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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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.