Unfiltered

My new obsession is InstagramReality on Reddit. I am the one who can’t notice photoshopping and filters unless they’re extremely obvious (looking at you, girls, who have wavy railings behind you).

I was disenchanted recently to realize that someone I know (whose Instagram feed is always body/mentally/spiritually positive, who I respect because of her authenticity) uses a face filter. I was also disenchanted to realize that I have very few pictures of myself with my kids because I don’t like how I look in photos. The ones I am okay with have someone strategically placed in front of my stomach.

Not a secret to those close to me that I struggle with my body image, like a lot of women. I do what I consider “normal” things for a woman my age- I religiously color my hair, I have an extensive collection of shapewear, and recently got sucked into the world of researching boob tape (check it out, or don’t if you feel like passing on a rabbit hole).

I think about my body a lot- when I’m eating, when I’m having a dance party with the kids and can only concentrate on what jiggles that isn’t supposed to, when I look at the mountain of clothes on my closet floor- clothes I’ve put on and immediately taken off.

I shouldn’t be the mean girl to myself. But of course I am.

My body has been through a lot, but it’s also forty years old. Three pregnancies, three c-sections. The same 30lbs that I’ve lost and gained over and over. Surgically induced menopause. Thyroid issues, a desk job.

I’ve waxed, lasered, peeled, exfoliated, tanned (shudder, what the Hell was I thinking when I was 19???), injected.

Am I trying to filter myself without an app? Probably.

I’m not alone in any of this.

Instead of taking a dozen pictures of myself and finding one that’s just ok, I took one. It’s a few days before my hair appointment. I got caught in the rain. I do have makeup on, but it was a special occasion only a few hours before. But, it’s me, for real.

If pictures and memories are what we all will be someday, I want my children to see I wasn’t afraid of a full body snapshot. They won’t look at me one day and focus on a muffin top or a double chin. They’ll see their mom smiling because she’s with them.

There is no photoshopping happiness, or a big gulp of courage before attempting bravery and ownership of oneself. It’s not confidence. It’s making peace with yourself at some point.

I’m getting there with myself, despite the gray roots. I want children by my side instead of in front. That’s maturity and a sign of a life well lived, even if that life is thirty pounds extra.

I don’t want patronizing, empty words. I want to just know inside I’m ok with who I am.

How’s that for Instagram reality?

An Ending and a Beginning

We posted our news today of the closing of Hank’s Hope Inc.

Why? Lots of reasons.

Covid. It hit us hard, and we were unable to reach the community we had planned to.

Time. Single parent life isn’t conducive to working full time, keeping up with two busy kids, and preparing for uncertainties like school closings and child care arrangements and sickness. We are an all-volunteer organization (I always like to say we run on donations and love!) and our board members are in similar boats as I am.

Grief. This is the big one, and it’s personal for me.

When I organized the idea of Hank’s Hope in the spring of 2013, I was six months out from my loss. My c-section scar ached as much as my heart did. When I incorporated in 2015, I felt like I was piecing myself back together. I had a reason to say Hank’s name, every day. I had a reason to tell my story in hopes that it would reach those who had similar ones. I wanted to gather us together, and provide an opportunity for support and love.

That has been accomplished.

Hank would have been nine years old this past Saturday. We celebrated with cupcakes and candles. This year, like the past three birthdays, I had Elise and Alex to help me blow out the candles and make a wish. I always used to wish for him to be here again. But with him would mean no Elise or Alex.

My life has changed considerably since those early days. My family has grown, my heart has gotten full, and I’m looking ahead most days instead of wanting the what-ifs to come true.

In 2013 I wanted Hank’s Hope to replace my child, to give me something to nurture and grow and share. It has done that.

My grief looks different these days. When someone, fresh from loss, comes to me for help, my mind goes to telling them, “Look though! Look at all of us. I’m where you want to be, and you can get there.” No one wants to hear those words at that moment, they’re not supportive or helpful. But, that’s where my life is now, and it would be my authentic answer today.

I can’t wait for the Wave of Light next year, and am happy that Julia’s Light, an organization we’ve partnered with for the last few years, is taking charge. I will be there, helping to plan and organize. I’ll be there as Anne, not as Anne from Hank’s Hope.

October is a month where everything seems to end. The summer vacations, warm and sunny days, green leaves and grass. My grandparents both passed away during October, and so did Hank. It’s fitting that Hank’s Hope ends here too, as all of these closings are bittersweet. They’ve shaped and changed my life and the next step is to live that life, as best I can.

Saying goodbye isn’t the end of Hank. Saying goodbye means a new beginning. It’s a way for me to change the shape of my grief and how best to celebrate Hank, which was my wish when I blew out those 9th birthday candles.

This Is Forty

THIS IS FORTY meant dropping into a yoga class with one of the best teachers I know. The mirror gave me a lovely view of all of my flaws, and all of my misses, all of the reasons why I’m a loser. I didn’t even have contacts in, a true blessing that my vision wasn’t sharper to see even more.

Not even halfway through the class, our teacher told us to stop talking shit to our reflections, and to turn around and face the wall. I didn’t realize how tightly clenched my jaw was, my back was, my emotions were until I stopped staring.

I went to bed last night, expecting to wake up to THIS IS FORTY. Instead, I woke up to my mundane life that is THIS IS THIRTY NINE but one day later. The sore muscles from sleeping on something at a funny angle, the relief I knew that would be coming by clicking on the coffee pot, the excitement in my daughters voice as she told me what the tooth fairy had left for her in the night.

It’s easy to stop at a pivotal moment, like a big birthday, and look back and see hard times, and quickly look ahead to the open hearted future that’s bright and sunny. It’s like an exclusive-to-you version of New Years Day. It’s assumed that everything in the past is something to work out of, things to get better about. Good vibes ahead and all that.

News flash, in case you are also today years old and learning this, like me. It doesn’t get better. I mean, it does in some ways. Some ways it doesn’t. If all of our THIS IS proclamations came true, we still wouldn’t be dealing with our shit. We’d also miss out on a lot of wonderful, ordinary and not so ordinary moments that make life joyful. There is no drawn line between remembering the past and leaving it all behind while forging ahead. It’s a mash up of everything, out of order.

I hate feeling heartbeats. My kids like to freak me out by grabbing my hand at random moments and placing it on their chests. They find this extremely funny and I find it extremely creepy and anxiety producing. If Mr. TDH (that’s future Mr. Tall Dark and Handsome) tells me he loves it when I rest my head on his chest, I’ll go into the maybe-we’re-not-soulmates-after-all speech.

Anyway, as we finished our yoga practice, and I was thinking about how THIS IS FORTY is really just THIS IS LIFE and a Tuesday, our teacher encouraged us to place our hands on our hearts. Normally I’d ignore this, defiantly putting my hands anywhere else.

I know my heart is broken in lots of ways and for lots of reasons. Everyone’s is. I let myself feel it beat tonight, knowing it’s been giving me life for forty years today, knowing it’s been stressed emotionally and physically, especially as of late.

I couldn’t help but cry, and it was a good moment in which to do so because when the room heated to one hundred degrees, it’s so easy to “wipe the sweat” with a towel. Highly recommend.

As Andra Day’s voice filled my ears, I gave my heart a tiny prayer of encouragement and hoped that I, too, will continue to rise up for more THIS IS days to see what ordinary chaos is created from the blurred line between nostalgia and forward-looking naive hopefulness.

THIS is forty.

What Really Counts?

I bought four scallops at Sprouts.

The remarkable part about this, if something uneventful could even be considered remarkable, is not that I bought scallops (love them) or went to Sprouts (I’m there every week), but that I ended up with four.

At the counter, I asked for “a few” scallops, the unfamiliar request sounding strange as soon as I said it. Some things we only purchase by weight and never by count, even if we have an idea of how many individual pieces we will end up with.

Scallops fall into this category.

These were wild caught, and fresh. All of these things made them much more appealing than that lonely looking chicken breast the next case over. Still expensive on sale, I rationalized that just a few is all I needed.

I cooked them tonight. I read a refresher on a brown butter sauce, made sure my pine nuts were unspoiled, clipped some sage from the yard. When it was time to reap what I sowed, I had sudden thoughts about that two pair, arranged in symmetry on my plate.

For a while I struggled with how many people there are in my family. Is Hank included or not? Are there four of us Mathays, or five? Years ago I made peace on how to answer this, and the answer is….whatever feels right at the moment.

As I unwravel my marriage, what is my number now?

The theme that we will stick to in the coming weeks when we tell the kids about us divorcing is that we will still be a family but we will live in separate houses, and not be married. A pair will split, but there still will be four. Or five. I’ve thrown a new number into the mix.

A) “Hi! I’m a single mom with two kids.”

B) “Hi! I’m a single mom with three kids, and one of them was stillborn.”

C) “Hi! I’m a single mom who has a good co-parenting relationship with my ex and we are all hunky-dory and we have three kids but one passed away so we have two that run around.”

Ummm….D? All of the above?

Family will always be fluid, which I heartbreakingly learned on October 16, 2012. All family units are the Lokis to the world, always shapeshifting, sometimes in a tricky way that can’t ever be fully explained, but only felt.

I may get more scallops tomorrow. My mom will be here, and they are her favorite. Plus, I have a lot of sage to use up and who likes turkey in July?

I’ll ask for a pound (like a normal person would). When I get home and carefully peel back the brown paper, I’ll count them.

A true count of scallops in a pound could be different each time, depending on size and density. However many I get tomorrow (and however I answer the family question) will be the right answer for that moment in time. And, that’s really all that counts.

The Balance Beam

Walks in the time of pandemics.

Within the last twelve months there have been studies conducted, research gathered, subjects interviewed, charts plotted and analyzed, and plenty of firsthand introspective stories about the quagmire women find themselves in right now.

Here is my introspective, and I’m not just writing in order to publish the word quagmire.

The career mom has long been fodder for researchers. Out of the workforce to raise children, then coming back with higher heels and thicker skin to shatter ceilings. When no one is looking, she cleans up the glass because she cleans up almost everything while balancing on the beam between career and parent. She’s fascinating.

Some days, that beam feels about a half inch wide, and I’m no Simone Biles.

During the pandemic, in a five day workweek, you can find me doing morning drop offs, afternoon pickups, sports, and I’m stepping into single parent life. Everyone needs to be fed, and no one ever seems to like what I prepare. I also have a career.

I genuinely enjoy work. It’s my mental outlet, it’s a way to focus, and I can see results through action. I am challenged to think and have others who are better thinkers to guide me.

Then there is mothering, where hard work sometimes gets you a whiny cry, bickering, and several announcements during dinner declaring you so, so mean. My two little bosses at home would be shellshocked at my 360 feedback some days.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have flexability at work since the beginning of the pandemic. I log on after the kids go to bed a few nights a week so I can shuttle to karate. PTO is there when I need it, either for a sick child or a child who just needs me. I’m one of the lucky ones.

I’ll say it louder for people in the back- how are we supporting parents who never had a choice to work from home but had two children with no place to go during the day?

How will life, already precariously perched on that beam, tip next school year? Many women have been tumbling for months.

We learn from mistakes, but there are two areas where a woman just can’t fail- her career, and parenting. These two beasts are the anchors of my life, and I love them both.

America’s return to work buzz is starting, with office-based businesses large and small crafting re-entry plans. I’m sure printing shops are in overdrive, churning out masks with company logos. It makes me hopeful that most companies are returning thoughtfully and gradually.

I think returning to work is great, but where does this leave the single parent who doesn’t have a well thought out re-entry plan because there is no definitive place to actually re-enter the home side of things? What if that single working parent is a woman, who has the additional pressure of having to be good at both career and kids?

A good gymnast, like Simone, looks at her beam and takes a deep breath. She has practiced what she’s about to do thousands of times before, but there are minuscule differences in each attempt that become the variables that decide victory. She can plan for these, even anticipate them, but only until she pivots a few degrees too far left does she know whether the wobble will make the difference.

She hopes she doesn’t lose focus, fixate on a missed step that was seven steps ago, or realize in midair that her hands are positioned wrong for a landing. I’d like to think that she improvises if she has to, and does what she has to do until the end, no matter how sore and tired she is.

If Simone misses her dismount, she will still earn points for her other technical elements. But will anyone remember the hours of effort this woman has put in if she can’t make it all come together when it matters?

The Wrong Gene

My children with their own ice cream.

Ever hear a mom say that she doesn’t mind getting up four times a night for feedings, or say that she doesn’t believe in raising her voice when shit hits the fan at home? She may tell you she has THE MOM GENE. She’ll say this and you’ll nod knowingly. She loves being a mom. She LOVES IT!

Does she feel the incredible amount of societal pressure put upon us moms to proclaim that we were put on this earth to mother? Maybe. But she is letting you know that she’s great, everything is fine, it’s all under control. She has The Mom Gene, she’s made for all things parent.

I hate this, The Mom Gene. The implication is that you’re not good enough if you don’t tell people you love it, and provide examples of sacrificial acts (like getting the most amazing ice cream for yourself and trading it for a half-eaten, melted vanilla because someone spies yours and suddenly NEEDS it, and you hand it over). It also implies that those who don’t like mom things aren’t good parents.

I love my children. They love me back (pretty sure). I make the best decisions I can for them with the skills and knowledge that I have, hoping they can make good decisions when they have the opportunity to do so. All I want is for them to be happy, successful, and own homes with an in-law suite for me when I’m old.

Mom things I am not good at: Playing Barbies. Sitting on the couch and doing nothing else but watching kid TV. Playgrounds. Patience. Controlling my anxiety when I hear, “Guess what? We decided to get the paint and Sharpies out while you were in the shower, so come into the living room and sit on the new couches when you’re dressed!”

Mom things I am good at: Organizing and cleaning a room when children are actively using it. Scheduling appointments, practices, games, playdates. Reading. Cleaning paint and Sharpie off of things. Laundry. Dispensing vitamins.

I’m still a good mom even if I have no interest in participating in a complicated made-up game that combines hopscotch, tag, costume changes, and Uno cards. I’m still a good mom when I measure the days in fifteen minute increments because the thought of making it twelve hours to bedtime is overwhelming.  I’m still a good mom if I tell my child they can have a taste of my ice cream but they can finish the half eaten vanilla cone and, next time, I will help them choose something different.

My Mom Gene may be a bit different, and not just because I immediately think of high rise denim. I celebrate my parenting strengths and occasionally see opportunity in my weaknesses. It’s ok to naturally be an operational, logistical mom.  

When I feel that pressure to show The Mom Gene, I don’t pretend everything is fine, that I LOVE this all the time. There is a lot of hard work and stress mixed in with the joy of mothering. To not outwardly acknowledge how tiring this can be perpetuates the pressure to have The Mom Gene, and continues to make moms who don’t like tea parties feel inferior.

Next time you see a mom talking about The Mom Gene, pull her aside and tell her it’s ok if hers looks different. Then, get her an ice cream cone she won’t have to share.

The Skin And The Arils

A dormant pomegranate bonsai, Longwood Gardens

This summer, results from bloodwork and imaging landed me in the office of a gynecologic oncologist. Let’s operate, he said. I don’t think it’s cancer, but we need to operate.

Twelve days later, I would wake up in the post-surgical recovery unit and have to be told what scenario happened while I was anesthetized. My answer was a total hysterectomy and a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy.

When I got into bed that night (At home! Thanks, laparoscopic surgery and robotic surgery!) I mourned.

The place where I grew my babies, all four of them, was gone. The space that saw a miscarriage at 12 weeks. The space where Hank unknowingly passed away at 33 weeks. The space that, finally, got it’s shit together and figured out how to produce two living children.

The physical thread between this mother and those children was gone. Where did this leave me? I had more identity in my fertility than I realized.

In 2010, when I was newly pregnant for the first time, I read Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-daughter Story Novel by Ann Kidd Taylor and Sue Monk Kidd.

I learned that the pomegranate has great significance to many cultures and there are lots of references to them in religious text. It’s obviously a symbol of life and fertility due to the abundance of jeweled seeds. It is also a symbol of blood, and death.

My surgery this summer was necessary. There were too many reasons for it to take place, quickly. Is this what a pomegranate feels like once it’s peeled, with seeds gone? Is this what it’s like to let something meaningful go?

Even though there is a lot that is missing now, there is a lot that isn’t. The physical piece of me that carried my babies is gone, but so much isn’t. Like, my health.

The beauty of the pomegranate lies in the luscious, deep red arils. These babies are the prizes of life. The arils are the legacy, and the next step in the cycle. If women are peeled like the pomegranate, no longer the holder of the ruby gems but only skin around a hollow space, are we still as valuable and prized?

Yes.

A View From The Top

My 40th birthday is this year. All of the 1981 babies will stop climbing up the hill and actually be over it. Why are there no cocktail napkins or evites proclaiming someone has reached the pinnacle of the hill? Where is the “Lordy Lordy, Look Who Is Going To Take Some Time And Appreciate The View From The Top!” yard sign?

Why don’t we take some time to look at how far we’ve come before we cross that magic finish line and start to decline?

I was thinking today, January 1st, that it would be a good time to prep for this 40th trip around the sun. What are my goals? What do I want to do on that ski lift up the mountain?

Overall, I’ve loved the upward journey. Some days I need a dozen sherpas, some days it’s a sprint with a smile. There are plenty of things I can do this year, but instead of focusing on the way up, I’m going to plan my moments at the top.

So, on my 40th, instead of being over the hill, I want to be at the top. Look for me in the queen’s crown, surveying my territory below (maybe with a blowout, toned arms, some fresh Botox, and a gorgeous gown). To the left is the summit I’ve conquered. To my right is the downward journey.

But, maybe I will hang out at the top for a bit. A week? A year? A decade? However long it takes me to revel in the achievement of living, loving, doing, being.

I’ll let you know when you can call me over the hill, but my descent on down to the next chapter in life will not automatically start on September 8th. I’m going to enjoy my view from the top.

For The Love of Numerals

It’s no secret that I’m bad at math. Ask my family, who for years would stop in the middle of something and say, “Anne! Quick! Eight times six!” I’d pick a number in the fifties and hope for the best. I only got A’s and B’s in high school – except for one D (a D!) in Algebra II. My freshman year college transcript is crammed with all of my math requirements, I’m a bite the bullet and get it all over with kind of gal. Most of them end with “for the non-math major.”

I love numerals. My favorite Reddit thread is DataIsBeautiful. I count while exercising (cinderblocks in the wall, color blocks in pool lane lines, houses passed), and I’m a sucker for a good graph (lots of colors, horizontal font please). My late night Google searches include skimming articles written about numerology in religious texts and culture (does this count as a real life application of my Cultural Studies minor?).

Numbers are comforting through consistency, which is something I crave more and more as I age. I get a sense of calm knowing that seven squared will be 49, every time. No one likes change because it’s new and uncharted territory. Numbers never have that problem (see what I did there?).

Life is an accumulation of experiences, thoughts, and interactions. If we see these as distinct, individually defined events, we are lucky to have an infinite number. The idea of a never ending count of accumulations doesn’t weigh heavy but provides lightness through opportunity and anticipation. A collection of consistency is how I’m moving through life these days, and that’s a data point I’m happy with.

Happy Spring, Y’all!

My friend A and I aren’t fans of the fall.

People are all pumpkin spice this and pumpkin pie that! Flannels and tall boots! Pumpkin picking and apple picking and scented candles and the crisp air. Isn’t this where the basic bitch came from? She reigns queen in autumn. The fall has become a state of mind, which means it’s on kitschy signs and kitchen towels.

A and I joke about this season. We can’t wait until we can say “Happy Winter, Y’all!” No one says this but me and A, probably. No one really likes winter. The two of us, we sort of do. Winter closes the chapter on all things hayride and PSLs. You can’t go to the Hallmark Store and buy a Happy Winter, Y’all! wooden sign for your mantel.

Why don’t we like fall? We both lost our sons in October. It gets darker earlier. It’s Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. I happened to lose both of my grandparents in October. We both agree that fall can take it and shove it.

The arrival of the winter solstice isn’t always wonderful, let’s be clear. It gets darker even earlier. The holidays are near. Everyone is celebrating, and I sometimes find myself wondering what for.

My return date to work after my maternity leave with Hank was early December. I’d drive home from work in the dark, the wreaths on the lampposts with jaunty bows shining in the light. This time every year, the wreaths in West Chester cross my mind. I’m reminded how I felt that December of 2012.

Longwood Gardens is thirty minutes from my house. My family has a membership and we use it a lot. Around the holidays, it’s especially crowded. Lights and music, spiked drinks, and large displays of the finest in holiday horticulture. I’ve been once.

As much as I want to be immersed in a magical, twinkling light of a night, I’m afraid that I’ll just be sad. I’d need to go into the evening with someone who gets all of this. Someone who knows that it’s both beautiful and bitter at the same, and someone who can hand me another cup of rum and hot cider and make me feel like Anne, a mom who hasn’t lost her baby.

I’m going to message A now and tell her that we have to hang in there until spring. The season of newness, rebirth, and fittingly the time of year our rainbow baby girls were born. Life comes back, we get a second chance at whatever we need.

Maybe spring is when we will both be happy with the season. And maybe next year, she and I will go to Longwood in the winter, mixing mulled wine and memories as we count down to March 20.