Earlier this summer, my husband Andy took his parents and siblings on a tour of Italy. Being five months pregnant, and having been to Italy before, I decided to skip the trip. So while they visited ancient ruins and art museums, ate pasta, drank wine, and hiked the Mediterranean coast, I stayed home and took care of our year-and-a-half old niece, JB.

With no childcare experience under my belt, I was going from zero to Substitute Mom. Luckily I had gotten through the constant nausea and exhaustion of my first trimester. I did my best to prepare, shadowing my sister-in-law before she left, learning how to change diapers, fill bottles, and put JB down for naps and bedtime. I scheduled playdates with my friends who had children close to JB’s age. And I toddler-proofed our house, covering outlets and putting away breakables.

But there’s a big difference between being ready and being ready. I’m not even sure it’s possible to be ready. You just have to dive in and do it.

So I did.

For the first few days, I tried to be “perfect.” I talked to JB constantly, used every little moment as a teaching experience, and tried to limit her time in front of the TV. I also packed our days full of activities that I thought would be fun and stimulating. The park, the grocery store, the library, the mall. JB seemed to enjoy everything, but the nonstop schedule left us both crashing hard at each naptime and at the end of every night.

On our playdates, I watched my friends and saw that their parenting styles were more relaxed. They didn’t follow their kids around to feed them, or worry about every sharp corner or big step, and their kids were still doing great. I wondered if I should ease up with JB, but I was scared to.

There’s a big difference between knowing that everything is (most likely) going to be fine, and actually being responsible for making sure that’s true.

The turning point came when my mom made a last-minute decision to visit for a few days. As soon as she arrived, everything felt more manageable. Having extra hands and eyes really helps when it comes to taking care of a bright, energetic toddler. My mom also encouraged me to pull back, to give both JB and myself more down time. She reminded me that I watched plenty of cartoons growing up and turned out just fine.

Throughout it all, JB was a delight. Brown-skinned and curly-haired, with pensive eyes and a sunny disposition, she charmed everyone we encountered. In public, dozens of people stopped us to say hello and tell me how beautiful JB was. At home, she found joy and wonder in the smallest things — a shiny lamp, a spray bottle, my husband’s guitar, the stairs. In spite of my exhaustion, and occasional frustration, I felt my heart swell with love whenever she pulled me over to play with her, or cuddled with me on the couch, or clung to my neck as I carried her in my arms.

When the ten days were over, and my husband and his family returned from Italy, I was relieved but also sad. I knew that pretty much as soon as they drove away, JB’s memories of our time together would begin to fade. It made me think about my own aunts and uncles, and all the special things they may have done with me or for me that I had no memory of. It made me sad to think of how little I appreciated them while growing up. And it made me glad that starting in college, I’ve gotten to know most of them so much better, developing my own relationships with them that don’t depend on my mom or dad being there too.

Hopefully JB will seek that out with me someday too. But even if she doesn’t, I will always strive to be a loving aunt to her, and I will always treasure our ten days of learning and laughing together.

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Step 1: Convince yourself that you do not need a house. Your 2-bed, 2-bath condo has plenty of space. You and your husband never even go into the spare room. You only have guests a few times a year, you hardly cook, and you have no kids. (Unless you count your dog…) The condo is fine. You do not need a house.

Step 2: Start browsing real estate websites anyway.

Step 3: Develop a crush on a gorgeous old Victorian in a quirky, up-and-coming neighborhood. Convince your husband to go take a look. No formal appointment, just a quick poke around the front yard. When his eyes light up with excitement, you know: The house-hunt is on.

Step 4: With a twinge of regret, rule out the Victorian because of its location. Realize that each neighborhood in your city has a very distinct personality, and finding the right fit is crucial. Visit a few homes in the areas you might like to live. You’re auditioning both the neighborhoods and the realtors you meet.

Step 5: After much consideration, decide on a neighborhood and an agent. Get pre-approved for a loan. (Warning: Houses are expensive, so it’s going to be a big number. Try not to panic. You can just eat ramen for the rest of your life.) Now settle in for a long ride. This is a competitive market, and the perfect house is not going to fall into your lap right away.

Step 6: Spot the perfect house for sale two weeks later.

OK, it’s not perfect. But it has so much potential. Deep burgundy brick. Original hardwood floors. A stained glass window in the stairwell. Updated kitchen and bathrooms. A fenced yard for the dog. Even a two-car garage!

When you look through the listing, a funny feeling fills your chest. There’s a hiccup in your heartbeat. A sense of possibility. And maybe even of belonging.

Step 7: Arrange a walk-through of the house with your realtor. Take note of all its flaws, and remind yourself not to fall in love. A million things could come between you and this house. Getting too attached would just be a liability.

Step 8: Fall in love anyway. Think about the house non-stop. Flip through the online photos a dozen times a day. Send a link to your family and friends and pester everyone for their opinions. (Tip: Cut ties with anyone who doesn’t think it’s the best house ever.) Imagine living there, working there, hosting parties there, raising kids there.

Step 9: Make an offer. Negotiate with the sellers a little. Agree to terms. Compile all sorts of financial paperwork for the mortgage company. More documents than you ever imagined. And then a few more on top of that. Schedule an inspection and spend over three hours with the inspector, going over every inch of the house and taking notes. Negotiate with the sellers again. Sign a thousand papers. And then a few more on top of that. When it’s all done, several weeks will have gone by, and the fact that you’re buying a house still won’t feel real. But it is. When the realtor gives you the keys, hold them in your hand and smile. Appreciate this moment. This milestone.

Step 10: Celebrate by buying a ladder, several buckets of paint, brushes and rollers, and a nice bottle of wine. Drive to the new house and unlock the front door. Step inside and take a deep breath. Soak it all in.

Then roll up your sleeves and get to work. It’s time to make this house your home.

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In 2015, Angie and Kristan turned 30. The milestone was both more and less momentous than they expected…

ANGIE

Last year, Kristan, Mengfei and I went on a wonderful girls trip to Europe to commemorate the big 3-0. Traveling from different cities, I landed in Berlin first, too early for anyone to be awake and functioning. Though I arrived well prepared with maps and directions to our rented apartment, the subway line I needed to transfer at was unexpectedly closed for construction. Jetlagged, with no idea where I was, I started to panic. Thankfully I spied two men walking to a bus stop nearby and ran towards them.

Together we navigated the bus route to a different subway. My new companions sleepily chatted with me and shared recommendations of their beloved city. The older man rode with me the entire way, even escorting me to a local bakery where I could eat and wait for my friends.

As he dropped me off at the bakery door, I offered to buy him coffee and breakfast. He politely declined, clasped his hands together and said, “I’m happy to help. Just pay it forward.”

My friends and I had an amazing trip afterward, but when I returned home, I didn’t practice the kind man’s words. Instead I spent the first half of my 30th year doing the opposite. Experiencing a period of deep vulnerability, I sought and took any support I could get.

The man in Berlin turned out to be a precursor for the abundance of time, love, wisdom and generosity that my friends and family would bestow upon me through a difficult time. So I began repairing myself — and in a symbolic parallel, finished putting together the apartment that I had moved into over a year earlier. My new home. My better me.

Now, I have finally begun to reciprocate, when I can and as much as I can. In the second half of my 30th year, I am trying to pay it forward.

When I was still in school, I thought women in their 30s had their lives together. It seemed like they all had a strong sense of self, and knew what they wanted and how to get it. Now that I am one of them, I know the truth: we definitely don’t have everything figured out. But we have learned a lot about ourselves and about the world, and we’re just trying to hold true to the one while navigating the other.

I’m still trying to figure out that balance, amidst career politics and heartache. I’m learning that some things just aren’t important. You can skip the gossip and the negativity, you can ignore misconceptions about yourself. You should take responsibility for your actions and be wary of those who don’t. Practice empathy, and sometimes help a complete stranger, just because.

While I miss some of the free spiritedness of my 20s, I’m embracing the maturity of my 30s. There are still so many adventures to take, now complemented with full nights sleep. It’s worth figuring out how to navigate work, the world, and your own heart. At 30, you are stronger than you know.

KRISTAN

On a recent flight back to Houston to visit my parents for the holidays, I sat next to a very chatty man. Normally I tend to keep to myself on airplanes, sleeping or reading or working, but this guy clearly needed to discuss his troubled relationship and stuttering career. I didn’t have the heart to shut him down.

So we talked, and at some point I realized that I was offering advice and encouragement to a man 10-15 years older than myself. It’s not that I had all the answers for him — nor have I accomplished all of the goals in my own life. But somehow, over the years, I’ve turned into one of those worldly and insightful adults that I used to look up to.

And it’s not just me. Over the holidays, I caught up with several high school friends (including Angie), and it was such a delight to see how everyone has matured. Our 20s were sometimes turbulent, both personally and professionally, but that’s what taught us how to fly smoothly.

For me, I think the biggest lesson has been letting go of what I imagined “success” should be. I’m not rich or famous, and I don’t look like a supermodel, but that doesn’t make me a failure. My life is delightfully boring, with a husband, a dog, and a house in the Midwest. My writing career is still in its early stages. But rather than money, beauty, or fame, I’ve decided that what matters most to me is fulfillment and impact. As long as I remain a positive, nurturing influence to others, then I am successful. Whether I affect 10 people or 10 million.

We are smarter and stronger than we know. And maybe part of turning 30 is just taking the time to reflect on that. To realize it. To embrace it. And as we move through the next decade of our lives, to build on it.


I cried right before Taylor Swift came on stage. I did, I really cried. A grown woman with no kids and a corporate job, I was crying. And when I did, my best friend Kristan was sitting next to me with tears in her eyes too.

The 1989 World Tour was starting its Saturday night show in Chicago. “#TS1989” flashed on the Jumbotrons, and pop hits blasted in the background amping up the crowd. Pre-teen girls were bobbing their heads, grinning and singing all the lyrics, and their moms were busy snapping photos of their little girls. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be here.

All of us – all 55,000 piled high and low in the stadium – eagerly awaited the moment our souvenir LED bracelets would light up to signal that Taylor was coming on-stage. Bracelets that Kristan and I had to hunt down, running from our upper-level seats all the way back to the entrance because someone had neglected to give them to us when we first entered the venue. Forgoing the LED bracelets was never an option. We wanted the full experience.

That day in Chicago, there had been spontaneous, severe downpours, and even tornado warnings. With a heavy heart, I feared that the concert would be cancelled. I would have been devastated, especially because I had flown in from New York to see Taylor live.

But magically the skies cleared and the show went on. In our seats that towered over most of the audience, with excitement and anticipation building, I let my eyes water and some tears fall. I was really here! I had made it!

That night marked one month after walking away from a difficult relationship. There would be no more returning to our terrible cycle of fighting, breaking up, missing each other, and then allowing all the problems to resurface as we cobbled our relationship back together. It had taken me a few tries, but this time I was really done, and I was here to move forward with my best friend and with Taylor.

Like in her “Bad Blood” music video, when my ex and I ended things, I sought my army of friends to help me fight the battle inside myself. Don’t call him, they said. Don’t respond to his barrage of phone calls, voicemails, emails, text messages. Be ready for when he shows up at your door. They made themselves available to me whenever I felt weak or needed support. They helped me pack up my belongings from his apartment, leave my key behind, and even rescued me when he did turn up at my place unannounced. They reminded me of who I am and that I had the strength to make this time different. To make it stick.

A wise, older friend also told me that many women have gone through one of these types of relationships. The kind where you learn about your tolerance and your limits. During my time with this guy, I questioned myself a lot. I felt small and guilty about my own emotions. I felt pressure that shouldn’t have been there. I absorbed the names he called me, believed his interpretations and manipulations, and thought I deserved the actions he took against me. I lost my confidence.

Shortly after the breakup, when I told Kristan that I felt I had nothing to look forward to, and I was worried that I might lose momentum and regret being alone, she suggested we see Taylor Swift in concert – something I wanted to do but wouldn’t act upon without a catalyst. Now I had one. So why not? It would be a celebration.

And celebrate we did. We sang along to every song, especially her older country hits, dancing as much as we could in the small space in front of our seats. We cheered for and felt inspired by the empowering words and genuine emotions that Taylor shared in between songs. We shook our lit up bracelets in the air and had a wonderful time.

When I came back home to New York, I gushed about the experience to friends and colleagues. I joked with them that I teared up when Taylor Swift appeared. But truthfully, I cried because I’d been so happy to be there with my best friend, safe and whole and healing. It’s because even though I was sad, I had finally given myself the gift of self-respect.

P.S. Taylor, if you read this, know that you are a great role model, and going to your concert was once of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Let me know if you ever want to hang out or bake in New York.


3 years old. Shallow waters, and big orange floaties encircling each arm. Our mothers sit pool-side while we splash and play. You’re a mermaid queen and I’m your daughter, your best friend, your handmaiden, your loyal subject. The sun burns bright above our dark-haired heads, and we squint as the sunscreen melts into our eyes.

12 years old. Dive-bombing into the deep end, and shrieking with laughter when the lifeguards whistle at us. Our mothers sit at home across the street, but they check in on us through the windows, as if their watchful gazes can save us from drowning. You’re Marco, and I’m Polo. We hunt for each other, eyes closed against the sting of chlorine.

29 years old. Seeking quiet and relaxation, but instead encountering neighbors I’ve never met before and don’t really care to know. The mothers complain loudly about kids who aren’t present. The red-faced men are drunk and showing off. You’re hundreds of miles away, probably sound asleep, while here I’m remembering the silky slither of aqua water around our young legs. My eyes gloss over, and the memories settle around me like the vast evening sky.

Someday, I imagine, we will go swimming together again.


It started as a tickle in my throat. Just a little soreness, a small discomfort. I ignored it. Told myself there was nothing to worry about. Lots of people feel funny after flying, and I had taken a long trip over the Atlantic Ocean to spend a week in Europe with my best friends. (Our first trip all together!) No doubt I would feel better soon.

But after a week, I felt worse. Much worse. My sore throat turned into a head cold, which then wormed its way down and made a home for itself in my chest. I started coughing and hacking and sneezing in public – you know, that person who you shoot annoyed glances at and stand far, far away from.

Worst of all, my home was on the other side of the planet. I couldn’t curl up in the coziest spot of my couch with a book and a blanket and my dog. I couldn’t hide from the world until I felt human again. Instead, I was stuck in a stranger’s apartment, which my friends and I had rented in lieu of a hotel room. The city outside our windows was cold and unfamiliar.

Of course this was the one time I had decided to pack light and leave my “just in case” meds at home. At first I thought I could tough it out, but it quickly became apparent (to my friends, if not me) that I would need some pharmaceutical assistance. Best friend and co-columnist Angie Liang dragged me to a little grocery store in Berlin, where I used my smartphone to look up “cold medicine” in German and bought a box that had those words on it. Erkältungsmittel, if you’re wondering.

Unfortunately the Erkältungsmittel didn’t do much. We later translated the rest of the package and discovered that I had basically purchased a natural supplement full of thyme. (Apparently thyme is a very popular herb over there.) It didn’t even give me a good placebo effect.

At this point my condition was sliding from “a little under the weather” to “completely miserable and useless,” so I gave in and went to an actual pharmacy. (Throughout most of Europe, this is the only way you can get real medicine.) A kind-faced pharmacist supplied me with extra-strength cough drops and nasal spray, plus a few travel packs of tissue “as a gift.”

Now properly medicated, I was ready to vacation in full force — or so I thought. But my body was not quite up to the challenge. Fortunately my friends were careful not to let me over-exert myself. They made me bundle up against the chilly spring air. (Angie even forced me to wear her coat.) When I ran low on energy, they urged me back to the apartment for a nap. They rearranged our schedule, delaying the most interesting attractions until the end of our trip, giving me time to recover. They made hot tea and cooked for me. They even let me have the single bed so that I could toss and turn and cough and snore all night, in privacy and without reservation.

Nothing they did could cure me of my cold — only time would do that. But knowing that I had such good friends, who were so thoughtful and generous in taking care of me? That made me feel better in a different, possibly more important way.

During the second half of our trip, when I was too weak to explore Copenhagen with them, I had a lot of time to think about how lucky I was. Yes, even sitting alone in a strange apartment in a foreign city in the middle of the day, I felt lucky. Because I could look outside and see tall, narrow apartment buildings in all shades of pastel, their windows shuttered and trimmed in white. I could watch people whizzing by on their bicycles with fresh fruit and baguettes for dinner. I could hear children playing in the courtyard, and neighbors laughing as they went down the stairwell.

I had the privilege of exploring two beautiful, magical cities with two beautiful, magical friends. Being sick was nothing in the scheme of things.


Every morning, I leash up my dog Riley and head out the back door for a walk around our suburban Cincinnati neighborhood. We go early enough that the woods are still quiet, the skies a soft blue-gray. I usually bring a book and flip to the page where I left off the day before, while Riley sniffs the grass. Together we meander our way down the street.

We’re kind of famous among our neighbors. They get a kick out of Riley’s unique markings – big black patches around both eyes – as well as my ability to read and walk at the same time. There are a few regulars who Riley and I run into frequently. Sometimes we walk in a group, chatting about books or the weather. Meanwhile the dogs take turns marking the trees and gobbling up every naughty thing they can find.

Dogs aren’t the only mischievous creatures running about. Our neighborhood is a popular thruway for deer. I often see them through our big back window, frolicking over the hillside or nibbling on the greenery. My favorites are the little spotted fawns, all long-limbed and uncoordinated. The young bucks are handsome too, standing tall to show off their regal antlers.

At night, teams of raccoons peep out of the drainage system to explore. Their favorite spot is the community dumpster, where they forage for discarded treasures like chicken bones and fruit peels. They’re shy guys, though. I might catch one flash of those bandit-masked eyes, or one swish of those black and gray bulls-eye tails, then they’re gone, disappearing back into the safety of darkness.

My neighborhood is full of small charms like this. We also have a community clubhouse, where the neighborhood association hosts monthly gatherings like Chocolate Fondue Night or Book Swap. There’s an exercise room available year-round, and a swimming pool that’s open during the warm months between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Street lamps line the long driveway that separates our complex from the busier streets nearby. And behind us is an elite Catholic high school for boys, who we often see running through the neighborhood during track and field season.

A lot of my friends – young, hip professionals without kids – have moved downtown and keep trying to convince me and my husband to join them. I have to admit, there’s a certain appeal. My husband could walk to and from work every day. At night we would be right down the street from most of our favorite restaurants. We could meet up with other couples on a whim, maybe even enjoy a drink and some music at one of the city’s rooftop bars.

But how can we give up our little oasis?

As I sit here writing this, it’s hard for me to imagine living anywhere else. But I also know that we can’t stay here forever. Someday my husband and I will have kids, and our family will outgrow this space. Maybe his job will take us to another part of the country, or even another part of the world. For one reason or another, we will eventually have to leave this beloved neighborhood behind.

And that’s okay. Home is where the heart is – and fortunately, hearts are mobile. For now, mine is here, in this neighborhood, with the sunshine streaming through my window, the joyful shouting of boys playing football in our shared backyard, and Riley curled up with me on the sofa, his furry head on my lap, just happily taking it all in.