(41) Raging Against the Minivan with Kristen

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Author, Kristen Howerton, and I somehow laugh our way through a conversation about some pretty deep topics such as infertility, divorce, toxic positivity in the face of miscarriage, and coping with life’s unknowns. We talk a lot about the pandemic, the similarities between it and Kristen’s past struggles, as well as what parts of ourselves this crisis is bringing out. Kristen also gives me a lesson on faking it ‘til I make it, she shares a mantra that helped her get through the hardest moments of her life, and tells us how she’s keeping her sanity as an introvert who’s now home with her kids 24-7.

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Brandy:          Hello, Adult Conversation Podcast listeners. Today on the podcast is someone who rages at many of the same things I do — I would say the most important things. Kristen Howerton, from the Rage Against the Minivan blog and book, stops by, and we laugh our way through our conversation about some pretty deep things such as infertility, divorce, toxic positivity in the face of miscarriage, and coping with life’s unknowns — you know, just some light topics. We also talk about the pandemic, the similarities between it and Kristen’s past struggles, as well as what parts of ourselves this crisis is bringing out. Is pandemic me the real me, or is non-pandemic me the real me? Kristen also gives me a lesson on faking it ‘til I make it. She tells us about a mantra that helped her get through the hardest moments of her life and lets us know how she’s keeping her sanity as an introvert who’s now home with her kids 24/7. SAME. On to the show —

Brandy:          Today on the podcast, I am giddy with excitement to welcome my guest Kristen Howerton, who is a licensed marriage and family therapist, creator of the #assholeparent meme and Instagram account, and the founder of the blog and now book titled Rage Against the Minivan. Welcome, Kristen. Thank you so much for being here with me.

Kristen:          Well, thanks for having me.

Brandy:          Of course! I have to tell you that I’m giddy for a few reasons, but one is because I spent the last two days reading your awesome book. On every other page, you mentioned something that made me go, “Oh, my God. She is me. I am her. We are one.”

Kristen:          {laughter}

Brandy:          This happened so frequently that I almost messaged you when it was happening, but then I was sure you would cancel today’s interview because it would have been so many messages.

Kristen:          {laughter}

Brandy:          “I had shingles at Christmas too. We made up a song called Shingle Bells.” There were so many specifics.

Kristen:          Oh, my gosh. {laughter}

Brandy:          So, I held in all of my like, “Oh, my God, we’re best friends,” for right now. But, we basically hate the same things, which I’m going to list some of them here because anybody who listens to my podcast has heard me rail about these things — but things such as homework before sixth grade, a birthday party goodie bags, {laughter}

Kristen:          Stop. Stop it all. Burn it down.

Brandy:          Volunteering at school. I am such the “I’ll bring napkins, and I’ll do the thing that I can do at home.”

Kristen:          Uh, yeah.

Brandy:          The resistance of toddlers, and this one was so specific: the lack of stability when trying to give birth in water. I didn’t know that was going to happen, but I had the same thing you did. Like, “Well, now I can’t actually hold on to anything.”

Kristen:          You’re just floating around like a buoy in labor.

Brandy:          Totally. I thought getting in the shower would feel really good. Everybody had told me that. I got in the shower, and I was like, “But I am wet now.”

Kristen:          No. Nothing feels good.

Brandy:          Nothing. {laughter} So, there’s that, and then the motherfucking Elf on the Shelf — my nemesis — waking a sleeping child (ever!), and living life before 10:00 am, which maybe, you’ll notice I scheduled you for 11:00 am today {laughter}

Kristen:          And you’ll notice I was very happy. {laughter}

Brandy:          Yeah, because 10:00 am is still just a little too early.

Kristen:          It’s the morning.

Brandy:          Man, there’s all of that. So, I’m excited to talk to you today because after reading your book, it’s like, wow, you have been through so many challenges on the parenting journey. And as I was reading your book, it felt like that infomercial that’s like, “But wait, there’s more!” {laughter}

Kristen:          {laughter}

Brandy:          Because “there’s an earthquake in Haiti.” It just was like, “Whoa.” So, you’ve been through infertility, multiple miscarriages, adoption, divorce, the earthquake I mentioned, questioning and leaving your church. So, I really want to pick your brain about the similarities between your past struggles and this current pandemic struggle and ask you what feels similar, and I also would love to discuss some of the lesser talked about, maybe, taboo topics that parents aren’t always comfortable talking about. So, before we get to that, what do the listeners need to know about you?

Kristen:          Well, you have given a good perspective on many of the things I hate. {laughter}

Brandy:          {laughter}

Kristen:          That’s my brand: raging against things. I will give a random thing that I love which is not a big scoop or big secret, but I am a musical theater nerd.

Brandy:          Yesssss.

Kristen:          Like, big nerd.

Brandy:          Although, I have to call you out because I saw on Facebook that you were asking about which songs could go in certain musicals. There was one in Hamilton, “That Would Be Enough.” Am I remembering this right?

Kristen:          Yes!

Brandy:          How do you hate on that? It’s so good.

Kristen:          Well first of all, I probably don’t have any objectivity left because I cannot explain how much we’ve listened to that soundtrack in my house. My daughters are also musical theater nerds. I’ve seen Hamilton. I saw it with the original cast. I, then, went back to New York with my daughters. They can’t go to college now because we kept going to Hamilton.

Brandy:          {laughter} Worth it.

Kristen:          There’s your college fund. We went to Hamilton instead. But this is terrible, I hope Lin-Manuel never hears this. I don’t know if he listens to your podcast.

Brandy:          He’s a regular listener, so he will. It’s fine.

Kristen:          Well, I’m sorry Lin. I don’t think he’s the best vocalist, which I’m not alone in thinking that.

Brandy:          I agree with you. Yeah.

Kristen:          And that’s one of those songs on the soundtrack. He’s not rapping. He’s singing, and it’s not the best.

Brandy:          Okay. I hear you.

Kristen:          Sorry, Lin.

Brandy:          So, I appreciate that take on him because a fellow friend and I were talking (we’re both Hamilton fans), and what I love about him is he shows us, he shows everybody in the world, that you don’t have to be the best at the thing to do the thing.

Kristen:          Yes!

Brandy:          And so, when it came on Disney+, because I hadn’t seen it with the original cast, I was like, “Oh wow, this is interesting.” And then, like,
“Good for him,” because his passion and the fact that he was the writer of it makes up for his lack of vocals for me.

Kristen:          Yes.

Brandy:          I know other people are like, “How could that be?” But, if you can be a lead in a hit Broadway musical and not be the best singer, there’s hope for everything in this world.

Kristen:          {laughter} But, it’s like he wrote the part for himself. I’m glad he played the part, and I also saw him in In the Heights. I have so much admiration and affinity for him, but that’s just one of those songs where in-person it works.

Brandy:          Yeah.

Kristen:          But then, when you keep listening to it on repeat, it’s like, “We could’ve auto-tuned this just a tiny bit.”

Brandy:          {laughter} Yeah, okay. Maybe, you’re right on that. Okay.

Kristen:          But I’m also, in addition to being a theater nerd, I’m also a choir nerd. I was choir all through high school.

Brandy:          So, if you’re a choir nerd, does this mean there are other choirs that you follow? How do you live out your nerddom as a choir nerd?

Kristen:          Well, it’s tough. It’s a challenge.

Brandy:          {laugher} Is there shunning? Is there public shunning that happens?

Kristen:          {laughter} Well, I do actually do a thing called Beer and Hymns which is me and a group of friends. We get together, and we play old school hymns that we grew up on. We play them in a bar in this sort of rowdy and irreverent and raucous experience where everyone is holding a beer and singing old hymns at the top of their lungs. So, that is a little bit of my choir fix.

Brandy:          Wow. Okay.

Kristen:          And then, have you ever heard of Choir! Choir! Choir!?

Brandy:          {laughter} No, but it sounds amazing.

Kristen:          We’re doing a deep dive. You were not signing up for this when you brought me on and that I was gonna do a deep dive in choir culture.

Brandy:          Yeah, let’s do it. {laughter}

Kristen:          {laughter} Choir! Choir! Choir! is an experience where these two guys go around, and they will take over — like, in Costa Mesa, they took over the Segerstrom Music, which is — you’ve probably been there before.

Brandy:          Yes, I have seen Hamilton there.

Kristen:          It’s a beautiful theater. Everyone comes, and they hand out worksheets. Then, you work for an hour on one song with choir parts that they then post to their YouTube.

Brandy:          Oh.

Kristen:          So, you’re part of choir. It’s super fun, and they do pop songs. Yeah, it’s really fun.

Brandy:          I just love that the name — a name so great, it has to be three times.

Kristen:          Yeah, not just “choir.”

Brandy:          I’m on board at “choir,” and then the second “choir” is like, “Oh,” and then the third one, I’m like, “I can’t take this seriously.” Although, it sounds amazing.” {laughter}

Kristen:          No, we’re just gonna do three.

Brandy:          Which is perfect.

Kristen:          The three is measuring your commitment. If you’re out at two, you’re not part of it. You’re not in enough. {laughter}

Brandy:          That’s right. Yeah, I feel like that weeds out people pretty quickly. You have a rule, like, “If you’re laughing at two, you can’t be in this.” {laughter}.

Kristen:          “Yeah, you’re not part of us.” {laughter}

Brandy:          This is amazing. Oh, my gosh. Well, I’m about to totally switch gears because I want to dive in deep here, right off the bat, because one of the parts of your book that I think will speak to so many women is the part where you share about how you experienced multiple miscarriages. And then, specifically, how your community didn’t like the way you were handling the emotions around them. That part was — wow. I was thinking there’s so many women who go through that, and there’s not really a guidebook for how to feel about that and then how to be public or not public about that. But then, also, how to handle when other people have issues with how you’re handling it. So, will you tell us about that?

Kristen:          Well, yeah. I think that there were two factors that were sort of laid out that contributed to a number of my friends not handling my own grief around having miscarriage after miscarriage very well. And I think one of the foundational things that I think is true of American culture, our American Dream culture, is the idea of toxic positivity.

Brandy:          Thank you.

Kristen            Meaning, everything that is bad, everything that goes wrong in the world, is leading to something better.

Brandy:          Yes.

Kristen:          I even have a neighbor who the other day was like, “Well, this pandemic, you just have to look for what we’re all being given and what the gift is and what we’re all supposed to learn.” Well, it’s like, “I agree that we have to learn in hardships. I just don’t always think things are a gift. I think sometimes shitty things happen, period. The end.”

Brandy:          Yes.

Kristen:          And there’s not always a greater gift. So, I was in the midst of multiple miscarriages and would have friends say things like, “Well, if you hadn’t had this miscarriage, you wouldn’t have adopted Jafta.” Or, “If you hadn’t had this miscarriage, you wouldn’t have gone on this mission trip to Africa that changed your life.” It’s like, “Even if all of that is true, I still wish I hadn’t had the miscarriages. They were really devastating.”

Brandy:          Yeah, and those comments are more about the person themselves than you.

Kristen:          Yeah.

Brandy:          That’s them trying to make themselves feel like, “Now, we don’t have to feel sadness together,” is basically what that says, which is not true support or friendship, really.

Kristen:          I think you’re right. I think it’s, “I don’t want to sit in the sadness with you, so come out of it because it’s uncomfortable.” But I think it’s also about the other person in so much as, I think some people really have a hard time with the idea that suffering in our life is inevitable and often meaningless. I think people have a really hard time with that. And so, when someone is in the slump, really in the thick of it, it’s like they are uncomfortable watching it because it’s challenging their own worldview.

Brandy:          Absolutely, and I think you probably know that more than, maybe, other people because of your faith background.

Kristen:          That’s the second. That’s definitely the second thing that was happening for me is that I was in a faith community. I was heavily involved in a church. That was my community of church, but it was also my community of friends. I think in faith communities, there is often even more of an impetus to make meaning or to very quickly turn it into some kind of a testimony story or recovery story or like, “God was glorified through all of this.” I’m still a Christian, but I’m really in a place where I push back on those narratives that Christians — when we have hardship, we need to always, somehow find a way that it’s God’s purpose because I also do feel, even as a Christian, that sometimes in this lifetime, suffering is meaningless. I do think that. I don’t think it’s always pushing towards some greater plan in God’s design because I don’t believe in a God that put an entire earthquake in Haiti to kill thousands of parents and children and loved ones for his greater design.

Brandy:          Right.

Kristen:          I don’t think that God works that way. I think it’s a very privileged way of looking at God if you’ve lived a life where you haven’t either had a lot of personal suffering or you haven’t traveled or been enough in places where there is a lot of human suffering that is meaningless.

Brandy:          Right.

Kristen:          Those two things really set me up for not being in friend circles where people could sit in the pain with me which was hard.

Brandy:          Absolutely. And so, you talk in the book about how people at your church were saying to your husband, “We are uncomfortable with how she’s handling this.” What was the rage around that? How did you handle that?

Kristen:          {laughter} Well, this was all happening in my late 20’s. And so, there was rage, but there was also still a little bit of guilt. I think if this happened now, in my 40’s, it would just be straight rage.

Brandy:          {laughter} Right, just middle fingers all over the place.

Kristen:          Oh, for sure. I would just be like, “I’m out. I’m out.” But in my 20’s, I was like, “This makes me mad, but maybe they’re right.” “This makes me mad, but I don’t want to ruffle feathers.” “This makes me mad, but I still feel guilty.” My own theology, my own faith, my own boundaries were not formed enough for me to have done what I should have done which was A) tell people off and B) maybe, push the ejector button on some of these friendships which I ultimately did.

Brandy:          Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. You had mentioned stepping away from the church in your life and friends that revolved around it which I think is such a brave choice to choose the right, compassionate human thing at the expense of leaving what you’ve always known. And I want to talk later about some of how the adopting of your sons maybe led to that, but what was it like forming a new community and friendships? And what was your new updated criteria for friends? What things became deal breakers for you as you evolved?

Nicole:            What it was like was pretty terrible. It was really painful. I did retain some friends that I had in that very close-knit church community. I have to say this too: It wasn’t just me. It was a very mutual, I think, breaking apart in some of those friendships because I was pushing on some things that people felt very sacred about. I was saying, “Hey, I don’t think that being a Christian should mean that you’re Republican.” Or, “I don’t know if this whole pro-life thing, if we’re doing this the right way. I think pro-life probably means access to birth control and education on birth control.” I ended up feeling very differently than most of my Christian friends at that time on matters of LGBT issues and affirming LGBT people in the church. I’m very pro-LGBT. Not like, “Love the sinner, hate the sin kind of thing.” I’m like, “Come on in and get married in the church.” So, people were pulling away from me as well because, again, when you are challenging things that they hold very dear, some people just feel like, “I don’t want to be friends anymore because this is upsetting to me. This is making me doubt my own self.” And so, a part of my criteria, honestly, was people who accepted my newly forming beliefs and didn’t have any issue — it doesn’t mean that they had to agree with me, but they had to see me as a person, not as a set of beliefs.

Brandy:          So true. As somebody who also experienced infertility, it’s a — I don’t know of a better word than mindfuck — but it’s a mindfuck to want something so badly and focus on it for so long. And then, when you finally get it, to want a break from it… {laughter}

Kristen:          Yes.

Brandy:          That part of your book so resonated with me, and the way that you were talking about how there are people out there that were like, “Don’t you just want to wake them up sometimes?” And how you were like, “F no!”

Kristen:          Yeah.

Brandy:          I had a couple friends like that who would say, “When I put them to bed at night, I’m just so sad that they’re asleep.” This was during toddler years! And I’m like, “What is wrong with me that I don’t feel this way?” So, that part of your book totally resonated for me, and then the realization you had about being an introvert, even though you were outgoing and social, that you needed that alone time to recharge. So, will you tell me about how that realization changed how you viewed yourself and your needs as a mother?

Kristen:          Yeah. Like you said, I think that any of us who came to motherhood the long way round, which is a lot of us, whether it’s multiple miscarriages, infertility, prolonged adoption, or not being in a partnership where you could have kids, that’s so many of us. So many of us didn’t have a linear experience, one day saying, “I’m ready to have kids,” and then in nine months, you have your kids. That doesn’t happen.

Brandy:          That’s what I thought it would be. That’s what we were scared that it would be. Everybody scared us that you could get pregnant so easy. I’m like, “You all have been lying to me for years because I could’ve been having lots of unprotected sex, and you’ve ruined my life. Thank you.” {laughter}

Kristen:          Right. {laughter} It’s funny, I remember there was a blog that I used to read back in my infertility days, and I think it was called something to the effect of All That Wasted Birth Control. {laughter}

Brandy:          {laughter} That’s exactly right. Yes.

Kristen:          I think that those of us who came to motherhood, the long way round, can really struggle with guilt when we then feel the very normal experience of being tired of our kids or wanting a break or feeling overwhelmed because it’s like, “I worked so hard for this. I prayed for this. I asked for this. I begged for this, and now I’m tired of them. What’s wrong with me?”

Brandy:          Yeah.

Kristen:          I would just say, for anyone listening who came to motherhood the long way around, you get every right as every other mother to complain to feel tired. That doesn’t preclude all of those normal experiences of motherhood which is often overwhelming. But yes, for me, I think I had to come to terms with my introversion which I had never — I’m not shy. I’m not a shy person. I don’t mind standing up in a crowd full of thousands of people. No big for me, but you put me in a chit chat conversation, and I’ll want to die in twenty minutes.

Brandy:          See, this is why we’re the same person. I meet people, and I want to be like, what’s your darkest secret? I’ll tell you mine, and you tell me yours, and then we can just connect. It’s probably unhealthy. {laughter}

Kristen:          Oh, I know. I feel the same way. This was me at preschool pickup. I’m like, “Oh, you’re Ashley’s mom. So nice to meet you. What do you think happens when we die?” {laughter}

Brandy:          Yeah, that’s right. {laughter}

Kristen:          I always try to push it deep. I have that reputation with my friends like, “Oh, here goes Kristen.” I’m the friend who’s like, “Let’s get to the meat. Let’s get to the real stuff.”

Brandy:          Yes! I had a friend yesterday say, “Okay, this is probably too much information for you.” I’m like, “Dude, not possible. Really, not possible.”

Kristen:          “No, there’s no such thing.”

Brandy:          And then, what she told me, I was like “That’s so tame. Who do you think I am? I can go way darker, dude.” {laughter}

Kristen:          The way that introversion affected me is I also have a much higher need than most people for alone time — just to be completely alone — which, LOL, in a pandemic because that hasn’t happened in forever.

Brandy:          Yeah, we’re gonna get to that next. I need to ask you all about that.

Kristen:          So anyway, I just realized, suddenly, I went from — I mostly worked at home. I had kind of an introverted job. Then, to being around children 24/7. I feel like the baby stage for me was okay because they’re sort of like accessories at that point. You wear them. You feed them. But once they became toddlers, I was like, “Oh, my gosh. I’m never alone. I’m never alone.” I wanted them to go to sleep. I wanted them to go to bed. I wanted a break, and I just felt like I was living in that. I felt really guilty about it until I finally (and I talked about this in the book) went to a therapist, and she was like, “You’re an introvert. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not broken. You’re not a sociopath.” Which of course, that’s where I went. {laughter}

Brandy:          {laughter}

Kristen:          I’m like, “Maybe, I have no empathy. Maybe, I’m a sociopath.” She’s like, “Here’s the thing, honey. Sociopaths don’t come to therapy and ask if they’re sociopaths. They’re not hand wringing about their lack of connection with their child 24/7. They’re not having those thoughts.”

Brandy:          “If you’re asking yourself if you’re a sociopath, you’re probably not a sociopath.” {laughter}

Kristen:          You’re probably not, right? And you’re crying. “Am I a sociopath? Why am I not loving my kids all the time?” That’s not sociopath behavior. {laughter}

Brandy:          No. {laughter}

Kristen:          But, she really gave me permission to let myself off the hook and just to be like, “This is who you are, and your kids will go off to school.” That’s the big joke, now in the pandemic, and I wrote in my book, “My biggest tool in my parenting toolbox is that they go to school.”

Brandy:          Totally. And you also wrote a quote, “When people ask me if I would ever homeschool, I just laugh.”

Kristen:          Still laughing! {laughter}

Brandy:          I’ve said that to my friends before too. If my life depended on it, I could not homeschool. It’s like, “Oh, I guess I could.”

Kristen:          And here we are.

Brandy:          I call it “non-consensual homeschooling” because I never consented to this. I was never asked, so that’s just what it is.

Kristen:          {laughter} That’s so funny. That’s so true.

Brandy:          So yeah, I was so with you on the glory that is all the kids being in school all day long. I had been working towards this goal for twelve years because my kids are far apart. I have a thirteen-year-old and almost seven-year-old. I just reached this goal this last school year only to have the pandemic hit. So, for those seven months where both kids were in school with no half-day kindergarten bullshit.

Kristen:          Glory.

Brandy:          Yes. I, honestly felt like I was finally coming out of a hole. I even high-five’d my husband and was like, “Dude, we made it through the roughest part of, I think, our life.” I felt like I could finally breathe for a minute. I finally had some balance. So, I know for me this pandemic and the non-consensual homeschooling that comes with it feels like I’m sliding back into that hole which is awful.

Kristen:          Yes.

Brandy:          And I know a lot of moms are feeling that way. So, I’m wondering because you are similar, how are you doing with kids being home 24/7? What are your coping tools? When you lose your mind, what do you do? How much banana bread are you baking? What’s your life like right now?

Kristen:          {laughter} Listen, I can’t even sugarcoat it. I’m gonna stay on brand. It’s terrible. What you describe sliding back into the hole that I felt I was in when my kids were toddlers is exactly how I feel. I feel constantly overwhelmed and my kids are at relatively easy ages, but for me to never be able to have them walk out the door and know I’m alone in my house and whatever I focus on, whatever work I have to do, I can at least devote five hours to it. That’s gone. Every single thing I do, I’m interrupted. It’s just been really difficult for me to try to stay focused and to do work when it’s like, “Mom, what are we doing for lunch?” Or, “Mom, I need help getting the Zoom call.” There’s always something.

Brandy:          Yes.

Kristen:          One of my coping skills has been that I have had to pull back on work a lot which sucks because then you’re making less money. We’re all in the midst of a financial crisis as well. Closing my door and just having office hours to the best of my ability is one way that I’m coping. It’s not great. It’s really not great.

Brandy:          I’m with you. You’re not alone. I feel the same way, and I felt like I had reached this point where I was so frustrated and resistant about the whole thing that I almost had to give myself an attitude adjustment. “Listen, Brandy. You have to accept this, and it’s happening.”

Kristen:          Yes.

Brandy:          But then, I’m having an argument with myself. Myself says to myself, “How am I supposed to just pretend I don’t feel this way though? Am I supposed to pretend and be happy and upbeat?” I laugh at because it’s like, “Yeah, that’s what a lot of people do. That’s not being in a dark hole all the time.” {laughter} And so, I really had to try to be like, “Okay, I’m gonna try to show up here and not be so frustrated.” What I had to do in order to do that is basically not work during the week.

Kristen:          Yes.

Brandy:          I had to then try to get my work time on the weekends. It worked for a while because I felt like I’m at least not trying to get something that’s not working. There wasn’t that resistance there, but then I was angry because I basically felt like I gave up all the things that I had worked for in terms of how I’m building my business and my writing career.

Kristen:          Oh, me too.

Brandy:          I’m just expected that I would give up these things, and it’s not expected by employers that working fathers have to give up anything. In fact, I know my husband’s work has been busier than ever. So, you’re not alone. I’ve been like, “How do I handle this resentment and this frustration and this rage, but also live right now?” Because I don’t want to be angry all the time.

Kristen:          I know. I feel like I’ve had to do a lot of radical acceptance in the midst of all of this. One thing that I do for myself, and I realize it is a huge privilege that I can even say this, I had to pull back and just accept, “I’m not going to be as productive.” I had a lot of plans for this year. I’m in the middle of a book promotion, and I had to go, “Some of the stuff isn’t going to happen. It’s not going to happen. I’m supposed to be writing all these guest articles, and it’s just not gonna happen.” I can’t write anything right now. I think every mother is in a brain fog. I can’t remember words. {laughter}

Brandy:          Totally. I was in the same boat as you with these guest articles. Before the pandemic, I had plans on these ideas for topics and where we were gonna pitch. There really has been this letting go for me. I’m a hustler. I have little alerts come up on my phone like, “Oh, book signing in LA. Book signing at Tattered Cover in Denver.” I’m having to miss all these things. I’ve almost accepted that I’m just not going to do almost all of them. It’s kind of been like an all or nothing thing for me.

Kristen:          Yeah, me too.

Brandy:          I think it’s easy to beat up on ourselves and go like, “Well, this isn’t going to be a success because you’re not doing anything.” But it’s like, “How can I fight against a pandemic right now and my nervous system?” It’s a lot to overcome.

Kristen:          Totally. I agree.

Brandy:          I know that you are no stranger to anxiety and having wild situations happen to you, like the things that you talk about in your book. What are the some of the similarities between challenges in your past and this pandemic? As to keep your sanity right now, are you drawing upon coping methods you’ve learned along the way? Is there anything throughout your parenting journey that’s now coming to really help you? One of the things that I’m thinking about is your mantra in your book. It seems like in hard times, when you were trying to be present was, “What would a loving mother do?” Asking yourself that question, which I think is so beautiful, because you’re not asking, “What would the perfect mother do?” You’re asking, “What would a loving mother do?” So, what things that you’ve learned along the way are you using now?

Kristen:          It’s wild because so many of the lessons that I talk about in my book have just been sort of thrown back in my face in the middle of this pandemic. Like, “Okay, God. I get it. I got those lessons already.” That whole idea of “what would a loving mother do” or “faking it until you make it,” that has been a big part of my parenting journey. Even if I’m totally exhausted, how can I show up for these kids in a way that makes them feel loved? I feel that right now. I’m so exhausted. I’m so tired. I’m not hiding those things from my kids. I’m being honest about those things, but that irritability that I feel when they need my attention in the middle of the day — there’s a lot of me really asking myself, “What would I do if I wasn’t irritated? How would I respond to this benign and appropriate question from a child at 11:00am on a Monday because they’re not doing anything wrong and none of this is their fault?” I have had to do a lot of that adjustment of just like, “Take a breath and think through ‘how does a loving mother respond to this question right now?’ Not me as irritable pandemic mom but loving Mom.” A lot of it is faking, but I don’t ever want my kids to look back on this season and remember, “Oh, that was the season where I felt like Mom hated me.”

Brandy:          Absolutely. I’m with you. That’s been my thing, too. “How can I make this so that they look back on it and it’s not this awful trauma thing?” Because it’s traumatic whether we want it to be or not. We can’t control that.

Kristen:          It is. That’s right.

Brandy:          But we can also not add to that trauma which is a huge challenge when we’re also in trauma survival mode. So, I love that idea that just refocuses everything about what a loving mother would do. And then, the faking it ‘til you make it part, I need tips on that. How does one do that? How do you do that?

Kristen:          I think it is. It’s that breath. It’s taking one little second before you react and being just a little bit mindful of like, “Okay, my first response is to be like, ‘Do you really need help with this right now?’” It’s just taking that breath and then saying, “Hey, sweetie. What do you need?” Because that’s faking it. If I’m just in my real base self, my response is like, “Do you really need this right now??” {laughter}

Brandy:          {laughter} “How dare you interrupt me? How dare you ask me to watch the scene in the Barbie show for the hundredth time?”

Kristen:          Or like, “How dare you want to be fed?” {laughter}

Brandy:          Oh, my gosh.

Kristen:          “How dare you need a basic need met.” {laughter}

Brandy:          “Mom, I’m hungry.” “Oh, how dare you!” {laughter}

Kristen:          Totally. {laughter} It is. It’s faking it. And then, I think when you behave a certain way, when you take a second, you’re mindful, you take a breath, and you are less reactive, I do believe that practice becomes more internalized, if that makes sense. As you practice patience, you become more patient. As you practice acceptance, you become more accepting. I do believe that.

Brandy:          Yeah, I agree with you on that. This reminds me, somebody was saying how they were always on their kids, like, “Come on. Hurry up.” Whether it was for bedtime or they were getting ready to go in the car — obviously, not going to school because none of us are doing that right now, but the person was saying (I think it was a dad) how he’s been doing this thing before he tells the kid to hurry, he starts counting in his head. I don’t know if it’s a dad or mom, but whoever this person is said that they find that they only get to about ten before the kid does the thing, and it’s been so helpful to reframe for them how easily that they’re snapping. It’s just for ten seconds. That’s it. It’s not like it’s a five-minute thing. I have been practicing that, and it’s actually been really helpful.

Kristen:          That’s good. I need to do that.

Brandy:          So, I think you’re right. I think that pause — the sacred pause — I think that pause is a make or break for our parenting sometimes for sure.

Kristen:          Yeah. And then the other thing that was a big learning in the book was just learning how to let go of trying to control outcomes. You have to do that with infertility. You kind of have to do that with children in general. We do not control who they become. We really don’t.

Brandy:          Yes.

Kristen:          I think that lesson of learning to let go of controlling outcomes has served me well in the middle of a pandemic where I don’t know how long this is going to last. I don’t know when they’re going to go back to school. I don’t know what this is going to do to my business. Just being able to go, “I’m going to be okay. We’re going to roll with this storm, and I can’t control any of it so I’m not going to spend my evening trying.” Which that’s not to say that I don’t slip up and do that. I do do that sometimes.

Brandy:          Of course.

Kristen:          I go down the Google hole, like, “When is this vaccine coming out? Come on. Let’s get the answers.”

Brandy:          I don’t know if you feel this way, but I’m finding (and it took me a couple months to realize what was going on) that it’s harder to have conversations for me, as somebody who understands the unknown. I’m comfortable in the mess of life. I don’t like it, but I definitely can sit with someone through sadness and through frustration. So, it’s hard during this time to have conversations with people who are so rigid. The people I’m drawn to right now are deep thinkers and not maybe comfortable in the unknown but at least can acknowledge that we don’t have control over all of this. I think this idea about not controlling outcomes, I think it’s really relevant for right now.

Kristen:          Yeah, I do too. I think that we’re watching a lot of people grappling with that loss of control, and humans don’t do well with that. We’re watching it kind of spill out in some really negative ways. Even when I’m watching these videos being posted of people walking into stores and accosting at 20-something’s who work in a grocery store, which makes me so mad. These kids don’t control any of this. Their boss told them to make sure people are in a mask. As I’m watching these people, I’m feeling so much rage. I am trying to remind myself these people are scared. They’re scared. They’re losing control, and they’re scared. They’re being completely inappropriate, but at the root of it is fear.

Brandy:          Absolutely. That’s what I’ve been trying to think about. When you boil it down and you look at them are angry about everything – like there’s no good options. And I feel that way specifically about school. It’s just like, “More testing is not normal, but no testing is bad.” You look at this and you think, “These people are mad at the virus.” The virus is really who they’re mad at, but you can’t be mad at a virus because a virus doesn’t give a fuck.

Kristen:          Yes. Right.

Brandy:          So instead, your anger spills off into anybody doing anything about it. That’s where I think it’s so helpful to be able to look (I’ve had to look at this myself with some people) and go like, “These people are in a trauma response, and so I am going to reserve my judgment about that because everybody has their own ways of coping.” It doesn’t excuse them going into stores and berating workers about wearing a mask or not, but it’s just a wild time to see people reacting in trauma mode. I was asking a friend this the other day because then you start wondering, “Well, is this their real self, or is the other version their real self?” And I feel the same way about me. Like, “Is pandemic me real me? Or is pre-pandemic me real me?” And I don’t know the answer to that.

Kristen:          That’s a fascinating question. This could be cynical, but I feel like the pandemic is bubbling up who we are underneath. I do feel that the pandemic is revealing how much empathy people have and how much collective responsibility people were walking around with. To me, it’s a bit of a Rorschach test. I know that may sound negative, but I definitely feel like I do see the people who’ve always had a lot of empathy are walking forward with a lot of empathy. And the people who I feel like have been a little marginal (and it might have been slightly annoying before) are the ones who are big time not giving a shit about others in the middle of all of this.

Brandy:          I think about, too, you have relationships with people, and there can be moments of trauma that happen or crises. It’s just a quick thing. Maybe, it’s a moment. Maybe, it’s a day or two or a week where something’s happening, and that version of them comes out. Then, you move past it because the thing is over, but right now we’re in an elongated crisis mode. It breaks people down. I’m an overthinker. So of course, I’m thinking all about, “Is this the real us? After all of this, do relationships go back? Do they not?” I could think about this a thousand ways.

Kristen:          Oh, same. It’s fascinating. I feel like we are all in a weird social experiment right now. That’s really what it feels like. I feel that for the kids too. I’m watching my kids grapple (because mine are teenagers) with how their friends are experiencing this and reacting to all of this. And so, it’s not just a social experiment for me and all of my friends. It’s a weird social experiment for my kids too.

Brandy:          Yeah and trying to parent them through it and walk them through it. I was having a conversation with my son, and normally, everything that he could bring to me is something that I’ve either been through myself, watched other people go through, have learned about, have read about, have seen a movie about, but this whole pandemic thing — I told him the other day, “We’re building the plane in midair because none of us have ever been through a pandemic before.” So, the things that he’s upset about or frustrated about, I can do my best. But I’m trying to get myself through this, but then also trying to parent kids through this. It feels a little bit like fish out of water. Like, “Wait, I didn’t read the book on this part.” It’s kind of like what you’re saying that it’s like this distilled version of us. That’s what we bring to the table right now. Is that empathy? Or is it not? All of our true base components of ourselves is what is having to rise to the surface in order to help walk our kids through this because that’s all we’ve got.

Kristen:          So wild.

Brandy:          I want to make sure that we talk about your adopted sons who are both Black. One is from Compton, and one is from Haiti, correct?

Kristen:          Yeah.

Brandy:          So, there’s a really vulnerable moment in your book where you talk about how you felt at first as a white woman with a Black son and how you felt this pride and almost like you had proof that you weren’t racist. I really admired your ability to share that because I could see feeling the same way and then feeling ashamed of it, but feeling it. Also, being naive about the reality of what it’s like to be a white mother to Black children. So, will you tell us more about that and your evolution into being an outspoken social justice advocate?

Kristen:          I wanted to be really honest in the book because I think my journey from being what I thought was not racist to being an anti-racist. I think it’s a journey that is similar to a lot of people. I think a lot of the feelings that I had were similar to a lot of people. I was raised in a family that my parents were definitely trying to be not racist, but the way that they taught us to deal with that (because they had actively racist parents) was to not talk about race. “We don’t talk about race. Everyone’s equal. We don’t see race. You don’t talk about it. Everyone’s equal.” And I will credit that they did the best that they could for their time. They did raise all of us this way. As we started dating, we dated many races, my siblings and I. We had friends of many races. That played out in that we were looking at everyone equally. Everyone was sort of an equal potential friend or potential dating partner, but I don’t think that I had the full understanding that when I was looking at everyone equally, I was not then able to notice inequity. I was like, “We’ve all been dealt the same hand. I’ll be friends with anyone. I’ll date anyone.” I didn’t quite understand how to see what it felt like for my super close friend growing up who was an immigrant from Guatemala and was not a native English speaker, or what it felt like for my Black friends and the racism that they experienced. It took me a while to be able to really hear and really listen and have the desire to listen and to understand the importance of listening. I think for a while was just like, “If we can all let go of personal prejudice and personal racism, then we’ll all be okay.” I realize now that there’s so much that’s systemic.

Brandy:          Yeah, right.

Kristen:          It’s baked in. It’s baked into almost every system. I’ll even just share from my personal point of view – I’m a trained therapist. I’m a licensed psychotherapist in the state of California. When you look at that field, all of our research, all of our sort of founding fathers of psychology, everything is based on white, hetero-normative research. In psychology, we have demonized certain things that are actually cultural. There’s an idea in American psychology of individuation which looks like, “When you’re eighteen, you should move out and launch, or there’s something wrong.” If someone came into our office, and it was a man who’s thirty, who has a wife and his children, and they still live with Mom and Dad, we would go, “Well, you haven’t individuated.” Where in many cultures, that’s very acceptable. That’s the way that the things go. So, that’s just one example of how so many of our systems are based in white norms and don’t take into account the experiences of others.

Brandy:          Yes, I remember a couple years ago, seeing Band-Aids that were a darker color and being like, “Oh, fuck. People with different skin color haven’t had a Band-Aid to match their skin.” It’s such a minor thing, and it’s like, “Gosh, a total blind spot.” Then, I saw this thing go by that maybe many people have seen on Facebook about a young Black doctor who had a book of skin issues. He compiled this book that was what that skin issue or what that disease would look like on Black skin because it was very different.

Kristen:          Yes.

Brandy:          I’m like, “Holy shit, I can’t believe that that didn’t exist before.” These are all the things that we don’t have to know because it’s never affected us. So, it sounds like after you adopted your sons, there was so much learning that went on for you even though you had such a great foundation about being equal and valuing people for who they are. Now, do you do talks? What does your social justice work look like right now?

Kristen:          I think that my social justice work at this point has always looked like, for example, when I wrote my first book (Rage Against The Minivan, it’s a humor memoir about parenting), there are two chapters about race in that book. The reason that I did that was when I initially thought, “I’m going to write a book,” my first idea was, “I want to write a book about white privilege.” And then, in talking to my editor and talking to my team, it’s like, “Okay. Well, who will buy a book about white privilege?” And interestingly, a bunch of people did just buy a book about white privilege because of the George Floyd situation, but obviously, we didn’t know that that would be happening. It’s like, “People who are going to buy that book are people who are on board with this idea.”

Brandy:          Right.

Kristen:          It was more like, “Listen, you need to write a book that’s universally appealing. And then, within that book, you can talk about these things that are important to you. That way you’re getting your message into the hands of people who would not willingly sign up to buy a book about white privilege or the problem with being colorblind or things like that.” It’s interesting that my activism has always been sort of wrapped in talking about other things, and then saying, “Okay. While I have you here…” Like, “Thanks for coming to my blog about recapping The Bachelor, but while you’re here, let’s talk about racism. I love talking also about The Bachelor or about motherhood but bringing people in on points where there’s maybe a wider shared affinity and then talking about these issues that maybe people aren’t are not as open to talking about.

Brandy:          I feel like Glennon Doyle did that in her last book.

Kristen:          She sure did.

Brandy:          So, before we wrap up, let’s talk about divorce just for a moment. One of the quotes that you had that I thought was so interesting was, “When I stopped trying to keep the wheels on my marriage, they pretty much fell off.” I thought, “That sounds like a great (or awful) but perhaps necessary experiment for someone to do if they aren’t sure if their spouse is invested or trying to help the marriage.” Will you tell us more about that in that moment?

Kristen:          I was married for twenty years, and I would say the last decade of our marriage felt like, “If I didn’t plan a date night, a date night would never happen.” Or, “If I didn’t sign us up for counseling, counseling would never happen.” It felt like I was the one who was always initiating any relational connection with the exception of one kind of connection which I’ll let you guess…

Brandy:          Ha. {laughter}

Kristen:          That was initiated by the other person, but I was definitely feeling like, “I’m the only one steering the ship into any kind of mental, emotional connection.” I kept trying, kept trying, kept trying. As a mom, you’re also holding the wheels on for all the kids. It just felt like I was the only one working at the marriage, so I just kind of got to a point where I’m like, “I’m just gonna stop and see what happens because this is a partnership with another adult. I shouldn’t be the only one working at it.” And when I stopped, it really did fall apart. When I was not saying, “Hey, let’s go to dinner on Tuesday,” or, “Let’s get a babysitter,” or, “Let’s…” There was nothing there — nothing at all. Then, we lived separate lives for about a year. I think both of us were like, “Okay, this is not working.”

Brandy:          Was that painful? Or did you expect it?

Kristen:          I did expect it, and it was like I needed both of us to see. Because it’s one thing to say, “Hey, I’m doing all the work over here.” Let’s say that this is a sink, and there’s two partners and one partner won’t ever clean out the sink. Well, if you’re always cleaning out the sink, there’s never proof. You have to let the dishes pile up, and I think I had to let the dishes pile up.

When I did that, it was like, “See? This is what I’ve been saying,” and I was right. Sadly, by that point, I think I knew what the outcome would be.

Brandy:          Yeah, but you needed that last clarification.

Kristen:          I did. Yeah. For both of us.

Brandy:          I cannot tell you how interesting I thought your book was. Everything you said resonated with me.

Kristen:          Well, it’s so funny. We just have so much in common.

Brandy:          And the fact that we live in the same county. I had told you when I reached out to you that I’d had a couple people tell me, “You need to meet Kristen.” And they’re from totally different groups. One’s a writing group. One’s a local mom’s group. I don’t know where I saw that you were in Orange County, I was like, “Okay, universe. You’re forcing this hand, and I will reach out and be the creepy stalker girl.” {laughter}

Kristen:          {laughter}

Brandy:          But then, reading your book I was like, “Oh, my gosh. This is why. This is why we were meant to know each other because we are really similar.” I so appreciate you coming on here. Your book details so many other really interesting things. It’s so validating. Where can people find you, your book, and your podcast who want to know more about you?

Kristen:          I’m online at http://www.kristenhowerton.com. I am “Kristen Howerton” on all the platforms: Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. You can find the book anywhere books are sold. And then Selfie Podcast is a podcast about self-care, and we talk about all aspects of self-care. Everything from our favorite serums and candles to how to have better boundaries and relationships to what to do with your pubic hair. No stone unturned.

Brandy:          {laughter} Amazing. Do you ever talk about the hatred of the word and the idea of self-care, that we shouldn’t need to have self-care and how broken the system is?

Kristen:          That’s the whole exploration.

Brandy:          That’s what I would imagine.

Kristen:          That’s exactly it. It’s like we are turning a mirror on the whole industry and the whole idea. We’ve been doing the podcast for almost two years, and the more I do it, the more I recognize that self-care is really, I think, more about an inside job. It’s a real inside job. We have a resident therapist who answers questions every week on the podcast which is really fun. She’s super wise. But that’s at http://www.selfiepodcast.com.

Brandy:          I just have to end with another quote from your book that I loved. “Most of my worst moments happened when trying to get babies to sleep.” Same!

Kristen:          {laughter}

Brandy:          For once, I have very little to say after the episode, except something I’m still chewing on is the question, “Is pandemic me the real me? Or is non-pandemic me the real me?” I have arguments to support both sides of this. It would be a great debate team topic — you know, if I was in high school on a debate team. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, so hit me up on social media and let me know what you think. Feel free to join the Adult Conversation Podcast Discussion Group on Facebook where we love to overthink together.

Brandy:          If you enjoy the podcast, chances are you’ll love my novel, especially right now, while you might need some validation, humor, and a wild trip to Vegas, if only in your mind. Titled Adult Conversation: A Novel, it’s a darkly comedic story about the relentlessness of modern motherhood where the main character seeks an answer to the question, “Is motherhood broken, or am I?” After a series of relatable mom wins and failures, she and her therapist end up on a Thelma-and-Louise-style road trip to Vegas, where they are attempted and tested while finding lost pieces of themselves that motherhood swallowed up. You can find it in all the usual places, or you can go to my website http://www.adultconversation.com to find out more. 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.