Expecting a baby after years of struggle

Since 2009, Jen has gone through four miscarriages, an ectopic pregnancy, multiple rounds of fertility treatments, the loss of a fallopian tube, and her husband underwent urological surgery. Now, after seven years, Jen is happy to be 8 months pregnant with a baby girl, Emersyn. We spoke a few weeks ago about what it’s like to be on the other side of infertility after years of struggles.

Photo credit: http://ashleykemper.smugmug.com

Caitlin: So last fall you find out that you are pregnant, for the 6th time. At that point, are you cautiously happy?

Jen: Every time.

Caitlin: You feel happy and excited every time?

Jen: Yes, like you’ve said, I’m cautiously happy. I think, maybe this is the time. Maybe this is going to be it. But of course in the back of your mind, there’s always that constant paranoia. I worry I’m going to go to the bathroom and I’ll be bleeding. That’s the mindset. It took me a long time to feel relaxed with this pregnancy. When we found out it was a girl, I was like okay. Maybe I can relax.

Caitlin: Those milestones make you feel like, okay, maybe this really is going to happen?

Jen: Every ultrasound is huge. We had one at four weeks, we had one at six weeks. Then another at eight and then another nine, fifteen, and eighteen weeks. It’s wonderful to see her on that screen. She’s healthy and she is okay but at the back of my mind, I’m wonder, when is the other shoe going to drop or something bad going to happen?

Caitlin: Do you feel scared, even now?

Jen: Yes.

Caitlin: I think that every pregnant women does, to be honest. I didn’t have any trouble getting pregnant, but it was the same sort of thing for me. Every ultrasound it felt a little more real. I was like okay, this is happening. You’ve gone through so much, so I imagine why that anxiety would be just multiplied for you.

Jen: What a lot of people don’t realize is, 65% of first pregnancies end up in miscarriage. (With our first pregnancy) I said okay, maybe we were a part of that 65% and everything after will be fine. Maybe it was just a fluke, and then it kept happening. At some point you realize, something is not right. It was hard to want to try again. It was hard when we found out that we were pregnant this time.

I kind of had a feeling, we had ran half of a marathon over the weekend. Something just felt off. And my husband said, maybe you are pregnant. I took the tests and it was instantenous. It was one of those, okay how is this one going to go?

Caitlin: You’ve always been open about your struggles to have a baby. You share your story on Facebook and on your blog, kyleandjensmith.blogspot.com. Why did you make that decision and how did that work for you?

Jen: Well, we didn’t talk about it the first time that it had happened. That was really hard. Only our family knew. So, since then, I’ve tried to tell people what we were going through. I couldn’t imagine going through everything that we’ve been gone through and not talking about it. I think it makes it worse.

My husband said if you’re comfortable with sharing, I’m on board. I think when you haven’t been in the position that we’ve been in, it’s kind of hard to understand why we are so open. It’s a comfort thing. It’s something that happened. I don’t have to walk around with a smile on my face because people know what’s going on and and they understand. It just made it easier knowing that people did know.

I also think, it’s an educational thing. I don’t think people understand how common this is. They don’t realize, one in eight couples deal with infertility and pregnancy loss on a very recurrent basis.

We’re trying to help others that are going through the same thing and dealing with it. Not knowing where to go, what to do. What programs are available to help them? That’s helped me. If I  can help someone else by sharing our story, then I’m perfectly okay with that.

Caitlin:  For people maybe who have friends or family who are dealing with infertility. What do you think is important for them to know? For them to be the best support for their family member ?

Jen: Just be good at listening. If someone in your life is dealing with infertility, just listen. Let them cry, let them get their feelings out. For me, that was huge. I called my sister and she let me go off on a rant if I was having a bad day about it. The little things can make all the difference for someone who is going through it.

I think some of the hardest things for me was one of the family members or friends getting pregnant, and they were afraid to tell me. Don’t be afraid just tell me. It made things so much harder, if you apologize a million times.

Caitlin: I feel like that puts you into a really awkward position. You shouldn’t have to be reassuring the pregnant person.

Jen: My sister got pregnant when I just had had a miscarriage. She texted me, tell me to call her. I called her and said, “You’re pregnant aren’t you?” She got real quiet and she said yes. She began to apologize.

Being pregnant is not something you should apologize for. Just because someone else has problems doesn’t mean that we don’t have the ability to be happy for somebody else. People need to understand that. We don’t lose feelings for everyone who is able to have kids.

Caitlin: Now you are on the other side. You are one of the lucky ones to be able to pregnant. What has it been like for you switching roles here?

Jen: It’s very surreal. I wake up every day, I’m like okay, this is happening. I will say, though, it doesn’t take away all the pain I’ve been through. We have five babies that are not here. That kills me every single day. To wonder what could have been. I still think about those other ones. We are very lucky, but she doesn’t replace the ones we lost.

I want to be an advocate for those who are struggling. Yes, I am on the other side but at the same time, it doesn’t negate everything that has got us to this point. We’ll never forget that.

Caitlin: That’s a part of who you are know, I imagine.

Jen: It is, very much.

Caitlin: What are you most looking forward to now?

Jen: Everything. The next milestone. I have my glucose test coming up and people joke about how hard that is.

Caitlin: Oh, that’s nothing after what you’ve been through!

Jen: Yeah, I’ll sit there, I’ll be fine.

I’m excited about all the little things. Having her, teaching her, and supporting her. It’s the little things that we’ve wanted since we got married almost eight years ago. We are so excited and our families are so excited.

A lot of people didn’t think it was going to happen and I can’t blame them. I didn’t think either. I thought it was just going to be disappointment after disappointment.

Caitlin: What do you think you’ve learned about yourself on this journey?

Jen: I’m a lot stronger than I give myself credit for. With my first miscarriage, I was like, I cannot do this again. I can’t keep going, I can’t go through that again. I realized just how determined I was to make this happen.

I’m tough, I’m strong, and I can push through for myself and Kyle. It made us grateful. I wouldn’t change anything.

Image courtesy Jen Smith

Photo credit: http://ashleykemper.smugmug.com

Single, over 30, and not settling

A few weeks ago I was chatting with a friend who is 32 and single. She started telling me the crazy things people say to her about her relationship status and I was blown away. So, I knew I wanted to talk to someone in a similar position.

I have friends who are single and loving it, friends who are single and looking for a partner, and friends who are open to whatever comes their way. For this chat, we’re talking with Alicia, a 31 year old woman from New York. She’s single, looking, and NOT willing to settle.

Caitlin: The idea to talk to some about being over 30 and single came from a friend who was telling me about crazy things people say to her about being single. You have a recent story about that.

Alicia: On Valentine’s Day I went with my sister to get a manicure/pedicure. And so the nail tech says to me, “Do you have a boyfriend?” And I said, “No.” And she said, “Oooohh (sad face).” It’s never like, “Oh that’s okay, you’re a strong, independant woman!” It’s always, “Oooohh (sad face).” Then it’s “Well, you don’t want that anyway…”

And that day, I had an unexpected, yet complete, meltdown because I’m like, “It’s Valentine’s Day, I’m going to be 31, I don’t have a boyfriend, I haven’t had one in a long time….” My goal was always to have a family by now. And I’m trying to focus on the good things in my life: my job, my house… but it’s definitely a struggle at times.

Caitlin: What other kinds of things do you hear from people?

Alicia: The question I’m always asked is, “Well, have you tried online dating?” And it’s like, “Yeah, for three years. I’ve been on every site.” Some people say, “And nothing? Wow, that’s crazy!” And then others say,“Oh, well you’re too picky.” Then there’s the “I have one single friend, but you don’t want to date him.” Followed by,“Oh I should introduce you to so and so.” And they never do and two years later so and so is engaged.

Caitlin: I think it’s insulting for someone to say you’re being too picky. Why shouldn’t you be picky? You’re looking for the person you’re going to marry, not just someone to go to dinner with.

Alicia: Yeah, I’m not looking for some random hook up. I want to be picky. I want to figure out what I want, what I need, and what I deserve.

Someone asked me the other day at work if my biological clock was ticking. I just sort of laughed it off, but inside, I was hurting. I don’t let on how much it bothers me when people say stuff like that. It’s like, holy shit. Why would you say that to someone?

Oh, sometimes if I say I don’t have a boyfriend, they want to know if I have a girlfriend (laughs). Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. I’ve heard people say that happens to them, too. It’s so weird.

That stigma has changed I think, that you have to be in a relationship or have a family by a certain age, but in my family, everyone was married by 28. So I’m stuck on what I want to do, or what I should do, or whatever.

Caitlin: You mentioned you’ve been doing online dating for years. Do you go on a lot of dates?

Alicia: No. And that’s what’s part of the struggle.  It’s so frustrating. I get nothing. I wink, I message, I like pictures. I get someone to look at my profile, and I get nothing. And if I do hear from someone, it’s like a 52 year old divorcee with two kids. Which is not what I want at this point!

I haven’t been on a date in over a year. How am I supposed to put myself out there if no one is responding to me?

Caitlin: So, how is your life different from how you imagined when you were younger?

Alicia: I always thought that I was going to grow up, have a normal job, have two kids… I never thought I’d be single still in my 30’s. Now, I have a great job and I own my own place. I’m happy with that, but again, it’s a struggle because I feel like all my ducks are in a row, but that one.

I still want a family. I want all of it. But as I get older, it’s going to get harder. People tell me I can have a kid on my own if I want to, but that’s not how I want it.

Caitlin: What do you hope the future holds for you?

Alicia: It’s easy to say a family. I want a husband, I want kids. But, what I want and what I get could be two different things. But, I do wish for that for myself, in any form. I do believe everything happens for a reason. If I can’t have kids, or I end up adopting, or I have six kids at once, it’s all going to be because that’s what was meant for me. That’s always been my mentality.

Caitlin: Do you feel settled in your life, or do you feel like you’re waiting for something?

Alicia: I’m definitely waiting. I may be blessed with some great things, but I feel I’m not complete yet. I’ve done a lot of soul searching and it’s not about being fixed. It’s about learning to accept things and adapt and be happy with the overall picture.

Even though I’m still single, I’ve come this far. I’m not going to settle. I don’t want to.

What do you think? Have you ever had someone make a comment about your relationship choices that caught you off guard? How old were you when you met your future spouse, or are you still looking? Talk to me!

Image: Bob

A foster mom at 22

This summer I came across a blog post that immediately caught my eye. It was about a 22 year old woman named Allison and her fiance who had just become foster parents to a little girl. I think it takes extraordinary generosity and bravery for two people as young as Allison and her fiance to open their home to a child in need. As it turns out, Allison (pictured below) and I have some friends in common and she agreed to chat with me about her experience so far.

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Caitlin: So, you’re 22 and you’re a foster mother. That’s pretty unusual! What inspired you and your fiance to even be interested in being foster parents?

Allison: We had heard an advertisement for it on the radio when the House of the Good Shepherd was recruiting foster parents about a year ago. They had an orientation coming up, so we talked about it, and since we both love children it seemed like a great fit.

I particularly have a connection to children because I taught dance for years. Also, there’s ten years between my younger brother and I so I’ve really been exposed to children a lot and I love working with them. This seemed like a great way to help a child who was in a less fortunate situation.

So about a year ago we went through the training. This involved a 12 week course that included home studies, inspections, and background checks. Our initial goal was just to provide respite care, as needed. Respite care is temporary care for children who are in the foster care system when their foster family needs a short break, for whatever reason.

Since we became certified, we have cared for four children in respite care between the ages of 9 and 13. About four months ago, we had Sweet Pea* for respite care over a weekend and really enjoyed her company! She’s a young, outgoing girl, so you can imagine the fun and entertainment she provides. When we were told that she needed a new foster placement the following week, we decided to take her in full time.

Caitlin: So, how much time is there between finding out she needs a home, and her moving in with you?

Allison: We had a little less than a week. In this particular situation, we had great contact with her family which made things a lot easier. Typically, the agency is the middleman between the foster family and biological family. But, in our circumstance, we were fortunate to begin to build a relationship with her family to make sure that we were well enough prepared for the transition. I mean, as prepared as you can be.

Caitlin: What do you hear from people when they hear you’re 22 and a foster parent?

Allison: You know what I found, actually? When I’m out by myself with Sweet Pea, I understand what a young, single mom feels like. It was really hard to get over the way I felt people were judging me. I think people see me with Sweet Pea and make assumptions. When they find out I’m a foster parent, they’re attitude changes and they are very supportive of it. That’s great, but I think it should make people think twice before they judge someone.

Caitlin: This is probably such a broad question, but how did your life change?

Allison: It’s really difficult to prepare yourself for that transition. As much as I was around children growing up, there’s nothing that gives that preparation for taking on a child full time and, of course, there’s no manual that come along with parenting. So, you take a lot of trial and error.

But, I would say the biggest adjustment was time management. I work full time as Manager of Business Development for Washington Street Properties, I own a dance wear store, I own a photo booth business, I had just stopped teaching dance for the summer. I also won the title of Miss Thousand Islands a few weeks after she came into my care. And, of course, I’m engaged so I had that relationship along with family life and friends that I had to juggle with her and her schedule – day care, swimming, dance, gymnastics, etc.

I knew it would be difficult for her to be taken from everything she’s known so I thought distractions like dance and gymnastics would be a good way to help her adjust. To learn that change can be a good thing.

We got her on a Sunday so I took Monday off because I didn’t think it was fair to her to be sent right to daycare. I also was fortunate to have my Mom watch her the rest of the week to help with the adjustment. My parents are really supportive and are just as attached to Sweet Pea as I am. She’s just a doll. So, that week was just us getting to know her and getting used to a new schedule.

And, of course, with any child, you have to handle behavioral issues – especially with a child who’s been through several different homes. It’s mostly testing to see what the boundaries are. Sweet Pea didn’t have many boundaries in any of the homes she’s been in, so it was difficult for her to adjust to a schedule, stability, and consequences for actions. So that was difficult for her and for us to figure out.

Caitlin: So, you guys have done some really fun stuff. You took Sweet Pea to Disney World. What a dream!

Allison: Yes, before I took Sweet Pea in I was already planning to go on this trip so when she came along, it was perfect timing. I was so excited to be able to give her the opportunity to experience something so magical. She didn’t know where we were going until we got there. She said she had heard of Disney and had seen commercials for it on TV, but she didn’t know what to expect at all. She saw the castle and all the rides and was just amazed by it. My little brother also joined us for the trip. The best part about it for me was just seeing her reaction and watching her take in the whole experience.

Caitlin: Oh my gosh, that’s so cool. What’s been the most rewarding part of the experience for you so far?

Allison: Just having her in my life is an amazing experience that I feel very blessed to have had, but I am particularly happy to be involved with all of the progress I’ve seen her make. When she came into our care she wasn’t used to having any structure or stability so that’s something we’ve been working on. She’s come a long way and it’s so rewarding to assist in creating a better life for her.

Caitlin: Do you know what the future holds? Can there be a day that comes and she’s gone? Or could she be adopted at some point?

Allison: It’s difficult to say. Generally, across the board for foster care, it’s something that’s scary to think about. Things can change at any minute and you really don’t have any control over that. You can make suggestions, but you really have no way to sway things one way or another.

With Sweet Pea, it’s difficult to see what the future holds. I can say that if the opportunity for adoption was made available to me, I wouldn’t hesitate to move forward with it. But if it doesn’t, she will always remain an integral part of my life in some capacity. It’s very important for me to build a relationship with her family so that I will have the ability to stay involved.

Caitlin: How do you guard your heart in all of this? I mean, do you?

Allison: It’s something that’s been discussed a lot between my fiance and I. For me, it is natural to treat her as if she were my own, whereas he feels that she should be treated differently. I can’t replace her mom and I would never try to, but at the same time, she’s very young and needs the nurturing and care that a mom would provide. Because of that, I’ve tried to build a strong relationship with her to be sure she’s developing in a way that’s appropriate.

As a foster parent, you work hand in hand with a therapist and case workers who provide advice that is crucial in a situation like this. They’ve encouraged me to build that relationship so she has someone who is safe for her. Someone who is going to provide the safety and structure that she needs.

So as we’ve bonded and built up our relationship, I’ve realized that it’s impossible to guard your heart against the things that could happen. It’s important to take things one day at a time and trust that everything happens for a reason. It’s just my hope that by keeping a great relationship with her family, if she goes back to them, they’ll allow me to still be in her life.

Caitlin: I think being a foster parent is such a noble cause. When I think about whether or not I could be a foster parent, those are the things I think about. I mean, your heart might be broken at some point in the process. What advice would you give someone who was thinking about being a foster parent?

Allison: There are a lot of ways to be involved besides being a full time foster parent. For example, there are Court Appointment Special Advocates (CASA workers). In this position, you volunteer to be assigned to a child and become the eyes and ears of the case. You go to home visits and court cases and  try to access the situations in each case as best you can and then report to the judge. They attempt to be an unbiased source who is working on behalf of the child.

Also, when we first started, we just did respite care. This helps to ease concerns about attachment because you only have the child for a few days. However, if you really enjoy working with a certain child, you might be given the opportunity to have the same child for respite care multiple times.

There are also volunteers for transportation for children in foster care. Volunteer Transport Services in Watertown is very helpful when transportation becomes difficult.

But, if someone decides they want to be a full time foster parent, I think they need to realize your job is to do what’s best for the child, although that might not always feel like what’s best for you. You tend to see one side of the case, but there’s two sides to every story.

You still might end up with a broken heart at the end of the day if things don’t go the way you hoped, but you have to understand that there’s a reason for the choices that are made and everyone has the child’s best interest at heart.

Caitlin: How does having a young child in your home impact your relationship as you plan to get married? I guess you really get to see what kind of parent your partner will be.

Allison: Yeah, we have had different opinions on what a “mom” is versus a “foster mom” and a “dad” versus a “foster dad.” My fiance has been much more guarded with his relationship with Sweet Pea to try to protect his heart. So if the day comes that she has to move on, he wants to make sure he’s not attached to the point where it’s too difficult to let go.

Caitlin: He must be worried about your heart, too.

Allison: Yeah. I’m her primary caregiver so I spend a lot more time with her. I think that’s definitely a concern of both of ours. I’ve built up such a strong relationship with her that will not easily be broken.

You certainly do learn things about how someone interacts with children. Our approach is unconventional but is an eye opener before marriage.

Thank you so much Allison for taking the time to chat, and most of all, for your generous heart. You’re an inspiration to all of us to consider what more we can do in our own lives to help others. Best wishes to your family!

Image courtesy Allison

*named changed for privacy

 

Leaving domestic violence behind: Surviving to thriving

Domestic violence usually lurks in the darkness. We know it affects families of all kinds, but we rarely talk about it. I think if you’ve never been in an abusive relationship, it’s hard to understand why someone stays. It’s hard to comprehend how abuse can go on for years and years.

So, I wanted to talk to someone who could help us all better understand the point of view of someone who has lived with abuse. Thank you to Laurel House for putting me in touch with Wendy, a woman who stayed with her abusive husband for 20 years before leaving for good. And thank you, Wendy, for your strength, your bravery, and your honesty.

Caitlin: So, I understand you were married to your husband who was your abuser for 20 years. Tell me a little bit about that relationship and some of that background.

Wendy: Well, I grew up in a dysfunctional home. I was just rejected a lot when I was younger. My mom was married three times and her third husband turned out to be abusive.

I met my husband when I was only 20 and the abuse started right away. I had three kids by the time I was 25 and my husband was constantly accusing me of having affairs. It could be with anybody… the neighbor, my pastor, my brother-in-law. You know, extreme jealousy. It isolated me from family and friends. So, I just lived with constant accusations of things I didn’t do. He would grill me to the point where I would say the truth, but that wasn’t good enough, and he’d tell me I was lying, and I wound up with memory loss from that trauma.

Caitlin: Did it make you question what was an actual memory and what were you just saying to go along with him?

Wendy: Yeah, exactly.

Caitlin: Wow. Was he ever physically abusive?

Wendy: Yeah, he was physically abusive, but not all the time. He punched me in the face when I was pregnant. He blocked the doorway so I couldn’t leave. He put his hand over my mouth so I couldn’t breathe. He pushed me into things when I was holding the baby. Just a lot of violence, yeah.

Caitlin: Just talking about it, does it bring up those old feelings?

Wendy: Yeah, in fact, I was thinking about it today knowing that we were going to have this talk. It’s been seven years. I have a whole new life now. But, everytime I think about it, it brings back the trauma.

Caitlin: You know, people have been talking a lot about domestic violence as it’s been in the headlines recently and there’s been the question, why do women stay? And you stayed with your husband for 20 years. I think a lot of people have a hard time understanding that. When you look back, why do you think you stayed for all those years?

Wendy: Yeah, I can tell you why I stayed. People ask, why do you stay? Why do you put up with that abuse? But, they don’t understand that when you have to leave, you’re not just leaving your husband. You’re leaving your community, your home. It’s great if there’s a shelter, but there’s rules, there’s curfews. It’s really hard to leave. And then you wonder, how are you going to make it on your own? Especially when you have kids.

Caitlin: And I know a symptom of abuse is believing that you can’t make it on your own, that you need your abuser to survive. Did you feel that way?

Wendy: Oh definitely, because he brainwashed me. “Nobody will ever love you like I do, Wendy. You’re not going to be able to find a job, you’re not smart enough.” I had three small kids, and I believed him at the time. I had low self-esteem and I needed him. I did. I felt trapped. I couldn’t leave him and I couldn’t stay. It was a horrible place to be.

Caitlin: Was he ever abusive to your children?

Wendy: Yes. I have three older children and he was physically and mentally abusive to them. Seven years later, they’re still having a lot of problems.

Caitlin: Did the people in your life know about the abuse?

Wendy: They did. I would go to my friends crying, and they’d say, “Wendy you need to leave him, you should call the police.” But, he’d isolate me from my family and friends. If I would leave him (and stay with friends) and then come back he would accuse those friends of taking our kids away from him. And then they would get mad at me and then I wouldn’t be able to go back to them.

Caitlin: Did you leave several times before you left for good?

Wendy: Too many times to count. They say it takes 7-8 times to leave. I left probably twice a year for 20 years. People say, “Why did you go back?” Well, I loved him.

Caitlin: So, how did you finally leave? Tell me that story.

Wendy: It was May 27, 2007 on my daughter’s 19th birthday. I was trying to make her day special and he accused me once again of having an affair with a neighbor, and he screamed, as always. And I said, “I can’t take it anymore.” It was the last straw. I had been thinking for a couple of months of how I could leave and get a job. I had my fourth baby a couple years earlier and I didn’t want him to have to go through what my older kids went through. That was it, I had enough. It was time to leave.

Caitlin: How did you do it?

Wendy: I stayed at a couple different women’s shelters, including Laurel House. I was a mess. Just so upset. I knew I was making the right decision, but still, it’s really hard to leave. And, as crazy as it sounds, I still loved him. So, I had a lot of emotions. But, the counselors were very helpful and got me into a job training program and I got my life together.

Caitlin: What’s good about your life that you couldn’t have imagined seven years ago?

Wendy: Everything. I have a wonderful life. I have a life of freedom. I can come and go as I please. I don’t have anyone checking on me, 24/7. No one asks what men I talked to, or where did you go, what did you do, all in the name of “love.” I have the freedom to go where I want, and do what I want. I have much more self-confidence.

Caitlin: Has your strength surprised you?

Wendy: Definitely. I learned how strong I am. And how going through this brought my faith in God stronger. And I want to help people. I want to help women who are going through this, and give them hope for their future.

Caitlin: So you volunteer at Laurel House and work with women who are leaving abusive situations. What has that been like for you?

Wendy: It’s wonderful. It means I didn’t go through it all for nothing. I get there and I say, “Look, I was standing in your shoes. I know exactly what you’re going through and I’m here to give you hope.” I made it and I’m working. I’m taking care of my kids. You don’t have to put up with abuse. There is a better life out there.

 

If you’re in an abusive relationship, don’t keep it to yourself. You can reach out to The National Domestic Violence Hotline. Do you have a friend or family member in an abusive relationship? Here are some tips to help.

Image: Kathleen Christiansen

 

A conversation with a trainer

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Julie is the first trainer I’ve ever worked out with that I didn’t, at some point, want to punch in the face. That’s saying a lot.

Julie is the owner and and head trainer at BAWS Gym. I’m excited to share her journey and wisdom with you today because I think she’s so inspiring. She comes from a place of humility and true caring and I think that’s the best.

Caitlin: When did you first become interested in fitness?

Julie: When I was young, I would watch my dad workout in the basement. He was in the military so like many Marines, he had a very strict regimen. I would go down the basement and watch him workout.  I was always impressed with his pull ups. One day he got off the bar and said, “Do you want to try?”  I was like ten years old. I got on the bar and I just hung there. And every day I went down there and hung until I could do a pull-up.

It got the the point (eventually) where we started doing round robin with pull ups.  It was so fun doing something with him and I really feel like he was the one who inspired me.

Also, not many people know this, but when everyone was playing sports in school, I was always at the YMCA working out.  I just loved weights. I loved them so much. And that’s really how it started.

I did get to an age where it was pissing me off that I was bad at certain things (running in particular) so I just kept working at them. And I just told myself, you have to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Caitlin: Well, that can kind of sum up the entire diet and exercise experience.

Julie: It’s so true. I train Spartan teams and that’s the biggest thing I tell them. I put them through rough workouts and I just say, you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.  I think it really resonates with people and it just tells them, all right, when I want to quit, I just need to push myself three more minutes. And that’s all that I want from people. When you want to quit, just give a little bit more.  It’s funny how much I’ve grown in life because of that attitude. I’ve totally put that quote to use in so many other areas of my life.

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Caitlin: I would imagine that many of the people you train do, as well.

Julie: Yeah, I think so. I think that once you do that, you really start to train your mind to be stronger.

Caitlin: So tell me about your fitness and nutrition education.

Julie: I started as a floor tech at the YMCA when I was 14. I would watch this one women train her clients and teach classes.  She inspired me and soon became my fitness mentor. She taught pilates. I took her classes and I started to really get into it. So, I got certified in that first. That women, Bethel, took me under her wing and taught me so much about fitness.

Then I went to West Chester University for kinesiology, but the program was really long and I was super antsy to get it over with. So, I dropped out and I went to the National Personal Training Institute and it was hands down the best experience and the best thing I could have
done. I don’t think I’d be where I am today if I didn’t do that. That got me certified in anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and nutrition. I am also certified in kettlebells and Crossfit.

Caitlin: So you now own a gym. How did you get there?

Julie: I worked at a private personal training studio and the owner knew I had aspirations to open my own gym. He asked me if I wanted to buy his studio. I said yes. It was a franchise when I bought it and I tried to sever the ties to make it my own small business. But, the franchise came after me and said they would take me to court if I did that. It was a huge, huge mess. It was so frustrating. We eventually dropped it and I quit my job because more than ever before, I craved being a gym owner.

I had saved some money to get me by while I was searching for a location.  I finally found a spot in Huntingdon Valley.

Caitlin: Tell me about that gym.

Julie: It was called Bryn Athryn Workout Studio, or BAWS. I loved it so much, but eventually I outgrew the space and my training style had gotten a little bit more “gritty”.  And by that I mean, um, badass, I guess. Haha. I knew I wanted more of a warehouse like gym because I wanted a little parkour training, a litte Crossfit action, a little gymnastics, a little pilates, ya know a whole mix of stuff. The space needed to be functional for all of that.

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Caitlin: That’s a good problem to have!

Julie: It is. So, I’ve been in my new location in Hatboro (Pennsylvania) since October last year.

Caitlin: What kind of programs do you offer?

Julie: I do personal training during the day. Forty-five minute, one on one sessions, all tailored to the client. And then I do classes at night. Cardio kickboxing, pilates, strength & conditioning.

I also hold all types of programs and obstacle course trainings. I get groups together to get in shape for a particular obstacle race and then we go tackle it as a team. It’s a lot of fun.

Every two to three months I try to re-evaluate and come up with new programs. So, it changes all the time. The biggest thing I try to do is make the programs fun, fulfilling, and rewarding.

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Caitlin: So what is the most rewarding part of your work?

Julie: Seeing people change, emotionally and mentally. I had a 50 year old man turn to me, after two and a half months of training, and he had tears in his eyes. He said, “You know, I actually love myself again.” And I was tearing up because it’s just so gratifying to see people feel that way about themselves.

Fitness is such a big industry and it wouldn’t be so big if it wasn’t so hard.  Being fit is a hard journey. To help people get to their goals is so gratifying. And, you know, I do little videos and I put stuff about food and everything online, but it’s not because I want attention. If I can help one person do better, that’s why I’m doing it.

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Caitlin: I think what’s appealing about you is that there’s no ego. How important is it to you to be a real person to your clients?

Julie: Yeah, you know, a lot of people say they train with me because I’m real. I average a size six, I’m not a size two. I eat a donut when I want one. I don’t wear belly shirts and have six packs abs. That’d be nice, but would mean I would have to live life in such a strict manner. Unless, of course, your DNA is gracious to you. But, I try to be as real possible and let people know that it’s so important to live in a healthy way. And that means balance.

When I was younger I struggled with eating disorders and I don’t want people to go there. I don’t want people to be afraid of food or be obsessed with exercise. Instead, just focus mostly on whole foods, be kind to yourself and move a little almost everyday.  If you find that balance, you never have to punish yourself. You don’t have to starve and you don’t have to overeat. You can find balance where everything just comes together.

Caitlin: And you’re also pretty balanced in the amount of exercise you recommend.

Julie: Yeah, I mean, I used to be that person who was all into cardio all the time (after I went through my weight lifting phase). But, I realized that you only need maybe four days a week of exercise and, if you do it right, only 20 to 30 minutes. It’s great because it makes your metabolism revved just enough to build muscle and burn body fat, but you’re not starving all the time because your workouts are so long!

Caitlin: I know for a lot of people to take that first step to get healthy is really hard. There can be a lot of embarrassment and shame. I know you really succeed in getting people out who otherwise might have been too afraid to join a fitness class. What do you tell people who might be afraid to take that first step?

Julie: You know, it’s a journey and everyone is battling something. The first step is to be kind to yourself.  And if you can change one thing a week that will bring you closer to your goal, that’s awesome. Don’t be embarrassed with yourself because everyone is working on bettering themselves somehow, someway. People battle their issues in so many different ways and no one’s life is perfect. We never judge people who are overweight at the gym. We’re proud of them.  Keep your focus on you and no one else.  They don’t really matter when it comes to YOUR health. One of the things that I feel is great about BAWS is that it offers one on one training if you really feel you want to work out without others around.

I went through some hard stuff with health and fitness. And I believe the universe gives you those things so you can live and learn and teach people. I’ve had to gain weight and I’ve had to lose weight. And both are hard.  I feel that I went on that journey so I can connect with people, empathize and understand their situation to some degree.  It’s not going to be easy, but you have to want it.

Caitlin: I always think that no one is judging you as much as you’re judging yourself.

Julie: Yeah, you hit the nail on the head. That’s so true. You are your biggest critic. And we compare so much. I try hard not to compare myself to other trainers.  I feel like I look like the average person in way-

Caitlin: Well, I wouldn’t say that, but okay (laughs).

Julie: Well, I don’t look like a Hollywood trainer. You just have to focus on yourself and stay on your own journey. That’s hard to do, but once you can, it’s really satisfying.

Caitlin: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?

Julie: With fitness: There is no quick fix. There is no pill, there is no diet, there is no cleanse. It is day in and day out, on the grind. But, want it, enjoy it.

With life, business and myself: Be patient.  Many people will do so well, with whatever their goals may be, and then mess up and be so angry at themselves. Then they quit.  Never quit.  It gets you nowhere, but pissed off at the world.  Trust me, I know.

If you’re in the Philadelphia area, check out Julie’s gym, BAWS. Or, try virtual training, anywhere in the world.

 

Living with ALS: Beyond the Ice Bucket

By now, you’ve heard of the Ice Bucket Challenge. Chances are, you may have even dumped a bucket of ice water on your own head and, hopefully, you’ve made a donation to ALSA.org. I’ll admit, there were a few times when I thought, jeeze, this Ice Bucket Challenge is really taking over my news feed. But, then I heard that ALSA.org had raised something like 4 times the amount it had raised year-to-date last year. And that number just kept growing. Last check, the Ice Bucket Challenge has raised over $70 million dollars. That’s awesome.

You see, we don’t talk much about ALS because, well, the disease is devastating. It’s hard to talk about. And that’s why it’s so important that we do.

Karen Shideleff was diagnosed with ALS three and a half years ago after feeling symptoms for about six months. Because Karen’s mother had familial ALS, Karen lived with the knowledge that she had a 50/50 chance of developing the disease herself.

I’m honored that Karen agreed to talk with me about her life with ALS and how the disease has affected her family. You can read a condensed version of our conversation below and watch the video at the bottom of the post for the full conversation.

Caitlin: To begin with, you lost your mother and grandfather to ALS and you told me you were the 25th person in your family tree to be diagnosed. When did you first realize that ALS was something that you might one day be diagnosed with?

Karen: When my mom was sick, my parents didn’t want to point out to us that it was a hereditary form of ALS because my three sisters and I were pretty young. We were 16,18, 19, and 20 years old when my mom was diagnosed. And we didn’t know our grandfather, so it wasn’t something we had lived through prior.

When I got into my 20’s I was in nursing school and I was taking classes in biology and genetics and I kind of put all the pieces together. It was very shocking to figure out that I did have a 50% chance of developing ALS.

Caitlin: And that’s because it was familial ALS, which I read accounts for about 10% of all ALS cases?

Karen: Right, so they say 5-10% of all ALS is familial. The rest is sporadic which means they don’t know why it happens, it’s a random occurrence. So familial ALS is rare, even within the umbrella of ALS.

Caitlin: So when you realized that there was a 50/50 chance that you would develop ALS, how did that change your life? How did it change your plans?

Karen: I was 21 or 22 when I figured it out and I was already dating my husband so at that point I made the decision that I didn’t want to have children because I didn’t want to take the chance of passing that gene on. It’s a really personal decision. I never had an overwhelming urge to have children and my husband didn’t either, so for us, it was a little bit easier of a decision to make. But, you know, it gets harder and harder as you get older and all your friends and family are having children. So it’s a decision we just consciously made throughout our relationship and our marriage.

And really, we just try to enjoy life. We’ve done a lot. We’ve traveled a lot, we enjoy spending time with our friends and family, first and foremost. And we’ve really just built our life around that. So I always say, I don’t have any regrets with my life. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything, which is good. I don’t know how many people can say that.

Caitlin: Is there a constant fear when you know you could develop ALS? You know, I think of the things people get anxiety over and something like this is just more than most people could imagine. Did you live with the fear until you were diagnosed? How did you handle that?

Karen: It was a constant fear. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t. And it’s still a constant fear for my sisters, unfortunately because they don’t have any idea if they’re going to get ALS.

But, every time you stumbled on something or you trip and fall or you get muscle twitches, anything that might feel like the beginnings of ALS really just sets it off in your head and you have to convince yourself, I’m just tired, or I just exercised too much. So, it’s very hard. It’s constantly on your mind. And unfortunately for me, it became a reality.

On the flip side, at least a diagnosis when it’s familial ALS, you already know so much about the disease, so I think the acceptance portion might be a little easier to come by. Whereas, somebody who just gets stuck with an ALS diagnosis and doesn’t know what it is, that’s a really difficult time to understand what it is and explain it to your friends and family. So, in some ways, I know it sounds ridiculous, but I’m glad I knew what I was walking into.

Caitlin: That doesn’t sound ridiculous. I think it must be damn near impossible to accept either way, but it does make sense.

Karen: Well, my friends and family all know what ALS is. So when I told them I was diagnosed, I didn’t have to explain what the disease is. And I had been fundraising for ALS for years, so even my co-workers and people I’ve been friends with all knew what ALS was.

Caitlin: So, how did you finally get diagnosed and what was it like to hear those words?

Karen: I noticed things were happening with my body and I knew something was changing. I was very active before I was diagnosed and I walked my dogs all the time and I noticed that my route that I always walked with the dogs was taking me longer and I noticed that my footsteps started to sound different on the pavement. This was maybe July of 2010. So, I just started to pay attention. And as it progressed along, I noticed my balance was getting worse. So, I took yoga, thinking, well, maybe I’m just getting older, trying to convince myself that it’s not what I think it is. I would say by Thanksgiving of 2010 I was pretty certain I had ALS. It was getting harder for me to climb the stairs and things like that.

In January I spoke to my husband about my concerns. And my doctor is actually my husband’s cousin, he’s an ALS specialist at Lehigh Valley Hospital, so the next week I got a visit with him and by the week after I was diagnosed.

Still, hearing the words, yes, your EMG shows that you are definitely showing signs of ALS, as much as I knew what it was, it still was pretty bad. My husband was with me and, you know, you think you can set up in your mind, get yourself ready for it, but hearing it just sucked. I cried the whole way out of there and the whole way home and even more when I got home.

Caitlin: I imagine telling your family members must have been an exhausting time.

Karen: It was. It was brutal. We didn’t tell anyone for a month. I waited and talked to my dad first and then my sisters. It just brings ALS right back into the forefront of everybody’s lives which is tough.

Caitlin: So how have your symptoms progressed over the last 3 and a half years?

Karen: So, ALS can present differently with different people. The two main ways of presentation are either bulbar presentation which affects speech and swallowing first and maybe some more respiratory problems and then there’s limb presentation which is more arms or legs. Typically it starts on one side. For me, I felt it in my right leg first and then my left leg started to have issues several months later, as far as balance, strength, and atrophy. But, there are differences between each patient, even my mom and I who have the same genetic mutation.

I had been working as a pre-op/recovery room nurse, but I started to not trust myself as much with the patients. You do these fall risk assessments with patients when they come in and when your fall risk is higher than theirs, it’s probably a good time to stop taking care of patients (laughs). But, in all seriousness I was afraid if a patient needed me to hold them up, we would both fall and get injured. So, out of responsibility to the patient and myself, I had to stop doing any hands on nursing. But, my employers were fantastic and they just kind of molded a job for me. I’m so thankful that I was able to work for people like that, that respected that I still had the brain of a nurse.

I went from no walking assistance, to a cane, to a walker. Once my shoulders started to get weaker and I couldn’t drive anymore, it really took a toll on me. So, I stopped working. And now I volunteer at the ALS Association. I am really involved with the chapter. I joined the board of trustees and I’m chairing the patient and family services committee, so it keeps me really involved which is great.

Caitlin: So, you’re in a wheelchair now.

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Karen: I am. I can still stand, like at the counter I can maneuver around, or if I’m holding on to somebody I can do a couple of steps, but because my hips are so weak, my stability is really shot. So, if I’m home alone, I’ll only stand if like the wheelchair is behind me and counter is in front of me. But, I spend the majority of my day sitting in a wheelchair.

Caitlin: You know, if you were really negative through all of this, no one could blame you. But, you’re really positive, and I’m wondering if that’s a choice you have to make every day. How do you do it?

Karen: As I was going through telling everybody about the diagnosis, I would jokingly say, “Fake it until you believe it.” Like, I just can’t go through these months being so incredibly stressed out without finding some joy, somewhere. And my husband and I are like, okay, we’re not watching any sad movies, only comedies. We have enough crap going on in our lives, we just need something light. And I’ve always been a glass half full kind of gal. Even as a nurse, I loved helping people and making a difference for them. So, if I can make a difference for another ALS patient, I try to figure out how I can still be helpful to other people.

And, you know, I have my moments just like everybody else, but I just try to be grateful for what I have in my life and that just carries me through for right now.

There’s no pity party here. Yes, it sucks and we shed our tears every once in awhile, but then you just put on your big girl panties and carry on.

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Caitlin: So, the Ice Bucket Challenge. It’s everywhere! What has it been like to see everyone talking about ALS?

Karen: You know, there are so many things that are amazing about it. So many people are talking about ALS and hopefully even if a small percentage of those people look it up and learn about ALS, then maybe they can explain to somebody the basics of what ALS is. Sometimes people will say to me, “Why are you in a wheelchair?” And I’ll say, “Because I have ALS.” And they just kind of say, “Well, I hope you get better.” Well, I’m not going to get better, but you’re not going to say that to somebody.

I’m so happy it’s getting national attention. I think the majority of people involved with the Ice Bucket Challenge know it’s fatal. No one survives ALS, and it knows no boundaries. It will attack men and women, young and old. Hopefully those are the things that are getting across to people. And that there’s no treatment and there’s no cure for this disease. And then the amount of money that’s been raised, it’s just crazy.

There are scientists trying to figure out what’s causing ALS and there’s just not a lot of funding. Our numbers are too small for big drug companies to care. I know that sounds horrible, but we’re a small population, we’re not profitable. So big pharma is not interested in helping to find a cure or a treatment. So, this bulk of donations that have come in is amazing.

Caitlin: What ALS does to a person is so scary. What is one thing you’d want people to understand about ALS?

Karen: ALS is not just affecting the patient. It affects their whole family and their friends. Eventually you become so incapacitated, you can’t do anything for yourself. You can’t feed yourself, you can’t dress yourself, you can’t bathe yourself. All the things we take for granted doing every single day of our lives, all of that gets taken away from you. Even something as simple as losing your driver’s license, losing that independence, it’s crushing. And on top of that, the emotional toll the disease takes is exhausting and it’s hard that nobody knows what ALS is.

You feel like screaming, “No! It’s not okay!” I have family that I’m worried about. I’m doing everything I can. I participate in trials and studies. I’m trying desperately to find a cure, not for myself, but for my sisters if they need it. Hopefully they don’t. But, there’s not a day that goes by that it doesn’t cross my mind.

Caitlin: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Karen: For everybody doing the Ice Bucket Challenge, I think it’s great and I want to say thank you. It’s overwhelmingly crazy to me that millions of people are dumping ice over their head and saying ALS when they do it. My news feed is filled with them and they make me laugh and they make me smile. And if people are donating also, even better. Pete Frates, who is one of the people who started the Ice Bucket Challenge, I can’t say thank you enough to that gentleman and his family.

Let’s keep ALS out there. Let’s not forget what ALS is or what it does to patients like myself when the Ice Bucket Challenge stops and we’re still living, hopefully very well, with ALS.

Watch the f

If you haven’t donated yet, please join me in donating to Karen’s fund for the Walk to Defeat ALS. Click here to do so. Again, you can watch the video of my conversation with Karen here. Thank you! 

 

More than a beauty queen

I remember as a kid getting applications in the mail for beauty pageants. I ALWAYS wanted to apply, but my mom ALWAYS said no. In retrospect, they were probably a scam, so, good going, Mom. And, my mom probably realized that I don’t like being fussed with and I don’t like being told what to do, so it probably wouldn’t have been a good fit.

So, I don’t know much about pageants. Enter, Jessica, 30-something mother of three young kids. Jessica competed in the Miss America system and even won the title of Miss New York State.

I was excited to talk to Jessica about what attracted her to the pageant system and to tackle some of the stereotypes we have all heard. And, it was moving to hear Jessica talk about the platform she holds so dear. Check it out!

Caitlin: So, here’s the first question: Is beauty pageant the right term?

Jessica: (laughs) Well, I call them pageants.  When I was competing there was a push to call the Miss America System a “scholarship program,” but I still call it a pageant.

Caitlin: So how did you get started with pageants?

Jessica: Frankly, it wasn’t something I always wanted to do, in fact I remember when I was ten watching Miss America and making fun of the way the girls walked. However, at my High School in Memphis, there was a Senior Miss Pageant and I decided to give it a try.  We competed in Interview, Talent, and Evening Gown.  I was trained in classical ballet, and I danced 5-6 days a week a couple hours a day. I loved it, but I missed out on a lot in high school, and I thought it might be a good way to show people what I did all the time. I also thought it would be kind of fun, but didn’t think I would win. I thought it would be a popularity contest and I was kind of a nerd. I was a big nerd, actually.

So, I competed and to my surprise (and everyone else’s) I won. Then, about a week later I saw an ad for Miss Memphis, which was a preliminary to the Miss Tennessee Pageant, which would then lead to Miss America. And I said to my mom, “Maybe I should do this.” And she said, “Absolutely.” The very next day, I received an application in the mail from one of the judges from the Senior Miss Pageant who thought I would make a great competitor.

I ended up being first runner up, and I had a ton of fun, so I thought this was something I could see myself doing. And that’s kind of where it started.

Caitlin: So you eventually became Miss New York. How did you end up in New York?

Jessica: In order to compete in the Miss America System, you have to work in the state you’re competing in, have a permanent residency there, or you have to go to school there.  I graduated from University of Virginia and moved to New York City to pursue acting. I had some success, but mostly I was waiting tables and I felt like there was something missing in my life. I had competed in Tennessee when my parents still lived there, and I had competed in Virginia when I was going to school at UVA.  So, I decided to go and compete for Miss New York to give me some direction and focus in my life.

Caitlin: So, you had to win Miss New York City first?

Jessica: Yeah, you have to win a local before you can compete at a State Pageant. My first year I won Miss Manhattan.

Caitlin: Wow, that’s no small feat.

Jessica: Thanks, but then I went to Miss New York and I was first runner up.  I won’t lie, I was  pretty upset and I thought, I’m never doing pageants again. But, I decided to go back and do it on my own terms.For me, that meant I was going to be myself and that way, if I won, it would really be my win. And if I didn’t win, that was okay, at least I was being myself.

And I won Miss New York City and went on and won Miss New York that year.

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Caitlin: That’s awesome. What did winning Miss New York mean to you?

Jessica: The biggest thing was, that this was a goal I set for myself and I was able to achieve it. I think anytime you set a goal and achieve it, it’s a big deal. For me, that was it.

The other thing was, I had become very involved in my platform and I saw it as a chance to get that out to people and talk about my platform.

Miss America is unique because not only is it the largest provider of scholarships to young women in the world, you also are required to have a platform, which is basically community service.

Now, since I’ve gotten out of the system, Miss America has taken on the Children’s Miracle Network as their national platform. But, when I was in it, we could take on anything we chose.

Caitlin: And what was your platform?

Jessica: Combating teen depression and suicide.

Caitlin: Why did that platform mean so much to you?

Jessica: For me it was personal. I have suffered from depression since I was a child and when I got into the pre-teen years and teenage years, I suffered from a serious eating disorder. So. eventually, in order to save my life, my parents put me in a child psychiatric hospital. After a month I was kicked out because my insurance ran out and I went home. Fortunately for me, my parents were able to afford to pay for my treatment out of pocket.

As Miss New York, I made my platform two fold. The first aspect was the insurance portion with regards to Mental Health Coverage, and what we could do to change that. The other component I talked about, was the stereotypes that surround people with mental illness.

When I would go into schools, I would always say, “Okay, raise your hand if when I say ‘mentally ill,’ you think of a crazy person on the street.” And everyone would raise their hand. And I’d say, “Okay, raise your hand if when I say ‘psychiatric hospital’ you all think of an insane asylum with bars on the windows and locked doors” and everyone would raise their hand.

And then I would say, “Raise your hand if when I say ‘Miss New York’ you think mentally ill, psychiatric hospital, depression’” and nobody would raise their hand. And so, I’d share my story.

With adults, I would talk about the stereotypes that surround mental illness and how to obtain treatment.   Statistics show that 1 in 5 people will suffer from a mental illness in their life time. So, even if you don’t, more than likely someone in your circle will. And, do you know what to do if you or that person starts to suffer? Because a lot of time people don’t know what to do. They don’t know where to turn or even what the signs and symptoms are.

Caitlin: Yeah, I imagine that must have been very powerful as far as stigma goes seeing a successful, beautiful young woman who has dealt with depression and who has gotten treatment. I think that’s fantastic you could do that.

Jessica: It was so often I would do these talks and people would come up to me after and say, “Oh my gosh, me too.” Or, “My daughter suffers from this.” I think it’s just getting that awareness out there. As a society, we’re doing better, but there’s still a huge stigma that surrounds mental illness. People are embarrassed to talk about it. It’s a shame, it really is.

I like to compare having a mental illness to having diabetes. Some people with diabetes can control it with watching their sugar and watching what they eat. Just like some people with mental illness can control it by making lifestyle changes or seeking counseling.  Some people with diabetes have to have a permanent insulin pump, just like some people with mental illness need more care, such as medication, or even being in a facility.

Caitlin: That’s a great way to look at it. You know, you were so young, did you ever worry about having a platform that wasn’t glamorous.

Jessica: You know, not then. I didn’t care what people thought. Now, I really find that it’s not just about me. I have a family. Eventually I will have to tell my children about this. Is it my favorite thing to talk about now? No, because it’s so far removed from my life, but at the same time, I know that five years from now my kids will be on Google, and be like, “Mom, you have some explaining to do.” But, I also think it’s important for them to know about it, because there is often a family history and so I think the kids should be aware of that.

But, back then, I was like, this is who I am. You like me for who I am, or you don’t. Now, with having kids, I know what I say can have an effect on them. So I have to think about that.

Caitlin: What do you think was the most positive impact being Miss New York had on your life?

Jessica: I think the first thing I learned was to be myself. You know, at first, I was trying to fit a mold, and I was successful, but I didn’t win. And it wasn’t really until I decided to really be myself that I won. I think from a personal standpoint, that was very helpful.

The other thing was seeing kids I helped. Seeing kids who went through what I went through. Let’s be honest, high school sucks for some of us, but what I could say to those kids was, if I can get through it, so can you. And being able to give them just a piece of hope was really something that was good for me.

Caitlin: You mentioned stereotypes earlier and I know everyone has a stereotype of what they think pageants are and beauty queens and that sort of thing. So, which ones are true and which ones aren’t?

Jessica: A lot of the stereotypes I think is people getting Miss America and Miss USA confused. They both have their strengths and their flaws.  However, I tend to think of Miss USA as more of a beauty pageant, and Miss America as more of a scholarship program.

I always feel almost embarrassed when I tell people I was Miss New York. I’m fairly short and I don’t consider myself beautiful or anything. Pageants have taught me how to fix my hair and put on makeup, but I think people expect some sort of knockout beauty, and that’s not me.

I also think there’s a stereotype that the girls aren’t that intelligent. I come across that a lot. Most of the girls I met were incredibly intelligent and very committed to their platform and their education.

I hear the stereotype that it’s very catty, and you know, I think anytime there’s a lot of personalities in one room you’re going to have some issues.   But for the most part, I’m still very close, best friends with seven of the girls I competed at Miss America with.

Close friends from Miss America

The stereotypes that are true…. does it get competitive? Absolutely. Are there people slashing your bathing suit or stealing your shoes? No. Nothing like that.

We do glue our bathing suits to our butts during competition. That’s true. Some girls do put Vaseline on their teeths to be able to smile longer. A lot of hairspray.

Caitlin: So you have a five year old daughter. I’m curious, what do you tell her beauty and what it means to be beautiful?

Jessica: We don’t really talk about beauty. I try not to make that a focus or something we talk about a lot. I do tell her she’s beautiful every day, because I think you should tell every little girl that she’s beautiful, . But, more important, I tell her that she’s smart and that she’s sweet. I stress that we need to be nice. Thankfully, my daughter has a much different personality than me.  She has a pretty healthy dose of self confidence, and we always say we want to get her a shirt that says, “I’m not bossy, I have leadership skills.” I’m sure when she’s older we’ll talk about it more. But, she’s just a little girl and I want her to enjoy that. It goes by so quickly.

Caitlin: So if she wanted to do pageants, what would you tell her?

Jessica: I think she’s too young now. But, that’s just a parenting decision my husband and I have made regarding all sports or extracurricular activities. We don’t let our boys play soccer tournaments all weekend either.  We feel there will be plenty of time for team sports and activities when they are older. Right now, we just want our kids to enjoy being kids and play.

If she decided when she’s 12 or 13 that she wanted to try pageants, okay. I’m a big believer that if you can come up with three good reasons why you want to do something, then, yeah, I’ll consider it. I don’t think it’s any different than choosing to play soccer or run a race or something. For me it’s just another form of competition.

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I think the hardest thing now, as an adult having been Miss New York, is that people assume things just because of a former title. I think my friends like to bring it up when I meet people, because it’s unique, and honestly I am forever grateful I had the experience.  However, I would like to think there’s a lot more to me than that.

I think anytime you meet people it’s so easy to have a stereotype about them based on a past experience and I think the more we can try to keep an open mind, the better off we’ll be in general.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a bit, you know I wholeheartedly agree with that last line. I really believe in the power of talking about things and getting past the superficial to break down barriers and build relationships. So, thanks to Jessica for chatting!

What did you learn that surprised you? Have you ever competed in a pageant? Talk to me!

 

Embracing natural beauty

For today’s conversation, I had the pleasure of speaking with Kali Blocker, one of the founders of Diosas al Natural(Natural Goddesses), a movement to inspire women throughout Puerto Rico and Latin America to embrace their natural beauty. Kali lives in Puerto Rico and shares tips, photos and stories of women going back to their natural hair.

Worrying and talking about hair might seem trivial to some, but Kali explains why this issue is so complex and important, and she does it beautifully. Thank you, Kali for taking the time to speak with me about your mission.

 

Caitlin: So, this goes deeper than hair. It’s a very complex issue. Tell me about that.

Kali: Historically throughout the Americas, the ideals of beauty do not typically include black women. Beauty ideals are Eurocentric, placing a higher esteem towards lighter skin, straighter hair, the closer to “white,” the better.

So, you had the 60s/70’s where there was the movement of black pride, with people wearing afros and reclaiming their roots, despite societal ideals.

Fast forward today, at work, for example, many of us feel pressured to change how we look, and in many cases, it is expected. Going into an interview with an afro for instance could be looked at as unprofessional, they might not want that look for their office. It’s inappropriate, unkempt. Stereotypes that are attached to a very ugly history.

Caitlin: Basically what they’re telling you is, it’s not white enough.

Kali: Exactly. The way your hair comes out of your head naturally is not okay.  Someone with straight or loosely textured hair may never hear something like that.

It’s also within the family. Naturally, colonialism has had its effects.

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Caitlin: It’s generational, as well?

Kali: It can be. I got my first relaxer when I was 3. And part of that was that my mom didn’t know how to deal with my texture. Which is crazy, right?  But it is common, so people look to get relaxers to make it “easier” to work with tightly curly textures. That’s why we refer to it as a journey, because you are learning how to work with your hair in it’s natural state.  There is much more information available now, and the information sharing started off organically in the early 2000s with women who were going natural, sharing their tips and tricks with each other on portals (picture sharing sites like fotki, etc).

When I was 12, I would look at other girls with straight hair, the white girls or girls with naturally straight hair in my school or girls who had a looser hair texture, and think to myself “ they don’t have to deal with hours at the Salon on saturdays, relaxers every few weeks, running from the rain, etc etc” (laughs).  I never desired to have their hair, but I was curious as to how to work with mine, as I knew that my strands weren’t some impossible feat to overcome.

So I attempted it at age 12 for a year, and then the hairstylist I went to told me my hair was too nappy to “go without a perm.” A very disappointing moment, to say the least.

When I was 18 and I started the process again. I had to experiment and figure things out. The beauty with the natural hair movement is that I can sign onto the (websites), where people post pictures and what they did to get their hair healthy. That stuff helped me big time in the process.

At the time, my grandmother looked at my hair and she didn’t understand why I was doing it. So, in some cases, it can be generational.

It hurts, I can’t lie about that. That’s why it so important to have this community and share these raw stories. It’s not always pretty. You know, you have people who shout out to you on the street. Someone once said my hair looked like a pile of shit!

Caitlin: Oh my god!

Kali: Yeah, you get that. People who don’t even know you.

That’s why it’s important that we have that community. If your mom, your dad, your boyfriend, your boss (doesn’t support your natural hair journey), you know how to handle yourself. You’re not torn down afterwards.  If you do feel hurt, you have the community to share your feelings with.

But, sometimes someone does say something to you and you feel self-conscious and you’re trying to get away from that mentality, but insecurities do step in. Am I ugly? Is this not okay?

It’s generational, it’s societal, it’s so many things.

Caitlin: How did this become a passion of yours?

Kali: I wanted to share information and empower other women.

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It started ten years ago when I took my journey into transitioning into having natural hair again.  Women would see me on the bus or the train and ask for tips.  I’d see women in the street with gorgeous natural hair and ask what their regimen entailed. It was really organic, it was really beautiful. It’s almost like a sisterhood of support. I knew how significant it was for me to go on the journey and push myself to get to this side.

The community has grown tremendously and I love it because it started so organically, you know?

About five years ago, me and one of my best friends had discussed going into Spanish and English content, but ultimately decided not to do it.

Then I met my boyfriend, Joaquin, who said he was inspired by what he saw in New York: Black women who were proud of their hair.

You know how New York is, everyone is super fly, dressed up and snazzy and wearing their hair and their style with pride, with no shame. He said he wanted to bring that to the people in Puerto Rico (where he’s from).

We originally had the idea to do a photo project and I was like, if you don’t do it, I will! And it was like, all right, let’s make this happen.

It started as a Facebook page, sharing photos and information. We shared each person’s journey. And a lot of women were so inspired by that. Then we had our first meet up last year. That was amazing. It was the first time something like that had happened on the island (of Puerto Rico). People loved it and I felt like I was amongst family.

It was beautiful to bring that here.

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Caitlin: You know, one of the goals of this blog is to remind us that we’re all really the same when it comes down to it. We all have hopes, and fears, and dreams. Are you seeing that as you bring what you learned in New York to the women of Puerto Rico?

Kali: Yeah, definitely. That’s actually what the initial mission was. Our priority is to cultivate the community here in Puerto Rico, but it’s also a learning experience for people outside of the island. And that response has been amazing, too. We wanted to share images of Puerto Rican woman that the media doesn’t usually show, encouraging dialogue and enlightenment.

Our mission was to start the conversation and our medium was pictures.

In movies, TV shows, even videos from the island and throughout Latin America, it’s a homogenous (and stereotypical) idea of what Puerto Rican women and Latinas look like. It’s similar in the states, an idea of beauty that mainstream media continues to perpetuate.

Caitlin: What do you hope women and young girls take away from your mission?

Kali: It starts young, you know? Children notice when someone gets more attention or affection because of certain features, etc, and it’s not what that child can be naturally.  It’s important for people to see themselves in the media, in images, etc. in a positive manner and to know that they are unique, and that is beautiful.That affects them. It’s stays with them.

My main goal is for fewer girls to have to deal with the questions that I had as a youngster.  The feeling that what came out of my head wasn’t adequate and needed to be changed.

In an ideal world, no young girls, or children in general, would have to deal with that. So, that is my mission.

I also want women to feel empowered. Everyone wants to feel beautiful, and when you feel confident in how you look, that makes a world of difference. It makes a world of difference in your relationships, and how you go on in life.

Caitlin: I heard this quote the other day from Salma Hayek of all people, “People often say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I say that the most liberating thing about beauty is realizing you are the beholder.”

Kali: Exactly!

Caitlin: Yeah, you know I read that and thought, man, if you can realize the beauty within yourself, that’s half the battle.

Kali: At the point I am now, if someone doesn’t like the way I look, that’s not my problem. I don’t care to convince them either.

 

*Photos courtesy Kali Blocker