My Future, Revised: From Child Care Provider to Stay-At-Home-Mom

I am bound by both conscience and a confidentiality clause in my contract from providing any details. I really need to talk about one issue, though: pregnancy discrimination. There is a federal law against firing or demoting or otherwise discriminating an employee, but the federal law provides an exemption for businesses with fifteen or fewer employees. The state where I work has an even better law–you aren’t exempt unless you have three or fewer employees. Here’s the law, helpfully explained by the Connecticut Network for Legal Aid:

Q: I’m pregnant. Do I have legal rights to protect me in the workplace?

A: Yes. There are state and federal laws that protect you from discrimination because of pregnancy. If you work for an employer (private, public, or employment agency) with 3 or more workers, your employer cannot discriminate against you because of pregnancy, childbirth, or pregnancy-related conditions. A pregnancy must be treated the same way as any other temporary medical disability. This means:

  • You cannot be fired, denied a job or a promotion simply because you are or may become pregnant.
  • You cannot be forced to take a leave because you are pregnant if you are able and willing to work.
  • Employers (or potential ones) cannot ask you about your plans to have children or your pregnancy unless this information is directly related to a specific job.
  • In general, employers must not treat pregnant employees any differently from other employees. For example, the employer cannot provide health insurance that treats pregnancy and childbirth any differently from other medical conditions.

If I were not the only employee here, I would have a job waiting for me after a state- and federally-mandated maternity leave:

Q: Am I allowed to take a leave of absence?

A: Yes. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), the state and federal Family and Medical Leave Acts (FMLA) and CT’s Anti-Discrimination Laws protect eligible employees who need to take leave during or after pregnancy (maternity leave). If an employer offers sick leave or disability leave to its employees, it must permit pregnant employees to use that leave for pregnancyrelated conditions. “Family and medical leave” allows an eligible employee (man or woman) to take an unpaid leave of absence (generally up to 12 or 16 weeks) to care for a child upon the child’s birth or adoption.

Because I am the only employee here, I have access to none of these rights. In New York City, I’ve heard, there is a union for nannies. I belong to no such union, but working conditions in New York really are awful. Access to basic workers’ rights is a problem for many nannies and domestic workers. I asked an expert once, and she had never heard of a maternity clause in a nanny contract. It seems utterly ridiculous counterintuitive to ignore the possibility that someone who loves children enough to take care of someone else’s kids full-time might want to have one or two of her own.

I’m sure you can piece together what’s happened over hear. Now, I find myself suddenly planning a future career as a stay-at-home-mom. I’m pretty excited about that. I’m already so attached to this baby; I can’t imagine leaving my child in someone else’s care while I go to care for other kids. I’m in shock, a bit.

I have no problem applying for WIC, food stamps (or SNAP, as the program is now called), or welfare/cash assistance. This is precisely what those programs are for. Unfortunately, I do not live in one of the small handful of states that offers short-term disability or unemployment insurance to pregnancy women. If I wanted private short-term insurance, I needed to apply for it before the pregnancy. And I just didn’t know that. It never occurred to me to check. We’ll make it. And it will be worth buying nothing new for ourselves and not visiting relatives outside driving distance. We can do all of that later. We will never get the first years of our child’s life back. And now, one or both of us will be there for every moment.

My mother-in-law has promised to drive up from Long Island to keep me company; I am carrying her only biological grandchild and married to her only son. But we’re friends. Dear friends. And I’ll have time to go to play groups and spend time with the friends I have met here. But other child care providers who work in private homes are not so lucky.

The discrimination I have encountered may be legal, but it is still wrong.

When There is Nothing Else, There is Still Love

I am not spiraling downward the way that I did during my worst days, when I made a plan to die, five years ago. But I remember. I remember that when there was nothing I cared about, when I wanted the pain to end so deeply that I thought death would be better, something stopped me. And that was love. Somehow, something sparked enough love for me or in me to ask for help.

Today, a complicated relationship reappeared in the form of an argument that has continued, off and on, for almost five years, about the church that I grew up in. Another child of my church wrote to me to ask me to read an offensive, pompous and condescending blog post about why it’s all nonsense, why those of us who believe are just very nice people living in a very nice fantasy. After I told him to stop being such a jerk, I remembered what I really do know about my faith.

My God is love. Because that is what I found in that horrible darkness. There was nothing else to stop me from calmly walking off the edge of the roof of the tower I had planned to go to. I don’t need him or anyone else to understand. But I will never forget that I didn’t see a light or hear a voice. It felt as though someone had simply taken my hand.

It brings tears to my eyes to think about how many times I have taken that hand and held on tight. My Guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, cared for his organization, his churches, his monks and nuns, his devotees and even the plants in his garden. But he repeated over and over that love and devotion would do more for us than all the piety in the world. He wrote stories, suggestions, even lessons on how to live, but he promised that love was enough.

I try to live by as many principles taught by my church as I can, but, as you might imagine, anxiety disorders make meditation extraordinarily painful. Sitting still and practicing the meditation techniques I know is a daunting prospect. But love, I can do. Devotion, I can muster. I close my eyes, and I picture myself holding my Guru’s hand. I squeeze tight and beg for Him to help me remember a simple affirmation:

“I am Thine; Thou art mine.”

Just as I am a child of God, He belongs to me. I lean on Him as my protector, as the One who loves me most. I will never spiral down as far as I did that awful night five years ago. I am so strong, now, compared to then. I am not yet out of the spiral that began on Saturday morning, but I am gripping a hand that is stronger than mine. And it will keep me from falling. It will protect my baby. It will guide me as I try to do my best during pregnancy, and I will have that same guidance when I am a mother. I won’t be happy all day, every day. That’s not how it works. But there is a hand for me to hold, whenever I need it.

A Spiral So Fast

Today is hard. I was supposed to wake up and go on a short trip, and it was so important to me. I began to panic. I woke up a couple hours later, still down on myself. By late afternoon, I was sobbing. I wondered if I was losing my bond with my baby. I wondered if I even deserved to have a baby. I wondered if I was giving my baby stress as the first sounds heard in utero may very well be my sobs.

That thought makes my heart ache. All I can do is remember that this will pass. I don’t believe it, not really. I feel as though I’m trapped in a room with no doors and now windows. I feel like the starling, the little bird, in Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey:

“I can’t get out,” said the starling.—God help thee! said I, but I’ll let thee out, cost what it will; so I turn’d about the cage to get to the door; it was twisted and double twisted so fast with wire, there was no getting it open without pulling the cage to pieces.—I took both hands to it.

The bird flew to the place where I was attempting his deliverance, and thrusting his head through the trellis, press’d his breast against it, as if impatient.—I fear, poor creature! said I, I cannot set thee at liberty.—“No,” said the starling—“I can’t get out—I can’t get out,” said the starling.

But the key here is to remember that the cage, the room, they are in my head. They are not real. And I may not believe it, but it is true. My baby will hear plenty of calm, loving words in my voice before s/he is born. I will wait, as patiently as I can, for this to pass.

Psychiatry + Pregnancy = Flexibility

After I posted yesterday’s update about the return of my Generalized Anxiety Disorder symptoms during my second trimester, I went to visit my psychiatrist. I love my new psychiatrist (in a completely appropriate way), because she has this power to immediately impart calm and reassurance whether it’s over the phone in five minutes or during a half-hour session in her office. Her demeanor and her voice just seem to say, “Don’t worry too much. Everything will be just fine, and this is all perfectly normal.” You can imagine that visiting her office last night helped me come to terms with this change.

I want to explain the changes she/we made to my medication regimen in detail, because psych meds are just so often misunderstood. I’m going to go over what each is of my medication is for and why I need two.

First, I take an SNRI, or Serotonin and Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitor called Effexor. Norepinephrine is a chemical that seems to help with anxiety, so having more of it in my brain is, apparently, a helpful thing. Serotonin, as you have probably heard, is a chemical that helps make us happy. If there is too little in your brain, you are more likely to become depressed. I started on Zoloft, the most commonly prescribed SNRI, but switched a few years ago to Effexor. (I am a big advocate for No Drugs Without Therapy, because eventually, every drug will stop working. Therapy teaches you coping skills that don’t stop working.) I was supposed to eventually only take an SNRI, but that didn’t work out. Anyway, here are the thoughts on Effexor, me and the second trimester of this pregnancy:

I am feeling more anxious all of the time, not at any one particular time, so that tells me that my “baseline” jumped up. Effexor (especially in the extended release capsules I take) is intended to do its work ’round the clock. To help me feel a little calmer all of the time, my doctor suggested increasing my dose by the smallest increment. She also suggested that I take 150 mg when I wake up and the other 75 mg in the afternoon, to help for all of the day.

Second, I take Klonopin, aka clonazepam, the benzodiazepine that has been such an important and yet difficult part of my treatment. We’re working with a fairly high dose already–3 mg a day (1 mg morning, afternoon and evening) is already half-way to the maximum recommended dose of 6 mg total per day. That’s my ceiling. At one point in my life, I needed that. If we end up going there by the end of this pregnancy, that’s fine with me. But my psychiatrist wants to move slowly, so we don’t hit that ceiling too quickly.

The new regimen (and it feels good so far!) is that I take a 1 mg in the morning, 1/2 mg mid-morning, 1 mg in the afternoon, 1/2 mg early evening, 1 mg before bed. If I didn’t already take pills 80 times a day because of all the vitamins for the baby and me that have to be taken with food or not taken together or taken with a meal that has saturated fat in it if possible (Vitamin D–that stuff does not want to be absorbed by me… what’s your deal, D?)… but I digress. The point is, I remember to take the half-pills, and so far, so good. Sometimes, I worry that I love Klonopin too much, but I have never been tempted to take more than the prescribed dose, so I’m not actually worried about addiction.

And I’m taking it one day at time, so that’s all for now, folks. Ask questions, if you like! I’ll be more generous than Lucy from The Peanuts and not charge you a nickel as I open up my psychiatry booth. ;)

This is No Honeymoon: My Second Trimester & the Return of Anxiety

I have been avoiding writing this post, because it means admitting to the world what I have only admitted to a few loved ones.

My anxiety is back. I stay up late worrying about things like whether I need to send a gift to the anniversary party we’re not going to or if a card will suffice. I am convinced, daily, that when I show up to work, I will be promptly fired, for no particular reason. Worst of all, I am not hungry the way I was in the first trimester of this pregnancy. I have to remind myself to eat, and it is hard to work up the energy to eat well enough to take good care of Bug. (I have eaten three pastries today, and it is barely 5 pm.)

I will see my psychiatrist tonight, and we will increase the dosage of one medication or the other. There are two factors working against me, here. First, the hormones that raged during my first 12-13 weeks seem to have helped my anxiety. Those slow down during trimester two. The second is that, in pregnancy, the amount of blood in my body will end up increasing by 50%. That dilutes the medication, according to my psychiatrist.

Then, there’s the sleep. I was so exhausted during those first months, that I passed out each night before 10 pm and slept like the dead. Now, worries can keep me awake.

I have read that the second trimester is the “honeymoon period” – no more morning sickness, more energy, better hair, better skin, better nails, whatever. Yeah, my hair looks pretty fabulous lately. But I never had morning sickness, and my job includes taking naps with the baby I take care of. For whatever reason, the hormones I got with my pregnancy did me a world of good. Isn’t there some way to inject those, now that they are less intense? Oh, well. It would probably be bad for the baby.

I had a lovely vacation. Now, back to reality. So much for that honeymoon.

Confessions of an Attachment Parented Child

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may have figured out that I am older than 20. That makes me older than Dr. Sears’s The Baby Book. I am older than the Attachment Parenting Movement. But guess what? The “official” AP style (Attachment Parenting) put together a bunch of ideas that a bunch of parents were already using. Including mine. I have been searching my soul, trying to figure out why hearing this parenting style labeled as “extreme” has made me so darn angry. It finally hit me today–I am an attachment parented child, all grown up, 15w5d pregnant and ready to Attachment Parent my own baby. My childhood was not extreme. Here’s my confession:

The first six years of my life were the only truly happy years of my childhood, and I credit my parents’ instinctual use of the basic tenants of Attachment Parenting with their early success. The only upsetting memory I have from those years (and I remember my third birthday party, of which I do not have a single photograph) is my grief at my maternal grandfather’s death. We lived in his house. He and I were very close, even though I was three or four when he passed.

My parents’ lives took them in a direction after 1991 that pretty much made taking care of themselves, their marriage and me all at the same time, well, impossible. My childhood quite often sucked after the first grade. But I have always had, in the way developmental psychologists use the phrase, a secure attachment to both of my parents. I credit their success during my earliest years with the relative success of my relationships with each of them today.

Despite a whole lot of “good” reasons to do so, I never gave up on my parents. At times, I used to think that I should just let it go and accept life without one or the other, that there was no way to bridge the gaps that had opened up between us. I now believe that I never gave up because, during those first six years of my life, my parents taught me that they love me and want to be close to me, no matter what. (“Close” is a relative term, but I am astonished and so proud of what we have achieved.) That bond is what Attachment Parenting seeks to solidify.

Here’s how Dr. Sears lays out the Attachment Parenting basics:

7 ATTACHMENT TOOLS: THE BABY B’S
1. Birth bonding
2. Breastfeeding
3. Babywearing
4. Bedding close to baby
5. Belief in the language value of your baby’s cry
6. Beware of baby trainers
7. Balance
My parents did all of these things in their own way, especially between ages 0 and 3 because it just “felt right.” In 1984.1. Birth Bonding:
I was born in my parents’ home. My sister was there. My dad made sure she was part of the experience, even if she did think it was “totally gross” at first. A midwife made sure that everyone listened to my mother. She trusted the people surrounding her, and they trusted her. I came into this world surrounded by family and friends. Every single person what was there remembers that day and has told me his or her version of my birth story. And I most certainly had skin-to-skin contact to bond with my parents. My dad vividly remembers that I emptied my bowels into his hands the very first time he held me. My mom spent the day recovering with me on her chest, either sleeping or nursing. Here’s a repeat photo, but it shows the kind of atmosphere my parents set up for birth bonding:

Me & Mom, on October 12th, 1984.

2. Breastfeeding:

I don’t know if you can see it, but in that photo, I have milk all around my mouth. My mother breastfed me on Day 1 and continued to breastfeed me until well into my twos. One of my family’s favorite stories about me as a baby is that while we were standing near the microphones during the Christmas church service, ready to read the passage in the Bible that describes the birth of Christ (quite an honor), I said said, right into the mic, “Mommy! I wanna nurse!” Yes, I get mad when people say that breastfeeding a toddler is creepy or weird. Because I am not creepy or weird and neither is my mother. Sorry I don’t have a photo of us nursing while standing. (Um, actually, I’m not. Because it was just me being fed. Not interesting.)

3. Babywearing:

I had to call my mom to ask about this one. I did have a stroller, she says, but it was about a half-and-half mix of stroller/carrying the baby. For two people who did not have a baby carrier of any kind and did have a very chubby baby, that’s pretty impressive.

4. Bedding close to baby:

I “co-slept” before it was a commonly used word. “Family bed” was not a concept my parents were familiar with. I called my mom to ask if I ever even had a crib, and she thinks that I probably did have one when I was older, after we moved in with my grandfather, but I think she’s talking about the “big girl bed” I moved into around age three, which is about the time we moved in with Grandpa. I also remember that every time one parent was out of town, I got to sleep in their bed. I loved it. I didn’t die or come close to suffocating or anything scary like that. No one thought twice about it.

5. Belief in the language value of your baby’s cry:

My dad read a book or two (I don’t know the titles and they’re almost certainly out of print) about kids needing respect and gentleness and remembers telling himself, “This is a person just like me, with less experience and difficulty communicating.” He talked to me and listened to me, from birth. My mom is really good at reading babies’ cues–just ask any of the parents who entrust their kids to her care at the home daycare she runs. She told me today on the phone that it never even occurred to her to “let” me cry. My needs were respected, and both parents remember being happy to walk the floor with me when I needed to be held and refused to sleep.

6. Beware of baby trainers:

I’m not sure how much of this was around in 1984, but there was most certainly no attempt to “train” me. My parents did live (until I was almost three) in Southern California with a lot of other families who were devotees of an Eastern-religion called Self-Realization Fellowship and “natural” everything. There were downsides. My poor sister remembers eating brown rice as part of each one of the three meals of the day when my dad tried a macrobiotic diet in the late ’70s, early ’80s–she’s eleven years older than I am–and I remember the foul taste of herbal tinctures. The benefit of this community was, obviously, that people who believed in midwives and home births and farmers’ markets were much more common than anyone who would believe in “spoiling” babies.

7. Balance:

I have heard so many times that Attachment Parenting is Permissive Parenting. It is not. Balance means that there are boundaries within the family, and that everyone’s boundaries are to be respected. My parents meditated, and during that time, we were not allowed to interrupt them or make too much noise. We prayed at the dinner table. There was a shorter prayer that my parents sort of made up “for the kids.” But it was not optional. No one ever cooked me a separate meal, because I was simply not allowed to skip out on whatever was on the table. They respected that I hated tomatoes and cooked peas. I still do. But I did not get to eat whatever I wanted. There were rules for safety, and I understood that that’s what they were for, even when I didn’t follow them. I still remember thinking that my mother was an unbearable tyrant for not letting me wear my purple plastic dress shoes to play at the park. I did it anyway. I don’t think I hurt myself, but I really could have–they were not real shoes! I was told, “I cannot carry you right now; my arms hurt. You can walk.” Nobody sacrificed his or her well-being for mine. There was no need to do so.

My parents did not have a guide to this. They just did what felt right. Which is the whole darn point of Attachment Parenting. When Dr. Sears and others say that it is “instinctual” they mean it. My parents followed their instincts! You don’t need an instruction manual to come across any of these seven ideas. In fact, if you lived in a country that was less obsessed with materialism and “independence,” you’d probably just do most of this automatically.

Which brings me to the claim about AP that makes my skin just itch like I have hives–that AP kids will be less independent. The “Attachment” in AP refers to the “Secure Attachment” of developmental psychology. I was not physically attached to my parents for five years, people. Yes, it facilitates a secure attachment if child and parent are physically close, and a big part of the “follow your instincts” idea means that you get to listen to that instinct that tells you to pick up a crying child and hold her close. It’s not that AP kids are all super independent or super dependent. They are kids; they are people. I work with babies, and let me tell you–we are born with personalities. The baby I nanny puts herself to sleep. Every day. My niece wanted to be held by her mother and only her mother almost from birth nearly all the time. I happen to have been extremely independent. I walked to friends’ houses, alone, at age four. I walked to the store to buy candy. It was a small town populated almost entirely by relatives or relatives of relatives, but the point is that I wanted to. I was the kind of kid who would stand up in a room full of strangers and sing my favorite song of the moment and then wait for applause. I remember being jealous in Kindergarten that my friend Katie got to be the Little Bo Peep in the pageant, while I was just one of three Twinkle Stars. Are you getting the picture? I talked non-stop, to anyone and everyone and, in the words of my sister, “if there was no one to talk to, I sang songs to myself.” Independent.

Can we stop pretending that AP is new and controversial? People practice the basic tenants of AP all the time without even realizing it. And who cares if it came about as a reaction to the parenting method of my grandparents’ generation? Would you rather be terrified that holding your baby would “spoil” her and that a well-behaved child was a child who did not speak unless spoken to? Um, I’m pretty glad I wasn’t raised that way, and I am not the least bit tempted to raise my kid that way.

The “controversy” surrounding AP is made-up drama, and I am living proof.

What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder? The New Definition (Sort Of)

The American Psychiatric Association has made a late draft of the upcoming DSM V (the fifth edition of the book psychiatrists use to make diagnoses or rule out diagnoses of everything from autism to panic disorder) available for the general public to comment on. When I went to explore, I realized that I had never actually looked up my primary diagnoses–Generalized Anxiety Disorder–in the DSM IV, the book currently in use. So I don’t know what they changed, but I do know that the criteria I found… well… they kind of sum up exactly how what I’ve been dealing with all my life. Here’s what the DSM V says (so far–it’s still being revised) about GAD:

A.   Excessive anxiety and worry (apprehensive expectation) about two (or more) domains of activities or events (e.g., family, health, finances, and school/work difficulties).

B.   The excessive anxiety and worry occurs on more days than not, for 3 months or more

C.   The anxiety and worry are associated with one or more of the following symptoms:

1.   restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge

2.   muscle tension

D. The anxiety and worry are associated with one (or more) of the following behaviors:

1.   marked avoidance of activities or events with possible negative outcomes

2.   marked time and effort preparing for activities or events with possible negative outcomes

3.   marked procrastination in behavior or decision-making due to worries

4.   repeatedly seeking reassurance due to worries

E. The disturbance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

F. The disturbance is not attributable to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication) or another medical condition (e.g., hyperthyroidism).

G. The disturbance is not better accounted for by another mental disorder (e.g., anxiety about Panic Attacks in Panic Disorder, negative evaluation in Social Anxiety Disorder, contamination or other obsessions in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, separation from attachment figures in Separation Anxiety Disorder, reminders of traumatic events in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, gaining weight in Anorexia Nervosa, physical complaints in Somatic Symptom Disorder, perceived appearance flaws in Body Dysmorphic Disorder, or having a serious illness in Illness Anxiety Disorder).

When they say “disturbance,” by the way, they mean the disturbance in, you know, normal functioning. In life.

When they say “one (or more)” turns out, I fall into the “or more” category. Specifically, all of the above.

I like this stuff, because it makes me feel normal. This might seem weird at first, I know. But in the middle of an anxiety attack, I feel like the world’s biggest freak show. “Why am I the only person on the planet who can’t just get up and go to work?!” I tell myself. And then I see something like this and I think “Hey! Look at that! I must not be the only person to freak out about this!”

Some people feel that diagnoses put them in boxes. That’s valid–I’ve just never felt boxed-in or labeled. I attribute this positive history to the fact that I’ve always been under the care of exceptionally talented care professionals. No one has ever said to me “Oh, well obviously you did that because of the GAD.” If anything, my behavior fitting the description above seems to serve only as a confirmation that we’re on a good treatment path. In fact, my care providers almost never mention my diagnoses. And that, friends, is why I feel like this DSM chapter (draft of a chapter?) makes me part of a community of people who struggle with exactly the same stuff I find so difficult. There have to be quite a few people displaying these symptoms before those symptoms make it into a DSM chapter. It’s not a fun club, but it’s better than feeling alone.

Big Sisters & Other Mysteries

I have been thinking a lot this week about big sisters. I grew up with one pretty amazing big sister. Being eleven years older than I am never stopped her from taking time to make sure I grew up with strong feminism and an understanding of how to coordinate clothing.

For most of this week, I thought about the big sisters neither of us ever got to know. In 1971, my mother was pregnant with twin girls. Her water broke at around six months, and the girls died. I have visited their beautiful, shared grave, headstone decorated with a baby lamb and an angel. I have somehow always known about Jemma and Melanie. I don’t know who told me or when, but they’ve been in my heart all my life. I felt helpless on Thursday, when my dear friend Diana Stone gave birth much too soon to her twin boys. All I can offer her is my own family’s story of the big sisters who will never be forgotten, even though they lived only a few hours.

But now, the big sister who helped raise me is upset, and there is nothing I can do to help. To me, she is the smartest, most competent person in the entire world. She can do anything. I swear. She is the best mom and the best professor and the best wife all at the same time. So when I find out that she set out to do something and it didn’t work out, it takes me a long time to get over my first reaction: sheer confusion. Doesn’t the rest of the world see what I see? And why not?

I was told that I would grow out of this sister-hero-worship. Ha! Clearly, anyone who thinks that doesn’t know my sister. In more-or-less-chronological order, here are some of the reasons my sister is and always will be the most amazing woman I know.

  • Even though she left home when I was six-years-old, my sister made a concerted effort to stay involved in my life. Even if that meant trying to talk to a six-year-old on the phone. (My sister: “Do you like first grade?” My mom, in the background: “Anne-Marie, she can’t see you! You have to say something, not just nod.”)
  • She gave me the most thoughtful gifts every birthday and every Christmas. Birthdays were for books–Little House books, a series called Dealing with Dragons about a feminist princess (I got one book in the series of four each year). Christmas was for books and board games, which she always played with me. Clue, Carmen Sandiego the board game, Monopoly Junior.
  • After she studied abroad in France (at age 20), she brought me back a jar of Nutella and a box of cookies referred to in America as “Little Lu” or “Little Schoolboy” cookies. They have lots of chocolate on top. I love them to this day. And a book, of course, called Linnea in Monet’s Garden, which was the best and most thoughtful way possible to share her love of Monet and to tell me about her trip to the house where he painted all those waterlilies. She successfully brought France to a nine-year-old in Northern Minnesota! I mean, how cool is that?! When I went to France at age 21, all I could think at first was “It’s just like my sister said it would be!” She makes a mean crepe, too.
  • She told me about the misogynist themes in the Disney movies long before that was a widely discussed topic. My once beloved Little Mermaid was scorned. How could she just live her life entirely for men like that?! Ugh! But we still shared a love of the music from the good soundtracks.
  • She drove us to Duluth, MN, an hour and a half from our parents’ house, to see Beauty and the Beast the first day it came out. And she drove us home through one of the worst thunder stormsI have ever seen. It was the Minnesota equivalent of a hurricane. And she managed to only snap at me once, even though I blubbered and cried that I just wanted to be home and asked her twenty-five times if we were lost.
  • She sang and will sing, to this day, any Disney song you feel like singing from the movies I watched 10 million times in her presence. (Provided she has the time–the woman has two children and a more than full-time job nowadays.) She knows all the words to every song. It’s amazing. That song in The Little Mermaid where the chef sings to the fish? “Les poisons, les poisons, how I LOVE les poisons!” Yeah, she could at one point sing the entire thing. Even the French parts. She probably still can, I just haven’t asked in awhile.
  • She can sing opera. For real. Mozart and stuff. In foreign languages. And does, at university benefit talent show events.
  • Just before I transitioned from elementary to middle school, my sister went to a talk about the “self-esteem gap” middle school girls face. It was a book talk by author Peggy Orenstein who was promoting her excellent book Schoolgirls. She gave me the signed copy she received that day, which not only set me up to survive some middle school misery by repeating to myself “this is normal” and “this will end” but also set me up for a life-long friendship with Peggy, who has been corresponding with me ever so graciously since I wrote to her as a teen.
  • Every summer, beginning when I was 12 and ending when I left for college, my sister let me stay with her for three-four weeks in Los Angeles, where she was getting her PhD at UCLA. At the time, I had no idea what a big deal this was, especially since I later got the impression that my parents didn’t reimburse her much for all the money she spent on me. I saw the ocean. She took me to Sea World, Disneyland, Universal Studios, Six Flags: Magic Mountain. She took me to see Breakfast at Tiffanies and Gone with the Wind in actual movie theaters during my Old Hollywood phase.
  • During the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, she took me to visit Barnard College, the college I would attend and love with all my heart, even though I thought I had already decided on another school in the area. (Our visit to that other school was a total bust.)

I’ll stop there, even though I could go on through my twenties. Our relationship has changed and grown, especially after she became a mother and could no longer mother me the way she used to. But you get the idea, right?

Do you have a sibling who means the world to you? Are you the person a sibling looks up to?

Sisters at Six Flags: Magic Mountain. I think I'm even wearing a top I borrowed from her!

Vanessa Williams Writes Her First Book–With Her Mom

This photo is on the back cover and was taken by Mike Ruiz.

This is a paid review of You Have No Idea, by Vanessa Williams and Helen Williams, with Irene Zutell for BlogHer Book Club but the opinions expressed are all mine.

Confession: I have gone out of my way to avoid learning about Vanessa Williams since I became a fan, ten years ago. I was seventeen the first time I visited New York City, and Into the Woods, starring Williams as The Witch, was the first Broadway show I saw. Ever. At the time, I thought I would be an actress on Broadway when I grew up. My sister took me to the city, and she waited with me outside the stage door after the show to see if Ms. Williams would come out. I didn’t know you could even do that! And guess what. Not only did she come out in her street clothes before too long, but I was one of the lucky few who got my Playbook signed. My sister kind of pushed me forward–I felt shy, and who wouldn’t?–and this amazing actress who has just given me the thrill of my life in a knockout performance looked me in the eyes and smiled right at me. She gave me her autograph right before she got into the car that took her away. As she signed my Playbook, someone in the crowd yelled something about “Rick.” She rolled her eyes a little but answered politely.

I couldn’t believe it. This woman had just performed one of the most difficult roles in musical theater. We had just watched her sing some of the trickiest songs Stephen Sondheim has written. We watched her turn from an ugly, bent, angry old witch into a stunningly beautiful, fierce young witch and mother to a teenage girl (Rapunzel). We watched her take heartless revenge on an innocent couple for the previous generation’s sins, and we watched her sing her heart out in love and, finally, in grief, as she tries to hang on to her daughter. This actress had just run the emotional and physical and vocal gamut. And some jerk asked about her marriage?

I decided right then that I would not be that fan. I would not know who was married to whom. I would know which shows were good and who was worth paying hard-earned money to see. I heard something about Williams’s marriage to Rick Fox, who I had seen playing for the Lakers. I heard it had ended. I was surprised to hear that she had been Miss America, believe it or not, and about the scandal that ended her reign. (I was born in 1984, ok?) But I went out of my way to avoid learning any details.

Until now.

I am so excited to be participating in the BlogHer Book Club this month, because it means that I get to tell you that Vanessa Williams’s first book, the first time she has told her own story in print is a good book full of great stories. Williams demonstrates humility and a sense of humor about herself when she hands the book over to her mother so that we can hear Mom’s side of the story. The two women make no effort to hide that they have had some serious conflicts, but that their family has always emphasized love for one another.

One of my favorite parts of things about this book is that the chapter about the nude photos that lead the Miss America folks to ask for their crown back, which is also Chapter 1, beings with this quote:

“Never pose nude for anyone.” –Helen Williams

Clearly, these are women who have no problem admitting when they have made mistakes.

Here’s what I learned reading this lovely book that I would never have learned reading any second-hand account:

  • Vanessa Williams takes her career very seriously, but she takes her family life just as seriously. Her candid words about parenting, and her mothers, are full of humility and love.
  • Vanessa Williams may have become famous for being a beauty queen and then, again, for recording best-selling albums. (I always knew the woman could really sing–she’s one of the few “pop” stars my picky musician father respects.) But did you know that her life’s dream was to be a dancer, singer and actor on Broadway? Me neither! I can tell you that she belongs on that stage. That role in Into the Woods? It was originally done by Bernadette Peters. The fact that Williams made it her own and knocked it out of the park is darn impressive.
  • Vanessa Williams was raised in the kind of home I wish I’d had. She had stability. Her parents always presented a united front. Lying was not tolerated (not that that stopped a teenage Williams from lying and sneaking out with her boyfriend!) and love was the family focus. Her parents were teachers and musicians who respect and cherish children.
  • Helen Williams overcame an incredibly difficult childhood to become a remarkable woman and excellent mother. Imagine being raised by grandparents who beat you and scared you and never knowing why you were not allowed to see or even speak to the mother you loved who lived just up the street! And this woman grew up to trust and love and marry a man who sounds like one of the best guys ever. (Milton Williams has passed away. I bet his chapters of this book, if he had been able to write some, would have been fantastic.)
  • If Helen Williams is your mother, you get away with nothing.

And I learned a whole lot more. I also spent quite a bit of time just staring at the many beautiful photos. Vanessa Williams does not seem to be able to take a bad photo. She is stunningly beautiful in a million different ways. I restrained myself, but I’ll say it once:

I had no idea!