A letter

Dear Congressional Representative,

I am so tired today, aren’t you? I’m fighting a cold and my 18 month old is sick and my husband is having a hard time with his chemo treatments. I started a new job last week and I’m managing the stress of getting the kiddo off to his grandparents or his nanny share every morning and all the different logistics and checklists for myself, my baby, and my husband are kind of overwhelming.

My son got really sick on Monday. We ended up having to go to urgent care for his first ear infection, which, because us Willhelms do everything to the extreme, turned out to be in both ears, plus an acute viral infection in his throat. No wonder he wasn’t drinking any fluids. I had to leave him at home on Tuesday, which was so hard because I both wanted to be with him and desperately wanted to work at my new job so I could have some respite from the constant onslaught of logistics and management all day long.

See my husband, he’s 47, was diagnosed with Stage IV Colon Cancer in November. It was really sudden. He had no symptoms and it’s a type of cancer that can’t be detected through the annual colonoscopies or CT scans he was getting to monitor his Crohn’s Disease. Hell, we had been saying that it was best he had felt in the 10 years we had known each other. What a kick in the ass to find out it was Stage IV cancer.

But anyway, he was home with the baby on Tuesday and I had to keep saying silent prayers and checking in to see if he was doing ok because he’s immunocompromised. And a cold, which was already tricky because of his Crohn’s, could be devastating with the chemo.

But we had no other options, right? He couldn’t go to his nanny share. We didn’t want to get her kid sick, too. Grandparents, while they are amazing, we try to use them judiciously and a sick baby for a whole day is a lot to deal with. So he stayed home, fatigued from the chemo with a fragile immune system that I hope holds up to this bacterial and viral onslaught.

So in addition to the sickness of the baby, we’ve been managing the cancer: the treatment, the grief, the upset to work. Thank God he has an employer who actually cares about him and is making our lives less hellish by actually making it easy for him to work. He’s the Master Electrician at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, a big regional non-profit theatre that he’s worked at for 20 years. He LOVES his job. Like in a way that tells you someone has been paired up with their true calling.

But I write today not about his healthcare (thank God for his union’s good coverage) or the lack of affordable daycare, or the difficulty I had finding work with two Bachelor degrees and a Master’s degree and the crushing amount of student loan debt I got following the advice to “get more education” so I could get a good job. Today I want to write to you about guns.

You totally knew that, though. The little form online made me tell you that. So, spoiler alert, I’m feeling mad about the recent shooting in Parkland, FL.

I grew up in South Florida and moved to Seattle in 2008 after college. My sister in law is a teacher, my brother’s best friend and his wife are teachers. I don’t fear for their safety every day, because statistics means that it’s unlikely that the shooting will happen at their schools. But, what about when statistics catches up with me? What happens when my son, who isn’t in school yet but will be eventually, because we believe in the public school system, what happens when his school is the site of something like this? How on earth could I live with myself if I didn’t do my due diligence to make my fear and anger known to those who actually have the power to do something?

But then I pause and think, “What the hell is the point? The Dems did their one sit in and nothing happened.”

And now you have so much you are fighting for: healthcare, taxes, Dreamers, general nonsense from fellow lawmakers who seem to have forgotten they are governing people and not faceless voting blocks or donors. How can I, in good conscience, add to your list of struggles?

But really, how can I not? My son’s life is on the line.

My son’s life is on the line.

Do you have kids? I think you do. So, you must know this fear. The fear of motherhood where you let a piece of your heart walk around outside and the strings of worry and love and strength stretch from you to them in a way you didn’t know about until you had your child. I didn’t know the vulnerability I would feel until I held my son in my hands (he was 5 weeks early so he was little) and realized just how vulnerable I would be for the rest of my life. I could be made to do anything for him.

My husband’s mortality is something we are dealing with every day. We don’t know if he will kick the cancer and survive or die a young death, but his mortality that is literally in question right now does not feel as fragile as that of my son’s and his future classmates.

Please, for the love of God, do something.

I listen to NPR and watch CNN and read the New York Times and listen to Pod Save America like a good liberal does. I work very hard to break down internal bias and fight for equity and help my husband and those I can affect learn more about sexism and racism and ableism and fatphobia, but you have got to help me here. I need to take something off my list of things to worry about and fight for and my son’s safety in his school really needs to be one of them. Please.

So, what do you need from me? I’m joining a local mom’s group to be an activist for change in firearm legislation. I support local government and vote in every election. I donate to campaigns when I can and to charities and the odd GoFundMe for people who can’t afford medical care or need to send their kiddo to a once-in-a-lifetime ballet camp. What else can I do to make our country safer and better and less hard to live in?

Thank you for your guidance. I promise I will take the information you give me and be a constituent you will be proud of. Just don’t send me something like “donate to the blah blah blah.” I can’t do that anymore.

Thank you,

Verhanika Willhelm

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How to create community in 793 easy steps

In the last couple of weeks I’ve realized how much I need to be around people every day. I’m by no means an extrovert, but I didn’t realize how much of a social creature I am.

This depressive episode made it very clear that time I spend alone is not helpful. I started reaching out to new people to try and build some more community so I had lots of options if I needed a sudden infusion of support.

  1. PEPS– I joined my local PEPS group in August after a fellow mom did her due diligence to get one started. There are 9 of us in the group with babies who were born between mid-May and early August. For 12 weeks we met every Tuesday from 1030a-1230p. Our babies started out as lumps and now have teeth, sit up, crawl, babble, and have personalities. This group saved me. After my husband, they were the first ones I told about my PPD diagnosis. I still see a few of them every week on Tuesday mornings. One key piece to helping us gel was a Facebook group I started for us within the first couple of weeks. It started slowly, with people asking for clear advice, making recommendations, or trying to arrange playdates. Now, we post about lots of things. After I was fired, I told my staff about what happened and then I told my PEPS group (my husband was in the room when it happened, so he already knew). I knew kids caused a lot of camaraderie, but I didn’t really get it until this group. We all have different approaches to life and work and family, but we are all bound by a similar need to do what is best for our children and are sometimes at a total loss for what that looks like. I think all of us have cried at this point and we have all shared food, the two things I think bind humans the quickest. Without my PEPS ladies, I would be in much worse shape.
  2. Online Book Clubs– After President Obama had an interview in the NY Times about the books he read while in office, I put a call out on Facebook asking if anyone else wanted to read them with me. Almost 30 people joined and we are reading one book every two months with discussion online about what we have read. I also joined a book club aimed at literature about intersectional feminism. This one is largely going to be in-person or call in for those of us who aren’t local, but whether I get to participate in the actual discussion or not, reading intersectional feminist literature and non-fiction sounds wonderful. I also joined the local moms book club, which mostly focuses on fiction. This group also meets in person and though I can never make the meeting times (they’re always on Friday nights), I still read the books along with the group. I’m also constantly reviewing my reading list from graduate school and taking on books my fellow graduates reading. So at any given time I’m reading up to 4 books, but since they are all for different purposes it’s easy to keep track of their plots or central messages without confusion.
  3. Stroller Strides– This group is still newish to me. I go to a Stroller Strides class 1-3 times a week and am still figuring out how I fit into this larger group. Most of the parents have kids who are toddlers or preschoolers and class always falls right during nap time, so I don’t really stick around much after class is over to socialize. That said, the day of the inauguration we did a Michelle Obama inspired workout and when I started tearing up over the loss of the Obamas I was encouraged to “let it out.” I also told them about my termination and I get asked every class about the state of my employment.
  4. Witchy women in general– I have gotten really close with a lot of what I call “witchy women.” These are the women who are deeply affected by and in tune with the world around them. Most of them are in disparate social circles, but on the day of the Womxn’s March, they were all out protesting or actively tracking in and talking about it on social media. Some I see very regularly in person, and some I only communicate with via Facebook. Either way the energy of the feminine is strong in this group and shows up in many different areas of communication and community.
  5. My consulting collective– After graduate school, one of my teachers started a group where graduates could come together to figure out how to spread our skills more broadly. We meet once a month and talk about everything from very in-depth case studies to new theories to social problems and how to address them. I’ve had some very challenging conversations with this group on a personal level and some very fruitful ones. I get to bring the nugget with me and he is passed around from person to person so I can get a break and he can be held by people who already adore him.

In order to get community going, I’ve found that we obviously need a common call to action, but the follow up after forming the initial group is what’s hard. Online, I have to post comments and questions regularly to get the lurkers to come out and engage. In person, I often throw out initial instances of vulnerability to break the ice. I’m sure if I didn’t, someone else would, but I’m usually game to cast the first line.

What makes it hard and why some of them peter out is that this needs to happen over and over and over again. Groups I have been a part of where I wasn’t actively cultivating them have fallen by the wayside despite everyone’s good intentions. There are some people who propose that a group needs a certain number of people to keep it going. I have seen groups of hundreds stagnate because the moderator and/or creator didn’t give it enough juice from day to day.

I have a new group for mompreneurs and work from home moms I started. There are about 50 of us and this one is having a harder time getting going. I think I need to ask some different questions, but I haven’t quite cracked the code on this one yet. In any case, some more attention and effort and I think it will be awesome. Mompreneurs and work from home moms spend a LOT of time on the computer, so I know other group members will be more engaged soon.

 

When your world implodes

Two weeks ago I was fired from my position as Managing Director for The Seagull Project.

I had only been back in the job for less than 3 months and came back in early October to a very stressed staff on the verge of quitting. I spent most of the first few weeks back just having conversations trying to convince people to stay. I had a killer team and didn’t want to lose an ounce of the talent I had procured. After I patched those holes, convincing people of the potential we had ahead and how we just had to power through to February when we could rebuild, I had to cancel our major fundraiser. Attention had been paid to another fundraising effort against the strategy I had created before I left. Then, my first board meeting was canceled because most of the board was suddenly unavailable 48 hours before the meeting, so we had no container to discuss the implications and plans for what to do next with this fundraising hole.

The first meeting I finally had with the board was in early December and it involved giving some hard news about the state of our finances. In that meeting, we did some serious reconnoitering of the budget, readjusted revenue goals, and walked out with a plan for how to fundraise with major donors and secure loans for our revenue shortfall.

The rest of December passed with a lot of other fires to put out. Prior to my coming on board, decisions were made that turned out to have serious ramifications for us. No one had adequately researched how to actually carry out some of these things, so when time came to implement them, we were lacking in some major pieces. These pieces affected our negotiations with the actors’ union and how we dealt with payroll. I had to talk another staff member off a ledge after delivering some hard news because without them we would have come to a complete standstill. We started rehearsals behind the eight ball, but everyone was getting paid and we had patched yet more holes. I was so proud of my team for continuing to plod forward solve all the crazy problems we were encountering.

Next we had some problems with our fiscal sponsor around instructions that they admit were unclear. It resulted in a delay in a funds transfer and we ended up having some bounced checks. Calling someone to tell them not to deposit a check is about the least fun thing to do. It’s even worse when they say the already have and we all hang out in limbo to see what happens next.

All of this came to a head the weekend of Christmas when no one was available and everything was delayed because of office closures and holiday gatherings.

I came to the January board meeting and outlined all the problems we had experienced and how we had solved them and what we needed next to move forward. It was a chaotic meeting where we were missing a board member for the whole meeting (who no one had spoken to in a while) and another for half the meeting. The meeting was contentious. We didn’t have board meeting minutes to reference previous decisions, we were all stressed with all the operational things that landed, plus we had the usual chaos of the holidays. I left feeling tense but like we had tangible steps to try and solve some problems.

The next evening I was fired. The exact details of the day are not important. The bottom line is I was fired without warning and without an opportunity to correct behavior, behavior that I don’t even know about since no specifics were given to me about what I did wrong. This was counter to the culture I had created among the staff where everyone was given many chances to find the job that worked for them. We were all learning and volunteers, so what good would it have done to berate someone and maybe lose a willing team member in the process?

I was sad about being fired, but also relieved. I told my staff and the conversations over the next 4 days went something like this:

Staff: What the fuck?

Me: Yes.

Staff: I am so angry I don’t have words.

Me: I understand.

Staff: I’m leaving.

Me: Ok.

Two staff members resigned immediately, one resigned effective the end of January, and as of this writing six are not planning to continue after this production. Of the 14 person staff, that leaves five people.

The exodus, overt or covert, was gratifying to parts of me. I spent a week just being numb, enjoying my new time with my baby. Before I was fired, my day would largely consist of  having to figure out how to feed Ronan and keep him entertained so I could get on the phone or answer emails or respond to texts all day. Did I mention this job was unpaid? Yeah. I was missing valuable time with my baby for an unpaid position.

Now I could spend time just making faces at him. The day after I was fired, we got home from an outing and after I changed his diaper, we just laid in bed together, talking to each other and snuggling.

I posted about it on Facebook the Friday after it happened. I received 5 job offers within 2 days. All were paid. It boosted my confidence that I had desirable skills and was a worthwhile person to work with. Because I don’t know why I was fired, I couldn’t do any productive self-reflection or even if the decision was justified.

Then about a week later I hit a major slump. My postpartum depression had been relatively well managed, but this pushed it from “mild and managed” to “major episode.” I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t thinking clearly. I was addressing Ronan’s needs but would start crying for no discernible reason.

I scheduled an emergency session with my therapist. We sorted some things out, largely that if this position had been paid I would have an easily winnable wrongful termination lawsuit on my hands.

Now all I’m left with is unanswered questions AND a sense of relief. This job was hard to do even before I was a new mom dealing with PPD. I was contacted multiple times while on maternity leave to return because of how things were falling apart. Given the outcry to my firing, I can see that decisions made by the board are largely based in emotion, not logic or what is actually best for the company or the people who work within it. Now my days are more loose and I can focus on things I enjoy, like my sweet, sweet baby boy.

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But open loops are tough for the human brain. It’s like having an itch you can’t quite scratch, but isn’t so awful you seek out a corner to wiggle against. The catalytic action of the firing and the subsequent depression episode just suck. I get indignant and wonder if this kind of suffering is what my boss wanted when he fired me.

For now, I work to keep my health on track. I’ve started and joined lots of online communities, I get out of the house every day, I’m back to working out almost every day, and I do my best to focus on what brings me joy and reduces my suffering. I’m lucky that this is the worst I have to deal with. The pending quality of all that is happening with our political system gives me a huge sense of unease, but at least, for now, I have a roof over my head, food in my belly, and a happy, healthy family that offers me home and hope when I need it.