Above it all

Plane ride

Oliver successfully took his first plane ride. On our way to visit family outside Buffalo last week, we opted to take a one-hour flight rather than make an eight-hour drive — a choice that wasn’t without its stresses, but was ultimately wise.

I was ridiculously nervous to fly with an infant. Much of that anxiety probably stemmed from being seated by wailing babies on multiple flights (most of them cross-country, of course), and we didn’t want to be “those people” who have a child losing it in the dense confines of an aircraft. I didn’t know how I would deal with the stares and grimaces. People can be ugly . . . especially when traveling.

But oh, our Oliver. He barely made a peep on our way to and from New York. He got upset just once, letting out a frustrated shriek before beginning to wail, but that was aboard a shuttle bus on our return yesterday — when we were just a few minutes from the car. A diaper change quickly calmed him down, as did being back in his normal car seat. So we’ll take it.

Sailing by Baltimore on our way home, we looked down at the city with its spires and stadiums. Among them is the tower, a spindly historic structure that sticks out prominently among the modern buildings downtown. I can’t see it without thinking of the day before our son was born, how we studied it as minutes bled into hours as our family celebrated at my baby shower many miles away. The tower was the only interesting thing to look at on the most stressful day of my life.

It was mid-April, and spring appeared overnight. We watched the pear trees burst into bloom from our corner room, startled by their bright contrast against the dark tower. The sun was brilliant. It was a perfect day. And it was also interminably long, waiting to see if my blood pressure would stabilize. If we could go home. If I would stay pregnant. If our baby would come.

Through those dark early days, I couldn’t have imagined a future where Oliver was healthy and so physically on track, giggling and “dancing” and smiling at the sound of our voices, the sight of our faces. Everything felt scary. Nothing was normal. I didn’t know how to have a baby, much less a preemie baby. I was afraid.

But spring arrived, brilliant and new, and soon became summer. Oliver flourished, and Oliver came home. We poured our love and attention into helping him grow. He’s now our not-so-little love, and all 17 pounds of him cry out for hugs and kisses. We give them.

He now sleeps through the night (more on that to come), so we are all sleeping through the night. I am less zombie, more relaxed mother. Summer is swiftly turning to fall, all crunchy leaves and roadside apples and steamy pumpkin drinks. We are learning to “talk” and play, to stand and mimic and grip. We are laughing. We are happy.

And I am learning, too . . . so many things since April.

Like how to let April go.

On our plane ride home, Oliver clutched Spencer’s finger in one hand and mine in the other. He watched the skies intently through our tiny porthole, dark eyes dancing across the clouds.

We encircled him, our dear child. The tower disappeared from sight.


Light Beef & Mushroom Stroganoff and meal planning

beef stroganoff

Before Oliver was born, I envisioned a lot of macaroni and cheese.

You hear stories of exhausted new parents who would survive on nothing but frozen pizza, TV dinners and the kindness of strangers (and their casseroles) for weeks. Maybe months.

When Ollie first came home, we were definitely two members of the Zombie Parents Club, and I couldn’t honestly tell you what we ate back then. I remember my parents coming by that first night with a huge family feast from Boston Market. We ate what we could (not much, given I was anxiously staring at our itty bitty baby the entire time), and reheated the leftovers for a week.

It took a little while, but we gradually got back in the kitchen. Spence and I love to cook. Before my maternity leave was up, I would look forward to Spence coming home daily for a thousand reasons . . . but especially so I could get started on dinner. It was a major stress reliever to do something “normal” after caring for an infant all day, and babying a skillet was a delicious taste of the old life.

I’ve now been back at work longer than I was out following Ollie’s birth, and I can’t pretend that being a working parent isn’t hard . . . but it’s a challenge we’re figuring out day by day, week by week. (On rough days, maybe moment by moment.) Another way life has changed?

Meal planning.

I doubted the wondrous powers of planning dinners in advance, friends. It was once a delightful challenge to come home, throw down my purse, kick off my heels and pour through the contents of our fridge and pantry until inspiration struck. If our brilliant plan took two hours to make, involving a fair amount of stirring and baking and hovering over the stove, that was A-OK. Put on a little Ingrid Michaelson, pull back your hair and get started.

Needless to say, we no longer have the time — or, more importantly, the energy — for anything complicated. I still look forward to our homemade meals, but our few precious hours as a family on weeknights are better spent out of the kitchen. I like knowing what I’m going to make ahead of time, which means we can get back and just get started.

Also? Budgeting. Babies are expensive, y’all. I knew this, I guess, but was naive to how costly the newest member of our crew would be. While we still stroll through the grocery store and grab little odds and ends when the mood strikes, I’m a pretty regimented listmaker. Meal planning goes a long way toward helping us keep our food costs low — and prevents too much food spoilage.

list

So what do I do? Nothing fancy. Maybe you even do something fancier. On Sunday afternoons, before shopping, I sit down and draft a list of dinners for the week. I don’t always follow the strict schedule (meatloaf on Monday, tacos on Tuesday), but the mix-and-match nature of the week is still okay. As long as the ingredients are on hand, we can play a little fast and loose with the timing.

Once I have an idea of what we’re making for the week, I head to the kitchen to see what we already have on hand — especially fresh ingredients — to avoid buying anything unnecessary. This is also a good way to see what we need to use up (like lettuce, a bag of carrots, some leftover grilled chicken) and amend my plan slightly to incorporate these things, as needed.

In my unscientific estimation, we save about $15 a week — $60 a month — by sticking (mostly) to my list, avoiding costly ingredients we’ll only use once and paying more attention to pantry staples we already have (the three bottles of Frank’s RedHot, for example).

We typically go out to dinner one night a week, which is a treat — and good motivation to cook at home the other evenings. Though honestly? By the time Spence and I get back with the little guy, the last thing I want to do is gather up all of our accoutrements and head back out. We don’t exactly travel light these days!

Funny how, when I was home on leave, I was desperate to get out of the house. And now that I’m gone nine hours a day, I can’t wait to come back.

So when we’re scouring the Internet and cookbooks to draft our meal plan for the week, I’m looking for quick, easy, filling and healthy-ish meals that will make enough for work lunches the next day. And if it doesn’t involve dirtying every dish in my house? Even better.

Enter this Beef & Mushroom Stroganoff, a tasty and lighter version of the creamy, heavy meal we all remember from childhood. We’re obsessed with mushrooms at the Johnson household, so we actually doubled the amount the recipe calls for. Just, you know . . . do what feels right.

And the best part? The leftovers were ri-dic-u-lous. Woo!


Light Beef & Mushroom Stroganoff

Ingredients:
2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 lb. ground beef
8 oz. fresh mushrooms, sliced
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
2 cups beef broth
1 package wide egg noodles
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped (optional)

Instructions:

Add garlic and butter to a large pot or skillet and sauté for one to two minutes over medium heat, or until the garlic is fragrant. Add the ground beef and continue to sauté until it is fully browned.

Once the beef has browned, add mushrooms and continue to sauté until they are soft. Add flour and sauté for about two minutes more.

Add beef broth to the pot and stir to dissolve the flour. Add the uncooked egg noodles. Place a lid on the pot and allow the liquid to come up to a boil. As soon as it reaches a boil, reduce heat to low and allow the pot to simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the noodles are soft and most of the liquid has been absorbed (keep covered while simmering). Stir every few minutes to prevent noodles from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Make sure the liquid is simmering the entire time. If not, increase the heat slightly.

Once the noodles are tender, stir in the sour cream. Sprinkle with fresh parsley (optional), serve hot and enjoy!

Recipe adapted slightly from Budget Bytes


Book chat: ‘Who Do You Love’ by Jennifer Weiner

Who Do You LoveRachel Blum is an 8-year-old heart patient when she first meets Andy Landis at a Florida hospital. Andy arrives alone with a broken arm, capturing Rachel’s attention in the emergency room. She’s searching for a good story to tell an ill friend up on their regular floor, and she finds that — and more — in Andy.

Fast-forwarding nearly a decade, Rachel and Andy meet randomly while volunteering as teens and strike up a summer romance. Though together only a short time, they immediately bond despite their different circumstances. While Rachel grows up in Florida being doted upon in an affluent Jewish family, Andy is a biracial teen being raised by a hardworking, tough-to-please single mother in Philadelphia.

Andy’s solace — his salvation, really — comes through running. At the encouragement of a beloved neighbor and mentor, he survives his rough teen years with an end goal in mind: getting to — and winning at — the Olympics. As Rachel goes to college and pledges an exclusive sorority, Andy devotes his life to becoming a world-class runner.

As time and distance both separate and reunite them, the pair must decide what truly matters in life . . . and if they’re willing to go after it.

Jennifer Weiner’s Who Do You Love is a comfortable, fairly predictable read following two young lovers over the course of three decades. Their chance meeting at a hospital sets them up for a lifetime of serendipitous encounters, only some of which seemed realistic. It’s really a story about first love.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I feel the need to extol my love for Jennifer. She creates characters that make you feel, and her stories always suck me in with their casts of relatable — if occasionally frustrating — characters. She has a powerful ability to tap into the inner lives of women, and I greatly admire her ability to produce novels that really stick with you.

So why didn’t this one work for me?

It comes down to narrative voice. Rachel’s sections are told in first-person, allowing us to really get to know her, while Andy’s are third-person omniscient. While I could begin bonding with Rachel, I always felt removed from Andy . . . physically and mentally. His sections lacked soul. I felt as if we were going through the motions — all tell, no show — and couldn’t get excited about his victories nor mourn his failures. I wanted to, but there was just something . . . missing. The only time I really felt anything? When he’s interacting with Mr. Sills, a neighbor who takes Andy under his wing.

While I enjoyed seeing the interesting ways in which Rachel and Andy’s lives intersect, I found Rachel to be a pretty uninspiring heroine. We’re introduced to her as a young girl struggling to get out from under her parents’ anxious gazes, and I thought there was real potential there. Instead, Rachel spends much of the story projecting herself as a whiny sorority girl who doesn’t feel good enough for the Famous Andy Landis. And that got old.

Who Do You Love is not a bad story, but it’s not Weiner at her best. This was a different sort of novel for her: no elaborate cast of female characters; no exploration of friendships or sisterhood. We do get her trademark family dynamics, but it wasn’t enough to save the plot for me. I liked that she was trying something new, but I probably would have enjoyed this story more if it had been told exclusively from Rachel’s point of view. It lacked . . . sparkle. Pizzazz. Not heart, exactly, but warmth.

Will I come back to Jennifer? Absolutely. But if you’re new to her work, I would recommend Good In Bed or All Fall Down instead.


3 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Complimentary copy provided by publisher for review consideration


Mom-scale victories at 4 months old

Week 16 (2)

In Weight Watchers, we often talk about “non-scale victories.”

NSVs are those little moments which serve to remind you why you’re pushing so hard and making tough choices every day. They’re related to weight loss, of course, but not directly; as you might guess by the name, they’re triumphs apart from any number on the scale.

Fitting back into your favorite pair of jeans, for example. Running your first mile. Making healthy choices at the all-you-can-eat smorgasbord. Buying a smaller size. Foregoing cake for fresh fruit.

NSVs come in all shapes and sizes, and each is deeply personal. Though my weight loss has taken a back seat while I struggle to regain my sanity with a 4-month-old, I’ve been thinking about these little accomplishments . . . and how they relate to motherhood.

Oliver has his first cold, which started with the sniffles last Friday. My husband called me at work, worried about all the congestion, and we contemplated taking him to the doctor immediately . . . because, you know, the window of opportunity was closing. Everyone knows a kid has to get sick at 5 p.m. on a Friday, right? Just before the weekend — when the shuttered doctor’s offices just taunt you.

He didn’t seem too bad, though — and we didn’t want to be alarmists. No fever. No odd behavior. Taking his bottles normally. Laughing and smiling as usual. Just a little stuffy with an occasional cough.

My darling boy bounced back quickly . . . though I still took the afternoon off Monday to cart him to the doctor’s office. He seemed to be recovering well from whatever bug he’d developed, but better safe than sorry. (#firsttimeparents, I know.)

As we debated whether Oliver was truly sick or just “not feeling well,” we checked in with his day care provider for guidelines. That was my first Mom-Scale Victory: proactively making that phone call and planning ahead to Monday morning. Because he has had no fever or vomiting, we were cleared to bring him in. But she thanked me for calling her first — you know, just to double-check. And I felt like a mom-boss.

Having a sick baby has definitely been our first introduction to the Working Parent Juggle. And it’s going to be an interesting one. We have a few things going for us: Spencer and I both work locally, a real rarity in the D.C. area; we have friends and family nearby for back-up; we have an understanding day care provider who wants to work with us and help find solutions.

Still.

Did I want to be home with my sick baby? I did. Especially when I woke up with a sore throat that quickly progressed to my own runny-nose, splitting-head illness that made everything that much more exciting on Monday. I thought getting up with an infant was hard when I was “just” sleep-deprived. Now I’m sleep-deprived, sick as a dog and completely dead on my feet.

But the show must go on.


Week 16 (4)


My mom once told me that some days are just “fighting the war.” She has had a hellish work commute for more than three decades, and she still excelled at raising two daughters with my dad (who worked from home, but also made terrible drives for work).

They say you can only truly appreciate your parents when you become an adult — and a parent yourself. While I’d like to hope I acknowledged their sacrifices before now, can I just say: wow. Yes.

Fighting the war, indeed.

Getting Ollie to his doctor’s appointment on Monday was another Mom-Scale Victory. I’ve never taken him out in public alone, and I had to ready his stroller and get everything hooked in by myself. While I’ve taken him out in his car seat plenty, I have yet to run errands without Spencer. This isn’t intentional; I just haven’t needed to.

But on Monday? It was time. After creating an elaborate plan that included Spence calling the doctor’s office as soon as they opened at 8 a.m. and me consulting my boss for a half-day when I ran in the door, we secured an afternoon sick appointment. I would meet my deadlines by noon and head back to the sitter. I would take Oliver by myself.

I was nervous about it, but I didn’t let myself entertain that anxiety. After getting through his prematurity, his NICU stay, those early and tough weeks at home . . . well, I figure it can’t compare to that insanity. This was just wheeling a sleepy baby up to a third-floor doctor’s office alone, you know?

Preemie parents feel a special rush of pleasure when others can’t single out our little ones as being early. Oliver was born four months ago today weighing 3 pounds, 9 ounces, and at his appointment on Monday? Our chunky man weighed 15 pounds on the dot.

“He’s a 32-weeker?” the doctor crowed, eyebrows shooting up. I quickly guessed that her terminology marked her as a preemie parent, too, and I was right: her own son was born at 33 weeks. “You’re kidding me.”

“I’m not,” I glowed. “He’s a 32-weeker.”

Here’s a Mom-Scale Victory: I didn’t immediately launch into Ollie’s whole story. For months, I took any and every opportunity to talk about our son’s dramatic entrance into the world. “Preeclampsia” was always on my lips, and I found myself wanting to talk about the trauma as a way to . . . relieve it? Comfort myself? Find support?

I don’t know. But as spring gave way to summer and summer heads toward fall, my favorite season, I do find myself healing.

I have set-backs. I have bad days. I still cry. But all in all? I am getting better.

I mean, aside from the cold.

That’s going to linger just to torment me.


Week 16 (6)


At 4 months old (2 months adjusted), Oliver . . .

• Is beginning to grasp and tug on objects, especially his favorite blanket;
• Looks for and recognizes us in a crowd;
• Can hold his head up mostly unassisted;
• No longer despises tummy time;
• Still loves his ceiling fans;
• Smiles frequently and with reckless abandon;
• “Dances” (limbs flailing) to “Everything is Awesome”;
• “Talks” constantly, cooing and oohing while making eye contact. (“I hear you, baby,” I say, and he seems to nod in agreement.)

He is . . . a baby. No longer a newborn, but an infant. A child. One with adorably round cheeks and the cutest little giggle; a baby who loves to grasp our fingers and gleefully watches us move about the room, the center of our little universe.

Though I sometimes feel like a heaping mess of a person – a bedraggled wife; a weary mother — I often remind myself of just how far we’ve come. For two glorious nights in a row before he got sick, Oliver slept for six (!) hours. At night. In a row.

And he seems to know us. Really know us. Not just as the tall people things with the milk, I think (though there’s that, too) — but as Mama and Daddy.

Four months after his birth, my Mom-Scale Victories include never being late to work in the two months I’ve been back at it; finding a way to make the overnight shifts work with Spence; managing to almost finish a book over the course of the last month; and getting more comfortable taking Oliver out with us on day trips. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it — and important. Our duo has had to learn to be a trio, but we’re doing it.

In the month to come, we’ll take baby’s first plane ride and head north to introduce Ollie to his New York family. I’m insanely nervous about the flight, only because I’m worried he’ll have a total meltdown — and I’ve been known to get ugly when people stare at me. Or us. But I guess that just comes with the territory, and I’ll have to learn to ignore it. We are, after all, just doing the best we can.

And my last Mom-Scale Victory for today? I got this post written on four hours of broken sleep with a head so fuzzy and clogged by illness and medication, it’s really a wonder that I’m upright.

Just makin’ it work.


Stopping for the sunsets

Sunset

It’s hard, getting caught up in the day-to-day.

I look up sometimes to find it’s 9 p.m. and I’ve done nothing but divide mail into piles, clean up dinner dishes and refill bottles for the next day. Spencer and I talk, catching up on this and that, and settle the overnight schedule with our baby boy: Spence takes the first shift, usually around 1 a.m.; I take the second, typically up for the day by 5 a.m.

Oliver is at the center of our world, our adorably plump little counterpart who dictates when we rise and when we rest. I live for the weekends now, when we don’t have to lay out clothes the night before or rush off to day care with the harried commuters. When I can sip my coffee from an actual mug, not down the dregs before I disappear with his heavy car seat in one hand and my half-zipped lunch bag in the other.

Rush, rush, rush. Hurry. These words are woven into the fabric of my mornings — and many of my evenings, too. I’m always fighting the clock. I want to laugh (or cry?) thinking of how “busy” I once thought I was, back when I could read or crochet or watch the news in the quiet with no one to worry about but myself.

At Oliver’s very first pediatrician’s appointment, his doctor — parent to a preemie herself — told us to be gentle on ourselves as we worked tirelessly for a baby who wouldn’t acknowledge our efforts . . . for a while. All newborns are needy, sure, but preemies are a special group. No grins, no giggles, no interaction beyond occasional eye contact for much longer than feels reasonable. Longer than seems normal.

Oliver surprised us by offering his first smile on July 2, much earlier than we’d expected — about two months after we first brought him home. I was singing him one of the ridiculous songs I like to make up, inserting his name into popular lyrics and swaying with him around the living room. That flash of delight split me clean in half.

In the last few weeks, I’ve seen a light bulb flash in my son’s dark eyes: recognition. Appreciation. Enjoyment. At almost 4 months old, Ollie now offers us his gummy grins and seeks our faces in a crowd. He hasn’t shown much interest in toys, but he loves to sit up on the couch “like big people” and clutch my finger while he takes his bottle.

He smiles. He giggles. He knows when we are there. As Ollie gave me a funny side-eye that suddenly broke into a brilliant smile on Sunday, I got teary-eyed (not that, you know, that’s hard these days). “I think we made it,” I said to Spence. “I think we made it through the early part.”

There are days I feel so happy, realizing how big my baby boy has gotten and how he continues to grow. All parents wish for health and strength for their little ones, but preemie parents send up especially ardent prayers. Nothing makes me happier than seeing Ollie tip the scales and grow and change . . . but it makes me sad, too, realizing he will never again be this little. That our newborn is an infant, and he’ll never be a newborn again.

This is the world I have always lived in, one that has come to define me but has no special name: where there is always a bitter to the sweet, and a sweet to the bitter. Like most mothers, I’m sure, I exist in two planes: I want nothing more than for my babe to grow, but cry thinking of how quickly this is all going to pass.

It’s the second one that makes me stop for sunsets. That forces me to remember life is not a blur of to-do lists, Costco runs and hasty dinners. That we don’t exist to simply wash bottles and catch up on “The Bachelor.” That is important — imperative, even — to know that there is more. Soaking up the quieter moments, finding a way to capture something that feels so beautiful and fleeting: that’s life.

And I want to be a woman — a mother, wife, daughter — who doesn’t let life’s uncertainties cloud its brilliant colors.

I will try.


This mom stays in the picture

IMG_7758_v

Many moons ago, I stumbled upon a piece by Allison Tate: “The Mom Stays in the Picture.”

I was newly engaged, blissfully planning my wedding, not yet close to being a mother. I was also in the best shape of my life. In 2013, I lost 35 pounds and was the happiest, prettiest and most confident version of myself to date. I felt young and beautiful. I was powerful: Meg 2.0.

I read Tate’s post because it spread through my social networks like wildfire, discussed and “liked” by many high school friends and coworkers toting toddlers of their own. Many noted the piece was a tear-jerker, so I clicked over.

It’s a beautiful piece. Solid and honest and real. It resonated with me, the importance of mothers taking pictures with their children, but I read it from a distance — and as a photographer myself. But I just wasn’t there; I didn’t feel it. I’d grown up in a household with parents who photographed everything, and my mom is still our family historian. I’ve lived my entire life in front of the lens.

Why wouldn’t I want my picture taken?

Though never weight-obsessed, exactly, I’ve struggled with my size for the better part of adulthood. Getting down to a healthy weight in 2013-14 was a major accomplishment for me, and I had hoped to continue my solid habits after getting pregnant. I was afraid of slipping back into old habits, you know? Ones I worked so hard to break.

But I did, of course.

There are many reasons why. I was pregnant, for goodness’ sake; if I wanted a milkshake, I got one. My pregnancy and subsequent release from the confines of tracking every Weight Watchers Point was refreshing. Though I love WW and plan to return to the program, letting myself stop obsessing about every pat of butter, jelly bean and French fry felt . . . good.

And there were complications. My weight ballooned rapidly with the onset of severe preeclampsia. Close to my delivery date at 32 weeks, I was swollen beyond measure and in physical pain, my face and feet and hands all puffy and foreign to me. I felt bloated and uncomfortable, though I’d chalked it up to “third trimester woes.” Learning that my illness was causing most of those symptoms was surprising but, later, a relief.

In the three months since Oliver was born, I have shed 30 of the 60 pounds I gained in pregnancy. Most of it was water weight that fell off within a week. My post-childbirth body was unrecognizable; I barely looked in a mirror for weeks. Having a baby in the NICU meant every shred of my energy, care and concern went to him, and weight was not on my mind. Not even a little.

Once Oliver was home, gaining weight himself and getting stronger, I began to consider stepping out of my maternity jeans. I was tired of feeling lumpy, frumpy and weird, though I had no idea what size I now wore and knew that stepping on the scale would be a rude awakening.

When I finally did, I was shocked by the number I saw: almost exactly where I’d started when I joined Weight Watchers in January 2013. To the pound.

It seemed a cruel joke: after all that discipline and hard work, adopting new habits and changing how I think about food, I was right back where I started? On top of the trauma of Ollie’s premature birth and my lingering blood pressure concerns, I felt overwhelmed. Depressed, even.

Still, since April, my attention has been on nurturing our 3 pound, 9 ounce baby boy to more than 13 pounds of pure chunk and love. My husband and I adore this baby to the tips of our toes, and I could spend hours just looking at his little face.

But I’ve had to look in a mirror, too.

The early photos of Oliver are of . . . Oliver. Because I’m our little family’s photographer, I documented countless tender moments between Spencer and Ollie in the NICU and beyond. There are a handful with me in them, too, but I didn’t press the issue. I rarely handed Spencer the camera.

Because I looked — and felt — exhausted.
Because my hair was always crazy.
Because I rarely summoned the energy for makeup.
Because my face was still bloated.
Because my clothes didn’t fit well.

I had dozens of excuses, you know. So many excuses for not taking pictures with my baby. I cut myself some slack because Ollie was hospitalized for a month . . . and I was lucky to remember to bring snacks and my cell phone on our long drives to Baltimore, let alone stage a photo shoot once we got there. I was more concerned with locating a breast pump than my camera. That was how it had to be.

Our Oliver grew stronger. He learned to take his feeds by bottle, to regulate his body temperature outside the isolette, to widen his little eyes and gaze out at the world. On May 7, Spencer and I finally got The Call: bring the car seat, baby – he’s coming home!

As exhausted as we were in those early weeks (er, months), I knew documenting that time was important. I tried to take as many pictures as possible, sneaking in time to upload them when Ollie snoozed. Many were with my iPhone, because that’s what I had handy. By the time my maternity leave ran out in mid-June, I wanted to have all the photos I’d taken so far organized and ready for an album.

And I would look through them, this collection of precious images, watching Oliver’s cheeks begin to plump and his little eyes widening. I saw the rolls appear around his sweet baby wrists, and the pudgy thighs that have now started supporting his weight as he “stands” on my lap.

But I’m not in many of them.

My own mom has taken thousands of photos of me over the years — and many with Oliver in my arms. Lately, I haven’t focused on his cheeky grin or adorable ears. With laser-sharp precision, I see my double chin and flyaway hair — and I cringe. And puff out my cheeks. And want to untag myself on Facebook, though I don’t.


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The truth? I’m self-conscious. I’m uncomfortable. After publicly embracing Weight Watchers and documenting my weight loss journey in my newspaper column, on Facebook, through this blog . . . well, it’s a little embarrassing. There is such pressure surrounding “post-baby bodies,” and it doesn’t help that two other new moms in my life have already seemed to return to their svelte pre-pregnancy selves. Others complimenting them is not an insult to me, but I can feel my cheeks burn when others praise how great they look. So I look away.

I know no one faults me for not slipping back into my skinny jeans — that it’s not about the skinny jeans, really. I know I’m being too hard on myself, and that no one notices the “flaws” we point out in ourselves.

And more importantly? And I know that, above everything else, I am not a body. We are so much more than our looks. A number on a scale does not determine my self-worth.

But I still don’t feel great. I feel slow and unhealthy and . . . like I did before. When I was a me I’d never planned to be again.


When I look through the home photo shoots I’ve staged with Oliver, my husband is in many pictures. One of my favorite shots is of Ollie peeking up at his dad, one fat fist extended, as Spence looks on and smiles.

Spencer is wearing an old gray T-shirt. He hasn’t shaved. To be honest with you, I’m not even sure he’d showered that day (sorry, babe).

And you know what? No one cares. It doesn’t matter. You can’t even tell.

So why did I beg off when Spence offered to get me in the frame?

Since he came home, I’ve taken pictures of Ollie every two weeks. I like to do them on Sundays, before the chaos of another work week, and try to edit them before Monday morning. Oliver was born late on a Sunday night . . . so that feels reverent to me, too. A reflective time.

Spence helped with Ollie’s 14-week shoot, as he always does. I took the classic photos of father and son I’ve come to know so well. But when I lifted the baby to reposition him, Spencer lifted my camera off the bed and turned it on me.

My first instinct was to refuse, as usual. To make up excuses. To push my son back into the spotlight. To scramble back into the shadows.

But I thought of Allison Tate. I thought of the collection of pictures on my laptop, all of a precious baby boy but not his mother. Of a woman pushed into motherhood two months earlier than planned, and how much I longed for and planned and endured to bring this baby into the world. Of how much I’ve changed, and how much stronger I’ve become.

And I stepped in.

I’m stiff in the first few. You can sense my awkwardness as I stand in my plain, new-ish shirt that already looks old, stained with spit-up and soft from many washes. My hair has grown long since the spring, and I’ve taken to pulling it into a messy, unkempt knot at night. I’m wearing makeup, but it’s smudged and minimal. Reminders of teenage acne dot my cheeks. I look tired.

But beautiful, too.

I think I look beautiful.


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I didn’t expect that. Didn’t dare even hope for it. When Spence wanted to take pictures of Ollie and me, indulged him because he’s my husband and I love him and, deep down, I would like photographic evidence that I was here during this time in my son’s life.

I mean, I’m obviously here. I’m catching tossed pacifiers, making bottles, changing the diaper trash in his nursery, washing onesies. I’m avoiding his splashes during baths in the sink and laughing with his dad over his hilarious expressions, doing anything and everything I can to make him grin.

I’m rocking him at 2 a.m., and 3 a.m., and sometimes 4 a.m. His dad and I are making major and minor medical decisions for him, looking for symptoms and calling doctors. I’m dealing with insurance, grappling with post-NICU anxiety, folding his blankets. I’m sending long missives to friends about he’s doing and uploading his sweet, chunky face to Instagram.

But he won’t know that. He won’t remember.

“I’m everywhere in their young lives, and yet I have very few pictures of me with them,” Tate writes. “Someday I won’t be here — and I don’t know if that someday is tomorrow or thirty or forty or fifty years from now — but I want them to have pictures of me. I want them to see the way I looked at them, see how much I loved them. I am not perfect to look at and I am not perfect to love, but I am perfectly their mother.”


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I look through these photos from a sunny afternoon and feel joy, and hope, and love. I sense all the dreams I have for Oliver pouring from my arms into his little body. I see the recognition in his own face — This is my mother — and feel my own: This is my son.

My body hasn’t “bounced back” from baby. That double-chin is prominent. I look exhausted and greasy, a little threadbare and worn thin at the edges.

But I’m in the picture. I want to always be there, holding and loving him.

And thirty years from now? My 30-year-old son might turn to me and smile.

“Wow, Mom,” he’ll say. “You’re so pretty. So young.”


Book thoughts: Memoirs from Lena Dunham & Amy Poehler

Amy Poehler and Lena Dunham

I spend a great deal of time in the car these days. With the addition of driving to Oliver’s day care each weekday, I’m commuting at least 40 minutes daily — so I can plow my way through an audiobook or two a week.

Which is awesome, actually . . . given I’ve had so little energy to read physical stories since Ollie came home. I’m often determined to settle down with Jennifer Weiner or Meg Cabot before bed, thinking that tonight is the night I’m going to finally read for goodness’ sake, but something comes up.

Or, more accurately, the eyelids come down.

Through plenty of trial and error, I’ve come to realize that my favorite audiobooks are memoirs — particularly when read by the author. I’ve checked out all sorts of non-fiction I wouldn’t normally read in print, but adored them as audios.

But I didn’t need any convincing to read Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl and Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. They arrived on hold for me at the library at the same time, and I didn’t have the heart to leave either lady there. Good thing I didn’t, either; I’d finished both in three weeks, a new record, and desperately missed them both when their stories were done.

So. Lena.

Dunham, a 29-year-old New Yorker, is a polarizing figure. Known for being the creator, writer, director, producer and star of HBO’s “Girls,” Lena has no problem putting it all out there — literally and figuratively. Some declare her the voice of our generation; others label her a self-important drama queen. I happen to be in the former category, and I’ve watched “Girls” for years. The show isn’t perfect, but it’s thoughtful and entertaining. Lena’s Hannah is messed up and whacky and self-absorbed, but she’s refreshingly realistic in her obsession with writing and love. I relate to her. Not all of her, but enough.

In reality, Lena is not Hannah . . . but, in some ways, she is. Not that Kind of Girl is Lena’s life-story-in-vignettes with tales of her awkward adolescence, search for acceptance, demanding of respect and growth. There are some squicky moments, yes, and it’s not for me to debate the level of their squickiness. But I think Lena is mostly guilty of oversharing. (Can you overshare in a memoir? Probably.)

Look: Lena can be brash. She’s controversial. She’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s okay. From a feminist standpoint, I appreciate hearing her voice above the din and look up to her for all that she’s accomplished before 30.

Her memoir is quick, pithy, easy on the ears and often very funny. There are some deeper, disturbing moments, but it’s not a depressing story. If I’m honest, I’d normally be super jealous of an under-30 talented takes-no-prisoners writer lady who is actually younger than me, but really? I’m just kind of proud of her. In a big sister kind of way.

And then we have Amy Poehler, who’s Yes Please was the perfect companion to my morning drives. Like pretty much everyone in America, I was introduced to Amy through “Saturday Night Live” and was a mega-huge fan of the often-underappreciated “Parks & Recreation,” which I watched religiously with my dad. Leslie Knope is it.

Poehler’s memoir is part motivational speech, part biography, part behind-the-scenes glimpse at the shows and people who helped boost her to monumental success over the years — and I really enjoyed all of it. Like Lena, Amy comes across as a down-to-earth but badass lady who has me totally rethinking what it means to be deemed “bossy.”

Bossy women get stuff done.

Amy is like your cool aunt who admits to recreational drug use while still cautioning you against it, and comes across as deeply knowledgeable about life because she’s probably “been there.” Growing up in Massachusetts, Amy later moves to Chicago to begin working in improv and eventually marries and divorces Will Arnett, has two sons, achieves great success on “SNL” and “Parks & Rec” and then, when it’s over, must find what’s next again.

She sounds like an amazing friend, colleague, daughter and mom, and you get a sense of all those roles while listening to Yes Please. I loved her stories of and take on working toward success — and it doesn’t have anything to do with it happening overnight. Overall, her memoir was equal parts funny and empowering: a perfect recipe.

Both Lena and Amy narrate their own books, as you’d hope and expect. Each does a wonderful job. These women are storytellers, and these are their stories. Who else could possibly tell them?

By the time I’d finished both audios, I felt like I’d just sent a new friend off on a long vacation with no way to get in touch. Amy and Lena have both further endeared themselves to me, and I’d definitely recommend their stories to anyone who wants to think about life, snort into their commuter-friendly coffee mug and feel good about the road ahead.

Four stars, both of ’em!

Not That Kind of Girl / Pub: 2014 / 265 pages
Yes Please / Pub: 2014 / 329 pages