Remember that you are dust

Today is:

  • Ash Wednesday
  • My 45th birthday
  • Two days since getting the call from the breast oncologist’s office to say that the lab results of the MRI biopsy of my left breast were benign

Remember that you are dust.

Ash Wednesday has perplexed me since I was a kid. I appreciate the solemnity, the congruence of saving a few of the palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday to burn into ash, and, as a younger person, the knowing nod of the “in group” cred of showing up to work or school with a powdery smear on your forehead. 

I liked the ritual of it, even as a Presbyterian – walking up the church aisle to the awaiting pastor, silently shuffling in a somber line of adults and some kids, I would present my forehead for a sign of the cross – the only one of the year for my Protestant body. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Turn, walk to the side aisle, go on with your day and contemplate your mortality.

I supposed these other folks must need to be reminded that people die. That they will die. That all their striving will come to nothing and eventually they will be ash heaps? I didn’t need the reminder. My impending death, and the death of everyone I love, was the buzzing static drone of my subconscious at all times. It still is. 

I woke up on this sleet-slicked morning as a healthy 45 year old. I have the mammogram, ultrasound, two MRIs, a biopsy, and even a fresh set of dental records to prove it. Since November, that clean bill of health was more like an iron-welded question mark teetering on its ball point in the corner of my brain. 

“You sound calm,” my friend said to me on the phone a couple of weeks ago when I called to see if she could drive me to my biopsy.  

“I am calm!” I assured her. “I’ve been training my whole life for this! Four decades of mentally rehearsing Worst Case Scenarios comes in the clutch!”

“I don’t like that for you.”

“Honestly, Anticipatory Dread is my comfort zone. I spent *literally* decades steeping in it. It made me who I am. I’m in the zone here.” And it was true. I, a person will barely-managed anxiety, felt calm about something that, objectively, was not a low-stress scenario. It was remarkable.

I spotted an annoying rash across my torso in November, which became itchy, weeping welts, which became chronic hives, and gray leakage from my nipple, which resulted in a gradual escalation of testing that revealed, of all things, engorged milk ducts and “suspicious activity” in my left breast. The initial MRI concluded that a biopsy was in order. 

At each appointment, a doctor assured me that it was either an allergic reaction (Urgent Care and Allergist), an angry flare of eczema or a symptom of that unfortunate catch-all perimenopause (dermatologist), Paget’s disease, which is a cancer of the nipple itself (OBGYN), or maybe, none of these or all of these or some other kind of cancer or breast disease (breast oncologist and radiologist). 

It has been a wild, and wildly annoying, three months. Blood tests, allergy scratch tests, steroid shots in my butt, antihistamines, antibiotics, a mammogram, ultrasound, two MRIs, a biopsy. A shoebox full of prescription creams and treatments. All of my personal care products and carefully curated skin care regimen had to be chucked to appease the rage of the hot splotchy sunburn of my raw skin. 

Now that I have the biopsy results, I still don’t have a diagnosis beyond “probably a dermatological condition related to perimenopause”, but the medical experts are satisfied that it is nothing malignant. Scary, gross, itchy, annoying, and expensive, but not malignant. 

The breast oncologist was confident from the beginning that even if they found cancer, it would be localized and treatable. “Whatever this is, we’re getting on top of it early” she assured me. Miraculously, I believed her. 

Throughout this ordeal, people I love have reached out with funny texts and meme-packed DMs and urgent speakerphone calls while driving to school pick up. “Are you OK? How are you handling everything? How’s your anxiety?”

It’s good to be known. 

I wasn’t worried. Not because I was optimistic, mind you. Maybe because I know my body, and it wasn’t telling me this was the end. It was telling me there is some weird shit going on in there, and I felt a peaceful hum when one doctor gently suggested it was most likely the beginning of the maddening and murky symptoms of perimenopause, when my body begins its downshift out of its Reproduction Era and into an era of (so far, in my experience) Giving Zero Craps about the trappings that used to form social norms of my identity. 

Oh, and physically, perimenopause is like some kind of bizarro-world repeat of puberty, apparently. Who wants to play “Will I Get My Period This Month, and if so, Will It Last 3 days or 13?”? Acne! New soft curves out of nowhere! Crying all the time! Poor Sleep! Caring about everything intensely and caring not at all about anything! 

Speaking of puberty, I was in the thick of that mess in the early 90s. I was obsessed with Dead Poets Society. So obsessed that I wore out our VHS tape and my mom refused to buy a new one, for fear that the nightmarish ending was resonating a bit too hard with my impressionable first wisps of teenage depression.

I wasn’t focused on the shock and horror of Neal’s death. Dreamy, preppy nerd boys reciting poetry in a cave? Yes please. I bought my own Sharpie marker and scrawled CARPE DIEM on every surface at my disposal. School folders, my shoes, handmade posters for my wall. I even got a t-shirt with the phrase printed in block letters across the chest. 

Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.

I did not want to take even one single day for granted. I wanted to make my life extraordinary, too. I didn’t appreciate the through-thread of grief in that movie until I was much older.

The questions I had then still tumble through my head in quiet moments. What makes an extraordinary life? What happens if you just live an ordinary one?

So now that I have spilled my personal midlife crisis all over you, what’s next?

Months have given way to years of “What’s Next?” in my life. Maybe in yours, too. This year feels like a year I need to make more space for change. Years of survival mode haven’t produce the best fruit.

I’m waist-deep in some program evaluations and risk assessments in my work life, which have given me a lot of food for thought for my personal life. Am I using my resources effectively? Do I have any blind spots that expose me or my family to unnecessary risks? Are my activities furthering the mission? Am I experiencing mission creep? What needs to be cut to get closer to my vision for myself? For my family? For the part I have to play in my community? This is how my brain works. 

My birthday has always felt like my personal New Year’s Day, so this year I’m going to be thinking about Spaciousness and Change and a whole lot of letting go of the “meh” to make that space for that change. And recent events have inspired me to make this year the year I start taking a little bit gentler care of this midlife body of mine, on purpose. And enjoying her more, without shame or judgement. Learning to love her and work with her and listen to her, rather than the clang and the clatter, is the work in front of me this year. 


“Did I talk to you while I was waking up? You look familiar.” Danica the post-procedure nurse smiled at me and said “Oh yes! It sounds like you had a great dream about Alice in Wonderland!”

“I’m reading the book to my daughter.” I gurgle, still shrugging off the last vapors of anesthesia.

“Did you understand what the doctor said to you a few minutes ago?”

“I don’t remember talking with the doctor.”

“Ok, I’ll ask her to stop back over in a few minutes.”

When the gastroenterologist reappeared, she stood beside the bed and told me very matter of factly that she found and removed two pre-cancerous polyps from my colon. “One was pretty big, considering your last colonoscopy was not even four years ago. Your best defense is to continue regular colonoscopies. I’m going to recommend continuing every three years. We’ll send the polyps to pathology. You should hear back in about a week.”

“That sounds like there’s a chance those are more than pre-cancer.”

“We send everything to pathology. You do not have colon cancer. Neither of these had penetrated the wall of your colon. But you have to be vigilant. This is the second time we’ve removed these types of polyps from your body. You’re young, but your mom’s history means you are going to be more likely to develop polyps, and unchecked polyps become cancer.”

My first colonoscopy was when I was 33. Years of mysterious GI symptoms had become unbearable. The pain and bloating were not enough to get me to go to the doctor, but I made an appointment when I realized to my horror that the coworkers at my new job knew I was ducking into the bathroom with alarming frequency. There were murmurs that I was pregnant. A tactless coworker straight up asked if I was having morning sickness. It was getting harder to hide the fact that something was very, very wrong.

I was in a new state for a new job with a relatively new husband. I didn’t have any friends in North Carolina, or a primary care doctor, let alone a gastroenterologist. One morning, after spending most of the previous night in agony, I walked into Melissa, my co-worker’s office and closed the door behind me. I asked if I could ask her for some help with a personal matter. She waved me in, I took a seat, and blurted out; “Do you like your doctor? I need to find a doctor. I need a referral for a gastroenterologist. I think something is really wrong with me. My mom died of colon cancer two years ago, and I am freaking out.”

Bless her, this near stranger confided that her mom had had colon cancer, too, but it was caught early and she was in recovery. Melissa had the gastroenterologist’s name and office number in her phone. She wrote it on a lime green post-it note and handed it to me across the desk. “He’s one of the best in the country. At Duke. He’ll take good care of you.”

At my initial appointment, I expected him to reassure me that I was too young for colon cancer, that my symptoms were certainly IBS or a food allergy. That he’d do all the necessary tests, of course, but not to worry. Instead he looked me in the eyes and said “These symptoms are symptoms of colon cancer. I have six colon cancer patients in their 30s. You must take this very seriously. We’ll do the colonoscopy, and act on what we learn.”

For the next two weeks while I waited for my procedure appointment, I pondered what I would do if I received a cancer diagnosis.

“I want to go to South Africa and take surfing lessons, and just stay there and keep surfing until I get eaten by a shark. Return to the food chain.” My husband of a year and a half was not amused. “You’ll fight it. We’ll fight it together. You’re not going to be eaten by a shark.”

“You know, MY MOM died of colon cancer but she wasn’t really, miserably, excruciatingly sick until she started treatment. She lived for less than two years after her diagnosis. The last year or so of that was in agony, the last 2 months were inhumane. I really, really want to just get eaten by a shark, ok?”

I thought about the kids I wouldn’t have and the life I wouldn’t live with Les. I wondered what he would do without me. Return to Illinois, presumably. He didn’t have a job yet in Raleigh. I thought about JAWS a lot and wondered if I would shriek out reflexively while being chewed in half, or feel satisfied that my plan had worked and my torture would be quick and organic rather than insufferable and chemical.

That first colonoscopy didn’t reveal any polyps, cancerous or otherwise. It did discover that my colon was kinked like a hose in two places, which would account for all the toilet troubles and general abdominal distress.

“Do yoga every day and try not to be so stressed. That’s the only way to prevent this from happening again. You literally tied yourself in knots. But given your symptoms and your family history, get another colonoscopy in three years, OK? Keep on top of this.”

Photo by Pixabay on

The intestinal unkinking relieved a lot of my problems, but some persisted. I saw a doctor a few weeks later who suspected a gluten, dairy, or soy intolerance. Her suggestion jolted my memory back three years to the stark, unfussy acupuncture table in a dimly lit office above the Planned Parenthood in Edgewater. The locally famous (in certain “alternative medicine” circles) chiropractor insisted, as I lay with two dozen hair-thin needles sprouting from my skin, that I needed to cut out gluten to eliminate my chronic pain. “Your body can’t process it,” she said. “You have systemic, chronic inflammation. The acupuncture only alleviates some of the symptoms. You’ll need to change your life and diet to prevent inflammation.”

I had snorted at the impossibility of cutting bread or pasta from my diet. “You are helping me so much. Please just let’s keep doing what we’re doing” I pleaded as I imagined never eating a scone from Letizia’s Bakery again. At the time, I opted for chronic pain management over a scone-less life.

This time, I clutched the instructions for an elimination diet the physician’s assistant handed me on my way out the door, and drove immediately to Panera to cry into a cinnamon crunch bagel while making my bleak shopping list for the next two weeks. Most vegetables and some fruit were allowed, plus a very select few carbohydrates. No dairy, eggs, soy, nuts, or, in my case, a strict vegetarian at the time, any animal protein. I ate salads with vinaigrette and apples and plantain chips for two weeks, after which I was supposed to add each possible trigger food back in, one at a time.

When the hungry two weeks had elapsed, I tore into a chunk of baguette and prayed. I was still chewing it when my skin started to itch and my stomach churned. I threw the rest of the hunk of delicious gluten across the room and cried. That was it. I didn’t need to go on with the trial. Indeed, I felt no reaction to the dairy, eggs, soy, or nuts. Just the bread.

Within a week of my gluten free diet, the softly inflated dome of belly, which I had accepted as part of the newlywed “I’m like a baby, she’s like a cat, and when we are happy we both get fat” phase had flattened. I no longer bolted to the bathroom multiple times a day. My skin cleared up – both acne and eczema. The chronic nosebleeds I had dismissed as “some kind of weird seasonal allergy thing, probably” also stopped.

But the colonoscopies continued. I’ve had several now, and since that first unkinking procedure 11 years ago, each of my subsequent colonoscopies has removed precancerous polyps.

Food and I still regularly battle with clubs and sticks. Even some gluten free carbs seem to trigger IBS-like symptoms. I would feel better with less acid (coffee, wine, chocolate, tomato products). The omnivore/vegetarian/vegan/pescatarian/flexitarian choices paralyze me. The Ghost of Orthorexia Past haunts me.

The data on the causes of colon cancer are mixed, but some studies found that people who get less exercise and who eat higher-fat, lower-fiber diets are more likely to get colon cancer. And people who had an immediate family member diagnosed with colon cancer are also more likely to be diagnosed themselves. So if you are wondering if the pressure to try to “eat a low fat, high fiber diet and get enough exercise and also eat gluten free and (because of my personal, complicated feelings about eating animals) vegetarian and try not to let cancer sneak up and kill you” could lead to angst about food and general feelings of anxiety, the answer is yeeessssssss.

The morals of this story are these: Go to a gastroenterologist right away if you have symptoms of colon cancer. Get the stupid colonoscopy, either if you have symptoms or when you turn 45, whichever comes first. That birthday is coming up for a lot of you, my friends. And yes, the colonoscopy prep SUCKS, but you get to drink a gallon (accurate – not an exaggeration) of laxatives in the privacy of your own home, so it’s not like you’re going to be eaten by a shark. And yes, the day of the procedure is a time consuming hassle, and you may blabber incoherently about Alice in Wonderland when you emerge from anesthesia. But I am telling you, with all the sincerity and near-hypochondria of my heart, colonoscopies are better than cancer.

A Job Found Me

No matter how many ridiculous dates I went on in my twenties (ask me about the guy who fell asleep during dinner on a first date), I swore I would never use an online dating site. In May, my eHarmony-matched husband and I celebrated our 11th anniversary with tapas and sangria. 

In high school I confessed to my mother that I never, ever wanted to have a baby. Never. Adopt, maybe. But pregnancy? Childbirth? Absolutely not. Don’t tell the daughter that I labored for 30 hours to deliver into this world. She’s starting first grade in a couple of weeks.  

When my husband and I were newlyweds and started looking for a dog to adopt together, we agreed to rule out yappy, high-maintenance dogs and anything smaller than a cocker spaniel, and then we devoted the next ten years to the adoration and medical care of an epileptic chihuahua who hated nearly every person and animal he ever met.

I was living on the north side of Chicago when I met my now husband, Les, and I distinctly remember a conversation early in our dating life where I told him that I would live in the city, or I would live in the boonies, but I would never, ever live in the suburbs. “I need either the walkable, anonymous, buzz of the city or a sprawling green privacy of rural life. I can’t live in the soulless suburbs”. Now, of course, I live in the western suburbs and play pickleball with my neighbors and drive a crossover SUV.

All I’m saying is that when I finally write my memoir, the subtitle is going to be “All the things I swore I’d never do”.

When I started looking for a job in June, I sat down and wrote out a list of my “must haves” and used that list of non-negotiables to set my job search engine parameters:

  • The job must be in the suburbs with no more than 20 minutes commute time.
  • Ideally 25-29 hours per week.
  • The job could be full time if it had a flexible schedule and was 100% remote. 
  • No required travel.
  • And I didn’t want to work for a religious nonprofit anymore. 

The job market is bananas right now, so these criteria pulled pages upon pages of job openings. I have over twenty years of nonprofit experience, including seven years doing the one thing that makes nonprofit hiring managers salivate all over their laptops – writing government grants. 

I sent some resumes. I applied for some part-time and some remote full-time jobs. I had some interviews. After each encounter with a recruiter, I had to unclench my jaw just to describe the job to Les. It became clear very quickly that I really REALLY did not want to be a grant writer anymore. The deadlines and the policies and the budgets and the reporting. Gag. 

The problem was that none of the resumes I sent out for other types of nonprofit jobs got any nibbles. I didn’t want to be a grant writer anymore, but the nonprofit job world very much wanted me to be a grant writer. 

Then one day I got a LinkedIn message from a recruiter at an executive search firm asking me if I would like to talk with him about an Executive Director job. His email was very light on details, but I admit I was flattered that someone would think I could be qualified to be an Executive anything, so I agreed to talk with him. 

And that was the first step of the month-long process that led to me accepting the Executive Director position for Hopebound Ministries with Felician Services in Chicago. 

If that sounds like a full time job with a religious organization that will require an hour commute each way and cross-country travel, you would be correct. 

The Felician Sisters are a Catholic order of nuns with convents around the US. Sisters at several of these convents have established smallish-scale social service programs in their communities to meet the needs of their neighbors; things like food pantries, services to people experiencing homelessness, and after-school programs. Right now, these sisters are operating these services at a very grass-roots level. As ED, I’ll be helping the nuns assess community needs and determine how best to make their programs sustainable and more accessible. I’ll need to do a bit of traveling, a bit of coaching, and a lot of relational, community-building work. And maybe a little grant writing. 

Much to my surprise and delight, Felician Services (the social service arm of the order) only requires that its employees “affirm the dignity of all people” – the HR director assured me that I need not be Catholic – or anything else – to work with them. No doctrinal statement to sign, no particular worldview to espouse, other than affirming the dignity of people. I can do that!

This job is nothing at all what I was looking for, and would have been filtered out in any of the CareerBuilder/Indeed/NPO.Net job search parameters I had set up. I still don’t know how this recruiter found me or what it was about my LinkedIn page that made him send that message, but here we are. The job fell out of the sky, and I grabbed it. 

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on

So of course I am throbbing with anxiety and excitement and imposter syndrome. Am I thrilled to have landed an intellectually challenging job that allows me to dig into the skills and expertise I’ve fought for over the last two decades of work? Yes. Am I happy to take on a role that pulls together some of my favorite pieces of all my previous jobs, and leaves my least favorite pieces to collect dust on my CV? Also, a big Yes. 

But am I prepared to miss out on the after school debriefs where I get to take little peeks into my daughter’s inner life and social ecosystem? Am I ready to go back to being busy every single day? Am I finally going to learn to like podcasts and audiobooks for my commute? Am I really going to flop out of bed before sunrise and remain a functional human being? I don’t know.

For this job to work for our family, we need an after-school nanny who we’ll trust to shuttle our daughter from school to home and then chill with her until one of us wraps for the day. And we need a dog walker for our hound dog. And I’ll need to be up by 5:30 a.m. to get myself and then my kid ready to leave the house by 7:45 every morning. And then I’ll need to scream through my teeth into the windshield in rush hour traffic for at least an hour twice a day, three days a week. I get to have two days to work from home in a hybrid work model (a daily commute to the city would have been an actual deal breaker for me).

After almost two years of very part-time remote work and soft clothes and ease in our family routine, I’m nervous about adding that much hustle into my daily life. As I explained to my friend on the phone tonight, I’m not used to being places at “times” or doing things by “dates”.  I’m definitely rusty at the social interaction and the hair styling and the outfit choosing. And the lunch packing and logistics coordination and the managing household support professionals. 

It’s a lot. I’m still a little stunned, and totally thankful, for this new adventure. A friend who encouraged me to accept the job, even with all the stressful bits and imposter syndrome, reminded me not just to ask “What’s the worst that could happen?” but also “What’s the best that could happen?”. 

Of course both of those questions feel like they require a COVID asterisk. I haven’t even allowed my brain to start What Iffing around COVID. One day at a time. 

So here we go! Full time work for the first time in over eight years. Let’s hope it’s like riding a bike. 

The World’s On Fire And I’m Worried About Pants

My six year old daughter and I are walking our frenetic hound dog round the neighborhood. She looks at me while I pause to let the dog’s nose investigate a mound of something unseemly in the grass and says “Mom, you’re not fat or chunky.” 

“Ok, what made you decide to tell me that?” I stammer out after a pause. 

“Well, I was just thinking that your body doesn’t look fat or chunky to me. Do you think you are fat or chunky?”

“I used to think I wanted my body to be smaller, but now I like my body just the way it is. It’s healthy and it can do all the things I need it to do.”

“Do you think my body is fat or chunky?”

“BooBoo, I don’t. But let’s remember that bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Fat, thin, short, tall, medium. Most people can’t really do anything about how their body looks, or what size or shape they are. People’s bodies are not the most important or interesting parts of them, you know?”

“Yeah, like you could be beautiful but a bad person. Like Hans in Frozen”

The next day I admonished her to stop feeding the dog her meal scraps because people food isn’t good for dogs, and added that Daisy could gain too much weight and that wouldn’t be good for her. 

Daisy Doggie

“Don’t dogs come in all shapes and sizes? Is it bad for dogs to be chunky but OK for people to be chunky?”

Girl, I am trying to unravel decades of self loathing over here. Cut me some slack. 

“Well, dogs can’t tell us with words when their bodies aren’t feeling well or aren’t working like they should, so it can be dangerous for dogs to get bigger than their bodies can handle. Especially if they get bigger because they are eating human food that they should not be eating at all.”

WHEW. That was some inspired blither blather. Not inaccurate, per se. But man. This kid puts me on the spot. 

I’m still unraveling the body size = health entanglement. I wish I had more stamina and more flexibility, and I think those are reasonable goals. I feel nostalgic and sad to know I ran a marathon once a thousand years ago, and used to go on long runs in the Chicago winter FOR FUN and I used to be able to twist into some binds in yoga class. Now I get winded on a swift trot behind my daughter as she scooters through the neighborhood screaming Let it Go at the very top of her lungs and some days I can barely touch my toes without tweaking my back. 

There is a group of three ladies in our neighborhood, maybe 5 years or so older than I am, who walk at a quick clip down the middle of the road every single day, rain or shine. They pass our house around 10:30 am on the weekdays. They chat and laugh and are going much faster than I could sustain for an hour. They have lived-in middle age bodies, but I bet you $100 they are in better shape than I am. I envy their friendship and the routine and the strident arm swings of women whose hearts are getting stronger every day. 

I’m about to head back to full-time work, and I’ve been scribbling draft schedules that will cram in some exercise every day. I’ll be doing a lot more sitting and some commuting, and the old raspy-voiced fear has started whispering in my ear that I’m going to gain weight. I whisper back that I will only eat salads for lunch and get up at 5am to exercise, but immediately my stomach starts to growl and my eyes start to ache. 

The griefs and heartbreaks of the world are so much bigger than my pants size. I feel shame for even THINKING about new clothes or cute lunch containers when the world is on fire in every direction. I’m grossed out by my own privilege – to even have the spare emotional space to ponder the best way to pack veggies for lunches in the office or wonder whether I will need to buy actual “dress pants”. 

And yet here is this fresh season with its upheaval of my routine and eating habits, and our family schedules and my perceived control over how I cook and eat and move my body, packed on top of the health anxiety of the perpetual pandemic that still stalks us all. This is where I am. Caring and praying and donating and reading about Afghanistan and Haiti and Lebanon and breakthrough infections and wildfires and floods, and still investing a lot of head space in my first day outfit selection.


My LinkedIn profile photo was taken 12 years ago at my surprise engagement party. My now husband orchestrated the whole party so he could surprise me again the same night he shocked me by getting down on one knee in a snowy courtyard in Chicago. After I accepted his proposal, he told me that he had arranged for some friends to go out with us to celebrate the happy news. In fact, when I arrived at our double dates’ apartment, it was full of all our nearest and dearest and flutes of champagne.

The hostess of the party just happened to be a professional photographer, and she had her pro camera clicking away throughout the night. These candid shots of delight, surprise, and joy are some of my favorite photos of all time. 

I waited a respectable five minutes after this talented friend posted the party photos on Facebook to crop my brand new fiance out of my favorite snapshot of us and paste my beaming high-res face into the little LinkedIn circle. That little circle has represented me to the professional world ever since. 

I’m on the job hunt now for the first time in over seven years and my photo needed a refresh. Look at “engagement party” me and look at “now” me, and you can definitely tell that the old photo was about thirty pounds, a dozen years, a kid, a pandemic, and several thousand gray hairs ago. 

I texted my ride-or-die Roxanne, who is also a pro photographer (How fortunate am I that I know and love so many talented, creative people?), and booked a creative portrait session. She was delighted to work with me for this photo refresh, and we set a date for an outdoor “business casual” photo shoot during the week my daughter would be at camp all day.

That date got rained out.

Thank God. 

Of course I had waited until the night before to start trying on outfits from my former life as an office professional. And of course not one of those tops, blazers, or dress pants fit. Not one.



When Roxanne and I texted about rescheduling the shoot for the next morning, I offered up an actual prayer of thanks for the rain delay and talked Les into agreeing to sit in the car with a book after our belated anniversary lunch that day so I could shop for a new outfit immediately after indulging in my favorite tapas and red sangria. 

After leaving my beloved to his own devices in the parking garage, I walked into Ann Taylor and started loading blouses and blazers over my arm. The sales associate started a fitting room for me while I scoured the clearance section. 

Sue was an excellent sales woman. She was honest and helpful and sympathetic. “I don’t fit into any of my professional clothes anymore”, I told her with tears eeking out the corners of my eyes. “Oh honey, you and every other woman who walks into this store these days.” I’d like to tell you that I found one perfect professional-looking combo and it was on sale and that I felt totally relieved.  

Not so, my friends. I panic-bought $400 worth of new workwear (Sue assured me that I could return what I didn’t use for the shoot), tried it all on in different combinations at least a dozen times at home, and tossed and turned all night that night while my anxiety screamed into my ears that I would look ridiculous, that only realtors and bank tellers wore blazers, that the new pink top was still too tight, and that my career had probably peaked four years ago. 

I feared that once I saw the photos of myself there would be no denying that I had aged and softened dramatically. I would have to face it. And not just face it myself, but thrust my profile photo and my resume and my roller coaster work history into the hands of potential employers. And let’s be honest, it can feel cringey to think about having photos taken of just you and your own face. Not family photos. Not a couple’s session. Nobody else’s torso to hide half of yours. Just you. 

So yeah, I didn’t sleep much the night before our rescheduled shoot. 

I arrived at our rendezvous point wearing my favorite goldenrod linen dress and my denim jacket and had hangers with my all time favorite burnt orange poplin top and jeans, and a pink chemise with a black blazer at the ready. Roxanne greeted me with her ubiquitous beaming smile and a huge hug. I was still trembling with the roil of anxiety, but it started to ease when I remembered I was in good hands. 

Roxanne and I have been friends since we both had a crush on our French TA in undergrad and we have been close to one another through SOME STUFF in the last twenty three years. In addition to being the #1 person to call for driveway margaritas in a pandemic, she has also been our family photographer since she started her photography business a few years ago. She has captured everything from my daughter’s baptism to our Christmas card photos to our emergency family + elderly dog photos taken in the last days of our beloved chihuahua’s life. It seems entirely fitting that she would be the one to coach me through the chin tilt and hand placement awkwardness of a portrait session as I queasily launch myself into a new career wilderness. 

I wasn’t at all worried about the quality of the photos because I knew for a fact that she would get some great shots. The anxiety was feasting on my self consciousness and existential angst.

Roxanne had scouted some remarkably flattering brick wall backdrops – yes, flattering walls are a thing – and cheered me on through hundreds of clicks and outtakes and wind-swept hair. She had a Girl Power playlist for inspiration. She kept me laughing and moving and smiling real smiles. It was – dare I say it – SUPER FUN. I even got to experience the rare thrill of changing into a different shirt outside with no cover – “Cheers!” to anyone who happened to drive by the parking garage side of the alley where I was posing. The biggest, weirdest rush I have had in public in a while. 

Note: You do not need to risk a Public Indecency citation to have a successful portrait session. We were rushing to beat the rain that had started to sprinkle again and didn’t want to risk a new downpour in the time it would take me to duck into a restroom to swap outfits. 

Roxanne sent me the edited batch of the best shots from our shoot, and I am so happy with them. Of course, you’re not going to love 100% of the photos taken of you, but there were a lot that looked professional AND really looked like Right Now Me. Me with the gray hair and bigger clothes and cheek dimples and bright lipstick. The person who is about to run after new job opportunities and is still processing her quickening creep through middle age. She’s strong, she’s wobbly, she’s rounder and crinklier than the person glowing in the engagement photos. 

She’s a hell of a lot more experienced. And she has plenty to offer the world. 

When I look at Right Now Me, today, through those photos, I’m thankful. Imperfectly, self-consciously thankful. Have you looked at yourself recently and really taken the time to see yourself? To thank your body for getting you through this past year? To notice things like how well your legs have aged, actually, and how you can wear a whole new color palette now that your gray hair gives you an almost platinum-blonde look? 

To think back over all the creme brulees you’ve let yourself savor, and all the moments you’ve said YES to a delight you would have denied yourself in your orthorexic youth? (I’m looking at you, gluten free lemon blueberry muffins from Blackberry Market).  

You do not need to wait until you feel like a model or a rock star (or, ahem, a published author?) to get a photo session. I recommend it. You may even get to do some shopping and whip your shirt off in an alley. It’ll be fun. 

Check out Roxanne’s work at

Confronting Fat Phobia

I don’t want my daughter to inherit what I used to call “food issues”. I now know those food issues are more honestly called Fat Phobia. Despite all the thinking and reading I have done about body acceptance/neutrality over the last five years or so, I’ve only started working to eradicate my deep, visceral fear of gaining weight and getting fat. 

I used to think I could side-step the fat phobia work by refocusing my mental energy on intuitive eating, or exercise for muscle tone, or by repeating a mantra with a clenched fake smile: “This is just how my body is, and that’s A-OK.” 

The Fake It Til You Make It approach hasn’t worked. It turns out, shame and fear aren’t very effective for transformation. Looking at the problem honestly is crucial, and I’ve avoided that step for decades. I recognize now, finally, that I don’t just fear becoming fat. I fear fat people. 

My fat phobia doesn’t just impact me and now my daughter. It bleeds into the world and stains my interactions and relationships with people of all sizes. The way I silently compare myself to other women. My envy of slim people. The fear that sizzles on my skin when I see a person with a large body.

This is the ugly root of diet culture, isn’t it? We’re not talking about this. I am certainly not admitting out loud to anyone that I’m afraid of fat – my own or anyone else’s. No, no, I’m concerned for my HEALTH, you see. I want to be HEALTHY. I want to live a long, disease free life. I don’t want to get diabetes or heart disease or cancer. The health anxiety is real, too. It’s all pureed together with my fat phobia, orthorexia, classism, racism, ableism, internalized sexism. All of it. 

In the last 10 years or so, two of my friends have confronted me about my fat phobia and how it has hurt them, and impacted our relationship. 

“It feels like you think that if you just talk enough crap about your own weight, or complain enough about your body, or talk enough about your diet to me, that your fat phobia will somehow rub off on me and I’ll start dieting and lose weight. That’s not how it works. And it sucks that you would think that.” 

Another friend said; “I do think you care about me, but it’s obvious that my body repulses you, and you pity me.”

Both of these comments occurred in context, not out of the blue. Neither friend just blurted out “You are an asshole and a bad friend”, though they would have been correct if they had. Both times, I sputtered for any kind of response. I admitted that they were right and apologized, and both times they offered me more grace than I deserved. Miraculously, I am still friends with these amazing humans. I’m humbled and thankful that they would confront me with the truth and give me an opportunity to repent and repair. But even with the fresh smack of being confronted with my own ugliness, I’m still working on my fat phobia ten years later. 

This is my continual, daily work. If I don’t tackle my fat phobia, I will reinforce society’s utter disdain for fat people to my daughter. 

This morning, I read an essay by Kimberly Dark called Taking the Shame Out of Fat Shaming. She describes an incident in which a 5 year old called her fat. Her reply:

“Hey, Taylor, did you just call me fat?” And he turned to me, with a little bit of fear on his face because, whoa, this isn’t how it’s supposed to go. I was also speaking at full volume, for the other diners to hear. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being called fat, because it’s not bad to be fat. But you know what? Some people think that’s an insult word, so maybe you shouldn’t go calling someone fat. Better wait until you hear people call themselves fat. Then you know they’re OK with it, and then you can use that word too. Otherwise, you might hurt someone’s feelings. You’re not hurting my feelings, though. Fat is just one of the ways bodies can be. So what?”

It’s not bad to be fat. Fat is just one way bodies can be. So what?

I used to think that if I could just get out ahead of the judgement I was sure others were silently rendering against me and call myself fat, or to talk endlessly of dieting or my great intentions for weight loss, I could prevent other people from judging my body or the food on my plate. Beat them at their own game. “You don’t need to worry that I don’t know I’m fat. I know! I’m working on it! Of course, I hate being this way and will eat the requisite kale and run the prescribed miles to make amends.” I wasn’t taking the shame out of fat-shaming. I was fat-shaming myself.

Radical self-love that spills out into the world and extends to all people in all bodies is the goal. (I haven’t yet read The Body is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor, but it’s next on my list. Check out this excerpt from her book.) Radical self-love sounds amazing! Freedom and compassion! Yay! It is true for me, and maybe for you, that the judgement and fear we knit up into our own body image are thrown back into the world as judgement and fear of other people’s bodies. 

Photo by Monstera on

This is the whole sticky bit of “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” If you don’t have a lot of love for yourself, do you have any love for your neighbor? We are showing our neighbors exactly as much love as we love ourselves, which is to say, not much. We don’t have enough compassion for our bodies to have compassion for anyone else’s. And hey, devoting loads of time and energy to worrying about how I look and what I eat or weigh is sucking up time and energy I could be devoting to literally anything else. 

Of course, I cannot find the quote now, but there’s a famous soundbite floating around out there that reminds us that diets are a tool of the patriarchy. “If we can just keep women obsessed with becoming smaller, they won’t have any time or energy left to overthrow the patriarchy!” There are dozens of essays on diet culture and capitalism, diet culture and the patriarchy, diet culture and racism. These aren’t new ideas, but they have taken some time to reorder my understanding of the world. For most of my life, the equation has been fat = bad, small = good. Even as I type that, I realize it is bullshit.   

And yet. 

I read it, I try to internalize it, and then the thorny vines of fear wrap around my ankles and drag me back down into a pit where I poke my love handles and twitch nervously as I stare down the date of my next routine colonoscopy (every three years for we, the high-risk group for colon cancer). And I think of my friends who have had really big improvements to their quality of life (not needing insulin for Type 2 Diabetes, big reduction in knee and back pain, greater mobility, lower blood pressure) from losing weight. I don’t have any of those conditions, but am constantly bombarded with the urgency to “maintain a healthy weight” to cure or prevent everything from snoring to dementia. 

So here I am, jackhammering away at my fat phobia in a world obsessed with size. A world where people make billions of dollars convincing us that the key to happiness and health is a small body. These days, I feel less fear and more conflict. I can confidently flip my middle finger to the Large Bodies are Bad and Harmful messaging (while trying to give grace to the messengers), but still break out into hives every time I fail to zip a favorite dress. 

If you are looking for answers or some secret sauce, I’m afraid I have neither. Thanks for processing this along with me. We can hold each other up with radical self-and-other love as the goal.


When I’m lying flat, stretched out like a starfish on our king sized bed at night and trying to fall asleep in the cool dim of my bedroom, I imagine I can hear my ovaries crusting over, disintegrating, and blowing in a puff of breeze into the night sky. 

I beg my body for just a little more time. One more month. Maybe three. I’ll do the fertility yoga. I’ll drink the fertili-tea. I’ll get the acupuncture. I’ll take the acrid herbal “uterine health” capsules and pour the rest of my cold brew down the drain. 

At 43, I know that the pregnancy ship has almost certainly sailed. Part of me thinks I could swim out and catch it if I just tried a little harder. I could do the special diet and the supplements of dubious origin. I could lay face down on a table every week and get embroidered with acupuncture needles. I could get up every morning while my family sleeps and do the Yoga for Fertility DVDs. I could take my temperature before rolling out of bed each day and skim my cervix for “egg white consistency” mucus a few times each month. I could probably even get my husband on board with cringy, unsexy, hyper-scheduled sex. I did all of those things and more to conjure forth my daughter. I could do it again.

Photo by Alexander Grigorian on

I don’t really need to entertain this To Do list. The helpfully depressing charts and graphs on every fertility related website all tell me that at 43, I have a 10% chance of conceiving with my own eggs in any given month, and a 50% chance of miscarriage even if I do manage to find one good egg to meet up with one stalwart sperm. IVF at 43 offers similarly low odds of success. My chances are very, very slim. But my grandmother gave birth to her sixth baby when she was 44, so, for the record, geriatric pregnancy is not unprecedented in my family.

I have baby fever, so menopause must be just around the corner. My uterus is clawing at me from the inside in its last sputtering gasps for life, desperate for some assurance of her relevance and evergreen utility. She and I have our toes at the very edge of that fertility cliff, and we both know we’re about to be pushed off. My hormones conspire to wring one more baby out of me in panicky desperation. After years of pregnancy ambivalence, my abdomen cranks into a tight knot as I shove my cart through Target and see the moms with their buzzy broods. A ruffly lemon print onesie inflicts a stab of actual pain in my eyeballs. Every pregnant belly and every mom and baby stroller combo in the neighborhood feels like a personal insult.  

I’ve been almost perfectly content with one child for all six years of her life. The thought of another pregnancy or another screamy, sleepless new baby were not appealing to me at all, even if the idea of a sibling for my one kickass daughter has been pretty tempting. She is a brilliant bright light, and I’d love to give her a partner in crime, and someone to talk smack about her messed up parents with when she’s an adult.  

But another baby? I was pregnant three years ago and miscarried in the first trimester. We weren’t really trying – in that, I was not doing my To Do list of fertility-boosting semi-science or scheduling sex. Somehow, I got pregnant anyway! At 40! And was excited and terrified for about three weeks. When I realized I was miscarrying, I was 70% heartbroken and 30% relieved. I wasn’t most afraid of birth complications or genetic abnormalities or even the increased chance of multiples (I was definitely worried about those things, but vaguely). No, I was saliently terrified that I would gain weight with this second baby and I wouldn’t be able to lose it. When I imagined my post-40 postpartum, I saw the specter of a person who was bigger than I could emotionally or psychologically handle. 

When I lost that pregnancy and I admitted to myself that my fear of weight gain was bigger than my fear of much more dire health risks of “advanced maternal age”; that was my fat-phobic Come To Jesus moment. 

Mentally wrestling with the miscarriage and my warped view of my body and my deep, deep fear of weight gain was the catalyst for my first efforts towards body acceptance. It has not been fast or easy or linear work. I haven’t “arrived”. 

Bet here I am, three years later, ovaries crusting over, exerting real daily effort to appreciate the body that I have no matter what size my stretchy jeans. Today I feel ready to confront that fear of weight gain and just do the whole damn Get Pregnant thing, but it’s too late. If ever you need a cautionary tale for how internalized fat phobia can screw up your actual life, let me be your case study. This body has carried me through a lot, and I’m grateful. The body I have today – my real one, not an imaginary diet-culture-infused smaller one – is pretty great. I wish I had realized that much earlier. 

The Best Laid Birth Plans

My daughter’s birthday is coming up, so I decided to dust off this piece I wrote about her dramatic entry into the world. It’s edited for length and ancient type-os. 

Happy birthday, kiddo of mine. I sure do love being your mom. 


Somewhere around the end of my first trimester, I started looking into natural birth classes. I had talked to a lot of friends who had had unmedicated, low or no-intervention births. I had seen “The Business of Being Born“. I had read about Ina May Gaskin. Heck, I had even attended a friend’s home birth. I believe that women’s bodies know how to have a baby, and in many cases, they can do so with very little medical intervention. I liked the idea of a home birth in theory, but my general anxiety prevented me from exploring that path too enthusiastically. 

I chose a midwifery practice with an OB who would attend to any birth that got medically complex. We hired a doula. I researched hospitals with good reputations for supporting natural labor and have low c-section rates, and options like water birth. I wanted to labor at home as long as possible and then go to the hospital when active labor really got going. In order to do that, I knew we needed to educate ourselves about laboring at home and get serious about prep work.

Les and I attended a Bradley Method childbirth class together and loved it. We both felt informed, empowered, supported, and eager to meet our baby. Throughout the 10 week course, we were coached with strategies to keep the pregnancy and delivery low-risk: proper nutrition, exercise, stretching, relaxation and massage practices, and safe ways to get labor going if I went past my due date.

On the very first day of our Bradly class, our instructor handed out sheets of paper and boxes of crayons and invited us to draw our Ideal Labor and Delivery.

Here’s what Les drew for us:

Home as Long as Possible (distressed chihuahua)
Baby doesn’t arrive in transit
Three Pushes and OUT!!! (Medical team behind us that didn’t need to do anything)

We were also encouraged to write a Birth Plan. A Birth Plan is the politely-worded document you hand to your Labor and Delivery nurses when you check in, along with a box of chocolates and a sweet smile. Your Birth Plan outlines your earnest requests for unmedicated labor. Since the vast majority of women expect and want to use pain medication immediately or almost immediately upon getting to the hospital, the Birth Plan is intended to get everyone on the same page about your preferences and your wish to avoid medications and unnecessary restrictions on your labor strategies. 

I want to go on the record that I don’t judge women who want or use pain meds. There is no “right way” to have a baby. I do think that you should have options, and pursue the path that gives YOU the most confidence, peace, and security as you gear up to meet your new family member. For me, that path was to try for a natural, unmedicated labor.

Our Birth Plan was two typed pages, with separate sections for Labor, Delivery, Emergency Care, and Baby Care. It included requests like:

  • Our wishes for a natural birth are respected and drugs will not be offered unless an emergency arises.
  • Jill will be free to walk, change positions, and use the bathroom as needed, including laboring in the shower/tub and use of a birthing ball if available.
  • Jill prefers not to have an IV; she will be allowed to eat and drink during labor, as desired, to maintain energy and hydration.
  • Medical induction will be avoided, including stripping of membranes, amniotomy, Cervadil, and Pitocin.
  • Labor will be allowed to progress at a natural pace.

The Plan went on in that fashion for the full 2 pages. I had given it to our midwife, and she had sent it on to the hospital. I also had a hard-copy in my hospital bag, right next to the bag of fancy chocolate bars to hand out as a thank you to the nurses who would have to put up with my screaming, tub-laboring, eating and drinking and walking to the bathroom-self for who knows how many hours. We were as “prepared” as we were going to be. Now we just had to wait for labor to get going.

About that Plan

I have to say, after the first trimester of non-stop nausea, my pregnancy was not anywhere near as gruesome as I expected. I felt pretty good most of the time. I continued working part time, and even worked on my due date. I never had any Braxton-Hicks or real contractions. My midwife practice recommended you come in for a check up on your due date if you haven’t had any signs of labor yet, so I showed up on my due date hoping they could tell me what was going on in there. They hooked me up for a non-stress test, and I laid back in the Lay-Z-Boy with a stack of magazines and a big bottle of water and chilled out for about 30 minutes with Baby Girl kicking away.

The midwife came in to read the test results, and got a bit of a furrow in her brow. “Baby’s heart rate is not quite what we’d like to see at this stage. It could be we just tested at just the wrong time, so if you have time, you could stay for another test or come back later today to re-test. The heart rate is still technically within the “normal” range, but it is pretty different from the other 4 non-stress tests you’ve had already. You may just want to go to the hospital for an ultrasound, just to be safe.”

*** Somewhere in the distance, I should have heard the bzzzzzzcrunchchompzzzzchompcrunchzzz of our Birth Plan in the paper shredder***

I called the hospital from the parking lot, and they could not get me in until the next day. Ok. Cool. I’m sure everything is fine. The midwife would have told me if I needed to go to the hospital immediately, right?

I went to work the next day, and then drove calmly to the hospital, checked in calmly, and rested in the dark room with the ultrasound tech as she chatted about babies and baby girls. She, of course, said nothing about what she was seeing on the screen. I had to wait for a doctor for that. 

The doctor, who was the on-call OB at the hospital that day, came bounding in a few minutes later with a strained smile on her face. This was her opening line: “Are you ready to meet your baby?!?! We’re going to induce you today!”

I thought she was in the wrong room. 

“I’m sorry, what’s going on?”

“We’re going to induce you today!”

“But what is going on?”

“You have zero fluid left in your amniotic sac. Like, none. Did your water break?”

“I’m pretty sure I would have noticed that.”

“Have you been leaking fluid?”

“I’m pretty sure I would have noticed that, too.”

“Well, in any case, your baby is in distress. You are going to be induced. I have a call in to your OB and I’m just waiting to hear back from him. Call your husband, and ask him to get your stuff together. We’re going to admit you. The nurse will take you down to Labor and Delivery.”

She walked out, and I sat there, stunned and crying alone and still not sure what was going on, or just how much distress my baby was in. I was clearly in a whole lot of distress, but the OB was in and out of the room in under five minutes. 

I called Les. I told him to take his time and do what he needed to do and have dinner and everything, because I was just going to be sitting somewhere waiting for some new plan to unfold. I texted our doula, and told her that the nurses said that “nothing would really get going until the morning”. She thanked me for the heads up, and told me to keep her posted. This is when I found out that the OB who is part of my midwife practice was out of town. They would assign someone on-call. I prayed it was not the bizarre, coldly chipper woman I had just met. (It was not, thank God).

Let’s fast-forward a bit, shall we?

They started the induction at 6:30pm, and started the actual Pitocin around 9:30 that night, so I could “sleep through the early contractions”. If you’ve ever had Pitocin, you are cackling at that suggestion. 

Les slept uncomfortably in the fold out chair next to the bed. I writhed around and prayed most of the night. By morning I was really starting to feel the contractions, but I couldn’t enact our pain coping plan because I was hooked up to a bunch of monitors to keep track of Baby Girl’s heart and my blood pressure, plus the Pitocin drip and an IV of antibiotics that I needed because I had spiked a fever. I was essentially bed-bound, though they did help me get everything on a portable pole so I could walk the halls a bit while the contractions were still walk-throughable. 

Here’s the part where I call my doula to let her know it was time to rock and roll, and find out that she AND her back-up doula are BOTH AT OTHER BIRTHS. Yep. Two other clients went into labor in the 12 hours since I texted her. This is the part where I started to weep.

Les gets the brilliant idea to call our Bradley teacher for help. There were 2 doulas-in-training in our class, one who had just finished up her certification a couple of weeks ago. We knew her. We liked her. We said a prayer that somehow, miraculously, she would have instant access to child care for her own two small children, and would be overjoyed to come to the hospital for God Knows How Long with zero notice. Guess what? She was, and she did. I cried with gratitude. 

And for the next 4 hours or so, I pretty much just cried, screamed, mooed, and begged for help as the Pitocin ramped up and tore through me like lightning. I couldn’t move from the bed where I was tethered to all the machines and monitors. The midwife checked me, and I was only 3 cm dilated. Three centimeters after almost 18 hours of Pitocin. I screamed the kind of scream you scream when you have already exhausted your energy reserves and you have made no progress. The midwife gently suggested that perhaps it was time for an epidural. I hugged her and shrieked YES!!! PLEASE! GIVE ME AN EPIDURAL! She knew, and I knew, that someone had to give me permission to surrender to the fact that My Plan was toast. 

Sweet Relief. I felt nothing from the navel down. They could amp up the Pitocin as much as they wanted, I couldn’t feel a blessed thing. Even Les rubbing my legs felt like a strange, not-quite-sensation. Glorious. Les and I said a prayer of thanks for pain medication. I labored for what felt like a thousand more hours, but it was probably more like 8. 

Here’s what you need to know about those hours of labor. Baby Girl’s heartbeat was ALL OVER THE PLACE. They did not want me to progress too quickly, for fear that that would stress Baby Girl out even more. My bag of waters eventually broke, but, as expected, there was no fluid in it, only meconium. Another sign of Baby Distress. 

The Neonatologist came in to kindly and gently break the news that I could not have immediate skin-to-skin with her, could not nurse her right away, could not let the cord pulse, Les couldn’t cut the cord… the NICU team would take her as soon as she was born, and I would not get to hold her until she was stable. Les could go with her to the NICU if he wanted. Tear the entire “Immediately After Birth” section out of my Birth Plan and set it on fire.  

After what seemed like days, I was finally 10cm and ready to push. How do you push out a baby when you cannot feel your lower half? My midwife used verbal and visual cues to help me focus my energy to the right place. The OB who was assigned to us turned out to be incredible. Totally and completely sent by God. I liked him even better than my regular OB, and he and my midwife were a great team. It was a good thing, too, because after an hour and a half of pushing, they decided that Baby Girl needed to come out RIGHT NOW. 

The OB explained their concern for her heart rate, and how long she was in the birth canal, and suggested a vacuum. Bring it, I said, I want her OUT. Give me all the interventions. The NICU team was standing by in the room with their special baby bed and equipment, Les was holding one of my awkwardly splayed legs, my doula had the other, the OB, Midwife, and at least 3 nurses were down near the Business End. They attached the vacuum to her head and informed me I had 3 contractions to PUSH THIS BABY OUT, or I would need a c-section. 

I had roughly 15 people cheering me on as I pushed. Have you ever been naked in a room with 15 cheering people? Naked with your legs hoisted up to your armpits? That’s delivery. It was a nail biter. The OB told me to push like I was turning myself inside out. On the third push of the third contraction, with a room full of people shouting “YOU CAN DO IT! ONE MORE PUSH!”, I felt her head come out. “ONE MORE PUSH!” yells the doctor. And out came the rest of her. I opened my clenched eyes just in time to see my beautiful, bloody baby stare at me with her huge eyes and start screaming. I collapsed as they whisked her away to the NICU team.

They were able to get her stable right there in the room, and, thank God in Heaven, and let me hold her for a few minutes before they took her to the NICU and got her started on her monitors and IV antibiotics. At the end of 27 hours of anxiety, determination, surrender, and plans being shot to hell, I was overwhelmed with thankfulness for modern medicine, pain medication, interventions, and highly-trained professionals who are compassionate, skilled, and empathic (let’s just forget about that first horrendous on-call OB). We survived. Les was a rock-star. My back-up back-up doula saved my sanity. And our feisty, skinny, wide-eyed little girl was worth every single second. 

Note her Cone-Head from the vacuum.

Food Talk

My husband and I meal plan in hushed voices in the kitchen while our daughter watches Rescue Riders on her tablet. We’ve just recommitted ourselves to ratchet down our takeout habit and try to cook more actual meals at home, after a year of thrice weekly to-go splurges and a tight rotation of homemade nachos, frozen pizza, and packaged snack buffets for dinner. We’ve both had our annual physicals in the last couple of months, and were both rather shell shocked at the scale and our blood pressure stats. 

“We’ve got to get back on track. We have to set a better example. We are setting her up for failure if she starts to believe that this is the way to eat.”

“We want to be healthy and active and ready for fun with our kiddo for a long long time. We both want to get a handle on our blood pressures.”

“I do not want to buy even bigger pants.”

We whisper these nudges to each other and giggle, and I’m thankful that at least we have some solidarity as we endeavor to shore up our Pandemic snack food diet with some nutrients.

But we don’t want our daughter to overhear our food and diet talk. Even if we’re talking about adding in a lot of vegetables and shaking our dependence on processed food. Even if we’re not talking about calories or “junk food” or restriction. We don’t want her to hear us even talk in code about losing weight, or see either of us rub our bellies unconsciously when we draft up a grocery list. 

Food Talk is very fraught in our house. As with many parenting decisions, our choice to keep meal planning and weight gain conversations out of our daughter’s earshot are a direct reaction to the ways in which the food culture of our families set us up for lifelong struggles.

I grew up in a household where food rules were rigid in some ways and lax in other ways and meal times were often a battle. My mom was always on a diet. My dad made endless commentary on her food choices and how often any of us had dessert. We were a strict Clean Your Plate family, and the kids got little say in what went onto that plate. There were many nights that I sat crying at the table for hours, unwilling to swallow the requisite bites of canned peaches or creamed spinach. Those forced bites did not make me appreciate food, or learn to like things I despised. They just made me angry and resentful of my dad and full of anxiety every time I sat down to eat. I rejoiced every time I got to eat and my dad wasn’t watching. 

My family was rife with diet talk and confusing demands to eat everything served on my plate and also not to eat too much, lest I need a diet. My husband’s family was very different from mine, but had its own food angst. My husband’s mother grew up with extreme food insecurity, and that had reverberations into her own parenting, cooking, and eating expectations. We’re trying hard not to be like our parents in the food arena. It is much easier said than done. 

I have generally tried to shift the food conversation at home away from “junk” food or even healthy food vs. unhealthy food, but to notice and talk about how food makes us feel, and to talk about how much I enjoy eating a wide variety of foods and trying new recipes. It can be hard for a kid to make these connections, because the sugar rush is immediate but the hollow hunger of not eating filling foods happens hours later. It feels good and comforting to eat buttered noodles for dinner five out of seven nights a week. It’s hard for me to deny her the comfort and ease of eating things she loves, even if the list of entrees she loves includes only five items.  

Despite my adult frustration or even embarrassment that my kid is not an adventurous eater, she’s growing and has plenty of energy. How many adults tend to eat the same handful of “go-to” foods or recipes on repeat? I sure do. I spent at least three years in my 20s eating nothing but a rotation of six different Lean Cuisines for lunch at work. Nothing terrible happened. Kids feel, for the most part, just fine eating a steady diet of berries and carbs. 

Photo by Klaus Nielsen on

Author and journalist Virginia Sole-Smith writes about the Division of Responsibility in her book The Eating Instinct (highly recommend). Reading this strategy felt like a radical, risky, thrilling new world. The idea is that you, the adult, determine when, where, and what foods are served for snacks and meals, and the kid decides if she eats what you are offering and how much. 

If you’re thinking “my kid would just never eat anything I serve and would starve to death”, the caveat is that there is at least one thing you know your kiddo will eat at each eating opportunity. Kids determine what they put on their plates, and how much. No bribes, no coaxing. Sole-Smith encourages parents to be consistent, and once the pressure to try new foods is removed, and kids trust that they really can choose and eat as much or as little as they want from the choices you offer, the power struggle over food exploration is removed, and kids are more likely to try and enjoy new dishes.  

We have tried this a couple of times. It’s a bit of a hassle. It is easier to just heat up something on the list of her preferred entrees and make separate adult food. It’s easier to plop her plate of mom-chosen food in front of her. But every time I have tried the family-style buffet of options, my kiddo has surprised me by what she has chosen and how much she happily ate. Not always the “well balanced meal” I would like to see, but different from what I expected. 

Case study: veggie burgers. On a typical night in our house, I would prepare the veggie burgers for Les and me, and make some scrambled eggs and cut raw veggies and some crackers or tortilla chips onto a plate for my daughter. But one night, I put the buns in a basket, the pickles and condiments on the table, a plate of raw veggies, the burgers, and a bowl of mixed salad. She ate a bun, a pile of pickle slices, lots of raw veggies, and even tasted a leaf of red lettuce “just to see what the purple leaf tasted like”. She spit it out, but she tried it. And she ate her fill, and it wasn’t just a bowl of noodles and a yogurt cup. 

Leaning in to trust my kid is hard, because I don’t yet fully trust myself around food. We joke like this, don’t we? “I can’t let any cookies into my house or I will eat them all in one sitting”. Or we worry that if we don’t make dessert contingent upon eating an acceptable amount and array of food, our kids will just eat one green bean and a bagel and then expect a brownie. There are nights our kiddo eats only a few bites of food, even food she really likes, because she “needs to save room for dessert”. 

Here’s a radical idea that we are also testing at my house, at the suggestion of the same Virginia Sole-Smith’s Instagram conversations: Serve dessert alongside the dinner options, rather than at the end as an incentive. We tried it, and choked back comments when she ate the cookie first, but guess what? She went on to finish everything else she had decided to eat for dinner. No saving room. No bribery. Honestly, it made my husband and I both feel all kinds of ways. But why? If we agree that dessert is an option at dinnertime, and the goal is that she eats some typical dinner food, does it matter if she eats the dessert with her dinner rather than after? Especially if it frees her up to focus on the actual meal, rather than avoiding any whiff of fullness while eating the veggie dog and broccoli in front of her?

Is it easier for me to experiment with our family food culture because my kiddo is average size? Probably. Is it a huge pile of privilege to have so much flexibility in what we eat and serve and whether we all eat exactly the same thing? Absolutely. Do I still cringe with embarrassment and make excuses whenever we eat with others (I mean, hypothetically. We haven’t eaten with anyone in over a year) and my kid only eats a roll and a strawberry? Yes. 

On a good day, I can take a big step back and remind myself that I was a ridiculously “picky” kid, and now I happily eat all kinds of things I never would have touched when I was six. And on really great days, I remember that my kid is her own person with her own preferences, and I can toss her a multivitamin and not take it personally that she doesn’t like to eat many of the same things I like. A lot of you probably wouldn’t like most of the staples of my gluten free, mostly vegetarian, tofu-heavy diet. I don’t take that personally. We can still be friends.

Between 2 – 15% Risk

I schedule my annual mammogram and annual physical for the week of my birthday so I won’t forget to present myself to the medical establishment every year for inspection. I went for my first mammogram right after my 40th birthday, so today was my third time at the outpatient imaging center for a breast exam. I am all for every kind of screening, image, blood test – anything a doctor will give me to keep an eye on this cunning body of mine. I have this nagging suspicion that there is always a secret coup simmering below my epidermis. Whispers and encrypted messages are being sent along my neurons, my cells just waiting for me to start watching Bridgerton again so they can take advantage of my distraction and initiate a violent overthrow.

I sat in a chair in front of a drafty tinted window, wrapped in my watermelon pink medical gown, arms snaked around my torso to keep from freezing. I answered all the pre-mammo questions: Family history of breast cancer? No. Could I be pregnant? No. How old was I wen I had my first period? 12. How many full term pregnancies? One. A couple of questions about my ethnic heritage and my cycle and my nipples, and the mammography technician swivels on her stool to look at me and asks “Do you want me to click this button to calculate your current and future risk for breast cancer, based on your responses?”


Do I want to know? They’ve never asked me this before. I was totally unprepared for this Magic 8 Ball moment.

“Yes” I blurt out.

“Ok, the computer says you have a 2.14% chance of having breast cancer right now, and a 15% chance of developing breast cancer in your life time.”

“I’ll take it.”

“You’re considered low risk.”


The mammogram process itself was uneventful and cold and squashy, as always. A few hours later I had a new message in MyChart to let me know that the radiologist had read my images and my breasts looked healthy and to come back next year. Terrific! It won’t be the breasts to lead the mutiny this year!

Next up, I’m due for a colonoscopy in 2021. Since my mom’s colon cancer was so aggressive, I’m on an Every Three Years schedule. I’ll ask my primary care doctor at my physical next week if I should go ahead and schedule it, or wait until the post-COVID pax romana we are all eagerly anticipating. Colonoscopies themselves are not bad – you’re out cold for the whole thing. It’s the prep and the immediate aftermath that can be unseemly. But I would sign up for a colonoscopy as often as they’ll give them to me if it means catching a polyp before it breaches my large intestine.

Get your mammogram. Ask if you can just mix Miralax into your favorite sports drink rather than using the nasty standard colonoscopy prep mix. And remember to love your body enough to check in on it regularly. Check in on your body like you would check on your kid who has been playing quietly in her room alone for a while. She’s almost certainly building an elaborate chateau out of Lego bricks and toilet paper rolls, but she may have just started painting your puppy and the walls with nail polish. Just go check.