About Stefanie Gunning

Native New Yorker. Brooklynite. Voracious reader. Movie junkie. Theatre nerd. Recovering manic pixie dream girl. Third wave feminist with a first wave heart.

All These Quiet Days

Like any Gen-X girl who donned an ankle bracelet and twirled around at a Grateful Dead show during the summer of Touch of Grey, I have enjoyed my fair share of recreational drugs. It was never all that big a deal for me — I preferred the comforts of plain cigarettes and Diet Coke to the highs of more potent product. But drugs were a regular part of my life for a long time, so much so that I can make a bong out of nearly anything (including an apple), and yes I WOULD like one of the Percocet you have left over from your dental surgery.

The point is, I just said yes, and have never been one of these, “I won’t even take a Tylenol when I have a headache” kind of purists. Give to me your muscle relaxants, your pain killers, your antibiotics and anesthesia! But there is one class of drug I have steadily avoided, despite every good reason to give them a try.

Anti-depressants.

Depression is such a slithering monster. All tentacles, always reaching for you, always trying to pull you under into the dark. I’ve been fighting it, denying it, trying to find a way to live with it, trying to outrun it, since I was 11. And even that, admitting I was depressed even before I got my period, is so fraught with all of depression’s greatest hits: fear, shame, the immediate need to explain that yes, it’s true, and yes, a doctor even said so. Two doctors said so. Actually three, three doctors, OK, to be technical,  one therapist, one psychoanalyst and one psychiatrist (walk into a bar! Ha ha!) all agree that my history of depression started when I was 11 (triggered, in part, by a traumatic event that involved getting abandoned at a bus stop in Manhattan by my father, but that’s a story for another day), and that the times in my life when I considered myself “depressed” were actually heightened times of anxiety or crisis, and when these periods ended I retuned to a baseline of depression.

Baseline of Depression, by the way, is my fantasy band name.

About a year ago, I was in the deep end of one of these “periods of crisis.” This one showed up as an acidic, foaming rage that turned me into a scary, unpredictable, gimlet-eyed insomniac who cried all the time. And if that sounds terrible, consider the fact that my trusted therapist, Joe, who had seen me through more than a decade of my life — a decade that included changing careers, meeting and marrying Jonathan, getting pregnant and giving birth to Emerson, my father’s death, and my mother and stepfather moving away — had retired a year before.

I’m friends with quite a number of genuinely wonderful depressed and anxious people, and so I asked the most talented of my depressed and anxious friends, a stunning writer and photojournalist whom I had been a legit fangirl of before we became friends in real life, if she would give me the name of her therapist. And that is how I ended up seeing Mean Steve, a brilliant psychoanalyst who treats some of New York’s most accomplished and famous artists. So famous is Mean Steve’s clientele that he has a series of doors and waiting rooms you use to get in and out of his office, so you never see who has the appointment before or after you. (I should mention that he is not actually mean. I call him Mean Steve because I hate fucking going to fucking therapy because I should be done with fucking therapy by now I’ve been in fucking therapy for my entire adult life and fuck him and his stupid fucking mystery office I hate therapy. Fuck fuck fuck.)

The details of someone else’s therapy are uniquely boring, and this is not actually a story about Mean Steve and all the crying and yelling I do in his office. It is a story about Dr. Tapas (not his actual name).

About four months into my therapy with Mean Steve, I asked if he could prescribe drugs. This was at Jonathan’s urging, because I had a habit of nibbling at his Klonopin. (This is not a sex thing.) Jon also wrestles with the many-armed monster that is depression and anxiety, and has actual prescriptions for drugs that help him, which he takes as prescribed, because he is brave and good and also smart. I, on the other hand, seek out the dreamy, warm-blanket oblivion of benzodiazepine the way one might enjoy a good Scotch, so I was “borrowing” Jon’s pills, which annoyed him to no end, because those are HIS drugs and go get your own drugs, lady.

Mean Steve does not prescribe meds, because he is not that kind of doctor, but he did offer to send me to his “guy” — the psychiatrist he partners with for patients who need medications to support talk therapy. I was not gracious about this offer. In fact, I believe my exact words were, “Fuck that. I don’t need fucking drugs. Fuck off, Mean Steve.” And if you are observing the fact that I was TAKING drugs while claiming I didn’t NEED drugs, then you are correct.

I was 25 when Prozac Nation was published. I am now 48, and drugs have come a long way, baby. Anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication have been suggested to me before, by every doctor I have ever seen, including my dermatologist, who during an annual skin exam noted my ragged, bloody bitten nails and asked about my state of mind. I have refused even the idea of anti-depressants time and again, because I was scared.

I was scared that my depression was the key to my talent. That without it I’d lose the dark and twisty thing inside of me that sends up the words, that tells the stories, that holds the memories.

I was scared I’d become boring.

I was scared that without depression, I’d have to deal with all the things that made me depressed in the first place, instead of living from crisis to crisis.

I was scared that “troubled former drama major with a passionate temper” was who I was, and that I wouldn’t know who to be or how to be if I medicated away the thing that defined me.

And also, I secretly suspected that I wasn’t depressed, but just kind of an asshole, and they don’t make a pill for that. And if I took anti-depressants I’d not only have confirmation of this, but I’d still be an asshole, just maybe a calmer one.

But I had also just had a performance review at work that boiled down to, “Who exactly does this bitch think she is?” and I was tired. Tired of hearing I was scary, and angry. Tired of hearing I was unpredictable. Tired of staying up all night watching TV I didn’t like and eating food I didn’t even want. Tired of not trusting myself.

And so I took myself to Dr. Tapas, so named because he is Spanish, and handsome, and reminds me of Javier Bardem, but not scary No Country for Old Men Javier Bardem. I fully expected to recite my life history with my usual detachment, because I have told this story so many times, to so many doctors and men in bars, the kind of men who want to hear all about how broken you are on a first date, but instead I surprised myself and ugly cried for 90 minutes.

If it is possible to listen warmly and with charisma, that is how Dr. Tapas listened, and when I was done vomiting up my lonely childhood and frightening father and broken dreams and terrible relationships and self-destructiveness and everything I’ve done to try and fix myself, the doctors and Buddhism and meditation and exercise and eating more fiber and dry brushing my skin and all the books Oprah said to read and hypnosis and yoga and nutritionists and psychics (yes, even psychics) he said this (with a Spanish accent):

“Stefanie. You have worked so hard, and we are all so proud of you. You have done everything a person can do to try and be well. And now, you have earned, you deserve…Prozac.”

Well. Ok then.

I took the first one the next morning.

That day, the first day, I was thirsty and had a headache, and kept texting Jon to tell him all the nuances of exactly how I was thirsty and had a headache. He assured me I was doing great. The next day, I felt a little dizzy. And then on the third day I woke up and it was quiet.

It was quiet. In my head.

I have lived my entire life with a din of voices in my head, telling me all sorts of awful things about myself. That I am lazy. Ugly. Unworthy. A fraud. Untrustworthy. And on and on, from the time I was small, a discord of fear and rage and disgust, so omnipresent that I’d simply come to accept the cacophony as normal. And now it was quiet.

I explained it to Mean Steve this way: It was like my head was the Overlook Hotel, a haunted house, and I could never be sure what was around any corner. I could never be sure what might terrify me, or enrage me, or jump on me and try to kill me. And now all the ghosts were down the hall in one room, having a party. And I couldn’t hear what they were saying and it didn’t matter, because I didn’t need to go to that party. Not ever. And it was safe in my head, to rest, to look around.

It has been quiet for months now. And I am learning how to be a person.

I spent, no joke, all of my free time during the first couple of Prozac months lying on my couch looking out the window. Not reading, not writing, not watching TV. I just watched the sky change. And listened to the silence.

Lately, I have been trying to figure out what I like. Not what will make me smarter or more acceptable, what I ought to pretend to be to be interesting, to be worthy, but what I actually like.

I like succulent plants, apparently. But only tiny ones.

And making quesadillas.

I like the beach. More than the mountains.

I do not like the Grateful Dead, it turns out, but I do have an abiding affection for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

Yoga is not my thing, but I am a beast at pilates.

I will never be the kind of person who wants to go on a bike ride with you, but we could go on a hike.

I want to learn how to play the guitar.

And it turns out I am startlingly laid back. ‘A‘ole pilikia levels of laid back. Maholo.

It is so strange, meeting yourself at 48. But I am learning. I am learning the shape of my own desires. That I am more than my history, my ghosts, the ragged edges of my grief and fear. That redemption is possible. That it’s ok to accept the help I need. That depression is a monster but fighting it doesn’t have to be the only thing I do. That I am a work in progress, but progressing. That there is a party going on down the hall that I never have to go to.

I am learning how to live well in all these quiet days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Definitive Word on Working in Advertising

Not so long ago, I wrote about how one of my favorite authors inadvertently hurt my feelings by dismissing a career in advertising as the lowest form of hackism.

Yesterday, my gallant friend and advertising colleague Ryan forwarded me this letter, which was originally sent to a fan from Kurt Vonnegut.

vonnegut

Given a choice between being Jennifer Weiner’s shiller of crap and someone Vonnegut might consider witty and well read, I’ll choose Vonnegut every time.

So it goes.

Eventually, You Write Your Own Story

I have loved Jennifer Weiner since her first book, Good in Bed, was released in 2001. That book, and the ones that followed (13 and counting) resonated with me so deeply it was as if they had secret messages encoded in them. And not just because, like Jen, I’m a chubby Jewish girl with hair that has less volume than I’d like, but because from the first I could read between the lines of her comedy, which felt so much like my own joking exterior, and recognize the particular shape of her pain:

The abusive father she estranged herself from, not because she wanted to but because she had to. The complicated childhood. The devastating breakup. The never-ending battle with her body. The particular humiliation and bravado that comes from being a smart, funny, talented, ambitious, hyper-verbal, sometimes mean, sexually precocious, attractive but not necessarily beautiful, fat girl.

Fat girl. Saying those words out loud isn’t scary anymore, because while I’m still fatter than I want to be, I’m also now happily married and a mother and successful in my career and loved and healthy. I know how my story turns out. But I was 32 when Good in Bed landed in my hands, still devastated by the end of my first marriage, caught in a self-destructive swirl, and so plagued by self-loathing I avoided looking at myself at all costs, refusing to meet my own eyes in the mirror, avoiding my image in store windows, ignoring my grief, the hollow center of myself.

I had never read anything like Good in Bed. Here was a character that felt so familiar she made me cry, someone who got her happy ending without having to lose half her body weight, someone who got to stay fat and still have a life worth envying. It was nothing short of a revelation.

And Jen kept the stories coming, usually just in time for summer, books featuring women characters with longings and insecurities, thighs that rubbed together and authentic problems, always delivered with heart and humor, with a blistering insight into a secret hurt that felt personal.

In a lot of ways, I grew up — the real kind of growing up, the kind you do as an adult, when there’s nothing left but to die or change — with a Jennifer Weiner book in my hands.

I identified with her, probably over-identified with her. I’ve never met her in person, but we’re connected on social media, and I once posted on Facebook that she was my imaginary back-up best friend, in the event something happens to my actual real-life best friend, and she responded to me saying we had a deal, she’d be there for me if I needed her. I was so excited by this that I printed the post out and hung it over my desk at work.

I’ve bought everything she’s published, sometimes in multiple formats, sometimes to give away as gifts. So of course I bought her new book of essays, Hungry Heart, in which she exposes her personal life and shares stories I had already guessed at about her childhood, her father, the end of her first marriage, her writing life. I stopped reading during an early chapter about her being socially ostracized in elementary school to tweet that there would always be a seat for her at my lunch table (and then refreshed Twitter over and over to see if she’d reply, which she didn’t, but she did like my tweet).

And then, in a chapter about her early career, she hit me with this:

I needed to find a J-O-B, one where I’d be paid to write, where I was, per Professor McPhee’s advice, writing every day. The two fields that came to mind were advertising and journalism. I rejected advertising immediately. No way was I going to be a shill in corporate America, using my talent to sell debt-ridden citizens useless crap! Besides, I was convinced, for absolutely no reason rooted in reality, that I’d end up working on the tampon campaign, and that my professional life would be spent finding synonyms for the word “absorbent.”

I’ve worked in advertising since 2007. I’m a creative director, which is a significant achievement for anyone in my industry, but particularly for women (though we’re working to change that). I didn’t study advertising in school, or go to portfolio school — everything I’ve accomplished in the past 9 years is the result of hard work, significant mentorship, the help of generous, excellent bosses and colleagues, and my own steely determination to succeed. I’m proud of a lot of what I’ve worked on, and there’s nothing I’m ashamed of. I am an enthusiastic supporter of young women (and dudes) in adland, and have mentored several of them up the ladder — frequently from being assistants to becoming copywriters (remember to hire me when I’m old, you guys). It’s not perfect, and I don’t romanticize it, but advertising has provided me with innumerable creative challenges, the opportunity to meet and work with some of the smartest people you’ll find anywhere, and a fascinating look at how business works. It’s taught me discipline, time management, empathy. It’s made me a better thinker, a better writer, more resilient. And the money is great.

So I’d like to tell you that my immediate response was, “Fuck you, Jennifer Weiner. You couldn’t hack my job for a single day. And also, maybe you’ve heard of Always’s #LikeAGirl. Or Dove Real Beauty. Or seen the Expedia spot in which a father travels to his daughter’s wedding and welcomes her new wife into the family. Or the Secret commercial featuring a queer actress portraying a trans woman, speaking truth to power that there is no wrong way to be a woman. Or encountered the countless other purpose-driven campaigns that have influenced culture and captured people’s imaginations. And how dare you judge the way anyone makes a living.”

But the truth is, I set the book down and cried. Because I trusted her. I trusted her with my ugly truths and the things I feared. And she shamed me, for being the wrong kind of writer. For squandering my talent. For being a shill and a sell-out.

This is a voice I’m used to hearing.

It’s my father, telling me I’d be gorgeous if only I lost 10, 15, 20 pounds.

It’s my mother, telling me how proud she is of me but still asking why I blog instead of publishing in magazines.

It’s my ex-husband, telling me I’ve got talent but I’m no Norah Ephron.

It’s my ex-boyfriend, the one I let break my heart three times (because I never learn, until I do), telling me he always thought I’d be a college professor, and it’s so surprising I ended up in advertising because he honestly thought I was destined for great things.

It’s the former friend who declared all I ever had to do to get anything I wanted was bat my big brown eyes and smile.

It’s the voice that tells me, in no uncertain terms, that I am not good enough and never will be. That I’m weak. Untrustworthy. Sneaky. Lazy. Craven. That I’m ugly. That I’m fat.

There was a time in my life when having Jennifer Weiner tell me I suck was the sort of thing that would send me falling straight to the bottom of  what I call The Hole — that dark, dangerous, lonely place where the worst of my depression plays out — and I would cope by hurting myself. By sleeping with a stranger. By running a sharp blade over the soft inside of my thighs, not hard enough to cut, but enough to leave a mark. By Googling the ex-boyfriend who expected me to be the most popular Literature professor at a picturesque liberal arts college and torturing myself with a fantasy about how well his life was going. By stuffing myself until I felt sick. By refusing to sleep, obsessively watching TV as the small hours of the night became morning. By smoking like it was a job I’d been assigned.

In the years since Good in Bed was published, I’ve spent thousands of dollars and hours upon hours of time learning how to avoid The Hole, with therapists and psychiatrists, with personal trainers and nutritionists, with writing teachers and meditation teachers and the Dharma. I’ve learned how to talk back to that hateful voice, how to ignore it, how to silence it. I’ve learned that The Hole is a place I can climb out of on my own without damaging myself, that I’ve got boots and ropes and picks. That my legs are strong and my heart is pumping and my lungs are full of air.

And because sometimes life is kind, because sometimes we get what we want and it turns out to be exactly what we need, I also have have someone to catch me when I slip, someone who will slide down and sit with me in the muck, and climb back up with me when I’m ready.

I wiped my eyes, got off the couch, and went to find my husband, who was reading in the bedroom.

“Jennifer Weiner hurt my feelings,” I squeaked. Jonathan looked up from his book, pushed his Clark Kent glasses up on his nose, and with complete seriousness said, “That bitch.” I chuckled, still trembly, and crawled into the space he made for me on the bed. He listened as I explained the sucker punch of being called out as a hack, how it felt personal somehow, how it was the unexpected judgement and cruelty that had caught me so unguarded in a place where I thought it was safe to be vulnerable. He listened, and when I was done we lay there in silence for a while.

“Well, she can’t sit at YOUR lunch table anymore,” he said eventually. “But do you think she was talking to you, or to Jonathan Franzen?”

It’s a funny thing, empathy. The way it seeps into the cracks and restores you. Because of course, Jen’s longstanding feud with Franzen is bitterly insulting. Her ongoing defense of genre fiction by women as deserving of respect has earned her support, but also criticism. She was clearly devastated when Oprah didn’t choose Hungry Heart for her book club, and instead selected Glennon Doyle Melton’s memoir Love Warrior; and when Jen confessed that this rejection set off a “small, sad voice” in her head that had her comparing herself to Glennon — who is skinny and blonde and adorable — and finding herself lacking, I understood on the most fundamental level. I know what that voice sounds like, the one who calls you fat and tells you that the prizes are reserved for the cheerleaders, the popular girls, that no matter how hard you work, how hard you strive, you will always come up as less than. And maybe when Jen hears that voice she defends herself, in part, by contemptuously retorting, “Hey, at least I don’t work in ADVERTISING.”

And if that is the case, I get it. I do. But I also know there’s a way to shut that voice down without hurting anyone else. Without hurting yourself. That no matter how much you relate, in the end, no one is writing your story but you.

I did pick up Hungry Heart again, after a few days. I enjoyed it, although the spell is broken, and I read it the way I read anything else — with curiosity and interest, but not looking for clues to my own heart. And when I got to the part where Jen dissed Brooklyn (seriously, what is her problem with Brooklyn?) all I could do was roll my eyes, sip the coffee I’d just bought at Mazzola, admire the Halloween decorations all along Union Street, and laugh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Saturday Night Is Enough

My daughter, Emerson, graduated from 5th grade last Friday. It was a tender, joyful ceremony, as these things are, with applause for every child and a surprisingly well-choreographed group performance of (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life from Dirty Dancing. There was a slide show that condensed the past 7 years into just a couple of minutes — round-cheeked preschoolers stretching into 11-year-olds as we watched (which is just how it feels in real life) — and a video of the kids and their teachers dancing and lip synching to Shake It Off.

My husband, Jonathan, and I sat in the back of the school auditorium with my best friend and de facto sister, Lisa, and our recently acquired 26-year-old surrogate son, David Goldberg. David came to us by way of our friend Sheryl. A few years back, when he moved to New York City from LA, she asked if I would take him under my wing. I took him to dinner one night to talk about writing and finding a job, and it quickly became apparent that our family had been waiting for him. That he is the gloriously fun, comic-book writing big brother Emmy has always wanted and the giant-hearted, Jewish, gay son Jon and I didn’t even know we wished for. He joined our family so seamlessly, so completely, that Lisa has him in her phone as “David Gunning,” and I frequently nag him about how he doesn’t visit enough (he already has a Jewish mother in Texas, so I’m sure he really appreciates this).

And so there we were, Mama, Daddy, aunt Lisa, brother David, all cheering for Emmy on this accomplishment, this marker of years gone by and new things to come. I never fail to notice how many we are, that we need a big table at a restaurant, a family joined not by blood but because we choose to belong to each other. It fills me with comfort, to be so many. It still surprises me, sometimes, to be a part of something so solid and real.

I wish that was the whole deal, happiness and celebration, surrounded by loved ones. I wish these sort of days could be simple for me, that I could stop my monkey mind and pain-seeking heart from butting in. But it’s always a wash of complicated feelings, of relief and sadness and happiness and loss, a miasma that leaves me trying to figure out what to do with my face, talking too loud and with too much enthusiasm, or getting weepy in front of near strangers.

I have a habit of searching for what’s missing. Of looking for the empty place in the middle of everything. Of holding myself and my life up to an impossible fantasy of normality and wholeness that is part Atticus Finch and part every TV family that ever laughed over a ruined Thanksgiving turkey or a vacation gone awry. Inside my head  I am nearly always performing a monologue entitled “YOU SUCK,” which goes a little like this:

Does my daughter look happy in that slideshow? Should we have gotten her a math tutor in 4th grade instead of waiting until 5th grade? Did she have someone to sit with on the bus to the field trip? Someone to dance with at the party? I should have volunteered more at school. I definitely should have made more mom friends. It’s been all these years and I still call most of these people “The tall one with the face” and “The one with the boots.” We should eat dinner together every night. Probably she’ll be a drug addict because she eats microwaved mac-n-cheese at least once a week. WHY THE FUCK WON’T SHE READ THOSE HARRY POTTER BOOKS LIKE THE OTHER KIDS? We need to figure out better lunches. I should teach her how to cook. First I should learn how to cook. God, I hate to cook. We should hike more. We need to teach her how to ride a bike. She needs a dog but Jon doesn’t want one.We should buy a country house, for hiking and biking and dog having. I work too much. I don’t take enough pictures. We watch too much TV. We should have had another baby so she’d have a baby brother or a sister.  What does a normal family even look like? How do I know if we’re doing it right? I’m failing her, I know I am, in all the ways I realize I’m failing and in hundreds of ways I don’t even know about because I don’t know how normal people are supposed to act.

When I was growing up, I was my mother’s Saturday night date. She was a single mother who worked crazy hours and traveled a great deal for business, and she also had an active social life (dudes have always dug my mom), but Saturday night was for me (until I decided I was too cool to go out with my mom and wanted to stay home by myself to eat a chicken pot pie and watch The Love Boat and Fantasy Island). She took me out like I was a grown up, to PG (sometimes R!) movies and the opera, to the theatre and fancy restaurants, to museum nights and parties where people were flirting and dancing. I loved these nights, loved having my mother as a sort of friend, loved getting dressed up in one of the outfits she would buy for me (I still remember a pair of sky blue pants and a patterned blouse that had gold string woven into the fabric that made me feel like Brooke Shields).

Emmy and I started having Saturday night date by accident. One night when she was around 5 she was very sick, and we sat up on the couch together watching Nickelodeon while she vomited intermittently into a garbage pail lined with a plastic bag, which I would casually tie up and throw away. (This is the definition of motherhood, I think. Being completely at ease with someone else’s effluvia.) I told her about how Grandma and I used to spend Saturday nights together, and she decided then and there that we would have a weekly movie night together, that Saturday night would be ours. We started with Disney, but as she’s grown older we’ve expanded our viewing. She loves movies where friends have fun together and women are badasses, and this has taken us to some fairly inappropriate places, which, just by nature of being out of bounds, has made our weekend ritual even more sacred. (Let’s just say she thought Bridesmaids was HILARIOUS but didn’t love Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.)

On the Saturday after graduation, we watched Dirty Dancing, and because it was a special weekend, I invited Lisa and one of Emmy’s best friends to join us (first checking with her mom to ensure she was on board with this choice of movie, given the abortion storyline and Patrick Swayze’s pelvis).

I really thought I nailed this event. We had a Pinterest-worthy dinner, complete with protein and vegetable, eaten at our table. The girls took pictures of each other carrying a watermelon and posted them to Instagram, then we ate the watermelon while we watched the movie. NOTE MY ADHERENCE TO THEME!

But despite my best efforts at normal mom-ing, the next day Emmy seemed a little out of sorts. I left her alone with it mostly, but did ask her if everything was OK, and reminded her that I was here to talk if she needed me. She said she was fine, that she was sad about school ending, that she was a little nervous about sleep-away camp, that she was a little sleepy. And then finally, as we sat down to lunch, I asked her what we should watch for next week’s Saturday night date, and if we should invite anyone to join us, because wasn’t it fun to have a houseful of people?

“Mama,” she said, tears welling up. “That’s just for us.” And she went on to explain that while she loved having friends with us, we should only do friend movie night on Fridays from now on, because Saturday is ours, Saturday is when we order sushi and eat it on the couch, and sit in the dark and laugh when Melissa McCarthy lets loose a string of profanity, and she asks if she can repeat the line even though it has the F-word and the S-word and the A-word and I say she can but she can’t tell ANYONE I let her watch this movie and now we have a secret, just us.

Just us.

I look for what’s missing.

My daughter sees what’s there.

I worry so much that nothing I give her is enough, that I don’t measure up, that I’m lacking and failing because our life doesn’t look like Little Women or Father of the Bride or Family Ties or Modern Family, and yet somehow, she doesn’t realize that we should send out Holiday cards and go to the library and and throw more parties and I’ve never had a mom’s group and I always feel like there’s some secret code for being the right kind of grown up, the right kind of mother, and no one gave me the rule book so I’m just winging it. Because I’m only now starting to realize that there is no right way to be a mother, no pinnacle of normal to strive for. There is only being the mother your child needs, whatever that is.

And Emmy needs me.

And so I will keep showing up, every Saturday night for as long as she’ll have me, with my encyclopedic knowledge of movie musicals and my worship of Sigourney Weaver. Insisting that the only way to make popcorn is in a pot with oil. Understanding that bedtime on Saturday is merely a suggestion. And knowing that having someone next to you on the couch is one of the truest ways to feel loved.

Next week, Working Girl.

Just us.

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Lust & Wonder By Augusten Burroughs

Humble brag/disclaimer: I was sent an advance reader’s copy of Lust & Wonder by Augusten Burroughs’s publicist. I received no payment for this post, but I am now so cool I won’t even hang out with me anymore.

 

I’ve been emotionally shadowing Augusten Burroughs since Running with Scissors was published in 2002. A chronicle of Burroughs’s harrowing, chaotic childhood, Running with Scissors made my formative years seem positively normal by comparrison. I may have had a secret grandpa, an absent narcissistic father, an emotionally inscrutable mother, a compulsion to peel the skin off my hands and feet, and the habit of telling elaborate lies — but no one ever sent me to live with a lunatic psychiatrist in a squalid house or told me being molested by a pedophile was good therapy. Sure, I was deeply insecure, lonely as hell, and scared all the time, but I was for sure less fucked up than Augusten Burroughs!

Dry, released in 2003, is a chronicle of Burroughs’s twentysomething years, which he spent working in advertising, drinking himself near to death, going to rehab, trying to figure out how to live sober while dating a crack addict, and watching his former lover and best friend die of AIDS. I spent my 20s marrying the wrong man, getting divorced from him, screwing a long line of one-night stands, visiting an alarming number of psychics, and reading a lot in the bathtub. I was a soaking wet hot mess, make no mistake, but still less fucked up than Augusten Burroughs!

With Lust & Wonder, Burroughs has come back into my life at a gentler time. For one thing, I no longer feel the need to judge myself on a continuum of fucked upedness on which I am way more fucked up than Anna Quindlen, far less fucked up than Kathryn Harrison, and equally fucked up as Cheryl Strayed. I’m a good man’s wife. Mother to a gentle, generous, funny girl. The daughter of retired Florida condo dwellers. I am what I guess you’d call content and settled, a state of grace that once seemed utterly unattainable. It seems remarkable to me sometimes, the love and goodness that have become my everyday life.

Love is the territory Burroughs charts in Lust & Wonder, chronicling his adult romantic relationships with the keenly observed humor and brutal intimacy that makes him such a rich pleasure to read, even as he’s showing you horrors. There’s Mitch, the “deeply odd” published author. George (the “Pighead” character from Dry), whose death sends Burroughs into a drunken spiral. “Normal and stable” Dennis, with whom Burroughs has a long-term relationship that’s perfect on paper and broken in reality. And finally, there is Christopher, who is all wrong — he’s short, HIV positive, and just happens to be Burroughs’s literary agent. They’re friends for 10 years before Burroughs finally admits his feelings. It’s impossible. It’s ludicrous.

Reader, he married him.

It seems the stuff of rom-coms, of fairy tales, the lost child turned self-destructive adult transformed by love and granted entry into the dreamed of “normal life.” But I feel the heft of the mythological at work here. The years on a stormy sea, the conquests, the challenges to be faced and monsters to slay, and the final return home where you are welcomed and known, loved not in spite of your damage and your secrets but because of them, because they are part of you and in this safe harbor there is nothing to be ashamed of at last.

 

 

Crisis Management: Ass Division

About six months ago, I started a new job. This is my 5th new job in a decade (not including freelance gigs), and my 5th career since graduating college (including my stint as a dog trainer). I imagine there are people who organize their work lives in a much more orderly fashion, who choose a ladder and then climb it. But for me, “career planning” has always amounted to running towards the next glittery thing in the distance while cheerfully hollering, “Hey, that looks interesting!”

For the past several years, I’ve made my living as a copywriter and creative director in advertising agencies. Agency life suited me incredibly well, I think in part because my first love – and career – was the theatre. I felt right at home with advertising’s lack of boundaries, intense emotions, freewheeling creativity, grueling hours, and sexual energy. But in the summer of 2015, a new opportunity presented itself: challenging, complex, well-organized, and, not to put too fine a point on it, highly compensated.

My new job is very different from my old job, from the way the company is structured to the kind of work I do. I’m out of my comfort zone in a lot of ways, and one change that’s rocked my world significantly is the way women dress. There’s no formal dress code, but there is an unspoken expectation that your shit will be TIGHT around here, and that means knowing how to walk in heels, statement necklaces, actual outfits and, in most cases, a Cartier tank watch.

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Jackie Kennedy and her tank watch. The definition of having your shit tight.

My shit, to put it bluntly, is not tight. I am the sort of person who used to dress herself out of the costume shop at school. I never learned how to walk in heels, unless you count a Dansko clog as a heel, which, let’s be honest, no. At the last ad agency where I worked, I once wore a bathing suit cover-up as a dress. It was navy blue cotton and I paired it with brown flip flops and a wooden bead bracelet. I sort of felt this made it “a look.”

It’s not just the clothes, of course. The women I work with now were once the sort of girls who wouldn’t have sat with me at lunch in high school. We would not have lived together in college, or even gone to the same parties. If advertising is populated with a vast number of former theatre majors (or people who were theatre major-adjacent), my new industry is where sorority sisters and marketing majors come to work after b-school or a stint as a speech writer in Washington. They are gorgeous. They speak multiple languages. They are so brilliant it makes my head hurt. I spent my first month at this job terrified of them, but now I am simply in awe of their talent and generosity. And I won’t lie, inside of me there will always live a nerdy girl wearing a CATS t-shirt who knows all the words to Evita, and she is amazed and thrilled to be included among this flock of swans.

So I’ve been working on getting my shit, if not tight, then tighter, which in the warmer weather translated into a rotation of sheath dresses, all purchased from Lands’ End (thank you Lands’ End, for your easy-to-parse Wear to Work collection) paired with Tieks in a variety of colors. I inserted the diamond stud earrings my mother gave me for my 18th birthday, re-learned how to apply eyeliner, and bought a very fancy handbag (ok, it’s a backpack, but it’s a TUMI, damn it).

When the weather grew colder, I found myself with exactly zero things to wear. Apparently, my winter wardrobe for the past several years has included jeans, drapey scarves, furry moon boots, and long sleeved t-shirts. (Before I cleaned out my closet I had, no exaggeration, 17 long-sleeved black t-shirts plus one grey one. I guess I was feeling adventurous the day I purchased the grey one.) In a single very expensive afternoon I traded my sleeveless sheaths for a collection of wooly sack-like dresses and tunics from Eileen Fisher. They’re all pretty much shaped the same, except the dresses hit at calf length, while the tunics graze the tops of my thighs. I love them, because they feel like I’m wearing a woobie but look expensive and grown-up.

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This is a dress.

 

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This is a tunic.

And so one recent morning I was off to call on clients in an adjacent state. The meeting was at 10am, the car was coming to fetch me at 7:30. I enjoy mornings like this, rising early to shower and fuss around a little, getting the phone call that my driver has arrived, climbing into the back of the black town car and checking my email. It feels like I am starring in a movie about a sophisticated business lady who is doing business. On this particular morning, I was wearing black stockings, black boots, and a navy blue Eileen Fisher sack dress, and I was feeling quite fine as I kissed my husband and daughter goodbye and sassed myself down to the lobby.

My meeting was at a sprawling corporate campus, and at 9:50 on the dot my driver pulled up in front of the appropriate building. I left my coat in the car, grabbed my laptop, and climbed out of the backseat, where I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the plate-glass doors of the lobby and realized, with icy cold horror, that I was not in fact wearing the navy blue sack dress, but instead had grabbed the navy blue sack tunic.

I was standing on the corporate campus of one of the world’s most conservative companies, about to pitch a piece of business worth millions of dollars, and I had forgotten to put on pants.

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Hi! Which way to the conference room?

The first rule of crisis management, as I understand it, is to assess just how big a problem you have on your hands. I could see in the plate-glass window that my actual crotch wasn’t showing, so this was a plus. I carefully turned around to look at my bottom, which was also covered. Sort of. Not by a lot, but there was no discernible cheek showing.

My natural instinct was to climb right back in the car, tell the driver to floor it, and email everyone to tell them there was an accident on the highway and I was stuck in traffic and I’d dial in and do my presentation from the car. But I also recognized that this is not what the women I work with would do. The women I work with, with their shiny hair and unflappable poise, wouldn’t let a little thing like lack of pants get in their way. Pants or no pants, they’d look at their tank watch and know it’s go time.

To paraphrase Dirty Harry, this is the kind of moment where you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: “Is my shit tight?”

I walked in with my head held high and my ass blowing in the breeze. I presented the hell out of that pitch. My shit has never been so tight, and I also should mention that I don’t wear panties under stockings because I hate how bulky they feel, so when I say my ass was on the line I am being completely serious.

This is how we grow, I guess. This is how we change. We dance like nobody is watching. We love like we’ve never been hurt before. We sing like no one is listening. And we pitch like we have pants on.

What I Did Not Do On My Summer Vacation

It is, somehow, autumn again, that season of sharp pencils, cozy sweaters, and mornings punctuated by the noise of a certain screechy bird that makes me achingly lonely. The quiet endings and erotic leaves of fall once made it my favorite time of year, but as I get older I find myself drawn to spring, abounding with fluffy baby animals, bright green shoots pushing up through the dirt, and honeyed light.

I am getting sentimental in my Demeter years.

I had a long list of books I meant to read, most of which I did not. In particular I did not read Jennifer Weiner’s new novel, Who Do You Love, because the story of a man and a woman who meet as children and keep losing and finding each other through the years hits me in a place I’d rather not be touched, generous and warmhearted as I’m sure it is. I also didn’t read Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights because while your books, Mr. Rushdie, are also very good, reading the book description on Amazon tuckered me right out.

We had custom closets built in our bedroom and they make me so happy. All I’ve ever wanted is to live at Shutters on the Beach, and so late at night I put everything away in its own little cubby, light a scented candle, and pretend the sound of traffic on the BQE is the ocean.

Seabirds honk, right?

Jonathan and I spent a week at Kripalu, eating vegetarian food and farting our way through yoga class. I bought a fancy yoga mat and flip flops that have separators between all the toes. I also bought a book about Tantra, which I meant to read but didn’t.

All three of us, Jonathan, Emmy and me, spent a week in Phoenicia, NY, which is Brooklyn with more trees and a very long drive to get coffee. We attended the bar mitzvah of a dear friend’s charming son, in Woodstock, at a temple where the Rabbi accompanied herself on guitar and they hand you a maraca at the door. This is the kind of Judaism I can get with.

I listened to many, many, many podcasts.

I quit one job and started another. It was a good move, made for the right reasons. In the past, leaving a job always felt like a breakup, but this was more of a graduation. I’m an MRY alumna for life.

We have begun the process of getting Emerson into middle school, which is as terrible as everyone says it is. I recall my college application process as being significantly less stressful than this, but then again, I chose a college by evaluating which campus had the best sunset and was the shortest driving distance to my boyfriend.

I ended up transferring after a year and the boyfriend and I broke up, but there are worse ways to make a decision, I think. Those were some knock out sunsets.

How do you do what you do, every day?

I received this letter from a young woman who’s at the beginning of what I’m certain will be a big life in advertising. With her permission, I’m replying here.


Dear Stefanie,

What does a female need to do to have her name remembered in this business by the males she works with every day?

I thought it was something like “work really really hard,” “do really really good work that continues to make the wall and the pitches and the CCO’s desk.”

I read that it was to “lean in,” or “keep your hand up.”

I figured maybe “work the weekends,” “go in early / stay late” couldn’t hurt. And that “volunteer to work on this” would only yield positive results.

I even thought maybe the most basic, “introduce yourself” and “say hello in passing” might be totally valid ways. Seems sensible?

How is one expected to be motivated to keep doing the good work when if she does, a male writer is “accidentally” given the credit?

Or when she’s told, “He keeps forgetting you’re on this pitch. It’s weird. But I remind him and he thinks it’s really cool you want to help” ? Help? No, I want to win.

Who do you look to when there are literally no females in higher creative positions in your place of employment?

How do you do it? I’m sincerely asking. Is the answer simply “more”? More time, more work, more handshakes?

It makes me feel really sad. And sick. And then I wonder if my name was only remembered in the first place because I really liked to bake cookies in college. And that makes me sadder.

Sad Mad Woman

Dear Sad Mad Woman,

I have been obsessively thinking about your letter and how to answer you. In no small part because it could have been written by a 22-year-old me, just staring to make her way in the world and almost wholly unprepared.

You say it makes you sad. It used to make me furious. Probably sad is better, because you won’t ever find yourself having to live down a reputation for being “inappropriately angry,” “scary,” “dramatic,” and “overly emotional.”  You also won’t have the humbling experience of realizing it’s all true, and learning a new way to be.

I’ll tell you what I know. I’ll also tell you that I learned what I know from Cheryl Strayed, Anne Lamott, Tina Fey, Marie Forleo, Sheryl Sandberg, Janet Kestin & Nancy Vonk, Rebecca Solnit, and Naomi Dunford. So I did learn from the best.

This chart.

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Things you can’t control include: how other people behave, how other people treat you, what other people think of you, the weather, the past, who you are related to, your sexual preference, and everything you don’t acknowledge. Also, the laws of physics and the fact that the cat will immediately kick litter all over the floor immediately after you vacuum. Because cats are assholes.

Things you can control: your behavior and how you respond to the behavior of other people. It may not sound like a lot, but includes everything from who you spend time with to how you develop and use your talent to whether you make it a habit of flossing every night.

You can’t control who remembers your name or who takes credit for your work. Only how you respond to it.

Youth is prized. Immaturity isn’t.

I once read that there is no such thing as a neutral woman. Every choice we make — long hair or short, makeup or bare face, long nails or short, manicure and pedicure or natural, skirt or pants, length and kind of skirt, bra or no bra, and on and on — every one of these choices telegraphs something. I’m feeling it pretty acutely myself lately, and often stand in front of my closet, asking myself, “What do 46-year-old grown-up ladies wear?” I’m still figuring it out, but I’ve decided it’s not the plaid dress I’ve had since 1998.

https://www.etsy.com/listing/241175950/vintage-1980s1990s-jodi-kristopher?ref=market

Vintage. Like me.

I guess what I’m saying is, take inventory. Are you dressing and styling yourself to look like someone who ought to be taken seriously? How do the people in your office present themselves? Do you mesh with the vibe? Do you look like someone they’d happily put in front of clients? I’m not saying you need to wear a nice pantsuit (unless a nice pantsuit is your thing) or be anything other than unique yourself, but you do need to ask what story you’re telling about yourself with your choice of clothes, hair and makeup. Who do you look like? I know I probably sound like a traitor to post-feminism, but you know what? If you show up at the meeting in a dress that looks like a shirt and you forgot your pants, they STILL may not remember your name but you can be certain they will remember your fanny.

Don’t lean in so far you fall over.

Look, it’s not worth it to work harder and harder and longer and longer and lean in and raise your hand and then suddenly wake up one day to realize you’re 40 and your asshole cat is dead and you haven’t taken a vacation in 11 years. It’s just not.

You need to go home. You need to read and knit and do whatever else it is you want to do. You need a way to recharge your battery and meet people who are not people in your office. You need to have a life. And yes, the hours in our industry are notoriously brutal. But the trick is, only work that hard when it matters. On a pitch? Work until you drop, sure. A launch, a deadline…all good reasons to put in the hours. But on a regular basis, showing up and staying late just for the sake of being there isn’t worth it.

As for volunteering to work on projects — do your own time. Unless you bring something vital to the table that no one else can bring, like the pitch is for a knitting business and you’re the only knitter in your office (Do you even knit? I seem to think so.) Otherwise, let the assigned team do the job they were assigned to do, and YOU go home. Or better yet, to dance class or whiskey tasting club or to dinner with a skier you met at the farmer’s market over the weekend. You need to live a whole life.

That said, in some situations it is good to be generous and ask if you can help. Not in a way that seems like you are hovering or trying to edge in on anyone’s territory, but if someone looks like they’re drowning or the pitch team is being run ragged, go ahead and ask if you can lend a hand.

http://www.marymaxim.com/free-chunky-blanket-crochet-pattern.html

I wish I could knit, then maybe I’d stop spending all the money on fancy Pottery Barn throws.

Don’t apologize.

Unless you are wrong, of course. Then apologize quickly, humbly, and with sincerity. I’m talking about things like “Sorry but, I had an idea?” “Sorry but, I think maybe I disagree with you?” “Sorry, I know how busy you are, but could you review this copy?”

I don’t know if you do this, but if you do, stop. As one of mentors advised me, “Just be normal” and say what you mean: “I have an idea…” “I disagree with you and here’s why…” “Please look over this copy and let me know what you think by the morning…”

You do not have to apologize for showing up and doing your job well. You don’t have to apologize for your thoughts, your talent, or your opinions. You have nothing to be sorry for.

Don’t bake.

I am going to assume you no longer bake things and bring them to the office. But if you do, stop today. You can bake for your friends, your family, your boy/girlfriend, me, and your children, should you decide to have some. Do not bake for your workplace. You are not anyone’s mother, girlfriend, daughter or roommate at work. You don’t want them to remember you by your cookies.

Don’t sit on the floor.

Do you do this? There are no chairs left in the room so you sit on the floor? Stop it. Sit at the table or if there are no seats left, stand close by — not at the edges of the room and not in the corner.

http://www.johnnylovesjune.com/collections/canvas/products/corner-where-nobody-puts-baby

“Stop interrupting me.” “I just said that.” “No explanation needed.”

Internalize this powerful advice from Soraya Chemaly: http://www.alternet.org/words-every-woman-should-know

“We’ve met before…”

This comes in handy when someone doesn’t remember you. Do NOT let anyone get away with pretending they don’t know who you are. Remind them, with good humor, that you’ve met, and where, and when. Do this every time they forget you.

Believe people when they show you who they are.

That male copywriter who “accidentally” got credit for your idea and didn’t correct the mistake? He’s a thief. Remember that for all your future interactions with him. He will take credit for your work, he will not pull you into the meeting or support you. Let that inform all your future interactions with him. I don’t mean you should be rude or hostile to him, or gossip about him. But don’t give him anything — no favors, no ideas, no help, no support. And protect your work against him.

Keep your cool.

If you need to cry, go somewhere private. If you feel yourself getting flustered or losing your temper, excuse yourself. When this happens to me, I sometimes pretend my phone is ringing and I have to take a call, and I put a worried look on my face, apologize for the interruption, and leave the room to collect myself.

Find an ally. Or many.

There may not be any senior women creatives in your agency, and that’s awful. But there is the 3% conference, AWNY, and all these women. Go to conferences. Reach out via email. Build a network.

And after all of this, there will still be some people who don’t remember your name, don’t acknowledge your contributions, and forget you are on their pitch. Time is not the answer, working harder is not the answer. Boundaries, respecting yourself, doing amazing work, taking credit for what’s yours (and being generous with credit to anyone who collaborated or helped you), refusing to be forgotten, reminding them that they DO know you, that you’re NOT sorry, and you are NOT going anywhere, this is where you start.

Always,

Stefanie

Nice Girls Do…Negotiate

I have a new piece up at LinkedIn, which is part personal story and a whole lot of advice about negotiating like bad ass motherfucker.

I had been working at MTV Networks for seven years on the day my paycheck was too big. I hadn’t gotten a raise, it wasn’t bonus time, and I wasn’t getting reimbursed for expenses—but for some reason my regular paycheck was hundreds of dollars greater than it should have been. I was nonplussed (in the traditional sense), and confess I thought about cashing it and not saying anything. But reason prevailed, along with guilt, and I called human resources. HR, also confused, said they’d look into it. Thirty minutes later I got a call from the head of my department, who apologized for the awkwardness but had good news to share. A recent audit of department-wide compensation had revealed I was significantly underpaid, and as a corrective measure I’d been given an increase to bring me into the correct salary band. I’d just gotten a double-digit raise.

You’re welcome!

I was happy, of course, but also unsettled. For a long time I’d had a vague suspicion that my salary didn’t compare to that of my colleagues, and here was absolute confirmation I’d been underpaid since my first day on the job. Every raise and bonus I’d received had been negatively impacted by my low starting salary and my failure to ever ask for a substantial increase, even though several promotions.

Here’s the irony of the situation: I was a senior-level contract negotiator in the Law & Business Affairs department. If ANYONE ought to have been able to advocate for herself it should have been me. But I was 25 when I started at MTVN, and so thrilled to be there, I would have paid them for the privilege of walking into 1515 Broadway each day. My insecurity never truly abated, and the certain knowledge that there were hundreds of people more than willing to take my place made it difficult to ask for more than I was offered. I failed negotiate for myself over and over, and I paid the price, literally, in real dollars.

Read the full post, 7 Tips for Negotiating Like a BAMF, on LinkedIn.

The Solid Ground I Walked On And The Safe Air I Breathed

When I was 6 years old, my mother and father divorced. He vanished like a sorcerer’s trick and she, until then a stay-at-home mother, went to work. She was very glamorous, dressing each morning in silk and wool, donning tall leather boots and statement jewelry. I had only the vaguest idea of what she did, but I imagined her as one of the career gals I saw on TV, a cross between spunky Mary Tyler Moore and cheerful Bonnie Franklin on One Day at a Time. A bus took my mother to Manhattan every day, where she rode an elevator to a high floor. There were late nights at the office, business trips around the country, and something called “market week,” which demanded all her time and energy several times a year.

When she was gone, I was entrusted to her mother’s care. No wrinkly bubbe, my grandma was young and charming, only 46 when I was born. I adored her, the way swing music seemed to play wherever she went, her delight in bawdy jokes, and the endless stories she told about her audacious youth. We had the most glorious time together.

My grandma posing for the camera as a young woman.

My grandma posing for the camera as a young woman.

But despite the love and care lavished on me by my grandmother when my mother was away, and my mother’s own playful affection when she was home, I was furious with my mother. In the dark fairytale I told myself, my handsome, charismatic Daddy’s strange disappearance had opened a door for her, and she had deserted me for a glittering life that lay elsewhere—in offices and on airplanes, in hotel rooms and tall buildings. My rage grew between us like brambles. I thought I knew the truth of her, that she was distant, and selfish. I believed I mattered to her, but not as much as everything else.

To call me a fool would be too kind.

In recent years, I have pieced together my mother’s version of this story. She resisted telling me, not wanting to upset me, but I have pried it out of her, a sharp-edged treasure.

On the day my mother kicked my narcissistic, philandering, thieving father out of the house, she was 30 years old, possessed only a high school diploma, and was in a mountain of debt she knew nothing about, because my father had “managed” their finances. She was movie star beautiful (I have seen photos and she was a dead ringer for young Elizabeth Taylor), deeply intelligent, and so terrified she could only manage to exist from one breath to the next. She began her career as a secretary at a company that manufactured underwear, and with nothing but her formidable grit, nimble mind, and unshakable determination, she rose to become Vice President of a lingerie company that was known around the world. Her success was personal, certainly, but it was also political. She was one of the women who cracked the glass ceiling so future generations could shatter it.

She did this not for vanity or ambition, but because there was no one else to take care of us. She divorced my father and settled his debts. She fed, sheltered, and clothed us. She bought me books, took me to plays, sent me to camp. All the while, she sheltered me from the painful realities of our life, never letting me know about the years of financial precariousness, my father’s cruelty, her exhaustion and sadness. She accepted my rage to spare me the weight of the truth—the Daddy I pined for had abandoned me utterly. He never called to ask how I was; he never sent a dime of support. My mother was the sun that warmed my shoulders and the moon that lit the dark, the solid ground I walked on and the safe air I breathed, and I never knew.

I see her with new eyes now; my anger replaced by awe for all she accomplished, for her courage and ferocious compassion. When I revisit our shared history, the thought of her — so young, so overwhelmed — makes me hurt. But there is one memory I treasure as a talisman and a comfort. When I was little, I would sometimes weep and beg her to tell me where my father had gone, ask why he didn’t love me anymore. And she would rock me in her arms and soothe me with the names of all the people who did love me, always starting with herself. “Mommy loves you,” she would whisper. “Mommy loves you most of all.”

My mother, gorgeous in a silk suit, dancing with me moments before my wedding in 2004.

My mother, gorgeous in a silk suit, dancing with me moments before my wedding in 2004.

This post originally appeared on the blog “I’m Just Sayin” as part of a series about the often complicated love between mothers and their children.