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Note from the editor, Lesley Jane Seymour
There are a lot of painful issues brought on by moving after 24 years. There’s the realization that every nook and cranny of my house has been stuffed with physical stuff I forgot about. Some of it is a welcome surprise: the Chanel pearl-draped slides I thought I’d given away but were actually at the bottom of a third-floor closet. I can remember the frenzied sample sale where I bought them when I was working my way up at Vogue. Snagging a Chanel item was a step up for a lowly copywriter; getting a coveted invite to the sale meant I’d “made it.” I also stumbled upon the hand-painted Vuitton handbag that I had to save up my dollars to purchase since they didn’t have sample sales!
Both items will be making a new home in my 2019 wardrobe.
For me, as a former editor in chief and former beauty director, moving — and downsizing — means not just wading through every photo I ever took of my kids, but through closets full of beautiful handbags (sent by designers who needed me to show up in the front row at their collections carrying their brands) and walls of unused beauty products. Which do I toss and which do I keep? And is there anyone who will love these items as much as I did? Why do beauty products make me feel so good? Why do I need five tubes of lip gloss that are almost imperceptibly the same color?
But there is also a lot of emotional stuff to wade through. I’d kept every article I’d ever written and every magazine I ever edited — from Women’s Wear Daily on up — in various books and files or boxes. My new house is half the size of the old and has no attic or basement, and while I’d originally planned to have all my work digitized, the sheer volume of the work that would have to be shipped to be photographed made it all seem silly. Did I really want someone to photograph 70, 300- to 400-page Marie Claire magazines? Plus four years of Redbooks, two years of YMs, and eight years of Mores? Why? What does the story about “What Your Body Shape Says About You” from 1991 have to do with my life today?
While it’s wonderful to know that I can resell many of the high-design clothes and accessories on The RealReal, it’s painful to see a $4000 Prada coat with hand-stitched ornaments (I did have a clothing allowance!) go for $400. What’s more painful, really, is letting go, finally, of the reason I bought it. For the European collections, we would arrive in Milan a day ahead of time so we could shop the stores and snag the latest trends to wear to the shows. I remember my Marie Claire fashion editor standing behind me when I put on the coat; she whispered “Buy it! Buy it! Buy it!” One of my jobs as an editor in chief of a high-fashion magazine was to find a way to get myself photographed by the New York Times or WWD. Picking the right clothes (like that coat) was a way to burnish my personal brand and raise my value among my peers and bosses, and it often translated into actual salary.
But the truth is, those clothes, those shoes, those handbags, those articles no longer have a place in my life. I no longer hit the fashion collections four times a year. I no longer walk the red carpet.
And while I’m relieved to leave behind that editor in chief competition to look fabulous and on-trend every day (Lanvin once told me I couldn’t buy a certain outfit because the editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar already had dibs on it!), it’s also bittersweet. Gone too is the crazy, frenzied (yet terrifying) life of commanding a certain type of attention, of pulling down a large salary and, of course, a clothing allowance. And yet… I’m thrilled I no longer have a boss, that I no longer need to blow my hair each day or put on a full face of makeup. It is simply delicious to hang in my ripped denim shorts and a pair of J.Crew slides, or in my workout clothes. The conversations I have today with business associates and friends are more real. I feel wiser and more centered in myself.
Yes, the movie version of my life is over. But I have a sneaking feeling that the deeper, more gratifying version of my existence has just begun.
Enjoy the issue! xo
20 Million Americans have it. But Only Half Know it
I have to admit: Like most people, I don’t give my thyroid gland much thought.
Though this small, butterfly-shaped organ in the neck is intricately involved in just about all of our bodily functions, the thyroid is a behind-the-scenes kind of player — one that quietly orchestrates the body’s metabolism without much fanfare.
But when thyroid function goes awry, it can trigger an avalanche of seemingly unrelated symptoms that are as likely to affect the digestive system as the brain, not to mention the eyes, hair, skin, and heart.
Twenty million Americans suffer from some form of thyroid disease; in fact, one in eight women will develop a thyroid disorder during her lifetime. Yet, despite the wide-ranging symptoms, half of them won’t even know they have a problem.
Symptoms of an under- or over-reactive thyroid can range from thinning hair to depression to weight gain. “Because the symptoms of thyroid disease are common, and can be caused by other conditions, life stressors, lifestyle, or normal aging, they may be disregarded by the person experiencing them,” says Dr. Jacqueline Jonklaas, professor of medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine.
When untreated, however, thyroid disorders can lead to serious medical issues, including cholesterol problems, heart disease, infertility, and osteoporosis. So it’s crucial that women get acquainted with this humble organ — and learn how to recognize when it’s not doing its job.
The thyroid produces thyroid hormone, which regulates metabolism in all the body’s organ systems. “There are thyroid hormone receptors all over the body — in the kidneys, the digestive organs, the brain, the skin,” says Angela M. Leung, MD, an endocrinologist and assistant professor of medicine at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. “So thyroid dysfunction can affect everything.”
Symptoms of hyperthyroidism — or overactive thyroid — can include weight loss, anxiety, insomnia, vision changes, and heart palpitations. Signs of hypothyroidism, a condition in which the gland produces insufficient thyroid hormone, can include hair loss, unexplained weight gain, constipation, slowed thinking, and depression. While too little thyroid hormone can skew the body temperature cold, too much can cause a person to feel hot. “Among older individuals, there are so many overlapping symptoms with menopause and aging that these patients might not come to the attention of the medical community,” says Dr. Leung.
Even when they do, their symptoms are often attributed to other conditions.
The prevalence of hypothyroidism is much higher than that of hyperthyroidism, occurring in as much as 10 percent of the population, according to Dr. Leung. The risk of hypothyroidism increases with age, affecting up to 20 percent of women over 75, and sometimes causing memory loss and confusion that can be mistaken for dementia.
In comparison, hyperthyroidism affects about 1 to 2 percent of adults, she says. Both are significantly more common in women.
In the US, the most likely cause of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto’s Disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s antibodies attack the thyroid, mistaking it for an intruder.
(Globally, iodine deficiency is more often to blame for an underactive thyroid — as iodine is needed to produce thyroid hormone — but here in the US where table salt is iodized and bread and dairy products are often fortified with the mineral, iodine deficiency is uncommon.)
When the body doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone, the metabolism becomes sluggish, explaining symptoms like low energy, unexplained weight gain, constipation, and coldness in the extremities. Because thyroid hormone is involved in brain signaling, too little can impact the ability to concentrate and affect your mood.
Depression, in fact, is a common symptom.
A recent Malaysian study of over 12,000 individuals revealed that even patients with mild hypothyroidism exhibited higher levels of depression.
Dr. Kelly Brogan, author of A Mind of Your Own: The Truth About Depression and How Women can Heal Their Bodies to Reclaim their Lives, claims in her blog that the vast majority of psychiatric symptoms are driven by thyroid dysfunction, calling thyroid disease a “psychiatric pretender.”
Too little thyroid hormone also means that cholesterol cannot be metabolized properly. If left untreated, hypothyroidism could lead to a dangerous build-up of cholesterol in the bloodstream.
Hyperthyroidism, on the other hand, is most often caused by Grave’s Disease, another autoimmune condition in which the body’s antibodies attack receptors on the thyroid, leading to over-production of thyroid hormone, and often characterized by bulging eyes and swelling in the neck. Benign thyroid nodules can also be to blame.
Excess thyroid hormone speeds up metabolism, leading to symptoms like heart palpitations, anxiety, weight loss, insomnia, and atrial fibrillation, a type of arrhythmia that is a risk factor for stroke. Because hyperthyroidism also causes the bones to turn over faster than normal, it can lead to bone loss or osteoporosis.
Experts agree that thyroid testing (via a blood test) should be considered in individuals experiencing symptoms, in those with a family history of autoimmune diseases, and in women considering pregnancy or experiencing fertility problems. (Thyroid hormone is integral during pregnancy — having an underactive thyroid can lead to miscarriage, preterm delivery, and neurocognitive defects in offspring.) But guidelines to screen those in the general —and otherwise healthy — population vary.
“Who should get tested depends on who you ask,” says Dr. Leung. “The American Academy of Family Physicians says screen everyone — men and women — beginning at the age of 60. The American College of Physicians says only screen symptomatic women beginning at age 50. The American Thyroid Association recommends testing both men and women every five years after age 35, and the US Preventive Services Task Force says there is insufficient evidence for or against screening.”
To test thyroid function, doctors begin by measuring levels of TSH, or thyroid-stimulating hormone. This hormone produced by the brain’s pituitary gland stimulates the thyroid to produce T4, the inactive form of thyroid hormone, which is then converted to T3, the active form. “TSH will be high when a person is underactive, and low if a person has high thyroid hormone production,” explains Dr. Leung. “Even small changes in T3 and T4 will lead to large changes in TSH.”
Still, if TSH is abnormal, complete testing then includes measuring for T3 and T4 as well.
Some doctors also recommend testing for the presence of certain thyroid antibodies, like TPO (thyroid peroxidase antibody), since so many cases of thyroid dysfunction are linked to autoimmune diseases.
For women with hypothyroidism, a daily dose of synthetic thyroid hormone can significantly improve quality of life. Those with hyperthyroidism can either be treated with a medication that slows the production of thyroid hormone or with radioactive iodine therapy or surgery to destroy or remove thyroid cells — after which, they, too, may require thyroid replacement.
Consuming adequate iodine is vital to thyroid health: iodized salt, fish, shellfish, seaweed, eggs, and other dairy products all contain this mineral. Selenium — found in meats, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, and Brazil nuts — is also necessary for proper thyroid function. Though a well-balance diet typically contains sufficient selenium, supplemental selenium may improve eye symptoms in patients with Grave’s Disease, according to Dr. Leung.
While cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy, and kale have many health benefits and should be included in a healthy diet, notes Dr. Leung, limited data suggest that overconsumption of these vegetables can interfere with the thyroid’s ability to use iodine, so it’s important to eat a mix of vegetables.
Soy also contains natural substances that may interfere with our body’s ability to make thyroid hormone, she adds, though moderate soy consumption is unlikely to affect the thyroid.
While experts aren’t clear on what causes thyroid disease, they suspect that radiation to the neck area — given to treat cancers like Hodgkin’s lymphoma — can lead to hypothyroidism or thyroid nodules. (Routine dental x-rays haven’t been linked to thyroid disease, but leaded thyroid shields should be used for extra caution, experts say.)
Research has also suggested that pesticides and other chemicals in the environment — such as PCBs — may be associated with thyroid disorders, though more studies are needed, Dr. Jonklaas says.
Because studies suggest that even women with “subclinical” hypothyroidism are at increased risk of cholesterol problems and that even those with mild hyperthyroidism are at heightened risk for hip fractures and heart problems, it is imperative that women pay attention to symptoms that might be associated with thyroid function, rather than brushing them off as side effects of menopause or aging.
Particularly if you have multiple thyroid-related symptoms, says Dr. Jonklaas, and symptoms seem to be worsening, you should ask your doctor about thyroid testing.
For a cool $99 a month, you can be the Devil Who Rents Prada. But is it worth it?
Maybe this is happening to you, too.
Suddenly, colleagues who mostly wear black — like me — have started swanning around the office in bold, fashion-forward, and clearly expensive garments that they seem to wear just once.
“Where did you get that?” I asked a colleague named Macy, on the day she wore a wildly embroidered, flocked, and glittery mini-skirt.
“RTR,” she said, and then, noting my confusion, “Rent the Runway.”
RTR was launched in 2009 by two Harvard Business School students as the female version of a tux-rental service, offering gowns and other finery to women who’d rather lease their special-occasion looks than invest in them. RTR still rents evening wear, but the bulk of its business is based on a monthly service that lets subscribers check out designer clothing for work and play, along with overcoats, handbags, and accessories.
The most popular plan, called RTR Unlimited, costs $159 per month. It allows you to keep four pieces at a time, with the option to swap any of them out whenever you like, as long as you only ever have four in your possession. RTR pays for dry-cleaning and two-day shipping. And if you live in New York, Georgetown, Chicago, San Francisco, or Woodland Hills, CA, you can shop the stores — which offer less variety but instant on-site returns and rentals.
Hardcore RTR users have all but stopped buying clothes, occasionally picking up new basics, but relying on the service to fill their closets. There’s no buyer’s remorse. No over-investing in a trend. No costly fashion mistakes.
It’s the sartorial equivalent of Spotify or Zipcar. Why own anything — leather jackets, music, a vehicle — when you can just rent what you need when you need it?
“I rent everything in my life except my pajamas, my undergarments, and my shoes,” RTR CEO and cofounder Jennifer Hyman told The New Yorker. And, with her MBA from Harvard, she easily demonstrates how the math supports the RTR model. “Our subscribers spend $1,900 a year, and last year the average subscriber got $40,000 worth of value,” she said, adding up the average retail value of their rented looks.
To entice the curious, RTR runs nearly constant new-member discounts, which, for me, meant a first-month RTR Unlimited subscription for $99.
The month got off to an unpromising start. I decided my first move would be to forgo the depth and breadth of the online shop in favor of browsing the New York City store. Located on 15th Street just off Fifth Avenue, it’s a bustling, sisterly space with women stuffing worn garments into bins, then hitting the racks and dressing rooms to try on new looks. Next comes the real thrill: walking out of the store with four garments that might cost a collective 1,000 bucks, without spending (another) dime.
Me, I walked out empty-handed.
On the day I visited, a lot of the stock was more “run-of-the-mill” than “runway,” with racks jammed with garments from the likes of J. Crew and Tory Burch. The selection reminded me of the Loehmann’s of yore — some great labels but a meh mix of sizes and styles.
Back home, I logged onto the website and, dazzled by the online selection, was soon “hearting” garments like mad, creating individual lists for work, travel, and the red carpet. Just kidding about that last one. But if for whatever reason I snag an invite, I’ll have something to wear to the Oscars.
I made a few rules for myself: no black dresses, black trousers, black anything. I also tried to avoid my go-to labels, such as Theory, Vince, and Club Monaco.
My first shipment included an Amanda Uprichard red wrap dress ($270 retail); a ruffled Drew chalk-striped dress ($276 retail); a Josie by Josie Natori faux leopard jacket ($400 retail); and a long Delfi Collective knife-pleated skirt ($348). The two dresses were a hit, and although I loved the jacket, I didn’t wear it because it was too warm for indoors and not warm enough for outdoors.
The skirt was ridiculous on me: too small around the waist but so long it dragged on the ground. So, only half successful — never mind, it’s all free! — I swapped the Delfi skirt for a Tanya Taylor multicolored tweed kilt ($350 retail). It was too big and, on me, too school-girlish.
And now I was two for five, a success rate that starts to reveal the fault in the system. Renting garments from new (to you) designers without trying them on means you’re guessing at your size. Even the copious user reviews and size ratings (“runs small,” “true to size,” etc.) don’t tell you how it’s going to look on your non-schoolgirlish frame. And while mailing back the garments in the pre-labeled bag is easy and free, you can’t order replacements until they’ve been checked back into the warehouse, typically in three days’ time. So there’s a five-day lag between your fashion flop and your perfect (you hope) new look.
I’m not going to re-up my membership after 30 days. But just because the $159 per month plan isn’t for me, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t recommend RTR to others — after all, the service reports having some 10 million happy customers.
Here’s a list of advice and caveats for the RTR-curious, typed as I close out my subscription wearing a long, knit, ribbed and stretchy Tibi skirt in a shade that can only be described as “creamsicle” ($595 retail). Cute but so not me — which is the whole point.
“50 years: here's a time when you have to separate yourself from what other people expect from you and do what you love. Because if you find yourself 50 years old and you aren't doing what you love, then what's the point?”
Most of us put off financial planning till another day. Problem is, another day may arrive with devastating consequences
Last year, in preparation for writing the book Money Bitch: A No BS-Guide for Smart Women Who Want to Own Their Financial Future, which was coauthored with my partner Sarah Blankenship, we interviewed over 100 women.
The women we interviewed were diverse in race, income, education, occupation, and age. Some were in their early twenties and at the beginning of their careers, while others were seasoned C-level executives and entrepreneurs. Their incomes ranged from $40,000 a year to well into seven figures.
The biggest takeaway? We share a shocking array of financial issues and attitudes.
Number one on the list: When it comes to money, many of us feel vulnerable.
Yes, many of us know what to do with our money, but we get caught up in life’s distractions. We procrastinate (due to anxiety, fear, or just not wanting to have an uncomfortable conversation). Sometimes we just like to avoid reality.
Some of us tell ourselves we will get to it tomorrow, which often means never.
Some of us tell ourselves we can’t be helped.
Know this: we live in the reality of what we tell ourselves. As Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.” The danger is that doing nothing can cost you a lot!
A great (and unfortunate) example of trying to hide from your financial future came from a conversation I had just the other day with my friend (who we’ll call Amy), a CEO with a great salary.
Amy was stressing because she’d just received news that she has cancer. What took me by surprise is that she wasn’t terrified of the cancer. She was hyperventilating because chemotherapy meant she’d be out of work for six to eight weeks — without full pay. She couldn’t fathom the financial burden of not having that salary. She was completely overwhelmed by
Of course, no one can possibly plan or prepare for the emotional wreckage and unknown health consequences that cancer can inflict. What we can gird ourselves for, however, is the financial impact of an unexpected tragedy. Being prepared financially for cancer is actually 100 percent within our control.
If Amy had taken a moment to create a financial plan when she began working years ago, she might have been able to dedicate herself to simply recuperating from the disease. She would have been able to investigate disability insurance and buy it before she became ill. She would have known how to divvy up her paycheck between living expenses, discretionary spending, retirement,
The big problem is that most of us prefer not to be intentional about where our money goes. So it just goes.
The no-duh thing with financial planning is that the sooner you get started, the more choices and freedom you’ll have later in life. It shouldn’t take devastating news to get you going.
A new client came to my office the other day to talk about financial stress. “I’m having so much anxiety and I feel so uneasy because I have no idea what to do with my money,” she said. “I’m driving myself crazy between what I read and what I hear, and I just need someone to help point me in the right direction.” Her instinct was to use any extra money she earned for paying off credit card debt. Her husband preferred the money go to retirement savings. They couldn’t find a compromise. She also mentioned that they were both finally at a point where they were making good money, but were spending too much. She knew they should have more to show for their labors.
Of course, what I know is that all of her problems could be solved with a plan.
So here’s what I told her:
A lot of the financial planning process is thinking about what you really want and making a road map for achieving your goals. Until you have an idea what the unintended consequences are of your current behaviors, you won’t change them. It’s powerful to see how small tweaks in your everyday life can grow your wealth.
If you really want to understand the impact planning can have on your life, exchange the word “money” with “freedom.” When you have more control over your money, you have more freedom in your life. It’s just that simple.
I hate my long makeup routine. This pretty 5-in-1 product makes me like it a tiny bit more
Since my days as a beauty director at Glamour Magazine, I’ve been saying that I wish I could just dip a paint roller–like implement in my makeup and simply roll my entire face on. I love the way makeup makes me look: fresh and well-slept. What I hate, at this age, is the repetition of getting there.
I’ve tried tons of BB creams and CC hair creams and all of that marketing jazz. It never moved me because it didn’t really serve a need. I also found that tinted moisturizer was a little too thin for anything other than play days.
Enter Iris&Romeo Best Skin Days 5-in-1 Skincare by Michele Gough Baril, who spent 20 years as an executive in the cosmetic industry “where I reported to men and marketed to millennials.” She saw that older women — like herself — were being ignored, or “labeled with an outdated anti-aging story.” She writes: “We’re not looking to turn back time — we’re evolving!” Indeed. And she wanted to cut through the “crappy” products and cut down our 8-step morning routines in the process of inventing something new.
Gough Baril sent me her Broad Spectrum Coverage SPF 25 in light medium, and I’ve found it a welcome alternative to a formal made-up face (which I strain to avoid these days). It does, as the label says, “even out skin tone” and add “a beautiful glow.” With almost 19% zinc oxide, it can get me through my daily errands without having to layer on stronger sunscreen.
No, this won’t give you a fully polished made-up face (mascara and all) in one stroke. But it’s a step in the right direction of cutting out the need for moisturizer, sunscreen, and then foundation. And any woman gutsy enough to talk honestly about the frustration of businesses aimed at women but run by men gets my vote.
Luxury spending in Asia is growing thanks to one demographic: women. More self-made female millionaires and women in top management positions in Asia, and especially in China, are contributing to the booming luxury industry, according to an annual report on wealth in Asia.
Navigating the Sandwich
She thought she hated being run around by a demanding mother. Then she discovered what she really hated
“My first resolution for 2019 is to stop complaining so much about my fucking mother,” I said to my significant other on New Year’s Day this year.
She’s 92, and bravely facing her twilight, a widow just doing her best to get by in the familiar comfort of her home of 40 years. From my point of view, she’s self-absorbed and inexcusably dependent; has been her whole life.
I’m obviously a hideous person. Who could say such things about her own mother?
It’s just that she gets me so angry.
I’m not talking garden-variety annoyance, though I experience that, too. I’m talking bomb cyclone. This dramatic meteorological phrase perfectly characterizes my category-five internal weather at times. When it blows over, I feel enormous shame about my anger. The kind of shame that wakes me at three in the morning to beat me up. To echo Nora Ephron, I feel so bad about my feelings!
I was at the grocery store the other day in line behind two lovely teenage boys. “They were so polite and nice,” the cashier said to me. I complimented her on how nice she sounded with them and she replied, “I like young people. I used to do elder-care, but I came to hate it because old people complain too much. Especially aged baby-boomers who feel entitled. It wore me down.”
I wanted to kiss her for her honesty.
1. Annoyance. Mom “forgets” to bring her wallet to restaurants, so I’m obliged to pay. Mom “forgets” her cane when I take her out in the world (she doesn’t want people to think she’s old, she once confessed) so she makes like an albatross on my
2. Frustration. I recently went to some effort at her request to find her a new orthopedist because she disliked how her original one rushed through appointments. But then she decided it wasn’t her shoulder that hurt, it was her groin. “Okay, Mom, we’ll look into it,” I said and I cancelled the doctor I’d just found.
3. Resentment. Caused by #1 and #2 above. My mother didn’t work for a living and so has always prioritized spontaneity. To survive juggling a staff-job for 30 years while parenting three children as a single mother — I had to kiss spontaneity goodbye in favor of planning, organizing, scheduling. She doesn’t get this, and blithely calls at the last minute for help getting to long-standing appointments.
4. Anger. An ugly sludge builds in me during my days when I have to give half my work day over to caregiving. While I love my mother, there are times when I have to face the grim fact that I don’t enjoy her company. Rather than have a real conversation in which being honest would involve disagreeing with her, I go into my fake, submissive, yes-woman persona to get through these visits.
Mom lived alone self-sufficiently until recent years, when things around the house — like stairs — started to get dangerous. The turning point for me, however, came after a couple of shrill calls about the smoke alarms just as I was sitting down to dinner in my home 40 minutes away.
“Mom, stop yelling,” I’d say. “At least it’s not you burned to a crisp!”
We children decided it was time for scheduled caregivers. Even she agrees that more “company” will be good. “But not live-ins.”
The agencies cost too much so we’re using word-of-mouth to hire part-time helpers. But it’s like herding cats to get them to show up on time. Inevitably, there are last-minute cancellations. And then come the hysterical emails from Mom with the subject line: Damn! Damn! Damn!
I’m pressing the point that it’d be better to institute a more organized, full time caregiver set-up. Alas, Mom has shot down all the candidates we’ve come up with like so many ducks at a carnival shooting gallery. “Too mousy.” “Too gossipy; I don’t want my business spread all over town.” I think the veto-power helps her to feel in-control and alive.
Then, Mom says, “I don’t want to be a burden to any of you.” Translation: I wish one of you would come live with me.
I’ve grown weary of the constant complaining and the expectation that my siblings and I will step in to solve every problem. (Not all ninety-somethings are this dependent, I recently learned. My best friend has a mother nearly the same age who is way more independent and competent; she just sold her house, packed up and moved into the city from the burbs without a peep to her children.)
My mother is, fortunately for you, not your mother. Surely I’ll be infuriating my children in my unique ways a few short decades from now (if I’m lucky). But what is shared among many of us adult children seems to be a distaste for this task. I thought I was prepared for this stage, but it has blindsided me.
I’ve learned I’m not alone in my reactions.
I asked myself why this mother-care is so disturbing and came up with a couple of reasons. One: it just feels crummy to see myself begrudging, withholding, patronizing, spiteful. That’s not me.
Two: isn’t it a violation of the natural order to be parenting the parent as he or she becomes the toddler, especially at a time in our lives when we’ve just finished raising our actual toddlers into adolescence or twentysomething-hood? Why, just when we get to reclaim a life for ourselves — are we dragged right back into servitude? And who wants to see their parent’s naked, wrinkly old
For help with this monstrous swamp of emotions, I turned to Dr. Gretchen Kubacky, a Los Angeles psychologist and Certified Bereavement Facilitator. I asked her 1) what are the origins of such unwieldy feelings and 2) WTF can I — or someone in my same predicament — do to get back to some semblance of yogic balance?
Dr. Kubacky refers to herself on her website as Dr. Gretchen, so I’ll call her that. She says the various feelings we adult-children experience may be connected to the natural order being upended, “but really, it’s just a hope that we won’t all need care like this in the end. Fear of loss, or anticipatory grief, can produce intense feelings of grief, sadness, and longing or yearning — for what will be missed, for things to be the way they were.”
But what triggers that extra dollop of negative feeling?
“I think the rage about the helplessness or incompetence ties into frustration and fear about one’s own decline or demise. It’s right in your face, this person who probably looks something like you, decaying, and that’s scary. Also, depending upon the person’s diagnosis (for example, some dementias), they may be undergoing a significant personality transformation or loss of memory that is also scary, confusing, and fear-inducing. We expect children to be ‘incompetent,’ but we don’t expect that of adults.”
When I rant a bit about my mother’s assumption that her children will jump through hoops to help her stay at home despite the time-suck her insistence on jerry-rigging imposes, Dr. Gretchen answers
I share with her this platitude that seems to rise above the din of unsolicited advice from friends: “You’re lucky that your mother is still above ground to complain about.” I’ve tried to let that inspire me, with only minor success. Dr. Gretchen rejects attitude-adjustment.
“You are not required to be grateful, and you are not a bad person if you’re not only not grateful, but also a little angry, bitter, and resentful. Sometimes there is great beauty in caregiving, but it’s hard to focus on that when you’re overwhelmed with duties.”
Or in my case, overwhelmed with anger.
“Anger is often the cover emotion for sadness,” she says.
Oh, did I leave out sadness? I guess I did. Add that to the list. “And, there’s a great deal to be angry about in a caregiving position. You miss out on
Dr. Gretchen distinguishes between the current back-burnering of our own priorities and needs, and past back-burnering: “We have a saying, ‘If it’s hysterical, it’s historical.’ In other words, when you’re having a strong visceral emotional response to something, it’s probably not just about what’s happening in the moment. It probably has its roots in old family dynamics.”
Bingo, that’s me. (And I thought this interview with Dr. Gretchen was going to help you.)
Now I know where my missing compassion has been all this time: buried deep beneath unfinished business. Being raised by a self-absorbed mother takes its toll. Mine taught me not to speak up about my needs or insist upon my wants. She told me that was selfish, and I learned I was a selfish, bad girl. I’ve been mindful of that for years, but only now — when the tables have turned and I’m begrudging my mother her needs because she didn’t let me have mine — do I really see that the anger I’ve carried with me through the decades isn’t helpful.
Dr. Gretchen brings it back to sadness: “Maybe you have always been longing to be cared for fully by her, and now that she is on the tail-end of life, it is inescapably clear that she will never care for you the way you wanted her to.”
Does that mean that to properly grieve childhood hurts, you have to let the anger ferment into sadness?
“No,” replies Dr. Gretchen, “I say have the sadness AND the anger. Grief is non-linear. That old Elisabeth Kubler-Ross thing (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) sounds all neat and tidy and linear, and it’s just not. You can have all of the emotions, only one or two, skip through a couple, find one arising in five years, and so on. Don’t manage your emotions; let them come to the surface, air them out, and release or integrate them as needed. Repeat until you feel better.”
I do occasionally find it rewarding when I inadvertently make my mother happy by offering her an extra hug at the door, inputting contacts into the speed dial area of her phone so she thinks I’m a genius, telling her her hair looks beautiful, or showing up unexpectedly with dinner on a cold, dark winter night. Then she gives me a bright smile of relief. Maybe instead of thinking “she’ll be dead soon, so be nice now,” I will try pulling the curtain back on my anger to encourage the more delicate, shy feelings to step forward out of my past. If that clears the way for some “great beauty” moments, it’s worth it. I’m betting those will nourish us both.
What’s a grown child to do? Whether you’re experiencing mild annoyance or gigantic resentment, current back-burnering or past sadness in disguise, here are Dr. Gretchen’s steps for moving yourself forward:
Start a conversation in public “No shame in acknowledging the feelings. Like with this article. Also, have individual conversations with people who are in the same position, quite possibly any of your similarly aged friends. You will soon find an abundance of similar feelings.”
Seek out regular support “Friends first, then therapy, and perhaps some sort of online support group (because when you’re busy caregiving, you don’t have a lot of time to get out to a meeting).”
Set boundaries I’d already set my own Mom boundaries: roughly two half-days a week for FaceTime, and the inevitable emails, phone calls, and administrative work on top of that. (My two siblings handle plenty of other matters.) I’m continually trying to clue in the team of helpers and random friends and neighbors to the fact that I have a day job, because they seem to assume that I can just drop everything. Dr. Gretchen says: “Boundaries are everything. Enlist friends or neighbors to check in on the parent while you’re at work… Sign up for a meal-delivery service for them… And take time out for what feels like self-care for you.”
Meditate “Self-care isn’t just about the spas-and-bubble baths type of thing that populates the media. Meditate — now! Download the free Insight Timer Meditation app and pick something. Don’t tell me you don’t have time! One of my favorite meditations is less than two minutes long. Have compassion for yourself and the complexity of feelings you have surrounding this person’s process of aging and
A note about Anonymous: I only have about ten friends, but if one of them saw my name attached to this, and chose to pass it along to Mom, well, I’d be left with nine friends and a needlessly hurt mother. It’s compassion more than shame, I’m fairly certain, that has led me to write anonymously here. While my mother has a remarkable new capacity for openness and honesty as she approaches the edge of the cliff and looks backward to take stock, I see no reason to drag her through the parts of our shared past that would only ignite her sense of failure.
A one-of-the-guys Army officer pens romance fiction on the side (17 published novels!) to work out her life-and-death fears
So there I was, an Army officer candidate in military training, sweating in 98-degree heat with no shower for the last four days, sitting in the Fort Benning, Georgia, woods with the banana spiders and feral hogs, and I get the great idea that these spiders and land navigation (walking through the woods with a map and compass) would be a fun addition to the novel I’d started writing to stay awake during military history class.
It was the summer of 2007 and I was a 32-year-old mother of two daughters — one seven months old and one, two years — who were both parked in Maine with my mother. My husband was deployed to Iraq on his second tour and the two family dogs had been placed in a long-term kennel.
And I desperately needed something to take my mind off the ache in my chest that descended every time I called home to talk to my babies, the youngest of which couldn’t even remember who I was.
I’d enlisted in the Army straight out of high school (in 1995) because I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I thought I’d earn some money for college while I figured it out. Twelve years later, I was taking a three-month course designed to transform me from a sergeant first class senior noncommissioned officer into a second lieutenant. The school was a crash course in officer education — tactics, military history — and a lot of time spent in the woods with those damn spiders.
I was told this would build my character. (I’m still not convinced.)
At the end of 2004, when my husband returned from his first deployment, we had a tough conversation about whether we should both stay in the Army. That would mean going back to war — possibly multiple times — in order to keep our health insurance. We wanted to try and make it to the 20-year mark, when we both could earn retirement benefits. I’d finished my bachelor’s degree through the State University of New York, and part of that plan meant that I would transition from enlisted to officer, which meant more responsibility but also better pay.
So of course, writing a romance novel was the obvious best use of my time.
I found solace in writing romance novels because it allowed me to explore the kinds of emotional connections I didn’t see represented in fiction about military life. For example, most of my novels (I have published 17 novels) involve women’s friendships with other women. At work when I was younger, I was always one of the “guys.” But as I’ve aged, I’ve come to cherish my female friendships in a way that I couldn’t appreciate back then. My female characters reflect these friendships.
I also write about strong male and female friendships. By contrast, I almost never write a friends-to-lovers story because I believe deeply that men and women can actually be just friends, even the kind who will bleed and fight for each other. Sometimes, I even write about female soldiers being friends with Army wives — a relationship stereotypically portrayed as fraught with rivalry and jealousy.
I also write because I want to see people like me on the page. Women in the military — officers or enlisted — who choose to stay in the greedy institution of the Army, despite the struggles with balancing family and combat deployments. I want to see everyday soldiers — not Special Forces or Navy SEALs — but regular soldiers who deploy again and again rather than walk away.
When I began writing fiction, there were few regular soldiers in the novels I read. Yes, there are some nonfiction works about women who serve: I highly recommend Rule Number Two by Dr. Heidi Kraft. But for the most part, books about Iraq — both fiction and nonfiction — focus on the men who deploy. There is very little about what happens when they come home and even less about when the women who go to war come home.
When I began writing, the Forever War was still the young and fresh Global War on Terror. We were not yet jaded and cynical about why we were fighting or why we’d gone to war in the first place. We’d only been in Iraq for a little over four years, and I’d only recently become a mother. To say that I was renegotiating every aspect of my identity is an understatement.
Why didn’t I write nonfiction instead? Funny story. It involved Army lawyers telling me that nonfiction would be too close to my official duties. If I wanted to tell these stories, fiction would keep me out of legal trouble. I write under a pen name because as much as I want to tell authentic stories, I want space between my first life as an Army officer and my second life as a writer.
I also write as a way of processing the things I am experiencing in my life — the fears, the uncertainty, the frustrations of being an Army officer, an Army wife, an Army mom. I use my writing as a way of exploring some of my deepest anxieties. What will I do if something happens to my husband when he is deployed? Can I stay in the Army and still deploy if the war takes him from our family?
The book that explored that question eventually became After the War, a second chance romance about Captain Sarah Anders, a widowed Army captain who comes face to face with Captain Sean Nichols, a man she’d dated when they’d both been enlisted. Sean wanted Sarah to get out of the Army and become his wife. But Sarah loved the Army too much to give it up. She moved on and married a man who supported her as a wife and an Army officer. But then she lost him to the war. After her loss, she continued to serve, eventually running into Sean, who, thankfully, has grown into a man confident enough to love her and support her as she is.
That book remains one of my favorites. For Sarah to sacrifice made her a worthy hero in her own right. In many ways, Sarah’s story helped me justify the sacrifices my own family had made for my service.
I wrote nine novels, most of them after my kids went to bed. That’s when I’d snag an hour or so here or there to jot down a chapter or two or chat on Twitter with members of the Romance Writers of America, an organization dedicated to advocating for professional romance writers. Thankfully, I was a fast writer and I had great mentors who helped me polish those first very rough drafts into something readable.
Writing became a sanctuary for me, a place to wrestle with the things I didn’t want to face in my real life such as the impact of my husband’s PTSD; he — and our family — are still learning to cope.
In one of the mysteries of the universe, in 2013 the Duke University department of sociology accepted me into their program and so I took off the military uniform and, after a traumatic experience of figuring out just what one wears to grad school, I started the program.
While I’m told grad school is a traumatic experience for most students, I had no clue just how life-altering it would be for me. I was 38 years old, nearly a decade beyond most of my classmates, and one of the only soldiers any of them had ever met. And it was my first time on a college campus.
The almost twenty years of the Forever War dramatically changed my perspective on what it means to be a mother and a soldier. But graduate school and writing helped me answer another identity question: who was I as a woman? For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by women. Listening to their stories dramatically altered my taken-for-granted assumptions about daily life and what it means to be female — both inside the military and out.
As I’ve gotten older, I look back on things I used to believe and do with a deep sense of disquiet. I never believed sexual assault in the military was as serious a problem as I now know it to be. Watching Jackson Katz’s Ted Talk about how language obscures men’s roles in domestic violence was an epiphany for me. Instead of wondering (as I used to) “why she stayed,” I now ask, “why does he hit?” I’m not proud of these admissions but I know that the relationships I’ve forged in the writing and grad school communities have challenged the things I used to take for granted.
Until We Fall, the last book in my “Falling” series, is the story of Nalini King, a young woman wrestling with the legacy of actions she failed to take to protect a fellow female service member. When I was young, I saw myself as a soldier who happened to be female; I proudly wore the “Not Like the Other Girls” moniker, which I thought made me special. It sounds strange, but I never really thought about what it meant to be a woman in the military, even though, ironically, my stories centered on this very question. Perhaps my writing was an attempt to explore this side of me, a side I’d kept hidden, even from myself.
At my first Romance Writers of America Conference, I panicked again about what to wear and how to talk to civilian women.
I didn’t actually know any of my fellow writers in real life because all of our conversations had taken place virtually, over Twitter. But the community embraced me and guided me through that first event. These women helped me learn to be comfortable in my own skin, let my hair down (literally!), wear a dress; they taught me that yes, comfortable high heels do indeed exist (Cole Haan with Nike Air soles). Most importantly, the friends I’ve met in the romance writing community taught me the value of being a woman.
As I’ve transitioned yet again from graduate student to professor and from aspiring author to multi-published author, my novels once again help me sort through who I was and where I fit.
The central story I’ve always written about, of course, is family — not a biological family but a military family. The family bonds you forge in the woods, in the desert, in the tactical operations center debating the meaning of life in the middle of the night (spoiler alert: it’s 42, a reference to the venerated Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).
My fiction has changed as I’ve changed, even if the core story I’m telling hasn’t. It’s one of finding your place, of finding the family you choose, of finding the people who push you to be better. And it all started in the woods at Fort Benning, swinging a stick to please-God-don’t-let-a-spider-hit-me-in-the-face, and deciding that this would be a great chapter in a romance novel.
Because who better to tell a love story in the middle of the Forever War than someone who’s lived it and shared it with friends along the way?
If you truly love someone, you can let go of all their crap
One day, this will all be yours!
It seems like a well-intentioned sentiment about passing the things you love on to your children, but in reality? It’s a veiled threat.
When it comes time to right-size, all those cherished memories wrapped up in your embroidered tablecloths are most likely yours alone. It hurts to say, but it’s true nonetheless: no one wants your stuff.
“You cannot snowball it forward,” says Marni Jameson, a downsizing expert and author of Downsizing the Family Home: What to Save, What to Let Go. “You have your own full house, your parents had a full house, your kids are going to have a full house if they don’t already. You can’t have three houses full of stuff — the math just doesn’t work.”
The good news is there are plenty of ways to disperse the goods without dumping everything on your kids’ doorsteps. The bad news is that actually doing any of them can be an emotional roller coaster — letting go is a lot trickier than just touching your candlesticks to figure out how much joy they bring you. Here’s what experts say about how to get into the right mindset.
The first thing to do is to convince your parents (or yourself!) that what they own isn’t worth as much as they think it is, Jameson says.
“Unless you come from a family with tremendous pedigree and provenance, you probably don’t have much that’s worth a lot,” she continues. “If you liquidated everything in the average home [in] America down to the teaspoons, it’s worth about $5,000. And people think it’s multiples of that.”
Understanding what has worth and what has worth to you is key. When it comes to valuables, make sure you’re keeping items that mean something to you. Phillip Thomas, founder and principal of Phillip Thomas Inc., says that antiques and collections have to speak to the individual who owns them.
“They have to evoke something from the individual who lives with them. The items can range from the most mundane, such as old glass bottles, to items that are far more elevated, such as tortoiseshell boxes,” he says.
When it comes to selling things, mid-century modern furniture has a big appeal right now, but large furniture from other eras probably isn’t wanted. “I find that larger pieces, such as chests and armoires, from before the 20th century carry little worth as they are hard to place in today’s interiors,” Thomas says.
And what about collectibles?
“Collectible stuff is completely overblown,” Jameson notes. “Whether it’s Lladro, or Hummel or Norman Rockwell, that stuff really is worthless. All the fancy China is pretty valueless.”
Collections, unfortunately, are unlikely to find a home. But you can try. Reach out to first-degree family members, then past that. Take advantage of eBay and Craigslist.
When it comes time to decide what heirlooms and possessions you actually want, Jameson recommends picking a few things that resonate. “Incorporate them so you have a connection to your past, but do not feel that you have to take everything,” she says. “I have my dad’s cigar box, I have a painting that my parents had in our kitchen my whole life and I put it in my kitchen.”
And focus on quality, not quantity: “I think when everybody tries to keep everything, nothing is important. When everything seems important, nothing is important. It just becomes so much stuff,” she says. “Go for the precious and few, versus the big: Take the pearls, not the piano.”
Ask if your parents would be open to other relatives taking their items. Don’t lean on your kids to pick up the slack for both your parents and yourself. “Really ask your kids, “Hey, is there anything in this house that when the day comes and I’m no longer here, you would like, and if they say no, believe them!”
When facing a mountain of stuff, a long to-do list, and days of sweating and sorting, it’s easy to lose your temper. But try to remain patient and respectful, recommends Dr. Julie de Azevedo Hanks, a licensed clinical social worker
“If it’s parents who are going through their things and these things are meaningful, it’s really important to be respectful of the meaning that they give it,” she says. This might mean that if it’s integral that you absolutely must take that armoire, take it and deal with it later. “Sometimes you have to wait until they’re gone to get rid of things,” notes Hanks.
This isn’t a directive to toss with abandon, but to be cognizant that you can’t take it with you, and neither can your heirs. If you’re lucky enough to have parents alive, have the conversations needed to learn what will happen with the furniture, jewelry, art, and everything else. Tape notes or
“I always think is there someone else in the world who could use this and who would value it more than I do,” Hanks says. “And you know, if it’s shoes or coats or clothes or books, a lot of times the answer is yes, there’s someone in the world who could use this, so let’s pass it on.”
For yourself, declutter early and often. It doesn’t have to be done all at once. Focusing on a room or even a dresser is progress.
“If you Marie Kondo the hell out of your house, then those stories might go away for a future generation,” Novak says (see Shana Novak in Resources, below).
For all media, consider Legacy Box, which digitizes everything neatly into a thumb drive (tiny!), DVD, or the cloud. This way, you can also reach out to relatives and combine memories for sharing.
New York City still life photographer Shana Novak has found a very distinct and special way to preserve these memories. She started the aptly named initiative, The Heirloomist, a still life photography concept that takes people’s precious belongings — tennis shoes, No. 2 pencils, a folded note — and turns them into framed pieces of fine art.
Nicholle Overkamp, MBA, is the Founder and CEO of Wilcox Financial Group and PowHERhouse Money Coaching.
Their firm specializes in helping women business owners, executives, and couples who are looking to achieve financial goals while living their ideal lifestyle. Nicholle holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Medaille College, achieved her Retirement Planning Specialist designation from Wharton and her MBA with a concentration in Finance from the University of Phoenix.
Jessica Scott is the USA Today bestselling author of stories set in the heart of America’s Army. She’s an active duty army officer and holds Ph.D. & Masters Degree in sociology from Duke focusing on status and morality. She has 12 years prior service, earning the rank of SFC prior to commissioning in 2007. She has written for numerous publications including the New York Times and has been featured in Esquire Magazine as an American of the Year in 2012.
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