The Chronic Conditions of the Lonely

I dislike this piece. It received postive feedback, but I can’t help think it’s whining and self-serving. I’ve been a lonely person all my life… so what. Haven’t we all? But this condition is something which gets a lot written about it, and so I tried as well.

There is no lack of advice for single people. When you’re a single mom at 37, you get all kinds of suggestions to cure your condition. If you’ve just exited a relationship which has made you sad, people say, “Spend some time alone, get to know yourself again.” And then if you’ve been single for more than six months and sad, people say, “Put yourself out there. Go on some dates. Just have fun.” And then if you’re dating lots of people and happy you’ll hear, “You should probably take some time to be alone and figure out what you really want. You can’t really be happy?” And if you’re perpetually single and happy, no one believes you and speculates on why you can’t get a date. There’s really no way to win unless you’re in a relationship for which you are head over heels. This is when everyone leaves you alone. And if that is the only way to win, perhaps it’s why I’m having a hard time with dating and being ambivalent.

You can read the rest on Stackedd Magazine. But you’ll have to come back here to comment. Thanks for reading.

Shannon

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To Kelly and Jackie: You Are the Lucky Ones

I have watched for years as a Facebook acquaintance grappled with the loss of her sister from cancer. First, it was news of bad tests. Then, it was the hope of remission. Then, more bad tests. Then, less hope. Then, it was only a matter of time. A couple of weeks ago her sister died. This weekend, she was buried.

Kelly is her name. She is vibrant and blonde and in her late 30s. Her sister who died is Jackie, a strong-looking brunette not much older. I do not know Kelly well, and I’m positive I never met Jackie, but I feel a great amount of love for their family. She has exposed so much of her pain on such a public forum full of people like me, acquaintances, that I admire her vulnerability.

She has written what amounts to love letters to her sister. Open, honest, BRAVE, heart-wrenching love letters accompanied by touching, ordinary pictures which could fill anyone’s photo albums. I have poured over those pictures. I have noticed the particular curves of their smiles. The familiar, not at all awkward touches between them, the laughter I can almost hear. Kelly and Jackie I don’t have those kinds of pictures of my sister in my photo albums. My sister and I are what you’d call “estranged.” I have not spoken to her in a few years, but that was no great loss as I never had a meaningful relationship with her in all my life. Like kerosene and flame, we never mixed well.

I am the younger one, like Kelly. But where Kelly and her sister grew up in love my sister and I grew up in something else. My sister dislikes my existence for whatever reason. My presence was nearly always met with rolled eyes, a disgusted face and harsh words. I can only assume that the kind of person I represent, sets her off. We are so diametrically different. Honestly, I’m not sure anymore what it is about me, but she never liked it. Any of it. And I am not faultless, I am a hard person to love. And after 37 years of fights, I am numb.

So, there you have it. Two people who have difficulties expressing love, or being loved, and who grew up competing for the love and attention of our parents are now real and virtual strangers. She has me blocked on Facebook.

My sister has always kept a journal. She has stacks and stacks of them and I used to read them when I was younger. I knew it was wrong, but I just wanted to know more about this stranger with whom I shared a bathroom and a bloodline, and so I read them secretly. About a year ago I was visiting my parent’s with my children. My son, only two at the time, pulled a cheap lock off a small box that was sitting in the hallway by her old bedroom; left over stuff from when she moved out. I opened the box and neatly arranged inside were rows and rows of her journals. I pulled one out and flipped to a random page.  “You know who is coming in town again. I can’t stand her. I will probably just leave and not come home until she leaves.” I shut the journal. I didn’t need to read more.

So I watch Kelly go through this unspeakable pain and it tugs at my deep wounds. While I know she’s hurting more than a status update can convey, I want her to know how lucky she is. Her sister is gone, but she had one for a while who loved her, and whom she loved madly, deeply, without refrain, and to me… she is the lucky one. She posted something today about how Monday morning everyone will go back to their “normal” lives but she won’t. She will still be feeling the sister-shaped void of Jackie.

Well Kelly, you’re not alone. No one gets to go back to normal. We all carry the pain of the loss of people we love, or should love, or never got a chance to love.

In the study of mind-body connection they say that emotional pain is sometimes trapped in your hips. You do “hip-openers” in yoga to release these things from your body. My sister is in my hips. So are parts of my mother and certainly my ex-husband. As much as I try to open them sometimes, they just won’t stretch in all the ways I’d like. No, there’s no going back to “normal.”

This past year, the first in many, my sister sent me a Christmas present. It was a lovely box of beautiful smelling things. She also sent me the first birthday card in years. It was only slightly sentimental, but I know it was as far as she could go. I have yet to thank her. I’ve kept her address next to my computer, but for some reason, I have not sent that note. Afraid, I guess – the loss in my life feels too great sometimes to open it up to more.

But today, I donate what I can to help Jackie’s family recover from the cost of caring for her all these years of her terminal illness. It’s the least I can do for the Brave Love Kelly has allowed me to witness so freely. And I will donate under the name of my sister. As a thank you. And in an effort to release the uncomfortable ache in my hips, and maybe, just maybe work my way into a new normal.

No Kelly, no one can go back. But we can go on. And maybe we can work our way a little more open if we try.

Jackie and family

If you’d like to donate to help Jackie’s husband and her two small children cover the costs of caring for Jackie, here is the link. http://www.gofundme.com/jackiesmith-malena

Cigarettes, Padlocks, Motherhood and Me

cigarettes, padlocks, motherhood, meYou know how “small talk” is supposed to be easy? Asking and answering surface questions like, “how ’bout this weather?” and “so what do you do?” and “where’d you go to school?” is supposed to be a safe and simple exchange.

Well, I hate it.

I get twitchy when I have to small talk. My eyes glaze over and suddenly I’m unable to focus because I’m too busy looking for an exit strategy. The more someone insists on small talk, the harder I look for some visible signal to something more interesting- an ominous tattoo, a symbolic necklace, double-fisting jack and cokes. Something to start a more engaging exchange than… “how old are your kids?”

Do you know my favorite place at a social gathering? Outside the door, around the corner and into the shadows with the smokers. I love it there.

I smoked in college. I quit smoking regularly 12 years ago, but after a couple of glasses of wine amidst a crowd and good spirits, I find myself responding to some Pavlovian need and I become a woman on a solitary mission to find a smoke. It’s not just because that first drag is sorta, kinda, blissful… but because I know there is no small talk amongst the smokers.

When you find the smokers you are already in the inner sanctum. Guards are deactivated, pretenses on the low, low, low setting. Even if they’re only “social smokers”, everyone feels like outcasts hiding in the shadows to avoid judgment. In this instant bond of sharing a taboo moment you find all the Big Talk; the secrets and knock-your-socks-off Truths.

I have had some of the best conversations while shivering in the shadows of a building smoking a cigarette with a stranger. Four years ago, in Portland, outside a swanky hotel after a long work meeting, I met a young 20-something guy who claimed to be Mel Gibson’s nephew.  I didn’t know if that was true, and I didn’t care, but I could sense he had a story to tell. Within 20 minutes he was holding back tears in a wild confession about his paralyzing fear because he is hopelessly addicted to drugs and gay and his wealthy family didn’t approve of anything about his life. Another twenty minutes and two cigarettes later we were laughing so hard my sides hurt while he poured me a glass of Crystal in his hotel room that was inhabited by a large group of 20-something other “friends.”

Ten years ago, in New York, I met a man outside a bar who bawled his eyes out as he told me his deepest regret is letting his daughter live with his ex-wife up state. Several minutes later, he hugged me, thanked me for listening, said he never talks about that but felt like he could with me, then walked away.

And it just happened with a nice man standing at a bar in Vegas last March. His wife left him a few months prior, he was devastated. He cried, we exchanged a few words of hope, took a shot, laughed and then we moved on. It took 15 minutes but he told me he felt better – somehow lighter for having talked about it.

My friends make fun of me for instantly diving into the deep end with strangers. They accuse me of prying. They say I’m intrusive into people’s personal lives and I should just back off.

But I don’t dive into the deep end and toward BIG TALK because I’m a  sadistic voyeur hell bent on depressing reflection. I do it because I believe everyone carries a burden; a kind of pain that acts like a padlock on their joy. I believe that the antidote to releasing internal pain is outward expression and human connection. Doesn’t a good cry on a friendly shoulder make it ALL better somedays? It does for me.

I believe that when pain is spoken out loud, unlocked from the heart, released from the depths in which it hides trapped under shame, or fear, or judgement… joy comes rushing to the surface like an air bubble.The joy of releasing the pain is euphoric. I feel it and hear it in their hugs, laughter and the thank you for listenings.

I do love picking locks and releasing these air bubbles but first you have to get WAY past the small talk.

Some of these same friends think I don’t like motherhood because I talk about how hard it is all the time. Of course that couldn’t be farther from the truth. When I write and talk about the pain, I’m just picking my own locks because I know what comes rushing to the surface when I do. The joy of release. This is how I view mothers who lament about the difficult task of mothering more than they exclaim its virtue.

If we didn’t love motherhood so much, if we didn’t believe it was the most difficult, painful, important, joyous job we have… we wouldn’t talk about it all. It is in the lamenting that love is hiding just below the surface. Often times, the louder the lament, the deeper the love.

Truth is, motherhood is hard for me. But I don’t think it’s hard because I’m doing it wrong. I think it’s hard because I’m doing it right. It’s just much of my joy is locked behind my own fear of fucking it up and so I talk about the fear of fucking it up so that I can release the unsurpressable joy that is waiting under the surface.

But I refuse to deny that I have a padlock, and I refuse to allow it remain locked, and the only key I know is speaking the Truth. My Truth. With my whole heart.

Because it’s true what they say, the Truth does set you free.

So if you have some pain you’re keeping under wraps – if you need to talk about something BIGGER than the weather or need an ear to bend about how damn hard being a mother/father/spouse/person can be – come sit by me. I’m an excellent locksmith and we don’t even have to smoke.

I Cannot Unsee This… And Neither Should You

I have a family member who is a partner in a large firm. One night, during a holiday dinner he casually mentions that his firm created a special “non-equity partnership” position for peope who deserve to be partners, but for some reason aren’t able to put in the long hours. My interest was piqued and I began asking questions. He said the position is mainly for women with families and that they aren’t given equity in the firm because, as he put it, “they aren’t putting in as many hours as I am.” The firm boasts a whopping 20% female partners. This family member happens to be a single man with no kids. I kinda lost it on him. Sure, Christmas Eve might NOT have been the right venue, but this shit makes me angry. No. Livid.

A couple of weeks ago a friend on Facebook updated his status with a commentary on his venture into Crossfit. The gist of the post was that he was ashamed he couldn’t perform better than a woman. This man has two daughters.

This family member and this friend, by all intents and purposes, are well-educated, respected, productive individuals. They are nice guys who mean well and I like them both very much. And yet when it comes to the issue of gender equality, they have no clue. This is how far we have yet to go to educate our OWN nation on the skewed perceptions and inequities of men and women.

The majority of the rest of the world is worse off.

I fought my battle with goliath through the legal system over my gender and it was certainly my awakening to the realities of this issue. I can no longer stand idly by pretending these things aren’t real. More importantly, I want better for my children. I feel duty-bound to change these misperceptions however I can whether it be at the holiday dinner table, in a response on Facbeook, or here. These ideas are simply no longer acceptable in my world. They shouldn’t be acceptable in anyone’s world, and yet they are.

UN Women – and arm of the U.N. that focuses on women’s issues – created a powerful new ad campaign where they use the most widely used search engine, Google, to illustrate how prevalent sexism and misogyny are worldwide. Everyone knows that Google will automatically populate the most popular search terms when you start to type a phrase, and when you type certain terms about women… the results are no less than shocking.

When I first saw it, I thought maybe it was phony. I know a little about Google and I know they tailor some search results based on previous searches, geography, etc. But when I put the exact same phrases they used in the campaign into my own browser I literally put my hand over my mouth and gasped. THESE are real search results from MY computer. This is something I cannot unsee or unknow and you shouldn’t either. This is what the world thinks of me and my daughter. I used pictures of my daughter as a baby to mimic the original campaign and illustrate just how absurd this is.

Brooke Baby- Women Shouldn't

Brooke Baby- Women Need toBrooke Baby- Women ShouldBrooke Baby- Women Cannot

And because I’m fair and also skeptical, I wanted to see the other side. I put the same phrases in for men. These are the real results.

Men Google Searches

Apparently the world thinks my daughter should not be a cop, a pastors, fight in combat or go to college but men should just avoid wearing shorts. Nice.

To all the people who think I’m a little too far down the feminist road;  who think that just because I fought a harrowing legal battle for the right be treated fairly as a woman, that now everything looks like gender discrimination – I give you this challenge. Put these phrases into your Google search box now. Do not pretend this isn’t real.

The sad truth is, my rose-colored glasses were lifted and I’m no longer ignorant to the issue. And you shouldn’t be either. Particularly if you have children.

Realize that this is not something that only happens in developing countries with fundamentalist rulers…  it’s here.  I guarantee it’s in your family, around your dinner tables, in the off-handed comments and jokes of “throwing like a girl,” “crying like a girl,” or “if a girl can do it… ” This is where it persists and is allowed to fuel the world’s idea of what women are worth.

But there is a search phrase that applies to BOTH men and women. Apparently the world thinks its high time we both “grow up” and you know what? I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps peeking over those rose-colored glasses is a nice start.

Brooke shero

My Biggest Parenting Fear

I did my first guest blog post ever today. I was featured on the incredible Five Kids Is A Lot of Kids Blog by the insanely funny Beth Woolsey. I was so honored to be welcomed into her online home for her series on Parenting and Imperfections.

ParentingandImperfectionLogo

Beth is a writer and person that I very much admire. She is a champion of every mom. She is honest and wise and also happens to be side-splitting hilarious. Our private emails are pee-your-Spanx funny (at least to me) which you get a sample of in the prologue to my post. So go on over and check out what keeps me up at night when it comes to being a parent. I’d love to know what you think.

 

Worst Parenting Fear

 

 

10 Ways To Be A Happier Parent

I wrote this for Mamapedia. 

1. Stop measuring your successes and failures through your children.If your little Joe Jr. or Suzy Q. melts to the ground screaming like a maimed hyena because he/she refuses to take turns on the swing while all the Moms in your Tuesday playgroup cross their arms and wrinkle their foreheads at you: Then stop. Take a deep breath. Acknowledge your kid is being a jerk and don’t draw the imaginary connection in your head where you think everyone believes you’rea jerk too. Conversely, when little Joe Jr. or Suzy Q. scores the highest grade in math class, or wins 1st place in their dance competition, this does not mean you have won at parenting. You’re allowed to be proud… of them, not yourself.

2. Stop measuring other Moms’ successes and failures through their children. Number one will become a whole lot easier when you stop doing this to other Moms, too. Promise.

3. Make a list of five priorities and make sure you’re one of them. In the busiest phase of life — raising a family — you must learn to prioritize. You simply cannot do everything you want to do. Priorities should be things that when they are missing from your life, the quality of your life goes down. And at least one of the things on the list has to be something for you. Whether it’s a career, cooking, crafting or drinking wine with friends, you must be on the list. If exercise isn’t a priority, stop beating yourself up for not doing it. If it is, then stop making excuses. Relax into the idea that no one can do it all and everyone must pick and choose what’s important and dump the rest. Particularly in this phase of life. My five (in order of importance) are: God, husband, kids, writing and exercise. Now, doesn’t this give you an idea what my toilets looks like?

4. Make your partner one of those priorities. I’m not good at this one. I’m not. I’m a little selfish and I am physically drained each day from taking care of small children, my job and just plain life. I want to put me first. But the wisest parts of my brain tell me that my marriage is part of the foundation for all those other things I want, and therefore, it is near the top of my list. Forever. Because I’ve learned that this list is base for everything else in my life – My faith holds it up, makes it all worth doing, while my partner puts the shine on it.

5. Learn to use “bad” words. If you’re being asked to do something that will take away from something on your list of priorities, you must learn to say that little dirty word. The one that’s so hard to say in the face of a pleading co-worker, neighbor or parent – it’s particularly hard for women. That word is… no. Yes, people will be upset with you. They may yell and scream and make your life uncomfortable for a little while; but not as uncomfortable as if you drop one of your priorities. Sayyes to yourself, by saying no to them. It’s not selfish, it’s survival.

6. Stop thinking about what your kids aren’t, and start focusing on what they are. Maybe your kid has a happy demeanor most days, but is hopeless at school. Maybe she is tender and kind with animals, but can’t remember to brush her hair. Maybe all your kid can do is tie his shoelaces by himself. Focus on the shoelaces, forget the rest. Your kid will thank you someday. This is a conscious, mental exercise. One that can have either devastating consequences, or abundant rewards because the plain truth about life is that what you focus on expands. If you’re always making a mental list of all the things your kids is NOT, then the list will become endless. If you make a conscious effort to praise and feed all the things your kid already is, (and this list is probably small and harder to define), then that too, will get larger and your child’s sense of self-worth will too. Same goes for you.

7. Take notes from your toddlers and develop amnesia. Small children are amazing in their abilities to live in the moment. Watching them play and dance and sing with wild abandon makes even the coldest of hearts, thaw. Young children do not lament over the milk they spilled on the kitchen floor an hour ago. They do not care what the world thinks about their mismatched socks. They’re over it before it even began. So in other words, stop letting the past control your life. If you’re living in a state of regret over yesterday, you’re stunting your future growth. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone fails. Everyone is paying a price for poor decisions they made decades ago. (I’ll show you my ridiculous tramp stamp if you show me yours?) The fact is that many of us re-live the past in our heads trying to rewrite history. It’s impossible and a waste of precious time you could be playing or dancing or singing with wild abandon. As long as you’re living in the past, you’re not moving forward. You’re not growing as a person and you’re certainly not happy. So act like a toddler and follow their rules: if it happened more than an hour ago and there’s nothing you can do to fix it, then forget it. Replace it with another thought or action. Preferably dancing.

8. Learn to say I’m sorry and mean it. Everyone has bad days when they snap at their kids for getting out of bed for the 14th time. We’re human. We make mistakes. So we must learn to say we’re sorry. This is not just to model good behavior or repair hurt feelings. (Although apologies can do that too.) But learning how to give a heartfelt apology is also an acknowledgement to ourselvesthat what we said or did, hurt someone. It’s a reminder that your words have consequences. Saying I’m sorry teaches us to be more thoughtful of feelings and less selfish with our venting of frustrations and self-awareness is always a good thing. So tell your kids you’re sorry. Tell your spouse you’re sorry. And mean it. It will not only help repair the damage and model kind behavior, it will also teach you to pull back the dragon next time before you spit fire.

9. Learn to Forgive. Forgive your children for their ungratefulness. Forgive your spouse for their carelessness. Forgive your in-laws and the teenager next door for running over your flower bed… again. Oh, this isn’t easy and you may be MORE than justified in your anger and resentment. I often am. But it doesn’t make you or me happier people. Quite the opposite really. Anger is a poison that kills from the inside. Learning to forgive takes practice, diligence and patience. But learning to forgive others is the practice you need to know how to forgive yourself. And that is where the true healing begins.

10. Practice Gratitude. Not be grateful. Practice it. We are not born knowing how to do this and yet there is no real joy without it. Gratitude is not an attitude, it is a skill, and like any other skill, you must practice it faithfully if you’re going to be any good at it. If it’s raining today, the cat puked on your bed last night and your two-year-old just drew shapes on your couch with permanent maker – then be grateful that your garden is getting watered, your cat is no longer struggling with a hairball and our child has the inklings for creativity. Because when you practice seeing the good, you will start to see mostly good. When you see mostly good, life becomes mostly good. When life becomes mostly good, then you no longer need a list of things to make you happy. You just are.Image

Sibling Civil War: Why Some Families Never Learn to Get Along

Why Some Siblings Never Learn to Get AlongI was 23 the last time we got in a physical fight.

I lived with my parent’s all through my college years while I attended a local University. I was 21 before I moved out and paid my own rent. After nine months of that, I changed my plans and decided I needed to save some money. I moved back into the only place I’d ever known.

My two older siblings (a brother, 7 years my senior, and a sister two years older) had already moved on with their lives an out into the world. Or so everyone thought–and in a few days, I’d be doing the same. By then, I was 23. My money had been saved and I wasn’t just moving out. I was moving to another part of the country, with a boy. I was excited. I was also anxious and scared and nervous.

Life hadn’t turned out the way my sister planned and as I was moving away, she was coming back. My parent’s front door has always been a revolving one. In more than 40 years, they have yet to live without one of their children, but that’s an entirely different story. For one short month before my final departure, my sister and I would live together again, as young adults, for the last time, and under my parent’s roof. The culmination of this month, and a summation of our entire relationship, really, would end in an epic brawl and a trip to the ER.

I’ve always been particularly interested in birth order theory. The clinical description of a last-born, third child seems to fit me to a tee. Risk-taker, crafty, social butterfly, black sheep. This theory also seems to describe my siblings and their respective positions.

Recently, I read a very thoughtful article on siblings in Brain, Child Magazine by Katherine Ozment. In an effort to understand her children’s relentless arguments and promote healthy relationships among them, she researched the topic extensively. I read the article with the same hopes; to understand my own children’s (boy, 2 and girl, 4) budding sibling relationship and get a sense of what I can do as their mother to help promote a healthy one.

I learned a bit about that, but more importantly, I learned about myself.

Ozment asserts that perhaps our sibling relationships are greater predictors of who we are as adults, than any other relationship; even our parental one. My first thought was–I’m in serious trouble.

My childhood is not filled with happy memories of me and my siblings. There were a few tender moments with my older brother– throwing the football in the front yard or him carrying me on his back jumping up and down in excitement just after passing his driver’s test. But as he was moving off to college, I was entering adolescence and the differences between us were insurmountable.

There are no pleasant memories with my sister. My mother claims that we got along when I was very young, but I do not remember those times. What I remember is sharing a bed until I was 11 and middle of the night, violent, kicking wars, waking up with bruises the size of softballs on my legs. I remember pulling out hair in fistfuls, bite marks and incessant tattle telling. As I am writing this, in the fleshy part between my thumb and my pointer fingers on my right hand, I can see a thick, quarter-inch scar. A forever reminder of those times.

I will not attempt to place blame anywhere for these things, just to state it as fact. It’s true. It happened. It’s the way it was.

I know this type of sibling civil war happens in other families, but as adults, most grow into healthier relationships. But in my case, time and maturity healed nothing. To this day I do not really know, nor do I speak often to either of my siblings. In fact, as I write this, I have been estranged from my sister for more than two years and have recently become estranged from my brother for loudly calling me a bitch at a family function. I say “estranged” to mean that we are not on speaking terms, but that is a mere technicality because prior to being “estranged” we didn’t really speak anyway.

Ozment writes about birth order and rivalries and the sociological and historical research involving siblings. She discusses the competition for resources, (i.e. parental attention), the instinct to differentiate ourselves from the pack, and the roles that parents play in all of this. Much of our behavior can be deduced to human nature and our needs for self-preservation.

As parents, out of good intentions, we often add fuel to this self-preservation fire. We treat our children differently according to their age and abilities which makes sense, but in a child’s eyes, it’s viewed as favoritism. Children start competing for whatever it seems they are lacking or to keep whatever perceived advantage they may have. In an effort to squelch the competitiveness of our human nature, we encourage sibling differentiation. We project alternate strengths onto our children thinking this will eliminate their needs to argue over whose better or is getting more of the resources.

To this day, whenever I try to explain to someone the relationship I have with my sister, the first thing I say is how different we are. And we are. I can point out every large and slight dis-similarity from how we look, act, dress, believe and choose to run our lives. In every discussion between us, there is not  single instance where we have taken the same side. No matter the issue. We grew into oil and water. The only thing we have in common today is our parents.

One of the experts Ozment interviews says that as parents, the promotion of sibling differences, while well intentioned, is ultimately destructive.

We grow these freakishly dissimilar people so they won’t end up eating one another, then wonder why they don’t get along. ~Susan McHale, Professor of Family Studies at Pennsylvania University.

That makes a lot of sense to me.

Ozment concludes that the best thing we can do as parents is to foster a healthy sense of empathy between siblings when they are young. To inspire them to see each other as a person who has the same feelings and hurts and emotions and needs as we all do. That we should not accentuate the differences too greatly, but emphasize the similarities of our human-ness.

Ironically, the very thing that makes us rivals, is what also makes us the same. Our humanity.

The day my sister and I got into our last physical brawl I was feeling anxious. I was neurotically burning a CD off the computer of my favorite, most soothing, happy songs to play on the road trip across country with this boy. The songs kept messing up and I had been at this project for hours. I was getting more and more frustrated by the minute. My sister came into the room where I was working on this project and she was visibly angry. I can imagine that she was struggling with feelings of failure for not landing a job in Florida after completing a very expensive film school and having to move back home at the age of 25. She was in debt, unemployed, unsure of her future, probably lonely and a little depressed. I was anxious, scared, unsure of my own future as I was steadying myself to embark on a new adventure with a long list of unknowns.

Just as my CD was in its final stages she came in demanding that I turn off my music. She pressed power on the computer and erased my whole CD, again. I flew into a rage. I punched her in the face with as much force as I could muster behind my fist. Then I ran. She chased me upstairs and caught me at the door. She threw her whole body weight against the door and smashed me  between the door and its frame until I could not breathe. One of my acrylic nails ripped off and took my real fingernail with it.

A few days later, the day before I was to leave on my trip, I was in a horrific car accident. The passenger of the other car was drunk and hit me head on at high-speed. At 2am that night, as I lay in the ER my whole family was there. My brother took over the first-born authoritarian position as my acting attorney, and my parents stood by as I was poked and x-rayed–concerned as ever. Then there was my sister. Sitting in the corner; the forever brooding, disengaged middle child with a bright, shining black-eye. Not saying a word. Nothing at all. Ever.

Motherhood + Work + Life = Sacrifice

“I used to have a career, but I filed a lawsuit against my company for sexual discrimination a few years ago and I was ultimately fired. After a long legal battle I needed to reevaluate my priorities. Then I another baby, and, you know…”

It’s a conversation I’ve been repeating with ever more frequency. I know it well. I’m feeling insecure and this is a justification for that feeling. All rehearsed conversations are scripts laced with justifications and insecurities.

motherhood + workThe sharpest lesson I learned from my painful, year-long, litigious experience was that my career does not define me. I also learned that more money isn’t a good enough reason for doing something, and there are more important things than having an interesting answer to that popular dinner party question, So what do you do?

My insecurity does not come from a lack of identity as a professional or even my lack of a paycheck. It comes from guilt. Plainly put, I don’t feel like I’m living up to my end of the feminist bargain especially in light of all I went through and stood for during that lawsuit: gender respect and equality. I feel an obligation to the trailblazing women who came before me to step aside from my singular role as mother, and make room for the role as a leader in the workforce. I feel this same sense of obligation toward the women who will come after me, most significantly, my daughter.

I know I am capable of being a thoughtful leader. I was a leader in my professional career and I am in my personal life. I did, after all, have the nerve to sue a very large company for sexual discrimination and then promptly reinvent myself as a writer. I can do hard things and make difficult choices.

I also happen to like this role.

I am comfortable with speaking out, taking responsibility and making decisions.  I like working with others toward a common goal. Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook, said recently in a 60 Minutes interview,

I want every little girl who [is told] they’re bossy to instead be told, “You have leadership skills.”

With only 16% of c-level position, and only 18% of Congress being women, this world desperately needs more of us “bossy” types. A world I feel obligated to make a better place for both my children.

Recent statistics show that 31% of working mothers drop out of the workforce for 2.2 years. This break is most often precipitated by the birth of a second child. This results in a decrease of 18% earning power over their lifetime. As of today, I have been out of the workforce for 2.4 years and I am feeling the pull toward my dusty patent leather pumps grow stronger by the day.

My entire life has followed the typical, statistical equation for a white, middle-class, American woman who came of age in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Graduate from college + develop a career + marry at the age of 27.5 + have 2.5 children in your 30’s + carry a mortgage + invest in college funds + take family vacations. It is an equation that would have continued had it not been for the addition of an unforeseen lawsuit… scratch that… the MULTIPLICATION DIVIDED BY THE SQUARE ROOT of the life-altering shift in perception called motherhood.

Perhaps there is no way to prepare for motherhood, but if there were a test one could take on motherhood preparedness, I would have failed valiantly.

Despite my best efforts to seek advice from colleagues, no one told me the sacrifices I would have to make as a working mother. No one explained that my choices would be between difficult and impossible, and often times, I would have to transform the impossible into good enough. No one told me that taking a step back to raise my 2.5 children would result in an significant reduction in earning power over my lifetime and render me 79% less likely to be hired, half as likely to be promoted, and offered an average of $11,000 less. Perhaps it’s because these statistics didn’t exist until recently. Or, more accurately, I didn’t pay attention until I found myself a new mother in the middle of a lawsuit for sexual discrimination.

I took a step back because I wanted to be with my children in their earliest years. It’s a decision I will never regret no matter how much I might bemoan some of its drudgery. Right now my youngest is not yet two, and my oldest is almost four. I can see the growing light of autonomy at the end of this beautiful tunnel of early childhood and it’s making me wonder: What will I do when they don’t need me as much? How will I find a way to fit back into the workforce? Since we are not independently wealthy people, this prospect feels inevitable.

I’m feeling the pull to get back into to the corporate world sooner rather than later for many reasons, but at this time, none more powerful than my obligation to my gender. It is still true that I want to redirect my career into one that includes writing, and there is no question that I will always write for work and pleasuer, but this path takes a lot of time and offers very little financial security. I can’t pay for someone to care for my children while I pursue a career that doesn’t pay enough to afford said childcare. This is a sad and true fact. Also, there is only so much more time I can opt out of my former career path before I must start all over working my way back up. Lastly, there are intellectual muscles I want to stretch and a need for some autonomy of my own that I’m aching to scratch out.

And the reason I’m finding so much urgency to be a leader for women in the workforce is because my current options for combining motherhood + work + life, appear unworkable and require more sacrifice than one individual (no matter their gender) should have to navigate.

Here are my options:

A. Reenter the workforce, flex my mental capacities, live up to my potential as a leader and earn a paycheck. But there is no such thing as part-time in my career field. I would have to work full-time and then some. It would take up nearly all of my time and offer limited flexibility. This will require a full-time nanny which will not only limit my children’s experiences, but take me out of their lives for a significant portion of the week which doesn’t work for me until they no longer live under my roof. Or…

B. I can stay out of the workforce, continue to dwindle my lifetime earning potential, perhaps become unqualified for the positions of which I am still qualified, not pay a nanny, expand my children’s experiences, have ultimate flexibility and be in their lives to the fullest capacity, but also find a way to squelch my ever-growing discontent over not living up to my potential and lack of autonomy, and hope that I never have to rely on myself for sole support of my life.

Hm. Which one of these horrible scenarios should I choose? Who will win? Who will lose? In the end, will I wish I did it differently?

I’m not to the point of making an eminent decision but I’m trying to develop a third option. It is the hardest of them all. It requires more faith, will power, consciousness and fortitude.

C. Work hard. Trust in God’s plan. Learn to breathe deeper. Learn to let go of fear and regrets and expectations. Stay grounded. Live on less. Be okay with the unknown. Follow my passions.

If you know another path, perhaps a D option, please, I’m all computer speakers?

Whatever my choice may be I’m sure C will be a part of it, if not ALL of it. Nonetheless, this excruciating, mathematical equation of motherhood + work + life = sacrifice shouldn’t have to be an impossible conundrum. Perhaps necessary, even difficult, but never impossible and never one set squarely on mothers alone.

I feel an obligation to help make this situation better for my children… and yours. Not just by becoming a leader, but by doing what all great leaders do… lead by example.

I’m confident this entails learning to breathe deeper, let go and trust more and the good news is… that can happen in every moment, no matter what shoes I’m wearing, how many numbers are on my paycheck, or even who’s listening.

Needful Things

I’m a little embarrassed to admit this (so when has that stopped me?) but the biggest shock I received when I became a new parent was how needy newborns were. Crazy right? Like I totally should have known this going into to it. Like, of course you dumbass what did you expect a Golden Retriever? On an intellectual level, I suppose I did know this, but I also think it’s one of those you can’t really know until you live it.

The neediness of my newborn equated to zero time for myself. This single fact struck through the center of my life like a lightening bolt on a clear sunshine day.

I think the longer you wait to have kids, the bigger this shock is to your system. I was 31 when I had my first. By this relatively average maternal age I was already quite accustomed to coming and going as I pleased. I regularly slept 8-9 hours a night. If I wanted, I could stay out until 1am on a “school night” and suffer no long-term repercussions. I went to the gym, read magazines, made a phone call and used the restroom all with relative ease, minimal planning and zero guilt.

That life was all I knew and when it came to a screeching halt, there was a bit of sadness and fear involved.

Sometime during the haze of the first week after giving birth is when this crushing reality came baring down on me because I chose to breastfeed. I chose to breastfeed because I believe in the benefits. I still do. But I could also care less what anyone else does. I’m not a fanatic about it and I totally understand why some moms choose not to go this route. The major drawback of breastfeeding, as I see it, is that this singular choice makes everything that much harder. It’s throws another thing on the pile to figure out as if you didn’t already have enough unknowns in your life. When you breastfeed, every feeding is not just about the baby and their need to eat, it’s always about you, too, and your need to get said eats out of said boobs.

Breastfeeding means that you are always on call and there is no other person on the planet who can take your place. If I wasn’t physically feeding my baby I still had to address the situation one way or another, and no matter how much I may have wanted my husband to take over “just this once.” It wasn’t possible. Ever.

The moment I realized this, I was devastated. I know that’s a big word to use for this situation, but in my sleep-deprived, hormonal, emotional, new parent state, it was, quite frankly, like hearing my world had ended and my new reality was one of complete servitude. I was now on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, no breaks, no excuses. Ever.

Hindsight is always 20/20 and with this clarity of vision I realize this feeling was overblown just a tad, but I also know why it felt this way at the time.

I felt this way because I had no idea how fast newborns turn into babies, babies into toddlers, and toddlers into back-talking children. You just don’t know until you are watching your own kids grow up. How can you know something like this until you experience it for yourself?

This week I had one of those memory searing moments when you realize just how fast your child has grown. During a walk in a local park my three-year-old daughter stopped to pet a dog. When the nice owner bent down to introduce her dog to my daughter, they had a conversation… like a real, completely comprehensible conversation that went something like this:

Owner: “Do you have a doggie?”

Brooke: “No, no, I just have kitties.”

Owner: “I always wanted a doggie so I got this one when I got a house.”

Brooke: “But where do you live?”

Owner: “I live over there, not far. Where do you live?”

Brooke: “I live down the street.”

And just like that my throat was full of sentimental lumps.

I have always been her communication conduit. In her broken toddler speak it was I that translated her wishes to the world. When she pointed to the moon and said unintelligible things like “wittez,” I was the only one who knew she was saying “witches.” When she saw something at the store that matched up with something we talked about at home, I knew what she was thinking and I answered her question before she knew how to ask it. I was her mind-reader, her primary translator, her language semi-conductor.

Watching her carry on this conversation with a total stranger made me realize that she didn’t need me for that anymore. From here on out, she was good with making her own conversations. Those lumps left a bitter-sweet taste in my mouth.

Slowly, over time, the bottomless well of need abates, sometimes imperceptibly. Just when you complete and/or master one thing, a crop of different needs, issues, milestones come up with different ways in which your are forced outside of your comfort zone. The cycle feels endless.

But at some point you get used to it– the change, the need, the challenge. And just when you do, it folds back onto itself and all over you like a rogue wave or some alternate universe–like an M.C. Escher optical illusion.

That same sad feeling I had when I realized the endless void of need of my newborn–came back around for the very opposite reason– because I was no longer needed.

There is a biting sense of loss in moments like this. I have keep reminding myself that I’m not losing her and the reason she doesn’t need me is because I gave her what I had, when she needed me most.

If I can hold on to the sweetness of that, while beating back the bitter, what a wonderful, endless circle of giving and letting go I can leave her with. Something she can use wherever she goes, and with whom ever she speaks to.

Round, and round, and round…

Feminism, Motherhood and a Demanding Career

I timed the birth of my first child to coincide with the end of my company’s fiscal quarter. I did this so that I would only lose one quarter’s worth of commissions, instead of two.

I was already using rubber bands to “button” to my work pants when I reluctantly admitted to my boss I was pregnant. It was during a business lunch and the discussion turned toward the upcoming year. He was telling me how well I was doing, and that if I could just work a little harder I was on target to win the coveted award. The look on my face betrayed me because when I said nothing, he said, “What’s wrong? Wait! Let me guess, you’re pregnant.” Then the look on his face betrayed him because I clearly detected disappointment.

While pregnant I suffered from such severe edema due to extensive air travel, I developed carpel tunnel in both wrists and had to wear compression socks every time I flew to minimize the swelling in my legs. When I was 36 weeks pregnant I attended a five-day meeting across the country without my OB/Gyn’s full consent. At that stage in my pregnancy my blood pressure was spiking so I snuck out of meetings to borrow the hotel’s blood pressure cuff to monitor myself.

My daughter ended up coming two weeks shy of quarter’s end and while holding my hours-old newborn in one arm, I used the other to close deals from my Blackberry.

On my twelve week maternity leave, that paid me a fraction of my working wage, I sent and received emails. My boss sent me one obscure message, the text was simply the dollar amount of my current quota deficit. The message was obscure, but the subtext was clear–he wanted me to make my quota. This was a week after I gave birth. In those twelve weeks of leave I attended a surgical case I couldn’t get covered and a lunch meeting that had been scheduled for months.

On my first business trip post baby, when my daughter was 4 months old, I paid to have my mother-in-law go with me. I was breastfeeding and didn’t want to leave her for that long. When my daughter was five months, I had no choice but to leave her for over a week. I pumped on the airplane–I excused myself during meetings and dinners and had the hotel’s kitchen store my milk in their freezer for the trip home. Soon after I got home I stopped breastfeeding all together because it was just too hard.

Pre-kid I ran in several social, work circles. I stayed up late telling jokes with the men. I commiserated with the ladies. But when I became a mom, there was a whole other crowd I didn’t know existed because they talked in hushed tones and you had to also be a mom to be included. All we talked about was how to manage a work-life balance in this competitive career. Sadly, no one was truly honest, including me. Everyone was too afraid to admit that they weren’t doing it very well, or at all.

One of the only woman managers in my division was pregnant with her third child at the exact same time as me. She gave birth days after I did. When I saw her at the week-long meeting when we were both five months postpartum I asked her how she was doing because her job was nearly 100% travel. She was Fed Ex-ing her breast milk home to her nanny and unemployed husband. She was also wound tighter than an eight day clock.

I need not tell you that a high-end sales job is competitive. No matter what management says to placate you, the reality is you are as valuable as your last quarter’s percent to quota and if you are only 99% committed to your job, there’s a never-ending stack of resumes beckoning to make up that extra 1%.

“You can do anything you put your mind to.” They all told me while I was growing up. The message was: You can have a career and a family and you can be happy because countless women before you sacrificed so you don’t have to. Pre-children, when my life was myopic and focused primarily on my own needs, I believed them. Then colic and ear infections and late-night ER visits blew my monocular lens to shit in less than a year and my world became a prism of shaky, fractured focus.

I do not mean that I couldn’t work and also be a mother. That is do-able and is being done quite well all over the country. What I mean is, I couldn’t have a demanding, high-minded career and move up the ladder into a leadership position and be a mother. The sacrifices to my family life were too great and were never ones I was willing to make. Ever.

I enjoyed working for the stimulation, accomplishment and rewards it afforded me. I was quite good at my job, too. But like every new mother my priorities and focus shifted. Before I filed a lawsuit for discrimination I was willing to take a step down and back to spend more time with my family, but economics and a crappy real estate market momentarily forbade it. But we already know how that story ended when the decision was made for me by a methodical and deliberate derailment of my career.

That derailment began when I recommended a colleague to a sales position in an adjacent territory to mine. I recommended her because she had an excellent reputation, intimate knowledge of the competition, and came with impeccable references from our clients. She happened to live in the territory she would cover and was wanting to transition. She was 37, had 10 years of medical sales experience and two children. Instead, my boss hired a 27-year-old man, from another state, with zero sales experience, (but hey, he played football for my boss’ favorite college!).

I obscurely questioned his motives, but my subtext was clear, and that turned out to be the first “mistake” in a long line of “mis-steps” in standing up for myself.

Despite all the ground-breaking work of Gloria Steinem et al, the choice between professional goals and family life are choices that are still required mostly of women. Largely because of these choices and requirements, women in leadership positions are dismal by comparison.

“Women are not making it to the top. A hundred and ninety heads of state; nine are women. Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13 percent are women. In the corporate sector, [the share of] women at the top—C-level jobs, board seats—tops out at 15, 16 percent.”  ~Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook

I did make the ultimate choice to have children. This is true. And for that, I apparently, (unknowingly) sacrifice any high-end career goals I might have had in my chosen profession because the competitive environment is not conducive to taking a step back to raise a family.

Although the latest generation of fathers (my husband included) are much more involved in the raising of children, you still don’t see many men foregoing a family to focus on their career or vice versa. In fact, as I write this, every male supreme court justice has a family while two out of the three women on the bench, do not. The third, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, began her judicial career after her son was grown. Condoleezza Rice is the only woman to hold the position of national security advisor and is the only national security advisor not to have a family since the 1950’s.

And must I mention Oprah… again?

These things are just not acceptable to our society anymore.  Female representation among the highest ranking careers in the country, in particular, our government, is imperative. How else will our voices be heard? How else will these impossible choices stop being primarily a woman’s choice to make?

I’m not implying that having a child should involve zero sacrifices to a woman’s career. I was willing to sacrifice breastfeeding, extra assignments, vacation time, money and whole host of things for the sake of my family. I’m saying that the sacrifice of having a family should not be placed so squarely on the woman’s shoulders alone. There are burdens that companies can take on too that will alleviate the need for impossible choices like, not having children, waiting to have children, or the deliberate and painful derailment of a career in a competitive industry.

As I see it, this is mostly a systemic and societal issue–one that needs to be addressed by changing mindsets and attitudes toward the value of family versus the value of money, or achievement or getting one step ahead, faster.

I know that I am privileged. I know that I have choices many women reading this may not have. I get that. But if very few women are capable of reaching and sustaining a career at the highest levels of leadership, then how can that be good for all women?

It’s not a trick question–it can’t.

I have never considered myself a “feminist.” I have been contented to keep my head down, keep working, and roll with the punches that life hands me while not being a victim of my circumstances, including my gender. But I can’t anymore. Not after this non-feminist found herself in the middle of a sexual discrimination lawsuit against a company that specializes in women’s health. How’s that for irony?

If this can happen to me, then it can happen to anyone.

As I write this my former company’s executive management list consists of eight men and zero women–and this is a company that manufactures and sells medical products EXCLUSIVELY for women. There is something inherently wrong with that equation.

Now, I believe it’s my obligation to use my voice to stand up for all women who face impossible choices, no matter which economic or educational stratosphere they inhabit or how many kids they choose to have. Because feminism isn’t anti-men, it isn’t even about women’s liberation and rights anymore. It’s about having choices and making sure society supports those choices. By doing that, society recognizes the invaluable, irreplaceable contribution women make to our families, the board room, and our world as a whole, and that is something I can get behind.

*The statistics recited in this article, and the inspiration to write it, are from the recent, thought-provoking op-ed, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter published in The Atlantic.