One Thing I Didn’t Expect About Motherhood

One Thing I Didn’t Expect About Motherhood: How much I would think about bodies. My body. My children’s bodies. The way they grow, stretch, scar and heal. Their softness and their strength. Through pregnancy, birth and recovery, I’ve become more forgiving toward my body, though it hasn’t always felt like mine. Its changes aren’t easy to accept, nor are the demands to share it so frequently. I marvel at my children, so awkward and elegant. Why are we drawn to embrace so often? Why does touch offer such comfort? I am not religious, but since becoming a mother, I have learned to worship. Our bodies are holy.

This piece was originally published in the New York Times in July 2020 as part of their “Modern Love: Tiny Love Stories” series. Reprinted with permission.

Motherhood: A New Life, A New Layer

At the beginning of 2016, I knew my life was changing. I just had no idea how much.

My husband and I had been trying to conceive for a few months. Finally we got that much-anticipated positive sign on a pregnancy test. Such a little thing, with such an enormous impact. Suddenly all of our hypotheticals were on their way to becoming reality, and the questions we used to ponder just for fun would need answers. (For example: What to name the baby?) We knew there was no way to be fully prepared, but you kind of have to try anyway.

Overall I was lucky to have a smooth pregnancy. Still it was strange to see my belly growing and to share my body. Some days I felt excited and wondered what this tiny creature would be like. Other days, to be honest, I resented the weight gain, nausea, and exhaustion.

Then one morning, about halfway through my pregnancy, I felt my daughter move inside me. Just a faint wiggle at first, but soon she grew stronger and more active. She was like a goldfish, and I was the bowl. It was incredible! Kicking, hiccups, squirming, pushing — I looked forward to all of her movements, no matter how uncomfortable they made me. Even her 4 AM dance parties brought a smile to my face. She no longer felt like something vague and imperceptible, but rather a goofy little buddy who kept me company all the time. I started to talk to her. I started to fall in love.

She was born two weeks early, on my mother’s birthday. Because we hadn’t been expecting her yet, my husband was actually several hours away on a business trip when I went into labor. As soon as I called, he quickly prepped his team to handle the rest of the week’s events without him, and then drove through the night to get to me. He managed to arrive just twelve minutes before our daughter did.

Those first couple months as a family of three were special but grueling. Physically, I felt much worse than I had during any part of my pregnancy. Plus I was sleep deprived, struggling to figure out breastfeeding, and constantly second-guessing myself. The joys of parenthood are real, but so are the hardships and worries.

After a period of colic (now called “purple crying”) our daughter turned a corner, sleeping better and smiling more. Now at six months old, she is such a joy. Every morning I look forward to her waking up. I sing silly songs to her, and she snuggles into my neck. We play with her toys in the living room, and she approaches everything with avid curiosity. Books, blocks, her feet, sitting, rolling, standing. I can practically see the wheels turning in her brain as she tries to figure out each new thing, and I love it. I never realized how spectacular it would be to witness a tiny human — my tiny human — exploring the world.

But even with an easy, cheerful baby, parenthood is demanding. Exhausting. Mind-numbingly repetitive. And it’s intimidating, to be responsible for another being, especially one as pure and helpless as a baby. Turns out, dirty diapers are the least of a parent’s problems. What’s really tough is making decisions for someone else. What should she wear today? How long should I let her cry before going in to help her sleep? Will traveling at a young age be too stressful and disruptive? Where should she go to school?

In spite of the pressures, I wouldn’t give up the immense privilege — the unparalleled pleasure — of being her mother. Of helping her to discover and become the person she’s meant to be.

At the same time, I’m still striving to become the person I’m meant to be. I still have my own wants, needs, and dreams. Motherhood hasn’t changed me at the core; it’s just a new layer. One I’m still learning how to wear.

Training Wheels: Learning How to Be a Mom

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.

How to Buy Your First House

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.

The Big Three Oh

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


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.


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.

Sisterhood of Summer

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.

Sightseeing While Sick

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.

My Neighborhood, My Oasis

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.

Season of Change

If you ask me, Fall is the most beautiful time of year. The leaves are changing colors, setting fire to the world. The air is crisp, like biting into a harvest apple. Simply being outside fills me with joy – and makes me feel like anything is possible. Maybe that’s the reason I’m itching to make a few changes right now.

At the top of my list, I want to do a better job of examining and appreciating life. After all, that’s why Angie and I created this column: as a space for reflection and sharing. We joke that it’s “just between us,” but by publishing our words, we do hope to connect with people like you.

We started writing JBU in college, a time in our lives when everything felt fresh and exciting. Even then, we weren’t terribly prolific, but at least it felt easier to come up with interesting ideas. We were always exploring – both literally and figuratively.

Now, as we near 30, things seem more static. We have each settled into our own routines, and there isn’t always something new to talk about.

But not all stories have to be epic sagas like Game of Thrones, or impassioned soap operas like Grey’s Anatomy. Home life, work life, love life – these topics have been mined for centuries. It’s time for Angie and I to start digging.

To begin, I’ll bring everyone up to speed on my 2014 so far. It’s been a pretty exciting year for me.

In January, after years of writing and revising my novel, I was finally ready to search for a literary agent. I sent out “query letters” describing my story and myself, then I tried not to obsessively check my inbox. Eventually the responses rolled in – some negative, some positive, and some in between.

The best email came in April, from an agent who loved my book and wanted to speak with me on the phone. After talking with her for over an hour, I knew she was the perfect champion for me and my work. Partnering with her is a huge milestone in my writing journey, and hopefully a big step in the right direction for my career.

Then, in case you missed the announcement that was printed in an earlier edition of the newspaper, I got married in September. After nine years together, Andy and I tied the knot in a small outdoor ceremony, with the wind whispering through the trees around us. A couple weeks later, our parents hosted receptions in each of our hometowns so that we could celebrate with a larger group of family and friends. All three events were lovely, and a ton of fun. And like any wedding, there were ups and downs and little emergencies that are just funny anecdotes now.

That’s what I’ve been up to recently! Hopefully there are still more good happenings to come. Either way, you’ll be hearing from me and Angie again soon.

– Kristan

Reflecting on Our 10-Year Reunion

Ten years later, there we were. Somewhere between 100 and 200 members of the Bellaire High School class of 2003 had gathered in a dive bar near the Southwest Freeway, overtaking the regular customers. Red and white banners staked our claim and announced our continued school spirit. Camera flashes kept going off. The entire night was dedicated to mingling and catching up, drinking and sharing stories, shouting to be heard over the other voices and music.

Like true best friends, the two of us stuck together for much of the night, trying to spend time with each other, while also wandering around and reacquainting with our old peers. Despite people’s newly acquired beards, changes in fashion, or extra pounds gained here and there, everyone still felt vaguely familiar. It made us wonder: Were we mostly the same too?

A sense of curiosity had us talking to everyone we passed, whether we recognized them or not. Former boyfriends, dance team buddies, tag-along spouses, and even one lovely girl who remembered us far better than we remembered her. Like a choreographed dance, the crowd kept splitting into pairs and small groups, then swirling around and dividing again. In each new configuration, we laughed over fond memories, reminisced about old teachers, and marveled at all the things that had fallen between the cracks, waiting until that night to be unearthed again.

Once or twice we were ignored by people who we approached or waved to, which was puzzling more than offensive. It seemed to go against the whole spirit of a class reunion. But it didn’t matter — such petty matters were left behind in high school — and only showed us who our friends really were, both then and now.

Overall, the reunion was enjoyable in an inessential way, like eating a slice of cake. It tastes good in the moment, but you don’t need it. It doesn’t nurture or fulfill you in any way. On the one hand, it didn’t really matter how our classmates had turned out. They had been absent from our lives for a long time, and as soon as we walked out the door, they would disappear again, with no impact on us one way or another. But on the other hand, it was nice to look around the room and think, “Hey, we did all right.” As a group, we’ve experienced such interesting things over the past decade — like working on Wall Street, studying volcanoes for NASA, becoming parents, chasing and living our dreams.

At the end of the night, we felt a sort of collective pride — and honestly, a sense of reassurance. We had all survived, and maybe even thrived, in these first ten years after high school. That meant we were probably in good shape to do the same or better in the decades to come.