I have been on the job in my new position for three weeks, and it never fails--I walk through the door to my house and declare, "I love my job!" I mean, that's great, right? Everyone wants a job they love. But I don't just love my job. I love the opportunity it gives me to be myself to the fullest extent possible. I really feel like I have been waiting for this nexus of opportunities for my whole professional life.
I've always had a mind for big things. In high school Anne and I sat around dreaming up "Spirit Week." Fast forward 15 years, and "Spirit Week," (with it's class competitions and bright, enthusiastic displays), is a veritable institution at my high school. In college I successfully convinced the Academic Dean to let me design my own major. It was 2002, and people struggled to wrap their brains around "Community Health." Today, the First Lady has taken on the mantle of promoting how important the built environment and the amenities therein are on the health of the residents. After college I participated in a variety of clubs and programs for up-and-coming nonprofit professionals. From our bright-eyed and bushy-tailed twenties, we have evolved into 30-something leaders of our respective industries. In grad school my friend Liz and I would take the theories we learned from the likes of Frank Hritz and the late, great Ted Bradshaw and extrapolate on the amazing things we would do to apply those lessons to the real world.
And then I got to the real world.
I applied for four jobs at the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency during my last year of grad school. Needless to say, I REALLY wanted to work there. I learned all I could about the 13 redevelopment areas and the dozens of projects. I was so excited about the synergy of the joint powers model that pooled both human capital and financial capital of six separate entities. I finally managed to land a job, (which ironically was the bottom one on my list), and started the same week I celebrated my 27th birthday, did my thesis project defense, and bought my first house. It was a momentous week, to say the least.
I was in for a rude awakening, though. I was stunned to find out that the ideas of a junior analyst fresh out of grad school didn't carry the kind of sway I naively thought they would. Surprise, surprise. But in my five years there, I learned many important lessons. I developed tenacity from surviving the worst economic downturn of my lifetime--and STILL managed to close deals. I cut my teeth on incredibly complex projects, with intricate financial layering and numerous feasibility hurdles. Most importantly, I cultivated patience and humility. Being the youngest and least experienced in my department within a large bureaucracy, patience and humility should have been a forgone conclusion.
I think that all those lessons were just what I needed. I learned tenacity, patience, and humility, AND I gained valuable technical skills throughout. Armed with my new personal and professional skills, I have now been given the opportunity to exercise all those qualities that are so very me: enthusiasm, optimism, sociability, and ingenuity. I have been waiting my whole professional life to get totally juiced about an idea, see the possibilities for it, bring in the players who can bring it to fruition, and create something that has not been done before. However, 20-something Bernadette just did not have the knowledge, life experience, or personal fortitude required to bring projects of this scale to fruition. It just wouldn't have happened.
I was watching "Family Feud" one day, and the top answer for "The age at which a woman is most fascinating" was 30. I think there is something to that. But maybe 30 is just the starting point. Like a fine wine, I think I have just turned the corner from glorified grape juice to a smooth spirit. Hopefully, I too will only get better with age.
For her birthday last year our friends got Zen an adorable storybook called “Zen Shorts” in which a lovable panda tells three young children Zen Buddhist-inspired parables. My personal favorite goes something like this:
A farmer’s horse ran away.
‘Oh what bad luck!’ declared his neighbors.
‘Maybe,’ he simply replied.
The horse returned the next day and was followed by two wild horses.
‘Oh what good luck!’ said his neighbors.
‘Maybe,’ said the farmer.
His son tried to ride one of the wild horses. It bucked him off, and his leg broke.
‘Oh what bad luck!’ exclaimed his neighbors.
‘Maybe,’ he responded.
The army came to conscript soldiers, and the farmer’s injured son was passed by.
‘Oh what good luck!’ his neighbors said.
‘Maybe,’ he replied….
This short story teaches us that perspective is more significant than the event itself, or put even more simply, events are not good or bad—they just are. “Zen” is actually a nickname for a family name which was actually supposed to be our daughter’s middle name. However, her moniker is a wonderful and simple daily reminder to think/do/live simply.
It has come in very handy recently. I was planning two birthday parties for Zen, and I was being thrown a baby shower as well. I am in my third trimester, and although I feel every additional missed hour of sleep, pound gained, and new miserable side effect of late pregnancy, I was looking forward to leaving work nearly a month before my due date to rest up and spent time with my daughter.
Oh what good luck!
Meanwhile, I was already bracing myself at work for the busiest two-week period in the last three years. I was the project manager of a complicated and politically-charged deal that needed to close. A few weeks prior the co-worker who was going to take over my projects while I was on maternity leave went on extended medical leave, leaving me burdened with a workload I had previously passed off. And then to top it all off, I was issued a layoff notice on March 5.
Oh what bad luck!
I notified my friends and colleagues that evening, and the next morning I had two potential job offers. The following week I had two interviews and two leads on jobs within the agency I was already working for. Yesterday I received three job offers and one pending job offer.
March has been the craziest month of my life. It has been overwhelming, frightening, thrilling—all wrapped up in one. Upon hearing that the state had dissolved redevelopment and essentially decimated my entire industry last year, I have been riding a roller coaster of emotion. I spent nearly six months unsuccessfully looking for a job before I just decided to get pregnant, but it wasn’t until I had an actual job loss that I would face a flurry of job offers.
Perhaps it’s not by chance that the name we’ve selected for our son means “bravery in the face of adversity.” Like Zen, his name will hopefully provide a daily reminder to carry on throughout life’s trials with confidence and grace.
I miss yoga. I was struggling in Warrior II during my second prenatal yoga class last night and feeling frustrated. How yogic of me, huh? I was torn between feeling disappointed in my performance and trying to not blame motherhood on the loss of “The Old Me.”
I’ve been thinking about “The Old Me” a lot lately. I’m knocking on the door of the last trimester of what is probably my last pregnancy. There are so many things I am looking forward to with a mixture of anxiety and elation, and yet less than two years into the life of my first child, I still struggle with what I have given up to be a mother. In the not-so distant past I was a woman always on the go. I’ve been a kickboxing instructor, yoga instructor, capoerista, martial artist, gym bunny, soccer player, volleyball player, and half marathoner. I’ve been a leader in a handful of young professional groups, and my bosses have always been able to count on me to take something that has never been done before and run with it. I could party all night every weekend, hit every weekday mixer, and still find time for intimate lunches and dinners out with my best friends.
It’s intriguing to see how people react to me during the transition pre- and post-motherhood. Some admitted their doubts that I could change. Some were certain that I wouldn’t allow anything to change. Despite these varying opinions, everyone has said that I wear motherhood so naturally it’s hard to remember who I was before I was a mother. I think that last sentiment can be applied to the things in my life that I have loved the most.
As a kid I played T-ball because my Dad made me. I hated it. But my Dad knew I just had so much energy to burn, I had to channel it somewhere. Sometimes he would tell me to run up and down the long hill on our property or jump on the trampoline in the garage if it was too cold out. Even though I played organized sports my entire youth, I really didn’t consider myself an athlete until adulthood. I distinctly recall thinking to myself, “I want to be one of those people who gets up and goes for a run.” Simple as that. It took time and dedication, but I ran on my own for 5 years until I caught the half marathon bug and have been an impassioned runner ever since.
Yoga was similar for me. I thought, “I want to be one of those yoga people.” Yeah, I wish I had a more noble goal, but I didn't. Like running, once I got a taste of yoga, I threw myself into it wholeheartedly. I took Bikram yoga no less than three times a week, cross training with three different types of martial arts. I expanded out to a variety of styles, branching out from Hatha and Bikram to Vinyasa and Iyengar. I researched the Bay Area’s best instructors and took their classes. I scoured bookstores for obscure and out-of-print books about philosophies and poses to enhance my personal practice. I even took a travel course in college on holistic healing which included Ayurvedic principles, which serve as the foundation of yoga.
I haven’t actively practiced yoga for several years now, but I will always consider myself a yogi. To this day I tap into the peace of mind that mindful breathing gives me, and the body spatial awareness I learned has carried me through from weight lifting to child birthing.
I think that motherhood is the same way. Like yoga, I discovered it, embraced it, and allowed myself to be changed forever and for the better because of it. For that matter, although my oldest child is merely a toddler, I know that I will always be a mother. I will always be my children’s mother, but more importantly I will always be a mother. I already feel empathy and protectiveness over others more than I ever thought was possible. I handle others more gently than I did in my young, selfish days. I care for others so much. I know I’ll always be my children’s mother, and God willing I’ll be a grandmother, great grandmother, etc doling out advice and home-baked cookies for years to come.
I have not always been a mother, but like an athlete, yogi, and so many more of my identities, there are parts of myself that I have discovered and nurtured and allowed myself to be transformed by. I will forever frame the way I live my life through the lens of the identities I have held. There is no "The Old Me." There is only "Me," and I seek to improve her a little bit more every day.
Growing up I always marveled about the stoic bravery that my grandmother’s generation faced. Growing up in the fallout of the Great Depression and losing the innocence of their youth in World War II, I could imagine the worst coming out in them. I could imagine that folks would throw up their hands and give up, or worse, they would become cutthroat in their desperation. Instead, those who lived it recalled a pervasive sense of community. Historians of various bents would suggest that we view these times through rose colored lenses, but nationalism is hardly as bad as the anarchy and widespread criminal activity that could have ensued.
As I teen, I would lament how my generation lacked such solidarity. I looked at my own grandparents as living evidence that this generation was resourceful, generous, and hard-working. Fathers would work long hours in physically demanding jobs; mothers were raising large families almost single-handedly on a shoestring budget. Older siblings pitched in around the farm or with chores. Younger siblings made do with hand-me-down clothes and created toys from what we would now consider garbage. In stark contrast, I came of age in what people would ironically refer to as the Roaring Nineties—and I was at the epicenter. The very same young men and women who hung out at the neighborhood coffee shop that I did were inventing Yahoo and Google and the very fabric of the internet—and being compensated accordingly. I went to an exclusive private school with the heirs of pharmaceutical companies, multinational corporations, and international political dynasties. Of course my generation lacked solidarity—we were selfish, and everything was in abundance. I told my father that what my generation needed was a crisis or a pressing cause that would force us to look beyond ourselves and come together.
Be careful what you wish for.
The 1990s came to an end—as all good things do. In 2001 two planes crashed into the twin towers. The newly elected President Bush initiated what would become a war with a faceless enemy on multiple fronts. With our national resources spread thin, the response to the victims of Hurricane Katrina was too little, too late—at best. The financial markets faltered and finally crashed in 2008, spurring a period of time which contemporary historians refer to as the Great Recession. My generation, (which came of age during a time of plenty and were raised with a sense of entitlement), were losing their lives in war, and the lucky ones were losing their jobs and homes to the economic downturn. Anecdotally, by 2011 at least a third of my friends had lost a job, declared bankruptcy, or foreclosed or short sold a home. And for those of us who managed to dodge these issues directly, widespread natural disasters, global warming, and the worst unemployment rate for adults under 35 since the Great Depression could prevent a person from sleeping well at night.
I have thus far been relatively cushioned from this turn of events. But indeed in 2011, the crisis hit home. My job has been in peril for over a year. Unfortunately, even as all this hits home, I have yet to see the kind of solidarity and leadership that I have been yearning for since I was a teen. As the Gen X/Y crooner John Mayer sings,
It's hard to beat the system
When we're standing at a distance
So we keep waiting
Waiting on the world to change…
It's not that we don't care,
We just know that the fight ain't fair
So we keep on waiting
Waiting on the world to change
But that is just it. We’re all sitting around complaining, analyzing, observing, blaming… but not doing anything! For a minute the Occupy movement appeared to have the almost anarchic democracy and critical mass needed for large scale change, but it appears to have been quickly corrupted from within or discounted from the outside. In my very own group of friends, I have identified huge stores of the raw materials of intelligence, vision, and leadership to address the multiple crises that face our generation. On one hand I am frustrated by our seemingly stagnant approach. On the other hand, I like to think that unlike our parents’ generation, we are looking to build upon what works rather than attempt a complete overhaul like the Peace, Civil Rights, and Women’s Rights Movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps we are indeed sitting back to observe and learn before we make our well-calculated move. I truly believe that we will revolutionize and create needed change.
Know why? I don’t think we have any other choice.
A few months ago my husband and I made the momentous decision to expand our family. We went off of birth control and a record-breaking 21 days later I got a positive pregnancy test. Seriously. My OB didn't even believe me. It warms my heart every day knowing that my family is growing, and that my daughter will have a sibling just two years younger than her to share stories, secrets, exploits, and memories.
And then we got two puppies.
So here I am, working full time with a husband who works full time, an insatiably curious and immensely active toddler, a bun in the oven, and two puppies. My friends agree that #1: I'm crazy, and #2: if anyone can pull it off, it would be me. I can safely say that I have bitten off more than I can chew.
Okay, so I recognize that things are crazy. But I reassure myself by remembering that this won't last forever, and at the same time I mourn the fact that this won't last forever. I would like to participate in more leadership opportunities. I would like to get away for a weekend with my girlfriends. I would like time to get a massage every week--or just spend more than 15 minutes getting ready in the morning. I might even try to run a marathon someday. But right now, I am absolutely reveling in my crazy little life. I love that when I get home I play with my daughter, sing songs with her during bath time, read her stories to her, pull the covers over our head and whisper secrets in gibberish, and then tuck her into bed. I like cuddling up with puppies that chew on my hand with their sharp tiny teeth until they fall asleep in my lap. I like spooning my husband at the end of a ridiculously exhausting day and feeling the tiniest kicks from the newest member of our family.
Life is good.
I read an insightful piece by NPR blogger Lateefah Torrence today. She is a new mom, and as I have lots of friends who are pregnant or new parents, I thought that her observations were particularly timely, namely, her observations on how difficult parenthood is. She writes, "Before I gave birth, I heard all the parents say it is the toughest job in the world. But I thought it was difficult like the Peace Corps. In my mind, parenting was 'The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love' because of the physical labor and never-ending hours. Oh, I was so very, very wrong. Perhaps as a non-breeder, I didn't listen to the truth or perhaps it's a big parenting secret: It is the emotional and psychological drain of being a parent that will kill you."
I can relate. The nature of parenthood overwhelmed me, too. I am a fierce athlete, a diligent student, an industrious worker. I am a Jack-of-All-Trades. I have something of a Superwoman complex. Certainly I was surprised at how hard it was to be a brand new parent. It had very little to do with trying to heal my body, learn how to nurse, and adapt to sleeping in 2-hour intervals. It had everything to do with the emotional toll of new motherhood.
Let me put in into perspective. I love my brothers. No, I mean I really, really love my brothers. I have been fiercely protective of each of them since they were born. I would get up with my mom for her midnight feedings for both of them. I have cooked for, cleaned up after, and cared for them. They have confided in me their deepest secrets, insecurities, and aspirations. In the days after I gave birth, (at which both brothers were present--and cried openly), I told the older of my two brothers, "You know how much I love you two? Well it's nothing like that." Sure, I cook, clean, and care for my daughter's needs. Lord knows that during those first 6 weeks my body was an absolute wreck from childbirth and lack of sleep. But as my fellow blogger points out, the sheer exhaustion is emotional rather than physical. As a mother, there has to be something chemical or spiritual about the connection, something potent and addictive about your child. Perhaps it has something to do with growing a being inside of you and carrying it around with you for 9 months of pregnancy, (and another 9 months in a Moby Wrap, in my case). Whatever it is, I am consumed with thinking about her, worrying about her well-being, watching her sleep, gazing at her pictures, mulling over her personal development, planning for her future, wondering about her joy or pain every hour of every day.
I love my brothers. I love my parents, my husband, and my friends, for that matter. But I had no idea how different all those would be compared to the love I have for my child. When my daughter was a few weeks old I told my Mom, "If you love me even half as much as I love Zen--thank you. I didn't know anyone could love me that much."
And I have bad news for the other parents out there--it doesn't get any better. I was waxing poetic about my love for my daughter to my Aunt, and she told me that she loves her sons just as deeply to this day. As we discussed it more, I was slightly terrified to realize that she loves (and worries and hope and dreams for) her sons as much as I do for my daughter. But they are grown men! Speaking of grown men, my grandmother sent a care package of candy and Giants gear to my brother because, as she put it, "It's hard to have one of my babies so far away!" He's a 26-year-old law student in Boston. He's hardly a baby, and for that matter he's not terribly far away. But from her perspective, one of her darling progeny was so far from home that she aches for him. Just today I overheard two co-workers talking about all their worries over their sons who are heading back to college this weekend. They have so many worries about the trip there, where they will live, how they will pay for gas, what kind of roommates they will have... If Mom happens to call when I'm sick I play down my illness because I'm afraid she will drive 2 hours to my house to give me a sponge bath and force-feed me Filipino rice porridge. She has done it before.
I'm terrified that I will have to carry this burden for the rest of my life. When she goes to kindergarten I will probably fret over the teacher's credentials, the class size, and the school's standardized test scores. I will still be obsessed over her personal development whether she plays soccer or the violin, competes in karate or a cheer competition, plants a garden or paints a picture. I will always worry about my daughter's well-being, even when she is 16-years-old with a new driver's license and out past 9 pm. I will probably sneak into her room and watch her sleep when she's a gangly, awkward 12-year-old growing into her new body or a grown woman sleeping beside a baby of her own. When she breaks a bone or has her heart broken I will wish that I could hurt for her so she could feel no pain. Then again, every little thing about her, from the smell of her soft caramel hair to her tenacious determination to her carefree grin are unspeakably delicious--and loving her is worth a lifetime of all the tough stuff combined.
I fantasize about marrying the nanny.
Let me be clear, I'm not a disgruntled husband pining after some hottie European college student who plays dress-up with my daughter. On the contrary, I found a loving, experienced, down-to-earth woman who has become the integral third parent in our family. When Erika arrives in the morning we sit at the breakfast table and chat about the celebrity news du jour. I give my daughter a kiss and a big hug, and then she reaches out for Erika and waves bye-bye to me. When I come home from work Zen chatters excitedly in gibberish to me about her day at the playground/waterpark/zoo. The house is tidy, and the daily chores are done. Like a caring relative or mentor Erika gives me insight into my daughter's development and offers advice that helps me be a better parent. As I have had to deal with difficult situations over the past year, (like family drama or putting my trusty 16-year-old dog to sleep), she has been there with a kind word or a hug. She sends me picture messages of my daughter doing silly things throughout the day. We text each other about trash reality TV over the weekend. She brings me desserts. I bring her flowers. We share recipes. If were weren't straight married mothers, I would think this was a match made in heaven.
I read an article today by a woman who has had 10 nannies in 7 years. She was complaining about the nightmarish caregivers who have paraded through her life, and I was shocked and dismayed. First of all, I would never leave my child with someone I couldn't trust. When I went through the process of finding the right caregiver, I did extensive research, visited three licensed daycares, found 50 nanny candidates, interviewed eight candidates, and ran background checks on five. More importantly, when I finally picked the person I would trust with the single most important thing in my life, I committed myself to treating her with the level of respect that job deserves. My child's caregiver is responsible for her physical, emotional, and cognitive development on a daily basis. She is the protector of my child's health and safety when I am not there. That is a more venerable job that my boss, my physician, the neighborhood police officer, and the president combined!
It is very hard to be a working mother. That is a painful but brutally honest statement. The only way I can juggle the many hats I wear is to have a third parent in the household. I have given a lot of tips to fellow new mothers about everything from prenatal fitness to breastfeeding to how to use baby carriers. However, the single greatest piece of advice I can give to any mother is this: find a good caregiver. Whether you are a working mother, stay-at-home mother, or anything in between, you will need a break from your child for a variety of reasons--and needing a mental health break is a totally legitimate reason. As a mother, there is no worse feeling than being nervous about an irresponsible relative babysitting your child while you go on a date with Daddy, or feeling guilty about leaving your child at a daycare that you suspect is neglecting your child (or worse!) while you are at work.
Have reasonably but responsibly high standards for your sitter, nanny, or daycare provider. Communicate your expectations clearly and preferably in writing--even to your own mother. You would be surprised what other generations or cultures think is acceptable. Mike has fed Zen chocolate bars for breakfast. Most importantly, treat your caregiver with the utmost appreciation and respect. They deserve it.
When I was a kid we had a traditional dinnertime. To be clear, my parents were divorced and family meals usually consisted of Hamburger Helper and Tang or Whole Milk shared around a dilapidated breakfast nook that was older than me after a minimum of two afterschool activities each night. For all his iconoclastic and liberal musician tendencies, my Dad held fast to a handful of traditional values, including holding family meals sacred. What do I mean by sacred? I mean that we all sat down at the same time and no one got up until everyone was done eating. I mean that you finished everything on your plate, no questions asked. I mean that if someone called, Dad usually ignored the phone, and on the rare occasion that he actually answered, he politely told the caller, "We are eating dinner right now. We'll have to call you back."
And I loved it. I loved our family dinners. I really appreciated a quiet space, away from the chaos and busyness and distraction of everyday life. I liked that we gathered together as a family, shared the trials and triumphs of our day, and smiled and laughed--a lot.
Numerous studies have shown just how important shared family meals are. This simple activity improves communication, good manners, healthy eating habits, and a whole host of wonderful things, from teaching toddlers about using utensils to reducing suicidal tendencies in teens. The studies show how important it is, and my own personal experience validated this. Accordingly, I very deliberately instituted mealtime when my daughter was old enough for a high chair. I noticed several things about creating a sacred space for mealtimes. First, Zen is utterly captivated by the seemingly mundane items and tasks involved in cooking and eating. It started when she wanted to use my fork to feed herself. Then she started grabbing food off of my plate. My cousin was dumbfounded when she joined us for dinner one night and watched Zen grab a piece of spinach covered in caeser dressing of off my plate and happily munch on it. She also loves the cooking part of it. When she was smaller I would stick her in my Moby Wrap so she could watch me chop veggies and saute them in a skillet. On a whim I let her munch on a piece of red bell pepper once, and she gnawed on it for several minutes. Now that she is older I have begun cooking in full view (and reach!) of her high chair. The other day I gave her her own chopped veggies, a mixing bowl and spoon, and a couple of spice containers to shake into her bowl. She was just in heaven.
One of the unplanned results of this activity is that I am eating healthier. I have always been one who hates cooking, loves the social aspect of going out to eat, and always picks fried and cheese-covered options when given the choice. This is pretty much the trifecta of unhealthy eating. But when Zen was starting on solid food, I patiently slaved away every weekend, buying locally-grown organic produce, running steamed veggies through the food processor, and packaging homemade baby food in individual containers for the week. The process became a labor of love, and I found myself loving the (forgive the pun) Zen-like process of it. I also unexpectedly found myself developing healthy habits against my better judgment. I got more active in backyard gardening and became something of a local-food foodie. While I cooked for my dear daughter, I would sometimes snack on the slices of fresh white peaches from the Farmers Market near my office, steamed squash from our backyard, and roasted sweet potatoes from the Urban Farm Stand I volunteered at. As she got older, I would notice a disconnect between the take-and-back pizza on my plate and the assortment of chopped produce on her tray. When she grabbed things off of my plate, I would cringe as she grabbed fried whatchamacallit and shoveled it in her mouth. If it wasn't good enough for my daughter, why was it good enough for me? I was already deliberately trying to set a good example for her by bringing her to the library for story hour every week and bringing her along with me on runs in the jog stroller and bike rides in the trailer. Shouldn't I also teach her healthy eating habits through my own example?
A third result is that I am setting better lifestyle habits for our family. Before I instituted family meal time, I wolfed down a donut or muffin at my desk at 9 am and Mike would grab a Venti Nonfat Chai and a Pumpkin Scone on his way to work. In fact, when we got back from our honeymoon the girl at our local Starbuck's affectionately started referring to me as "Mrs. Venti Nonfat Chai." I loved the result of our family dinners so much I started enjoying breakfast with my daughter. I like having gibberish conversations with her while I eat an unhurried meal. I get to savor both the food and the quality time. I think her nanny subconsciously started coming in 10 minutes earlier to join us at the breakfast table to tell us about the funny comment her husband made the night before or the celebrity trash news du jour. Even Michael--who is consistently running late--enjoys coffee from a French press now and snacks and snuggles with Zen at the table before he leaves for the office. And like dinner, I am eating much, much healthier. I make pumpkin pancakes with flaxseed and whole-wheat blueberry or zucchini nut muffins on the weekends, freeze them, and enjoy yummy, healthy, satisfying breakfasts with a side of fresh fruit during the weekdays.
Surely, it is too early to tell whether any of this will have an effect on my daughter's relationship with food or her connection with family as she progresses into her school-age and teen years. I do know that the sacred space my Dad created for our family is something I treasure to this day, and I suspect that it will be the same for my own daughter.
My husband and I fight a lot. We have a ton of stressors in our shared life, and in the past 6 months in particular it has been really, really stressful. He has had to travel quite a bit for work lately, and after chores, projects around the house, and the demands of an ever-active toddler, that leaves us zero quality time. We need it more than ever right now, as we shoulder the burden of serious problems facing our extended family and the prospect of putting our trusty 16-year-old dog to sleep. We are barely holding it together most days.
We have always fought a lot though, so when my brother once told me that someday he wanted a relationship like Michael and I have, I was shocked speechless. Just so you know, I am NEVER at a loss for words, so I was really, really shocked. I spent several weeks mulling over what my poor delusional brother saw in our relationship that he could possibly emulate. Finally, I realized that the secret to our marriage is this--we fight a lot, but we are also willing to fight FOR our marriage. We are two of the toughest and most stubborn people I know. We are fiercely independent and opinionated. We say exactly what we are thinking and our lack of tact is pretty much legendary. But we are also fiercely, stubbornly, passionately, and honestly committed to making our marriage work. The secret to a healthy marriage is that both people are wholly committed to making the marriage work. That's the bottom line. And now for the details...
I said we are both fierce, stubborn, passionate, and honest. We share those and many, many other traits in common. We are also diametrically opposite in many ways. For one, while I am the quintessential social butterfly, he hates mixers and small talk to such an extent that I have sometimes suspected that he may have a social anxiety disorder. Or maybe we are so different that I can't even comprehend that chatting with total strangers isn't fun for everyone. But whenever one is thoroughly frustrated with the other, we go back to Mike's favorite saying, "You knew that when you married me!" We allow each other to be ourselves. Neither has tried to change the other through bullying or manipulation or passive aggression. I see that go on in too many relationships, and it is a recipe for disaster. I'm not talking about the benign things, like trying to get dear husband to restock the toilet paper roll when it is empty. I'm talking about really respecting your partner for all the things that make up who they are, and this includes allowing them space, free time, and the opportunity to pursue their own pursuits, some of which you may not like or even understand. (Case in point: my husband loves playing Magic the Gathering and I love watching old musicals).
As one of the few people who has remained with their high school sweetheart, I can say with some confidence that your partner will change. Read: not MIGHT change--WILL change. We are certainly not the 16-year-olds that we originally fell in love with. We have allowed each other to grow and morph into different people. Maybe you won't change from a teen to an adult in the course of your relationship like Mike and I did, (although I have seen people devolve in the opposite direction, but that's another story), but I can guarantee after several years together at some point one or both of you will lose your job/health/home, or have a significant spiritual awakening, or discover a whole new life from the one you led before, or be forever changed by the birth of a child or the death of a parent. I challenge you to find one couple who has been together for 10+ years and not faced something life-changing and/or earth-shattering together. It may be difficult, and sometimes it's even emotionally painful, but I know from experience that being part of each other's development has made us both better people and made our relationship that much stronger.
Finally, my personal mantra on marriage is "work hard, play hard." Michael and I have been friends for 17 years, a couple for 15 years, living together for 12 years, and married for 5 years. We have gone on a million adventures together. We have traveled to exotic tropical locales, hiked dozens of trails around Northern California, and even sneaked into local elementary school in the middle of the night to create a dog obstacle course on the jungle gym. I have introduced him to the joys of civic engagement and volunteerism and he inspired me to start both running and martial arts. We thoroughly enjoy each other. But a marriage is more than just having a grand old time with your best friend and lover. A healthy, long-lasting marriage takes a lot of work. Michael and I have had to learn how to communicate, listen, accommodate, and apologize. We have gone through couples counseling three separate times. At the very first meeting of our longest-lasting counseling session the therapist asked us whether we were interested in seeing if this relationship would work, or if we were committed to making it work and we just wanted tools to do so. We looked at each other and then at him as if he were crazy. Of COURSE we wanted to make this relationship work! It's important to note that we did all of this counseling well before we got married, and we actually lived together for seven years before we finally tied the knot. Now I don't advocate that all couples wait nearly a decade or go through counseling three times before tying the knot. Rather, I recommend that couples equip themselves with the tools and emotional maturity to have open and honest communication and healthy ways to cope with disagreements (which arise in EVERY relationship). A long relationship is very hard but so very much worth it.
I am so very overwhelmed with everything right now that I've been pushed to tears more than once. I told Michael that simply being appreciated and recognized would help immensely. He started thanking me for everyday contributions, such as making a complete dinner from scratch after a long day of work and mommy duty. Even after a few days it makes a huge difference. Our relationship is far from perfect, and it is a constant struggle to get through each whirlwind week. One morning I woke up and blinked awake to see my husband's left hand right in front of my face, a thick, scratched gold band gently reflecting the morning light. I was reminded that even though I had a long day full of work and play and stress ahead of me, at least I got to wake up knowing that I had my best and oldest friend right here by my side, helping me get through it day in and day out for the rest of our lives.
Two years ago I ran the Women’s Fitness Festival 5K. My husband and I were preparing to start a family, (which is really just a polite way of saying that I went off birth control that week). As I ran through the crowds of women from various walks of life, I was overcome with the realization that this may be my last race for a while, that the next time I would run this race I would be pregnant, and quite possibly even a mother. The prospect of that was astounding. I set a personal record that day by finishing the race in 22:06. I knew that it would be a long time before I was running that fast again.
I got pregnant two weeks later.
When Zen was 6 weeks old I ordered a B.O.B. jog stroller. The day after it arrived I signed up for the Women’s Fitness Festival. Zen wasn’t sleeping through the night, and I had to strap down my milk jugs with two sports bras layered on top of each other just to walk/run for the few minutes she would let me between feedings. Needless to say, I was determined to return to running. During this period I needed that release more than ever. By the time the race rolled around Zen was just shy of 3 months old and I had been run-walking a whopping 2 weeks. It felt so good to run again, I ended up being the fastest jog stroller in the race, completing the 3.1 miles in a respectable 27:01.
Fast forward to Sunday. I had been training hard—I was not only determined to run, but Zen’s stranger anxiety was making it nearly impossible to leave her at the gym daycare for even one one-hour kickboxing class. So running was it—it was pretty much my only outlet. I did two half marathons in two months and tied my personal record of completing the race in 1:45. Boosted by the confidence of doing 13.1 miles at just over 8 minutes per mile, I confidently set my sights on the fastest jog stroller title for a second year in a row. At the starting line I gathered with my mother and nearly a dozen friends—and approximately 4,000 fellow runners, walkers, and strollers. I was inspired and humbled to be surrounded by loved ones and the sea of strong women doing something healthy.
But I had no time for mushiness—I had my eye on the prize. I had my fluorescent yellow jersey, matching running skirt, and nearly-new yellow running shoes. I was here to kick ass and look kinda cute doing it. When then gun sounded I took off, dodging through the crowd with my bright yellow stroller. (Do you see a theme yet?) Finally I pulled into a gap in the runners. Just as I was settling into my pace I saw something disturbing--another jog stroller in the distance AHEAD OF ME! Not to be outdone, I sprinted past dozens of runners to catch up to this anomaly. Then I noticed that she had a sort of entourage—two female cyclists were clearing a way for her in the crowd. When I was only a few paces behind her, one of the cyclists broke off and joined me. She grinned, cheered me on, and then forged a path through the sea of bodies, yelling, “Clear the way! Mama and Baby coming through! Move to the right! Let’s hear it for this Mama!” I sprinted through a crowd that cheered me on as I ran past pairs of best friends, mothers with their grown daughters, and small children running in intervals until they became distracted by flowers at the Capitol Park or spectators with cow bells.
The finish line approached, and try as I might I could not catch up to the fellow stroller mom. I closed the distance and finished nine seconds behind her. But I set a personal record that day: 21:55.
This event has become much more than just a race for me. It has truly become a celebration of women. I love seeing fast, fit women zoom past at a 5-minute-mile clip. I love seeing middle-aged BFFs in their matching shirts and smiles that speak of decades of shared secrets. I love the super-fast mommy pushed me to go faster than I ever could before—and WITH a stroller! I love that every year I have more friends joining in on the festivities, and that we celebrate each other’s triumphs. I love that my mom came with me for the first time this year.
I am also inspired by myself. It was really, really hard to make the multitude of changes to my life that motherhood required. But I’m driven and tenacious in everything I do, and I was determined to find a way to keep running to preserve my mental and physical health. Zen likes brushing herself with my makeup brushes and taking cards out of my wallet. It’s a daily reminder that she watches everything I do, big and small, good and bad. I hope that she will want to follow my lead to become a healthy, happy woman someday.
One last note: I ran past a little girl who was no more than 8 years old, and she was running alongside her mother. Yes, she was RUNNING. I called to them, saying, “You two are my idols!” The mother hollered back, “That’s how I started off. I know how hard it is to run with that stroller. Go on, Fast Mama!”