Spoken like a woman without kids.
I turn the article I’m working on over and tuck it under the latest issue of the magazine—I don’t want anyone in the office to see the ocean of red marks my top editor has left all over it—especially this one. Not that anyone is likely to walk by, since we’re all headed to the conference room for Pippa’s shower—one of many baby showers we’ve already had since January. Smoothing my gypsy top over my jeans, I attempt to take a deep cleansing breath in the five-second walk. In my twenties, this kind of copy note was understandable—funny even, since I could roll my eyes and say, “Yep, no kids and thank God.” But now, not so much. Now after ten years, it’s begun to sting. Still, I paste on a smile.
“Everyone! Quick, quick! Come in!” shrieks Caitlyn, our shared editorial assistant slash Instagram editor slash “sassy millennial,” or so proclaim all her social media profiles. She waves the Paddy Cakes staff in for our little Friday afternoon party and urges us to load up on Honey Cup cupcakes while taking it upon herself to raise our collectively dragging energy to #babyshowervibes.
I fight my way through the tangle of white and gold helium balloon ribbons toward the blond-wood table, hoarding a Honey Cup as if it wasn’t an ever-present fixture, and damn it, manage to somehow get some sparkles from the bunting on me yet again. I’m so not in the mood for this—I’ve got way too much to do. But I still take a moment to appreciate the calm as I tuck in. Quiet. A little space to think. Summoning up sincere joy for Pippa. But from the other side of the party, there she is. The bearer of the red-lined comments. Alix.
My nemesis walks toward me in careful, measured steps in her black patent Tod’s with a high-ply camel cashmere cardigan hanging from her pilates-sculpted shoulders. It’s a fashion affectation adopted long before it came back into vogue, her expensively highlighted, long blond hair pulled into a perfect low ponytail. Alix consciously careens past the plate of cupcakes, pressing her bowed lips together in silent protest. A holdover from coming up around heroin chic, eating in plain sight is for other people—as is doing any sort of work deemed at an assistant level, such as expense accounts, making edits on-screen and more worryingly for me these days, any of her actual work. You know, old-school.
As everyone huddles in, the moms on staff transition over to the usual mommy banter. Talia, our fashion director, is complaining about her twins’ inability to detach from various screens. Chloe, our usually impeccable beauty editor, is wearing haphazardly applied fake lashes, the only apparent sign of new-mom sleep deprivation.
Though I try casually to pull the balloons into a showery shield in front of me, the strings form no barrier from Alix’s sharp presence edging toward me.
“Liz,” she says, finding me in the corner. “Where are we with bottle-shaming? I really need to see it by three. I’m leaving early and I need to read it before I go.”
“It’s coming…just waiting for Sandy’s publicist to confirm ‘she’d sooner chew off her own daughter’s earlobe than use formula’ as you suggested on the edit,” I reply.
“And what about ‘5 Ways to Avoid Narcissistic Kids’?” she demands, now reapplying ballet-pink gloss to her lips in the reflection of the glass wall of the conference room.
“On its way.”
“Okaaaay.” She draws her eyes up finally. “And what about August’s ‘Alternative Chinese Dialects for Kindergartners’ story… I really need to see that one. It might be getting bumped up.”
“I was going to get to that one once I’m back from my trip,” I tell Alix. She’s asked for a particularly tricky replacement quote, and I was holding off calling Tracey, our tiger mom in La Jolla.
“Well,” she reprimands, “you should have told me if you couldn’t get to it. I expect you to prioritize yourself.”
I would have if you hadn’t dropped it on my desk at 5 p.m. as you were leaving to take Tyler to the Baby Whisperer, I think. My eye begins to twitch. I rub my temples and down my cold brew iced coffee as if it were the last squeeze of the canteen on a lifeboat. What was I just reading in the tiger mom story? Hard work equals excellence equals reward? The virtuous circle. Yes, okay. Only after ten years at Paddy Cakes, it hasn’t exactly worked out that way for me. Not after Alix was hired along with the changeover and claimed the deputy title that was promised to me, a long overdue bump up from articles editor.
Still, at least I’ve got Paris. Five full days strolling the Seine and the Musée Picasso, five days of café crème, five days of croissants. And five days free of the relentless swarm of Alix’s emails asking for more research on the latest baby controversy du jour, treating me like I’m her secretary, and trapping me at the office well past midnight most nights.
Nope. What I’ve learned the hard way, postrecession “mediapocalypse,” as assistant ranks have been traded for tech solutions, is this: having a child is really the only excuse a woman can use to work regular work hours or leave early. Single women don’t have the same luxury, and therefore must take on the extra work, little cleanup projects and finishing up when the moms on staff have a hard stop. No baby—no excuse not to stay late.
“Everyone, everyone, shh! I’m going to make the call,” says Caitlyn above the growing din. She picks up the phone and fights to hold back a giggle. “Pippa, Cynthia needs to see you in the conference room—NOW.”
We’ve played this trick countless times at Paddy Cakes, or The Baby Magazine for Moms and All Their Little Neuroses as Jules, my work BFF and the only other mid-leveler on staff, and I call it. As we wait, I fiddle with my old cracked iPhone 4—the one corporate refuses to upgrade—and try to switch off the alerts for the FitBaby app our web editor is having me test out for a story. It’s the one that supposedly monitors vital signs for your pregnancy, tracking miles walked, nutrition, sleep and the pièce de résistance: an ominous meter that calculates the totals into “Baby Smiles” using a patented and secret—albeit slightly random—algorithm. For “millennial moms who are dissatisfied with the typical pregnancy conversation and are looking for a more fun—and fit—experience,” read the press release, which I’ve already thrown in the trash. It won’t stop alerting me with “Push 🙂 Notifications” that I need to “push it harder” to bring up my Baby Smiles score for the story.
“To do list?” pokes Jules, sensing my Mach-10 distractibility.
“It’s getting there,” I flat out lie.
Jules winces. “Then I hate to tell you, but I heard Alix talking to Tamara. The Marigold Matthews cover has dropped out—due to ‘exhaustion.’”
“Diet pills and a botched mummy tuck, you mean.”
Jules rolls her eyes, yes.
“Great…” I tug my blousy top down over my dirty little secret—my pair of size eight maternity jeans pilfered from the office giveaway table. Thanks to my midnight feedings as of late: cereal, some hummus scooped from the container with my finger because I forgot to buy carrots again, followed by a new brand of vegan cashew-milk ice cream/numbing agent. Jules is too quick not to notice, eyeing me.
“Do not even try to maternity-jean shame me,” I tell her.
“Liz.” My overly practical office BFF from age twenty-two has only to say my name to trigger me.
“They’re just so…comfortable,” I say.
Arghhh! I wince as I see the time on my phone. It’s 2:27 p.m. I’ve got exactly three hours and thirty-three minutes to finish my work before rushing home to pick up my suitcase, then head to the airport for my 10 p.m. flight. But now with the threat of the cover dropping out, I start to sweat. More coffee needed sends a signal from my temple. And sugar. My ever-present fantasy arises again: quitting to freelance travel write, my secret back-of-the-mind dream for what feels like months now. Maybe I won’t get on the return flight.
I quickly check my account. I have $405 to make it through until next pay period. Phew. That should be enough while I’m in Paris on the press trip, and virtually all meals and activities will be covered. Then another alert. My credit card balance needs exactly $425 for the next payment due tomorrow. My throat begins to dry up…
“Shh! Everyone, shh! She’s coming!” Caitlyn hushes us all again giddily even though the walls of the conference rooms are all glass.
Everyone giggles as Pippa spots the balloons. She softens into a huge smile and rubs her large belly as her eyes light up at the sight of the $1,789 Bugaboo Madaleen stroller we all had to chip in for, raised up on the conference table like a biblical golden calf.
“Liz!” says Chloe, touching her eye where her false lash is askew. “So how are you and JR doing? Heading off to Paris, I hear!”
I look down. I guess Jules hasn’t said anything to our coworkers. “No, it’s a press trip for Bourjois-Jolie, actually. JR and I broke up.”
“Oh, Liz,” she says, offering me a sympathetic look. “Are you okay? What happened?”
“We just weren’t getting along,” I say, embarrassed.
“It’s okay, Liz. What are you, thirty? You’ve still got time.”
“Thirty-one. But it’s fine.”
Talia joins in. In her early forties and married with twin two-year-old girls, I can tell she can’t help herself. “You broke up with JR? After four years? Wasn’t he about to pop the question?”
“Um, sort of. But that’s okay,” I respond, another attempt at brightness.
“Well, don’t waste too much time. You don’t want to miss your window.”
“It’s just so haarrrd out there right now to be single, isn’t it?” says Chloe, her own skating-rink-sized rock gleaming like a searchlight from her left hand.
“No, it’s fine.” What I really want to say is, “If by hard, you mean searching for the unicorn of Tinder while spending weekends under a duvet, ordering Seamless and watching endless rom-coms on Netflix, starting with The Back-up Plan and ending with Under the Tuscan Sun as a sort of ‘final option,’ than yes, maybe, a little.”
Chloe then turns to Talia. “So, how are the girls?”
“Oh, you know how it is, new motherhood…”
“I know, we’re sleep training now. Weissbluth.” She cocks a brow conspiratorially.
“We did Weissbluth, Sears and Ferber, and finally the girls are mostly getting through the night. But you know who ends up being the one to put them back to sleep when they wake up at 3 a.m.?” says Talia pointing at herself. “Moi!”
“Exactly,” responds Chloe.
The whole room joins in now, as they debate the merits of the latest types of sleep training as if their value as women depended on it. Ground zero for competitive parenting, we’ve battled our way through Mommy Wars, Tiger Parenting, French Parenting, Elephant Parenting, Amish Parenting, Leaning In, Opting Out, Attachment and Co-sleeping, Anti-Vaxx, Free Range, ’70s-style, Gluten-Free Gooping, Paleo Parenting, KonMari Parenting (only do things that spark joy!)…not to mention “She who shall not be named” (shh… Jenny McCarthy). The rise of the “mommy” culture has turned modern motherhood into a marketing concept—a business to run—and our magazine has led the charge. Your child is no longer merely your offspring, a conception born out of love and fate, but your product to be programmed and perfected.
With the consensus that the baby should be further along, Chloe adds nervously, “We’re thinking of trying the sleep consultant we featured in the January issue.”
“Before you do that, you might want to think about that baby nutritionist—removing dairy and gluten can make a huge difference. Really helped my girls,” tosses back Talia.
“But Poppy’s six months old—she’s just on breast milk,” says Chloe.
“Oh, right. Well, maybe try seeing if she can clean up your own diet? Elimination diets are really the only thing that work,” says Talia, looking self-satisfied.
What happened to just being happy? I wonder.
“I was just reading the American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s new study,” I muster, attempting to help Chloe out. “It’s a fifteen-year longitudinal study involving sets of brothers that shows babies do equally well sleep-trained or not. It has more to do with the constellation of love and support they receive from their fam—”
“Spoken like a woman without a child.” The familiar refrain sears into me again from the other side of the room. As if I haven’t worked at a baby magazine for the past ten years. As if I don’t know this stuff cold.
“Everyone knows full cry-it-out is best. A disciplined approach is the only thing that gets results. If you can’t hack it, then get a night nanny,” Alix says, purposefully folding her arms and looking at me directly. Message received: until you have a baby and become a mom, your opinions don’t count. Or, more accurately, you don’t count.
“How are things with you, Jules?” says Chloe, chirpily breaking through the awkward silence, which sets everyone off again into chitchat.
“Oh, we’re good. Working on business school applications for Henry. Which is a big pain in my ass because I have to do them all, of course.”
“Ha-ha,” giggles Chloe. “Good luck with that. I should go check in with Pam about the ‘Get Your Pre-Baby Face Back’ story. Talk to you guys later!”
My shoulders slump.
Jules gives me a stern look. “Liz, listen, I know it’s been hard dealing with what happened with JR this past winter, but you’ve got to get over it.”
“I’m trying,” I sigh. After years of canceling plans with JR because of work crises, I’d agreed without thinking to attend the Paddy Cakes Best of Babies Gala instead of JR’s annual sales recognition dinner for P&G’s East Coast reps. Ironically, I’d hoped that going to the gala would clinch my promotion to deputy editor, which would make all these years of hard work at the magazine all worth it, get me some assistant help and free me up to devote more time to my relationship. But when I told JR my plan, he walked out.
Jules sniffs. “Lizzie, he treated you like a fifties housewife, expecting you to act like some kind of WAG, not a woman with a job that keeps you at the office late most nights. Plus he secretly watched Fox News. He was not the guy for you. You were just settling and you know it.”
“I know,” I concede. “But he was ready. It’s a certified fact that no man under forty who is sane, has a job and is fairly attractive wants to settle down in New York City.”
Jules gives me a firm look. “Henry did.”
“You met him straight out of college. That’s not fair!”
Jules and Henry’s story is straight out of a romance novel—in reverse. Fresh-faced and right on the heels of our first jobs at the magazine, Jules had been on her way home one night and recognized the cute boy walking toward her. Henry had been a senior when she was a freshman at Emory. Now both were living in the same Brooklyn neighborhood, and they literally bumped into one another—or so Henry claims. Jules told me she spotted him fifty feet away and planned the whole thing. After their “fateful run-in,” he wooed her with his slow-cooked Carolina pulled-pork dinners and “power-cuddling,” as Jules joked. They moved in together after only six months, then spent the rest of their twenties having fun, going to hear live music and traveling all over the world before getting married last year—one of the lucky ones, but to her credit, she never rubs it in.
“It’s just, Talia’s right—there’s no time to waste. Just get back out there.”
“Like with this guy, you mean?” I hold up my latest attempt at turning a Tinder convo into a date. Want 2B scummy with me 2nite? reads the opening line from a sweet-looking Williamsburg man with a scruffy beard.
“Oh, jeez,” says Jules. “Just block him!”
“But he’s wearing a suit! That means he has a job at least!” I pretend to sniff, looking down. “Or was invited to a wedding…”
The next man that comes up has long, brown stringy hair, a mustache and is holding a poodle in his lap. I like it doggy-style, reads his profile. Shuddering, I click the app closed.
“Just keep pounding the rock,” nudges Jules. “One day it will crack.”
“I know,” I sigh, thinking, or I will.
I lean back onto the outer wall thwacking the cold glass with a loud bang as the sad realization hits me: unlike the twentysomething “little blonde girls” or LBGs I see husband-hunting around the East and West Villages, secretly quoting that Princeton Mom, I’ve been toting dog-eared Eat Pray Love and Lean In and actually believing the two rules my old editor in chief Patricia told me the first day I arrived as an intern at Paddy Cakes: do one thing a day toward your goal and don’t give up and eventually success will be yours. But now it seems like that Princeton Mom was right all along. I’ve been a total fool. Beyond a certain age (i.e. thirty), women still have no legitimacy unless they’re married, have kids and are running a household. We are still living in Austen-era England. I should have been spending my twentysomething nights sweating my ass off at PowerCycle, not powering through stories on attachment parenting styles.
PUSH! 🙂 Notification! Pregnancy is one of life’s prime examples of letting go of control and allowing nature to take its course. You’ll find that your body has a wisdom all its own. Relax and listen to its messages.
That’s dark, I think, trying to figure out how to shut the app off.
Then, before I notice it, our new editor in chief Cynthia walks in and announces, “Sorry to cut this joyous affair short, but I need you, Alix.” Then Cynthia turns her steely gaze on me. “And you, too, Liz. Now.”
Me? Without a word, I leap up, ignoring the stares as I trail after Cynthia and Alix. They burn a path down the hallway to Alix’s office.
The second we’re inside, Cynthia immediately turns to Alix.
“Did you find those Asian couple options yet? We are going to rework the ‘Alternative Chinese Dialects’ story and go with the harder-hitting-themed issue you suggested—‘Tiger Moms Vs French Moms: The Battle Royale Heats Up.’ We’ll use that family with the Caucasian mom and Chinese-American dad on the cover along with their mixed-race baby. The press will eat it up!”
Alix looks over at me. “The revise is almost done…”
“When am I to see it?”
“Immediately after this. Right, Liz?” Alix’s eyes shoot daggers through me.
Satisfied, Cynthia turns and walks out. Alix motions for me to stay. The pit in my stomach tells me what’s coming next.
“We have just about everything we need, correct? Did you incorporate all my notes? The revised draft was still a bit sloppy. Did you address my question about finding a more inflammatory quote from that one mom from California?”
“Yes, I went back to Tracey a few times but I don’t know if we’ll be able to get more examples of punishment. She’s okay with representing herself as a disciplinarian, but not in the more extreme way we, uh, would like her to.”
I preempt Alix’s next question. “I did ask her if she ever resorted to physical punishment. She said a few light spankings, but that’s all.”
Her brow creases. “What word did she use exactly?”
I know where she’s going with this. Yet again, I’ll have to get a source to sign off on a quote by assuring her that by tweaking the wording, we are doing them a service. I hear my inner voice say, This is wrong.
“She said ‘spanking.’ That’s it.”
I tried. But we’re not going to use the word Alix wants: beating.
“I’m sure we can substitute a word here or there,” Alix says quickly. “Since it’s broader than spanking, and it means virtually the same thing. Just run it by her.”
I swallow hard, and then I hear myself say, “No.”
“She doesn’t beat her children, Alix.”
“Liz, I know we can get her to agree to that line,” Alix says. “Otherwise the story won’t work for a cover line, and we have no time for a replacement.”
Stomach clenching, I realize it will be a race to the finish line to make it to JFK on time tonight, and most likely I’ll be working on the plane and through the rest of my trip.
“Always finding problems, never the solutions,” Alix says out of the corner of her mouth.
I catch it, dropping my shoulders. “I’ll call her and see what I can get her to say.”
“Good,” says Alix just as Jeffry Clark, our new executive managing editor hired by Cynthia out of a digital media agency, strolls in. MacBook Air in one hand, his other is in his jeans’ pocket, male entitlement emanating off of him with every unhurried step. His Bushwick beard and inked sleeves read carefully studied hipster, but in the past few months his consulting-driven management style has meant he’s anything but relaxed, constantly on us to find new “efficiencies,” just like his annoyingly foreshortened name.
“Alix, Liz. Have you figured out who’s writing this story yet?”
“Liz will do the first draft and I’ll top-edit the Monday after next when it’s done,” says Alix before I’m even able to respond. “Liz, you speak French, right? You can track down the French moms living in the States.”
“We’re going to need to make sure the subjects are available to shoot next week. Who’s prepping?” asks Jeffry.
“I’m out next week,” says Alix. “Turks and Caicos, remember?”
“Well, someone’s got to be here to manage the shoot. The assistants can’t handle it.”
No… NO, I think simply as images of my Parisian trip come tumbling down. Alix points her gaze directly at me. “Liz can handle it, I’m sure,” she says.
“I’m out, too, next week. Remember the press trip you wanted me to go on? What if I find American mothers living in France?”
“That won’t work.” Alix shakes her head no. “They need to be based here.”
“Sorry, Liz, you’re going to have to cancel the trip,” he says. “Alix has a family reunion in the Caribbean she can’t miss. You can go to Paris anytime. We need coverage here. I’ll let the PR firm running the trip know.”
I can’t quite think what to say with the two of them staring at me. Refuse them and I’ll be fired and probably blacklisted from the entire industry. I flash to my shameful $7,897 of credit card debt, courtesy of a stream of bridesmaid-related expenses over the past few years, my rent check, the upcoming $505 reoccurring student loans payment reminding me every month that I chose the priciest liberal arts education so I could make the very connections landing me here.
“Alix, please, is there another way?”
“I’m sorry, Liz. It’s not my job to clean up your mess. You could have handled it if you were more efficient with your time.”
“But I always have to take on the workload of other staffers out on maternity leave on top of my own. You know that.”
“You always seem to have excuses,” Alix says. “If you had children, I’d understand, but tell me why is it such a big deal to stay late a few nights a month when you have no real responsibilities otherwise?”
All of a sudden, my face feels hot. I had always figured hard work would be rewarded, but apparently the joke is on me. If I were a mother and in the right “box,” I’d have a legitimate excuse. But I haven’t been able to make that happen yet. And until I do, no matter how hard I work, I won’t count. Fuck it.
“What?” Alix says.
“I can’t,” I respond, simply.
Alix’s eyes narrow. “Liz, your attitude has been holding us back for too long. I need to talk to Cynthia.” As she turns to leave, I inhale a whiff of her noxious, old-school perfume and I gag. Doubling over, I begin to dry heave.
“Liz, are you okay?” asks Jeffry. He and Alix rush to my side, as they tell me to breathe. Finally, I straighten up. “I’m sorry, I, uh, I don’t know what happened. I’ve been feeling a little off lately,” I stammer. Just then, an eerie giggle lets out from my old phone.
PUSH! 🙂 Notification! Week 16: Congratulations! Your baby is now the size of a kumquat! Time to start some squats! Baby Smiles: 0!
I fumble to mute the sound and click the screen closed, but it’s too late. “Oh, God. Not you, too,” Jeffry whispers.
“Are those maternity jeans?” gasps Alix.
I go completely blank, and then I hear words coming out of my mouth I don’t recognize as my own. “Yes. Me, too.”
Jeffry’s attention is riveted on me now.
Did I really just say that?
For a few seconds, they are speechless. “Wait, Liz, are you pregnant?” Alix jumps in.
With my eyes fixed on the floor, my whole body freezes. I don’t say yes, but I don’t say no. A few seconds pass. There’s a spasm in the pit of my stomach.
“Well, then, that settles it. We can’t do anything now. Jesus,” says Jeffry.
“When are you due?” Alix says.
I look down at the app. “October 20.”
“Huh,” says Jeffry, confused. “I didn’t know you…had a boyfriend…a partner.”
“Because it’s none of anyone’s business,” I say. Where is this confident Liz coming from? “By the way, Jeffry,” I add, “Alix asked me to alter one of the tiger mom’s quotes to make it say that she beats her children, but it’s not true.”
Alix’s and Jeffry’s faces both display a look of shock.
And then I lean over and throw up the contents of Pippa’s baby shower into Alix’s wastebasket.