Floating Through My 40s

Six days before my daughter died I turned 40 years old. That milestone was not so much celebrated as it simply happened, a little island of obligatory and forced cheer in the midst of an ocean of sorrow, knowing our girl was dying. Donna was having what would be her last best day. She worked with her auntie to bake me a cake. It was chocolate and she chose the heart shaped cake tins.

Cue the tears. Dammit.

I can’t think about that birthday without tears springing from my often extremely well lubricated eyes. That cake was heartbreaking and life affirming and overwhelming and delicious. My sweet girl baked me a cake and then she died. That cake will be in my memories for all my days. All of them.

On Sunday I turn 50. With this milestone, I have more space and less impending doom. With some of that space, I’ve reflected on this past decade, as middle aged ladies are wont to do. So many women I know love their 40s. They feel powerful, released from insecurities, finally claiming their place in the world. I can’t really say the same for myself.

A few months ago I met a girlfriend for a museum exhibit. We paid good money to walk through the museum, but legitimately looked at not a single thing. Instead, we found ourselves talking and connecting and recognizing that the losses we had experienced in recent years had contributed to a mutual sense of suspension, kind of being frozen in time, devoid of direction and motivation, a sort of muffled recovery. She called it “floating” and the moment I heard her say the word, it clobbered me with the weight of its truth.

I have, essentially, floated through my 40s. In the past decade, I have lost my daughter, my Dad, my career, and had three miscarriages (on top of one I had at 38). I could go on, but you get the point.

That’s a lot.

In some moments, I extend myself grace and wisdom, knowing that the losses I have known are extensive and traumatic. Of course I have spent time reeling. In other moments, I acknowledge the privilege of being able to float through a decade of adulthood. I mean, that is some pampered lady ish, having a life where all the things my family needs are provided without me needing to fret or contribute financially.

Maybe it’s exactly that layer of comfort that insulates me and has enabled me to float and float and float. 40 gave way to 41, which turns to 44, then 47 happens, and you blink and realize 50 is just 72 hours away. Just. Like. That.

I don’t even know what the point is of me putting all of this into words. Maybe someone out there needs to read it, to feel that same sense of connection and validation I felt in the conversation with my friend in that museum exhibit. Maybe its an attempt to make my peace with it, to reassert myself, me, here I am, see, typing on the keyboard.

I don’t really know.

I don’t want to float through my 50s. I want to be more accountable, more present, more intentional. Life is short, yada, yada, yada, YOLO, insert favorite cliche here. All of it is true. We do this once. I’m going to be expecting more of myself this decade, because the next time I blink I will be 60 and, well, that’s just damn crazy.

Opt Out Culture – Is It a Problem?

I’ve been thinking a lot about America’s growing ‘opt out culture’ these days. We don’t like something, we opt out. The concept seems simple enough, harmless enough. Last night, I opted out of broccoli at the dinner table. I’ve never been a fan of those little healthy trees. Some days I opt out of taking a shower or washing my hair. My people still love me. Right now, I am opting out of cleaning the house after a busy weekend. But look! I’m being productive, writing this post, exercising my mind! It’s all good.

But is it? Some things folks are opting out of have higher stakes than a stalk of broccoli. Vaccines, public education, religion, voting. More and more Americans are opting out of all of those things and the cost of that is starting to assert itself.

The Pew Research Center continues to detail that as Millennials age, our nation is becoming less religious overall. While still an overwhelmingly Christian nation in identity, the fastest growing religion in America is Islam. Those religions that have seen the greatest drop in followers are Mainline Protestantism and Catholicism.

In the 2016 presidential election, only 55% of those eligible to vote actually filled out a ballot. The last time more than 60% of Americans came out to vote was in 1968 (at the height of the Vietnam War) and the last time 70% of Americans cast a ballot in a presidential election year was freaking 1900. Shout out to the GOP’s William McKinley for winning that distinction.

Yesterday the New York Times posted an article called, “How Anti-Vaccine Sentiment Took Hold in the United States.” It was chilling to read. When you connect the dots as a historical review, as the article encourages, you can see how different factors (social media, poorly conducted research studies, celebrity proselytizers) contributed to the growth of the anti-vaccine movement that is now posing a threat to others.

Public school education has seen a sharp decline in numbers in recent decades. More people are opting out for a variety of reasons, leaving less funds for those that remain. The growth of homeschooling and charter schools, pulling resources (more than just financial) in different directions, leaves fewer resources for public schools. Something that has historically been the domain of the government — using public funds to educate our children in a communal classroom setting that the whole community benefits from and contributes to — is now shrinking and struggling as we watch it flounder.

And lest you think I am scolding you, dear reader, for something I am not guilty of myself, I, too, am guilty of engaging in the easy to justify opt out.

We opted out of sending our oldest boy to our neighborhood school. Instead, he is thriving at what Chicago likes to call a “selective enrollment school” for gifted and talented kids. It’s a public school, but he had to test into it. My younger guy is spending his kindergarten year at a private Montessori school that seems to be a better fit for him than our neighborhood school that made very clear they have an academic based kindergarten environment where every child is expected to perform to a level we felt would or could be detrimental to our kiddo. We opted out.

As a woman in my 20s, I opted out of religion. I went on to marry an atheist, so, yeah, we are not raising our children in any religion. This month, I made a conscious decision to opt out of promoting or advocating for Childhood Cancer Month, something that would have been unthinkable to me just a couple of years ago. In the spring, I opt my son out of the PARCC standardized testing that I believe serves corporate interests more than it benefits school kids or teachers.

I have defined reasons that I can articulate passionately and convincingly for everything I opt out of, which, I am certain, those who do not vaccinate their kids or bring them to Church or Temple or Mosque, or choose to homeschool can also do.

My question, really, is where does this bring us? What are the costs of so much opting out? This is what I think all of us need to be paying more attention to in our increasingly polarized culture.

I can’t help but wonder if this gasp of religious fervor some of our elected officials are exercising is a response to some of these trends. Or the mother that threw her menstrual blood on California lawmakers who were voting to tighten up and eliminate vaccine exemptions. Or the law that was passed under Illinois’ last Governor that enables tax payers to donate money to subsidize scholarships for private school education.

If so many of us are opting out of so much, perhaps we should start to think about what that will create and how it will impact the world around us, in ways large and small.

What Hilton’s New Maternity Leave Policy Gets Wrong About Adoption

The Hilton Hotel chain is in the news this week after unveiling their revamped maternity leave policy for full time employees. Kudos to them for extending paid benefits to 12 weeks for mothers working full time, but shame on them for not extending that benefit to mothers who adopt.

As announced yesterday, the hospitality group will extend paid maternity leave for birth mothers from 10 weeks to 12. That is, indeed, generous in American standards and establishes Hilton as an industry and corporate leader.

Things look a little less rosy, though, when it comes to who is covered under the policy. That 12 week window is cut to just four weeks for mothers who adopt rather than birth a baby. Nope. That distinction is as sour as a newborn’s spit up for me.

Hilton’s policy makes clear that paid maternity leave is more about the physical recovery of the mother after child birth than the need to bond with said child. By providing adoptive mothers just one third the paid time off as biological mothers, Hilton is making a value judgment that adoptive mothers are less deserving of benefits than a biological mother and that biological children are more deserving of time with mom than an adopted child. That, to me, is shameful and discriminatory.

As told to CBS’ MoneyWatch, Hilton’s Chief Talent Officer, Laura Fuentes, stated, “We’re not differentiating — it’s the same for housekeepers as in the C-suite.” Except differentiating is exactly what Hilton’s new policy does, by differentiating between mothers who give birth and mothers who adopt.

I have parented three newborns and was employed when my first two children were born. After the birth of my first child, I returned to work after a 12 week unpaid leave. After my second child was born, I ended up not returning to employment. less because I had just given birth and more because at that point, my older child had relapsed cancer that required three months of out-of-state treatment. My third child was adopted.

Me and my youngest at 6 weeks.

Believe me when I say that each of those times parenting a newborn was challenging and taxing in very different ways, but each of those newborns was deserving of a mother being present in their first few months. Period. Some might even suggest, and they would not be wrong, that an adopted infant’s need to bond is even more crucial, as they are born into a kind of trauma, being separated from their birth mother in those early days.

Before my husband and I adopted, I wondered and worried what it might be like to raise a child that had not grown in my body. Would the love be different? Would the maternal bond exist? Would I see and treat my children differently, depending on how they were conceived, whose uterus they grew in? It was a consideration in the choice to adopt.

Six years into my youngest son’s life, the answers to those questions are nuanced. I have two living children, both sons, and the love I feel for them is very much the same. The maternal bond is equally strong and fierce for each — they are both thoroughly mine. But, yes, adoption has changed how I see and treat my youngest boy. Not because of how he was conceived or whose uterus he grew in and that it was not my uterus, but because he has a story and roots that are unique and specific to him and that, as his mother, I need to honor and respect.

Hilton’s maternity leave policy rewards and favors mothers who give birth over mothers who adopt and feeds into harmful and damaging prejudices against adopted children and families. Those prejudices are real, which is what enables the legal discrimination that is, at its core, what Hilton’s paid maternity leave policy is.

Me and my youngest at 11 months.