Find your voice and advance your career

The story of the 1912 Titanic ship—a beautiful ocean vessel that ended in tragedy—fascinated me when I was 14. I was horrified to learn that people had been mostly saved according to their social class. So, when my school’s English speech instructor asked us to choose a topic we cared about, my selection was easy. I conducted research, created note cards, and practiced my speech for weeks.

However, when it was my turn to speak, I walked slowly to the front of the classroom. That walk seemed to take an hour; my hands became clammy, my knees grew weak, and my mouth felt suddenly dry. I do not remember anything I said. I do remember feeling terrified.

Never wanting to feel that way again, I forced myself to try other public speaking opportunities, and when my dad encouraged me to briefly address our congregation about my church camp counselor experiences in the Black Hills, I reluctantly accepted. I eventually joined my high school’s oral interpretation team, which meant public speaking in a competition format. Oral interpretation mostly consisted of reciting memorized content, so that somehow seemed less daunting. While I still didn’t enjoy public speaking, each time grew a little easier. Continue reading Find your voice and advance your career

Reframing the motherhood conversation

My husband and I are expecting a baby boy in early July. While my pregnancy is fairly obvious, I still mention it when relevant. During a salon appointment, I mentioned it so my stylist would know to use a pregnancy-safe product. Then, in making the small talk which is typical in salons, the stylist asked my age. When I revealed I was 40, the hairdresser responded, “Wow, you started having babies late, huh?”

Late. While looking forward to my new baby, “late,” is the last adjective I would ascribe to his upcoming birth. Despite my understanding that the stylist intended no malice, I immediately felt like I needed to defend my decision to have a baby at 40. Instead, I did not say much, and the topic faded. The topic shouldn’t fade, though. The burden was on me to reframe the conversation, and I didn’t.

I did not meet my husband Tim until my early 30s. We married after more than a year of dating, and I became pregnant the following year. We were both thrilled. It happened quickly, and I soon began planning the nursery theme. But at the six-week mark, I experienced complications and was admitted to the emergency room. The medical staff could not detect a heartbeat. The doctor spoke to me in a kind tone and said, “There’s a small chance the calculations are incorrect, and you aren’t as far along as you thought. But, more than likely, this is a miscarriage. I am sorry. My wife experienced six of these.” Tim, always hopeful, thought positively. But I instinctively knew the outcome.

Continue reading Reframing the motherhood conversation

See the light

*Trigger warning: This column describes a car accident.

 

My dad often says that it is important to find ways to turn a negative experience into positive energy. That sentiment has helped me reframe Sunday, April 8, 2018, the day my little family survived a car accident. My husband Tim had turned 40 on April 6, and to celebrate, we traveled with our four-year-old son Weston to visit Tim’s childhood friend in Joplin, Missouri. We were returning to Monroe on Louisiana Highway 425 near the Log Cabin Road intersection at around 8 p.m. I was in the passenger seat, listening to an audiobook with Tim. Weston was sitting behind me in his car seat, wearing his favorite red headphones, and watching cartoons on the Ipad. I snapped a photo of him wearing his blue shirt with white stars and yellow stripes on the sleeves and texted it to my mother, knowing she would appreciate his ensemble.

Suddenly, another driver sped through the stop sign at the intersection, struck the passenger side of our Toyota 4-Runner, and threw us 250 feet across the median into the opposite car lane. Later reports indicated our car flipped about eight times. Tim saw the other driver accelerate toward our car, but I did not. I remember a loud noise and staring at the digital dashboard, trying to make sense of what was happening as our car began rolling. Continue reading See the light

Women are resilient

As a teenager, I disliked my hands, which were not slender and feminine like my mother’s. Mine were shaped like square blocks, part of my Germanic build, I suppose. One day, my dad held my hands in his and said, “I like your hands. They are strong and sturdy.” Although that was not exactly what a 17-year-old girl might want to hear, I felt comforted by his words, and as I grew older, I worried less about my hands and even started to embrace “sturdy” as part of my Midwestern identity. Then I learned of the need to be sturdy emotionally, to deal with adversity.

My first experience with death was at 16, when I lost my grandfather, whom I loved differently than anyone else. In his kind, benevolent, grandparent mind, I was always “a good girl.” Clark Woodard was a big, broad-shouldered man, and while he was soft-spoken, he had a large personality that drew people to him. He was endlessly patient, and always hopeful, with a sense of humor that could lighten anyone’s burden. He was diagnosed with cancer when I was young, and he chose treatment mainly so he could “stick around” for his grandchildren, and he did. When he died years later, I ran to my favorite park, a few blocks from my house. I sat on one of the swings, out of breath, and looked at my hands. I remember thinking how much my hands resembled his. My hands were smaller, of course, but they were sturdy, like his.

I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2005, two weeks after moving from South Dakota to Louisiana. I had to wait a week before finding out whether I had the less aggressive cancer or the kind that would end my life in six weeks, according to my surgeon. After receiving this news, I sat on the bed in my new Louisiana home and stared at my bedroom’s pale yellow walls. I remember thinking, “This does not make any sense. My body is strong. I am only 27 years old. I’m not ready.” For the first time in my life, I felt truly alone, because I knew no one could experience my cancer for me, although my mother expressed her desire to do so. Continue reading Women are resilient

Express your ideas—on flowers, on everything

I must have tried on my senior prom dress—a satin sheath with a v-neckline—at least a dozen times before the big event. I was 17, but I remember thinking I looked at least 22. A few days later, my high school boyfriend stopped me in our school’s hallway and asked my preference in flowers. “To be honest, flowers kind of make me sad because they die so quickly,” I replied immediately. As soon as the words left my mouth, I felt guilty and foolish. “Why would I talk to him about dead flowers?” I thought. He did not respond; he just smiled and left for his next class.

The evening of prom, I watched from the kitchen window as my boyfriend approached our driveway. I quickly met him outside, trying to avoid an audience composed of my parents and siblings. As he exited his car, I immediately noticed his boutonniere, which was crafted of felt flowers. He presented me with a matching wrist corsage, also made of felt flowers. Then he grinned and said, “These flowers will not make you sad.”

Now, to be candid, my lush bouquet of fresh peonies at my Louisiana wedding remains my favorite. But when I reflect on that moment in South Dakota, the kind of moment that has even more impact during one’s formative years, I remember how important it is, especially for women, to ask for what we want—without fear or guilt over how it might be received.

While my 1996 memory is an example from my personal life, I can think of instances throughout my professional career when I should have voiced my concerns or expressed my preferences. For example, when I was offered one of my first newspaper jobs, I accepted the position and salary without question, even though I knew the responsibilities were not consistent with the salary I was being offered. I did not want to risk offending my new boss. Continue reading Express your ideas—on flowers, on everything

Redefine “Having it All”

New Year’s Resolutions thrilled me as a child. I imagined January 1 as a reset button, a chance to accomplish everything. My resolutions changed over the years: filling my sticker album with Strawberry Shortcake in the 1980s, attending Lollapalooza and Lilith Fair in the 1990s, and moving to Minneapolis to pursue my journalism career in the early 2000s.

Before I gave birth to my son Weston, I devoted most of my energy to my work. He changed everything. My New Year’s resolutions before his birth in January of 2014 included this sentence: “Try to have it all.”

Striving to “have it all” has caused significant angst among women, including female celebrities who are frequently asked how they manage work and family. Actor Keira Knightley famously responded: “Are you going to ask all the men that question tonight?” I believe the question is usually innocent, but still, it induces guilt, especially in mothersIt is impossible to devote 100 percent of one’s life to both career and familyyet mothers are often subjected to unrealistic expectations.

I have experienced many challenges, but perhaps none greater than the first time I left my 10-month-old son at daycare. I can still hear him, in a confused tone, crying out: “Mama? Mama?” I quickly walked to my car, as the teacher instructed me to do. Then I cried driving to work. This pattern continued for at least three months. I did not want to leave him, but I also wanted to succeed in the professional world. One day, coming home from a successful photo shoot at a surgical hospital where I directed communications, I found three-year-old Weston crying. I asked him what was wrong, and he said: “I just missed you, Mama, and you weren’t here.” My light mood dissipated as I looked into his big blue eyes and saw his tears.  Continue reading Redefine “Having it All”

Fling the tinsel: let go of perfectionism

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Finding the perfect Christmas tree was a significant event throughout my childhood. My parents would load me and my little brother and sister into the car, and we would venture to what I then referred to as the “Christmas Tree Park.” The park smelled of crisp pine, a scent that I still associate with hope and excitement. My parents would let us choose the tree, unless my Dad noticed our selection resembled the one in Charlie Brown’s Christmas. Dad would then strap our tree to the top of our Toyota station wagon. During those tree excursions, I didn’t feel the 10-degree weather of South Dakota Decembers; my excitement fueled me for the entire day and kept me warm. Once home, we would have to wait an excruciating amount of time for the tree to “fall out.” While waiting, we would haul the Christmas tree ornaments from our basement, and Mom would prepare hot apple cider and cookies.

One year, after carefully removing the tinsel from its package, I began placing each piece precisely on the tree. My brother, three years younger, had a different approach. To my horror, he began to hurl chunks of sparkly tinsel with abandon. “Ryan, that’s so messy! You have to put the tinsel on one at a time!” He looked at me, laughed, and continued throwing the shiny strings. The tinsel flew through the air, landed haphazardly on the tree, and created a significant amount of stress in my 9-year-old brain. My tree was no longer perfect.

Perfect. I have used that word a lot throughout my life. My perfectionist tendencies have often benefited me, helping me to detect copyediting errors, verify facts, and discover missing content. However, perfectionism has also deterred me. When I inevitably do make a mistake, the effect is much more distressing than it should be. I ruminate, trying to determine exactly how I could have made the error.  Continue reading Fling the tinsel: let go of perfectionism

Embrace Bossy

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A red corduroy skirt set me apart from my third-grade classmates on my first day of school in Brookings, South Dakota. It was the mid-1980s, and I had just returned to the Midwest following my father’s year-long teaching sabbatical in Arizona. While South Dakota was familiar to me, my new town, and thus my new school, was not. As most 8-year-old children would, I desperately wanted to fit in with my new classmates. I had an inkling I should not wear the red corduroy skirt on my first day of school—or ever—but my Southern mother insisted it was the perfect choice. My anxieties were confirmed when I walked into my school and saw nothing but jeans. The other kids were kind and didn’t say anything about my dressy attire. 

Fast forward a few weeks—and several skirts—later, I had managed to make some new friends. A small group of girls and I were playing the clapping game during recess. Excited about having something to contribute, I loudly exclaimed, “I have a new one! I learned it at my last school!” The girls froze, looked at each other, and looked at me. Then I heard my new friend Rebecca whisper to another little girl, “I don’t know if we like her. She is … bossy.” Bossy. My heart began racing because I knew with absolute certainty that “bossy” was a label that would isolate me. I immediately feared I would be ostracized, and in that moment, I told myself, “Laura, don’t blurt out your ideas.”  Continue reading Embrace Bossy