When I was about 25 or 26 I had a co-worker who was around 43 or 44. Her name was Sonya, I adored her, and thusly began calling her Mom. It wasn’t because I viewed her as matronly, it was because she was nurturing and sweet and taught me a lot about growing into my womanhood. She’s also the kind of person who listens more than she talks and has all her values and priorities firmly in check, which are qualities I admire very much. I miss having her in my work life. I don’t have a work mom anymore. My office bestie now works in New Jersey, and for a while I was enjoying rich conversations with my fancy European work uncle, but he retired last week, sold his Hamptons house and moved to the South of France, which makes him far more civilized than any biological uncle I’ve ever had.
Anyway, some conversations with coworkers are more memorable than others, and there’s one talk Sonya and I had that I’ve never forgotten, even these many years later. As someone who likes to be prepared for all situations, I always paid close attention when Sonya spoke of recent shifts in her body, her relationships and her life. She’d describe some of the changes she’d experienced in her 30s and early 40s, and I’d listen with rapt attention, often taking mental notes. One day, over lunch, she said something that really rattled me.
“No cheese on the sandwich for me,” she instructed the man at the deli counter. Then she turned to me and said, “Ever since I turned 35, I haven’t been able to digest dairy.”
It was one of the saddest things I’d ever heard.
I remember thinking at the time Nuh, uh. Not me. I’m gonna be able to eat cheese forever. I’m going to be able to eat EVERYTHING foreverrrrrrrrrr.
Flash-forward 13 years, and I’m crammed in the phlegm-filled lobby of an Ear-Nose-Throat doctor to check out the dry cough that’s kept me up every night for the past three weeks. A cough, I’ve learned, can indicate many different things and I was hopeful that he’d give me an anti-biotic and I’d be back to dreamland in two days.
“Well, the good news is it’s not viral,” said the doctor. Perversely, I had been hoping for something viral so I could walk out of there with an actual remedy. Every other time I’ve gone to a doctor for a cough their instruction was to basically wait it out, giving me the pep talk that “it could be weeks, could be a month.”
“Since you don’t have any other real symptoms, I think it could be acid reflux,” said the doctor. “President Obama has it; it’s very trendy.”
He handed me a sheet of paper with a bunch of foods on it, including a cup of coffee, a curvy jalapeno and a big slab of steak. They all had giant black X’s marked through the center of them. It was very aggressive.
“Avoid everything on this list, and see how you feel.” The list included things I ate everyday, multiple times a day, and enjoyed more than the average person. Telling me to avoid caffeine, spicy foods and a spritz of lemon was like asking me to floss my teeth with a sailor’s knot or do a math calculation in my head. The task sounded impossible, and I was bitter that the only prescription I walked out with was “lifestyle change”.
I went home and shared the diagnosis with my husband, a former office pal who is now my head cheerleader. He understood the gravity of the situation immediately and was very supportive.
“That’s bullshit, Jenn! There’s no way that’s right. I’ve known you for 16 years; you’re the best eater I know. That doctor’s a hack. You can digest anything!”.
“I know! Thank you! I mean, what does he want me to do? Never eat a raw onion again? That’s no way to live!”
A week or two later the cough drifted away on its own, and I’ve continued to eat everything I normally do without consequence. I thought fondly of Sonya and sharp cheese and wondered if they’d ever gotten to be together again the way they were before.
Last year I interviewed someone to become my graduate intern. She was 26 and could digest anything.
She was a pure delight off the bat. Smart, sensitive, committed and hard-working. I welcomed her aboard on the spot; there was only one condition. She could no longer dye her hair blue.
And then I realized why I no longer have a work mom.
It’s because I am the work mom.