As a child in the late ‘80s in a small Western Pennsylvanian town, I was proud of my two doctor parents. I knew it was a big deal by the way people looked at me. Their eyes widened: Both?!

My parents saw a lot go wrong for people. My dad, as an OB Gyn; my mother as a pediatrician. They shared a practice together — a one-stop shop for all of your pregnancy-to-baby needs! In comparison to many of their patients, my brother and I must’ve appeared healthy. We never saw other doctors or had to make doctor appointments. Even when my brother broke his foot wrestling, we didn’t go to the emergency room. (Two days later, when he couldn’t put his foot inside his shoe, my dad finally took him for x-rays.) When I fell off a bench and cracked my head open on a concrete floor, Dad took me to the office after hours and stitched it up himself. I can still remember him flicking on the lights, the green carpet, the feeling that he knew exactly what he was doing. When I was 15, I started getting migraines. Mom took me to a neurologist, and I began treating them with powerful meds.

With two doctors in charge, we were safe. Ailments had physical causes and physical solutions. Everything was analytical, science-based. The world made sense.


Picking my kids up from daycare and pre-school is one of my least favorite tasks as a parent. “Pick-up” implies one swift motion. It’s not. No one ever wants to leave the school’s playground. When I finally pull them away, no one wants to get into their car seats. The two-year-old needs to do this himself and I always want to film the process. It’s like watching a sloth get down from a tree only to be distracted by nine different things along the way. When we finally get home and I unbuckle their restraints, they spring up shouting, “chalks and bikes!” an activity so-called because they ride their bike and scooter in the driveway where there also happens to be some sidewalk chalk. No one wants to come inside. Today, the two-year-old only does so in my arms, kicking and screaming for the “Cooter! Cooter!”

With the crying one on my hip, I ask the older one to take his shoes off. He lies down in the narrow hallway completely supine. “But, mama,” he says, drawing it out like it’s a song. “I want you to do it.”

By now, it’s five. It’s also Monday. I calculate. It’s basically impossible for me to get to gymnastics on Mondays — the class is at 5:45 p.m., the time my husband Matt usually gets home from work. Sometimes, though, he sneaks away early or dodges traffic. I stay optimistic. If I can prep most of dinner now — one of my duties as a mostly-stay-at-home mom / writer — and leave the second he steps foot in the door, I could probably arrive by 5:55 p.m. I stay hopeful. I pull out a cutting board and begin smashing garlic with the flat of a knife.


My mom signed me up for gymnastics when I was in elementary school. In our small town, the local YMCA was the only spot that offered classes. They took place in the basketball gym. The coaches set up the equipment only to break it back down once class was over.

It was not a very serious atmosphere, but the older I got, the more seriously I took it. By nine or 10 years old, I’d made the team; I was “level four.” I began competing. By 12, I was level seven. At 13, level eight. I wasn’t deluded enough to think I could go to the Olympics. I had a sensible goal: to get a college scholarship.

My parents had divorced and remarried by then. My dad had cheated on my mom and remarried his mistress. My mom had barely survived the whole process. She leaned heavily on her new husband and the church she grew up in, both located in Pittsburgh, a two-hour drive away. She and my new step-dad bought a house there big enough for four, but my brother and I — along with a mediator at the courthouse — apparently decided to give majority custody to our dad; We’d spend most of the school year with him, and then some weekends and summers with our mother. Neither of us remembers making that decision, but we went along with it.

Pittsburgh was gigantic. In the summers, I took gymnastics at an actual gymnastics gym. I was amazed by the facilities, at not having to spend 20 minutes setting up the equipment before practice could even begin. Every summer I got better, stronger. Conditioning was a mandated part of each practice. For the first time, I felt the burn of my muscles exhausting themselves. At my rural middle school, during those state-run physical fitness tests, I set a school record for pull-ups.

I loved the sport. My mother got me a subscription to gymnastics magazines and in Pittsburgh, I plastered my room with images of Kim Zmeskal and Shannon Miller.

But when summer was over, my brother and I returned to our dad’s house. He’d had two more children with his new wife. We didn’t get along with our step-mom. On the days I didn’t have gymnastics practice, I had to go straight home from school. My dad was still at work and my brother at wrestling. I hated being in the house when it was just her and my half-siblings.

My step-mom knew this. If I gave her too much backtalk — a term I’d never heard until she came into my life — I wouldn’t be allowed to go to gymnastics. It was the best punishment she could’ve come up with. It devastated me to miss a day.


I discovered yoga in my mid-twenties at a Los Angeles studio. I’d spent my post-puberty life exercising to lose five pounds. But living in LA gave my constant goal more specificity. What I really wanted was a yoga body: long, muscly, stretchy.

At that first class, I had very little idea what I was doing. My arms shook in plank pose. Chaturanga — essentially holding a push-up position with bent arms — was almost impossible. And yet, I found that I could still do a right-legged split. I could forward fold and touch the ground with flat palms. I could fling myself into a handstand (though I couldn’t hold it for more than half a second). I was not strong, but I was flexible.

I found a class I loved. The male teacher had the body of a gymnast: short, muscled, and compact. Each class ended in savasana (corpse pose). It felt like a reward, a gift, to just lay there. Sometimes, if there weren’t many students in the class, he would come by and press the tops of my shoulders firmly into the mat. It was such a simple act, but it felt so good. Like a steady, kind acknowledgment of my existence.


The summer after my freshman year of high school, I couldn’t go back to my dad’s. The idea of spending another year in that bleak town with my bleak family felt more horrible than starting at a new school as a sophomore, which for the record, also felt horrible.

That same summer, I also decided to quit gymnastics. I hadn’t fallen out of love with the sport and, despite being almost 15; I hadn’t even physically outgrown it. That summer, I still hadn’t gotten my period and had no need for a bra. I hovered around a delicate 98 pounds. I still had what NBC gymnastics commentators referred to as that “international look.” I quit because I was being realistic, practical. To do gymnastics past the age of 14 was for gymnasts who were going to compete in college. My level of gymnastics would never be a draw for colleges. I focused on SAT prep courses and AP-track classes. My brain was going to be my ticket.

When I mentioned quitting to my mother, she seemed one step ahead of me. She encouraged me to take up tennis instead. It was a sport we played as a family: me, my brother, and mom. I was decent at it.

She signed me up for private tennis lessons. She drove me there and often waited in the car, witnessing my progress. I can still hear her saying, from the driver’s seat: “The thing about tennis is, you can play it for the rest of your life.” The subtext was loud and clear: Gymnastics was a sport for children. And those days were gone.


I’d also recently accepted Jesus into my heart.

My new step-dad was a doctor too, though not the medical kind. He had a doctorate in theology. He’d previously been a minister, but now he worked a bank job. On one of those long drives between my dad’s house and my mom’s, he’d given me the Cliff’s Notes version of Christianity. Though my dad was outspokenly agnostic, my mom’s influence ensured that Jesus’s story wasn’t entirely unfamiliar to me. Once my step-dad finished his car sermon, he asked me what I’d learned.

The line I most remember repeating back to him was: “Christ sent his only son to die for us so that we could have eternal life.” But as my step-dad nodded along, I remember thinking: why? Why did God need a big sacrifice? Why couldn’t he just forgive us straight-out? At the same time, the story felt magic-less, rote. Shouldn’t I feel something? Gratitude for a shot at eternal life? I didn’t. Nevertheless, I fell in line. I went to church, Bible study — all of it


At first, the transition to my new high school went well. I made the tennis team. I made friends. A few boys liked me. I knew I was pretty and I definitely knew I was thin. My mother (who was always working out or on a diet or both) seemed to revel in my petite body, in buying me women’s clothing in a size zero. (Say it like a mantra: I am a zero.)

But then, I got a B for the first time ever. It was in my Honors English class. I was annoyed. At my previous school, I had gotten As in everything, but none of my classes had been as hard as this one. I had particular difficulty identifying a book’s theme.

When the spring semester began, I wasn’t messing around. I would read every book my teacher assigned, then go to the library and look up what literary critics had to say about it. Whatever Harold Bloom thought had to be right. Right?

That spring, I got my first period. I have no memory of telling my mother. I only remember her wordlessly giving me some tampons and pads. I sat in the bathroom and read the tiny font of the instructions found inside the tampon box. The diagram was immensely helpful.


My husband and I decided to start trying for a baby the year I turned 31. I wanted to put it off longer, but I knew that pregnancy was about the body. And what if my body couldn’t get pregnant? What if we had to go through IVF? I had no idea what it was capable of.

But it didn’t take long — just three months of “trying.”

By then, I’d also become a dedicated yogi. I’d found my dream teacher: an ex-elite Romanian gymnast. She’d emigrated to the states as a teenager. Her name was Ella. She spoke with a sizable accent and a sternness not readily found in most things yogic. Her classes pushed me to my edge. I felt like an athlete.

I went to her classes up until the 19th week of my pregnancy, when I realized it had moved beyond me. I couldn’t forward fold. There was no longer space.

I switched to prenatal yoga. I didn’t even break a sweat. The teacher talked a lot about the pelvic floor. I rolled my eyes.

In the third trimester, my husband and I took a birthing class. During it, I learned that at some point during labor, the neocortex — or “rational brain” — would shut down and the body would take over. This idea fascinated me. At the same time, I had a good friend who simply never went into labor. At two weeks overdue, her doctor made her get a c-section. I hadn’t identified as a Christian for years and years, yet I prayed to an unidentifiable male god that I would be able to go into labor, to birth the baby vaginally, to experience this cerebral shutdown.

I did. I labored without an epidural until 4 centimeters dilated. Then, I labored with an epidural. When things picked up quite suddenly, and my OB still wasn’t there, the midwife on call tried to slow me down. But not pushing wasn’t an option. I announced it on my body’s behalf: “I’m pushing! I’m pushing!”

I’d also worried about not being able to breastfeed, but when they handed me the baby, he latched right on and sucked for a half hour straight.

Two days later, back home, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and stared at my naked body, mostly at my gigantic breasts. They were mesmerizing. I was staring at them like this when my milk came in. It streamed down my body, dripped onto the tiled floor.


The next time I took a yoga class with Ella was six months after the birth of my second child. That’s the way plans go with babies, something I learned pretty quickly after my first.

I’d gotten pregnant with the second baby immediately upon pseudo-trying. It was a moment’s weakness, laziness. I’d just published my first book, a food memoir, two months prior, but it wasn’t selling well. I thought having a book was going to open up doors, but now I mostly felt like a failure. I knew I wanted the first baby to have a sibling. My thinking was: Might as well get pregnant again while I have nothing going on. Plus, I’d enjoyed my first pregnancy and baby so much. Wouldn’t it be nice to feel like that again? Useful, powerful, happy.


I don’t know exactly when it dawned on me that pain had a purpose, that it wasn’t solely an inconvenience or setback. In Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, Rachel Cusk details a toothache that leads to an extraction. She describes pain’s journey, comparing its origins to that of a seedling: “a seed that grew and branched, seeking out consciousness, awareness, like a plant seeks light and thereby blots it out; then the negotiations, consciousness negotiating with pain, trying to pacify and mollify it, to control and contain it, to dull it and hence live with it; then crisis, decision, action.”

I do remember the moment a friend from graduate school sent me a photo via text of a page from Heal Your Body: The Mental Causes for Physical Illness and the Metaphysical Way to Overcome Them by Louise Hay.

I had told her about my migraine headaches, which I’d been treating with prescription pills ever since that date with a neurologist when I was 15. The whole book is laid out like a chart with three categories: “Problem, Probable Cause, New Thought Pattern.” For migraines, the probable cause listed was “Dislike of being driven. Resisting the flow of life. Sexual fears. (Can usually be relieved by masturbation.)” One of the suggested new thought patterns made me laugh out loud: “Life is for me.”

I found the book undeniably silly, yet at the same time, it offered a new option, a way to treat pain that didn’t involve anything outside of me. An option that begged the question: Could I heal me?


After the birth of my second baby, life was not for me.

I’d birthed him with a great deal of pain — sans an epidural — on January 6th.

Two weeks earlier, my mother and I had gotten in an epic fight during her and my step-dad’s holiday visit. It ended with them fleeing Los Angeles, changing their flight to return to Pennsylvania on Christmas Day. I was furious with her during the fight, but more than that I hated her for leaving, for abandoning me on Christmas at nine months pregnant.

From my hospital bed after the birth, I texted my mother a photo of my new baby. Hours later, she texted back a stock: “Congratulations. He’s beautiful.”

She did not call.


When the baby was just four days old, I offered to go to Trader Joe’s. We needed basic groceries, and if my husband could watch the kids, the idea of this errand felt like freedom. But inside the fluorescent store, I only felt anger. My breasts were engorged, the skin around them itchy and tight, stretched to the limit. I wished I were wearing a t-shirt that read: “Just gave birth unmedicated four days prior. Also, my mother is a monster who refuses to call me.”

This finally ended many days later when, via text, I told her to “act like a mother and give her daughter a call.”

When she did, the first thing she said was: “How are the boys?”

She never asked the one thing I wanted her to: How are you?


When I still competed, my best event was beam. There were other girls my level, particularly at the YMCA, who were physically stronger. They could tumble faster, higher. They were more talented. But on the balance beam I could outscore them. I could do this because at practice I didn’t waste time balking on skills. I didn’t waste time waiting for a coach to spot me.

It always confused me, watching these girls. Didn’t they know their bodies could do it? I knew.


Looking back, I find it amusing that my mom took me to a neurologist at age 15 to treat what she’d diagnosed as migraine headaches. I’d just moved, changed schools, quit gymnastics, and gotten my first ever period. I didn’t need a neurologist; I needed someone to ask me how I was doing. (Someone encouraging me to masturbate — an activity I believed, at the time, to be only available to boys and even then, with an incredible amount of shame — would’ve been helpful, too.)

It’s also hilarious to me that I sought out Harold Bloom’s opinions on Kate Chopin’s The Awakening instead of considering that I might be able to figure out the “theme” all by myself, that my own opinion might hold weight.

And yet it also makes sense.

Western medicine taught me to put my faith elsewhere: in doctors and medication.

Christianity taught me to put my faith elsewhere: in a distant male god, in male pastors who interpreted all those Bible stories with male leads and very supportive and subordinate women.


When Matt doesn’t make it home until 5:50 p.m., I give up on trying to make it to class. It’s OK. Going to gymnastics on Mondays is always a pipe dream. I’ll make it on Wednesday afternoon, which is one of the three days per week that I have childcare for both kids.

The gym is beautiful, state of the art. Nothing like that run-down YMCA basketball gym. I discovered it through other parents whose kids attended classes there. I enrolled my four-year-old in one of their pre-school classes and watched him with jealousy as he bounced and played.

When I saw that they also offered adult classes, I negotiated at first. It’s too expensive for me to go, too. I don’t have time either. Plus, it’s silly! It’s a sport for kids.

But then.

Crisis. I’d lost all faith in myself. (Say it like a mantra: I am a zero.)

Decision. I needed to reestablish this faith, this idea that I had some control over my own life. I’d become like one of those gymnasts, standing on the beam, afraid to do the skill my body knew how to do.

Action.


I can’t remember the last time I played tennis. But the last time I did an aerial — a no-handed cartwheel — was last week.

My mother will never be great at asking me how I am, but I’ve finally realized that I can ask myself.

The gym has foam pits and a Tumbl Trak — a long, rectangular trampoline that’s forgiving and fun; I can tumble down it and do the same skills I did as a 14-year-old. When new people come to the class, they ask if I was a gymnast as a kid. They can tell that my body knows what it’s doing, that it never forgot. I want to keep listening.