Joy & Connection

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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In Memory of Libby Lucas (1934-2018)

I wrote this piece to be read at my grandmother's funeral today in Ohio. These are my specific memories of a very special person, but I hope maybe something in it will speak to you too, whoever your grandparents are or were... 

Whether through nature or nurture, so much of who I am came from my Grandma Libby. I am so sorry to not be present for her today in body. I hope you all know I am present in spirit. And I want to thank all of you who took care of Grandma these last years of her life. Thank you for being there for her. You are all loved and appreciated. 

My recollections of Grandma Libby- 

When I was around 20 I got my hair cut really short. My grandma Libby told me, “that is the ugliest haircut I’ve ever seen, and if anyone tells you different, they are lying to make you feel better.” I’m smiling even as I type this remembering that day. And so many others where my grandmother would just bluntly tell things as she saw them. There was little pretense. Just a genuine, honest assessment. My grandmother lived and spoke her truth. Always. To everyone. 

So to honor her, I would like to share some truths about her. She was a different kind of Grandmother from the tv grandma. She didn’t bake, or even cook. She never made dresses or even sewed on buttons. But she was the very best kind of grandmother- she was the kind of Grandmother who showed up. She was always present in our lives. At every important event, at every celebration, at every concert and sports game. And on lots of days in between. She took us on trips and played games with us. We knew we mattered to her. We knew she would do anything for us. Even tell us the truth about unflattering hair cuts when no one else would. 

Grandma liked bingo and slot machines and Bob Evans. And she never carried a purse. Just walked around with what she needed in her pockets. Which wasn’t very much. Again, there was little pretense or pomp. She just got on with things. And while she didn’t need a lot of stuff, she loved gathering experiences. Going places, seeing things. And really enjoying them. When we would travel through the mountains, she would pull over at every lookout point to see the view. No matter how close together they were or how many others we had stopped at. Sometimes this was frustrating. As teenagers, we just wanted to get on with the trip. But Grandma taught us that stopping to look at the view was the trip. Life is not a destination… 

Grandma would also embarrass us sometimes with her propensity for talking to everyone. I mean everyone. I don’t think I ever saw her walk past someone and not speak to them. And I don’t think I ever had a meal with her in a restaurant where she did not give an honest assessment of the food or the service. If you asked my grandma her opinion, you would get it. And sometimes even if you didn’t ask! Nothing about Grandma was fake.

She did not sit on the sidelines of life. She participated fully. She volunteered with the Union. She took care of her neighbors. She spent time on the things she thought mattered. And she lived her truth. Even when it was difficult. And she loved us. And she loved my mom and my stepfather. Even though Grandma Libby was my dad’s mom. I was so young when my parents divorced that I have no real memories of them together, but I have tons and tons of memories of my mom and Grandma Libby together- I will be forever grateful for the relationship my paternal grandmother had with my mom. Their relationship helped define family for me. Which is so much bigger than blood. 

Grandma Libby was honest and blunt, but always kind and open. She made people feel comfortable and welcome at the party. She simply walked around with what she needed in her pockets, gathering experiences, looking at the view and talking to everyone. She didn’t pretend to be anything other than what she was and she didn’t hide what she thought. And I want to be just like her when I grow up. 

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My Complicated Family Tree: Story of a Grateful Stepchild

Not too long after I separated from their father, my oldest daughter joked around saying she hoped if I ever got remarried the man wouldn't have kids. She said she didn't want to have any step siblings. When I asked why not, she replied, "Haven't you ever seen a fairy tale?" I laughed. Then I pointed out that if I did get remarried, I would be the stepmom of the story. Which would make her and her sister the evil stepsisters. That blew her mind a little bit! Then she said perhaps the truest statement ever, "Yes, but you're not wicked. You're just overwhelming..." Fast forward a while and now this summer my girls will be getting a stepsister (they are no longer concerned she might be evil!) and I will become a stepmom.

And so not wanting to be too overwhelming, I decided to do a little research.  As I skimmed through descriptions of books written by experts and stepparents with all kinds of advice, it occurred to me. I already know quite a lot about best practices in stepfamilies. In fact, my childhood was kind of like a Master's level course on the subject. Both my parents had stepparents. I had stepparents. Even my stepparent had stepparents.

Now like everyone, I have some issues stemming from my upbringing. Because the adults in my life, like all other adults, had their faults. (I could list both my issues and their faults over a drink some time if you like) But I promise you that none of my issues stem from my parents' divorce or being part of a stepfamily. Because when it came to modeling the right way to blend families, the adults in my life were the very best. Here's some of what I learned: 

It is much easier for a child when all the important adults in their life seem to like each other. No one ever made me feel like there were sides to choose. They didn't even make it look hard to get along. A fact that now as an adult looking back, I can appreciate how difficult that must have been at times. But I have no memories of either of my parents ever saying anything bad about the other. My stepfather and father would go play basketball together. And while I had friends with divorced parents who had to have two of everything because their parents couldn't be in the same room together, in my family, we spent holidays and birthdays with anyone in town to celebrate: ex-husbands, new wives, grandparents from all sides with their 2nd (or 4th!) spouses. My uncle lived in a trailer in his ex-wife and her husband's yard for years to be close to my cousins. My father's mother and her 2nd husband were so close with my mom and my stepdad, you would have assumed they were one of their parents. And in a way, they were. 

The adults in my life growing up taught me that commitment makes a family. Not blood relationships. And once you've made a commitment to someone, you can change the marital status, but they are still your family. And their family is your family. And everyone is always welcome at the party. Crazy ex or not. And even when someone messes up in a big way, if they come back knocking on the door, then you let them in like the prodigal son. And this open, accepting family policy helped me to grow into an open, accepting human being. And I am grateful to my complicated family tree for that. 

As much as I appreciate and learned from all sides of my messy family tree, I am most thankful for the lessons taught to me by my stepfather and his family. Or rather my family on my stepfather's side. My mother married my stepfather when I was 7 years old and suddenly I was part of a huge family. He had 5 brothers and sisters, and they all had kids. My sister and I were the only stepchildren. And yet no one ever made us feel like we were any different from any other child in that family. My grandparents and aunts and uncles treated us the same way they treated all of their biological grandchildren and nieces and nephews. That sense of belonging was a blessing. 

My stepfather was only 20 years old when he married my mom. And my sister and I already had a dad. One who was a part of our lives. And yet for most of the year, we lived with our stepfather and our mom. Again, now as an adult, and future stepparent, I am beginning to appreciate the complexity and difficulty of his position. But as a child, I never sensed there was an issue. 

Because even though he didn't replace my dad, he was absolutely one of my parents. When I fell off my bike and needed stitches, he carried me to get help. He taught me how to drive. And  when I ran out of gas, he brought me some on the side of the road. When I got lost (which happened all too frequently!) I called him for directions. He coached my t-ball team and never seemed to mind that I spent all the games picking dandelions. He grounded me when I came home a few minutes past curfew. He came to every school event and band concert. He took me bowling. He read me stories. He played with me. Sometimes he yelled at me. But always he loved me. And he never asked for anything in return. Just like a real parent. 

And yet as much as he was absolutely a parent to my sister and me, we did not call him dad. Even as we called his parents grandma and grandpa, and his brothers and sisters aunt and uncle, we always called him by his name. If that bothered him, he never let it show. He certainly never made me feel guilty about it. But I always thought he deserved his own title. 17 years ago when my first niece was born, he got one. Papaw. And now my girls have 6 grandparents (soon to be 8) and yet they only have one Papaw. A papaw we all love. 

Grandma and Papaw with their grandchildren

Grandma and Papaw with their grandchildren

I am a grateful stepchild. Thankful for the lessons being a stepdaughter taught me. That family is a living, growing organism. And children need to feel the important adults in their lives like and respect one another. And there is room in the heart for so many. And when we add new members, we never need to replace or push out the old ones. Maybe just do some rearranging. Love is not a competition. And neither is parenting... 

 

 

 

Goodbye Letter for my TLG Family

Dear TLG Friends, 

Since the day we opened in 2007, it has been an absolute joy owning and operating The Little Gym of Huntsville. I believe strongly in the mission and program of The Little Gym International. And I am so proud of the environment we’ve created in our location here in Huntsville. 

Despite my continued love for The Little Gym, it is time for me to move on to the next chapter of my life. So l have sold the gym completely to my business partner, Corey Hernandez. Many of you know and love him already. He has owned half of the gym since 2015. And he will continue to ensure that it is easy to do business at The Little Gym of Huntsville. His management style and overall customer service philosophy are very similar to my own. And I have every confidence I am leaving the gym in fantastic hands. 

Ribbon Cutting in 2007. Notice the guy by the blue balloon. It's Corey! Then just family friend. Destined to be TLG Owner!

Ribbon Cutting in 2007. Notice the guy by the blue balloon. It's Corey! Then just family friend. Destined to be TLG Owner!

I will still be teaching through the end of this Season in May 2017. So I'm not quite ready to walk out the door. There will be plenty of time to say goodbye. But I did want to officially start the process now by thanking you all for your support and business over the last 10 years.

I can not adequately express how much all of you have meant to me. I hope you can see in the pictures below that over the last 10 years, as the staff shirts changed and my weight fluctuated, one thing remained constant: I really loved my job. 

It was an honor being able to get to know so many beautiful families over the years. I hope your children learned from me. I know I learned from them. Every single class I taught was my favorite. Every bubble time was like magic. Every new skill a child learned I celebrated. Every day was Serious Fun. 

Thank you all for being a part of it. 

Warmly,
Angel Hundley 

P.S. I loved owning this franchise so much, I branded myself for life. Literally. You can see pictures and read all about my new tattoo here

And for those of you who are curious about the next chapter of my life, this summer I am moving to Manchester, England. You can read about that story here. 

And now for some of my favorite memories... 

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