On not wanting to have children

 

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I do love this photo of my late mother and me. I always found her glamorous. In this photo she’s probably 28 or 29, as she left my father when she was 30.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

The Guardian has been running a fascinating series recently, of essays by women who don’t want to have children, and it includes a 6:57 video with five interviews of women ages 22 to 45, explaining their feelings as well.

Here’s an excerpt from the essay by American novelist R.O. Kwon:

 Throughout history, people without children – women, especially – have often been persecuted, mistreated, pitied, and killed for their perceived lack. In ancient Rome, a woman who hadn’t borne children could legally be divorced, and her infertility was grounds for letting a priest hit her with a piece of goat skin. (The blows were thought to help women bear children.) In Tang Dynasty China, not having a child was once again grounds for divorce. In the Middle Ages, infertility was believed to be caused by witches or Satan; worse yet, an infertile woman could be accused of being, herself, a witch. In Puritan America, it wasn’t just having no children that was suspect. Giving birth to too many children could be perilous, too, and grounds, yet again, for being condemned for a witch.

Also in the US, enslaved women were expected to have babies, and were routinely raped, their potential future children considered a slaveholder’s property. Some of the only times women without offspring have garnered respect might be when they have formally devoted their lives to a god, and to celibacy: nuns, vestal virgins.

Which brings us to a word I haven’t yet used, but which often is levied against childfree women like me: selfish. Despite everything, it’s still common to view parenting as a moral imperative, to such an extent that voluntarily childfree people can be viewed with such outsize emotions as anger and disgust

The series is interesting, with reasons from not making enough money or not wishing to pass on a genetic disposition to addiction to having watched their own mother really resent having had children.

I knew from childhood I didn’t want kids, for several reasons:

— My mother started having manic breakdowns when I was 12, several times when I was alone with her and with no one to turn to for help or advice. It was terrifying and overwhelming. I felt burdened too young with too much responsibility, “parentified.”

— I wanted to become a journalist, especially (initially) a foreign correspondent, a job that makes parenthood pretty much impossible since you live out of a suitcase, travel constantly and have to be ready 24/7 to go where the news is happening, often with little or no notice.

— Journalism. It pays badly compared to many other industries, is very insecure (much worse now), offers a lot of obstacles to making better wages. Without money, raising a child, I knew, would be really stressful. And the hours can be terrible; news happens 24/7 and night, weekend and overnight shifts, if you even have a job now, are real at every stage of one’s career.

— My parents didn’t care. Neither pressed me hard to have kids and neither ever showed interest in doing what many grandparents do — move in or move closer to help out, offer financial aid for a nanny or helping me acquire better/larger housing to make parenthood more comfortable.

— Bodily autonomy. While I know some women absolutely adore being pregnant and breastfeeding, I had heard too many horror stories. The idea of carrying someone inside me for nine months, then being put through the agony of labor, then 20+ years of someone relying on me utterly? Not a chance.

— Freedom. As some of the women in the Guardian series say plainly — this has offered me tremendous freedom, in work,  in partners, in where I live, in how I work.

— Weird parenting. Having done a lot of therapy, I had to be persuaded that my childhood was in some ways deeply neglectful, because it was materially privileged but, often, handed off to others. I spent ages 8 to 16 at boarding school (8 to 13) and summer camp, all summer, every summer. My parents, it seemed, just didn’t want me around. So why would I choose to have kids when they found it so…unappealing?

I know,  everyone thinks we’re selfish. Because women without children have chosen a life that’s not spent, de facto, in service of others for decades — breast-feeding, changing diapers, rushing to the ER for the latest bleeding wound, doctor and dentist and teachers’ appointments.

It also makes clear that a woman who is not subservient to the needs of others ahead of her own, always, is deeply suspect.

Why not, missy?

Some people make a lot of rude and unfounded assumptions about us:

that we hate kids (I don’t); that we are incapable of sustained sacrifice (hello, work?!); that we shun intimacy (ask our husbands, partners and friends); that no one will care for us in old age (hah! as someone often estranged from my own parents, this is a fantasy.)

 

I’m in awe of the time, energy and attention it takes to be a good and loving mother!

 

I just didn’t want the job.

 

Do you have children?

Or not?

Have you enjoyed it?

Resilience is a learned skill

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

In my last blog post, I named some of the worst experiences I’d faced in earlier years, and several people commented on how tough they were.

Or how tough I must be to have weathered them.

I later realized there were two more years that were also very difficult, one when I was 14 and another right around my 20th birthday.

What I also realize, looking back now, is what made the first one excruciating and the second one less so, was having emotional support, people who love me who really stood by me through it all.

When I got a diagnosis of early stage breast cancer, right at my birthday in 2018, I was floored and deeply surprised by the flood of love and support and good wishes, cards and gifts and flowers, that people sent to me. One woman I know really only professionally, who lives far away from me, sent me a bracelet with the word I chose — onward. Even though I did a lot of crying and was very scared, knowing how many people were with me in spirit was incredibly helpful.

My late mother suffered a tremendous amount of health problems — multiple cancers (which she survived), COPD, a late-life colostomy — but she, until that point, was relentlessly determined to just get on with it.

Her expression, whenever face with yet another crisis: “What should I do? Jump out of my skin?”

I agree.

 

Life is rarely smooth and easy!

 

We get sick and injured and people we love get sick and injured and get dementia and fade in front of our eyes. We don’t get the dream job — or we do, and get fired or laid off. We may face (as I did, even at 30, when I arrived in New York seeking a journalism job) a six month job search. Or a search that never produces a job we want.

Or any job.

So the things I’ve faced and overcome are nothing compared to what others face — a drug-addicted or incarcerated parent; having to care for younger siblings; not being able to afford any sort of education with which to escape poverty.

Chronic poverty. Disability or chronic illness. Food or housing insecurity.

Or racism and daily microaggressions, as so many BIPOC are describing now. Police brutality and mass incarceration.

 

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Sometimes it’s all just a hopeless mess!

 

My experiences, for sure, have been much eased by my race, decent health, the skills to make a living, an excellent university education with no debt (Canadian) and the financial help of a relative.

But I also take pride in my acquired resilience when the shit — again!! — hits the fan, in not lying in bed in the fetal position weeping for days, escaping into drugs or alcohol. I’m not judging people who do.  People do what they can with what they have.

Surviving hardships creates resilience. It’s a muscle we only develop by using it, probably repeatedly.

 

You don’t know how strong you can be until you’re sorely tested.

 

Right now, thanks to the news and social media, I see a tremendous amount of whining and complaining, mostly by Americans, some who just can’t tolerate the slightest discomfort (wearing a mask, staying out of crowded places indoors) and whose selfishness is lethal as it continues to spread COVID-19.

This behavior sickens me. It’s stunningly immature.

Ironically, I gained a new client this year who is Finnish.

And Finns take pride in a national culture with a name — sisu. It means grit, determination, the willingness and ability — and pride in so doing — to tough things out.

 

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Listening well

 

Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story
Interviewing GP Dr. Margaret Tromp, President of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada, in Picton, Ontario, Sept. 2019.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I listen for a living.

Most people think I write for a living, and, yes, the product I sell is an article or story or blog post for publication, for a company or for a journalism outlet.

But before I have anything to write about, I’ve listened carefully to strangers who have to place their trust in me to get it right, make their views known without distortion and communicate it all compellingly to even more strangers.

It’s a challenge!

I really enjoy it, but it can be difficult. My current project means speaking to a source in Europe and using a video interface, which can freeze or drop words or whole sentences. Add to that an accent and a complex topic, and away we go!

My interviews have sometimes been extremely delicate, like the young black women I spoke with for my first book about American women and gun use. Each had been arrested for a gun-related crime (not murder) and each had her own reasons for owning and using one.

My job was simply to listen quietly, non-reactively, kindly, without judgment.

I suspect it may have been a rare occasion for them to simply tell their story and just be listened to — not to a cop or a judge or a social worker, let alone a middle-aged, white stranger.

The photo above is fairly typical of me when I’m really focusing hard; I’m not looking at the speaker (not to be rude!) but really thinking.

 

An interview, journalistically, is a terrific experience but it’s not conversation in any conventional sense. It has elements of that — nods, laughter, echoing back what someone just said, asking a clarifying question, even swearing — but it’s also a controlled interaction where the writer must stay in the driver’s seat, even if done delicately and invisibly.

 

I recently did my first transcription for a fellow journalist, whose interview was with a major pop musician. Oh, I felt for them! The replies were often mumbled or mono-syllabic. I was as tired at the end of making sense of it as they probably were as well.

To conduct a really good interview requires both intellectual acuity (make it interesting for them! ask smart and incisive questions and follow-ups) and emotional sensitivity (don’t rush them!) 

 

 

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I did a series of interviews in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto, years ago, for Chatelaine, a national women’s magazine, which meant asking sources — all women — to revisit an extremely painful experience, a side effect of a drug, Mirapex, all had taken for their Parkinson’s disease or for restless leg syndrome.

The side effect was an excess of dopamine over-stimulating the brain’s pleasure centers, and the women had unwittingly become compulsive gamblers, terrifying their families and confounding their physicians.

Between their emotion and the disease, they shook and/or cried through the interviews and one’s family raged about her behavior — without really understanding, medically, what was even happening or why. It was one of the most difficult stories I’ve ever reported and I apologized to each beforehand and thanked them afterward for how exhausting it was for them to share their stories.

Sometimes, I feel more like a therapist than a journalist.

 

When I listen for work, I bring tools to the table with me:

 

empathy

compassion

curiosity

cultural sensitivity (what’s taboo, what’s likely to elicit passion or emotion or silence)

prior research (to know what to ask)

patience (not every word or sentence is riveting)

editing as we go (see above!)

attentiveness to their pauses, hesitations, laughter, emphasis, repetition

Here’s a recent and interesting New York Times piece about how to listen well:

 

Start out by talking about something the other person likes, or maybe doesn’t like, and finding out why that is. It could be music, art, books, films, food, favorite childhood toys or even other people. The point is to explore one another’s affinities, attitudes, beliefs and opinions — but never argue about them. As the Polish-born social psychologist Robert Zajonc wrote, “We are never wrong about what we like or dislike.”

Likes and dislikes develop through experiences, and those back stories are willingly told if you ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. These don’t necessarily have to be long, drawn-out conversations.

 

Even when I interview super-smart eminent scientists, as I did for a recent story, I make time for some casual personal conversation as well. I discovered that one of the leaders in water treatment shared my experiences of flying Nicaragua’s domestic airline — and eating at a great Indian restaurant in Montreal (where he attended McGill, across the street.)

Those fun, personal, quirky moments make even the most serious interview more human and playful.

We talk most easily to other human beings, not robots.

Jose and I talk to one another a lot.

It’s one of my favorite elements of our marriage — because really listening to someone is an active form of love.

The pain of Mother’s Day — not what you think

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By Caitlin Kelly

Tomorrow in North America, the annual paeans to great mothers begins again.

It doesn’t resonate the same way for others, like me.

I wrote about this once in detail, here, and it spurred one of my most valued friendships, since that person and I finally saw the effect of having really difficult mothers on our lives and life choices.

It does change you.

It’s also deeply taboo to not like your mother — and it’s extremely painful to have your mother not like you, especially if you’re their only child.

So, at the request of an editor, I wrote this essay about how my mother and I became estranged, and still were when she died this February, in a nursing home very far away from me.

I hadn’t seen her or spoken to her in a decade.

I did love my mother, even as I was fed up with how she chose to squander every gift life can offer: physical beauty, Mensa level intelligence, curiosity, open-mindedness, inherited wealth, deep and abiding friendships.

Between her bipolar illness and alcoholism, her behavior was often erratic and selfish. It deeply hurt and really scared me, as my visits to her were usually alone, with no one to turn to for moral support or help. I had no siblings to commiserate with — or strategize.

I couldn’t turn to one of her friends. She was someone who eschewed close relationships unless with very old friends, most of whom lived in other countries. She didn’t know her neighbors, so neither did I. When she attended church, she never went to coffee hour and,  when I forced her to on one of my annual visits (selfishly desperate for someone else to know her), she was furious with me.

When she left my father, and she was 30, she had plenty of suitors, and one was very kind to me — oddly, decades later, that man’s daughter, living in England, contacted me (or vice versa) and we renewed a friendship we’d had at 12 in Toronto.

So I miss the best of her, as it was lovely.

But I don’t miss the worst.

Here’s some of the essay:

 

I hadn’t seen her in years nor tried to re-connect. I knew better, even though others repeatedly urged me to, including my father, 50 years divorced from her but lately back in touch.

“You’ll regret it!”

“What if she dies?”

“Just go!”

“You never know…”

But they didn’t know the full story.

Every year I sent her a Christmas card filled with the past year’s news, but never received a reply, not even in 2018, the year of my early-stage breast cancer, surgery and radiation. When she had had a mastectomy decades before, I’d flown from New York to Vancouver to get her back home and re-settled.

A few years ago, she told my best friend, a local who went to visit, to tell me to stay away.

How does one end up so estranged?

More easily than you’d think.

I hope you’ll read the rest — and if you, or someone you know, is also estranged from a parent, this may comfort them.

It’s an oddly secret society.

Headwinds, tailwinds

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

As an official #avgeek, who thrills to the sight of any aircraft and loves the smell of JP4, aka jet fuel, I often think in/use aviation metaphors.

Last week I had a long heart-to-heart with a dear friend, a much younger woman still in her 20s. She’s feeling stuck and frustrated, and has had a family tragedy hit her as well. It’s a lot!

When all those around you look like they’re making much faster progress towards personal and professional goals — marriage, kids, buying a home, getting a job or a promotion — it’s so easy and so demoralizing to feel left behind. Even at my age, decades into a good journalism career, I still gnash my teeth and rend my garments when I see other writers winning big awards and fellowships and fancy book and movie and TV deals.

Envy is also a fairly human emotion.

But…

I also subscribe to the belief that, just as some flights go much more quickly thanks to a tailwind and some more slowly thanks to a headwind, so do our lives.

And many of the obstacles and many of the privileges (head/tailwinds) also remain invisible. 

And in American can-do, individual, no-social-safety-net culture, it’s completely normal — and really bad for your psyche — to blame only yourself. If only you had done X! Or didn’t do Y! So and so did Z and look at their success!

But…

We just don’t know, unless someone is completely candid with us, what tremendous advantages or disadvantages they have had to overcome or enjoy. It’s rare that we compete on a level playing field.

 

Headwinds can include:

 

Chronic illness

Mental illness

Serious illness

Acute illness/recovery — or any of these for a loved one

Disability

Caregiving

Grief

Miscarriage

Infertility

Unemployment

Underemployment

Lack of skills

Lack of access/income for training

Solo parenting

Poverty

Poor access, or none,  to transit/transportation

No medical care

Hunger

Lack of education and access to same

Race, gender, ethnicity, religious prejudice

Misogyny/chauvinism

Becoming a crime victim

Emotional or physical or sexual abuse

 

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Luxury itself is a tailwind

Tailwinds:

 

Inherited money

A high-earning spouse or partner

A safe, green and attractive home and neighborhood

Wealthy parents or grandparents offering money

Excellent health

Excellent education

Fluent English

Excellent work skills

Successful legal role models

Wise, kind, reliable people to turn to for help and advice

Secure housing

Secure employment

Secure non-work income, like a pension or other solid investments

Social capital, i.e. knowing people with power who will help you

A sense of self-confidence

A safe and reliable vehicle or ready access to safe, affordable, reliable public transit

People who actively love and check in on you

Solid, strong friendships

 

So I told my younger friend it was necessary to see her life differently, even though the tragedy is permanent and life-altering and no one seems to understand its effects, which also leaves her isolated.

I know the choices she’s made were risky and unconventional — and I admire all of them, for her guts and sense of adventure and all the skill and wisdom they have brought her.

And I told her how much I admire her.

 

 

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I worked retail for 2.5 years, a day a week for The North Face, and made $11/hour, from 2007 to 2009. It was a tiring, poorly-paid, emotionally-taxing and unrewarding job in most ways.

We needed cash. It offered steady, reliable cash. And I was not a teenager, far from it — in fact the oldest person of our 15-member staff.

How I felt about it was irrelevant to getting the damn job done.

It ended up becoming my second book, but none of that appeared likely to me until September 9, 2009 when we had a major publisher committed.

The 2008 crash was very much a headwind, and a shared one.

Now, 12 years later, we’re all screwed thanks to the pandemic — with only the wealthiest and healthiest feeling no/few headwinds.

 

The rest of us will have to fly onwards as best we can.

 

 

Cabin fevered? A mid-pandemic zhuzh

By Caitlin Kelly

As our governor Andrew Cuomo said at his daily press conference yesterday — we’re only on day 57 of self-isolation to slow the spread of COVID-19, still claiming more than 400 people daily in New York City.

Staying home and doing our very best to not further spread this terrible virus has already saved 100,000 lives, he said.

But it’s not the most fun staying indoors all the time.

How sick are you of staring at the same four walls?!

 

Time for a zhuzh?

 

Even though some of our freelance work has dried up, we’ve spent a bit (about $200) on some micro-fixes to our one-bedroom apartment, desperate for a bit of visual relief and freshness.

Here’s the new bedside rug I scored on sale from Bed, Bath and Beyond:

 

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The duvet cover is Pottery Barn, from a few years ago

 

We also bought a fresh set of bedsheets, a new sink mat for the kitchen and a new shower mat for our bathtub — to my horror and annoyance, the spray-on white surface we had done last year on our 12 year old tub is now bubbled and peeling off in sheets. It’s disgusting and will now be a long time before we can have anyone in to re-do it.

I’m buying fresh flowers every week as usual, doing lots of cleaning and polishing and we re-arranged our living room gallery wall:

 

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l to r, top row: my own image, Paris; a colored pencil drawing by a Canadian artist; a print by Henri Lartigue of early Paris

l to r middle row: a photo by our friend, Michael Falco, his pinhole camera image of Civil War re-enactors; one of the world’s widest trees, in Mexico; former First Lady Betty Ford atop the Cabinet Room table, by former WH official photographer David Hume Kennerly, another friend

bottom row, l to r: Me and a pal in a food photo shoot in the 60s; Bernie Boston’s classic anti-war image

 

We’re even considering a complete re-do of our hallway/living room wall color…unchanged for 13 years. That’s a huge commitment — not so much of time (we have lots right now!) — but finding a color what will work with our current furnishings and accessories. A creamy beige would be bright and fresh…but also boring as hell.

The current color, now discontinued but we can order more, is Gervase Yellow by Farrow & Ball.

Here’s the view from our bed.

The color’s a bit off — the poster is black and white, not  yellow. It’s one of my most treasured possessions, bought on my first honeymoon decades ago. My husband and I spent a day at the Pont du Gard and came back to find the trunk of our rental car broken into and both suitcases, with every stitch of clothing and toiletries, stolen. Thank heaven, they didn’t bother with the interior, where they would have found this.

The curly metal mirror I bought in Halifax in the 80s, the antique Chinese jar-lamp in rural Ontario at an antique shop and the chest of drawers decades ago at an antiques show. The black and white photo is Jose’s family, pre-Jose.

The wall color is Farrow & Ball’s Skimming Stone, a warm gray.

 

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We’re very glad we invested in renovating our kitchen and only bathroom (bathroom, 2008, kitchen 2013) as to be stuck 24/7 living in a place that’s dirty or in crappy condition, is really depressing.

I’m also grateful we only share the place with one another, and not — as many New Yorkers do — with multiple kids, now home all the time, and pets. It’s tough enough fighting cabin fever since our daytime temperatures are still in the 40s F (!) and it’s raining  probably five days out of seven, which is so damn confining!

If you’re seeking affordable inspiration, Apartment Therapy has many global images and projects, many on tight budgets.

Have you made any changes or done any projects to keep you busy and cheer your home up a bit?

 

Resilience is earned

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How did our ancestors do it?

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

On social media, I’m seeing a lot of people freaking out, marinating in terror and anxiety, desperate for this pandemic to just be over.

There’s no way to remain unmoved by this crisis.

There’s no way to ignore the tremendous grief and shock it has imposed, certainly for anyone who’s lost a friend, colleague, neighbor or loved one — and in New York, where we live, that’s more than 10,000 people, with 600-700+ people dying every day.

But, every morning, New York governor Mario Cuomo addresses us, and one of his repeated refrains is this:

Emotion is a luxury.

If you spend every day and night for weeks, even months, terrified, your body is going to be ravaged internally by adrenaline and cortisol — the chemical reactions urging us unto “fight or flight” — when we can do neither.

That alone is wearying and exhausting!

And perseverating really is bad for your health, as this New York Times health writer explains:

 

There are important health reasons to tamp down excessive anxiety that can accompany this viral threat. We have a built-in physiological response to imminent danger called fight-or-flight. Hearts beat faster, blood pressure rises and breathing rate increases to help us escape the man-eating lion.

Underlying these stress-induced changes are hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol that can cause trouble if they persist too long in our circulation. Sustained anxiety increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, digestive problems, clinical depression and, ironically, infectious diseases like Covid-19 by weakening the immune response to a viral infection.

 

Some of you have already weathered serious storms: cancer, job loss, unemployment, sexual assault, abusive workplaces and/or families.

 

The only silver living to any of this is resilience.

 

When you get a cancer diagnosis, people rush to cheer: “You’ve a trouper! You’ve got this!” and mostly, unhelpfully: “You’re so brave.”

But there’s only two choices — get on with it, or give up.

We live in a county north of New York City with a wide array of income levels, a few towns more working-class and some studded with millionaires, even billionaires, like Martha Stewart or the Clintons.

The town just south of us is an affluent one, where some people see “hardship” as their child not winning elite college admission.

So there are endless books and articles published to help the pampered and protected somehow learn to artificially acquire grit and resilience, when those are qualities one tends to discover — often unwilllingly, through circumstance — only through lived experience.

You walk through fire, emerging singed.

Scarred.

Wary.

Wiser.

Here’s former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, writing in The New York Times:

My life in the decades since, both in and out of government, has been enriched by the survivors of other extraordinary times. During my time as secretary of state, I met a 6-year-old boy in Uganda whose mother had been killed in a massacre. He had pulled himself out from under her body and walked several miles, carrying his little sister on his back, to a camp run by a religious organization. In Sierra Leone, I held a 3-year-old girl who had lost her arm to a bullet; she was later adopted and lived on the same street I do in Washington.

In Bosnia, I grasped hands with women whose husbands and sons had been murdered and dumped in a mass grave near the village of Srebrenica. In Thailand, I met teenage girls who had been rescued from sex traffickers; they braided one another’s hair while telling me of their determination to live fearlessly despite scarred minds. At Georgetown University, back in Washington, I taught alongside a professor, Jan Karski, who had escaped from wartime Poland carrying to Britain and America some of the earliest eyewitness accounts of the transport of Jews to killing centers ordered by Hitler.

During my tenure in the State Department, I worked closely with Vaclav Havel, leader of my native Czech Republic, and with South Africa’s Nelson Mandela; both had spent years as political prisoners. I also visited American soldiers, aviators, diplomats, aid workers and Peace Corps volunteers deployed to regions where each day brought intense suffering and renewed conflict.

As president, Bill Clinton talked often about “the quiet miracle of a normal life.” But what we customarily think is “normal” is neither as common as supposed, nor as inevitable. A generally contented society is a rarity that humans must do our best to establish and sustain.

 

 

20 years together — how we do it

 

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Jose on assignment in Bosnia for The New York Times, December 1995

 

By Caitlin Kelly

He was a staff photo editor at The New York Times, living in Brooklyn, long divorced, with no kids.

I was a freelance writer living in a New York suburb, divorced with no kids.

Online dating was still new and weird and no one was really admitting they needed it, but I did. Even after years living in New York, I had a small social circle and wanted to find a new partner — so it was really my only way to do so.

I pitched a story about this to Mademoiselle, a women’s magazine, and they agreed. My online profile headline, truthfully, read Catch Me If You Can.

Even though Jose and I actually knew a Times sports editor in common, we would never otherwise have met, between his grueling work schedule and physical distance from my home.

 

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Jose shooting the judging of the Pulitzer Prizes at Columbia University  — his idea!

 

Our first date was in March 2000 at Le Madeleine, a midtown French bistro in the west 40s. He arrived wearing a bright red silk Buddhist prayer shawl as a muffler. Of course!

And that was it…

He moved north into my apartment in 2001 — his original moving day (no joke) was 9/11, for which the Times would win a Pulitzer for team photo editing.

 

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My final day of radiation, November 2015.

 

In the 20 years since, we’ve been through quite a bit, including:

2 knee surgeries, a shoulder surgery and left hip replacement for me in 2012; his Times buyout in 2015, propelling him into a wholly new world of freelance work; the death of several friends and colleagues; my mother’s recent, sudden death; the work and publishing of my two books and his diabetes diagnosis and mine for early stage breast cancer — both in June 2018.

 

5th-anniversary

Toronto, September 2011

What works?

 

Laughter, lots of it!

Mutual respect

Shared goals and values

History — what we’ve already successfully survived

Optimism, always much more his than mine

A shared passion for producing great journalism

A shared skill of taking terrific photos, mine more art-y, his more news-y

A sense of perspective — if we’re vertical and breathing, that’s a good day

A home we’ve worked hard to make beautiful and welcoming, safe and tidy

We each bring a serious work ethic

A love of luxury — a great bottle of wine, a visit to Paris

Understanding (finally) that two bossy, determined, competitive career journalists will have some conflicts

Knowing that some conflict, unless chronic, is normal

Endless curiosity about the world and how it works

A wide global network of people who value us, personally and professionally

Staying as calm as possible through scary times

 

As we all muddle our way through the current global crisis of COVID-19, I’m grateful as hell to have his comfort and companionship.

I hope you, too, have someone as loving and reliable to help you through this terrible moment.

 

Taking a break

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By Caitlin Kelly

I leave this week for a week away from home, alone, and am ready for it.

I drive to Virginia — about six hours (not a fan of flying) — and have two small-town days at an inn, all to myself.

Then to a conference, the Northern Short Course, which is an annual event for photojournalists, some freelance, some working for news organizations. It’s the second year I’ve been invited to speak, and I’ll talk about the many challenges of pitching ideas and projects to would-be clients. I began my career in Toronto as a teenager selling my photos to newspapers and magazines, so I have some street cred as a photographer as well as writer.

A dear friend of Jose’s, and a lifelong mentor, will be flying in from New Mexico, so I am looking forward to dinner with him and his wife; we stayed with them in June.

 

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Then two days’ playtime in D.C., catching up with friends there.

Then home and diving into three successive freelance projects: for The New York Times, my second story for Mechanical Engineering (!) and a story for a Canadian business magazine.

I’ve done very little work over the past two weeks since my mother’s sudden death.

It’s been the usual and expected flurry of phone calls: her nursing home, the funeral home, her executor and the law firm handling her estate and will.

I’m really really tired.

Despite our last decade of estrangement, I’m still struck by/with grief, grateful for Jose’s support and the cards, emails, calls and flowers from loving friends.

I wish — however retro and weird this sounds — we still wore black to signify mourning (instead of what all New Yorkers wear all the time!) or even a black armband on the left sleeve. I Googled it and it appears to be wholly out of fashion and would not be understood.

It would be a powerful and effective way to signal mourning — without having to discuss, explain, react. The conference organizer is losing her mother right before the event, so she will be so exhausted. While others’ love and consolation and condolences are very welcome, they’re also tiring to acknowledge and respond to, especially in person. Some (luckily, only a few) will try to share their story of loss.

You just can’t. You’re too tired.

While I’ve shared quite a bit of my feelings on social media, I also have many, many more and need to process them slowly, quietly and without the energy drain of being social.

Now that coronavirus is making public gatherings suspect, this will be easier.

So I may post later this week — or not.

Thank you for all your comments and kindness!

 

 

How to thrive unmothered

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By Caitlin Kelly

The word mother, like the word  husband, is a noun and a verb.

Some are better being a noun.

Some aren’t given the tools to do that job well.

Some are distracted by mental illness or  addiction.

Some end up incarcerated.

Some lose their children because the children, or the state, removes them.

Many people learn to thrive unmothered.

I left my mother’s care at 14 and moved in with my father and his girlfriend, later wife, who was 13 years older. I was 14 and she was 27.

Neither of us were equipped for this.

So, what happens when you’re not classically nurtured by another woman related to you?

 

You figure stuff out on your own

You read magazines and watch TV and listen to the radio and to podcasts. You talk to other adults.  I was a teen and young adult long before the Internet or YouTube. But opening myself early to the world meant learning to pay attention and deciding what was important.

 

You learn to ask others for help  — and know when you need it most

No crying wolf! When you know your requests are falling into the ears of people with their own lives and jobs and families, you know not to be a whiny pest but ask when you need them most. If you’re healthy and solvent (and if not, it’s much harder), you can manage a lot by yourself and grow massively in self-confidence as you do.

 

You’re fine challenging authority — because classic maternal authority isn’t there

Many people live in fear of what their mothers will say or do if…they say or do something that might offend or scare or anger her. When  your mother isn’t around and your stepmother isn’t very interested, you get on with it, unimpeded.

 

 

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You have to suss out what it means to be pretty or attractive or well-dressed

This was a big challenge, since I was taken shopping twice (both times with great success) between the ages of 14 and 20, once for a prom dress and once for a winter coat. But no one ever showed me how to wear makeup or what to do with my eyebrows or what stockings went with which shoes. It just wasn’t in the cards. So I learned to develop and trust my own taste, and work within a budget.

 

And how to cook!

My stepmother was an amazing cook but never taught me. I have a pile of well-used cookbooks, and recipes. I entertain often and  make very good meals. I take a lot of pride in this.

 

Managing money well is essential

I had money from my maternal grandmother, which for four years of university was all I had to live on  — $350 a month when my rent was $160 and annual tuition $660. It took me a few months to save the $30 I needed to buy a leotard, tights and slippers to take a ballet class. Wants had to wait behind needs. No one was there to bail me out and I knew it.

 

You learn to stand up — and fight for — your own needs

There’s no one calling ahead to smooth  your path or help you battle whatever shows up. I learned very young to figure out what I need and to ask other adults for it — whether professional, medical, financial. That would be my job as an adult anyway. It just started early.

 

The world is full of “other mothers”

From Guillemette in Paris to Marcia in Toronto to Salley in D.C., I’ve found deeply loving women friends whose kindness and affection and loyalty have felt maternal to me. Salley was the witness for my second wedding, which my mother did not attend. Barbara sat with me for a whole day’s worth of hospital tests and Catherine, in Dublin, sent flowers after my breast cancer surgery.

 

When you can’t rely on your mom, you rely on  yourself

Most things are quite manageable on your own. Many skills can be learned or, if  you have the money, hired.

 

 

caitlin team

The terrific team at radiation, Phelps Hospital, November 2018, at the end of my treatment

 

The kindness of strangers is astounding

I’m always amazed and grateful at the kindness I’ve experienced, especially when traveling alone. When  you haven’t been nurtured much, you forget — or never know — that many others have been well-loved by their mothers, and are happy to share their love with you as well. That generosity and acceptance, let alone affection, always surprises me and always  delights me.

 

Friends are family

The truest lesson of all. If you can open your heart and arms — and without a loving mother you have to — there are so many people happy to take pride in you and your work and your character, to laugh and cry with you, to take you to the hospital, to visit you after surgery, to send you flowers and cards and remember your birthday.

It doesn’t have to be your mother.