Work-Wife: A Chance to Re-Write HERstory

This piece was originally penned in February 2021. Today, I am privileged to share it with this community. I do this as a reminder. A reminder to stop, look, and listen to what’s going on under all our bloated politics. If we did that, we’d understand what it truly means that throngs of people still experience how inequitably “essential” home-based work continues to be. We’ve ignored these individuals and their stories for far too long. It’s time we started listening.

I should start by saying that I’m one of the lucky ones. The ones whose husbands aren’t afraid of a little — okay, a lot of — work around the house. By this I mean not only fixing things that break, as is the customary reference, but also proactively taking up work that is so often, needlessly, and unceremoniously relegated to women. Or at least, relegated to the more domestically-included human in any housing-based partnership, and then mistakenly gendered along the way.

Phew.

If that sounds like a lot to process, that’s because it is. It’s also why I’ve chosen to frame this essay with a deeply personal story. In my experience, personal stories give much-needed context to broad-sweeping social narratives. And historically speaking, that kind of context helps support long-lasting change.

Change is why I got into this business, so I’ll just lay it all out right here.

I am a woman, and while I enjoy some aspects of keeping a home, I also enjoy having the freedom to pursue tasks that full-time home-making simply does not allow, whether or not one ultimately couples or raises children.

Luckily, I married a man who gets that on all levels.

He understands that each person’s worth is inherent to their personhood, and that this concept is completely separate and distinct from the monetary value of their earnings or the social value of their time — whether inside or outside the home.

Like I said, I’m one of the lucky ones.

Of course, there are still chores to be done and bills to be paid. There is no out-valuing that reality. But it was for precisely this reason that, early on in our marriage, we developed a clear understanding of how our house should run.

It’s this simple.

Never will he assume or suggest that I complete a task on the basis of my sex or gender, and in return, never will I assume the same of him.

Sound like a fairytale?

Let us assure you that it’s not. But it’s also a far cry from more restrictive arrangements of the past — and in some instances, also of the present. As a matter of fact, we’ve found that our marriage functions in a substantively different way than most other couples around us.

For example, the breadwinner? Could be either or both of us. Okay, maybe that part’s not so radical. But dishes-doer? Bed-maker? Laundry-folder? Ironer? Meal-planner? Grocery-shopper? Yard-maintainer? Wall-fixer? I could go further. However, my sense is that you get the point. And besides, the answer to all of these questions is the same: either or both of us.

“How very egalitarian,” some of you are thinking.

“Thanks,” we offer in reply, “but don’t you dare romanticize it.”

See, despite our best efforts, the division of labor in our home is very rarely “equal.” And yes, we knew this would be the case, because no amount of understanding could be expected to undo millennia of antiquated social rules. Especially not during a pandemic and historic social uprising.

By the way, how are we all feeling about the absolutely relentless world-pummeling we’ve survived to-date? You know, the one that began late in 2019, lasted all the way through 2020, and will likely be with us for the foreseeable future?

The disaster that we’ve come to call COVID-19 — and I suspect, many other less dignified names — has been one hell of a wake-up call for American households. I’d like to assume that the vast, ruinous landscape we’re trudging through will continue to reform and refine us, but history will be the arbiter of that decision.

Reformed and refined by what, you ask? By our response (or lack thereof) to the many injustices that ravaged American society long before the pandemic, but which are certainly brought into sharper relief by it. And my lord, do opportunities for reform and refinement abound.

In particular, the United States of America must still face and complete its reckonings with racial injustice and related points of access like a living wage, fair housing, nutritious food, quality medical care, and dignity-affirming education.

In each of these arenas, it’s critical to note that when we speak about injustices, we are actually speaking about individuals who have been wronged, communities who have been transgressed, and not just about broad academic or political buzzwords.

What this means is that when we speak about gender inequality, whether at-home or in the workplace, we are actually speaking about the ways in which women and people who don’t identify as male are denied opportunities, restricted in their movement or growth within the limited opportunities they’re given, or are made to disproportionately suffer the consequences of decisions they did not — or perhaps were not allowed to — make.

Let’s remember, none of those struggles are exactly new. The list of offending behaviors women endure daily — and have for generations — is the topic of another essay. Still, given that we have been handed the uncomfortable microscope that is COVID-19, it would be irresponsible not to evaluate long-standing social struggles in light of our more recent crisis.

Historically speaking, women’s roles in American society have actually expanded around periods of national and international strain. For example, women won the right to vote in 1920 — just two short years after the 1918 flu pandemic. And within two decades, women weren’t only allowed to work outside the home, they were explicitly asked to.

History buffs might recognize “Rosie the Riveter” as the World War II era campaign I’m referencing here — and take similar issue with its hasty copy-pasting on everything from coffee mugs to “Health Care Heroes” campaigns in this century’s pandemic. Rosie’s so ubiquitous that I’m not sure we even appreciate what she stands for anymore. How very symbolic.

Since then, women’s presence in the paid workforce has been anything but short and limited. It took only one additional generation for women in padded-shouldered pantsuits to enter corporate America in droves. And thanks to those trailblazers, women in my generation think nothing of reaching for jobs at the highest levels their education, experience, and social standing can buy.

But wait!

This doesn’t excuse America from making further efforts to achieve greater parity or justice. To be clear, for as much progress as we’ve made, many American households still assume home-based work is “women’s work.” And as long as that’s true, the most immediate threat to equality isn’t the board room — it’s the ironing board (and a bunch of other places).

I’m no social scientist, but I’d be willing to bet that many readers have said, “Yep, old news,” several times in this essay. And I’m with them — I hear them, I stand with them, I am one of them. That’s not the issue. I’d argue that, perhaps with exception to COVID-19’s forced re-domiciling, the bigger problem is America’s quiet acceptance of this reality in the first place.

What happens when we assume that the home is exclusively — or even primarily — the woman’s domain? The exact opposite of what should: women are un- or under-paid, our work is devalued, and we become invisible despite our many efforts to distinguish ourselves. Ear-bleeding double-speak about how “invaluable” we are doesn’t help, either.

So where does that leave us?

Exhausted already, women take to the streets and the polls, as we have for generations, to protest our treatment and demand better. But we have limits. And those limits get reached a lot faster when we realize that maintaining jobs outside the home will not save us; that voting for progressive, feminist candidates will not save us; and that perhaps no one really wants things to change for us at all.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only made this uncomfortable truth more apparent. In a time when we’re collectively called to “stay at home,” women’s lives should be central to nearly, if not all, conversations America has, bending the arc of justice towards appropriately protecting, recognizing, and compensating us for our time, effort, and energies.

That hasn’t happened — at least, not until recently.

What did we experience instead?

Even when women have managed to secure employment outside our homes, our tasks within them haven’t faded, they’ve only grown more demanding. And unlike our male counterparts, we can’t simply demand crisis pay to help us swallow these “new” responsibilities — because we’ve never been paid for work we do in our homes at all.

By now, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that women report feeling exhausted. No one asked to fragment themselves in this way could be expected to feel otherwise. But here’s the deal: for all our exhaustion, women see what’s going on, and just like the generations of women who came before us, we refuse to be held down by it.

We know better than anyone that our plight is a result of society not having a reliable system by which to understand — much less, assess — us. And so, as we’ve always been capable of doing, we wholesale reject its definitions and expectations. What serves us matters, too. So get ready for the reckoning.

But first, we have some questions:

How is it that women are so “invaluable” that our assigned work breaks us apart? How is it that our male partners — both business and domestic — see this and do nothing to change it? How is it that so many people live in peace with the knowledge that women’s “invaluable” nature renders us broken and exhausted to the point of invisibility?

The answer is that there’s gross injustice at work.

That’s right, we have some answers, too.

But if the devil’s in the details, so too does evil hide within the criminally obvious. That means we have to talk about gender inequality in great depth, starting right now. Yes, today. Not tomorrow. Not next election cycle. Right now.

And that brings us back to our current context. We’re living through a global pandemic that, at least for women, has changed very little — except to bring into even sharper relief how maddeningly the same our lives actually are, whether relative to how they were two years ago, or relative to the many “onerous” changes our male counterparts bemoan by comparison.

Don’t you dare make the mistake of believing this injustice is just a past or present concern, either. Unless we do something to change it, women will continue to feel the effects of COVID-19 faster, closer, and longer than our male or male-identifying counterparts. This means that our rapidly evolving situation might also breed an unjust future.

Neither should this be a difficult concept to grasp, though let’s not render it ineffectual. It just means that women need as many people as possible, across as many channels as possible, to make our reality plainer than plain — for as long as we possibly can.

On that note, I’d like to propose a slight “rebrand” of this conversation. The reason is two-fold: (1) we need to be on the same page before we aim to make change in our unique corners of the world, and (2) whether or not we succeed will depend in large part on how well we equip ourselves with language that the vast majority of people can understand.

So bear with me.

Rather than leaning exclusively on the language of injustice, I’m going to start calling gender inequality a problem. In my experience, that word has a higher success rate when it comes to driving action. That is probably because people are hard-wired to fix “problems” — and that is thanks to the perception that problems are quotidian in nature, and thus solvable by anyone, whereas “injustices” often seem so large that no one could possibly help. This is an important distinction.

With me so far?

Now, since we need every willing person to help us, I’m going to call gender inequality a problem — and hope it makes a difference.

Remember the beginning of this essay, where I told you that personal stories also have the capacity to make change? I’m going to attempt to weave the larger social and historical context we’ve been discussing back together with my own — and hope that makes a difference, too.

Even as a woman with a fully-committed husband, the pandemic has brought about one principal change for me — and it’s not one I’m happy about. Over the past year-and-a-half, I’ve gone from being a wife who works, to a stay-at-home “work-wife.” I’ll explain what that means in a minute, though let me assure you that it’s neither sexy nor exciting.

First, you need to understand our family’s previous home context.

Even before the virus, my husband worked in a career that barely afforded him time to eat or sleep. Back then, he labored in days-long shifts at the office, surviving on nothing but adrenaline, cheap take-out, and willpower. Maybe there’s some caffeine in there too, but that’s beside the point. What matters — as he would also tell you — is that my husband was almost never home. And as we were — and still are — two people in this marriage, of course his reality affected me.

The first major impact? A forced, false singlehood. And the second? Learning very quickly to make good use of my free time. In the beginning, this freedom encompassed only a few short hours a week. But eventually, my spirited pursuits outside of work became my work, and at that point, I furnished myself with a home-based office.

This accomplishment will always make my “top five” list of favorite moments. I’d finally liberated myself from toxic notions of success and, in their wake, started the journey I’d been called to take since I was a little girl. Even then, I knew to cherish these moments because I’d never get them back. I just had no idea how right I’d be.

Fast-forward to March 2020.

When it became clear that COVID-19 would be staying stateside, my husband joined me in working from home. And we welcomed this adjustment with open arms. First because it greatly reduced our risk of viral exposure, and second because, for the first time in our marriage, we actually got to live with each other.

This is not an exaggeration.

It’s also a fact I proudly shared with our family, our friends, the neighbors, or really anyone who would listen. I was just that excited.

Another problem, though.

Excitement can be blinding. Blinding to the point where important clues get missed. And let me tell you, from the other side of this transition, I never saw our current reality coming.

Today, instead of my once-neat work schedule:

Wake at 8

Eat breakfast by 9

Workout by 10

Work until 1

Eat lunch and relax until 2

Work until 6

Eat dinner and relax until 8

Work until 10

Go to bed by 11 … okay, maybe midnight but who’s counting?

I have another work-worn human to take care of all the time, in addition to the home-based responsibilities he no longer has time for, given that his field understands “work from home” to mean “Great! you are now working 24/7/365 — and you better be immediately reachable, too.”

Enter my new role: “work-wife,” which includes a collection of duties just numerous enough to completely decimate my pre-pandemic career. And I’m exhausted. Completely and utterly exhausted.

I say all this from a position of clear privilege. That our biggest complaint involves unequal division of labor is absolutely a first-world problem. One that is softened even further by my husband’s commitment to being an equal partner who does his level best to correct the imbalance daily.

And to be clear, I know that our struggles could be so much worse. Either or both of us could be dead, either or both of us could be sick, either or both of us could be losing our home, out of work, lacking enough nutritious food, or have want of reliable access to medical care.

Thankfully, neither of us are these things. And in that context, it’s obtuse to assume that America should care about my new home-based duties, or even how they restrict the work I need to do in support of my chosen career.

But what if this problem wasn’t just about me?

What if my privileged complaint actually underscored the story of countless other people, partners, and parents who — whether through good will, coercion, or some terrible combination of them both — necessarily sloughed off or de-prioritized their own endeavors, citing medical, economic, or other family demands they’ve been asked shoulder simply because they are women?

What if these first-world problems were actually global problems of gargantuan weight and endless, tessellated variety, morphing and evolving as quickly as the virus itself? What if we were entirely unprepared for the decades- and possibly centuries-long ramifications of these changes? And I shudder, what if we didn’t want to admit that precisely because it was happening in the home, which is also the office — instead of the office, which was never meant to be at home?

“OH, CRAP,” some of you are thinking.

“She’s right,” others of you are saying.

“Can you stay a little longer, work-wife, and let me pick your brain?”

“Can you help us connect the dots, stop this collision course, and set the world right once again?”

It pains me, but no.

Unfortunately I can’t.

Why?

Because — as should be self-evident by now — I must get back to my other, non-paid (thankfully not thankless) job: making sure my family is fed, clean, and healthy in a time when we are literally just trying to survive.

Let’s be serious: someone has to do it. And at least for now, society values my husband’s profession much more than mine. Hence, my newly assigned role as “work-wife,” the advent of many supportive conversations, and eventually, this essay.

I’m a writer, by the way. When I’m not playing the role of “work-wife” to the best damn husband in the world, I can be found putting pen to paper, fingers to keys, and voice to air.

“Wow,” some of you are saying, “What have you written?” — as if my finished manuscript should somehow lessen the blows I’ve been dealt.

And others of you are joining them, pleading with me, “Why didn’t you say so?!” — as if somehow, you knowing this information any sooner might have changed things in any material way.

I roll my eyes, because my answers to these questions feel increasingly silly.

“Still,” my husband assures me, “someone has to answer them. And if not work-wife-previously-known-as-writer, then who?”

He’s got a point.

So, where is my work? At home. Both jobs.

What have I written? I’ve got a novel and a few blogs under my belt.

And why didn’t I say so earlier? Because I work on these things in stolen moments, which means I have even less time to explain the struggle to you. Because “work-wife” duties now come first. And because I worry that unless something seriously changes, this short-term arrangement might become much, much more permanent.

But again, this isn’t only about me.

This essay and my story are a warning, a call-to-FIGURATIVE-arms, a rally cry for every soul who gives a damn about women in America. If we’re smart, we’ll start re-writing HERstory today, right now, in this critical moment in time (read: they’re all critical moments).

The alternative?

If we’re not careful, society won’t remember the work that women lost or had to give up in this challenging season of life. And I don’t just mean their job titles upon furlough, firing, or resignation. I’m also speaking about their lost forward trajectories.

Just ask any woman who’s spent time away from the paid workforce and she’ll tell you what you need to know. For everyone else, it doesn’t take much to envision how COVID-19 makes life both inside and outside the home even harder for women.

For example, who is expected to revise their work schedules when childcare centers close down? Who is expected to complete home-based tasks between Zoom calls, spreadsheets, or class periods? Who gets to use “better” workspaces to begin with? The answers to these questions tell an interesting story. And that’s assuming that women have managed to keep their outside jobs in the first place.

Of course, for many women, this has not been the case. In addition to being forced back into their homes, they’ve also lost jobs — and with them, not only their physical paychecks, but also the freedom that comes with being compensated for their work, however well or badly. Absent this escape route, their only choice is to continue working at home and for free. And where that is true, we’re not talking about a “reduction in responsibilities” — we’re talking about a railroading.

This brings us to our second, scary alternative.

If we’re not careful, an entire generation of women will also be forgotten for the work they did when they “weren’t working,” for all the essential jobs they performed without pay, without breaks, without promise of promotion or recognition or anything else of male-assessed value. (That is, unless we count seeing big names with big platforms get paid to publicly lament “how terrible it was to watch this happen” — and then do nothing to change it).

So, where is change possible in this dire set of circumstances? Everywhere. And as a matter of fact, what happens next is entirely up to us. That said, I’d like to propose an alternate ending to the HERstory of COVID-19. This story can still end the way that women and other home-based workers truly deserve.

If you’re wondering what that looks like, then for starters we could:

(1) Stop silencing women’s voices;

(2) Start respecting women for the tireless work we’ve completed since the beginning of time and;

(3) Start compensating women as the essential workers we’ve always been, AND/OR accept our delegation of the duties we no longer have time for, starting right now.

In short, I’m proposing that we choose to abate the inequitable strain placed on women at every moment of lives — and make the world a better, stronger, more livable place for everyone as a result.

Why?

Because women hold society together. We help you process, keep you warm, keep you fed, keep you clothed, keep you schooled, keep you living and breathing and safe from harm — and when that is not possible (God help us), we keep you morally awake.

What’s more, we do this with grace and pride and minimal but thoroughly justified complaints. Because that’s just what women do: we make sure you live. No one better ask us what we do for a living ever again.

Instead, if you claim to value women, you can learn to actually value us. And no, despite your many protestations, you don’t. At least not yet.

How do I know that?

Because if America truly valued women — inherently and otherwise — we wouldn’t still be here.

If America truly valued women, I wouldn’t be writing this essay, we wouldn’t need to challenge gender norms on everything from the kitchen table to the White House and back, and we wouldn’t need to print Rosie the Riveter on everything imaginable, mindlessly proliferating World War II era propaganda that — remember — celebrated women for their sacrificial work in another period of national crisis.

In fact, women’s work would cease to be sacrificial at all.

We aren’t there yet. There’s still a lot of work to d–

Oh, I’m sorry, what’s that you’re saying? You know? Then good, we’re on the same page. Women won’t be working from home for free anymore. And as a matter of fact, we aren’t sure home-based work should be ours alone to begin with.

So go ahead.

Tell the others.

We’re waiting.

July 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s

Friends,

It’s good to see you here again.

Thank you for honoring our break for the month of June 2020. I hope you were able to use it in ways that support a world that is truly just. And, in the process, I hope you haven’t fallen into the trap of thinking your efforts must be the same as someone/everyone else’s.

On the contrary! Use your gifts and talents in the unique ways they were intended, but in order to do this, you must first learn yourself (get to know yourself on an uncomfortably real level). In support, I’d like to suggest some reads for the month of July 2020. Permit me a brief introduction?

More than a decade ago, I found myself in New Orleans for the summer (TL/DR, see here). Long story short, not unlike my choice to attend school in the Bronx, I went under the impression that I’d be able to do my best, most meaningful work somewhere other than where I was from. And even longer story short, I was proven wrong. So wrong it’s embarrassing.

The overwhelming lesson I took from my time in NOLA was that, actually, the most any of us can hope to do is affect good, decent change closest to where we are from, our homes. That lesson changed my life. I’m still learning how best to apply it, but a substantial amount of my resultant growth comes from accepting with grace that the work is never over. By this I mean that there is no “ok, we’re good now” moment, and as such, there can be no real “best way.” We’re all just doing our best on the way to something better. Or at least, I hope we are.

Maybe you read that and thought, “duh, Ryan.” But folks, how many of you have sought to do the work in YOUR homes, the places YOU’RE closest to, the places where there’s so much at stake that it hurts YOUR heart, the places where maybe YOU don’t even realize how much is at stake until YOU get going? And if you’ve started this work, how many of you have allowed YOURSELF the grace to stumble, fall down, make terrible and horrible mistakes, to acknowledge that you can’t solve this on your own, to be human after all?

Yeah, I know. But guess what? I’m standing here, broken and failing, right alongside you. Here’s what we can do to be better, though. Every time we let fear start to lead us down a path we mightn’t ought take, let’s try to remember something:

It’s so. very. easy. to finger-point at other people getting it wrong in other places. It’s a lot harder to look in the mirror and acknowledge your own culpability in your own home(s), which is why so few people do it (at all, let alone consistently). Admittedly, I’ve fallen into that trap on more than one occasion, so again, join the club.

It’s also shockingly easy to understand this all intellectually but then struggle to understand how to put it into practice (yep, been there), or to know how to put it into practice, but to hide behind the relative security of a brand that “does the work” (quotes absolutely intentional) because you’re too scared to do what you really need to do, personally speaking (done that).

That’s all okay, or at least it’s an okay place to start or restart from. The point is that it’s possible to “know” something or “learn” something, and have no idea how the actual heck to go about doing something else about it. Just don’t let that uncertainty and fear stop you from trying (she says as a recovering fear junkie).

For me, anyway, it’s often the strongest pulls, the truest truths, that feel weightiest (more here). And if you’ve had experience with those kinds of things, you’ll know that that kind of weight generally demands two things in order to be moved: (1) tremendous strength, and (2) recognition (humility!) that this strength does not have to come solely from you.

In fact, the most weighty, painful, heart-breaking, soul-wrenching, ultimately meaningful work is often done TOGETHER and not APART, even though it must be done PERSONALLY by/for everyone involved.

To put it a little more plainly, that people, home, and community are inextricably tied is not a coincidence. Neither is it a coincidence when their inextricable bonds get challenged. We should stop behaving as if they’re just by happenstance connected, or connected only in the “-ologies” of life (stuff we’ve “distilled” through academic work).

I assure you, what we actually do in our actual lives, not as statistics or records or whatever other Ivory Tower nonsense sometimes gets thrown around, is what matters. Leave other people’s examinations of themselves to them. You’ve got enough work to do on yourself, my friend.

On that note, I’d like y’all to start by reading one or both of the following anthologies. Then, instead of looking for my discussion guide at the end of the month, please do everyone a favor and do the work to study your own homes. Find the greatest area(s) of need, find the places that hurt to acknowledge, find the faults as much as the prides and joys. Then think long and hard about how you have PERSONALLY contributed to those things — and how YOU might use whatever superpowers YOU have to address them CONSTRUCTIVELY.

That, my friends, is the work that we all need to be doing. And for the record, it’s the work we’ve needed to do all along. But first, let’s learn to listen:

All the Women in My Family Sing: Women Write the World — Essays on Equality, Justice, and Freedom (2018, Nothing but the Truth Publishing, LLC, ed. Deborah Santana).

and/or

This is the Place: Women Writing about Home (2017, Seal Press/Hachette Book Group, eds. Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters).

Welcome to the Good Fight, y’all.

P.S. Itching for some fiction partner reads? Check out my Reading Words tab for a great place to start. You might recognize a few newly (re)popular titles in there. And if you don’t recognize the books, might I humbly suggest that you read them all the more?

P.P.S. If after reading these books you don’t get a sense for why having a female head of state would be helpful precisely in times like these, let’s talk. Because it’s time, whether or not you’re ready, and I already can’t wait for 2024. *kiss*

March 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Picks!

Dear friends who’ve chosen to join this journey, hello! I’m so glad you’re here.

The first month of this reading group will focus on the topic(s) of love and marriage — recognizing fully that they are not necessarily the same thing, or even remotely close to it, in either direction.

March is Women’s History Month, so I chose two female authors I was not previously familiar with for us to read. They are:

Lisa Taddeo, Three Women (2019, Avid Reader Press)

and

Molly Millwood, To Have and to Hold: Motherhood, Marriage, and the Modern Dilemma (2019, Harper Wave)

Both are works of nonfiction. I’ve already started Taddeo and let me just go ahead and say this — it’s not for the meek. However, it gives me much to be thankful for in my personal life and lots of food for thought more globally speaking. Besides, a challenging read is a good one as far as I’m concerned.

I don’t want to belabor these announcement posts any more than you want them belabored, so that’s all for today. Feel free to find the title (or both!) you’d like to read this month at your favorite bookseller, library, or audiobook purveyor. Let’s meet back here in the last week of March for our reflections — and to see what next month’s topic might be.

I look forward to seeing what we learn together.

Finding My New Thankful

Living in a Season of Thanks

I have no idea who follows me on this journey, and to be honest, attracting followers isn’t why I write in this corner of the universe. For me, it’s about a spirit of sharing, of learning, of connection, and of care.

I’m principally motivated by the desire to care for others, both on- and offline, and most days I’d stake my identity on that claim. But whoops, I messed up pretty badly, didn’t I? I’ve been neglecting this corner of the universe, and for that, I apologize. More on that later. Right now, by way of hellos and reintroductions, I’d like to honor your presence by breaking my silence with a post that’s as heartfelt as it is timely.

Before we get in too deep, it may help to know that I love the holidays. If you know me IRL, you know this already. I’ve probably talked your ears off about it on more than one occasion. And if you know this blog, you also know I’ve written about my love for the season over here. It’s been about a year since I annoyed the ever-living-you-know-what out of you on this topic, so in the spirit of the season, I thought, what better time to make my return? Ha.

In all seriousness, with the holidays providing opportunities galore for stock-taking and thanks-giving, deep down I knew it was time to do this work again. But here’s the thing. I also want this to be a season of actual giving on the blog, and the “gift” I’d like to give is the reminder that YOU ARE VALUED and YOU ARE LOVED. Whoa there with the Big Feelings, Ryan! Yeah, I can hear some of you reacting to that already, but hear me out.

Oh, the holidays! The strings of lights. The casseroles. The roasts and cookies and festive tunes. It’s all so wonderful, isn’t it? It is, it most definitely is. We dedicate ourselves to celebrations and social gatherings and reminding ourselves just how good we have it, no matter what we have (or haven’t), from the time the last piece of Halloween candy gets claimed, all the way until we ring in a new year. And that is wonderful. But it’s also sort of strange. Why do we limit our work in cherishing ourselves and others to a few short months per year? No, really. Why do we do this?

I grew up Catholic, and because of this, I’m programmed to find value and meaning in ordinary things, the things I’ve called “the littles” over many posts in a previous project. Lately, the notion of giving everyday thanks has really nagged at me, and while I won’t be reopening my last blog anytime soon, I do believe this is a sensible time to briefly resurrect its message.

On that note, I’d like to share a story, if you’ll permit. First, a short but serious warning that it trends heavier than some of my other posts, so those who are especially tender-hearted may feel completely free to “hug goodbye” now, with the knowledge that you’re cared about by at least one person. I hope your holiday season is glorious and filled with as many physical, emotional, and spiritual treasures as your heart desires. I mean that, truly, and I hope we find a reason to cross paths again.

For those who’ve elected to keep reading, allow me to take you back a few years, to a season where gratitude was something I took for granted, and where “living in a season of thanks” was, embarrassingly, essentially limited to the holidays and major life milestones.

Warm Hearts, Warm Nights

On a late-spring night in 2018, I was trying not to hyperventilate on the bathroom floor. Two lines had just presented themselves on a plastic wand before me. I was terrified. I always knew I’d wanted to be a mom. In younger years, I’d planned out a family with four kids, all by the age of 30. But there I was, late 20s, about to join the mommy club for the very first time — and absolutely positive that I was.not.ready. 

The rest of that night stands out so clearly. I’ve memorized it like you memorize favorite songs or movie scripts. It took mere seconds for me to get up, place the wand on the counter, and get myself outside for some fresh air. The dog and I barely made it around the block before I asked her if she was ready to be a “puppy sister,” because her “puppy mama” was going to need some serious coaching on the matter of this giant life change. She looked up at me, Cheshire grin on her perfectly whiskered face, and kept trotting along down the sidewalk.

It was that moment, right there, when I realized this was all going to be okay. Hubs got home an hour or so later, and the poor man barely had time to breathe before I dragged him upstairs to receive The News. We were both so happy, if entirely surprised. In the weeks ahead, we did all the things couples tend to do in this season of life: go to appointments, decide how we’d eventually tell our family and friends, calculate when our little bean would join us earthside, and yeah, argue over which room we’d be willing to sacrifice for a nursery when the time came. This was bliss. Pure, unadulterated bliss. Not that I knew or appreciated it.

Please Come in, It’s Cold out There Alone

[For more resources on miscarriage, see * at end of post].

Then the worst fear of every expectant couple materialized. We found out that our bean had been called home — just not to our house. Shortly after, past the “excuse me?” I offered the nurse, past the heaving of hearts, and later, of stomachs, past the yelling and anger and sadness, past all of it, I went numb.

Unlike the weeks before, when I’d made sure to soak up every detail of life, I approached what happened next by avoiding memory-making with a resolve that can only be described as absolute. And I pulled back from everything and everyone that mattered to me. Because that’s what happens with depression.

Luckily, though it felt like a tremendous inconvenience at the time, everyone I’d tried to push away was just as resolute about ensuring I wasn’t alone. And they loved me back into wellness, on all fronts. I’ll be forever grateful for these souls — doctors, nurses, family, and friends — across clinics, cities, and even hundreds of miles. They shared information, they shared hugs, and they shared hope, some without even realizing that they did, without even realizing they are superheroes in their own right.

Find Something to be Grateful for

This brings me to the larger point I’d like to make here. Along my journey, one person reminded me of something I think we can all learn from, no matter where we fall on the sliding scale of wellness, and no matter what season we find ourselves in. The reminder went something like this:

  1. Life is hard.
  2. Your life right now is even harder.
  3. Your experience is valid and it matters.
  4. But.
  5. There are also things to be grateful for.
  6. Look around for them and you’ll start to feel a little better each day.
  7. Yeah, I know it’s hard.
  8. Keep trying.
  9. And try again the next day.
  10. And the next.
  11. And one day, you’ll find more than one thing you’re grateful for again.
  12. And about that, you’ll be glad.

You know what? That person was right. [Person, yes, you can put that down on paper].

It is so, so important to allow yourself to be present in whatever feelings or emotions you have. Without being present in them, it’s hard to process them, live with them, and move through them into the next one(s) you have. And also, if you allow these feelings and emotions to control your life, to the point where they fully eclipse the gratitude you’d otherwise have, you might look back and regret missing whatever you’ve missed.

For me, this message was a critical wakeup call. I had to completely change my mindset. From that day forward, I made a point of finding something, even just one thing, to be grateful for every single day. At first, that was nearly impossible. It looked and sounded a lot like “Today I’m grateful for my shoes.” Not particularly inspiring, I know. But with each day, it got a little easier, and the things I was thankful for became more notable, until one day, just like that person said, I was grateful for more than one thing at a time. And then, just like that person said, I was glad — really and truly glad.

Thankfulness, Anew

That realization was about a year ago. Now we’re on the doorstep of another holiday season and I’m so happy it’s here. Sure, the holidays and their trappings bring me joy — this will never change — but more importantly, it’s been another year of love, support, and growth after the “terrible, horrible” that, in its own way, inspired my change of heart.

This year, when I count my blessings, I’ll count them a little differently. Make no mistake, I’ll still be thankful for my husband, who is my rock, for my family, who is my heart, for my friends, who are my joy, and my dog, who is my hope, but I’ll also be thankful for myself. Yeah, you read that right. I’m grateful for me, for just being here, for being present, for being able to be grateful at all. Life is good.

Before we go, I’ve also got to mention how grateful I am for YOU. Like I said at the beginning of this long-winded return, the best gift any of us can receive is the knowledge that we are valued and we are loved. I hope you know that you are both. From this small corner of the universe anyway, you’re all somebodies to be grateful for, and I wish nothing but the absolute best for you this holiday season always.

*P.S. Is someone you know struggling with pregnancy loss or the passing of a child? Are you struggling with how to best support someone in this position? Here’s a starter kit, but please, please, please, #dothework and do some research on your own. I promise, while many women feel better talking about their losses, not all of them do, and either way, the last thing they want to be is your encyclopedia. 

Two Links of Interest — Go Find More!

How To Support Someone Going Through Pregnancy Loss (HuffPo)

Dealing with grief after the death of your baby (March of Dimes)

Wright’s “Last Ride to Graceland”

“I’m proud to be a southerner, which isn’t always a fashionable thing to say.”

Cory Beth Ainsworth, p. 91

Last Ride to Graceland

I’ve been living in New York for awhile. Long enough to build a life, long enough to feel at home, long enough for a lot of good things to happen. But also long enough to forget. That’s right. I’ve been living here so long that, occasionally, I forget what it’s like to be home.

I forget what Fourth and Trade are like on Friday nights in the summer. I forget what cicadas sound like in the backyard. I forget that bluegrass isn’t just a trope, that BBQ isn’t just food we heat on the grill, and that not all the best stories are short. I’ve lived here long enough to forget what the South is like, who I am, and the places I am from. It scares the crap out of me every time.

When this happens, I cry. Usually big, ugly tears. And then I text or call Husband, who is as familiar with this travesty as my retelling of it. He is a good listener — a rare breed among New Yorkers — so he dutifully listens to me spew, careful not to interrupt or mansplain, and only once I’m all cried and storied out, he helps me remember why I can’t let myself forget.

Then I dig real deep, gather my courage, and go hunting. What for? My Southern voice, my Southern ear, my Southern roots, my Southern self. Where do I find it? Usually at bookstores, filed under “regional interest” or tossed in the discount bin.

Yeah, don’t get me started on those politics. We’d be here all day! But I do sometimes wonder, do New Yorkers feel this way in Southern stores? Not just with books, but with everything else they miss, things that aren’t as commonplace in their adoptive homes and road trip pit stops? Do they find the essence of their beings being as deeply discounted as mine? And if they do, is it also on the regular?

This stuff isn’t talked about in my circles, but I’d venture to guess that we are more alike than different, sisters and brothers from north of the line. I bet somewhere out there, a New Yorker is just as afraid of forgetting, just as aware of her/his unique way of being in the world. And that sort of thing is something we need to pay attention to. Maybe we all have a responsibility to help our neighbors. Scratch that. Not maybe. We definitely do.

Anyway, this week was one of those weeks for me. A week of lonely forgetting. A week of discounting. A week of searching everywhere for a clue that maybe, just maybe, being me was OK on this island. A clue more than people saying they were inclusive. A clue that people actually are.

These clues are hard to find, but thankfully I am resourceful and determined. I fight for the things I care about. Because of that, I found something. This week’s clue? Kim Wright’s Last Ride to Graceland. I won’t give away any spoilers, but she had me from page one. Rare. After that, I took the book home and read voraciously. I read like there wasn’t going to be another clue, another book, another home to be had. And you know what? It was the best homecoming I’ve had in awhile.

The only issue? Now I wish I really was home. If that were the case, I could tell Kim Wright how grateful I am, how necessary she is, and how much I wish other people knew this too. But for now I find joy in remembering. For one more day, I don’t forget. For one more day, the South is alive and well. For one more day, I can visit Carolina In My Mind.

And it’s glorious.

***

For more information about Elvis and Graceland, check this resource out.

For Kim Wright’s reflections on her trip, and its connection to the book, familiarize yourself with this post over at South Writ Large.

For more information about the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction, which Last Ride to Graceland was the 2016 recipient of, do some reading over here.

For a review of this book from the Charlotte Observer (Wright is a Charlotte resident), mozy on over to this link.

And for some other female, Carolina-based authors you might consider adding to your bookshelf, check out Authors out of Carolina over here.

P.S. Why is it that larger (read: national) newspapers don’t cover Southern literature until it’s as “well known” as The Help? Maybe someday, someone will change that.

Food for thought.