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What my troubled mother, and an army of incredible women, taught me about life and love

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In the windowsill next to my mother’s bed at her nursing home is a framed quote that proclaims, “Everything I am, my mother made me.”

I grabbed it from a HomeGoods as a last-minute gift a few years ago, as not to show up empty-handed in one of the rare times that I visited her on Mother’s Day.

I didn’t realize that such a thoughtless gift would end up giving me so much to think about.

My mother, Barbara, is 63 years old, and lies debilitated in her bed, where she has been for at least five years and will remain until her body gives out. A series of strokes over several years crippled her body; a series of misfortunes that has been her life depressed her mind.

When I visit her, the nurses who pass in and out have curiosity written all over their faces about me. Their faces seem full of questions about the polished young woman who shows up, walking confidently through the halls with her designer handbag as if she has the world at her feet.

During my visits, a few of them will trickle in and out of the room just to “check in.” I chuckle that they do think it’s transparent what they’re up to —they’ve come to get their piece of our puzzle to take back to the nurse’s station.

I know when they look at us together they must wonder: Did my mother have anything to do with the woman I’ve become?

It’s a question I’ve asked myself. But it wasn’t until Everly, my 8-month-old daughter, came into my life that I started to explore how daughters are a reflection of their mothers.

I think in the case of me and my mother, I’ve figured it out: While my mother’s life reflects the worst of her mistakes, my life reflects the best of her. And we can both still look each other in the eyes today, and see nothing but love.

My mother and I only had seven years together. And if I’ve ever known unconditional love in my 30 years on earth, it was then.

















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We did everything together. She made sure I wanted for nothing.

I even slept with her until the age of 6, when I was forced into my big-girl bed kicking and screaming.

But very early on my mother’s love, and her mistakes, created a conflicted world for me.

Her love was obvious to me.

But so were her mistakes, even from a young age. I knew that the green bowl that I would dutifully retrieve for her contained marijuana, and that the men who came to my house with wads of money were there to buy drugs. I knew that my sister wasn’t cooking food in a spoon over the stove burner. I also knew that it wasn’t right that my nephews and I survived for weeks on toast, boiled eggs and whatever canned goods my 7-year-old hands could pry open.

But I also knew that the songs my mother sang to me as she put barrettes in my hair, the way she made sure my purses matched my dresses, the way she showed up in her robe at school if I misbehaved, the lengths to which she went to make sure I had every part of a kitchen set and dollhouses, were all out of love.

Eventually my mother’s love and mistakes collided.

In the summer of 1993, I found my 4-year-old nephew’s bloodied and limp body on our couch. He had overdosed on methadone he’d gotten his hands on after my mother illegally sold it to a neighborhood customer. I was living a nightmare.

And yet, the events that transpired in the weeks after that also showed me the extent of my mother’s love. As her world was unraveling, she tried to preserve mine as much as she could.

Amid a criminal investigation, my mother arranged for me to be in other places. In the end, she sent me to my grandmother’s house, where I would escape the Department of Social Services for some time, and the painful experience of watching her be arrested on our front porch.















In a newspaper article later — yes, in The Baltimore Sun where I have now been a reporter for five years — I would also find out that her love for me was apparent as she faced the consequences for her mistakes.

In pleading to lower her $100,000 bail, the article said, she told the judge that she had a young daughter that she needed to care for.

In the years since then — my mother was sentenced to 10 years in prison — I lived in group homes, foster homes, with an abusive relative, my best friend’s family, and ultimately with a beloved teacher.

Throughout that journey I’ve encountered amazing women who have come to call me their own. They got me through high school, college, graduate school, my first job, my wedding, my first house, my first child. Each of them have contributed to who I am today.

From all of the women in my life who have filled a void that my mother left — these include teachers, bosses, moms of friends—I have attempted to adopt all of their best qualities. Think: a “mom” store, and I had the pick of the best products.

From these beautiful, strong, loving women, I learned the basics: how to wear the appropriate clothes for my body type, the right foundation for my complexion, how to deal with insufferable people, how to be secure in myself and to use my story as powerful motivation in the world.

Mostly, they all stuck to what they knew. My teachers guided me through high school and my two degrees, the one who owned a business taught me how to be successful by respecting and connecting with people, those who had successful marriages guided me through boyfriends, and those who succeeded at raising families made me feel like I was a part of one and in doing that, encouraged me to start one.











I don’t think any of these women felt any particular ownership of me, but they all worked with the piece of me that they had.

They knew that I would only called one woman “mommy,” in my lifetime, and they didn’t expect the title. They understood that I didn’t need to be claimed. I just needed to be loved.

People have often asked me: “How can you even talk to your mother after all that she put you through?”

I’ve had one response: “Because my mother loved me. She just made mistakes.”

As overly simplistic as that answer may seem, I am able to directly connect pivotal moments in my life — from my nephew’s death to writing this column — as if they were pre-destined. It’s almost as if my mother failed in areas of her life so that I may succeed.

Because of her mistakes, I have been to hell. But because of her love, I made it back.

My mother showed me that mistakes will change your children’s lives, but not necessarily for the worst. And even if your children bear the brunt of even your worst mistakes, their ability to persevere is made possible if they start from a foundation rooted in love.

I’m still sorting out everything that I’ve been through.

But, now that I have a daughter I know two things for sure: I know a mother’s love, and I’m not afraid of making mistakes.

And I hope that those balance out in a way that Everly can say with pride one day: “Everything I am, my mother made me.”

















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As a former beauty editor, I pride myself in housing the best skincare products in my bathroom. Walk in and you're sure to be greeted with purifying masks, micellar water, retinol ceramide capsules and Vitamin C serums. What can I say? Old habits die hard. But when I had my son, I was hesitant to use products on him. I wanted to keep his baby-soft skin for as long as possible, without tainting it with harsh chemicals.

Eventually, I acquiesced and began using leading brands on his sensitive skin. I immediately regretted it. His skin became dry and itchy and regardless of what I used on him, it never seemed to get better. I found myself asking, "Why don't beauty brands care about baby skin as much as they care about adult skin?"

When I had my daughter in May, I knew I had to take a different approach for her skin. Instead of using popular brands that are loaded with petroleum and parabens, I opted for cleaner products. These days I'm all about skincare that contains super-fruits (like pomegranate sterols, which are brimming with antioxidants) and sulfate-free cleansers that contain glycolipids that won't over-dry her skin. And, so far, Pipette gets it right.

What's in it

At first glance, the collection of shampoo, wipes, balm, oil and lotion looks like your typical baby line—I swear cute colors and a clean look gets me everytime—but there's one major difference: All products are environmentally friendly and cruelty-free, with ingredients derived from plants or nontoxic synthetic sources. Also, at the core of Pipette's formula is squalane, which is basically a powerhouse moisturizing ingredient that babies make in utero that helps protect their skin for the first few hours after birth. And, thanks to research, we know that squalane isn't an irritant, and is best for those with sensitive skin. Finally, a brand really considered my baby's dry skin.

Off the bat, I was most interested in the baby balm because let's be honest, can you ever have too much protection down there? After applying, I noticed it quickly absorbed into her delicate skin. No rash. No irritation. No annoyed baby. Mama was happy. It's also worth noting there wasn't any white residue left on her bottom that usually requires several wipes to remove.


Why it's different

I love that Pipette doesn't smell like an artificial baby—you, know that powdery, musky note that never actually smells like a newborn. It's fragrance free, which means I can continue to smell my daughter's natural scent that's seriously out of this world. I also enjoy that the products are lightweight, making her skin (and my fingers) feel super smooth and soft even hours after application.

The bottom line

Caring for a baby's sensitive skin isn't easy. There's so much to think about, but Pipette makes it easier for mamas who don't want to compromise on safety or sustainability. I'm obsessed, and I plan to start using the entire collection on my toddler as well. What can I say, old habits indeed die hard.

This article was sponsored by Pipette. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

Our Partners

We all want our children to be confident and resilient, but often the conversation around confidence is tied to the social aspects of a new school year: new friends, the first day of school outfit, who to sit with during lunch. In many cases, we aren't always thinking about the role confidence in learning plays as students take on a new curriculum that comes with a more advanced academic year.

Confidence in learning is an important distinction because this type of confidence is what helps students try new things and overcome the perception that they are inherently bad at a given subject area. Confident learners see failure as a process that requires iteration—or learning from a mistake and trying again—instead of disengaging or shutting down in fear of getting the answer wrong or receiving negative feedback.

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At LEGO Education, we believe the best way to build this confidence is by getting students out of their desks and learning in a hands-on way. In fact, our recent survey found that 90% of teachers believe hands-on learning builds students' confidence, and students say they tend to remember topics longer when they learn through hands-on projects.

Learning doesn't end with the school day, and I believe parents like us have an important role to play in continuing to cultivate our children's learning at home.

Here are a few tips to help your child become a confident learner in school:

1. Get involved

There are countless ways for you to be present in your child's education, so don't be afraid to jump in, try new things, and find what works best for you and your family. Whether you advocate for more hands-on learning in your child's school, help in their classroom or ask your child open-ended questions about what they're learning, parent engagement can play a key role in supporting learning inside and outside the classroom.

2. Rethink what failure means

Failure is essential to learning but still comes with a negative connotation—47% of students avoid subjects where they have failed before, yet 90% of teachers agree that students need to learn to fail to become more confident and succeed in school. Remember, failure is a process, not an endpoint. Everyone makes mistakes, but it becomes meaningful when we reflect and learn from it. Instead of reacting negatively, try asking what your child learned and encourage them to try again. You can also use the moment to share your own experience of a time you failed and how your confidence helped you overcome it.

3. Recognize effort, not just success

It can feel natural to reward success, but the learning journey is just as important. Next time, instead of posting the A+ test on the refrigerator, start a conversation with your child about how you noticed how hard they worked and studied leading up to it. By changing how you respond to success you are in turn reshaping how your child perceives what is valuable in the learning process.

4. Provide blank space

Give kids the opportunity to be creative and curious. It's easy to fall into a routine with a packed calendar of extracurricular activities and playdates, but allowing kids the time and space to explore their own curiosities through free play will help reinforce the valuable skills they learn at school. Encourage your child to play in whatever way they'd like—outside, playing pretend, an arts and crafts project. Their imagination and choices might surprise you!

5. Allow kids to be their own heroes

When kids face a roadblock, such as a math problem they can't solve, it's natural to want to jump in and find a solution for them but sometimes it's best to let them try first. In many situations, having the freedom to try it themselves first can also help develop real-world skills such as creative thinking and effective communication, in addition to new academic skills.

6. Let the student become the teacher

If your child is excited about something they've learned in school recently, harness that joy and engagement by asking them to teach you about the topic. Not only are they reinforcing the subject matter in their own brain, but they will also feel confident and empowered teaching an adult and being an expert in something that interests them.

7. Sign up for STEAM teams

Similar to team sports, afterschool STEAM or robotic programs can be a great way to help children build confidence and camaraderie, while also developing skills for the jobs of the future. LEGO Education and non-profit FIRST have run FIRST LEGO League for more than 20 years, creating programs for ages 4-18. I've seen firsthand how the program not only teaches STEAM and robotics skills but also important skills like teamwork, collaboration and critical thinking that are relevant throughout their lives. Find a program near you or start your own team as a coach or mentor.

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Learn + Play

This week an investigation by Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF) made headlines, proclaiming 95% of baby foods the group tested contain at least one toxic chemical, including lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium. The results are similar to those The Clean Label Project released in 2017.

These reports suggest many commonly consumed products, including formula, baby food in jars and pouches, and snacks contain contaminants like arsenic and lead, in some cases at levels higher than trace amounts.

These reports were not published in peer-reviewed journals, but the items were tested and reviewed by third-party laboratories. The products were screened for heavy metals and other contaminants, and, in many cases, tested positive for things no parent wants to see in their baby's food.

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It's important to note that all of us are consuming arsenic in some form. According to the FDA, it's naturally found in soil and water and absorbed by plants, so many foods, including grains (especially rice) and fruits and vegetables contain arsenic.

Everyone is exposed to little bits of arsenic, but long-term exposure to high levels is associated with higher rates of some cancers and heart disease. Previous studies have shown that babies who consume infant formulas and rice products already tend to have higher than average levels of arsenic metabolites in their urine (due in part to the natural levels of arsenic found in rice), so additional arsenic in baby goods is certainly not ideal.

“To reduce the amount of arsenic exposure, it is important all children eat a varied diet, including a variety of infant cereals," says Benard P. Dreyer, MD, FAAP and president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). “The AAP encourages parents to speak with their pediatrician about their children's nutrition. Pediatricians can work with parents to ensure they make good choices and informed decisions about their child's diet."

According to the World Health Organization, arsenic exposure is associated with an array of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.

Arsenic was not the only chemical found in the tested products that could potentially pose a danger to the babies consuming them. The new report from HBBF looked at 168 baby foods from 61 brands and found 94% of the products contained lead, 75% contained cadmium and 32% contained mercury.

This is not the first time lead (which can damage a child's brain and nervous system, impact growth and development and cause learning, hearing, speech and behavior problems) has been found in baby food. A previous report released in 2017 by another group, the Environmental Defense Fund, found 20% of 2,164 baby foods tested contained lead.

As the FDA notes, lead is in food because it is in the environment. "It is important for consumers to understand that some contaminants, such as heavy metals like lead or arsenic, are in the environment and cannot simply be removed from food," says Peter Cassell, an FDA spokesperson.

Cassell says the FDA doesn't comment on specific studies but does evaluate them while working to ensure consumer exposure to contaminants is limited to the greatest extent feasible. “Through the Total Diet Study, the FDA tests for approximately 800 contaminants and nutrients in the diet of the average U.S. consumer," Cassel explains.

The FDA works with the food manufacturing industry to limit contaminants as much as possible, especially in foods meant for kids. “We determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether to take enforcement action when we find foods that would be considered contaminated," Cassell adds.

The people at HBBF are calling on the FDA "to use their authority more effectively, and much more quickly, to reduce toxic heavy metals in baby foods," says HBBF research director and study author Jane Houlihan.

HBBF is circulating a petition urging the FDA to take action "by setting health-based limits that include the protection of babies' brain development."

Parents who are concerned about heavy metals in baby foods should also consider speaking with their pediatrician.

"Pediatricians can help parents understand this issue and use AAP guidance to build a healthy diet for children and limit exposure to lead from different sources," says Stephen R. Daniels, M.D., Ph.D., FAAP, chair of the AAP Committee on Nutrition.

[A version of this post was originally published on October 26, 2017. It has been updated.]

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Over the last few months, I've made a new friend called Grief. She first showed up when the midwife told me, "I'm sorry, I don't see a heartbeat anymore." She quickly barged into my life, inviting herself into every moment of every day. She was an overwhelming, overbearing, suffocating presence. But in time, we learned to set some boundaries. Together, we created space for Grief to live in my life without feeling all-consumed.

Grief is pushy. I have learned that when she knocks on the door, it's best to just let her in. She has things to say and she's going to make you listen. Sometimes, we'll sit together for a while before one of us will say "My, look at the time. I've got things to do." Other times, it's a quick visit, and I can move on with my day.

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I've learned a good bit about my friend Grief through the experience of having a miscarriage. We've spent a lot of time together, and I've gotten to know her well. I hope this helps you get to know her better, too.

1. Grief can become a friend.

Over time, Grief has morphed from feeling like an invader, an attacker, and a bully to feeling more like a friend with a hand resting on my shoulder. She is gently present, palpable and—unexpectedly—comforting. Grief reminds me of the love I felt; that I have something to miss; that my baby was here. Grief comes to visit much less often, now. Some days, she still barges in unexpectedly. Some days, I go calling for her to come over.

2. Grief will teach you.

Grief has taught me that you never really know what others are going through. She has taught me to try to listen better, to be a better friend, to be more empathetic. Grief has emboldened me and demanded space for my feelings when I felt I couldn't. She's forced me to learn how to ask for help, how to advocate for myself and not apologize when I have needs. She has made my worldview richer, my love deeper and my appreciation for life stronger.

3. Grief will make you brave.

I never knew my own strength before I met Grief. Through her, I witnessed myself suffer and persevere with a strength I didn't know I had. I have felt her fully, and I am less scared of her now. I have walked through the fire with her, and she's shown me that I could do it again if I had to. But we both hope I never do.

4. Grief will bring you together, apart.

Grief has shown me some of her many friends, and through her, we have become friends too. Our relationships with Grief are all different. But, Grief unites us in a way that people who don't know Grief could not understand. In my marriage, Grief has made it clear she has a relationship with both of us, differently. She has shown us that we can visit her together, but more often than not, she wants to spend time with us alone. She visits us on different days, at different times, and in different ways. Learning to know Grief together, and apart, was challenging.

5. Grief knows when you need her before you do.

Grief knows me in a way that a friend knows me. She remembers the milestones and helps me remember too. She has the hard dates etched in her calendar and I'm sure she won't forget them. She's quietly with me, her hand on my shoulder when we see a stroller, a butterfly, a new pregnancy announcement. Sometimes she is there waiting for me before I even realize why.

"Welcome to your third trimester!" my email greeted me this morning. I thought I had unsubscribed from them all, but this one snuck through. An unpleasant reminder of what I already knew: Today should have been a milestone.

I took a moment to let it sink in when I felt her hand on my shoulder. Once you get to know her, Grief can be a really good friend.

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Life

I check my phone. It's 3 am. I wrench myself from bed and zombie-walk into my screaming son's room. Please just let him go back to sleep quickly. I'm so exhausted. I see my 9-month-old son crying and reaching out for me. I immediately pick him up and plop down in the rocking chair feeling discouraged and depleted.

I stare exhaustedly at the wall, contemplating what I should be doing right now.

Should I let him cry it out? Should I give him his stuffed bunny so that he can comfort himself? He should know how to self soothe, right?

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I definitely should not be picking him up out of his crib.

I definitely should not be nursing him back to sleep. That is definitely NOT what I am supposed to be doing. (*I know this because I've read about 8,000 articles and a dozen or so books saying just that).

But it's what he wants, and I'm tired. It's what my heart wants, regardless of what the "experts" say I should do. I feel like a failure for giving in. The books say to be firm—he's fine; he's just crying; he's being lazy because he knows I'll swoop in and comfort him back to sleep.

I should be able to treat him like an appliance—follow the instructions without input from my heart. Right? Maybe I can redeem myself by putting him back "drowsy but awake." Yeah, right.

I'll just have to start this whole process over again when he goes from "drowsy but awake" to "wide-eyed and screeching."

In the midst of the mental ping-pong between my head and my heart, a thought suddenly and forcefully rushes in—you're missing it.

I look down into the face of my infant son. His big teary eyes are locked on mine. He smiles, letting a little dribble of milk out of the corner of his smirk. This is what I'm missing. These moments—loving and being loved despite the crippling exhaustion of nursing throughout the night for the last nine months, these moments of real connection, of being a mother.

I'm missing the joy in motherhood under a dark cloud of shoulds. I can't see the good because I'm so focused on the bad.

And just as I am reveling in this epiphany, a chubby little hand reaches up. I watch his hand coming and think, This can't get any better! This sweet child is going to lovingly stroke my cheek! But, it turns out to be so much better than that. He literally slaps me in the face and giggles, delivering humor and lightness as only a child can.

Life is not as serious as I make it out to be most of the time. I've learned this from my children. I prayed that night that my child would go back to bed. I prayed that he would do what he was supposed to, or that I could do what I was supposed to (according to whichever expert I was abiding that week). But all I'm really supposed to do is show up and trust my heart without trying to fix it all, ALL the time.

Life isn't perfect. Otherwise, we wouldn't have moments like these at 3 am that crack us open and lay bare what really matters.

My mantra now is radical acceptance.

It's radical because, for me, it means defiantly and unequivocally accepting what my anxious mind tells me is unacceptable—the messy, the imperfect, the difficult.

It is a radical act of rebellion against the mind and its need to control and fix.

It is choosing to trust my heart and seeing through that lens rather than the broken lens of my mind.

It is seeing the good, the joy, the love, the humor, rather than what is broken and what is wrong.

It is radical for me to look at my life in all its messy splendor and not try to fix, change, or be perfect.

That is a radical act, I assure you, and my mind coils up in a panic every time.

But the moment I overcome that initial coiling and clinching and embrace simple acceptance, the fear and doubt are vacuumed up, and the joy inevitably rushes in. Little miracles, every time. Radical acceptance.

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Life
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