a sudden, he seems to enjoy his own existence. He’s not just turning milk into poop and vigorously dividing cells. He’s discovering. He’s emoting. He’s watching and listening and experimenting.
(For now) we aren’t making mindless bounce-laps around the kitchen table. We’re chatting with each other, we’re relaxing together, and we’re discovering what the world looks like when it’s never been seen before. When Mars kicks and swings and I ask him excitedly (like, really excitedly) if moving around is so much fun, he locks eyes with me and wiggles with even more gusto – as if to tell me that not only is it fun, he’s going to wiggle like a maniac if he thinks I’m into it, too.
Mars is a pretty careful observer. He takes in the world intently and doesn’t get distracted by the antics I try in order to tease out a smile. And as much as I love his smiles, I love his focus even more. He’s letting me get to know him and it’s had a profound effect on both of us. And now that I can see him as his own person, parts of me are returning as well. I went to a yoga class. I read a book. (Okay, fine – part of a book.) I finished crocheting the toy octopus I’ve been obsessing over since November.
For a year, Mars has been an ever-present part of my body – the ten months on the inside and two on the outside punctuated by delivery but eerily similar in their physical and emotional effort. But now, Mars is becoming his own body. Body with a capital B. As in, he has his own mind and spirit in addition to his own arms and legs.
My tears used to be spurred by exhaustion and confusion. Now, I cry because I want him to know how loved he is and how passionately his dad and I will always care for him. And in three weeks, I go back to work. My brain is getting ready for the challenges of my job but part me is aching to stay home and keep discovering things with this fascinating little kid.
So this is why moms get mom-nesia.
I know we’ll still have some major ups and downs and that plenty more sleepless nights are on their way. But I think I get it now.
Points against: 1) We don’t breastfeed anymore.* 2) Joe and Mars visited family for the weekend without me and I reveled in it (I did have the stomach flu the whole time, so my revelry looked more like… er… death.). 3) I don’t love this tiny baby phase. I just don’t. I don’t know what he wants half the time and there are only so many bouncing-laps I can make around the kitchen table with him before going insane.
Points for: 1) Formula is nutritionally sound and he eats wonderfully. 2) When Joe and Mars walked in the door yesterday, both grunting to each other, it sounded like home to me. 3) He’s not lacking for stimulation, as I’m constantly waving new things at him to see if anything other than bounce-laps will entertain his growing brain.
I mean, look at that brain!
So am I a bad mom or just a mom? Instagram tells me there are new moms out there who love being new moms. They embrace their new, softer bodies. Their enthusiasm for the role of MOM makes their eyes bright and their skin glow through their (presumed) tiredness. They put on cute stretch pants and make-up and go out for brunch with their babies, somehow overriding the internal voices that scream warnings about public spaces and influenza.
And, yes, my own Instagram feed isn’t exactly a peek into reality. Because when Mars is screeching and I feel like I’m going to pass out, it doesn’t occur to me to snap a pic.
The moms (with mom-nesia?) have told me to enjoy this phase before it’s gone and I’m trying faithfully to abide. I’m locking into my memory that sweet, waxy scent of his hair, the heaving sounds of his sighs, and way his warm body melts into my tummy when he relaxes in my lap. But I’m also hyper-aware of the pee (and, yeah, poop) running down the wall behind his dresser, the piercingly high octave of his “panic” cry, and the surprising sharpness of his nails when they claw at my chest.
Being home alone with him all day is a practice in presence, patience, and prioritization. Sometimes I do it well and sometimes I fail, as Mars and I have ups and downs together and half the laundry mysteriously ends up in the tub. The 1:1 adult-newborn ratio is some tricky math. (Special and enormous shout-out to my own mom, who – during one of my “fail” weeks – dropped her own life to fly out here and help me with mine.)
So when Mars and I are alone, I’ve taken to un-gritting my teeth and whispering “delight, delight, delight” to myself – because I truly want to take delight in all his milestones, even when they’re loud and squirmy. And I’m trying to remember that one day soon, he’ll express delight in something instead of angst, and I have a feeling it’s going to rock my world.
Until then, we’ll clock some more laps around the kitchen table and I’ll try not to muse too hard on what kind of mom I am. Because, honestly, we have more pressing questions to consider. Like, what is that new smell and where is it even coming from?
Me, looking fly, thumbs-upping Joe during my weekend of revelry.