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Lessons in Empathy

Birth Day

I went for a run today.*

I began slowly in the sunny, softly breezy Seattle weather of early fall, realizing I was alone for the first time in weeks. I felt relief and shame – relief because I was alone, shame because I was being selfish. I had been looking forward to this moment all week while my husband was at work, had even dreamt about it: 30 pure minutes on Saturday morning when I could step outside and know that there was someone in the house to make sure our newborn daughter stayed alive. As I plugged in my headphones and began the steep ascent up the hill, for the first time in eight weeks I felt normal. Nostalgia for my self before I was a mother. But now I am a mother. And it is unexpectedly uncomfortable territory.

I have never before questioned who I am as much as I have since 4:52 pm on August 7th. I was unprepared for the emotional and physiological toll the initial months of motherhood would bring. I had read about the “Baby Blues,” a moderate but temporary depression that descends on new mothers in the first few weeks of their babies’ lives – I just didn’t think I would need to deal with them. I have never questioned whether I’d be a good mom, but I am ashamed of the degree to which I have been depressed since her birth, and how often I resent my daughter.

It came on quickly when my husband went back to work and there was no other language-speaking person in the house: aching loneliness, boredom, and general feelings of laziness and worthlessness. According to every blog post, website, or book on the subject, I should have felt powerful and goddess-like in my ability to nurture a tiny helpless person and give her nutrients from my own body that would keep her healthy. But all I could think about was what I wasn’t doing: writing thank-you notes already two months late, washing and organizing the avalanche of new baby clothes we’d received since our daughter’s birth, updating my portfolio in preparation for an impending job search, and working off the 15 pounds I retained from my pregnancy. That checklist was a relic of who I had been just a few weeks prior – a 30-something architect, backpacker, writer, Type-A organizer, and size Medium. But now I was a mom, unable to do anything but soothe, swaddle, feed, and wear stretch pants. I felt trapped and lonely.

Six weeks later, we’ve left the cozy newborn sleepy stage behind and entered a period of infant insomnia and clinginess, sleep only happening in one of her parents’ arms hours after the process of bedtime begins. But along with this phase change comes little surprises: my daughter began giving us big smiles and cooing melodies at the sight of our faces, a monumental milestone in her world. Some days it is enough to reset my soul; others, it fills me only until her next round of whimpering begins. The tears that came so easily that first week home alone now come again, this time in deep bursts brought on by another failed attempt to lay her in her crib without waking her up, or frantic rooting after a marathon feeding session.

There are some moments of bliss: holding her quietly on the couch while I watch cooking shows, her sweet little body curled up on my chest, hand under cheek, so perfectly content to hear my heartbeat and dream. But the next day those same moments feel as if I will be permanently molded to the couch, my brain drained of intelligence from so much daytime television.

A few weeks before our daughter was born, my husband and I began reading Brain Rules for Babies, written by developmental molecular biologist and UW professor John Medina. One chapter in particular resonated with me, as it focused not on her brain, but on my husband’s and mine. The ultimate defense against spousal conflict in the first tiring months of a child’s life is her parents’ ability to empathize not with her, but with each other. Empathy, therefore, is the greatest asset to a happy household – something I felt we both had in abundance.

But now, two months in, I’m disheartened to realize the depth of my empathy pool is not so deep at all. Because an incredible amount of compassion is required to take care of a newborn without melting into a formless puddle, something I’ve done multiple times in the past three weeks. Showing compassion to your spouse is easy when he has the ability to give gratitude and love in return. But I have found myself unable to genuinely empathize with my little girl when she cries incessantly for food not 30 minutes after she just finished, as I race to make a one-handed meal for my grumbling stomach. To feel her frustration when she’s so tired she can’t fall asleep rather than focusing only on my own exhaustion. Instead, I get irritated. I grow tense, which she can undoubtedly feel. I become self-pitying and anxious thinking about the checklist of things I can’t seem to get done. And then I feel a strong loathing for myself that I fear I will never rid of.

I am horrified to discover that I am not am empathetic person – worse, I am a hypocrite, as empathy is one of the virtues I treasure and admire most in others. I pray that if I teach my child no other quality, it is empathy for others, but how can I give her something I myself do not practice in the way that I’d hoped?

Most posts like these are supposed to end on an uplifting note, but my heart is not there yet. Today, her 8-week birthday, is better – I feel lighter with the sun outside, walking shoes on my feet and a sleeping baby in the stroller. But I’m not happy with myself as a parent. I hope it gets better – I’ve been told that it will – but that moment feels far away and unattainable at 2:00 am. The parent I wanted to be – calm, focused, and kind – is not the one I turned out to be. And that is terrifying.

*And by today I mean on Saturday, as it has taken me five days to finish this post without a sleeping baby in my arms.


The Gluttony of Heavy Books

JANUARY 31, 2013


What I Bought




CJM: 0

Dancin’ on a Rusty Wire

Photo by Anna Joy Photography

Photo by Anna Joy Photography

This winter I reached a bittersweet milestone.

In September I attended my 10-year high school reunion.  In October I was handed my 5-year service award by a CEO who didn’t know my name.  Last week my baby brother turned 16.  How old was he when I celebrated my 16th birthday, when I got my license and drove him for the first time into town?  Three.  THREE FOLKS.  Still in a carseat.  And now he is in the driver’s seat (literally – shout-out to Drew for getting is license this morning).

But thanks to a serendipitous song choice by 100.7 The Wolf’s DJ one afternoon, this particular milestone crept up on me.   The familiar vibrating twangs of a guitar galloped furiously from the speakers, and the next 2 minutes and 35 seconds went something like this:

He’s not talkin’ and she’s not speakin’ SWING
And they’re not budgin’ and that’s just that SWING
He’s just fumin’ and she’s just steamin’ SPIN
And they’re not listening to the fact SWING
That hearts are cryin’ and love is dyin’ SPIN SPIN SPIN
And neither wants to understand REVERSE SPIN, LOSE DIZZINESS
Cause he’s not talkin’ and she’s not speakin’ SWING
And they’re not budgin’ YOU READY TO DO THIS?

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All We Know is, She’s called McStig.

I knew I had a problem when I found myself discussing the merits of a Bugatti Veyron with fellow passenger on a flight from Philadelphia to Seattle.

Don’t know what a Bugatti Veyron is?  Neither did I just a few months ago.   And then Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May entered my life.

We don’t have cable television – Comcast demanded half of our salary and our first male child in exchange for three channels we want and fifty we don’t care about, so we decided to grit our teeth and mourn the loss of ESPN and TLC.   Instead, we stream content through Netflix and Hulu; even though we don’t get to watch college football games live or witness Clinton and Stacy makeover another frumpy soccer mom, each month we only sacrifice the cost of approximately three fancy cocktails.

After making it through the circuit of shows on Netflix that we know and love, we decided to expand our TV palate and watch an episode of the British television show Top Gear.  Top Gear is a car-enthusiast program featuring the three aforementioned witty but knowledgable hosts.  I don’t particularly like watching, reading, or talking about cars, but I do enjoy the occasional Italian car show or vintage roadster parade.  But Top Gear held my attention for some reason.   The show is visually stunning – the cinematography is surprisingly elegant and sharp.  The hosts are talented; you can’t not appreciate the fact that they discuss the finer points of the car’s suspension while also drifting around corners.   The British version of the show has something critical to its appeal that the American version lacks – totally inappropriate British humor (most of the jokes they make would never make it past American FCC censors).  And I have an unexplainable crush on Richard Hammond – the 5′-6″ doe-eyed host is only one of the three with straight, white teeth.

Therefore, given these newly-discovered interests of mine (cars and short British television hosts), I would like to share my Top 5 List of Top Gear cars.  A warning for you true petrol-heads: you may disagree with my list.

Bugatti Veyron

Driver or Passenger? Passenger

Why: Besides being the fastest road car on the planet (top speed: 268 mph), the all-black Veyron is also pretty darn sexy.    Enough said.

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The Tie Bar Behind the Man

My husband knows how to wear a suit.  And oh, how I love him in one.

There’s just something about a man in a suit.  I swoon over Daniel Craig’s modern James Bond, Ryan Gosling on the January cover of GQ, and Don Draper in any episode of Mad Men.  This last show has spawned an obsession with 60’s fashion – the fall window displays at Banana Republic are overrun with skinny ties and pencil skirts.  While the black cigarette pant is the only women’s trend I’ve enjoyed, my husband has embraced the men’s clothing details from the show – the pocket square, the vest, and the tie bar.

And oh, how I love the tie bar.  The purpose of this little item is to secure the tie to the shirt front underneath in order to A) keep the tie straight, B) prevent the tie from slipping into a Chipotle burrito, and C) add intrigue.  Nothing is more attractive than a tailored cotton suit with a modern tie bar.  Add a vest to the mix – jacket or no jacket – and I’m smitten.  I love the itty-bitty tie bar to the right from; at only 1″ wide, it looks fantastic with super-skinny ties.

Before going further, I must insist that we call it the tie bar – while it is also sometimes called a tie clip, tie pin, tie clasp, or tie slide, these lesser names belie the strength of the object and the man who wears it.  A bar is solid, simple, and unaffected; clips, pins, clasps and slides are delicate and yielding.   Said aloud these words are trite – clip!  pin!  clasp!  (nothing in men’s fashion should be pronounced with an inflection at the end).  The first object, however, wants to be said in a rich baritone – baaaar.

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We Are Jump Picture Addicts

There have been many bizarre photographic trends this summer: planking, owling, leisure diving.   As a self-described old soul, I prefer the good old-fashioned method of jumping.  Unlike the popular poses used over the past few months, jump photos are simple and straight-forward.  There is none of the curiosity of planking, or the optical illusion of leisure diving (although the latter could be considered a type of jumping).  Jump photos are completely obvious, and depending on the skill involved, the result can be  fascinating, or rather boring.

There are three players involved in creating a quality jump photo: the photographer, the jumper, and the composition. Five years of post-college ingenuity and social gatherings have led myself and others near to my heart to become jump picture experts, special agents of sorts who can pull a picture off anywhere, anytime.  Start counting down from three – two – one  and we assume a fluid crouch position in preparation for synchronized lift-off.  One click is all we need – multiple shots require multiple poses, no repeats.  Spacing, facial expressions, props, we’ve practiced the proper use of them all.  Throughout our studies though, it has become apparent that certain people are meant to be either subjects or photographers, but perhaps not both.   My own jump skills are mediocre at best, but my timing abilities with a shutter are spot-on.  By contrast, one Mr. A.S. has consistently proven that his combination of creative leaping tactics (to appear unnaturally high off of the ground) and straight-at-the-camera, crystal-clear facial expressions are the best of this generation (for some of his gorgeous work, see the photo below).   Read more

Philaminneapolis: My Day of Going Nowhere

As I begin to write this post, I am sitting at Starbucks in the mall concourse of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.  I have been in Minneapolis since 12:48 pm, when my flight from Seattle finally touched down after circling for approximately 30 minutes waiting for Air Force One to depart with President Obama onboard. While the President’s reason for being in Minneapolis was moving (see his full speech to local veterans here: LA Times – Obama American Legion Speech), his departure caused a lot of problems for me.

The initial problem was my 40-minute layover…I was playing with time to begin with.  Thanks to the President’s timely departure, I missed my connecting flight to Philadelphia by less than 5 minutes (and completed my exercise for the day by sprinting in vain from G22 to C13).   Along with what seemed like half of our plane, I tried to find an alternate flight later in the afternoon, but if there was any chance of snagging a standby spot on flights heading to Philadelphia – or NYC, Boston, and Newark for that matter – Hurricane Irene took care of those days ago.  We never stood a chance really – this is not the week to have business travel go awry.   And so I found myself with a 10:00 pm return flight home to Seattle, and suddenly 8 hours of unexpected free time in Minneapolis.

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The Glorious Return of the Flute

All of the clarinets were taken.  So I took the flute.

In an elementary school band that consisted of 14 clarinets, one trumpet, one guitar (the teacher) and one flute, it may have been fate that I was the one to pick the flute – of all my band mates, I am the only one who played my instrument beyond middle school.  Eventually I also learned to play the alto and tenor saxophones.  Whereas the flute was delicate and light, both things I was not as a head-to-toe tomboy, the saxophone had weight, had substance.  Wearing a tenor saxophone as big as my torso always amused the senior citizens at the local retiree home where we volunteered on Wednesday afternoons; with my frizzy hair, oversized glasses, and bruised basketball knees, I imagine I looked endearing.

Basketball became the priority in high school, and there wasn’t room for both sports and band.  As my friends were forming weekend rock groups with their “mainstream” instruments, there was no use for a flautist.  Green Day, Everclear, Blink-182 – all the late-90’s bands they tried to emulate – ignored the flute.   Some bands like Collective Soul and the Goo Goo Dolls incorporated violins and cellos, but never gave the flute center stage.   Having never properly learned music theory, I contented myself with playing in my bedroom after school, learning Beatles songs and movie scores by ear.  The day I mastered Eleanor Rigby was a personal triumph, but it wasn’t going to get me a date to the prom.

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mint and wool and the Missing Piece

A few years ago, in preparation for her first child, a girlfriend of mine requested children’s books as gifts for her soon-to-be-born daughter’s library.  Most people thought it was a creative idea and were thankful they didn’t have to venture into a Babies R’ Us.  I, however, saw it as my very personal contribution to baby L’s lifelong view of reading, something that was awakened in me at a very early age. The perfect book didn’t come to me right away, but when I found it, it was like meeting an old friend.

“What do you want of me?”
asked the missing piece.
“What do you need from me?”
“Who are you?” asked the missing piece.
“I am the Big O,”
said the Big O.

– Excerpt from The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, by Shel Silverstein

I couldn’t help smiling, even laughing out loud at certain pages.  It has become my favorite gift for all new parents, and even now, I still laugh at the same lines.  They are just too simple and perfect of things to grow old for me. Read more