Stef Woods

Isn’t Motherhood Amazing?

Since I’ve had Roya, moms or moms-to-be often ask me the following question:

Isn’t it amazing?

I always respond in the same way:

She’s amazing. It – motherhood – is exhausting.

Motherhood is the toughest job there is. It is 24/7. There are no holidays, vacation days, sick days or snow days.

I teach about feminism in several of my classes, and yet, I find it difficult to inspire when it comes to gender roles within a heterosexual family unit. We continue to live in a culture that assumes that the mom will handle an overwhelming majority of all matters related to children.

When The Man asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I responded:

I want to be the dad for a day.

What did I mean by that?

I don’t want to handle night care for a toddler who is going through yet another sleep regression.

I don’t want to purchase any milk or diapers.

I don’t want to coordinate Roya’s schedule or childcare.

I don’t want to conduct research online about preschool, vaccines or anything developmentally appropriate.

I don’t want to have my ability to work or shower contingent on childcare.

I want to go to the bathroom without Roya attached to my leg the whole time.

I don’t want to have the pediatrician’s number memorized.

I don’t want to be the disciplinarian and enforcer of rules and schedules.

I want to have someone thank me for spending one-on-one time with Roya.

I want to live in a society that values a mom’s work outside of the home as much as a man’s work outside of the home.  (This infuriates me even more so when the woman in a given couple earns more than the man. And, if I can add a dream to this thought, I’d love to live in a country where women’s work inside the home is valued similarly to men’s work outside of the home!)

I wish that mothers felt able to openly vent about the difficulties of motherhood without feeling as though they’re bad mothers, guilty or ungrateful. (I’m the first to acknowledge how blessed I am to have Roya. I’m thankful for our health and having The Man in our lives. I just don’t feel as though complaining about how exhausted or overworked I am is mutually exclusive from any of that!)

So, I never got my birthday wish. That wasn’t in the cards for me. I’m the mom. This is my journey.

But, lucky for me, Roya is amazing!

roya, stef woods, moshe zusman

How do these gender roles impact you?

The Summer of Stef

I had a vision that Summer 2014 would be the Summer of Stef! After 11 months of being up two or three times a night every night with Roya, she was finally sleeping at least a nine-hour stretch. For the first time since I began teaching, I didn’t have any summer classes. And, most importantly, our nanny had agreed to work for us full-time until Labor Day.

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I relished the thought that I could catch up on some sleep, get back into meditation and the gym, read books for pleasure, and begin developing my curriculum for the fall.

Alas, my plans for some much-needed rest and relaxation did not come to pass. A few days after I finished spring semester grading, Roya developed a yeast diaper rash. (For those of you who are parents and caregivers, a yeast rash, as opposed to a traditional diaper rash, requires antibiotics.)

Unfortunately, Roya’s rash was resistant to the antibiotics that the doctor prescribed. She was in so much pain that she would bite her own arm while I was changing her. After several days, we thankfully found a prescription that worked.

In order to keep the rash from spreading more, I needed to change Roya the moment her diaper got wet. Neither of us slept much those first two weeks. Once the rash began to go away, her sleep schedule was off. We were up two-three times a night every night again through mid-August.

My Summer of Stef plans officially went awry when the Childcare Gods stopped smiling on me. In late May, our nanny learned that she needed knee surgery and would be out of commission for the rest of the summer.

I had assumed that Roya would start day care in September and reached out to the center to move up her enrollment date. Luckily, the center had a space for her in July! (For those of you in the DC area, I highly recommend getting on center waitlists when you’re in your second trimester to maximize childcare options!)

Our luck changed, though, when I visited that center…and another…and saw both on bad days. How bad was bad? Well, one of the two women who would be Roya’s teachers walked out on the job while we were there! I felt cautiously optimistic about a third center, until I learned that Roya couldn’t start in their young toddler room because she wasn’t yet walking well or eating a lot of solids.

I shifted gears and began to search for new nannies. During that time, I was Roya’s sole caregiver. (For those of you who are stay-at-home moms, I give you so much credit!) After four weeks, I found a combination that could work for the summer and fall semester.  After acclimating the new nannies to Roya’s schedule, I found myself with 10 days to fill as I liked!

Discomfort soon replaced glee, though, when I contracted hand, foot and mouth disease. (HFM is also known as the day care virus. It’s not the same as foot and mouth, the disease that cows and sheep get.) Ironically and thankfully, Roya never got hand, foot and mouth. But, I didn’t feel 100% for almost two weeks.

My summer ended with a text from the new 27-year-old nanny. She had been working the most hours for us and abruptly decided not to return to DC. (Note to anyone over the age of 16: Do not text your resignation. Ever.) I was due to teach in a week and needed to look for childcare…yet again.

I can chuckle now, when I think about my hope to have a Summer of Me. I’m the mom. It’s rarely about me anymore. It’s Roya’s World, and I’m just living in it.

***

What’s my current childcare arrangement, and how did I go about finding it? Were there any positive things that happened to me this summer? (Spoiler Alert: Yes!) And, most importantly, how is Roya, and what has she been up to? I promise to get to all that and more in upcoming posts.

My Chemo-versary v4.0

I tasked my students in my Body in American Culture course with examining their thoughts about the body, beauty ideals and body image. The basic guidelines for this Body Genogram are as follows:

Connect your early life experiences with your current understanding of your body and beauty in general. How do they or do they not impact you today? Throughout the paper, ask yourself, “How did my culture, religion, socioeconomic background, race, ethnicity, friends and family affect my own views? How do these factors impact my current attitudes about my body and beauty ideals? What role, if any, did television, magazines, advertisements and social media play in influencing my views?” Your genogram will be graded on a pass/fail basis.

It’s ironic that I’m reading my students’ genograms today of all days. On September 21, 2010, I walked into my oncologist’s office. I was scheduled to begin treatment for breast cancer with a “lighter” form of chemotherapy and only had a 15% of losing my hair.

Once inside my doctor’s office, though, I learned that was no longer the plan. I needed a stronger chemotherapy cocktail because I had an aggressive strain of HER2 positive breast cancer. My hair would likely be all gone by mid-October.

I knew that losing my hair would change me, but I wasn’t prepared for just how much. I also had no way of knowing then how poorly my body would react to chemotherapy. Steroids caused me to gain 23 pounds and develop insomnia and an eye twitch. I forgot conversations and plans. My migraines increased to three times a week. And, after hemorrhaging following my second round of chemo, I was thrown into menopause.

Four years later, my hair has grown back, and although my weight isn’t what I would like, it’s in a healthy range. I’m also proud of all that my body has done from the minute (being able to walk three miles a day) to the miraculous (getting pregnant and giving birth to Roya despite being post-menopausal).

Nonetheless, I’m not the same woman that I was four years ago. I was diagnosed with breast cancer at a time in my life when my body looked its best. My metabolism was stable, and the age of 37, I was able to eat what I wanted, rarely exercise beyond walking and physical therapy, and not worry about the scale moving. (After suffering from an eating disorder in my late teens-early 20s, I was in a much-improved place emotionally and physically.) I looked in the mirror and felt attractive. My priorities at the time were my blog, increasing my experience as a sex educator, charity and social events, and boys. I also was considering taking a local modeling agent up on her offer to book me and had met with an adoption agency to begin the lengthy process to adopt a little girl.

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Shoot with Patrick Onofre February 2010

I had waited to submit my adoption application and to schedule the meeting with the agent until after I had my mammogram. The mammogram led to biopsies which in turn led to a diagnosis. My plans to adopt and my chance to do some local modeling were put on hold. Four years later, I doubt that I’ll adopt now and I objectively wouldn’t have a shot at modeling. I look at the photograph above, and I’m no longer that girl anymore.

Most days, I relish the roles I now play and the directions that my life took. I love being a professor, an advocate, and a partner. And, I don’t doubt for a second that God had a plan for me to be Roya’s mom. Cancer forced me to reprioritize my life, my views on women’s bodies in general and my body in particular, and my relationships. That was all meant to happen.

However, there are times like today when I can’t help but wonder, “What if?” Where would my life have taken me if I hadn’t gotten cancer? How would I feel about my body, if I had never gone through chemotherapy and a double mastectomy? What would it be like to watch a movie or read a magazine and not be so uncomfortable with how women are portrayed, and their bodies sexualized and commodified? Will there be a September 21st in the future when I don’t question these things?

I’m left with more questions than answers, but that’s my reality. I’m beyond thankful to be cancer free, but my life isn’t free of cancer.

What factor or experience has played an influential role in your views about your body and beauty ideals? 

Getting Competitive about a High-Five?

At Gymboree, a then 10-month-old Roya was playing with two 15-month-old boys. One of the moms approached me and said, “She’s very cute.” I thanked her. She then moved over to Roya, extended her hand, and said, “High-five.”

Roya just stared at the woman so I interjected, “She doesn’t know how to ‘high-five’ yet.”

The woman’s eyes opened widely. She took her hand away and commented with a twinge of discomfort, “Oh, I’m sorry.”

“No worries!” I replied. “She’ll learn eventually.”

The woman looked at the other mother in a manner that conveyed a blend of pity and disapproval.

The three babies continued to play together before the boys walked in one direction and Roya crawled in the other.

Seeing Roya crawl, the woman realized that she had guessed Roya’s age incorrectly.

“How old is she?” she asked me.

“She just turned 10 months,” I answered as the two moms expressed their surprise.

“We thought she was older since she’s so tall!” one exclaimed.

“It was great how well they played together,” the other commented.

As I smiled and headed off toward Roya, I chose not to state the obvious: That in just a few minutes, Roya went from “slow” to “gifted” in their eyes.

Since I had never seen these women before, I restrained myself from saying the following:

Stop with the competition. It’s not a race.

We do not need to measure ourselves against each other as parents, and we definitely don’t need to compare our children to each other. As any adult knows, there is always someone out there who is able to do something better, faster or easier than we are. That has been and will continue to be the case at any age and stage!

My daughter’s ability – or lack thereof – to give you a high-five will have no bearing on her future. No one includes when they said their first word on their LinkedIn profile or mentions on a college application how old they were when they took their first step. The parents at Gymboree thankfully have healthy children who will reach all the milestones soon enough. Not every parent is so lucky!

roya, stef woods, city girl blogs

I can high-five with the best of ’em now ;)!

A child’s milestones should be celebrated with joy and gratitude, not serve as a point of comparison to determine who is advanced and who is developmentally below the curve. I don’t feel bad or sorry for those milestones that Roya hasn’t reached. Likewise, I’m not paying tuition to Wellesley just yet because of the milestones that she reached early.

Stop the competition. It’s not worth the energy!

I wish this type of competition wasn’t so common! I’d love to hear some of the competitive moments that made you shake your head in the comments. 

 

Roya’s 1st Birthday

I didn’t throw a first birthday party for my daughter, Roya.

I write that without any guilt or shame.

Nonetheless, my decision surprised quite a few loved ones. Why didn’t I go the traditional route?

  • Roya won’t remember anything about any event at this early point in her life. As such, her first birthday will come and go without any recollection of it. All she knows is the here and now, and whether she is fed, warm, dry and loved. To her one-year-old mind, every day is a party!
  • The Man and I are both only children, and Roya is our only child. Some people turn a one-year-old birthday party into a larger family celebration. Others utilize the event as a reminder that life, joy and laughter continue in the midst of loss and illness. The former isn’t our reality, and the latter thankfully isn’t our necessity.
  • I’ve never been one to follow the pack or tradition. (Remember the amazing cocktail party that my friends threw me in lieu of a customary baby shower?) I didn’t want this occasion to be the exception.
  • Party planning stresses me out. Birthday parties for one year olds are typically for the adults. Why should I add something to my plate, if it doesn’t make me happy?
  • To me, smash cakes are an exercise in messiness and forced responses. Some babies love having their faces covered in frosting, while onlookers applaud. Others don’t.
  • Roya has been and will continue to be celebrated every day in small and big ways by her loved ones. I envisioned her birthday to be intimate and special to those of us who have raised her over the past year. And, it was just that!
roya, city girl blogs, stef woods

All smiles on her birthday!

  • Roya was feted at brunch by her parents and nannies at one of our favorite restaurants, Peacock Café. We showered her with snuggles and kisses, rather than presents. For her birthday dessert, I picked up a vanilla cupcake from Sprinkles. In typical baby fashion, though, Roya fell asleep before she could taste it! We finished out the day enjoying the beautiful weather and having Campono pizza at home.
It's my (non) party, and I can sleep if I want to!

It’s my (non) party, and I can sleep if I want to!

  • There’s no right or wrong way to celebrate the birthday of a one-year-old. If having a large party makes you happy, then that’s what you should do! Likewise, if you don’t want to throw a big party for your baby, don’t feel like you have to for anyone else’s sake. I have no regrets about choosing a simpler way to celebrate.

The Love of My Life

In 2010, I was on a date with a man who wanted to talk a lot about my blog.

Him: Your stories would make a great book! Each relationship could be a chapter with the last chapter about the man you decide to marry and spend the rest of your life with!

I thanked him for the compliment and then paused before responding, “You know? I don’t think a man will be the love of my life. I want to adopt and become a mom. I think that my daughter will be the love of my life.”

Prior to starting chemotherapy for breast cancer, my oncologist asked me if I planned to have children.

“I’m going to adopt a girl who is of elementary school age,” I said, matter of factly. I didn’t need any information about freezing my eggs since I never envisioned getting pregnant or giving birth.

When I was going through treatment for breast cancer, I would picture the daughter that I would adopt as a source of inspiration. I couldn’t see her face, but I visualized her black hair in pigtails with a white cardigan over her navy dress.

I didn’t know then what I know now. I wasn’t meant to adopt. I was meant to meet The Man, fall in love and astonishingly conceive.

Medical professionals don’t typically use words like, “miracle,” but with my pregnancy, they did. During my bi-monthly sonograms, four different radiology technicians commented that my daughter-to-be was gifted and sassy. I would smile and remind myself that she was just a fetus. But, a part of me realized that even as a fetus, she had already proven that she was strong!

After the doctors delivered my daughter, Roya, one of them commented that my ovaries were postmenopausal. Medically, there wasn’t an explanation for my pregnancy or her birth. And yet, in spite of all the odds and obstacles, Roya was born.

I’ve heard from quite a few people over the past year that Roya’s birth has given them hope. It’s important to believe that the seemingly impossible is in fact possible. She is living proof that miracles can happen!

Several doctors and friends have commented that Roya is destined for greatness. Well, greatness is subjective and ascribes to certain conventional benchmarks of success. I hope that whatever the future holds for Roya, she realizes that she’s great just as she is.

On the eve of Roya’s first birthday, I held her in my arms with tears in my eyes. So much of the past four years was unplanned, but I guessed one thing correctly:

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My daughter would be the love of my life.

And, she is.

Roya’s April

Roya was quite the busy 10 month old in April!

Excuse me, Auntie T. I have an important call!

Excuse me. I have to take an important call!

We enjoyed brunch at Auntie Kate’s place, a visit from Grandpa and Nana, Easter service at Western Presbyterian, and my 41st birthday at Bourbon Steak. Roya also continued to go to Gymboree and music class, and we added a Baby Aquatics class into our weekly routine. (Roya is quite the water baby!) And, of course, there was lunch bunch at Peacock Cafe.

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#Cheeks and Auntie KRob at Peacock

The weekend of April 18th found us at the American University Social Learning Summit. It meant so much to me to have Roya and The Man at the conference! The inaugural SLS in 2011 was the first student-run social media conference in the nation!

The youngest #SLS14 attendee! Thanks AUSMC for the photo!

The youngest #SLS14 attendee! Thanks AUSMC for the photo!

Snuggles with Auntie Megan at #SLS14!

Snuggles with Auntie Megan at #SLS14!

The only tough April event came when Roya spiked a fever of 104.9 degrees. I was beyond grateful that it went down in a day, thanks to infant Advil and cool wash cloths.

We ended the month by participating in our first charity walk with my students to benefit the National Eating Disorders Association! An added bonus to holding a charity walk on The National Mall was going on the carousel outside the Smithsonian after we were done.

At the NEDA DC Walk

At the NEDA DC Walk and on the carousel

Hoping your spring was also off to a wonderful start!

#GetNaked

When I was younger, I thought that I needed to get one bad sunburn at the beginning of each summer as a “base tan.” I viewed the fact that I looked like a lobster and was in pain for a week as an occupational hazard of being pale and going to the pool.

I know better now. I avoid spending time in the sun and regularly use sunscreen. My mom had several moles removed over the decades, and my father was diagnosed with skin cancer the year after my mom died. I visit the dermatologist for a mole check once a year. I’ve had a few moles frozen off, but thankfully the doctor hasn’t had to biopsy anything yet.

Even if you have no family or personal history of cancer, it’s still important to monitor your skin and see a dermatologist if you notice any changes. If you haven’t done so yet this year, now is the perfect time to start! Why, you may ask? Well, May is National Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month!

To coincide with this, The Melanoma Research Foundation has launched the #GetNaked campaign.

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Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. Nearly 80,000 people will be diagnosed with melanoma this year. Melanoma is treatable, provided that it’s detected early.

The Melanoma Research Foundation recommends the following prevention and early detection measures:

Check your skin – regularly.

Research has shown that patients, not doctors, are most likely to spot melanoma because they are most familiar with changes on their own skin. In fact, more than half of all melanomas are detected by everyday people – just by paying attention to their or their loved ones’ skin. #GetNaked in front of the mirror and take a closer look at your skin. Learn how to perform a skin self-exam. If you see something funny or different, make an appointment with a dermatologist.

Talk to others.

Don’t be afraid to ask about a mole you’re not sure about. Ask your spouse, your partner, a friend or family member to help you keep track of suspicious moles and check hard-to-see places. Don’t be shy – melanoma isn’t, and it doesn’t discriminate. Melanoma can develop on anyone – no matter their age, gender or race.

Share the campaign with your networks.

You can share information about this campaign on Facebook, Twitter, your blog and/or in person! You can also switch your profile pic to show others that you’re not afraid to #GetNaked in the name of melanoma prevention and early detection. Finally, follow @CureMelanoma on Twitter or like The Melanoma Research Foundation on Facebook to help learn more!

Will you join me in getting naked and helping to spread the word? I’m scheduling my annual mole check appointment tomorrow!

Roya’s March

March typically comes in like a lion and out like a lamb. For Roya, it seemed like the reverse. The beginning of the month found Roya meeting some of my dear friends. (Special shoutout to Auntie Sheila from making time for us during her trip from San Francisco!) We also had a baby date at Iron Gate, celebrated the wonderful Aba Kwawu‘s birthday at Malmaison, and enjoyed several lunches at Kellari, Peacock Cafe and Bourbon Steak.

One milk, straight up At Bourbon Steak

One milk, straight up!

All excited after meeting Aison at Iron Gate!

Excited after meeting Aison!

Roya celebrated several milestones in March. Her second tooth came in, and she began to hold herself up. We noticed that she required a lot more physical activity and stimulation. As such, Gymboree, music class and trips to the playground became part of our daily routine!

Play time with Auntie Ambo

Play time with Auntie Ambo

The Princess and the Pea at Auntie KRob's

Supervising Auntie KRob

In late March, Roya…and the Man…and the nanny all contracted the norovirus. It broke my heart to see Roya in pain and not able to tolerate anything other than Pedialyte. (It didn’t help that I was the only one who felt well enough to take care of her. We were all exhausted that week!)

Roya was so weak that she fell asleep in the hallway in mid crawl!

Roya was so weak that she fell asleep in the hallway in mid crawl!

On the last day in March, we said goodbye to Auntie LC as she left DC for a new job. Oh, how we miss her!

Thankfully, April brought more flowers than showers! I’ll do my best to catch you up on Roya’s adventures before her first birthday on May 31st. xoxo

A Tale of Two Foobs

I was watching TV when I felt a lump in the middle of my right breast. I raised my arm, and I could still feel it. I looked down, and it was noticeable to the eye.

“It’s just scar tissue,” I told myself.  But, I immediately reached for my phone. I sent a message to my breast reconstruction surgeon, Dr. Kathy Huang, thankful that she was only a text away. She replied that she could squeeze me in for an appointment a few days later.

With health matters, I’ve worked very hard to get to a point where I don’t exert a lot of emotional energy over that which is unknown. However, since I’ve become a mom, I find myself edgier about any tests or appointments related to life in remission. The stakes are exponentially higher. Even though I knew that what I felt was most likely nothing, I couldn’t help but going to that place in my head for a few minutes. I didn’t even tell anyone, including The Man, about my appointment for three days.

I was clearly concerned, but I reminded myself of the recent study that indicates that carrying my pregnancy to term didn’t increase my risk of recurrence of my hormone-positive breast cancer. However, that’s not a guarantee that my cancer won’t return. As any “survivor” knows, we might be cancer free, but that doesn’t mean that our lives are free from dealing with cancer and the repercussions of our diagnosis.

The following week, I visited Dr. Huang’s office. After a thorough examination, she commented that she, too, thought the small mass was scar tissue. However, she recommended a breast ultrasound (sonogram) just to be sure. I headed to Sibley the next week for the ultrasound. When the breast radiologist indicated that the lump was in fact scar tissue, I let out a sigh of relief. I exhaled deeply again later that week when my internist informed me that my blood counts were good.

I am thankful that this turned out to be nothing. Yet, I can’t help but think of the loved ones and acquaintances who weren’t and aren’t as lucky. I remain humble and small in the face of this horrible disease.

So, does that mean I’m done thinking about my foobs (my post-mastectomy breasts) until my next MRI?

Well, not exactly.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m still dealing with the repercussions of my cancer diagnosis. The skin around my foobs sags and bunches. (That’s to be expected since I have a connective tissue disorder and got pregnant so soon after my double mastectomy.) I also have very pronounced scars across the entire width of my breasts and no nipples. Dr. Huang proposes another surgery to tighten up the skin. That would also minimize the appearance of the scars and lift my breasts. She would then construct nipples from the excess skin at the end of that surgery.

I miss having nipples and don’t like being so ambivalent about my breasts. I imagine that this surgery will leave me with much-needed feelings of fondness for my foobs. I also know enough about Dr. Huang’s work to know that the foobs will look much better after she works her surgical magic.

I had hoped to have this surgery over the summer, but a change in my childcare arrangement will make that difficult. I need to schedule this when I have ample coverage since I won’t be able to hold Roya for two weeks. The tale of two foobs must be continued…