“SHIT.” I look down and see that the hands-free breast pump has completely filled the bottle on my left breast. Milk is spilling onto my leg. In the backseat, my 8-month-old son, Odie, is screaming. Hungry. And we are in a rush, barreling down the freeway hoping to pick up my three-year-old from preschool before we’re charged a late fee.
I shut off the pump. With my eyes on the road, I reach into my backpack on the passenger seat and, miraculously, find a sippy cup filled with watered-down apple juice. I unscrew the lid with one hand and chug. All I have to do next is figure out how to stay in my lane while I disconnect the overflowing milk bottle from the pump so I can pour it in the sippy cup, screw the lid back on, and pass it to Odie, still screaming, in the backseat.
“This feels dangerous,” I say, out loud. An understatement. Despite the screaming, words from wise philosophers Clarkson, Kanye, and Nietzsche run through my head.
What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.
I have never believed more in the power of women than in January of this year. I was changed by the glorious Women’s March, the brazen #metoo wave, the Wonder Woman craze, and the toppled tyrannies of Weinstein, Cosby, Batali, Lauer, and hundreds of others. That’s why when I decided to take both of my kids with me, and me alone, to LA for pilot season, I did so with an imaginary superhero-red cape flowing behind me. I knew it would be hard, and I was into that. My husband, Neal, had been working for years to get a greenlight on a passion project and was excited to take the whole family to Hawaii to shoot it. Unfortunately, the on-location-wife-mother role was not one I was born to play. I’ve seen women who are not only good at it, but down right angelic, inspired, full of grace. I wish I was one of those women. I’m not. Spending all day at home with my kids leaves me resentful, uninspired. My plan was always to get back to work after giving birth. And after watching girls run the world last year, I felt even more committed to exhibiting my version of feminism to my two boys. Women can do anything. I said to myself. I’m going to show these boys that their mom’s grace and grit shine through when she not only throws herself back into the work force, but also effortlessly parents alone. Backwards and in heels.
What a dummy I was.
Well, not completely. For the four and a half months that I lived in California with my kids, I never felt like a victim of the patriarchy. Gus and Odie were with their mom on her goddess quest of ultimate feminism. Daddy had his job, mommy had hers. In fact, after living in a generous friend’s basement and cooking dinners on a hotplate, I began to feel like I was in some 80’s movie where I got to say lines like, “Kids, mommy has an audition today and if it goes well, I’m gonna get us our own house to live in!” It was a riot.
I regularly sat Gus, my three-year-old, on the potty, told him to make his best “unimpressed face,” and performed monologues in my heels to him at 5:00am. He told me I look more like a doctor when I put my hand on my hip, which was helpful. Some nights we forfeited the hotplate and camped out on the floor eating cottage cheese right out of the Kroger container and called it dinner. I was consistently memorizing 20 pages of material a day and performing for a panel of producers and directors in my auditions. I was also keeping up with laundry, school forms, groceries, packing lunch, breastfeeding, traffic, and still managing to exercise every day to fit into my jeans. I was doing all of it as a “single” mother with limited childcare. My hands often shook with adrenaline. Some may have thought I was thriving.
In the 1960s, a Hungarian endocrinologist, Hans Selye, began his research on the positive effects of stress on the brain. He coined the word Eustress, an invigorating experience that fosters health, motivation, performance, and emotional well-being. Eustress is good stress, and I believe Selye would have said that I was in this zone. I was the Mistress of Eustress, an Amazonian acrobat, marching on my noble quest in an iron-clad pantsuit. Fueled by endorphins, my curling iron becomes a batarang! But if Selye had been able to closely monitor my brain chemistry over time, he would have observed a silent but undeniable shift in my neurons as I morphed into the Mistresses’ dark counterpoint. I had become Distress, in a near constant state of danger, desperation, need. That damsel careening down the freeway needed rescuing, and, terrifyingly, it took me a long time to realize it.
When did the shift happen? The fall of this heroine who suddenly saw herself from above, in danger and lactating in the HOV lane? Maybe the change was hard for me to see because I was scared to acknowledge my own weakness. What if I am the feeblest of all women? The exception to the rule? Or worse, what if women aren’t as strong as I had hoped? Would admitting defeat feel like the morning after Hillary lost all over again? I needed to avoid the agony of my own concession at any cost. The problem was that my desperation was soon undeniable.
There was the time I took a bunch of expired prednisone pills so I could put my stress-induced laryngitis on hold just long enough to test for the female lead in a primetime television show. It worked. My voice only started to fail me again when I called Neal on the walk back to the car after it was over.
Another time I got food poisoning by cooking (undercooking) the chicken strips in a rush and was puking and writhing in pain on the floor while my kids played next to me. Odie and Gus were fine, thank God, their chicken was well-done. Neal enlisted a friend who came over and found me lying on the floor. In case you’re keeping track, Kelly/Kanye/Friedrich, undercooked chicken didn’t kill me, but it definitely didn’t make me stronger.
There was also the issue with sleep. I wasn’t getting any. Odie wasn’t either. Night after night for weeks, which turned into months, I didn’t get more than four hours of broken sleep. Odie was refusing the bottle, and he was mad when my breastmilk supply slowed. All night long he grunted and cried with frustration trying to nurse. I kept my eyes closed, desperate for him to calm but terrified that when he did I’d fall asleep and he’d fall off the bed. We were both furious.
I am aware that on the scale of female hardships, the stories above are a cakewalk. I have two healthy children and a husband that I love. I CHOSE to be a single mother for this time. Life has always been hard for women, especially single mothers, not to mention ones struggling today with way more children than me or living below the poverty line. But it’s because of those moms that I hold myself to an even higher standard. And it’s why I write to you this summer. As a rule, we women aren’t taking care of ourselves. At any income level, in the storm of childrearing, how can we as moms responsibly monitor our own health, safety, and sanity?
I have a cheat sheet when it comes to my parenting style, influenced by the kill-me-make-me-stronger philosophy: Will this make my kids stronger or hurt them? How high on the monkey bars is too high? Does Gus have to hold my hand when we cross the street, or can I just put my hand near his back? Is the bathtub water too high, the bite of salmon too big? Where is the line? Previously an adventurer myself, as a parent I found myself fearing accidents and death at every turn, constantly assessing the risk/reward balance for my kids. That’s my job. But however diligent I have always been about them, I was missing one critical element in my parenting.
I wasn’t asking those same questions concerning my own health.
Then I did something right. I called my sister. I always call my sister.
“You pull over, Ashley. You pull over the car.” Her solution was so simple. I hadn’t even considered it. Forget the wasted drops of breastmilk, Ashley. Be late to pick up Gus from school. Stop. Take a breath to look at yourself. It’s not funny that you’re not sleeping. It doesn’t make you a badass. It’s dangerous to drive on so little sleep. While I assessed the risks for my children, I see now that I needed to begin to train my brain to ask, every day: How much sleep makes me a safe driver and caretaker? Am I drinking water? Okay, but how much? I may have benefitted from taking a pubescent magazine quiz entitled “Am I Crazy Right Now?” I would have clearly scored, “Yep. Yer Not Okay!” or, “Go Get Some Help.”
With awareness came action. Neal had been begging me for weeks to stop being stubborn and hire a nanny, even temporarily. Once I saw how naive I was, I logged onto a babysitting website and posted “Hiring Full Time Nanny, TODAY.” I may as well have thrown in, “No Experience Needed.” Erica showed up two hours later. She was CPR certified, had a ton of siblings, and drove a Prius. I handed her my two startled kids, walked to my car parked on the street, and cried until I fell asleep by the side of the road. It was a good sleep. In the weeks that followed I was in a constant state of evaluation. It helped. I sleep-trained Odie and began getting six hours of sleep a night. I upped my Prozac. I took the kids to Hawaii for a few weeks and reconnected with Neal. Parenting again with him was a huge relief. I began to breathe again.
It’s summer now, and the kids are calmer and more secure now that I’m thinking more clearly. Neal is home, and the family is back together. We’re halfway through this year. If last year’s lesson was about the staggering strength of women, so far, this year’s lesson is about the diligence, awareness, and sisterhood that is required to maintain that strength.
Fear not, kids. This Mistress of Eustress is alive and well in fair New York City. Her imaginary cape flaps behind her as she blazes down Amsterdam Avenue behind a jogging stroller, assessing her own danger and yours, at every crosswalk. Legend has it that if she looks at you she’ll shoot bliss-inducing endorphins out of her eyes. She also gives out free Cheerios.
Unfortunately, she doesn’t do nights anymore, so you’re on your own there.