woman standing in front of storefront

(30) Infertility, Adoption, & Cards with Sara

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Today’s guest gives us a little bit of everything. Sara McNally, owner of the cutest card boutique on the Seattle Fisherman’s Terminal (Constellation & Co.), opens up about personal topics such as infertility, adoption, being silenced, watching her son experience racism, and more. She talks about the tricky logistics of becoming a mother just a few months after opening her store, the gender-based double standards of it, and her own pain as the catalyst for her authentically-worded cards. Sara also shares a life-changing moment with a store customer that she’s never talked about before now, and she opens my eyes to what the world looks like for adoptive parents. We also discuss the idea of “whose story is it to tell” when writing about our kids and families, and I share about my past fertility struggles, how having kids makes you work efficiently, and how comedian moms and dads have different standards.

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Brandy:                   Hello, Adult Conversation Podcast listeners. Today’s guest gives us a little bit of everything. Sara McNally, owner of the cutest card and stationary boutique on the Seattle Fishermen’s Terminal, opens up about personal topics such as infertility, adoption, being silenced, watching her son experience racism for the first time, and more. She talks about the tricky logistics of becoming a mother just a few months after opening her store, the gender-based double standards of it (that you’ve come to expect and love from this podcast), and how her own pain was the catalyst for her authentically-worded cards. Sara also shares a life-changing moment with a store customer that she’s never talked about before now, and she opens my eyes to what the world looks like for adoptive parents. We also discussed the idea of, “Whose story is it to tell when we write about our kids and families?” And I think we land on different sides of it. I also share about my past fertility struggles, how having kids makes you work so efficiently, and how Mom-comedians are treated differently than Dad-comedians. 

Brandy:                   Happy first birthday to this podcast! I have a one-year-old, and, no, it’s not sleeping through the night, yet, like my other children weren’t. The day, actually, came and went without me noticing at all (in February), so I didn’t have a huge, themed party with goody bags of garbage like I love to throw {sarcasm}. But I am super friggin’ proud that for an entire year, I’ve kept up with all that it takes to keep this going, and I am still just as excited by each interview, now, as I was when I started. This podcast, truly, is a labor of love. And thank you to all of the loyal listeners, especially my Patreon peeps, who show their love in dollars. For just a few dollars every month, go to www.patreon.com/adultconversation. And welcome, to all of the new listeners who just found me. I really couldn’t do this without all of you, so thank you! On to the show…

Brandy:                   Today, on the podcast we have with us Sara McNally. Sara, welcome!

Sara:                         Thank you! Hello!

Brandy:                   Hello! You are the owner of the cutest shop called, “Constellation & Co.” It’s a letterpress stationary company in the historic Seattle Fishermen’s Terminal, correct?

Sara:                         Yes.

Brandy:                   It’s a brick and mortar store. It’s a real, legit — like, you own a friggin’ store! {laughter}

Sara:                         I remind myself of that, occasionally. {laughter}

Brandy:                   It’s so cute, too. It’s everything that I love. It’s beautiful fonts and letterpress cards. I saw in the pictures on your website there’s a letterpress machine.

Sara:                         Yes, antique printing presses.

Brandy:                   Oh, my God, this is, like, craft porn just thinking about getting to use that machine. {laughter} We’re going to be talking a lot about that because your cards and products are beautiful. They have words that people would actually say. They’re not the Hallmark-y, saccharine, cringe-worthy, barf-in-your-mouth when you read it, thing. They are beautiful, and one of the things on the cards that I really liked says, “Grief is a jerk.” Another one says, “Infertility is the worst,” which it really is. I loved that you have a card that just says on the front, “Complicated situations card.” {laughter}

Sara:                         There’s a lot of those in life where there’s just really not a card for that.

Brandy:                   The one that I loved is, “I love talking about podcasts with you.” It seems so fitting, but I love the humor and the quirkiness and the realness. Those are all of the things that are meaningful to me, so, ding-ding-ding, this is now one of my go-to places.              

Sara:                         Thank you.

Brandy:                   Before we start talking about how this became and how you got to this business, emotionally and logistically, what do you think the listeners need to know about you?

Sara:                         I think people should know that I am anxious. I am an adoptive mom, and I’m still actively infertile. Those are probably the three things you should know.

Brandy:                   Welcome! You keep being my people, the more that you keep talking. I’m imagining that your life experiences led you to your business to create cards with a more realistic message, especially, with some of the harder things like depression and infertility. Is that right? Were there things that happened in your life that led you to start this company, or did the company come first?

Sara:                         The company came because I couldn’t get a job out of college. That’s the shortest possible answer. I graduated college with a graphic design degree in 2009, and it got me nowhere, unfortunately. I worked a couple of really bad, unfortunate jobs that I hated. Then I just started making greeting cards on the side in my second bedroom, and I started selling them on Etsy. At that point in time, in my life, I would do — that’s a terrible thing I was about to say — I wouldn’t do “anything” for money, but I did as many things for money as I could functionally, legally do to try to make ends meet living in Seattle in 2009. I didn’t know anybody. It was just me and my fiancé. We were both straight out of college and selling a few greeting cards on the side on Etsy seemed like another way to bring in a few dollars, but that was really something that I enjoyed. As a kid, I grew up playing “business.” I always wanted office supplies, and I wanted to play business.

Brandy:                   Dude, are you me? There’s a whole piece that we’ll get to — I had a side card business when I was in my twenties.

Sara:                         Amazing!

Brandy:                   I used to play business, so I am right there with you!

Sara:                         Best friends! {laughter} Out of school, I ended up pursuing that. After I quit my last terrible job, I spent a full year apprenticing with a letterpress printer to learn the craft of printing. Then I bought an absolute piece of garbage, rust-bucket printing press, refurbished it, rented a 100-square-foot artist studio that, before I moved in, was an amateur porn studio —

Brandy:                   For real?

Sara:                         For real. When I viewed it, the only thing in the room was a bed and black lights. I don’t know why you want black lights because that’s a terrible idea, but that’s what was in there. It was a strange place.

Brandy:                   Maybe the health department made them have that. Maybe they were like, “We’re going to black light it every week, and you better clean that place up.” {laughter}

Sara:                         The gifts that they left behind for me were three cups of cat food and a vodka bottle with a razorblade and a surgical glove in it.

Brandy:                   Are you serious?!

Sara:                         It was a scary place, but that’s where I started my business. I kind of have an affection for it, at this point.

Brandy:                   How do you know how to refurbish a letter press, by the way?

Sara:                         I don’t think I did! {laughter}

Brandy:                   Is that something that you YouTube’d, or did you have somebody show you?

Sara:                         I don’t think I was YouTube’ing at that point. There were some message boards and things for letterpress. I had a few friends that could talk me through where to find the pieces I was missing, but I just spent a lot of time up close and personal with it — oiling it and scrubbing down rust and trying to figure out where the missing pieces went. I was right out of school. I had quit my job. I had nothing but time, so I spent all of my waking hours with the printing press.

Brandy:                   Two things I was going to say are, “Oh, yeah, before you have kids you can figure out how to do these things, and then spend all of your time doing that.” Then the second thing I was going to say is, I can’t help but have a little chuckle about you scrubbing down and being intimate with a letterpress in an ancient porn studio. That’s a beautiful visual. Thank you for that.

Sara:                         {amusingly sighs} Oh, you’re welcome.

Brandy:                   With the messaging of your cards, did you always have be more realistic, quirky, witty, and consisting of some of the harder things to deal with in life? Or did that come later?

Sara:                         That came later. When I started out, I just wanted to make greeting cards because I wanted something to make that I could sale. I think my first greeting cards had cupcakes on them — like, illustrations of cupcakes — thinking back, that’s the last thing I would do, at this point, in my life. I started researching what categories that greeting card companies made them in, and I tried to write birthday cards, thank you cards, wedding cards, and baby cards. I had a really hard time connecting with that. While I was making cards like that, I was going through really difficult things behind the scenes. I was having a lot of panic attacks and going through episodes of depression. I had been really struggling and feeling like I was the only one struggling and that I couldn’t be honest about that stuff. As time went on and I went through more things with my life — I think infertility was one of the things that finally broke that part of me — I had this outward face with people that I knew when I was trying to be a business owner and be together and be an adult. I was still in my mid-twenties. My husband and I got married at twenty-two. I think it was three years into our marriage that we decided to start trying to have kids. That adventure, for me, started really poorly. The first month that we were trying, my period was multiple weeks late. I think it was two weeks late, and that had never happened to me before or since. I was fairly sure that I was pregnant. I was just waiting and taking tests, but it was too early. They kept coming back negative. After multiple weeks, my period finally arrived, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. It was really hard. It also happened to be the same day that our best friends announced their pregnancy to us. That was the distilling down of what the next several years of what my life would be. It was a really short period of time where everyone around us had kids and, then, had more kids. Every month we went through that disappointment. I think there’s an actual grieving process that goes with infertility that people don’t really talk about. Each month, you’re going through this same thing over and over again that kind of throws your world upside down. When it’s too early, people around you don’t think it’s a big deal. Then there’s a certain period of time where people are like, “Oh, yes, this is a thing that’s happening, so we’re going to give you all of our best advice and tell you which kind of lube to buy and that you should stand upside down for five minutes. If you were just less anxious, you would get pregnant.” Oh, boy, have I heard that a lot in my life. If I could just stop being anxious —

Brandy:                   What about all of the other people out there who are anxious as shit who get pregnant, and they don’t want to be pregnant.

Sara:                         Absolutely!

Brandy:                   There is no fairness in this thing, which I think is part of the frustration, when you go through it. I went through it with both of my children, so I understand exactly what you’re talking about — that rollercoaster that you’re on every single month, and it’s so isolating because you don’t really talk with people in your life about it. I think this is kind of one of those things that you learn when you go through it. At the beginning — I don’t know if you did — I would tell people, “Oh, yeah, we’re going to start trying, and I’m in the two-week wait.” If you’ve gone through infertility, you know what that is. It’s the two weeks that you’re waiting to see if you’re pregnant or not. You would kind of talk to people about this, and I don’t know how many months it takes (or maybe it’s one), where you realize, “I can’t talk to people about this because they’ll ask me if I’m feeling anything, if my boobs are sore, or if I think that I’m pregnant.” Then you have their stuff on top of your stuff (and their stuff is totally well-meaning), but you decide, “I’m just going to have this with myself because it’s too much to include other people.” Quite honestly, when you go through infertility long enough, people get kind of over going through it with you every month, and, rightfully, so. I’m fully onboard with those people being like, “Yeah, maybe I don’t want to hear the play-by-play of everything,” but, it just makes it more isolating.

Sara:                         Even beyond the play-by-play and past the advice stage where everyone was like, “I have advice for you” — we’re at seven years, now, and it’s not on anyone’s radar, anymore. Everybody assumes that when you adopt and when you become a parent, the infertility part of your life or story just goes away and is erased. As much as I love and adore my son and as much as I love being his mom, honestly, I don’t want to have a small child in my life beyond the one I already have. I don’t want to be holding a baby right now, but I’m still infertile. When things come up that trigger those feelings — they’re not just feeling of wanting something. They’re feelings of, “Something is wrong with me. My body doesn’t work. Everyone else’s body works.” It’s these ideas of womanhood. Mother’s Day, for me, is very complicated. I have the dynamic of telling myself, “My body doesn’t do this thing that everyone else’s does,” Everyone says, “Thank your mom for carrying you for nine months.” I didn’t do that. Then I have the dynamic of recognizing the loss that my son’s birth mom has gone through. Then the dynamic of celebrating with my kid. There’s all of these incredibly strong, mixed feelings, and it’s not simple. It’s just not straight-forward. Anyone who says, “Well, if you’re infertile, why don’t you just adopt?” I can tell you right now that there’s no such thing as “just adopting.” There’s no such thing as “just stop being anxious.” It’s not simple. It’s not straight-forward, and it’s not some easy replacement for fertility. I think a lot of people dismiss me and my feelings when they assume that it’s just over and that they don’t have to think about it anymore.

Brandy:                   It’s being outcome-focused. It’s like, “Well, you’ve got the kid. That’s all you wanted was the kid,” and the journey to get to that kid doesn’t matter. It’s not important.

Sara:                         To just circle back, I think that was the season of my life where I realized that I couldn’t just write birthday cards anymore. I don’t have it in my brain. I don’t have that in my heart, so I just started writing the things that I was, actually, feeling. That’s where I feel like my business became mine. It became something that was actually a reflection of the person I am and the experiences that I’ve had. It’s really gone from there, and it has expanded into seasons of grief that I’ve been through, struggles with mental health, and just this feeling of being alone that comes from being a human. No matter what you’re going through, I think we all fall into the trap of feeling alone. When I really look at why I do what I do, it’s because I don’t want other people to feel as alone as I have felt. If, with a greeting card, I can change that, I’m going to do that every day.

Brandy:                   Wow. It’s such a beautiful mix of you wanting to have this business and the design stuff, but also your real-life melding. It just gave me goosebumps when you said it. In this, I would imagine, with your infertility struggle, that there was possibly a component of depression. Is that something that you dealt with afterwards or during? Do you write cards that tend to depression as well?

Sara:                         I do. I think that’s something I had dealt with before but didn’t really have words for, and I definitely dealt with on-and-off, throughout, and have dealt with since. There are days where I wake up in the morning, and I’m like, “Oh, no, I’m under that cloud,” and I try to think, “Why do I feel like this?” Then I realize depression isn’t logical. It’s not because this happened, so I am depressed. It just comes on. I think depression is one of those things that there could be no reason, and it could show up. I try not to put too much logic to it because I feel like, “Well, once I understand why I feel like this, I won’t feel like this anymore.” Just like with infertility, I thought “Once I get my head around the fact that I’m not having any more kids, I’ll stop being sad. Oh, okay, sure!” {laughter}

Brandy:                   It’s that illusion of control and understanding. You, actually, reminded me that at the beginning of getting pregnant, I used to chart my cycle back when I thought I couldn’t do anything about it. You know that kind of chart where you have all of the days of when you’re ovulating and all of that kind of stuff — I think it took me around three or four months to be like, “Fuck this shit. This data is not helping.” I attacked it with my left brain and realized that this wasn’t something that could be dealt with like that. It’s a hard thing to let go of. Even though you get to the point where you realize that, in some cases, you can chart this all you want to, but it’s not going to affect getting pregnant or not. All of the other people out there, who haven’t been through it, don’t know that. I think that’s where all of that advice comes from, and, meanwhile, you’re like, “Hey, actually, it’s not really controllable.” But infertility feels like grasping at straws on a daily basis. That’s how it felt for me.

Sara:                         I had this idea, early on, that once I was finally to that year mark, and I could be like, “I’m officially infertile. I’m going to go to the doctor, and the doctor is going to help.” I know the doctors really can help, and I know that that’s possible. But for me, when I went, I think I was 26. They were like, “You’re in your twenties. You’re fine. You’ll get pregnant. It’s fine.” They did some blood tests and other things. They tested whatever they could. They tested my husband, and, of course, he’s perfectly fertile. It was this weird experience of realizing that: A) The doctors weren’t worried, but B) Even if they were worried, they went from, “Here’s a few things that are easy…,” to, “Well, you could do IUI or IVF.” I felt like saying, “You could just do IVF is the same thing as saying you could just adopt.” To just assume that anyone can or will just do IVF — I still think about that from time to time. I think, “Maybe we could pursue more fertility things.” I think about what that actually requires, and it’s a full-time job with very traumatic, personal body things that you have to go through for the hope that maybe it could work but may not. It’s very expensive and very invasive.

Brandy:                   It doesn’t have the guarantee. You’re still on the rollercoaster, it’s just that the rollercoaster looks a little different. You’re exactly right. People are saying, “Just do IVF, or just adopt.” It definitely is minimizing the experience that either of those things could be.

Sara:                         I think there’s a real lack of education, for most people, as to what any of that looks like or how any of that works. This is why I think I’ve felt so pushed to share openly, even when it makes people really uncomfortable, about our experiences across the board. Most people, when I have been really honest, they’ll say something stupid, and I’ll be like, “Actually, this is how it works, and it sucks.” They’ll be like, “I had no idea!” If you’re not going through it, why would you take the time to research it? No one really talks about it, and that’s always been my weird superpower. I want to talk about the stuff no one wants to talk about which is why I write the cards that I write.

Brandy:                   Oh, my God. We are the same person!

Sara:                         There is a reason that you have a podcast, and I always think about that. Most podcast hosts, I feel like I relate to because there’s this since of, “I’d like to just talk about things all of the time with lots of people.” {laughter}

Brandy:                   Right, could we just have conversations about everything? I’m curious: with you having that personality type that wants to talk about all of the hard things – this is just totally a selfish question – what has been your experience in the world with how people receive you with your personality type? Do you find that people either love you or hate you? Do you find that sometimes you make people feel uncomfortable? What is it like, from your point of view, of having this personality that wants to talk about the hard things?

Sara:                         I wish you could be a fly on the wall in one of my therapy appointments because that’s a lot of what we talk about. It’s not that certain people like me or hate me. At certain points, in people’s lives, they will either be very receptive to me or want to walk away. When people are struggling, they feel seen and heard by me talking about hard things because they’re going through hard things. But when people are in the season of, “Everything’s fine. I’m untouchable. My life looks like Pinterest. I’m going to go sit in my she shed and put my feet up and have a moment. Everything’s fine. Everything is organized and balanced and great. My kids are polite. Nothing is going wrong.” That’s when I make people really uncomfortable. I feel like what I’m always bringing up is, “This will not last. This moment of peace will not last.” I don’t mean this in a negative way, but in a struggle-will-come way. It’s not that some people struggle, and some people don’t. It’s, “Are you struggling right now or not?” because it will happen. Discomfort is how we grow. We don’t grow when we’re comfortable. We’re not empathetic when we’re comfortable.

Brandy:                   Talk me through the adoption process. How did you get to that decision, and what has that process been like?

Sara:                         After two years of trying to get pregnant, going through the charting, paying attention to everything, going to the doctor, and feeling that we had already done everything that we felt like we were going to do, we decided to try to pursue the adoption process while still trying to get pregnant. It was like throwing two darts to see which lands. The beginning part of the adoption process went very, very quickly for us. I try to protect my son’s story and his details as closely as I can because they’re not mine to tell. That’s part of what is a struggle sometimes for me. It’s a hard story to tell for me. It’s not the meet a mom and tell your birth stories thing. It’s not the lowest hanging fruit. I know a lot of people have traumatic birth stories. I’m not saying that it’s an easy story for everyone to tell, but if it went well and was the most wonderful day of your life, then that’s an easy icebreaker. But for me, it’s certainly not. “Are you going to have more kids?” is also not a question that is easy for me. Like, “Uh, I don’t know. I really don’t know. From day to day, I have different feelings about that.” Adoption is beautiful, but it comes from a place of brokenness, always, no matter what. Someone is going to walk away from adoption hurting, and that looks very different, in very different circumstances, from person to person. I never lose sight of that. I think that’s something that people really don’t talk about and maybe not even want to think about. I know a lot of people who really don’t want to think about that, and that comes from my personality as well. I hold that very close to my heart. The opportunity and the privilege of being a parent came at a large cost.

Brandy:                   You’re so friggin’ thoughtful. It’s really beautiful. It’s amazing that your story encompasses all of the angles of it. It’s just really, really thoughtful that the birth mother is a part of that and the complicated nature of it. With not telling your birth story, I am definitely a proponent of birth stories being a sacred thing that not everybody gets to hear. You can’t just ask somebody that and expect them to tell you. This is one of the most vulnerable moments of their life and one of the most meaningful. It involves so many complicated feelings, body parts, fluids, expectations, disappointments, joy, and it’s so complicated.  I really appreciate and respect that you don’t just give that to everybody who wants to know it. I’m wondering if part of the reason for that is because your story has so many pieces to it. If somebody wants the two-line version of, “What was your birth like,” you can’t offer that. That feels authentic to you, possibly. Does that feel like that resonates?

Sara:                         Absolutely! I don’t really do small talk, and that’s not always a choice. It’s because, when someone asks me how I’m doing, I don’t feel like “fine” works for me. I want to say, “I can’t go there with you. I don’t know you that well yet.  We don’t have the time. This isn’t the place. If you really want to know, I will share that with you (with a close friend and in private), without hesitation.” But I may not want the answers, and I’m not asking that you to fix it. I’m not asking anybody to try to solve anything or give me some pithy answer. I don’t accept platitudes. If it’s not somebody that’s going to be able to sit with me in the discomfort of my life — because my life is uncomfortable in a lot of ways. There are a lot of things that I cannot fix, and that’s okay. That’s life.

Brandy:                   When I was pregnant with my daughter, who is my second child, (it’s a long story that I’ll sum up) I was in the hospital for two months before she was born trying not to die every night or lose her. It was this big deal. I got pulled out of my life. Once she was born, all of it went away because she was here. I remember that it was my goal to walk my son to his first day of first grade, and I think I was out of the hospital for a week or so. I’m wearing my daughter in a baby carrier, and I go into the front office where they sign things in. This other mom looks at me and says, “Oh, your baby is so cute. How old is she?” I looked at her, and I can’t remember exactly how I said it, but it was like, “I need for you to know that two months ago I started bleeding while I was on a trip to California…” I couldn’t just say, “Oh, thanks.” I was thinking, “If we’re going to do this, you need to know that I’ve just been through Hell and back, and I can’t just talk about my baby in this really pat way yet.” What I didn’t know at the time is that would come, but it would take months for me to have space away from the experience to just be a normal person. My friend, who has a son who has gone through cancer, felt the same way about her experience. When you’re out and about and people are like, “How old is your son?” It’s like, “He had cancer. You need to know that!”

Sara:                         Things like that in life are absolutely traumatizing.

Brandy:                   I want to go back to something. I don’t know an answer to this, and I don’t think that there’s a right answer. This idea when you said, “This is not my story to tell.” I am so torn about how I feel about that. Not for you, obviously, but just for being somebody who has a public Facebook page and podcast and is a writer. What I can and can’t say about my kids, and this idea that it’s not my story to tell about certain things is hard for me to accept. Obviously, my mindset would be that I would never want to say anything that would make my children uncomfortable (if it was about them or something personal that they would be uncomfortable sharing). In a lot of these situations with parenting, it’s their story and my story. I’m curious, from your point of view, where you see the two separating as “just his story” and “your story.” How do you make sense of that?

Sara:                         I wrote a book last year. It’s very much a memoir. That was really hard for me. To write through things that were incredibly personal and weren’t just my story, there were a lot of things in there that kept me thinking like, “What of this to tell is my story?” I was able to do it very much from my own perspective. This was the relationship that I had with these people. This is the memories that I have, and they’re probably different than yours, if you were there. But these are my memories. This is my perspective on the world and how it felt to be there and how it felt to experience it. With my son, I think it’s similar in that way. I try not to publicly talk about the tantrums he’s throwing or the things he’s going through that are these big life lessons. It’s not like I don’t talk about them with my friends, but I try to protect him in that way. Someday he’s going to grow up and be like, “Mom, I was four! What did you do when you were four?!” Again, I have no judgment for anyone else and the different decisions that they make. Some of it is different, too, because we are an adoptive family. I don’t feel a sense of ownership over my son and his life the way that I see a lot of biological parents acting. Like, “It’s my kid. I can post pictures of him on the toilet to Instagram. Who cares? It’s my kid.” There’s part of me that just thinks that I can tell my story of what it feels like for me to be a mom and what it feels like to be his mom. But I can’t tell his story because I don’t know what his story is yet. Especially, with the elements of his story that he doesn’t know yet. It feels very wrong for me to share that stuff before he even understands what any of it means. I think that’s where I draw the line. If I’m telling my experience, that’s one thing. I’m still refining it.

Brandy:                   Yeah, and he’s four. That’s different than having a ten-year-old or twelve-year-old — kids who can have consent about certain things or who you know more of their personality. I can see why having an adoptive child would add more complicated layers, perhaps.

Sara:                         I think some of it is just perspective. My perspective, as a parent, is slightly different than it would’ve been, otherwise. I’ve never been a parent in any other way, so I don’t know how I would’ve acted or what the choices would have been if we would have gotten pregnant and nothing was complicated.

Brandy:                   I’m always torn about this idea of not wanting people to feel alone in the world. We share a same passion about letting people into the real-talk about that, and that’s why I always bump against this “not my story to tell” idea. In my mind, when we don’t talk about the hard things, including our kids and what they’re doing (not everything), from my point of view, we make it so that we don’t really know what other kids are like. We feel alone in that our kid is behaving in a certain way, so some of these things where people post about the temper-tantrums or behavior stuff, I feel that is so real. I love that because not a lot of people will talk about their struggles with their kids in that way because they do want to protect them. I think there’s a fine balance between the thought of, “Can you do that without going too far with your child?” But if you are somebody who is going to participate in real-talk, sometimes you are going to blur that line. I think my personality tends to be that I would rather accidentally blur that line sometimes, than ride it too safely and never get to the place that I want to be. There’s no right way to do that. When I go on writing retreats with these other mom-writers, this is something that we talk about all the time. The thought of, “Who can say what?” It’s something that blows my mind. I’m wondering if this is a “mom thing” because I don’t know that dads would feel quite the same way, but maybe they would. I went to see a stand-up comedian named Jo Koy. It was hilarious, but he was talking about how his son, who is a pre-teen, was masturbating all over their house and that he has a small penis.

Sara:                         Ouch.

Brandy:                   It was hilarious. I was laughing, but I thought, “This is kind of bullshit because, as a mother-writer, I would get raked over the coals if I talk about anything personal regarding my kids — even if I talk about them being circumcised or not.” Here is this male comic, this dad that is saying so much personal stuff about his son, and he’s not going to get any sort of shit at the end of this show such as, “Was that your story to tell?” That doesn’t exist for him. I watched a comedy-special the other night from Kevin Hart, and he was talking about his daughter and the day she started her period. I think, if that was a Mom — if that was Ali Wong — people would be like, “I can’t believe a mother would do that. How could she betray her child?” I don’t mean to make every podcast come around to the inequality between men and women, but I think it’s a weight that we, mothers, have that isn’t totally fair. I’m in that same place as you in being unsure of where to be in there.

Sara:                         I agree with you. I just hope that along the way that what has been imparted to him is that he can tell his own story, and he will have enough voice that he will want to share whatever he wants to share. For me as a kid, I didn’t ever feel like I had a voice. I felt very much like the parts of my personality that, now, have me on podcasts and writing greeting cards and writing books, all that stuff was stuff that was like, “We don’t share that stuff. We don’t talk about that stuff. You’re making other people feel uncomfortable. It’s not appropriate. It’s not okay.” I just felt very silenced all of the time, both as a woman and as a child. Earlier in life, I went through a sexual assault. There are just all of these shameful elements and stomping out of who I was, as a person, that just really took me many years to feel like I could speak up and share. I’m just hoping that my son will feel like he can share honestly. I just think that it’s just that season — I keep saying season, it’s such an obnoxious, stereotypical mom-thing to say —

Brandy:                   It’s a white woman word. {laughter}

Sara:                         It really is! It’s, especially, like, a white, raised in Christianity, woman word.

Brandy:                   “Season” and “she shed” in the same sentence is like, “White woman!” {laughter}

Sara:                         I did not know about she sheds until today which is why that has me completely shook. I don’t even remember what I was saying. I’m just thinking about she sheds. {laughter}

Brandy:                   The other day I was talking about how the poor man’s she shed is the bathroom, and you just lock the door. That’s so we all have a she shed, but it’s maybe the first version of the she shed. {laughter}
This idea of not being heard when you were younger and, now, you can clearly see how this plays out in having the freedom to say all of the things and things that are hard. Even the fact that you have a greeting card company, which is communication and messaging, I see myself in this, too, because I grew up with some of those similar feelings. The hard part for me (I’m wondering if you struggle with this, but it sounds like maybe you don’t as much as I do) is thinking like, if you’re somebody that feels like you haven’t been able to speak the truth, you haven’t been heard, people haven’t believed you, or you’ve been gaslit, to feeling that you have things to say about motherhood and your experience as a mother (including experiences with your kids), to pulling back to silence yourself on that, it can feel really bad because it’s more of the same. It’s more silencing. That’s kind of where I am in that I want to be able to say the truth about all the things, but it’s like, “Well, darn it, I have to think about this other person.” It’s the same with my marriage. I would tell you pretty much anything you want to know, but my husband is not the same way. I have to hold that back. I struggle with what part of that feels like I am being silenced, and what part of that is actually being a good wife? I don’t like to feel silenced, and when there’s this thing with motherhood that’s like, “What’s our story, and what’s theirs?” I feel like, “You’re going to put me in a situation where I become a mother which is the hardest thing that I’ve ever done and is rife with complication and struggle, and then you’re also going to say that that’s not my story to tell? Hmm…?” That sounds awfully terrible.

Sara:                         I think that some of the — I’m going to say a word that’s probably going to be not received well — indignity — of being an adoptive parent is that it’s never going to be your story. You accept that when you go into adoption. You’re not the only two people involved in this thing. You’re not the only family your child may ever know or will ever want to know about. That’s just part of it. I have certainly grieved that, and it is a struggle. I think, as an adoptive parent, it is a little bit different.

Brandy:                   What was the timeline on when your son — how do you say that? Do you say, “When your son became your son…?” Or, “When you adopted your son…?” — Is there a sensitive, compassionate way to say that in a way that you prefer?

Sara:                         I think it’s different for every family since their stories are different. I just say, “When he was born…” because we have had the privilege of having him with us since he was a newborn, but I think it’s different for everybody. I think asking the question is helpful. I started my business ten years ago, but the big change that happened is that I decided to open the brick and mortar store. It was the Fall of 2014, and January of 2015 is when my son was born.

Brandy:                   Wow!

Sara:                         I wouldn’t suggest that timing. {laughter}

Brandy:                   I can just imagine the pitfalls there. Tell us about what that was like in trying to grapple with a newborn and this new role while having this business. What blows my mind is that it’s not a business that you just show up to in your jammies (or maybe it is). {laughter} It’s a store with hours and a cash register and you have to be there. Tell me what that was like.

Sara:                         That’s definitely what made it more complicated. At that point, though, I had also hired a part-time staff for the first time which was a good thing — definitely a helpful thing. I’d had helpers here and there throughout my business, but this is when I needed to cover the actual open hours of the shop. We were out-of-state for a full month when my son was born — two weeks before and two weeks after. I had to keep the business running for that month that we were gone.

Brandy:                   When you were gone, were you with the birth mother situation, or was this a trip?

Sara:                         Yes. When we got back, we plunged right back into life since we had taken literally a month away. I was pretty much off work for that month, and I let other people take care of the oversight, emails, and whatever. I was unable to work. My husband was working remotely, which was helpful, but, basically, we just went back to work. I did a lot of baby-wearing. The first six-to-eight months of my son’s life, he came to the shop with me every day. He would nap in either the pack-and-play or in a wrap when he was really little. We were very lucky to have our shop right on the water. It’s in the Fishermen’s Terminal, so right behind the building are docks with boats and beautiful water and scenery. Some of my favorite memories of being a new mom is having this little sleepy baby on my chest and walking out by the water and lulling him to sleep with the sound of the water. It was really wonderful.

Brandy:                   Were you sleep deprived?

Sara:                         Oh, yeah, totally. {laughter}

Brandy:                   Were customers like, “Can I get this over here?” And you were like, “I’m sorry, I have to feed my baby.” Or were your husband and you taking shifts? How did the actual care-taking of a newborn and work, at the same time, work out?

Sara:                         During the day, I was never there by myself. I always had someone else there, so when he needed to nap, be fed, have a diaper change, or the fussy periods, I was able to take him outside to walk or upstairs where we have a little loft area. I learned very quickly not to apologize for a crying baby because it’s a family business, and he is my family. If he’s crying, I’m doing my best. That’s what it was like. There were a lot of really wonderful experiences through that period of time with that being our context. People were very kind and wanted to support us more because they recognized that it was real-life. This is a family we’re helping to support by buying a card. This matters. It was really nice. We also had some really bad experiences. I don’t think I’ve ever told the story publicly, but there was one day that I was sitting in the shop downstairs and holding my son. He was probably three-months-old, and a man walked in and walked up to me. The context here is that my son is Black, and I am white. The man that walked in was white. He walked up to me and said, without starting conversation or saying anything else to me, “You know, you could’ve bought two dogs for the same price.”  

Brandy:                   Oh, my God.

Sara:                         I just stared at this man like I must’ve misheard him. This doesn’t make any sense. Why would anyone say that in any context? I was like, “Excuse me?” He was like, “Yeah, I know, I’m an adoptive parent. It’s really expensive.” I was like, “Oh, my God!” For a human to say such an abhorrent thing to me about my beautiful, perfect infant son — first of all, just like gobsmacked. And then for him to have been an adoptive parent, the first thing that I thought was like, “Oh, my God, your poor kids. Your children must be so freaking traumatized from having you as a father.” It’s been years, now, that I’ve had to think about this interaction, and I have thought of so many wonderful comebacks over the years. But in that moment —

Brandy:                   You’re paralyzed.

Sara:                         Yeah, you’re paralyzed. It was also the first time that I had ever come face-to-face with the fact that my son would experience racism. I know that sounds terrible. I was well aware of racism in our country, but the first time that someone says something racist to your kid, when he’s three-months-old, is eye-opening. As a white woman, I never experienced that in my life. I’ve experienced sexism and all sorts of other things, but that specific thing I had never experienced. It completely changed the course of my life. It very much changed it because I stopped being apathetic about the way I was raising my kid. I completely stopped assuming that the world was changing for the better, and I didn’t have to worry about it. There was no veil over my eyes, anymore, of white privilege. Again, that’s probably putting it too strongly because white privilege is something I have always experienced and will always experience, but in that moment, I realized that I can’t just assume that that will cover him. It won’t. Since then, we’ve moved neighborhoods, chose school for him based on the diversity of that school, and ended/started friendships based on the life that we want our son to have because, when he was three-months-old, in my own place of work and my own business, someone was that hateful to a baby.

Brandy:                   Shit. That’s so intense. And also, had that not have happened, what choices would you have not made that were going to be really supportive of your son? You’re such a thoughtful person.

Sara:                         Unfortunately, that was not the last time something like that has ever happened. If that wasn’t the eye-opening experience, the next one would’ve been. That was just a very weird side effect of working with my child there. As soon as he started crawling, all bets were off. It completely changed, and then he was running at, like, eleven months — running as fast as he could. I shifted from working on-sight everyday with him to working from home, fully. I did full work from home for about two years.

 Brandy:                  When you worked from home, did you have a mother’s helper or somebody there?

Sara:                         No.

Brandy:                   You were doing this thing that a lot of moms do, where they have a job, but they don’t have childcare. Even though they’re at home, they’re still wrangling and getting food and getting the child down for naps while also handling work.

Sara:                         I worked only while he was napping — for however long he did two naps. I would work during naps, and then I’d be up with him the rest of the time. Then I would work nights and weekends when I could. When he cut down to one nap, I was like, “Oh, no.” Right before he turned two, he dropped naps altogether. My kid does not nap. He’s just not a napper.

Brandy:                   Yeah, I had those.

Sara:                         At that point, we started looking at different options. Then he started preschool two days a week when he was two-and-a-half. I guess that’s the thing, it has always had to change. Every time he changes or the circumstances change, I’ve had to shift how I make it work.

Brandy:                   Having a staff is probably a safety net that some moms don’t have so that you can call in people. When he’s sick or didn’t nap, you have other people that are sort of running the machine at the actual store. I would imagine that had to be a support system that was really help.

Sara:                         Absolutely. I also think that my business had grown to a point where it was not manageable by one person anymore, regardless. Honestly, having a kid at home was the catalyst for me in making better choices for how I spent my time and how I delegated it. It was a necessity at that point where it had just been like, “I’m Superwoman. I can do it. It’s fine. I’m fine. I can work eighty hours a week. It’s fine. Don’t question it.” {laughter} Suddenly, saying “yes” to things was an automatic “no” to my family. It was very much easier at that point to start to say “no” to things and to delegate things because then I could say “yes” to my family.

Brandy:                   Did you ever have a breakdown in any of that time from the multitasking and the juggling that you were doing?

Sara:                         Only, like, once a day. {laughter}

Brandy:                   What did that look like when you would have the meltdown? Is that something where you would call your husband and vent to him about? Is that something you would silently have to yourself in your back room/she shed? {laughter} Is that something you would talk to your support people about? Where were these meltdowns happening?

Sara:                         I try to keep them contained, as much as possible, from my staff because most of them are not, actually, about what anyone else is doing. It’s just about how it’s feeling and how it’s working from my vantage point. I would say, once about every six-months for the last five years, I’ve had to have a conversation with either my husband or my staff that’s like, “Okay, here are the things that aren’t working. I’m not having a meltdown today, but I had one recently. I’ve realized some things that I should have you do. Here are some things that I can no longer do. Here is a different idea of how we’re going to work it to try to make it better.” I’m just all about being flexible and tweaking it when it needs to happen. There’s just a lot of things where I know I have to work efficiently, and it always changes us to how I can make that work.

Brandy:                   The working efficiently after you have a kid is something I didn’t expect to have happen, but all of a sudden, everything in your life, you categorize into two categories. One is “things I can do with the baby” and the other is “things I need to do without the baby.” When the baby naps and you think of all the things you need to do (in which the thing you probably should be doing is sleeping or eating a nice meal), but you think about the things and you say, “I have to do these certain things right now that can’t be done with a baby around, but these things, like going to the grocery store, I could do (I would rather not do)–” And even today, with my kids at their ages of twelve and five, I still have items that come up when they go school that make me think, “What do I want to do with my time?” Like podcasting — I can’t have these interviews when my kids are home, obviously. When my kids are home for the summer, I can’t have quiet time. The amount of quiet that podcasting requires is almost not possible for adults, so there’s just like no way with kids. I even have to send my husband out of the house because he’s the kinds of guy that when he’s on a phone call, he’s, like, yelling. I don’t know why there’s just a normal vocal tone that can’t exist. {laughter} Anyway, even to this day, I look at my list of what I need to do without them here, and I do these things. Your brain works in a different way after you have kids because being efficient about your time is the only way that you get the things done that you want to get done. Or you let go of those things and sometimes there’s a little bit of that that’s necessary, but the efficiency part is a lot of mental work for sure.

Sara:                         The economics of being a working mom is that we pay for preschool and childcare in this season of our life. I have to pay a certain amount per month for the privilege of working at my job those days a week. I can’t work for free. I can’t undervalue my time because I’m literally losing money every minute that I waste of the day when my kid is in school.

Brandy:                   In terms of working, do you suffer from the working mom guilt at all?

Sara:                         I sure do.

Brandy:                   What does your flavor of suffering look like?

Sara:                         Now that he’s older, my son is kind of a little bit more aware, but he is a very strong-willed kid. For a long time, when I would leave for any period of time and come home, he would punish me. When he was really little, I would walk back in the door, and I’d be like, “Hi, buddy! I’m home! I’m so glad to see you!” He would walk up to me and punch me and walk away. {laughter}

Brandy:                   Oh, my God, that’s so savage.

Sara:                         It would take a little while for him to decide that he was happy that I was home because he was so hurt by the fact that we were not together. I love that we have that bond. It makes me feel so happy, but when you can’t explain to your kid why you’re working, it’s really hard not to feel guilty that they’re so upset that you’re away. We’ve been through that. Now, he has enough words to say things like, “Mom, I don’t know why you don’t like spending time with your family.” I was like, “Okay, let’s talk about this. You’re four, and we can talk about this now.” I know that what I’m modeling for my son is work ethic, following your passions, being an entrepreneur, balancing, being a family, working, and all of those things. I know that’s what I’m modeling for him. I know that’s what he will learn long-term, but it’s hard.

Brandy:                   And they’re so self-centered – developmentally and appropriately self-centered. That’s what childhood is. Anything that isn’t about them or the way that they want it to be, is, somehow, interpreted as you are doing this thing wrong. They can’t fully understand, and they don’t have the empathy and understanding that something could exist outside of them that had importance. Damn, it’s already hard enough for your own guilt (the guilt that we put on ourselves), but then to have your kid punch you and say, “Why don’t you like spending time with our family?” it’s like —

Sara:                         There’s a total double-standard that no one taught him, but he just picked up on, culturally, as how things work in the world. When my husband comes home from work, it’s like the ticker tape parade. It’s the most exciting thing that’s ever happened, and he’s thrilled. He gets hugs and high-fives. They go play in the yard. It’s like the best thing ever, but when I get home from work, it’s like, “Where have you been, deadbeat?” We’ve been working on it and trying to think of ways to explain and to talk about it, but he’s just so used to his reality of being him and me on a team of daily life and always together. Any difference in that feels just very dramatic.

Brandy:                   I think you should use a completely new tactic which is, just level with him. You should be like, “Listen, your dad betrayed you just as much as I did.” There’s all this nice validating stuff, but you could really just get it so that the frustration is equally split between the two of you. Maybe it would take some of the heat off of you. I’m just saying that maybe you want to try that.

Sara:                         It’s a hard one. It’s hard. Again, and not to bring it back to adoption, but as an adoptive parent, your main fears when you become a parent consist of thinking, “This kid is not going to like me. This kid is not going to bond with me. This kid is constantly going to be like, ‘Where’s the other parents I didn’t get? Who is this crazy white lady?’” That was a lot of my fears. Honestly, in some ways, I’m grateful for the fact that his reality is viewing him and me together forever and “don’t ever leave me” and “what are you doing, Mother?” I’m kind of okay with the mother-boy thing because we do have a really special bond. We have had these years together that mean so much to me. Again, I don’t know that we’ll have more kids. We likely will not. As much as I have been passionate about continuing to grow my business and work while my kid is small, I’ve had the privilege and the absolute gift of spending so much time with him. When he was little and he would fall asleep on my chest, you better believe I was just going to sit and let that baby sleep on me. I’m going to smell his sweet little head, and I took advantage of every opportunity that I possibly could to spend that time with him. I’m really glad that I did because that might be my only experience of that beautiful season of life.

Brandy:                   It’s definitely an eye-opener to hear you talk about the adoptive process and how some of the things that go on in your head are different such as wondering about if the bonding is going to happen — I know that biological parents also have that same worry, but I see why it would be different and why some of the things that your kid says and does would just have a different level of something. I really appreciate you being honest and transparent about what some of those things are. I would imagine there are listeners out there who are going, “Yes!” who have adoptive children. I’m an overthinker so this makes sense, but even with my daughter, who took us a while to get pregnant with, I had some moments in the first month or so where I just questioned, “Did we sort of force you to come here, but you didn’t really want to do that?” But we were like, “No, we’re going to make this happen.” 

Sara:                         Oh man, I’ve had those thoughts too.

Brandy:                   I remember the first time that she smiled. It broke me. I broke down because it was like, “You want to be here! I didn’t do something against your will.” It’s silly to think that, but every circumstance has its own set of layers and that was definitely one for me. I can understand why the adoption process has its own set of layers that those of us that haven’t been through it have no idea about.

Sara:                         I also think I still believe the lie that other people’s parenting experience is simple, and mine is not. I don’t think being a parent is simple. It forces you to face all of your own demons, all of your own fears, the way you were raised, hear yourself say those things you swore you’d never say, and do those things you swore you’d never do.

Brandy:                   Right, your flawed personality traits.

Sara:                         Yeah! It makes you face that you’re impatient and that you can be more angry than what makes sense at times. There are certain things that are not great about my personality that I still want to work on. That’s why, for me, I feel like every single time I talk to anyone, I’m like, “Yeah, I go to a lot of therapy. Therapy is good.” I started therapy when my son was six-months-old, and I’m really, really grateful for that because I’ve had a place to go and talk about a lot of those fears and thought processes. It’s been such a benefit to my business, me as a parent, my marriage, and everything in my life because we’re not alone. We’re just not. I think that’s the super power of people like us. We’re constantly reminding people that it’s not black or white, it’s not either or, it’s both. Holding those things together makes us both appreciate the happy memories and the photos we took of a great day, but also remembering that the kid crapped on the living room floor. Those both happened on the same day which will keep us from keep us from being too nostalgic for the things that have passed and also keep us from being too quick to get passed the hard stuff. If we can hold it both, then we can live a full life. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it doesn’t have to be a failure or a disaster. We don’t have to call it either one. It can be just as messy as it needs to be and as it will be. We can be okay with that. I’m not always there. I’m not always okay. I’m not always thrilled, but I think holding both is how we can actually live everyday of this life.

Brandy:                   I think you’re so right about that. The nuance of being a human. Sara, thank you so much for telling us your story and for your candor. It’s been so fun getting to know you, and it’s making me nostalgic for my greeting card days. I feel like I want to send them all to you so that you could harvest what you like, which would be probably nothing. {laughter}

Sara:                         Honestly, if you just sent me one with a stamp on it and a note inside, I would love it. I have a very weird, awkward YouTube channel called Snail Mail Superstar where I send mail and receive mail and read it on camera. It’s a such a fun time. It’s such a weird, dumb thing that I do that I enjoy very much.

Brandy:                   I love that. How can people send you stuff to have this happen? What is the address?

Sara:                         If you go to http://www.constellationco.com, the address there, at the bottom of our site, gets to me. That is our shop address which is where I receive all of my mail. You can take a look at what we do there as well. We’re also on all of the socials as Constellation & Co. If you want to check us out and chat, I’m always around.

Brandy:                   Their stuff is beautiful, and it is so perfect for those of us that are truth-tellers and who don’t veer from saying the hard things. {outro}

Brandy:                   I pretty much want to take a trip to Seattle to go hang out with Sara. She’s so awesome. Since Sara and I recorded this interview, her book has come out. It is beautiful. She has such an eye for design. It’s called The Year I Became Snail Mail Superstar in which Sara chronicles a year of her life when she walked with grief, took a deep dive into her family history, and got to know her great-grandfather through his postcard collection. She tells stories from her experiences with small business, loss, anxiety, depression, infertility, adoption, and the book has tons of color photos, vintage postcards, family letters, and more. You can find it on her website at http://www.constellationco.com.

Brandy:                   If you like what you hear, don’t forget to subscribe, leave a rating, or, better yet, a review. As always, thanks for listening.

** As always, thank you to Scott Weigel and his band, Seahorse Moon, for providing me with that jaunty intro and outro music. You guy are awesome. Check ’em out on iTunes.