Resting to manage my illness has been a hard practice to maintain since becoming a mother. But it has also been an incredible gift.
This article was originally featured in the online magazine Woman Born on May 7, 2019.
As a mother, I sometimes don’t have as much patience as I’d like.
The other night when I was making dinner I could feel my blood pressure start to drop and I was getting a headache, which makes me irritable and spacey. I was racing to get dinner done so I could sit down and relieve the blood pooling in my legs. Reese, my five-year-old son, really wanted to help grate the parmesan on the box grater for the risotto. But instead of being patient and showing him how he could safely help out, I told him that I needed to do it this time. I’m not feeling well, buddy. I just need to get it done this time. You can help another time, I told him.
Unfortunately, incidents like this happen more than I’d like to admit.
It’s because I live with a chronic illness—an autonomic nervous system disorder called dysautonomia. This is a broad term that describes a malfunction in the autonomic nervous system, which regulates various involuntary body functions including breathing, heart beat, digestion, and blood pressure (among other things).
In my case, dysautonomia has severely affected my body’s ability to raise and regulate my blood pressure, which means that I am at a near constant risk of fainting or severe illness (think headaches, dizziness, disorientation, trouble speaking, blurred vision, irritable bowels) when there’s a lack of oxygen in my brain. Dysautonomia affects my life the most by making it very difficult to stand for more than ten minutes at a time (on a good day), as my blood pools easily in my legs and my autonomic nervous system is unable to communicate with my cardiovascular system to increase my blood pressure and get adequate blood flow to my brain.
My body produces high levels of cortisol and norepinephrine to keep my body upright when my blood pressure levels begin to dip suddenly or decrease throughout the day. This results in extreme exhaustion and what some may call “adrenal fatigue.”
Since being diagnosed at age 18, I’ve tried a wide variety of methods and medications to manage and control this illness. I’ve been on beta blockers, steroids, and vaso-pressors, but ultimately the best methods I’ve found to help me function include taking doses of salt tablets every hour and rest. The salt works to temporarily raise my blood pressure, while rest means staying off of my feet and taking naps. Focusing on nutrition, fitness and self-care was always a non-negotiable daily priority. Then I became a mother.
Making accommodations for my illness doesn’t jive with the unpredictable nature of motherhood.
When you have a kid, most things tend to revolve around what they need. Parents often fit taking time for themselves and for one other in between or after their kid is taken care of. Feedings, nap times, doctors appointments, meal prep, preschool, laundry, and playtime all leave little time for self care. So happens when a my own medical needs must also be prioritized with equal weight?
It was easier to manage when Reese was a baby. I was able to stay at home with him until he was about 18 months-old. And while I was exhausted, constantly hungry and distracted from breastfeeding and caring for an infant, the upside was that he had a regular nap schedule that I could count on to get some rest for myself.
I was definitely not one of those moms who cleaned the whole house or ran business meetings while the baby napped. Come hell or high water, if Reese was down for his nap, so was I. I knew that if I didn’t take the opportunity to put my feet up and rest, then come the“witching hour” I would be feeling very sick and could possibly faint.
“I was definitely not one of those moms who cleaned the whole house or ran business meetings while the baby napped.”Like most moms of young children, my daily routine revolved around Reese’s nap schedule, but I approached this rule with dedicated fervor. If Reese missed a nap, I too would have missed my opportunity for the day to rest, recharge, allow my blood to evenly distribute throughout my body once more, and to feel well again.
I made sure to schedule all playdates, outings, or gym workouts in the mornings when I felt the healthiest. But when other parents might’ve extended their day out with their kids to get some errands done or have more fun, I had to put my foot down and make sure we got home on time.
While hard to be different, I realized there was an upside to all this.
Becoming a mother taught me a valuable lesson in learning to advocate for myself and to myself. I stopped apologizing or feel guilty for prioritizing my own self care.
I soon realized that if I was feeling happy and healthy, that meant that I was able to be more attentive and responsive to Reese, as well as a better partner to my husband, Frank.
This comfortable routine of self care I had established, however, was completely upturned when I went back to work. In the past, I was not very good about communicating with my employers about my medical limitations since I was scared that it made look weak, unreliable, or worse, unemployable.
With the frequent travel and long days that come with my work in business development, I would often push myself way past the point of breaking, which caused me to go straight to bed when I would get home from work or spend most of the weekend recuperating. Clearly, I was going to have to rethink my approach to work now that I had this new-found respect for myself and a family to take care of.
While in the end I still had a significant amount of days when I’ve felt very sick, I was able to create a work schedule and work-life balance that helped me be better at both. Some days were great and some days were horrible, but by experiencing enough bad days, I eventually learned to give myself a break and do things like order take-out for dinner or put a movie on for my son while I crashed on the couch.
Still, some things I’ve had to give up altogether.
Anyone with a chronic illness will know this all too well—it’s mostly manageable with a daily routine and a predictable schedule. It’s the days when your routine is disrupted and your plans are tossed to the wind that are the most challenging. For example, something as joyful and exciting as going to Disney World as a family is something that I immediately begin to dread the thought of.
We took Reese for the first time when he was three years old, and within the first hour I was very sick. I had to seek out an empty bench to lay down on. I suffered through the rest of the day, but I so badly wanted to just have fun and enjoy the experience. Instead, I was anxious about standing in long lines and what it would do to my blood pressure. By the time we left, I felt more sick than I think I ever have, and for the next few days I was so exhausted that I had difficulty completing simple tasks.
I have to face the reality that in the future I’m might not to be able to join my family for all-day experiences like Disney. This reality bums me out. I love museums, aquariums, and theme parks, and I want so badly to share these things with my son and husband. After our Disney experience, my husband suggested that next time I should rent one of those motorized scooters to get around. I’m not quite sure what to think of that.
As a mother with a chronic illness, I’ve learned that I have to let go of the many ideas I had about what a “good mom” should be.
My energy and wellbeing is a precious commodity, and I’ve had to learn to accept my limitations. I won’t always be game for a big craft project or an all-day outing that requires me to be on my feet for hours at a time. I have to learn to be okay with that.
I’ve learned to let the television be an ally when I need it to be, and to let go of the guilt for letting Reese have more TV time than he probably should when I need to rest. I’ve had to become comfortable with asking for help when I need it, and to not be afraid that it makes me seem incapable or weak. But rather, there is strength in that vulnerability. I’ve learned how to cherish taking time for rest.
I’ve had to learn to trust that the love and attention that I am able to give my family is enough, that quality is truly better than quantity. ”All these things have given me a whole new outlook on life. It is truly sweeter when we can slow down, learn to be comfortable in the pause, and rejoin the flow when our bodies and minds are ready.
In a way, my dysautonoia has become my own unique gift to my family, with my body as our constant reminder that life is not all about being busy and productive. Family afternoon naps on the weekends have become one of our favorite little traditions. I’ve had to learn to trust that the love and attention that I am able to give my family is enough, that quality is truly better than quantity.
And one day, I will teach Reese how to grate parmesan on a box grater. It will be at a time when I am well enough to teach him.
As a child abuse survivor, creating my own "perfect family" didn’t shield me from haunting memories of the past—it reignited them. Here’s how I learned how to cope.
This article was originally featured in the online magazine Woman Born on March 1, 2019.
I grew up in a house in which, on the surface, one might never expect abuse to occur. My parents are both accomplished veterinarians. We lived in a nice neighborhood, went to church every Sunday, and my sister and I attended a private school. But beneath the surface, it was a nightmare.
My father was often triggered into fits of rage for reasons that I still have trouble identifying. He was terribly emotionally and verbally abusive, and he often threw things or tried to scare us by threatening physical violence. I was the oldest and an empath, and I did my best to shoulder the brunt of his aggression and modify my behavior to avoid another incident.
Many years later, I would learn that he suffers from a mental illness called Borderline Personality Disorder, in which intense fits of rage and extreme narcissism are two primary symptoms. My mother, on the other hand, offered very little relief or solace. She was always very critical of me and seemed cold and distant. While I know that she suffered her own nightmare being married to my father, she didn’t seem to care that I was going through it alongside her. In fact, I think she blamed me for my own abuse, and I always thought that she agreed with his behavior.
Nevertheless, their demands for excellence were relentless. We were expected to be constantly busy “achieving”—perfect grades, social status, appearance and weight. A time earned by racing across a swimming pool were the ways to earn their love and admiration. It was never enough, it seemed. It’s as if my parents needed my brother, sister, and me to cover up the real truth of what they were truly like. After all, who would look for abuse in a house where kids were excelling?
In the midst of all of this, the desire to start my own family acted primarily as a crutch to help me cope. I will be different, I would say to myself, reeling from the latest wave of violence. I will right all of this wrong by having my own family and loving them in ways I've always wanted to be loved. I would cling to that mantra and fantasize about my one-day perfect family in the midst of my family’s chaos and instability.
Motherhood is what ultimately helped me identify my father as an abuser.
At the time, I didn’t fully realize what was happening to me. I didn’t know that I was dealing with abuse. While deep down I knew it was wrong, that sort of behavior and love was all I had ever known. So it must be true—I must deserve this somehow, I thought. All I knew was that I needed to survive and to get out as soon as I could. I internalized the abuse to be able to cope, and for years I suffered from eating disorders and extreme anxiety. But that singular, sad story only worked for me until I entered motherhood.
When that time came, my pregnancy and the birth of my son, Reese, was nothing short of an overwhelming spiritual experience. It had broken me open in a way that I still cannot describe.
Those first few months of my son’s life were sweet and blissful, but there was something sad and dark there. I couldn't put my finger on it, but it would surface occasionally as brief yet intense episodes of anxiety and fear that the hurt of my childhood would somehow reach my son. But in my fierce desire to keep my son's babyhood soft, sweet, and pure, and the nearly constant need to not shatter the house of cards that was my family of origin, I would always stuff it back down.
“My whole life I had thought that motherhood and marriage would hold the keys to erasing the memories of my past—but instead they amplified them. ”Then, when my son was about three months old, a series of unfortunate events finally caused me to identify my father as my abuser. Out of nowhere, he left my stepmother—a woman whom I had grown to love and think of as my own mother—for one of his students. This set into motion a cascading domino effect that revealed one horrific truth after another. The curtain was finally pulled back, revealing the narcissistic, abusive, hollow person he truly is. It was out in the open—finally. I couldn’t rationalize, hide, or defend my father’s behavior anymore.
The timing was uncanny. Why had this happened right when I became a mother for the first time? Why did this happen right before I was going to getting married? My now husband and I were planning to get married after Reese’s birth, and the turmoil with my father seemed to cast a horrible, dark shadow over what should otherwise have been a happy time in our lives.
I had a choice to make: continue to stuff down and dismiss these memories because they are too scary and painful and thus risk repeating the same abusive behavior towards my son and my husband, or deal with my pain once and for all, finally speaking the truth about what happened to me and my siblings, and rid myself and my family of the abuse once and for all. It was my love for my son and for myself that led me to instinctively choose the latter.
Recognizing the abuse I suffered as a child helped me to finally start to heal from it.
I quickly realized that if I was ever going to break the chain of abuse, I would need to start by looking at myself first, by naming and processing the painful events of the past, and by looking straight-on at how it has affected my life, my relationships, and my behavior. I could not run from these things anymore.
Here’s the thing about healing from abuse that nobody warns you about: once you are finally able to identify the hell that was your upbringing as abusive, you can’t stuff it back into that box you had nicely stowed it away in for so many years. You’ve got only one choice, and that is to face it. It’s like a roaring freight train that speeds your way, demanding to be heard and dealt with. Fury ushers it forward, and with it comes a dense, thick fog of confusion, sadness, and rage that consumes the mind. In its boorish attempts to not be held back, its surges forth with every life event that brushes up against a triggered memory.
For example, when my husband took our son Reese away from my presence to do something like change a diaper or give him a bath, and if Reese started to cry, I immediately panicked. My fight-or-flight instinct would take over. I eventually realized that this is because growing up, if I heard one of my younger siblings crying, it was pretty much my automatic assumption that my father was hurting them.
Or when my husband makes simple suggestions or comments on my own behavior (as spouses are bound to do from time to time), I immediately become anxious and defensive because, as my upbringing taught me, a terrible verbal assault laced with physical violence is close on the horizon.
“Here’s the thing about healing from abuse that nobody warns you about: once you are finally able to identify the hell that was your upbringing as abusive, you can’t stuff it back into that box you had nicely stowed it away in for so many years. ”Sometimes, there are days when it consumes me for reasons I can’t explain. It feels like a dense fog that rolls into my mind, and I’m unable to see my way through it. I clumsily stumble through the emotions of my day, not knowing what version of the story about myself and my life is real. I try to remind myself of what is true and good. The mental back-and-forth is exhausting, and I become overwhelmingly frustrated. Relief comes only with surrender, as my tears usher the conflict out of my body.
Ultimately, it was allowing myself to feel the sadness and anger, instead of fighting them, that allowed me to let them go.
I was in a pretty dark place emotionally for the first year after my son’s birth—and those normal postpartum blues did not help things either. My whole life I had thought that motherhood and marriage would hold the keys to erasing the memories of my past—but instead they amplified them. I knew intellectually that each day I was making the right decision by allowing myself to feel and reprocess the emotions and memories, but honestly, most days I felt like I had been swallowed up by a deep, dark hole.
As it turns out, creating your own "perfect family" doesn't immunize you from the haunting memories of the past. By researching the effects of adverse childhood experiences (or ACEs), and working with a therapist, I soon realized that I had been suffering from a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I found tremendous solace in knowing that I wasn't alone, and and that there was a name for the waves of trauma that I was re-experiencing on a daily basis. It is actually quite a common experience for adult survivors of child abuse—their new families trigger memories of their own abuse. I felt strengthened by gathering as much information as I could on coping mechanisms and scientific research on how trauma and domestic violence works to shape lives of children and adolescents.
It is unreasonable to expect life and the people around you to spare you situations and circumstances that can trigger a memory of your abuse. So when that memory arises, I have to feel it. I must stay present in that moment, listening to what it has to say. Sometimes, it drives me to a quiet place to meditate and focus on my breath. Other times, I turn to my dance practice. I immerse myself in movement, and I let joy remind me of my goodness and value.
But sometimes it takes the form of a tearful child’s pose in surrender to my mind. I listen, and I learn. I give it its due, and in time it quiets down again. I know that each memory will be retriggered at some point, but the pain and anger are usually less severe than before.
My son has been a constant source of light for me. Seeing his face and feeling his trust in me as his mother has been my daily reminder that I am fighting the good fight for my own self-care and for his. There have been many days, though, when I couldn't wait for his nap-time so I could just sit on the couch and cry or scream into a pillow from all of the pain and rage, from the resurfacing memories that I live through every day—but my need to shelter him from my pain has kept me from expressing myself in front of him.
I don't know if that was right or wrong, but I can't stand knowing that I might do something to cause my son to worry about me or to see me in inexplicable pain. I want so badly to give him the luxury of a childhood that is free of my own anxieties and unhealed wounds. I do hide many of these raw emotions from him, and I have developed mechanisms to give myself space when I need to process what my body is telling me. One day I will share my story with him, but since he is still so young (now four years old), I don’t want to risk passing my own trauma onto him, presenting him with potentially frightful circumstances that he can’t yet understand.
I'm so proud of myself and of the progress I've made. I no longer walk through life expecting the people in it to heal my hurt. It is not fair to give those burdens to my husband or my son, for example. I know now that it is my job to grieve and heal my wounds from the past and to define my own sense of self-worth and value. I know for a fact that this will ensure that my son's life will be different from mine; he will be free to be happy, to be who he was put on this earth to be. And I'm also proud of my husband and how we have walked through this together as a family. He has had to work really hard to understand what I’ve been going through. It hasn’t been easy for him to make sense of it all.
My first few years of motherhood were not as I would have wished for myself, but they have re-laid the foundation for who I am. Ultimately, I’m grateful for what I’ve had to experience. It has given me my voice and has shown me my path. I have a better understanding of myself, of God, and what I was put on this earth to do. It showed me my Dharma, and an unfailing Grace from which I can never be separated. I now know that the only way to that "perfect" family is through love and a willingness to walk through the darkness together.
Katherine Hanson is a writer, speaker, and entrepreneur. She is also a noted Zumba® instructor, and leads a community dance experience to facilitate self-healing through joy. Through her work, Katherine advocates for child abuse prevention and recovery. She lives with her family in Thomasville, Georgia. You can follow along on Instagram at @KatherineHanson
This past spring, husband and I sold our Charleston, South Carolina, home and left it all behind to camp throughout the Rocky Mountain corridor with our four year-old son, Reese. In total we spent three months on the road, living out of a small camper trailer, and exploring communities throughout New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Idaho, and Arizona to see where we'd like to own a small ranch property for the summer. These are excerpts from my journal from that time that I'm sharing for the first time. Enjoy!
June 13, 2018
We pulled out of Texas and made our way into New Mexico, and it dawned on us that it is going to be harder than we thought to find available campsites in the laissez faire, fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants way that we're preferring to travel. After hours of spotty phone calls and online research in less than ideal service areas, we decided to take our chances at the Coyote Creek State Park in Guadalupita, about forty-five minutes south of Taos in the Sangre de Cristos Mountains.
Thankfully, they had a spot for us with partial hook-ups. For those not in the know, that usually means access to water and power, but not sewer/grey water, which means that if you have a small camper like ours, you'd best make use of the communal toilets and showers on the campground to prevent filling up your tank before you're ready to break camp. Not totally ideal, but hey we were in no position to say no.
To our delight, once the sun started it to set the cool, crisp mountain air settled into the little valley of our campsite. We went to bed that night with the windows open and the air conditioning off, happy to have a little chill on our skins after the torching Texas gave us.
I woke up early the next morning before Frank or Reese awoke. I bundled myself up and stepped outside of the trailer to enjoy a few quiet moments of solitude outside with a warm cup of coffee to watch the sunrise over the Sangre de Cristos. My soul is happy, I thought. It all felt so right, to be here in this part of the world, at this moment.
After having my first mindful moments of the day, I opened my phone to check the day's news. To my horror and disbelief, I learned that Anthony Bourdain had died by suicide.
This is a hard one. I still can't believe it's true. I never met the man, but it somehow seems so personal. I used to religiously watch his show No Reservations on the Travel Channel as a broke college student, and would dream of traveling and seeing the world the way he did: by going off the beaten path, seeking out the street food and food of the poor first, and staying curious about his journey no matter how bad or odd things get.
It seems so coincidental that he would pass on during this big adventure my family and I are taking, and particularly that I would receive the news on such a peaceful and soulful morning. If there is anyone who has slowly and steadily given me the confidence over the years to say "yes" to this crazy adventure my husband felt called to take, it is Anthony Bourdain. In his own unique way, he encouraged me, as well as many others, to stay curious, and always look for the ways in which we're more alike first than the ways in which we are different.
May you Rest in Peace, Tony.
I hope our journey can be an homage to his life and legacy.
After negotiating with the campground host to let us stay another night amid all of the weekend camping reservations, we drove through the Sangre de Cristos down into Taos.
Taos is a small desert town that is just teeming with history and creative energy. I wish we had the flexibility to have done more, like hit up one of the many museums or one of the legendary spas, but such things are pipe dreams when traveling alone with a small child. Instead, we made do with a delicious lunch from local cafe Chow Cart (get the chile rellenos!), a visit to the laundromat, and a public playground hosted by a fantastic toy store downtown called Twirl. Reese played while Frank and I relaxed in the chairs provided, sipping turmeric cardamom lattes from World Coffee across the plaza. It was about as close to perfection as one can get in this sort of situation.
We drove around looking at available homes from our truck windows throughout the few days we spent in the area. I'm so in love with the adobe style of architecture, that is still used today (yes, even the McDonalds is built in this traditional style). I was dreaming of finding a minimal adobe style ranch home tucked up into the hills. The stark nature of the desert, in contrast to the elevated landscape in the mountains just a few miles, really took us by surprise. It took some getting used to before I could really appreciate the beauty of it.
A bit about camping: it is a lot of freakin' work. All of this down time I had anticipated during our long drives from destination to destination that I had planned to write or whittle away my reading list becomes sucked up by searching for and calling campgrounds, looking for a place to park ourselves for a few nights. And if I'm not doing that, then I'm having to dislocate my shoulder to get something for Reese. Or trying to prep food while going 65 miles per hour down the highway. Once we do get to a campsite, it takes at least 20 minutes to set up our camper and get everything squared away for the night. When you're living in such tight quarters, everything takes a little longer too. I'm always cleaning up, having to put things back into their place immediately, and taking things apart to access one thing or another.
What I've realized as this reality had begun to set in is that when you're camping, or living on the road - that is what you're doing. There really isn't much time for anything else. This is our sole endeavor for the foreseeable future. And as much as it stings sometimes, I'm learning to accept the realities it brings. Daily hours of alone time that I used to relish so much are now a thing of the past. Having systems in place so that I could dedicate the better part of the day to what I needed to do feels like a distant memory now. There are many things I miss about our old life in Charleston, and some things I'm glad are long gone. Learning to root myself in an identity that is separate from those things comes easier now that it used to - but I'm not going to lie, it still stings.
I'll end with this:
"If I'm an advocate for anything, it's to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else's shoes or at least eat their food." - Anthony Bourdain
From the Travel Journal: Texas
This past spring, husband and I sold our Charleston, South Carolina, home and left it all behind to camp throughout the Rocky Mountain corridor with our four year-old son, Reese. In total we spent three months on the road, living out of a small camper trailer, and exploring communities throughout New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Idaho, and Arizona to see where we'd like to own a small ranch property for the summer. These are excerpts from my journal from that time that I'm sharing for the first time. Enjoy!
June 6, 2018
Yesterday we drove up to Central Texas from Houston - where we visited my sister and her husband - and stayed in the Waco area. We found this wonderful national park about 30 miles southwest of Waco called Mother Neff State Park, and it was fantastic. It is small - only about 259 acres - but it was full of beautiful hiking trails throughout the cedar canyons and grasslands. One trail we hiked led down to a cave once inhabited by the Native American tribe that lived in the area. With the hot hot heat we were experiencing, it was easy to see how it was a valuable piece of real estate!
At dusk we walked along the roads that bordered the grasslands where Frank and Reese got in some quality "glassing" - for all you non-outdoorsy people out there, that means scanning the landscape for wildlife. With this first pair of binoculars, Reese spotted his first deer. He was elated! Later we indulged in every kid and big kid's favorite camping activity: toasted marshmallows by the fire. Afterwards we left our camper shower behind and indulged in water pressure at the bath houses at our campground, which looked almost brand new and were impeccably clean. If you're looking to do the whole Waco/Fixer Upper experience and want to stay away from all the crowds, I'd highly recommend staying at the Mother Neff.
And of course, while we were passing through Waco we had to do what we could to take in the whole Fixer Upper/Magnolia Market experience. We packed up camp as early as we could - which for us means not that early - and headed into Waco on our way to North Texas. We planned for our first stop to be breakfast at Magnolia Table, but as soon as we pulled off of I-35 for the restaurant it became evident that this was not going to be the quick breakfast stop that we were hoping for. At 8:30am on a Wednesday, the masses were lined up out the door, and with a 45 minute wait time (which is not that bad of a wait, according to one friendly hostess) we opted for the take away window. We were starving by that point, and were not in the mood to wait. We got a box of their signature biscuits with strawberry butter and a carton of chicken salad to eat later for lunch, and then headed next door to a cool local breakfast taco/BBQ joint called Rudy's who were more than happy to quickly serve us some scrambled eggs. I quickly learned that if I was ever back in Waco again and planned to give Magnolia Table a try that I would not come hungry.
Once fueled up we thought we might as well try to go by Magnolia Market, which is just a few minutes north of the restaurant. But again our plan was foiled by crowds and limited parking for a long rig like ours - so we drove around the premises a few times, snapped a few shots, and went on our way up north. Oh well, we tried.
Next stop - North Texas!
My Hope for the New Year
Truth be told, I’m not much of a fan of the winter’s New Year celebration, as it doesn’t seem right that the new year should begin in the midst of winter’s darkness.
For me, I think of Fall as the commencement of the New Year. Be it childhood conditioning from starting a new school year, or the relief felt from the arrival of cooler temperatures after long southern summers, or perhaps my body’s own biological observance of the earth's transformation process that Fall initiates. The beautiful deadening and dropping of leaves, the shorter, darker days, signals a death in the earth that must take place for all of the glories of Spring and the beauty of Summer to emerge.
And so the same is true of us human types. All of the many destructions in our own lives pave the way for something more beautiful on the other side. All of it is a cycle - you “die” to one thing to live in the beauty of what that “death” has brought to you.
Mine and my family’s rootlessness, journey, and adventures over the last year has brought us to a series of deaths and rebirths: letting go of our life in Charleston to embrace the possibility of a new life and new purpose elsewhere, “dying” to the ego’s expectations and definitions of worthiness and productiveness to fully embrace the ability to be present and together during our time of wandering amongst some of our country’s most magnificent natural wonders, and releasing all of our many plans and expectations for a life in Tallahassee when we were finally guided twenty miles up the road to Thomasville, Georgia, to the home and community that was meant for us all along.
All of the wandering and rootlessness we’ve experienced over the last year has completely turned me upside down, unearthed things left unresolved and uncared for, and has challenged my ability to feel whole and complete without a home, community, work, and a solid game plan. Yet as I sit here writing this, feeling rooted again into a home, community, and a renewed sense of purpose, my heart is filled with wholeness, gratitude, and grace that has come by doing the hard work of letting go of my expectations.
We take so much for granted in this life, thinking that a roof over our heads is a given and that we’ll be happier or more whole when we have more, or when we have finally achieved “it”. What a lie that is. The lesson this year has taught me is that we are born into abundance, just as we are. And we’ve been given this beautiful world to live on and commune with, and beautiful beings in our lives to love and learn from. We already have everything we need - all thats left to do is enjoy.
So, my friends, my hope for the New Year is not filled with goals or ambitions, but rather the intention to continue to be grateful for the continual cycles of death and rebirth in all of the small and significant ways they appear in my life, and to be vigilant in listening and living fully into what they have have arrived to teach me. May the same be true for you, in wherever you find yourself this New Year’s Eve.
Grace and peace,
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 print issue of Skirt! Magazine.
It was a monsoon-like day when my husband, Frank, our 3-year-old son, Reese, our dog, Chaos, and I piled ourselves and whatever remaining items didn’t fit into our moving pod into our truck and Sprinter van. With a boat and a Green Egg grill in tow, we waved goodbye to our beloved Folly Beach home, shook the hands of its new owner, and pulled out of town, headed into the unknown.
“Why would we ever leave Charleston?” you might ask. After all, it is the No. 1 city in the world for pretty much everything. “Who would ever want to move away?”
We had our reasons, most of which were nurtured by my husband who felt the long-awaited call for adventure out West grow stronger and stronger. I have to admit, he had to convince me that it was the next right thing for our family. I had just started a business and was doing well in my career. We had a great network of friends, our son was in a great preschool, and we had a beach house to boot. I didn’t think that it got much better than what we were fortunate enough to have.
But Frank was playing the long game. Whereas I clung to our life in Charleston like a long-awaited life raft, he saw it as a starting point from which to dream up our next big family adventure. Frank envisioned a lifestyle spent outdoors exploring the public lands of the Rocky Mountains, teaching our son (and me, for that matter) to fish and hunt, summer nights spent camping under the stars, and a commute across town that didn’t involve an entire afternoon sitting in traffic and crossing five different bridges. And with the money we would get from the sale of our beach house, he rationed, we would be able to purchase a property wherever we chose to settle out West, plus a home near his family in North Florida to escape to during the harsh winters. After all, Reese is still a few years away from having to adhere to a strict school schedule, and both of us are able to work remotely, so it seemed like a reasonable plan.
Slowly but surely, I was beginning to see what he saw. So over the course of the next year, we began to plot our departure from Charleston and dream of no-see-ums-free days out West. Last summer, we even took a two-week road trip through the Rocky Mountain states to scout out a few locations. I was stunned by the majesty that surrounded us at every turn – and the lack of humidity. We left with new resolve to leap into a new adventure of traveling and living out of our Sprinter van to find our new home in either New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana, or maybe even Oregon or Idaho.
So on a rainy day in late April, we drove into our new “normal.”
A few days after our departure, when the newness of it all had started to wear off, a long-avoided fear within me began to roar. I became anxious and stir-crazy, with a pit in my stomach that would only be satisfied if I had some sort of meaningful work to thrust myself into. I’m ashamed to say that it sent me spiraling into an emotional black hole that only a call with my best friend could pull me out of.
After I emerged from my melancholy and self-pity, I realized how easy it is to say that it would be thrilling to leave it all behind and venture out into a new life somewhere else when you’re surrounded by the things, friendships and lifestyle that give you a feeling of comfort, security and identity. But what happens when you make that leap – and instead of feeling exhilarated, confident and free, you begin to feel panicked, anxious and a deep feeling of worthlessness?
In picking myself back up and wiping away my tears, I thought about fear, and how sometimes it takes removing ourselves from everything we know to finally face what it is we’re afraid of the most. For me, it is not a fear derived from the potential of financial ruin or a lack of physical safety; but rather it is fading into obscurity, never doing anything worthwhile or noteworthy with my life. This fear may seem ridiculous, but for whatever reason it is a very real thing that I’ve long carried within me. Truth be told, this was my greatest fear about our move.
Perhaps we don’t only take big leaps and risks in our lives because of our need to test our physical limits, but to confront our internal, emotional fears and demons as well. In taking chances on the outside, we confront and expand our internal capacities as well. Fearlessness is not merely the absence of fear, but is the process of becoming: It takes facing the fear to ultimately become fearless. The start of our trip had finally brought me to something within myself I was most likely always protecting myself from with a schedule full of meaningful work. And I faced it. Tears, shame, embarrassment, and all, it brought me into my fearlessness.
This essay originally appeared on skirt.com on May 22, 2018
Some of us weren’t given the best role models when it comes to being a mother. Some of us unfortunate ones have to look elsewhere for the right guides in motherhood. Even sometimes, to the most unlikely of places.
Even sometimes, to a fictional television series.
My teen years, particularly those early ones, were not happy. My parents had just divorced, and neither of them had the will nor the personality to soften its ever-emanating blow. My mom, who had always been cold and distant with me before the divorce, seemed to have grown in her resentment since. I felt very lonely and sad most of the time. But mainly, I had this depressing feeling that no one could understand how isolating it felt to feel so unloved by your own mother.
That is, until one rainy Thursday evening in the Fall of 2000, when a new show came on the air, called Gilmore Girls.
For those of you who have never seen what I’m doing to call the greatest show of the twenty-first century, it is about a single mother named Lorelai Gilmore and her relationship with her daughter Rory – who she gave birth to at age 16 – set in a fictional small Connecticut town that is filled with unique personalities. Throughout the show, this multi-generational comedy/drama often focuses on the difficult relationship between Lorelai and her high society parents – namely her mother, Emily.
I’m going to try to put into words what this show has meant to me, at that time then, and still now to this day. Gilmore Girls was like a massive breath of fresh air – and a long awaited exhale, all at the same time. I had never before seen such a strained mother-daughter relationship portrayed on television the way that it played out in the series. All that I had seen before on TV were loving, nurturing relationships between mother and daughter. This, I thought upon seeing the show for the first time, is something I can relate to. I saw Lorelai struggle to find common ground with her passive aggressive mother, and try to make peace with the rigid way in which her prideful parents raised her. And I watched in awe as she transformed that dysfunction into the loving, down-to-earth way she raised her own daughter Rory.
The comically laced, witty dialogue of the show is what had caught my attention. But it was the strained dynamic between Lorelai and her mother Emily that had me hooked.
So week after week, I tuned into the Gilmore Girls. I sang along to the beloved theme song by Carole King, and would nestle into the couch to watch the show, much like one might sink into the loving embrace of a parent. In a strange way, it gave me an incredible amount of relief and encouragement to know that I wasn’t alone in struggling to feel loved by my mother, even if it was a fictional show. It helped me to know at my young age that I wasn’t crazy or simply unlovable – but that some people are simply incapable of loving you the way you need to be loved. And that it isn’t your fault.
Lorelai Gilmore showed me the kind of mother I wanted to be: a mother who was strong and confident, yes – but also capable of tenderness, compassion, and understanding. Having been forced into the ill-fitting debutant role by her mother, she encouraged her own daughter to be everything she already was, not merely to be a clone of herself. She was willing to make mistakes, to be vulnerable to her daughter, and best of all, she knew when a night in of movie watching and junk food is sometimes just what the soul needs to set things right again. Ultimately, she gave me a roadmap for how to survive and channel my pain into cultivating my own community for myself, and into an outstanding childhood for a child of my own someday.
I’ve been blessed with an over-abundance of motherly role models since those early years of the Gilmore Girls who have shown me what mothering-done-right looks like from a variety of angles: my stepmother Alexis, my best friend’s mother Kathy, and the special mothers of two different ex-boyfriends of mine, Joyce, and Kathy.
These amazing women have helped shape my understanding of what motherhood is. They picked up where my own mother left off, filling in the blanks for the many questions yet to be answered.
Perhaps being a mother sometimes has nothing to do with biology, but rather everything to do with the ability to see a child in need of love, to relate, and to respond with unconditional love, encouragement and guidance.
And maybe, every once in a while, it has something to do with a Gilmore girl.
Grieving a Job Loss
This article appeared originally in the April 2018 print issue of skirt! Magazine
I lost my job recently.
I knew it was coming. The market wasn’t there for the company I worked for at a level that could justify my position. It had been a frustrating few months as I began to realize that it was going to take more time to see my efforts pay off. Unfortunately, the “powers that be” needed to restructure our hub to be more efficient in response to what the market was telling us.
I was hoping to get ahead of it somehow by re-assigning myself to other roles, or perhaps resign in a month or two with another offer waiting. But the termination of my position came sooner than I had expected.
I had enjoyed the job I was doing, despite the lack of results from my efforts. I enjoyed the people I worked with, and I believed in the services we offer. But – it was not my life’s passion.
It was something that I held loosely from the very beginning. Grateful, yes, to have a job with paid vacation days, a group health insurance policy and a 401(k), but I never assigned the expectations to it of fulfilling and affirming my life. I had other more beautiful passions for that – and my own business to grow as well.
Nevertheless, it still stings.
Accepting failure, or simply even admitting to myself that some results are beyond my control no matter how much I’d like to tell myself otherwise, has always been a struggle for me. As a product of the Title IX generation, you aren’t supposed to lose your job. Failure, as we were taught, isn’t an option. Working harder and more efficiently was the prescribed mantra. If you failed, clearly you weren’t doing one of the two to your fullest capacity. That kind of thinking gets into the bloodstream after a while.
That philosophy, however, doesn’t always apply when you leave the world of youth sports and college campuses. As I’ve grown and matured, I’ve slowly begun to see failure for what it really is – a learning experience meant to carry you further down the path of self-actualization and into your next beginning.
Regardless, suddenly being removed from something you’ve worked very hard at – and put your child into day care for – is still something to be grieved. Which may seem odd, but when the news came, I knew that is something that needed to begin.
Grief is a process that has to have its way with you in order for you to move on with an open heart. I’ve grieved horrible, traumatic losses and things that were the results of terrible events. Yet as I’ve learned, even the small things, even the things you held loosely from the get-go, need to be grieved when you find that they are removed from your life – no matter how abruptly or gradually.
I arrived home after the long drive from my office the day I was let go feeling sad and tired, like I just wanted to crawl into bed and start the whole day over. As I stood in the kitchen to make myself something to eat, I willed myself to think of all the benefits this job had that can’t be itemized on a tax return:
I thought of how all of the time spent driving in my car to meetings had allowed me to discover all that there is to be learned from podcasts. I thought of how in my position it was my job to meet everyone I could within the business community, and I discovered a common theme that most conversations kept coming to: an observation of the spiritual nature of everything we do. I thought of the people I had met who had helped me further down my path of personal growth, some of whom had become my close friends. I thought of all the travel opportunities I took advantage of during my tenure, and the wonderful memories I was able to share with my family. I thought of the challenges, too, and the opportunities they presented.
It was then I realized that within loss lie seeds of creativity. As much as it stings to be let go from your job – whatever the reason – a sweet gift comes with it. The opportunity for change, to take with you what you’ve learned, and to be called into something new that is trying to be born, or the invitation into something bigger, is usually what you find if you go deeper.
I have been fired three times in my life for various reasons (graduating college at the beginning of the Great Recession didn’t help) – and in hindsight, each termination was something that was actually the best thing for me. Because there was something else, something that was waiting to open me up to something more spectacular for my life, that was waiting for me on the other side. Had I not lost those positions and had I bitterly held onto what could have been, those better things never would have happened.
And now so many years later, feeling firmly rooted in my career and my purpose, it is easier for me to understand that there is something more expansive waiting for me behind this shame and disappointment. Now that doesn’t mean I don’t have to worry about the everyday realities like money and how my family is going to have insurance now, but I’m better able to trust my steps forward and watch the universe show up for me in ways I never could have thought possible. And yes, those everyday worries we all have will be taken care of, too.
So if you, too, are mourning a job loss, or perhaps are feeling stuck in your profession, or maybe even feeling like this thing that you’ve worked so hard for isn’t “it,” I’d like to offer a new way of seeing your place in the working world. Rather than giving in to your shame and disappointment, or stubbornly holding on to an idea you used to have about yourself, ask yourself this: Is there something here that is trying to move me forward into something new? Your answer might be the key to unlocking your next right steps.
Or, perhaps you are grieving your own loss in your own way in your own life. Maybe it is something large and significant, or perhaps it is something you held loosely but worked hard at anyway because, well, it matters, too. I hope these words give you some encouragement as you go through your process, and help you to see that maybe in the midst of your grief, disenchantment and confusion, something bigger and more beautiful is waiting for you.
This article originally appeared on Skirt.com on March 28, 2018
As a boy mom with no plans of trying for a girl, I can feel a bit left out of one crucial part of the Feminist conversation, particularly about the duty of us moms to raise strong girls.
As a mother to a three year-old boy named Reese and as a female myself, I've had a few well-formed and strongly opinionated thoughts about how to raise and encourage the development of independently capable young ladies over the years. But what happens when you can't funnel all of the lessons-learned from your childhood angst and female intuition into a daughter of your own?
One must look to the boys, then.
In Claire Cain Miller's popular New York Times article titled How to Raise a Feminist Son, she quotes Gloria Steinham as saying, "I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons, but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters.”
We are raising our daughters to see themselves as equal contributors to the professions of the world while encouraging empathy and an awareness of emotions. However, none of this will work out if we don’t also raise our boys to be mindful and awake to themselves as well.
What good does it do if we raise only half of the future generation to be this way?
Clearly we’re not thinking or looking at the whole picture when we only talk about raising strong girls.
We also have to raise strong men.
Boys too need to be on the receiving end of affirmations, encouragement and emotional support. Not in a way that puts one gender above the other, but to give them the strength and confidence to see themselves as emotionally equal to girls, to also be everything they’ve been put on this earth to be.
What good does it do if we raise up one sex at the expense of the other?
(And just because that may have been done in the past doesn’t make it justifiable to do so in the future with men and boys posed as the lesser.)
The Feminist movement, and all of the progress it has made, is not just about the cause of women being equal to men; it is a big invitation for us all to step forward and explore a better way to exist together on this planet.
In her aforementioned article, Miller makes many good points about raising a Feminist son which I highly recommend parents to read. But what does that look like in real life with a three year-old/almost four year-old boy? Taking cues from Miller's piece and combining them with some observations of my own, I'd like to offer the below seven practical tips on how to raise a son, at this juncture in his development, with a Feminist mindset:
1. Encourage Friendships with Girls
One of Reese's best friends is our neighbor Sophia, who is 4 years-old, and we treat his friendship with her in the same way that we'd treat his friendship with a fellow boy. Yes they play with dump trucks, excavators, and foam rocket launchers, but they also play "house" and other imaginative scenarios. When we talk about Sophia with Reese, we ask all about their adventures. We also ask him about what she likes, doesn't like, and the kind of friend she is, and what makes her unique. Although she is a beautiful girl, we don't bring her looks into the conversation with innocent and silly phrases like, "You think she's prrreeeettyyy?" By encouraging his friendship with Sophia and other girls in his life this way, we are hoping to raise him to see girls with a respect for who they are as people and their contributions, not just as a feminine compliment to males or to judge them purely by their looks.
2. Let the Boys Celebrate with the Girls
And when it comes to birthday parties and other gatherings to celebrate important milestones, include both boys and girls as long as you can. Reese's school has a rule to include everyone in the class when birthday invitations are passed out, and I've always loved having his whole class come to his birthday parties. However I've noticed many parents of girls this age have begun to host "girls only" parties. Call me crazy, but this really bothers me. What good does it do to encourage boys to see girls as equals when at the first chance you get to do the same for boys, you single them out by assuming they're not interested in developing those friendships with girls? Girls get that message as loudly as the boys do - there is something "special" about us that is "not special" about the boys. This subtext tells the boys that they have nothing to contribute when it comes to friendships with girls, and it encourages the divide of understanding between the two that might only grow as they get older. I would never have the audacity to not invite Reese's female classmates to one of his parties under the assumption that they wouldn't be into a Superhero or Truck-themed party - so let's not do the same to the boys. I’m just saying.
3. Allow for Quiet Time to Encourage Conversation
In her book, Strong Mothers, Strong Sons, Dr. Meg Meeker describes the importance of keeping yourself open to communication with your young man. She says that boys tend to be less persistent than girls when they have something important to say, and making yourself available to your son on a regular basis for when he needs to talk about something is crucial to his emotional development. With this in mind, I try to create quiet space throughout our day to help encourage my son to express his thoughts and identify his emotions. We also do this with our bedtime routine where either my husband or I lay down with him at bedtime, and we encourage a reflective conversation about this day with four questions:
4. Expose Him to Female Role Models and Heroines
Like many households with young children, the Disney movie Moana has been a favorite in ours. And for good reason - the visuals, the songs, and the eco-friendly message are all spectacular. But the reason I like it best of all for both boys and girls is that it shows a girl living out a true Hero's Tale - without a romantic interest as a part of the journey's goal. Not once is Moana told that she can't carry out the mission that she's been called to do because she is a girl. And when a strong male character arises in the plot, they work together, each using their unique skills to complete their mission. This is just one example of the ways in which you can encourage female role models for your son - without the pretense that girls are thought to have lesser capabilities by men. The popular book She Persisted by Chelsea Clinton is also one of Reese's favorite books. Moms, grandmothers, aunts and friends are all capable role models too, if your son is allowed to see their triumphs and how they've overcome hardships in their lives.
5. Don't Adhere to Traditional Gender Roles
I'm thankful to have a marriage where both my husband and I have equal responsibilities for household chores, and our son has seen us both work hard at our careers. In the same vain, Reese is expected to pull his weight around the house with age appropriate tasks. Some are paid chores, and some are not. It is our hope to show him that both caring for a household and providing for it are equally as valuable, and both require a lot of strength.
6. No Means No - Respect Physical Boundaries
Teaching the No Means No rule is important on so many levels, but mostly it teaches children that ultimately they have a say in who touches their body, what is done to it (aside from necessary medical interventions), and how to identify when someone is crossing a boundary. We can only expect boys to respect physical boundaries with others if their physical boundaries too are respected. Even though it sometimes hurts feelings of family members, we don't make Reese hug or kiss anyone (high fives are a great option instead). Or if someone is touching him and he doesn't want to be touched, we've taught him to be confident in politely stating, "Keep your hands to yourself, please!". By setting the expectation that physical boundaries are ones to be obeyed at all costs, we are hoping to raise our son to instinctively know that the bodies of his peers are to be treated respectfully.
7. Avoid the "Boys will be Boys" Rationale
Yes, just by their very nature boys tend to me more rambunctious, physical, and inattentive than girls. However that doesn't mean that they're not capable of being quiet, still, and contemplative. Don't deny them the opportunities to practice being mindful and still. There are many providers of Kids Yoga programs in the Charleston region now that provide excellent age-appropriate opportunities for boys to explore these skills, and our son loves going to the "yoga parties" as we call them. It may not look like what we females think it should look like and it might all be bookended by a game of dodge ball or a wrestling match, but these skills are no less important to them.
I've come to the realization that the best way I can serve and encourage the enlightened development of girls in my son's generation is to raise my own son with them in mind. Not in a way that puts young ladies as superior to him, but instead in a way in which he hopefully will ultimately feel as empowered and emotionally capable as they have been raised to be.
But for me as a mother, this is not just about raising him to see females as equal in abilities as himself, but raising him in a way to see value in all walks of life.
Don't give up on the boys. The world needs to hear what they have to say, too.
The Love of a Friend
This article originally appeared on Skirt.com on February 26, 2018
When most people think about love, thoughts immediately go to the idea of a romantic partner. But I’d like to call attention to a love that some might argue is just as essential in the shaping of a life: the love of your closest friend.
I’ve had the fortune of having a handful of close friendships throughout my life. I was never one to have a gaggle of girlfriends around me at all times; rather, I prefer the more calming company of one or two close friends at a time while also having many acquaintances. Each one of these strong friendships have had a comfort and an ease of understanding between us, where we could just be ourselves, and trust that we would be loved for it by the other.
Probably no other friendship in my life has been as formative or significant as my relationship with Alana.
Alana and I met in August of 2005 when we were paired as roommates within the Freshman class of swimmers at Auburn University. I had attended boarding school in high school, so I was used to the roommate arrangement and had grown accustomed to living in close quarters with new people, many of whom were from foreign countries, some of whom didn’t speak a lick of English. Alana arrived to Auburn from the Bahamas (and thankfully spoke English), and if I remember correctly it was her first time being away from home without a parent; if she was nervous she didn’t show it. There was an ease and a confidence about Alana that I had picked up right away that I was secretly envious of her for. She knew she was a badass – she didn’t need me or anyone else to confirm it for her.
Within a few weeks we were like old pals who had known each other for years; going grocery shopping together, cooking dinner together, taking turns cleaning our dorm, etc. It helped that she didn’t have a car during her first year at Auburn – she had no choice but to bum a ride with me! We quickly realized that there were only two songs that we both knew and loved which became repeat favorites on my car’s stereo: We Belong Together by Mariah Carey, and She Will Be Loved by Maroon 5. Perfectly fitting for a budding friendship, wouldn’t you think? When I think of that time in our lives, I think of us riding along in my old Volvo, driving into the unknown adventures ahead of where our lives might take us, but with each other by our side to give us comfort and security for the road ahead.
I have to give Alana a lot of credit for being the kind and patient friend she was with me. While many arrive to college fresh and ready to chart a new path, I arrived to college full of emotional baggage from my abusive childhood. Being away at boarding school had helped me to begin to identify the trauma of my past and learn how to fit the pieces of my identity back again, however I was far from healed and was still being abused when I arrived at Auburn. I was also still suffering from a long battle with an eating disorder, and struggled to identify any sort of self-worth away from swimming (which I was struggling to continue to do thanks to a newly diagnosed heart condition and repeated injuries). While I’m sure it was strange for Alana to experience someone her age with so many issues, she handled it with grace and compassion. She never once made me feel like there was something wrong with me or that I wasn’t worth enough to be her friend. I don’t think any of that mattered to her. She was just happy to be my friend, just as I was. It was probably the first time in my life that I felt loved that way. She gave me a glimpse of the kind of love that I had hoped to have for myself one day.
Something that made our friendship unique is that we both had a deep need at times to simply be left alone. Introverts at heart, we are both “disappearers”, and craved alone time to recharge and clarify our thoughts. We might go a whole day without speaking, leaving our doors closed and not engaging with each other until the needs of our first “primary relationship” had been met. Others might have taken offense to this habit that we both had, but for us it was something we inherently understood about each other.
Throughout our time at Auburn, Alana and I continued to live together and she became like family to me, and I to her. After I graduated Auburn I moved to California for work, while Alana stayed at Auburn to pursue her Doctorate. Despite the distance, our friendship never wavered, and somehow, we made it a point to see each other at least once a year, be it via flight layovers or one of us crashing a nearby family reunion. Over ten years later, and despite us living various distances from each other (I am now back in the South and she is now the one living and working in California), I still consider her a sister to this day. Whenever I’m having what I call an “oh shit!” moment in life, Alana is who I call to try to get some perspective. She has been there to toast and to celebrate every one of life’s milestones with me, as I have with her.
It has been said that our friendships and relationships are models of how we see ourselves. And in the instance of Alana, our friendship has been a model of how I want to see and love myself: with grace and compassion for all of me, including my strengths, my shortcomings, my mistakes, and my triumphs. It has been a long time coming and a battle hard-fought, but I finally have that kind of love for myself now. Our friendship is an example of how a love of a friend, and from a friend, can truly help to define and shape a life.
This is where I write.