To the new parent feeling inadequate, you are enough.

Dear new parent,

I see you pushing through your exhaustion to show up for your child. I can hear the crying you fear might not ever end. I feel your insecurities as you wonder if you are making the “right” choices. And I want you to know, you are not alone. Though our stories may be different, we share so much. I see you because I’ve been there myself, as have so many others. So I’d like to dedicate this story of birth defects, breastfeeding and drag to the new parent trying their very best…

I was born with something called Poland Syndrome. I have a muscle missing in my chest cavity which required breast reconstruction surgery when I was 19. As you may be able to imagine, growing up a girl with one fully developed breast while the other side of my chest was caved in led to some insecurities and body image issues. To say the least. And when I got pregnant at 29 years old, I still had never really been able to even discuss my condition without crying. With anyone. Not even health professionals. And even though my reconstruction surgery had been 10 years earlier, I still never wore low cut neck lines or showed any cleavage. So to say I had a complicated relationship with my breasts would be an understatement. Although to be fair, I mostly coped by not thinking about them in any way. I just lived my life and they lived theirs. And the right one even felt somewhat detached from me. In part because I have no nerve sensation in the reconstructed breast.

And so what happened next might surprise you. I decided I had to breastfeed. I’m still not so sure why I felt so strongly about it. I’d like to say it was totally out of a conviction that breast milk would be best for my baby. But I am sure there was also some part of me that felt insecure about my womanhood and thought breastfeeding would affirm that my breasts were good enough. Or something. I researched whether it was possible, confirmed one breast would be able to more than supply my baby, and set in stone my plan to breastfeed.

Now if you have any insecurity as a person, being a parent will magnify it ten times. I had a baby with the sweetest disposition. One who had no colic, never really cried much to speak of…except every time I tried to breastfeed. Then my little newborn angel screamed like we were in a scene from the exorcist. I’m not even exaggerating. (Okay maybe slightly) But my new baby did not like my breast. Cruel irony or a supernatural joke, I’m still not sure. But every feeding session in the first few weeks was heartbreaking. I followed all the guidance. I would try to breastfeed for at least 20 minutes or so before offering a bottle with milk I had pumped. My baby outlasted me every time. And it did cut me to my heart a little each time my breast was rejected. Except the miraculous thing about being a parent is, I didn’t take it personally. Even through my jokes about cruel ironies, I knew somehow, the baby wasn’t trying to hurt me. And so I kept trying…

And thankfully, I had a lot of support. From family and professionals. The lactation consultants at Huntsville Hospital were so supportive. Prior to giving birth, I had never been able to discuss my Poland Syndrome or my breasts without crying, and that was on a good day. Now I had to go in and explain to a stranger why milk was only being produced out of one breast, and ask for them to help me make my baby accept it. I don’t remember the consultant’s name, but I remember she did me the greatest kindness- she did not act surprised or even interested in the reason I had only one milk producing breast. She acted like it was no big deal, and a common issue. I will be forever grateful for that gift. Because I was already scared and fragile. And I felt like she responded to me, not to my issue.

And I really don’t believe she knew about Poland Syndrome until that day. No other health professional I have ever come across before or since has. Usually they ask me to spell it and ask other questions. When I was a child, doctors would parade medical students in to look at me. And I felt like a medical oddity. A freak. But not on that day in the Women’s Clinic. On that day, I felt like a whole person needing a little help. And she tried to help. Gave me a supplemental nurser and taught me different holds and techniques. And none of them worked.

In the end, I pumped milk and for 5 months fed my baby exclusively breast milk but from a bottle. So even when the baby started to sleep through the night, I had to wake myself up every few hours to keep on top of the pumping. It is exhausting just remembering that time. I’ve been trying to remember why, or how, I kept it up for that long despite well meaning people advising me to just switch to formula.

That baby is now nearly 16 and a big fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’ve been watching too for the last couple of years. At first out of some parental obligation to monitor and discuss the content, but now I am hooked as well. RuPaul sings, “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.” Truthfully, I didn’t really get that until Oprah came on an episode and quoted it, and then I heard the wisdom! I may have been disguising a birth defect, but we all cover up things. We all dress up and perhaps even hide parts of our selves. And in the last Season Finale of Drag Race, Brook Lynn Hytes’s mom said something about how she thought she was meant to raise and shape her kids, but actually each of her four children formed and shaped her. We get the children we need. They teach us as much as we teach them. I got a baby who taught me I was strong enough to overcome my insecurities. And that what I was hiding under my drag was always good enough.

And dear reader, you are enough too. Love, Angel x

There must be 65 ways to thank your mother...

Today is my mom’s 65th birthday. And because I am too old to make a picture for the fridge, and too far away to take her to lunch, I thought I would write her a blog post. At first I thought I could make a list of 65 things I’ve learned from her over the years. And while I am sure there are 65 things, I quickly decided that might go on a bit much… so instead, I am going to just focus on the big things.

My mom taught me that everyone is welcome at the party. My entire childhood was a lesson in radical inclusiveness. And I don’t mean in the sense of race or gender or orientation, although certainly no one would have ever been excluded for those reasons. But it was more than that. It was more specific. Being welcoming isn’t an academic exercise in tolerance. It isn’t supporting the right causes. It is accepting people for who they are and letting them in no matter what. I wrote a blog post in 2017 about our complicated family tree and how in our family, every ex was always welcome. You can read that here.

But beyond just stepfamilies, the lesson my mom modeled was that even after someone made a mistake, even after they might have given you a reason to give up on them, all they had to do was show back up and knock on the door, and it would be opened. My extended family are made up of people. And like all people, they are not perfect. Some struggled with addiction. Some made really poor life choices. And my mom supported them when and how she could and welcomed them back to the potluck when they were ready. Every time. She took in other people’s children and gave them homes when they needed it. She let a family member on parole be released into her care. She gave him a home and a second chance.

My mom taught me that however you are able, you serve. You answer the call. Growing up my mom was assistant troop leader for Girl Scouts, she was a Youth Group Leader, she chaperoned school trips, she volunteered at every opportunity to help our school, and I don’t think there is an event that has taken place at Eastview United Methodist Church in the past 35 years that my mom hasn’t played some part in. And you might think from this description that she was a stay-at-home mom. She wasn’t. She worked full time as a secretary as long as I can remember. And her health was not always the greatest. She was hospitalized many times for chronic asthma and other issues. But I can honestly say I don’t remember a day ever where tiredness, pain or poor health stopped her from volunteering when asked. She never made excuses for why she couldn’t do something. Even when there were good excuses to be made.

We didn’t have a lot of extra money growing up, so my mom gave of what she had- her time and energy. And because she served, we showed up. My sister and I had every opportunity that money could never buy. Through my mom’s service, she gave us community. For which I am forever grateful. You can read more about that community in a post I wrote in 2014 about Whitehall, Ohio here.

I am proud of the wider community I grew up in and thankful for the way my mom modeled how you do family. But in addition to helping our community and family, my mom has great friends. And her friends were there for me countless times growing up. I remember vividly one day when I was in university and having some personal trouble. Funnily enough, I don’t remember what the trouble was. But I remember being at work at the Great American Cookie Company and feeling sorry for myself. And I remember trying to conjure up God’s love that I had been taught about for solace. I remember thinking how if God was always with me, how come I couldn’t feel him inside me. Why did I feel so alone? And then people from my mom’s church, my mom’s friends, started reaching out with offers to help. And that was in the days before the internet, so reaching out took some effort. And I remember in that moment understanding a core truth- that was where God was. I felt God’s love envelop me through the friends and community my mom built for us. And I know to this day, if I called on my mom’s friends, they would help me. My mom loves them. They love us. That is where God lives- in the love.

In personality and temperament, I am more like my Dad. And unlike me who goes on and on about what I believe and think to my children, my mom never really discussed her beliefs with us. But after thinking about this today, I now realize something I’ve never acknowledged to myself before. Through all my travels, despite all my questioning and searching, all the philosophies I’ve read, religious teachings I’ve examined, and soul searching I’ve done, at the end of the day, my core belief, who I am as a person comes from what my mom has always modeled for me. The purpose of life is to grow community, to serve and to love. Thank you mom. Happy Birthday.

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The Resurrection of Audrey 2

A few weeks back my teenager bought a plant and named it Audrey 2…

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And began documenting it’s life on snapchat to a group of friends…

And then things turned dark. Or rather the leaves turned dark. And my teenage gardner was too sad for words. And so on Snapchat there was just a circle marking what we believed to be the end of Audrey 2.

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Days went by. Tears were shed. I suggested we just buy another plant. But my gardener teen wasn’t ready to let go and continued tending to the plant. This last week we left for a short trip. I expected to find Audrey 2 still worse off when we returned. But we came back to a miraculous sight. Which my teenager again documented on Snapchat:

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Rejoice! New life sprouting and Jesus similes on Snapchat. The Easter season is truly upon us!

Last year on Easter Sunday, I visited my in-laws in Cambridge and went to their church. It was the first service of a newly merged congregation. And the minister that day spoke about what he said was one of the lessons of the Easter Story- that before there can be new life, there must be death. It seems such a simple, obvious lesson. But I tell you that day as I listened to the minister describing how the parishioners might feel grief at the loss of their individual communities even as they knew they were building something new and stronger together, I sobbed, and I honestly heard the Easter story in a whole new way. I felt the sadness of the death.

Growing up in a Methodist Church, I was very familiar with the Easter story. But when you already know the happy ending, sometimes you don’t really stop to think about the sad bits. But last year on that Easter Sunday morning, I needed to hear that lesson. That sometimes, even when you know the ending will be happy, even when you walk up the hill willingly, the death that must come before new life is still hard, still isolating. And there will be grief. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

And I cried. I cried for the loss of community I felt. I cried for everything I had given up in America in order to start my new life here in England. And more importantly, I gave myself permission to do so. Prior to that morning, I felt like it would be too ungrateful, too selfish to feel bad in any way for the things I left behind. After all, I chose to come here. I disrupted my children’s lives and the lives of those closest to us. And really what did I have to feel sad about? We are building a wonderful new life here. And yet, I did feel sad. I felt loss. And that’s okay. More than okay, it’s normal.

Recently at a work training (I am a Franchise Consultant helping Franchisees with their businesses), we looked at this Transition Curve:

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The trainer was explaining that all new business owners go through this transition curve. And again, the new business owner chose the path. They know what the happy ending looks like. And yet the transition will be hard. Because before new life, there must be death. Loss of old habits. Loss of old lifestyles. Loss of identity. And a crisis of meaning will come. And sometimes things don’t work out. Because even when everything points to success being just around the corner, sometimes at the crisis of meaning point, people start to doubt their path. Sometimes it just seems too hard. And sadly, sometimes not understanding that the grief is temporary can cause a crisis in faith that leads to a crash and burn.

I hit a crisis of meaning point last year on Easter Sunday. And luckily for me, I heard the minister say that before there can be new life, there must be death. And I heard Jesus say it will be hard. “Why have you forsaken me?” And so I allowed myself to start to mourn. And luckily I’ve spent the last year on the upward curve of informed optimism.

And so dear reader, if you are in a state of transition, even if it is one you willing threw yourself into, I know how you feel. You are not alone. And my Easter prayer for you is that you allow yourself to feel the loss and the grief. Accept that before new life, there must be death. And when the leaves start to darken, don’t give up. Keep tending the plant. And like Audrey 2 watch your new life grow stronger and taller than ever.

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Reflection on the Winter Solstice

In my last blog post, I mentioned one of the things I miss about America is the wide roads. Here I frequently find myself on narrow roads with little room for error on either side. One such road is on what Google Maps recommends as my shortest route home from work. Even though Manchester is a big city, this road is on the outskirts and looks like a winding country lane in the middle of nowhere. There are even cows in pastures in sight. And for a large stretch of the road, there are big trees lining both sides making it impossible to drive off the road without crashing into one.

Last winter I navigated around that road because I was afraid to travel it in the dark. Even though it added about 10-15 minutes to my journey home, I went a different way. Because every time I needed to pass a car coming the other direction, I nearly had a panic attack. The few times I did try going that way in the dark, I remember gripping the wheel and sweating the whole way. I was terrified. Hence I started going the long way home.

And then the days got longer until one day when it was no longer dark after work, I tried that route again. And even though the road was still narrow, in the light, it wasn’t as scary. And so I went that way. And I kept going that way even as the days have grown shorter. And now it is really dark again on my way home, but my panic is gone. I know that road now. Because I learned it in the light.

This week as I was driving home on that road, I realized this is as dark as it’s going to get. Tomorrow is the shortest day of the year, and I will be traveling the shortest route home! This got me thinking about the Winter Solstice and metaphors and realities of darkness. The contrast in the length of the days here has given me a new appreciation for the changing seasons. Not just appreciation, an understanding in my bones.

Last September I moved here to the latitude of 53.4808° N. And from the moment I arrived, the days started getting shorter. And by this time last year, (like now) there were only seven and half hours of daylight. And last year, I did find it all a bit oppressive. And cold. And endless. And the roads scary. And I forgot all my lessons about the solstice. I forgot that one day the days would get longer again. Mostly because in America, I hadn’t experienced such drastic differences in the length of the days. I knew intellectually there would be more light in summer, but I hadn’t yet physically experienced living here through the changing seasons.

Now I have. Now I know that in the summer here, the days are gloriously long. Now I know that on the Summer Solstice, there will be an extra nine and a half hours of sunlight. So I am more okay this year. I can wait out the darkness. And I know after tomorrow, we are already on our way to the long days. To the days where the sunlight motivates you to stay out late. So now I should rest. Recharge. That’s the gift of winter.

And reflecting on the physical realities of living through the dark times and light times, I am reminded of the strength of the metaphor too. That in times of darkness, we can rely on the changing seasons. This too shall pass. And if you practice the way enough times in the daylight, you can take the same route through the darkest of nights. For me, this means that when I am feeling good, I need to be my best self: eat right, exercise, be kind, be proactive, reflect and write, volunteer, reach out to people. All so those behaviors will be ingrained in me and sustained down dark lanes yet to come.

So to anyone out there who might need reminding… there is always light over the horizon. To everything there is season. May you make the most of the darkness and the light.

Poster Board Report: England

After living here for the past 15 months, I’m ready to present my initial findings. I’ve decided to start at the beginning. With the basics. Remember in elementary school when you had to make a presentation about another country? Or maybe, like me, you are a former Girl Scout with World Thinking Day experience? Following in those traditions, I will share today about the food, weather and language. And throw in a few fun facts for color.

First, my three favorite things about living in England:

  1. No mosquitos

  2. Magpies

  3. Spotting Weeping Angels

You might have thought my favorite thing about living here would have been being with my new husband. And that’s pretty nice, but honestly, no mosquitos is life changing. It means you can leave the windows open- with no screens! And outdoor activities and everyday leisure is unbelievably pleasant without those blood suckers. Here I am in the summer hiking near water with no bug bites in sight!

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The second delightfully surprising thing about life in England is the abundance of magpies. Which let’s be honest, I thought were a nursery rhyme make-believe creature. But they are real. And all over the place. And I still smile every time I spot one.

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Speaking of spotting, I said my third favorite thing about England is spotting Weeping Angels. That might have been a little too specific. I just mean, it is cool to be out and about and see things like weeping angels, crooked spires, remnants of castles, watermills that look like hobbit houses, and all kinds of interesting landscapes and beautiful architecture. Take a look at the gallery below, and see if you can spot the weeping angel I photographed from my car… (tap on the photos to scroll through)

Back to the report.

Food

So in every world culture day I’ve ever seen, there is always food. And if I’m honest, I never really understood how we were learning about someone’s culture by tasting their food. But now I get it. Because I’ve learned a lot about our American culture by experiencing (and thinking about) the differences in food here. I’m not sure what the taste of food tells you, but I can certainly now see how asking questions about the preparation and ingredients could teach one about culture. And what I’ve learned so far, is that in America, we value convenience and time. Sometimes to an absurd result. For example, shortly after moving here, the kids requested chicken nuggets for dinner. My English husband said he would make some. I asked how? He said he’d cut up chicken, coat the pieces in bread crumbs… and I was like, “but we don’t have any breadcrumbs.” And he said, “but we have bread.” And I said, “I don’t get it.” Truthfully until that day, it never occurred to me how Progresso made their breadcrumbs. Or how anyone would make some at home. 20 seconds later, my eyes were opened. And it’s not just bread crumbs (literally I now know to be ONLY the crumbs of bread easily whipped up) we needlessly sell in America, Kraft has no market here either. After looking for processed pre-grated cheese for days, my kids finally gave in and tried the freshly grated parmesan cheese. Again, I’m not sure now what is so time consuming about grating the cheese, that Americans sacrifice taste to have it pre-grated for us? But that’s a philosophical discussion for another day…

So the food here in England is pretty similar to America in many respects. Meat and potato countries that we are. The peas here might be mushy, and the bacon might be thick, but the biggest difference I’ve found is the way food is bought, kept, and prepared. Which is all to favor freshness. My fridge here is a 4th of the size of the one I had in America. Here we just shop frequently at stores within walking distance. And we make our bread crumbs from scratch.

Weather

No report about England would be complete without throwing in a nod to the weather. It is rainy as advertised, but not in an oppressive way. The rain is usually light and passes quickly. Comes back quickly too, but then it goes again. And it never brings tornadoes. At least not that I know of… hail on the other hand, that does happen. But in general, it is calm and rainy and then mild and sunny. All without mosquitos. I like the non-extrerme weather here. I’m going to enjoy it while it lasts.

Language

It pained me a little to type color and favorite earlier in this blog post instead of colour and favourite. Because the language and the spelling here are seeping into my core bit by bit. Recently I said something about the way the sat nav took me home, and my husband commented on how I was “going native.” I said, “what do you mean?” “Well you wouldn’t say sat nav.” I had to be reminded what I would have said. GPS.

There are some differences I still can’t take- football to me is the Steelers or OSU. I cannot call soccer football. During the World Cup and our office pool, my co-worker (or colleague for my English friends) said she was going to burn off a fingertip every time I said soccer instead of football. Not sure why she couldn’t just start with pinching… anyway. You can read some more vocabulary differences in my previous blog post. Or just wait for them to start bleeding through into my writing.

One of the hardest things to get used to was the greeting people use around here (which might be a Manchester thing for all I know) of “you okay?” Several times I was quite indignant with my yes, why would you ask that? Because for me, you only ask if someone is okay if you think they might not be. But here, it is a greeting like, “how are you?” and the answer should be as perfunctory as “I’m fine, thanks.” I’m still working on my response.

Another difference I’m struggling with is that it is somehow rude to address or refer to people who are in the room by pronouns instead of their name. This I learned at work. After several times being asked “who’s she, the cat’s mother?” I’m still shaking my head at that one. But mostly I’m glad that on most days, I am understood and I understand. Even if I would prefer my English mates to be a bit more direct. All except for my colleague who enforces the use of the word football, she’s plenty direct. And she has a name. Which I use when she’s in the room.

As I hope you can see, there are many things I do love about my new homeland. But since I started this piece with my favourite things, I thought I’d end with some things I miss about life in America. Not counting people or specific places. Which I miss terribly. If you know me in real life, and we used to hang out, work, play, worship, or study together somewhere, I likely miss you and that place a great deal. But setting all that aside, what do I miss generically about life in America? Well truthfully after giving it a great deal of thought, here are the three things I miss most about life in America.

  1. Wide roads

  2. Ample parking

  3. Stop Signs (or rather 4 way stops as opposed to roundabouts. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stuck on one. Think Chevy Chase, “look kids big ben” That phrase is like a code for us. Just yesterday when I successfully navigated myself to the third exit of a large roundabout on one try, my teenager said with sincerity, “Great job mom, we didn’t even see Big Ben!” I’m learning. And I’m okay.)