Thoughts on My Thirty-Seventh Birthday

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Today is my birthday. Now, I’ve never actually posted on my birthday on this blog, in the roughly five years that I’ve been writing in this space, merely alluded to previous celebrations. And this time last year, I was on an extended hiatus as I rediscovered my own self after giving birth. So I thought in lieu of a Tuesday Tasting, I would ramble a bit about this birthday, previous birthdays, and some things I’ve been thinking about as I get older.

Two years ago, less than a month after my 35th birthday, I found out I was pregnant again. By the time I turned 36, I was mother to a two-month-old baby and trying to figure out who I wanted to be. The aftermath of my postpartum experience upended a lot of things I thought about myself. I could barely move for a month (and when I did, it hurt). I didn’t sleep more than a couple hours at a time. I was depressed and anxious in ways I’d never experienced. I lived in robes and nightgowns, with the occasional soft maxi dress when I had to go out. And I had a small being whose every need depended largely on me. When I say becoming a mother was an ordeal, I mean that in the sense of a time when I was physically and emotionally dismantled and then redistilled into a truer form of myself.

I started this blog with a vague idea that it would be about vintage-inspired lifestyle and beauty, with a strong affinity for tea because, well, I have a strong affinity for tea. Eventually, I discovered both Korean skin care and gongfucha, which split the blog further into two seemingly-dichotomous paths. Since then, I’ve found myself converging on a tea-focused, historically-inspired lifestyle. I’ve learned about history bounding and started dressing in a way that can only be described as Edwardian hobbit witch. I’ve started mixing my gongfucha accessories with my vintage tea cups. In fact, one of my first comments on YouTube was from a semi-famous tea personality saying that he enjoyed my mixing of teaware styles and I’ve taken that to heart. I’ve come to realize that, once you find yourself responsible for the continued existence of a helpless tiny human, it doesn’t really bother you as much to think that someone might think you look odd on public transportation or sniff derisively at the “impurity” of your tea practice.

And then I’ve gone further. I’ve deepened the link between my tea practice and my love of all things historical by starting my historical tea sessions. I find it endlessly fascinating to research the sources I need to learn about how tea practice has grown, changed, and maintained its identity through the ages (kind of like me). I’ve also returned to a somewhat more minimalist, historically-inspired beauty routine. I like to think I’ve gone from VIB Rouge to VIB (very important buveur) Rou Gui 😉

As I’ve more thoroughly committed my blog to being first and foremost a tea blog, I’ve toyed with the idea of taking down some of my old posts, particularly beauty product reviews that have little to no bearing on my current beauty routine. But ultimately, these posts reflect how I’ve grown through the years, and deserve a place in my archives. Perhaps eventually my reviews of Deciem products will no longer vastly outperform literally everything else I write, but until then, if people are finding my blog because they’re curious about inexpensive Canadian skin care, so be it.

And anyway, I’ve maintained and cultivated friendships on social media with many of the beauty influencers whose blogs and Instagram feeds I read and love as a way to learn about new beauty products. Some of them have even applauded what they see as me finding my true niche in my tea nerdery. Most of them I’ve never met in person, but they’re truly friends of mine now. And I’m starting to cultivate similar friendships in the tea community. Among the tea-lovers, the tea-growers, and the tea-sellers, I’m learning more and meeting more amazing people to help increase my feeling of connectedness to the world without having to venture out of my introvert bubble (much).

At thirty-seven, I am weirder and more fulfilled than ever before in my life, and I have my wonderful blog community to thank for it.

Thoughts on Pregnancy Loss, Two Years Later

NB: Today I’m going to be talking about my past pregnancy loss. I am also going to be talking about my subsequent pregnancy and living child. So if either of those are topics that you’d rather not hear about, please enjoy this picture of my cat and come back next week for more tea and frivolity.

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For those who don’t know, October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. It also happens to be the month in which I personally became aware of the reality of pregnancy loss. I shared my original feelings in a post here.

Two years ago today, I went for what I thought would be my first look at our new baby. And then I learned how it feels when things go not at all the way you’d expected or hoped. It wasn’t a dramatic moment, but I will never forget sitting on that table, looking at the ultrasound monitor with my husband and the technician and hearing her say, “It’s a little… small.” She quickly walked it back and said we would see the doctor to discuss it. I’d spent enough time on pregnancy subreddits to know what my eight-week ultrasound should have looked like, so I sat for the half an hour that it took for the doctor to be ready and tried not to cry. I failed.

It felt like hours that we spent in the room with the doctor as she explained why she thought I’d had what is called a missed miscarriage, comforted us, and talked us through what came next. It turned into an almost-month-long process of trying different methods to pass the pregnancy, but that first moment of connection was, oddly enough, what cemented for me that I wanted to stay with this doctor’s office when I eventually got pregnant again.

That was the day I joined a club of really awesome people who have a really crappy thing in common.

I am not a naturally sunny or optimistic person. But I consider my miscarriage to have the silver lining of helping me not only realize how supportive my doctors were, but also to help me connect on a different level with so many people I already knew. Even at the lowest point in those first months, I had people I could turn to, and I was so so thankful. If you reached out to me or if I talked to you about my loss in those months, know that I appreciated it more than I ever expressed, even though I unevenly disappeared a lot back then. It hasn’t taken much to see the bright side of the situation.

Last year, my first pregnancy’s due date passed without remark because I was already pregnant and simply too ill with first trimester nausea to notice what day it was. A year ago, I was in my third trimester and on the edge of my seat, simultaneously excited and scared. The problem about pregnancy loss is that it’s not just about the pregnancy you lost. It is a stark reminder that, despite the reassuring statistics, you can lose your baby at any time. It’s a tough thing to deal with mentally when you just want to be excited, buy some cute baby clothes, and pee for the twentieth time in half a day. In a way, I was holding my breath the entire time I was pregnant with Elliot.

I felt myself release that breath the moment I heard Elliot cry in the operating room and the doctor pulled down the sheet for a moment to introduce me to my baby.

I would love to say that it all got better once my baby was born, but I’ve shared experiences on my pregnancy blog that would make you know that’s a lie. I will say that I have enjoyed every minute of being with this remarkable little being who made it through, even when I absolutely hated it. But it doesn’t erase my loss. And, somehow, seeing Elliot grow up has made me think more about the baby he wasn’t.

When Dan and I were talking about having babies, we would often talk about names. We had a lot of girls’ names we liked, and couldn’t agree on a boy’s name. I not-so-secretly hoped I had a girl. When I got pregnant for the first time, I wouldn’t have admitted it out loud, but I was sure I was going to have that little girl, and I knew what I wanted to name her.

Seraphina.

I am not a religious person, but that right there is dramatic irony. And when I got pregnant again and we discussed names, I knew that, even if this baby were a girl, I just didn’t want to use that name again. It wasn’t that it was cursed or bad luck or anything. It just… wasn’t the right name again. I also was much less sure that I was going to have a girl (although, I’m not one of those “I always knew” mothers — we had two names picked out, one for a boy and one for a girl).

So today, I’ll be thinking of Seraphina-who-wasn’t, and I’ll give Elliot-who-is a big hug and know that now it’s my turn to welcome new members into that really crappy club full of awesome people and let them know that it doesn’t go away, but it does go forward.

Finding Solitude When You Don’t Live Alone

The inimitable Cathy Hay posted her Costume College vlog/recap last week and it was, of course, unique and brilliant. In it, she talks about attending large conventions as an introvert, someone who finds large groups of people exhausting and needs time alone to recharge. One of the things that stood out to me was when she referenced that fact that she lives alone in the country. I remember my own days living alone with some fondness, particularly when I was in college in a small upstate-NY city, but of course, I no longer live alone.

Anyone who knows me personally probably knows that I am an introvert. This may come as a surprise to people who only know me when I’m “on” — in stage shows or at work in my networking-heavy job — but I thrive on alone time. Of course, I’ve been married twice now and even have a child (plus I had to live with housemates most of the time I spent before moving in with Dan after my divorce), so I no longer live alone and have to find ways to get the solitude I crave. This has been particularly challenging since having Elliot, but it is still possible.

That said, I do think that any commentary on my solitary tendencies would not be complete without my waxing rhapsodic about the solo apartment of my later two years of college. I lived in a town where I could get a large one-bedroom apartment for less than a studio in the area where I currently live, so when my friend was trying to get out of his lease, I jumped at it. I had a large bedroom, living room, bathroom, and kitchen all to myself, along with a giant arched window to let in glorious amounts of natural light. And it was far enough away from campus to avoid much of the weekend partier traffic, while being close enough that walking to class wasn’t onerous. Of course, when finals weeks made my solitude even more profound (I would often go days without speaking), I would occasionally make a point to get breakfast in a cafe to have some interaction, but I was largely happy to exist alone.

Moving for graduate school made living alone financially impossible, and then I eventually moved in with my first husband. Then, the divorce again made living alone impossible, and the apartment I was finally able to rent on my own after that ended up being a poor fit for me. And then, I moved in with Dan, and eventually, we married and had our son.

So over the last more than 10 years since college, I’ve learned how to live with people and still maintain a sense of solitude. I now live in a suburb of a major city and work in the city, so I am almost never alone. Couple that with the fact that a new baby means lots of visitors, and I’ve had to hone my skills at finding alone time.

I think the cornerstone of my solitude practice is rising early. When I went back to work, I started rising between 5:30 and 6 a.m. to shower before Dan woke up, and try to make a cup of tea (or chocolate) and have some time to read before anyone else woke up. This time in the early morning is the only time that I feel truly alone sometimes. And it is especially nice on the weekends, when Dan sleeps in rather late (sometimes until 8am!) and I have a longer time to myself. Those who met me in the last ten years may be surprised to learn that I have not always been a morning person. I forced myself to start rising earlier when I started running in grad school so that I could take advantage of my time before classes started (and cooler weather in the summer). And I will say that training my body to rise earlier has been one of the single best ways for me to retain a sense of solitude, even while growing our family.

This weekend, for example, I woke up naturally around 5:30 a.m., and decided that, rather than trying to go back to sleep, I’d rather make myself some tea and have a quiet morning to myself while Dan slept in with Elliot. I wrote some letters, sipped my tea, and walked to the post box just before Dan and Elliot woke up. It was lovely and calm and let me reconnect with myself and my own interests before jumping into a day of family togetherness.

On Self-Care, Skin Care, and the Changes of Motherhood

I like to keep up with Stephen Alain Ko’s Beauty Recap each week (especially now that he has made it easier by posting swipe-up links in his Instagram Stories). And the other day, he linked a great article in Verily Magazine about the distinction between self-care and skin care. I’ve already been thinking a lot about beauty standards, skin care, and how capitalist colonial ideals inform our standards of beauty, but this was a fresh look at the fine line between encouragement and marketing when discussing self/skin care. Of course, skin care can be immensely powerful, as evidenced by my introduction to Korean beauty, Jude Chao’s seminal work on skin care and depression, so I thought a little about how skin care has fit into my ideas of self care and how that is distinct from buying product.

I happen to be undergoing a period of rapid change and, often, stress in my life. I had my first child and have been working to rebuild the shaken foundations of my self image while also existing on not much sleep and even less free time. Oh, and I’m now back at work full-time, too. So it’s been difficult sometimes to find time just for myself. I always have my tea and I’ve been making time for crafts, but both of those things are often things I do while I’m with Elliot and Dan, so beauty has become my true private time during the day.

When we met with our doula, her most important postpartum recovery tip was to have a morning routine and an evening routine that is simple enough that you can do it every day. She wasn’t talking about skin care; she literally meant that you should have something to separate day from night during those first few weeks when you’re awake basically around the clock. Because I’d had a c-section, I was supposed to limit my time walking up and down the stairs, so my main morning and evening routines were transitioning from upstairs to downstairs, and vice versa, but my skin care routine added an important element of reconnecting with myself. Each morning, Dan would give me at least five minutes to wash my face and put on moisturizer, and then in the evening, he would take Elliot for an hour or so, which gave me time to do a full skin care routine and take a nap before he brought Elliot up.

In the early days, when I could barely stand long enough to shower, this often involved a lot of shortcuts, like cleansing water and toner pads, and has evolved nearly back to my full, complicated routine. Contrary to the consumerist ideal of shelfie skin care, I’ve discovered a profound comfort in stripping my skin care routine to its core and using the same products over and over again. It does not make for good Instagram photos, but when I never know what my life will look like on a given day, it’s nice to know that my cleanser is an old standby. I haven’t felt nearly as much need to experiment with products, despite the importance of my skin care routine in maintaining my sense of normalcy postpartum.

But the one thing I have added to my routine is a nightly facial massage with my stone gua sha. I use this video tutorial from Sandra Lanshin Chiu to inform my routine. Each night, after I’ve fed Elliot and put him in his crib, I sit at my vanity and perform this nightly ritual. With most of the lights in the bedroom off to allow Elliot to sleep, I often do my massage by the light of a lavender-scented candle. I start with a few sprays of pure rosewater for some hydration, and then press in a generous amount of rose hip oil, but it’s not about product. You can use whatever you fancy and have on hand. I don’t use anything particularly expensive for this because I use a lot and apply it to my face, neck, and shoulders. Then, I begin smoothing my gua sha tool over my skin, feeling the coolness of the stone, and the pressure when it encounters a knot in my muscles. I can feel it help relax my neck, shoulder, and face muscles, relieve mild headaches, relax stress and worry that I’m holding in my face and neck, and stimulate blood flow.

Usually, Elliot is sleeping while I do this, but every once in a while, he doesn’t fall asleep during his feeding, and he will stay awake in his crib, watching me from across the room. I like the idea that he will grow up with memories of his mother caring for herself, although at this point it must be pretty boring because he is usually asleep by the time I finish. Other than an occasional silent observer, I am alone for this ritual while Dan finishes the washing up. There are no demands on my attention other than what I am paying to myself. And when I finish my massage, I apply my moisturizing lotion and get into bed.

I have other forms of self care, but so much has changed since becoming a mother. I can no longer make as much time to go to the gym or do theater. But my skin care routine is still there, even without any shiny new products, and it has helped me maintain a connection to my sense of self, as well as take time to center as I enter motherhood.

Thoughts on Returning to “Normal” Life

It should come as no surprise to anyone that my life has changed in the last several months. For a while, I felt so irreversibly changed by the experience of having a child that I thought I wouldn’t return to this blog. But since returning to work, I find myself emerging from the haze of new motherhood and realizing that it’s time for me to find a way to merge my new life and identity with my old ones. Slowly, I’ve stopped seeing this as a complete change in identity and started re-incorporating my old loves with my new.

It was easy to see such a start transition. First of all, my nausea and food aversions ramped up gradually during pregnancy. Then, as soon as the baby came out, it was gone. I felt like a different person. Add that onto the perpetual hunger of breastfeeding and I was a bottomless pit, whereas for months I had had to avoid all kinds of things, simply because they didn’t play well with my pregnant body. There is also a mental difference. Beyond my postpartum depression, which I’ve discussed on my other blog, there is a certain ethereal sense of mental detachment that happens when your sleep schedule is so altered. I spent many weeks basically living my life around the clock, rather than having day and night. It was merely “upstairs” vs. “downstairs.”

And then there was the deep, unexpected sense of love that overwhelmed me from the first moment I saw Elliot. I knew I would love my baby, but I was unprepared by how all-consuming that feeling would be. I will leave it at that, mostly because I can’t find words to put to the feeling.

But then, after a couple months, something started to happen. I started to emerge. It began slowly, with a tea session. I spent some time to have a nice session with a new tea in nice tea ware while I was home with Elliot. And then, one of the early days that we sent him to daycare before I went back to work, I used my quiet free time to enjoy the backyard and have my tea outside, like I used to do each weekend. Finally, we got the news that my husband wouldn’t be taking a new job out of state, which meant that I would be staying in my job. I had spent so long trying to see myself as a stay-at-home mom because it seemed like we were probably going to move that I didn’t know how to cope with the idea that, yes, I was going back to work, and it would be for the foreseeable future.

I will be honest, I was not at all excited to go back to work.

But I had to. And the days of my leave counted down. I hugged Elliot a little tighter. The weekend before I returned to work was the hardest. And then that Monday came and I got up, did my morning routine, and got on the metro.

And I had a wonderful day at work. Being away from work has almost been like a reset. Motherhood has given me a limited willingness to put up with other people’s drama, so I take what I need and leave the rest, and it’s given me more clarity on my work. But even more importantly, it’s helped me see myself as something more than a mother. I’m not the “old” me, but I’m not entirely changed, either.

That has drawn me back to this space. I will still endeavor to keep the mostly specifically-baby-related updates on my other blog, but I am going to try to blend the two sides of this transition into one life, because I’m not one or the other. I’m both. I’m all of it. And it’s nice to be back.