Posts by Evonne Carroll Young

40-something mom, wife, creative soul, blogging about identity, raising a child with learning differences, living with anxiety, caring for an aging parent, and trying to design a life worth living.

That Drizzly Feeling? That’s My Midlife Slump

I’m driving up Connecticut Ave. in Washington, D.C., on my way to my therapist’s office wondering what I should talk about. There’s nothing horribly wrong in my life.

I’m a healthy 45-year-old women with a husband who finds me attractive and with whom I can share my feelings. I have two kids, 12 and 7, who my neighbors call “delightful and well behaved.” I have a steady, well-paid job with phenomenal benefits, and I can go to the store and buy groceries without thinking about the bill. If I enter our income before taxes into a calculator, we are the upper tier.

Talking about a drizzly feeling of malaise is not worth a therapy session. That’s just, whining, right?

Too late. I’m here. I plunk myself in the gray chair across from my therapist and update her on what’s going on in my life: my 7-year-old son with dyslexia is doing better in his new school and seems less anxious, my mom who’s in a Memory Care unit in Connecticut has not tried to escape, I spent five days away from my family in California: three days with some current and old co-workers/friends in Monterrey, and then on a work retreat in San Francisco.

Telling my therapist about my girls’ weekend triggers a memory of a conversation I had in the luggage arrival area with my friends O. and C. while we waited for other friends to come around with the rental minivan.

We’ve known each other for well over ten years, and though I know how unhealthy it is, I’ve always compared my life to theirs. Why can’t I manage they way they do?, I’d ask myself. O. was always planning a trip somewhere fun with family or other groups of friends (Adventure!), S.’s project management skills and confidence made her a superstar at work (Organization!) O. had pitched story ideas to publishers (Creative Follow Through!) Another had downsized out of a job and found a new position in a few months, while I’d been trying to find a new job for a few years.

But as we waited for the rental car, another side of their lives came into focus for me.

Since we hadn’t seen each other in a few months, the conversation began with, “How’s life? How’s work?” To my surprise, O. answered with an unenthusiastic, “Eh, okay.” Her boss was second guessing her on some operational decisions O. had made, they’d had to let go a few employees. She just wasn’t feeling her job. “I wish that I didn’t have to work anymore, she said. “There are so many other things that I’d like to do, but we can’t make it on just [my husband’s] salary.”

Call it what you will, but we all seemed to have reached a point where we asked ourselves, “Is this all there is?” immediately followed by a stab of guilt for feeling unsatisfied with a quantifiably good life.

“Well, you know that I’ve been trying to leave our company forever,” said C. She’d started to shift into her true passion, writing children’s book, and even had some publishing connections, but summer and back-to-school put the kibosh on making time for that endeavor. Between work, which she truly disliked, and managing kids schedules there simply wasn’t time.

I felt an odd sense of relief wash over me. “I’m sorry that you all feel this way,” I told my friends, “but at the same time, I’m glad to know that I’m not alone,” and I talked about my own failed search for a new job that was both creatively challenging and paid enough to make the leap.

Stuck. Trapped. On the treadmill of life. Call it what you will, but we all seemed to have reached a point where we asked ourselves, “Is this all there is?” immediately followed by a stab of guilt for feeling unsatisfied with a quantifiably good life.

My therapist named my problem (spoiler: its not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness): the midlife slump.

There is no crisis here in my middle years. Instead what me and my friends are experiencing is more like a reckoning. I have stopped and seen my life as it is vs. what I imagined.

What I imagined: more professional and creative success. A memoir, perhaps. Or at the very least a list of published articles and stories. I imagined more freedom and more money. I imagined I’d have my own office. I imagined being in a community of creatives.

My imaginings did not factor in the gravity problems of adulthood: saving for retirement, keeping a job that pays enough to cover the mortgage, expensive private tutoring for my dyslexic son, managing my mom’s health care and finances, a baffling number of no-school days where we have to juggle who takes which kid to work and who stays home.

As it turns out, middle age is not a cheerful or carefree time. Barbara Bradley Hagerty in her book Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife, writes:

If happiness over the life span look like a U-curve—and researchers suggest that it does— then people in their forties and fifties occupy the bottom of the curve. They zigzag between demanding children and frail parents. They shoulder heavy responsibilities at work. They are under-rested, under-exercised, and overfed.

But what we’re experiencing is not a crisis. It’s just life.

Now what? Do I just slog through my life? Put on my happy face and trudge down the frozen food aisle of Giant looking for dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets? Feel content knowing that if I stay in my soul sucking job I’m on track to a great retirement?

I Google “midlife slump” and find Jonathan Rauch’s LA Times op-ed How To Avoid the ‘Midlife Slump’ and Make Your 40s a Much Happier Decade. He’s made it to the other side, his 50s, and offers four pieces of advice that he would share with his 40-year-old self. In summary, he would…

  1. Warn himself about the coming challenges.
  2. Regard the slump as a normal stage not unlike adolescence.
  3. Not beat himself up for having a feeling of dissatisfaction, but instead cultivate acceptance: it’s not forever.
  4. Reach out to others and not isolate himself: locking yourself in a negative self-looping echo chamber does not improve your mood.

With this in mind, I will abide. I hear it starts getting better soon.

My Kids Inherited Anxiety and My Son Inherited a Learning Disability. Is That a Bad Thing?


When activist Greta Thunberg was asked on CBS This Morning where she summoned the courage to speak so boldly and directly to world leaders about their inaction about climate change, she said, “I have Asperger’s. I’m on the autism spectrum, so I don’t really care about social codes that way.”

Many would consider the symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome a deficit, but Thunberg flips the script and in her tweets calls the condition “a superpower.”  

Being different, and thinking differently is essential, she said in the interview, “Especially in a big crisis like this one, we need to think outside the box, we need to think outside our current system, we need people who think outside the box and who aren’t like everyone else.”  

While my own kids don’t have serious neurological conditions like autism or physical or mental disabilities, they do face challenges and sensitivities that set them apart from their peers.

My tween daughter is more anxious than most and often labeled “shy” (which I hate) because she’s reluctant to raise her hand in class. She also refuses to go to sleep-away camp because she will miss me and my husband too much. I worry that she’s “too connected” to us and needs to learn to be on her own. 

As for my son, after a disasterous start to first grade–tears, refusal to do work, daydreaming in class–he was diagnosed with dyslexia, information processing issues,  sensory seeking needs, and fine motor skills delay. The school also determined that he met the criteria for inattentive ADHD, but after moving him to a new school for second grade, his therapist suspects that it was anxiety and the learning disability that caused him to zone out during lessons.

I’m not exactly surprised that our kids are more sensitive than most.

Thirteen years ago when my husband and I felt a tug that tug to have a child we paused, wondering if having a kid was a good idea considering our own history of depression and anxiety.

We consulted a genetic counselor who explained that any child we had we be more likely to experience anxiety or depression, but it wasn’t a sure thing. Genetics aren’t destiny. Those traits, he explained, can be expressed or turned on by one’s environment. 

Stressful childhoods fertilized the seeds of me and my husband’s sadness and anxiety, but that didn’t mean our potential child would be similarly afflicted, we reasoned. Do we NOT have kids because there’s a chance they might suffer from anxiety and depression? Did wanting children make us selfish? Foolish? After debating, the desire to have kids outweighed our fear that they would suffer from the same challenges we live with.

I still feel a tug of guilt when we drop off my 12-year-old daughter at an all-day camp, which triggers her separation and social anxiety. Her face crumples up and tears spill across her freckled face, “I don’t want to go!” she cries as I wave over a camp counselor and firmly push my daughter in her direction. I’ve learned over the years, that a quick goodbye is best. 

And my stomach twists to see my seven-year-old son stuggle with reading and writing because the dyslexia he inherited from my father make it difficult for him to match the letters he sees on the page with the sounds those letters and combination of letters make. 

Some inheritance, I snipe to myself. 

And yet, like Thunberg, I’ve seen those genetic “curses” or “deficiencies” become the very traits that make my kids extraordinary. 

My daughter’s quiet, thoughtful nature also means she has a rich and creative interior world that expresses itself through comics and stories. The handful of friends she does have are kind, silly, and loyal. She doesn’t feel the need to change herself or be anyone other than who she is. She’s grounded in a way that I still struggle to be. The point is, she can be anxious, shy, nervous, but also all these other wonderful things.

And while my son’s dyslexia and sensory seeking tendencies make the traditional school environment a challenge, he’s saddled with precocious verbal skills and unlike the rest of his family, has no problem raising his hand in class and sharing what he knows. Writing is torture because of his weak fine motor skills, but his intensity and big gestures are an asset when he paints. Brush in hand, he fills each sheet of paper and each canvas with color and energy that thrums inside him. 

Parents don’t like to see their child struggle, but here’s something I didn’t expect when I had kids: by helping my daughter manage her anxiety, by sitting with my son and reviewing letter sounds and sight words, my husband and I are giving them the tools they need to manage the challenging parts of themselves.

There’s no cure for anxiety and sensitivity. There’s not cure for a learning disability. So we’ve learned to accept, adapt, and, like Thunberg, reframe their differences as superpowers.

They are not like most kids, and that’s okay.

Will My Daughter Be Anxious and Sensitive Like Me?

Kid wearing an owl mask

Before my husband Rodney and I decided to have children, we met with a physician for counseling. I was worried about having a child given both our history of anxiety and depression. The poor kid would be doomed? Do we have a child anyway? Would having a child be selfish? How can create another person knowing that her chances of being anxious and depressed were pretty high?

While I don’t remember the exact conversation with the physician, he said that any children we had would have a predisposition for anxiety or depression, meaning they would inherit the propensity for a those disorders, but full blown depression or anxiety wasn’t a given.

Now, nearly ten years later, my daughter Zora sits in front of me with a stomachache, glistening eyes, and a voice knotted with anxiety.

“I don’t want to play capture the flag at climbing camp,” she says in a scrunched up voice, her dark eyes buried under furrowed eyebrows.

“Why not?” I ask.

“Because I never get to climb on the wall. I just sit on the side!” she croaks angrily.

“Why?” I persist.

“Because there are always people ahead of me!” she says.

“Why don’t you push to the head of the line?” I ask.

“Because they won’t let me,” she answers.

Her dark red hair forms an angled curtain around her face. Her skinny arms wrap around her knees. She’s determined to be angry and left out.

I try changing the subject. “Have you had breakfast?” When she’s anxious, she won’t eat. I was like that, too.

“No.”

“C’mon, then,” I say as I lean over to pick her up. She struggles in my arms then grudgingly throws her arms around my neck. 

“What am I going to do when you’re bigger than me and I can’t pick you up?” I whisper into her ear as I carry her lanky frame into the kitchen. 

After a bowl of dinosaur oatmeal and a glass of soy milk, we’re upstairs in her room picking out clothes. She flops on the mattress and looks at her feet.

“I still have a stomachache and I’ve eaten,” she announces.

“Look, next week I’m off and you don’t have camp. You don’t have to go anywhere. Won’t that be fun to look forward to?” I say.

Transitions are difficult for her. New situations are difficult for her. Asserting herself is difficult for her. There are expectations to meet, not only hers, which are likely high and unreasonable, but also what she perceives others may expect of her a.k.a. mind reading. Reminding myself that I think and feel may not always be real, has always been a struggle for me, and I can see that my little girl  shares that propensity.

She nods and we get on with the business of getting dressed. Even though she is nine and too big for me to dress her, I kneel down beside her and pull a t-shirt over her head and mint green leggings over her feet and narrow hips. I grab her hand and we head downstairs and out the door to camp.

Once in the car, Zora and Jasper request no music or NPR. They’re not bickering, which means that dark cloud of emotion has moved on. I relax and pull out of street onto the main road. 

“Next year, when I’m in fifth grade, can we get a fluffy dog?” she asks.

“We’ll get the dog that’s right for us at the right time,” I say. My response is maddeningly parental and noncommittal, so I add, “I read that cockapoos are good for kids.” 

“What’s a cockapoo?” Zora asks. Jasper, who is four, snickers. I said “poo.”

“A cross between a cocker spaniel and a poodle,” I say. Then, knowing that silliness takes her out of negative place, I continue.

“So… you and Jasper are either,” I pause for a moment, thinking “‘Evodneys’ or ‘Rodvonnes’ — a combination of me and Daddy.” They giggle. “Which name is better?”

“Rodvonnes!” she’s taken the bait. We spend the rest of the trip to rock climbing camp describing the characteristics of Rodvonnes, everything from sensitivity to loud noises like toilets flushing in public restrooms (all Rodney) to wide, freckled noses (all me). And, I think to myself, the sensitivity and mood issues. 

But so what? Yes, Zora is a genetic mashup of me and Rodney, but our own struggles with depression and anxiety aren’t her destiny. Zora is her own person: sensitive, anxious, change adverse, but also funny, creative, sarcastic, tenacious, and original. As her mom, I can’t mold her into less anxious, gregarious person. Changing her into something she’s not is a losing battle and a rejection of her unique talents. My job is to help her become and accept herself. 

“Tell us more about the Rodvonnes, Mommy!” Zora urges me, as we pull into the parking lot at the camp. Yup. She’s excited about her own possibilities.

My Morning

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Three Perfect Shots.”

1. In Which We Discover a Redhead in Our Bed.

Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump. And then my seven-year-old daughter’s lean, sharp body insinuates itself between me and my husband. In the dark, all I feel are elbows, knees, and soft skin. When I peek, I see her hair falling like an auburn curtain across her face. Safe under Daddy’s arm, she snuggles in. Parenting experts encourage you to walk your kids back to their own bed, but my husband and I defy their advice and keep her with us. Right now, she believes we can protect her from anything.

2. “My Spoon Is Too Small.”

“I can only hold one piece of cereal on this spoon,” she complains and shows me the lonely square of Life cereal in the spoon.

I stare back at her.

“Well?” she says.

“I would like…,” I prompt.

She answers with a dark glare. “I’m not a baby.”

“I’ll get you a spoon,” I answer. I grab a large, slotted serving spoon from my ceramic utensil jar and hand it to her.

A grin breaks across her face as she takes it from me. “It’s working!” she giggles, using the serving spoon to pick up the entire cereal bowl.

3. Steggie Loses His Head

Apparently the Dinosaur Era follows the Thomas the Tank Engine Era: my son has carried around two plastic Stegasauruses for nearly a week. Stegasauruses, or “Steggies,” as my son calls them, are very popular with the toddler crowd. While the toy store had lots of Giganotasauruses and a slew of Pentaceratops (yes, I know too much about dinosaurs), we snagged the last two Steggies. Relative to their body size, Steggies have very small heads and even smaller brains — approximately the size of two eggs. They also have weak necks. When my son dropped his Steggie at the daycare center this morning, Steggie’s head snapped off skittered off to parts unknown.

“I’ll let you know if I find the head,” the associate director assures me as my son walks to his classroom and lifts the headless Steggie for his little friends to see.

How T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock Articulated My Feeling of Alienation and Helped Me Identify Myself As a Writer

In response to the Daily Prompt, My Hero

We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words.

—Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

I don’t remember exactly when I first read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” but I remember my state of mind. The melancholy. The dislocation. It was around 1990 and I was 16. I felt there was no one with whom to share my thoughts, my fears, or my dreams. My father whose idea of spending time with me involved going to NASCAR races or RV shows never knew how to connect with his sensitive, literary daughter. My schizophrenic mother was not in this world and spent her days muttering to herself and scribbling notes in the margins of the New York Daily News. The friends with whom I felt so close just a few years before were morphing into creatures who listened to angsty indie crooners like Morissey and only wore Doc Martins. Where once we talked easily, I became less interested in their conversations and numbly smiled and nodded at the appropriate moments. In AP classes full of kids groomed to attend Dartmouth and Boston College, I only opened my mouth when called on. I walked the halls of my high school and my life playing my part but feeling as though there was a pane of glass separating me from everyone else.

There’s something desperately wrong with me, I told myself. Perhaps I would become schizophrenic like my mother. The books and articles that I read about my mother’s illness indicated that 17 was often when the voices would begin whispering in my ear. And I DID feel as though I couldn’t connect with anyone. I craved closeness and intimacy, but I didn’t know how to achieve it and I was afraid to try.

Then I read T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I absorbed his words and whispered them to myself again and again. This narrator, paralyzed by doubt and indecision, lived entirely in his head.

…There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

 

…And indeed there will be time

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

Time to turn back and descend the stair…

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

 

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—

The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,

And when I am pinned and wriggling against the wall,

The how should I begin

To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

And how should I presume?

How did he know? How did T.S. Eliot in 1921 write a poem about a middle-aged man  that articulated the very alienation I was feeling? The same fear of judgement?

For once I felt understood. Prufrock gave voice to my fears and I knew I wasn’t alone. The poem also helped me understand that writing, and poetry in particular, could be a way to explore and give voice to doubts swirling in my head. The poem also gave me permission to not be confident. Eliot painted a portrait of a man wracked with doubt and turned his voice and feelings into art. Could I do the same? While I had always been a reader, experiencing Prufrock helped me recognize that writing could be my way of connecting to myself and connecting with others. Through writing, I could show people what I was thinking, construct a narrative for myself, and claim an identity: I am a writer.

Monday forecast: Cloudy with a vomit and tears; kidless with wine in the evening

Today’s daily digit: 6

This morning: Cloudy, vomit, lots of tears, one forgotten lunch.
Tonight: Kidless, evening class until 8:30, chance of wine — 90%
Tomorrow: Sunny, chance of toddler rejecting pants — near 100%

This morning started off well: I woke up before either of the kids, prepped breakfast, and brewed a pot a coffee before waking the kids. Found my seven-year-old daughter, Zora, lying face-down on the bed with tears welling up in her brown eyes. After twenty questions, I learned she feels nervous about a standardized test she has to take tomorrow. Successfully explained “assessment” vs. “judgement” (“You can’t be kicked out of second grade for not doing well”) to her and convinced her to get dressed and go downstairs.

Grabbed the two-year-old from his crib along with his clothes, brought him downstairs and plunked him next to his sister, who is staring at her cereal but not eating it. Two-year-old demands chocolate milk, not vanilla. Chewing ensues.

Next: Attempt to get toddler dressed, which is a lot like trying to catch pig and put clothes on it.

Get the pants on. Toddler starts coughing, then choking, then puking, then crying. Take toddler’s pants off. Toddler refuses to put on clean pants (“I no LIKE these”), so I try a pair pants, which he also rejects. I pin him down with my leg and yank the pants up and then convince him to wear a Thomas the Tank Engine shirt. Vomit pants go in the washing machine.

Walk out the door with both kids and see the car seat sitting on the front steps. We had taken it out so we could pick up my mother-in-law and her friend from the airport. Spend the next seven minutes cursing and installing the carseat in my car using its medieval system of nylon belts and metal buckles. Toss the kids into the car and strap them down and whoosh off to school. Get stuck behind a garbage truck and three school buses.

Zora’s Morning Stats

School arrival time: 7:56

Hairbrushed? No.

Backpack? No.

Lunch? No.

The Power of Touch: When Mom Braided My Hair

Daily Prompt: The Power of Touch

Textures are everywhere: The rough edges of a stone wall. The smooth innocence of a baby’s cheek. The sense of touch brings back memories for us. What texture is particularly evocative to you?

I did not come from a physically affectionate family. Oh sure, as a child each night I would give my dad peck on his plump, stubbly cheek and received my fair share of hugs from Grandma, but there were never great tickle wars or hamster piles that I witnessed in other families. We’d bump, separate, and move on.

My mother, by the nature of her schizophrenia, rarely demonstrated any affection. Instead she lived alongside of my father, my grandparents, and I as if in an impenetrable bubble. Whenever I DID try to embrace her, her arms and body remained rigid. She acted like a robot executing a hug command, going through the motions without any feeling, letting her arms fall away from me after a prescribed number of seconds.

The only time she would maintain physical contact with me was when she brushed or braided my hair. Then, I could take a chance brushing my back or elbow against the soft heft of her body without her pulling away. I savored the feel of her gently raking her nails across my scalp, gathering hanks of hair, and the slight tug as she wove my hair into braids, the stacks of costume rings and bracelets, clinking close to my ear. For those brief moments, she was a regular mom.

Becoming the Mother I Never Had

Unexpectedly, I discovered that becoming a mother has helped me heal. I’m reminded of this during seemingly mundane moments: at night when my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Zora lays in a relaxed heap in my lap while I sing her Beatles songs like “Blackbird” and  “In My Life;” in the morning when she insists on pouring herself a bowl of cereal (“Ima gonna do it myself!”), and I let her, knowing full well that more of the cereal will end up on the table than in the bowl; and anytime she announces that she’s mad at me for not letting her eat rainbow sprinkles for breakfast and slams the door to her room, only to come out minutes later to tell me that she loves me. I worried so much about giving Zora the love and attention I never had growing up. So I was surprised when my daughter was able to give something back to me.

***

Dr. McLaren moved the transducer around my belly pointing out an arm here, a femur there, the four chambers of my baby’s heart. In some cases, I could pick out the body part he was talking about, but mostly I felt as though he was using Doppler radar to examine a weather system that existed inside my body. Toward the end of the screening, Dr. McLaren focused on a particularly cloudy blob.

“It’s a girl,” he announced

My husband Rodney’s dark eyes got that shiny look. We grinned at each other. A girl! Then, I felt a twinge that I couldn’t identify.

Later, I recognized that twinge as anxiousness about having a daughter. Because my mother is schizophrenic, I had no experience with a true mother-daughter relationship. If I were having a boy, at least I wouldn’t have any mother/son expectations of myself. But with a girl, I felt as though I should, well, know more. But I didn’t. Without a blueprint I felt lost and inept; a daughter left me in unfamiliar territory. How could I develop a close relationship with a girl when I had broken relationship with my mother?

I set to work making up for this perceived gap by reading every baby book I could get my hands on. I filled my bookshelves with titles like Dr. Sears’ The Baby Book, The Girlfriend’s Guide To Pregnancy, and the classic What to Expect When You’re Expecting. These owner’s manuals described in great detail the care and maintenance of my daughter: how often to feed her (on demand); what color her poop should be and how it should smell (mustard-colored and sweet if you breast fed, which of course, you did); whether you should introduce the “family bed” to encourage bonding (yes). My husband Rodney listened as I read passages from my weekly email on in utereo development. “What fruit is she this week?” he’d ask jokingly, referring to the email’s description of how large the baby was. She dutifully grew from the size of a blueberry to a lime to an heirloom tomato, to, finally, a mini watermelon. Acquaintances and colleagues, who weren’t aware of my mom’s illness, exclaimed that my mother must be excited about her first granddaughter and asked if she’d be staying with me after my daughter was born. Not wanting to explain, I pressed my lips into a tight smile, and avoided their questions by saying that my mother-in-law would be helping me and my husband out.

I also scripted my daughter’s birth: I would try for natural childbirth but not rule out the pain-relieving epidural, I would give birth and immediately hold her to my breast and nurse her so she would get that first infusion of colostrum, the high-octane milk that would inoculate her against germs. She would sleep with me, skin-to-skin, and we would bond. It was a very tidy plan that was never meant to be.

In the summer of 2007, after missing my due date by nearly two weeks, I was induced early one morning. I endured three hours of hard contractions before saying yes to an epidural at 10:30 a.m. Zora Kathryn entered the world at 8:31 p.m weighing eight pounds. The heart rate monitor indicated that she was distressed during delivery, and when she emerged, the cord was wrapped around her neck. Although she began breathing on her own, her breath was ragged, so the nurses whisked away to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for observation. I remember returning to my room later that evening, crawling into the hospital bed, and putting my hand on my now empty belly before turning out the lights.

Because Zora was in NICU, I couldn’t nurse her right away and my checklist to becoming the perfect mother, the mother I never had, fell apart. She was drinking formula. She was sleeping in an incubator instead against my skin. I watched the nurses scoop her up with ease and confidence and coo to her, “What’s a big girl like you doing here?” While I was resting, my husband and his mom would go to the NICU and stroke her fuzzy head (“I think she has red hair!” my redheaded mother-in-law said excitedly) and squeeze her impossibly small hand. “She has quite a grip,” Rodney said proudly.

Two days later we were back at home, and my obsessions with the details continued. I assiduously charted feeding times and wore rubber band on my wrist to remember which breast I fed from last. But within weeks of coming home from the hospital, I learned my father had been admitted to a hospital in Connecticut: his doctors wanted to remove a tumor that was blocking his bile duct, and I needed to be with him. With my mother- in-law, Marian, in tow, we drove the six hours from our home in northern Virginia to stay at my aunt’s house in Connecticut. Zora was six-weeks old.

Once in Connecticut, I would nurse Zora, change her, and press my nose to her peach fuzz head to breathe in her warm, yeasty smell. Then, I’d hand her to Marian, who cared for her while I sat by my father’s bedside. To console myself during the long days at the hospital, I’d tell myself “She’s with her grandma.” But I couldn’t help thinking about my baby girl, and when I did, my breasts would ache and then leak the milk I couldn’t feed her. I felt exhausted and guilty. Late in the day, when I left the hospital and returned to my aunt’s house, Marian would tell me about Zora. “I know they say that babies don’t smile, but, Evonne, I swear she is smiling!” She told me how alert Zora was, taking in the world with her dark eyes and squawking when she was put down. “She doesn’t want to miss anything,” Marian told me.

Neither did I,  but I was missing so many of those mundane moments in which a mother comes to know her baby, and there was nothing I could do about it. Though my father had been diagnosed with cancer and his prognosis was grim, he stabilized enough that we could go home to Virginia. Marian left to visit Rodney’s sister in Colorado. A week later, I received a frantic three-a.m.-phone call from my father’s girlfriend: he was unconscious and in the Intensive Care Unit. I drove up with Rodney and Zora the next day. When the doctors told me that there was little chance for recovery, I let them withdraw life support. My father died two days later. Rodney cared for Zora, who was now eight weeks old, while I made the funeral arrangements. At the time, I felt like I was a failure as a mother. My initial vision of  how I would spend the early weeks of motherhood had been a far cry from the reality.

After the funeral we returned home to northern Virginia. In an effort to alleviate my anxiety after Zora was born, I had brought in a postpartum doula to show me the ropes. She was capable, self-described Mary Poppins who showed me how to change Zora’s diaper, sterilize bottles, and bathe Zora—all the things a mother typically teaches her daughter. Initially, I was grateful for these basic care lessons, which gave me a measure of confidence. But now that I was back from Connecticut, Mary Poppins had new lessons for me. If , when I put Zora down for a nap, she protested, I was to let Zora cry it out. Pacifiers were forbidden. Baby wearing was scoffed at. “Are you one of those mothers in the bush or working the fields?” she’d ask in her indignant British accent. “No! You don’t need to wear her. She needs to learn to be by herself.”

So I sat on the couch and tried to make small talk with the doula while Zora cried herself hoarse. Conflict! The Dr. Sear’s book said I was supposed to wear her. But Mary Poppins said no. Marian, who had returned from visiting Rodney’s sister in Colorado, despised Mary Poppins, subverted her advice, and encouraged me to hold Zora whenever she cried and give her pacis. “You can’t spoil them when they are this little,” Marian told me. I wanted to believe her, but I couldn’t trust myself to make a decision. And so I lived a double life, pretending to follow Mary Poppins’ advice, trying to listen to my mother-in-law, but in the end feeling clueless, alone, and just plain wrong. When we knew the doula was coming, Rodney, Marian, and I scrambled to hide the pacifiers so we didn’t have to listen to her lecture about teaching Zora self reliance.

Marian could see that my confidence was low. One afternoon while Zora napped, she told me how alone she felt when she had Rodney and his sister. Her own mother was an ocean away in The Netherlands, and Rodney’s father worked, so she followed the advice she heard most often: don’t spoil the child. “I wish I had listened to myself,” she told me.

Listening to myself turned out to be much easier once I could be alone with Zora. Once my hours with the doula ran out and Marian returned home to Brussels, Belgium, I had more moments when I stopped second guessing myself and let myself just be with my daughter. I joined a new mother’s group, and during our first meeting the facilitator asked us to answer this question: What do you want for your child? It was such a simple question, but for the first time I really stopped and considered what I wanted for Zora. I wanted her to take risks, I wanted her to feel express what she wanted without worrying about what other people might think, I wanted her to love and trust me, and to confide in me, and fight with me. I wanted for her all the wisdom and confidence that I felt I didn’t have. All the lessons my mother couldn’t teach me. The relationship I could never have.

Becoming the mother I wanted to be wasn’t contingent on breastfeeding, paci guilt, or using the cry-it-out method: it meant being with Zora; it meant listening and responding to her needs so that she could trust me. So I relaxed. I laid on the floor with Zora and dragged my long hair across her face to hear her gurgle and watch her eyes crinkle because it tickled. I learned that she was content resting in my arms drinking formula from a bottle and that I was less anxious, I learned to get a big belly laugh out of her by snapping a pair of pants inches from her face.

Rodney’s relaxed approach helped me, too. After putting Zora down for a nap, he’d eschew the baby books and crack open a book or a magazine or chat with me about what was going on in the news. Squeezing in a shower when you have a newborn is difficult, but Rodney experimented with bringing Zora in the shower. “What?” he asked when I shot him an incredulous look. “I’m multitasking.” Zora promptly turned a shade of persimmon and burst into tears. We laughed.

I was realizing that I didn’t have to be perfect. These kind of moments built my confidence as a mother. I began to accept what I didn’t know, tried to figure things out, all with the understanding that I was going to mess up, and that was okay. I wanted Zora to be confident enough to try something new and not be concerned about being wrong. The day I let her cry and endure that discomfort until she found her thumb was a small triumph for both of us.

Each moment with my daughter is a joy and a sorrow for me. In raising her, I recognize what my own mother could not give me. I can lock eyes with Zora and mirror her expressions, but schizophrenic mothers can’t do that. Zora will collapse into my lap and rest her head against my chest without a second thought. My mother shrugged off my affectionate hugs. One of the few positive physical memories I have is of her brushing my hair. If I close my eyes I can remember the gentle click of her rings and bracelets and the feeling of her long fingernails against my scalp. I still love it when someone massages my scalp.

I wonder who I might have been had I received the love, affection, and attention I give my own daughter. But along the way, the balance shifted from worrying about “am I good enough” and dwelling on my loss, to giving what I never had to my daughter. I had planned for all the practicalities of Zora—her birth, the nursing, the napping—but I hadn’t counted on how she would heal me.

Wonderbra Manifesto

My grandmother assured me they would grow.

“You’re just a late bloomer,” she would say, soothing me, stroking my hair.

“Ha. Easy for her to say,” I thought, crossing my arms in front of me. Hers were the size of ostrich eggs. Mine were more like quail eggs.

Like most late bloomers, I wondered if there was something I could do to make my breasts grow. Fertilizer, exercises—I was willing to try anything, for it was clear that if you had breasts you got power and attention. The more developed girls in my sixth-grade class were having their bra straps snapped by the alpha males. The more daring girls, daring for wonder-white bread suburbia, wore black bras under white shirts. They were both scandalized and revered.

I sadly looked down at my own shirt. There was no strap to snap. My profile would not elicit any salacious comments. I spent many nights standing in front of the full-length mirror, pulling my shirt against my chest, and hoping that a miniature bulge would appear. It was more likely that eight tiny reindeer would.

My tabletop curves soon became a joke among my friends. When the senior prom pictures were posted in the hallway, my friend Missy ran up to me and notified me that she spotted some cleavage in my picture. Closer examination revealed the “cleavage” to be a shadow caused by the flash.

Besides changing for gym, lingerie shopping was great source of angst. As soon as I walked in, I felt every single eye in the place on me. “What is she doing in here,” I imagined them saying to themselves. “She doesn’t having anything to hold up.”

“Can I help you find a size?” they would ask politely, fluttering their mascara-laden lashes at me.

Too embarrassed to admit my size, I announced that I was “just looking.”

However, as I glanced around, all I saw were satin and lace bras for women with ostrich egg breasts. Training bras were humiliating. Besides, how do you train breasts? It’s not like they could roll over, pee on the rug, or attack the mailman. But I would have given anything to find out.

All this was BWB, before Wonderbra. When the Wonderbra arrived, women and men rejoiced. Someone out there knew what it was to be an A in a world of Bs and Cs. Newspapers reported an increasing number of car accidents in front of the Wonderbra ads, as men stopped to gawk at breasts that spanned the sides of  buildings. Now I, too, could have breasts that would stop traffic, cleavage deeper than the Marianas Trench. I made a beeline to Victoria’s Secret.

For the first time ever, I walked into the store as if I belonged. And there, by the thong underwear, were the Wonderbras, their satin skins bathed by track lighting. As I walked toward them, I noted what odd looking creatures they were. They resembled a normal bra, but the cup part of the bra was stuffed with a stiff, puffed material that looked as if it could float in water.

“They should put a tag on this thing warning people that this is NOT a life-saving device,” I joked with my friend Heather who had accompanied me.

“Okay, dearie. Just find your size.” She did not need a wonder bra. She was one of those ostrich egg women.

I rifled through the rack. 34B, 36C, 38C.  I found my size, 32A,  grabbed it, and requested a dressing room. I unbuttoned my shirt, took off my bra, slipped on the WonderBra, and looked in the mirror.

Traffic would not stop when it saw my chest. I stood sideways. The bra curved out beautifully, but my breasts were cowering inside the padded, protective shell. I put my shirt on hoping that the curves would look natural beneath fabric. They didn’t. It looked as if my shoulder pads had migrated down to my chest.

“Let me see,” Heather called from outside the dressing room.

“I don’t think so.”

“C’mon. Open the door.”

I obliged. Heather took one look and smirked. “I guess you need to start off with something.”

I hung Wonderbra on the brass hook in the pink boudoir that is Victoria’s Secret dressing room and left, my mood as flat as my chest.

Not long afterwards, I started to consider exactly why I wanted the WonderBra. After all, the point of WonderBra is not to fasten your breasts in place but to uplift them so that the opposite sex can behold them. How else could you explain the padding in sports bras?

I was disgusted with myself. How had I become the victim of advertising? How had I been taken in by the “Go from breadboard to Siren in minutes” logic? I had always prided myself on wearing shorts regardless of the amount of hair on my legs. “If Prince Charming comes along today,” I told my friends, “he’ll have to take me and the Old Growth Forest.” Yet, here I was listening to WonderBra advertisers tell me that I needed to pump myself up.

Besides, wearing the Wonderbra would misrepresent my figure. What if, while wearing the Wonderbra, some hapless was attracted to my “curves”? And what if, in the heat of the moment, the hapless guy rips off my shirt? He shrieks, not in ecstasy, but in horror. And why? Because my “breasts” are one hundred percent cotton. Think about it. How would you feel if you found out your date’s seductive bulge turned out to be a rolled-up tube sock?

Unless I am like that cactus in the Chilean desert that blossoms once every hundred years, I still haven’t bloomed. However, instead of longing for curves that I will never have, I revel in the advantages of my aerodynamic chest. Hey, if I catch someone staring at my chest, at least I know I have a spot on my shirt.