Stef Woods

Time to Soar, Dearest A

It was October 2014. 

Roya was up two-three times a night every night. I was in my first semester as a full-time faculty member and teaching three classes. The nanny that I had hired for the year decided to leave the DC area. I managed to piece together a schedule with four babysitters – all of whom were full-time college students.

It was clear that I needed more consistent childcare. I took a chance and reached out to Nanny A, a friend of a friend, to see if she had some hours to spare. She thankfully did, and she began to watch Roya a week later. What started as occasional grading help grew into more hours and days with each passing season.

It was October 2014. 

I parted ways with Roya’s biological father without any tears or drama. I had wanted to be a 100% parent of a little girl, and thanks to God and him, I was.

A little over three years later, I’m reflective as to what an eventful month that October was. Back then, I didn’t know then what I know now…that having Nanny A join our family would be far more impactful than having The Man leave our family.

The love Nanny A has shown both Roya and me is unparalleled. The willingness to be there for us in our highest of highs and our lowest of lows has been unyielding. Nanny A is so much more than a nanny. She is my friend, she is the closest thing to a co-parent that I’ve ever had, and she is our family. She didn’t have to assume all of these roles, but she did. And, for that, I’m truly grateful.

Earlier this year, Nanny A and I talked about her professional plans. She is a successful writer and event planner, and at some point in the future, she wanted to focus on those endeavors exclusively. I knew that she needed to spread her wings, and her responsibilities with us would make that difficult to do. Her end date was on the horizon, but thankfully, she extended her time with us through the summer and fall. In October 2017 (three years to the week after she started with us), I again asked her about her plans. Nanny A would be moving on at the end of the year. It was official.

I cried on and off for 48 hours. Correction, I sobbed. (Picture that messy crying where you can’t form a coherent sentence and your eyes are puffy when you wake up the next day.)

Nanny A’s last date is getting closer, and moving the calendar to December has brought me to tears yet again. There is so much that I will miss about her, but to highlight just a few things:

  • How I can text her at any hour of the day for advice, a laugh or just to say hi
  • How Roya can literally hug her for hours
  • All the special things that she and Roya share together from their favorite restaurants to taking the bus to reading certain stories
  • How she turns into Mama Bear when anyone tries to mess with Roya
  • Our dance parties in the hall
  • How many times we have laughed until we had tears in our eyes

I haven’t wanted to finish this post for a week because that makes this truly real. After next week, Nanny A will no longer be in our home on a regular basis. Last night, as R went to hug us both she said, “Family hug.” She knows now, and I will make sure she always knows that Nanny A is a part of our family.

Stef Woods, city girl blogs

There are no words to do justice to what Nanny A has meant to us nor what she will accomplish. But, the words of the scholar Rumi come to mind:

You were born with potential. You were born with goodness and trust. You were born with ideals and dream. You were born with greatness. You were born with wings. You were not meant for crawling, so don’t. You have wings. Learn to use them and fly.

I anxiously await all the tales of how you will soar, Dearest A. And, until you return to visit, know you are loved and missed every day in big and small ways.

My Best Furry Friend

It was Fall 2008 when I first saw her. My life was so different then. This was before the blog, when I was finishing my graduate thesis and planning to return to legal services. I had been thinking about moving to a pet-friendly apartment and getting a dog, and I kept coming back to this photo on HART’s website of an eight-year-old Bichon Frise, Snowflake.

Flake, City Girl Blogs, Stef Woods

A couple of months later, I had a contract on a pet-friendly place, and reached out to HART. I was told that there was a lot of interest in Snowflake. (She was a hypoallergenic dog and a desired breed, after all.) HART suggested that I check their website again, when I was closer to my move date. I put Snowflake and the dog search out of my mind for a bit. Friends had told me that dogs choose us so I trusted when the time was right, I would find the perfect pooch for me.

Two months later, Snowflake was still listed as available for adoption so I arranged to meet her. When I first saw her, she didn’t want to leave the crate. She was 30 pounds (huge for a Bichon!) and very shy. Most of the dogs at the event were licking people and wagging their tails. Some barked from excitement, and others barked from nervousness. Snowflake didn’t do anything. HART admitted that several families had been interested in Snowflake, but were concerned that she was so atypical for her breed. A friend came to the adoption event with me and was surprised that I still was drawn to Snowflake.

“I think she’s the right dog for me,” I kept saying.

Sensing my excitement, HART’s tireless volunteers worked with me so that I could adopt Snowflake. Several volunteers even commented that maybe there was a reason that she hadn’t been adopted in nine(!) months. She was meant to be part of my family.

When I picked her up on March 28, 2009, I learned that the dog’s foster had called her, “Flake,” not Snowflake. She responded to “Flake,” so that name stuck.

From what HART’s veterinarian and my vet at Adams Mill Veterinary Hospital  had pieced together, Flake had been the breeding dog at an abusive puppy mill. When she was found on the side of a rural Virginia road, she had fleas, matted hair, signs of overbreeding, and an eye infection. My vet thought she was more like five or six years old, rather than eight, so we set her birthday as March 28, 2003.

I understood how a dog was man’s best friend in an abstract sense, but it took having my own dog to fully grasp it. In our first months together, the vet tasked me with having Flake lose 10 pounds in four months. I had her on a strict eating and walking regime, and like a four-pawed Rocky, she rose to the challenge.

Toward the end of 2009, I began attending Fashion for Paws (F4P) events to benefit the Washington Humane Society. Through F4P, I made a lot of friends and helped raise money for a wonderful cause. I also loved seeing the dog who no one wanted to adopt strutting her stuff on the runway. Several charity fashion shows and photo shoots followed. Through it all, Flake served as a witness as to how many animals just need love and a fur-ever home to thrive!

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Photo by Vithaya Phongsavan

Flake also was my relationship barometer and seemed to know before I did, when a guy wasn’t the right match. Sometimes it took me a bit longer than it should have to realize why Flake would stop sitting on a couch or sleeping in a bed with someone, but she was always the wiser one. And, I never lasted long dating someone who did not understand the role that Flake played in my life. Love me, love my dog.

Flake was a dog with a cat’s personality or the “un-dog,” as one friend described. With the exception of when she saw her doggie boyfriend, Leader, and when we would run down the hall before a walk, she never barked. She would hold so still when she was in my arms that people regularly questioned whether or not she was real.

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As 2009 turned to 2010, Flake began to sleep next to me in the bed, always on my upper right side. Based on research about how dogs can smell a chemical in tumors, it’s likely that she knew something was off with my health before I did. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, Flake sensed my stress and sadness and stayed close to me at all times.

In August 2010, shortly before I headed into my first surgery, one of my best friends suggested that I picture my dog for peace and motivation. As I was going under, my subconscious didn’t just visualize Flake. I also pictured a little girl. Fast forward to 2013 and our family grew by one.

It shouldn’t be any surprise to those who saw the two of us together that Flake handled my pregnancy and Roya’s arrival exceptionally well. From day one, Flake knew that Roya was a part of our pack, and she would protect her when she was asleep or sick. Toddler Roya called Flake her little sister and loved her so much. Flake was never the type of dog to go fetch or play with children. But, with Roya, she would gladly pick up any crumbs that were dropped on the floor. There were also those treasured moments when Roya would walk Flake or chase her down the hall.

The past six months have been rough for Flake. She lost a lot of her hearing, developed two cataracts, and started having a lot of accidents and throwing up in the home. She couldn’t get up and down like she used to, was constantly thirsty, and lost 15% of her body weight. The last two weeks were another noticeable decline, as she often alternated between sleeping on the couch or being disoriented on the floor. Flake still got enjoyment from eating and short walks, but that was it.  Given the progression of symptoms and rapid decline, the vet believed that Flake had a pituitary tumor.

Today, I made the extremely difficult decision to put Flake down. As she was being put to sleep, the vet said that I had given Flake a great life. I know it was the other way around. Flake was there for me through cancer, concussions, bad relationships, pregnancy and motherhood. Through it all, she was my best friend, my steadfast companion, and as the vet called her, “my nursemaid.”

I walked out of the office, knowing that a piece of my heart was left on that table. I will have another dog again – someday — but only one Flake.

Photo by Samantha Strauss

While I was driving home from the vet, I heard on the radio that today is “National Love Your Pet Day.” I tried. Every day.

Stopping and Recognizing

“And yet we know that You have already come, to a forgotten corner of the world, to a people on the verge of losing hope, to a woman no one thought could bear a child, and the world has never been the same.”

At church this morning, I read this portion of the Prayer of Confession with the rest of the congregation. I looked down at Roya drawing in the pew, when I realized something:

On a far more individualized scale, I was the woman no one thought could bear a child. And, since Roya arrived in 2013, my world has never been the same. My life as a 100% parent is vastly different from when I only answered to myself and set up whatever schedule I wanted.

I don’t doubt that any of this is God’s plan. But, I wouldn’t describe the past three-and-a-half years as easy. Rather, they’ve been a blend of eventful and mundane, incomprehensibly joyful and incomprehensibly exhausting. (Come to think of it, that might be how I would define parenting!)

Parenting also has been an exercise in patience for me. (For those of you who didn’t know me pre-Roya, patience wasn’t my strongest virtue.) And, I’m also learning to accept how little I have control over, while still managing to successfully juggle several balls in the air at once.

At church today, Reverend Laura’s sermon focused on stopping and recognizing God when He is with us. Well, thanks to Roya, I was fully present today!

Prior to the start of Sunday School, Reverend Laura brings all the children – and the parents of the younger kids — up to the front of the Sanctuary. Roya was sitting in my lap, but then moved to sit next to one of the older children. Two minutes later, while Reverend Laura was talking about angels, Roya proceeded to move to the floor and spin around and around in front of her.

My first thought was to jump up and grab Roya as quickly as I could and head out of the Sanctuary, but then I looked around. The older kids were giggling, the people in the choir were smiling, and the reverend was calm and unfazed. (In fact, Reverend Laura incorporated a complementary mention of Roya’s acrobatic skills into her sermon!)

No one seemed to mind that a silly toddler was being a silly toddler. It reminded me of a scene from Parenthood, the movie, without anyone claiming that Roya was ruining anything.

As Reverend Laura continued to talk about angels, Roya then began to move her body on the wood floor of the Sanctuary, as though she was making a snow angel.

I began to laugh (as quietly as I could, of course). Before I knew it, I was laughing so hard — while simultaneously trying to stifle my volume — that tears filled my eyes.

When the children’s sermon was finished, I thanked the reverend, retrieved Roya with a smile on my face and took her upstairs to Sunday School.

After church, several people, including the reverend, commented how wonderful it is that Roya feels so comfortable there. I’m thankful for all those in our church family who have welcomed her with open arms and smiles, rather than eye rolls and shushing.

And, yes, God, I get it. Angels are really just messengers. And, today, thanks to Reverend Laura and my little no-snow snow angel, You made it very clear what message I was meant to get.

Am I Really OK?

Thank you to all of you who texted, emailed, clicked “like” and commented in response to my relationship update post. Given the humbling outpouring of support, I wanted to provide some additional clarification as to how I’m doing and what’s next.

Am I okay?

Yes. I grieved the end of my relationship with The Man long before our relationship ended. By the time I was ready to move on, I knew that was the right decision for me. The break up thus was empowering and reaffirming, not sad or confusing. It took me until my 40s to realize that the only person that I could change in any relationship is myself. And, I did.

For over six years, my blog has been a safe space for me to share my ups and downs and process my emotions.  If this break up was tough for me, I would have presented that honestly and without shame.

I also didn’t blog our break up in real time. So, what’s fresh to many of you isn’t fresh to me. I allowed myself the time to feel something different, but that didn’t happen. What was the right choice for me to make at the time is still thankfully the right choice for me and Roya today.

city girl blogs, stef woods

Isn’t it hard to be a single parent?

Yes, but isn’t it also difficult to be the default parent (the parent responsible for the overwhelming majority of matters involving the children)? Being on my own hasn’t made me any less exhausted, but I’m far less resentful.

In addition, I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drum, and I’ve never viewed marriage as the end goal of any relationship I’ve been in. For years, I had envisioned that I would raise a daughter as a single mother. The path toward that reality was just different from what I had initially planned.

Will I be blogging more about The Man and the end of our relationship?

No. Since we began dating, I’ve written very little about our relationship. I won’t change that approach now. I respect The Man’s privacy, and I don’t need to write about my past or present interactions with the father of my child on a public forum.

Will I be blogging about my current and future dating life?

Ha! And, no. Dating is so low on my list of priorities right now. (I commented to a friend recently that I need a night nanny and a personal assistant, not a man.) For all intents and purposes, I had stopped blogging about my dating life in late 2011. I’m glad I wrote about my old adventures, but I’ll leave it to another capable woman to share her perspective as a Single Mom in the City!

I wish that I could be as strong as you.

Staying in a relationship doesn’t make you weak, and leaving this relationship doesn’t make me strong. (I would be a hypocrite to say anything to the contrary, especially given my dating life in my 20s and 30s!) If you’re making the right choices for yourself, even if it’s just the right choice for this particular day, then you don’t need to justify that decision to anyone else. Whether you stay or whether you go, trust in your judgment and allow yourself to feel your feelings whatever they may be.

Again, thank you. xoxo

A Relationship Update

Three years ago, I posted this picture on Facebook. By this point, I had written about my relationship with The Man and had introduced him to my close friends and family. But, the picture below was our first public “Facebook official” shot.

city girl blogs, stef woods

At the US Open 2012

I met The Man at my end-of-treatment fundraising celebration, and our relationship was on the fast track soon thereafter. Just how fast?

  • February 2012: We started dating.
  • April 2012: I had a double mastectomy.
  • June 2012: We moved in together.
  • October 2012: I learned I was pregnant.

He was my rock and my love. And, then, he wasn’t. Somewhere between the two points, our daughter, Roya, was born.

It might seem simplistic to condense a relationship of several years into three sentences, but it really is that simple. Trying to navigate whether The Man and I had a future together was complicated and emotion filled. Accepting that our relationship had run its course wasn’t.

For years, my blog was devoted to relationship drama and over-analyzing every minute detail. (Or, was that my life?!?) It was difficult for me to ever have a clean break with someone I loved. I was the Queen of On-Again, Off-Again Relationships!

By contrast, the end of this relationship was a clean break. Once I made the decision, there wasn’t the need to talk about it ad nauseam or seek others’ validation, as I had previously done. My mom always said, “Closure is a female notion. When a relationship is over, it just is. “ She was right.

A dear friend commented that since cancer, I’ve had zero tolerance for nonsense. (I think her exact words were, “You no longer put up with any bullshit.”) Roya has raised the bar even higher. I now know my worth and my purpose. I’m thankful that The Man loves Roya, and Roya loves him. But, that wasn’t and isn’t a reason for me to be in the wrong relationship.

My life and my priorities are far more focused now than they were before I was diagnosed and before I became a mom. I no longer define myself or gauge my worth based on my relationships with men. And, I won’t devote energy to anything – personally or professionally – that doesn’t make me happy and send the right message to Roya.

Three years ago, we were in love, and Roya was conceived. I needed to be in a relationship with The Man so that I could meet her, the love of my life. There is nothing complicated about that.

stef woods, city girl blogs

Roya, Age 2

It Takes a Village

In a recent conversation with a friend, I explained to her that I had a creative approach to child care.

Friend: Of course, you do. It would surprise me if you did anything in a conventional way.

For the first year of Roya’s life, I didn’t know what my child care needs would be. How would I fare after a c-section? How much would I be teaching? Would Roya sleep well? How would unknown variables like teething, vaccines, colds, and growth spurts impact her routine?

I hoped for the best and prepared for the worst. One month before Roya arrived, I posted an advertisement on Care.com. (I’m including the ad in its entirety since I’ve forwarded the text to six new mom friends. There’s no definitive guidebook for searching for child care!)

Looking for an experienced nanny or babysitter for a newborn girl approximately 20 hours a week in Foggy Bottom, starting in June. (I’ll be recouping from a c-section and need all the help I can get with bottle feeding and changing!)

Looking for a commitment at least through the summer for three days a week (exact days and hours can be flexible, if needed). CPR training and references required. Willingness to assist with baby’s laundry and light household chores a plus.

Apartment is within walking distance of the Metro. We have a small, very shy, hypoallergenic dog and request a non smoker. Hope to hear from you!

Within 72 hours, I had received 75 responses! I narrowed the field via email exchanges to my top seven applicants and interviewed them at Starbucks. All seven would have been good, but three stood out as potentially great. I decided to hire two students and then referred the third candidate to a neighbor. Our first nannies started the day after we arrived home from the hospital, caring for a tiny, five-day-old.

For the next year, the two nannies and I shared responsibilities. In that time, we all experienced a lot – individually, collectively, and as those closest to Roya. Somewhere along the way, we went from having a nanny/employer relationship to being family. (And, no, I’m not using that term lightly or loosely.) These two young women haven’t just enriched Roya’s life. They’ve enriched mine immeasurably.

Knowing that our first nannies wouldn’t be available after a year, I had planned to put Roya in day care. I quickly realized, though, that wasn’t the best fit for us. I also needed more help than I had the first year since I would be teaching more classes.

I posted another ad on Care.com, but saw that the majority of student nannies and babysitters were now using UrbanSitter.com. I revised the above posting to include taking Roya to age-appropriate activities for a young, active toddler.

I spent two weeks interviewing nannies and figured out a schedule that seemed to work for three students. That is, until the student who had committed to doing the most hours decided not to return to DC. The two remaining nannies pitched in so that I could get through the start of the semester and helped me find two other students to help.

It took some effort to coordinate the schedules of four nannies in the fall and two in the spring, but it was worth it. Our community has broadened in ways that I couldn’t have imagined. Roya has not only grown close with her caregivers, but also their family, sorority sisters, roommates and friends! In addition, each nanny has brought her own talents, interests and expressions into Roya’s life.

Over the past two years, we’ve had eight nannies, and we regularly see seven out of eight! When people asked me why I chose this arrangement, I’ve typically responded:

I can’t miss a class unless it’s an emergency. Having a broader network allows for back up and extra care during grading!

That’s true, but my job isn’t rocket science. And, full-time professional nannies don’t tend to miss work since there’s a contract involved.

In thinking about why I chose a unique child care arrangement, the following Hillary Clinton quote comes to mind:

It takes a village to raise a child.

Back when I set up this arrangement, I didn’t understand what I do now. I was building our village. I’m an only child without any relatives in the area. My village consisted of my parents and my nana. I lost my nana at age 10 and my mom at age 24. There is so much about life that we can’t control. But, I want my daughter to know that she is surrounded by love and not just from her immediate family.  Thankfully, because of our village, she does!

Flying and Falling

Recently, I spoke to students at Georgetown University’s OWN IT Summit about social media activism. I also held “Office Hours” for a smaller group during which we discussed everything from my curriculum to the law to sexuality studies to blogging. The last question of the day was:

How do you deal with having a daughter? I don’t want a daughter because I would be too scared of what would happen to her.

The timing of that question was fortuitous, as I have been thinking about my parenting style and fears. My reply to the student follows:

Since Roya was 15 months old, she has liked to go down the biggest slide in the playground…face first…with her legs in a herkie jump position. Any time I’ve tried to go down the slide with her, she emphatically tells me, “No, Mommy!” She wants to do it all by herself, as she smiles and laughs every inch of the way! I let her do it, but I make sure to run as fast as I can from the top of the slide to the bottom to spot her.

The playground we frequent is designed for children between the ages of two and five. Other parents have asked me how old Roya is or commented that she is a “daredevil,” and her moves “death-defying.” I just nod my head, and say that I don’t want to squash her spirit.

I’ve realized that this also needs to be my approach to parenting her off of the playground. I want to be an involved parent, but I don’t want to be a helicopter parent. I want her to feel free to take risks and try new things.

It’s tougher to conceptualize the downside of this, but unfortunately, there’s only so much that I can control. Think about it. We can let fear control our lives or we can live our lives. It’s a choice that we must make for ourselves, and if we are parents, for our children. Hovering over Roya won’t help her live her life, and it won’t allow me to live mine.

She will be wronged, and she will wrong others. She will fall, and she will fail. These are understandably difficult experiences for any parent to observe happen to their child. However, despite my best intentions, I can’t protect Roya from every bad thing that could possibly happen to her. So, I will continue to do whatever I can to spot her to the best of my ability.

I will let Roya fly, and I will comfort her when she falls. I’ll also remind her that I have soared high and fallen low. I’m thankful to have picked myself up and dusted myself off after my falls. I’ll keep picking her up and dusting her off until she can do that on her own.

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Quite a 5 Years!

A former student asked if he could use me as the subject for a mini-documentary for his film class. He managed to condense the past five years of my life into a video that’s under five minutes. I watched the final product with tears in my eyes, reflecting on all that’s transpired.

I’m thankful for being just where I’m meant to be. And, thank you to Max for this video!

Exhaling

When I found out that I needed to have a cyst removed from my right breast, I had an idea. Since I still have yet to finish my breast reconstruction, I wondered if I could get some or all of the next reconstructive surgery completed at the same time. One operation was better than two, right?

Despite my breast intentions, my doctor informed me that it wouldn’t be realistic to add any reconstruction onto the procedure. She offered to construct nipples for me, but said that we’d have to remove and redo them when I go for reconstruction. In addition, the best quality nipples involve a skin graft. My doctor didn’t think that I could start teaching six days after surgery, if we added nipples into the mix.

I was disappointed for a minute, but then realized that my doctor knows best. I wanted to feel as good as I could for the start of the semester. I couldn’t avoid another surgery after this one since there was more reconstruction to complete. And, if I just got the mass removed, my incision would be small and only on one side. (That was especially important since I wasn’t sure how well Roya would respond to me not being able to lift her for two weeks.) I decided to just focus on the procedure on the books for January 6th.

On the day of the surgery, I functioned like a well-oiled machine. This wasn’t my first time at the rodeo, after all. I drove myself to the hospital. I answered the nurses and doctors’ questions like I was in the speed round of a game show. I only shed a few tears and cursed twice when the three best people in the ER couldn’t find a good vein to start my IV.  I kept reminding myself that this would be over soon.

When I saw my surgeon before the procedure, I asked her, “So, everyone thinks this is benign, but we’re just doing this to be cautious, given my history, right?” My doctor nodded. Then, I  commented, “This is our 7th surgery together. I remember several times after you’d remove a mass, you would see me in recovery and say how confident you felt that everything was benign…that we’re just waiting for confirmation from pathology. That’s what I want to hear so I can exhale!” She agreed that’s what she wanted, too.

Ninety minutes later, I woke up in recovery. I felt sore, but not that bad. Shortly thereafter, my breast surgeon came to see me.

“Surgery went well. We should have results on Friday,” she said without much expression on her face.

“That’s not what I wanted to hear,” I replied.

“I’m not sure,” the doctor admitted. “I think it’s benign…I think it’s scar tissue…But, it was hard so I don’t know.”

We talked for a few more minutes before she went on to her next surgery. And, that’s when I finally cried…hard. I thought about Roya. I thought about my job. I thought about the fact that I didn’t want to be “It” again. I knew I would find the strength to go through treatment again, if I had to, but I didn’t want to be facing this possibility.

I allowed myself a few minutes to feel what I was experiencing, and then I dried my tears. I thought of those whose struggles were far greater than mine for some perspective. My mass was small, and as of now, its pathology was unknown. I didn’t have the time or the energy to spend the next three days sobbing. (It helped that the night before surgery I got assigned a new class to teach. I had six days to develop a syllabus from scratch.)

Two days later on Thursday, I was on the phone with the cable company, when my call waiting flashed. Surprisingly, it was my breast surgeon. I hung up on the cable company’s representative (sorry!) and took the call.

“It’s benign!” my surgeon exclaimed, as I started to cry happy tears. I could exhale. Cancer didn’t win this round.

So, what’s next? I’m doing a little more each week, and I should be fully recouped by early February. I’ll see my breast surgeon in six months for a follow up, and my reconstructive surgeon sometime in the next year or two for surgery. And, I continue to send thoughts and prayers to the many loved ones who are dealing with this insidious disease.

For those who sent me well wishes and prayers, thank you. xoxo