An Interview with Kate Kaufmann

Kate Kaufmann

I promised last week to tell you more about Kate Kaufmann’s book, Do You Have Kids: Life When the Answer is No. It won’t officially come out until April 2, but you can pre-order now. I highly recommend this book. Most books on childlessness sound pretty much the same, but this one gets past the why you don’t have kids and dives into how our lives are different without them. Examples: We can live anywhere we want, with no need to worry about schools and places for kids to play, so how do we decide where to live?  Without children who might take care of us, how do we cope in old age? With no biological heirs, what do we leave behind when we die and whom do we leave it to? What do we say to those nosy people who ask dumb questions or who think they understand what we need between than we do? Kate offers some great answers.

Kate agreed to be interviewed for Childless by Marriage. My questions and her answers follow. Feel free to join the discussion in the comments.

SFL: As you probably know, our focus here is on partnerships where one is unable or unwilling to have children while the other wants them or is not sure. In many cases, including mine, the unwilling partner already has children from a previous relationship and does not want any more. Did you meet many women who were childless because their partners didn’t want to be parents? What are your general thoughts on this situation?

KK: In my own marriage, I was the one who advocated for children, then went through years of infertility treatments. I called it quits when IVF was the next step. While I know it’s worked for many, I wasn’t prepared to take that step. Part of that comes from my former husband’s reluctance to try for kids in the first place. He was never comfortable around kids; I believe he was more than a little afraid of them.

One woman I interviewed was so sure she didn’t want children, she ended a deeply committed relationship so her former partner could go on to have them (which he did). I also interviewed several women whose partners had previously had vasectomies after having children with other partners. In one case the attempted reversal surgery was botched, effectively ending their chance to conceive a biological child. When I met her, they were still trying to decide whether to try for adoption.

SFL: Many of my Childless By Marriage blog readers are struggling to decide whether to stay in a childless relationship or take their eggs and hope to find someone else. They fear they will regret it if they never have children but don’t know if it’s worth leaving the person they love. Do you have advice for them?

KK: That is such a challenging situation. A dear friend of mine is in the midst of this no-win angst. I think when we visualize being a mom, the good stuff is front and center, and the less positive fades into the background. Same with relationships. What’s guaranteed, though, is that whatever the decision, in tough times there will be misgivings, in good times delight, and most of the time will hopefully be spent in the in-between. Not very helpful, I know, but there’s no good or right answer for this dilemma.

SFL: Many childless women find themselves dealing with stepchildren. It can be a tough situation where you get all the responsibility and none of the privileges of motherhood. What have you learned in your research about these situations? Can stepchildren be a true substitute for your own children? What advice do you have for our stepparent readers?

KK: I was sad to learn that only about 20 percent of young adult stepchildren feel they have a close relationship with their stepmother.

Both my knowledge and my advice come from the stepmoms I’ve interviewed. The best advice seems to be to take time to decide who you want to be as a stepmother. Define your desired role and talk it over with your partner in an open way. One of the women in the book describes a tense interaction she had with her new husband. “I don’t want to be their mother!” she said. “That’s good,” he replied, “because they already have a mother.” That reinforced her desire to be the kind of stepmom she wanted to be and let her husband know what her goals were.

Step-grandmothers have told me that their partner’s children are just that. But especially as they get older, they consider any grandkids as really their grandchildren, because the kids don’t know anything different.

SFL: If a couple disagrees on having children, how can they avoid poisoning the relationship with grief and resentment?

KK: I’d suggest something from a mediator’s toolkit. Listen to each other’s point of view carefully, repeat back to your partner what you heard, and keep doing that until your partner gets it just right. That helps with resentment, since from the outset you know what’s of concern to the other. In a perfect world, the couple would look at ways to work with the other’s concerns. Like Mother’s Day used to be very hard for me. My ex would be extra kind to me (usually :-)) when the second Sunday in May rolled around. It helped a lot to be acknowledged.

SFL: Your section on elder orphans is wonderful and unnerving for me because I worry all the time about my 96-year-old father and about my own future now that I’m in my late 60s. I notice you don’t say much in your book about husbands and other partners. Are you assuming that we will end up alone? What is the most important thing we can do now to prepare for our elder years?

KK: You’re right! When it comes to aging, I try to be pragmatic. If you’re partnered, someone will probably go first. I think single people, especially those without kids, benefit because we know for sure our kids won’t be watching out for us. Parents can go into denial and discover too late that their kids either aren’t well-suited to the task or they live far away.

What we do is gradually shift from being so independent (at which most of us are excellent) and layer in interdependent actions and choices. Ask for help, even when it feels like you’re a bother or can do it yourself. Make a pact with other friends who don’t have kids and support each other when someone needs a ride to the doctor or the airport. Start looking at retirement housing options before you need them.

SFL: You talk about the legacies childless women can leave. We may not all have money to leave behind for charities, scholarships, and such. What else besides money can we leave behind?

KK: Agreed about the money part. That’s what most of us think of first when we hear the word “legacy.” I think about legacy differently now. It’s rare we hear the ways we’ve impacted other people’s lives, so I like to make it a point to tell others when they’re still alive. Sometimes it comes my way, but even if it doesn’t, I take comfort knowing there are people who have benefited from me having walked this earth. I can’t know how much a child I helped learn to read enjoys books, but I know they’re out there. I try to develop friendships with people of all ages and consciously share what’s important to me with them—ideas, material stuff, experiences.

SFL: I love your collection of responses and conversation starters for childless women talking to parents or other non-moms. What is your response when people ask why you wrote a book on this subject?

KK: Thanks for mentioning the Afterword. Once I finished the book, I realized people might well want to talk to others and exchange ideas and experiences. But since most of us don’t pursue these topics very often, I thought it might be helpful to offer suggestions. I’ve gotten great feedback on this section.

I wrote the book to address the stigmas and stereotypes that many people hold about those without children. A recent study found there’s been no perceptible change since first studied back in the 1970s. That’s crazy! We’re part of our communities, we add value. Always have, always will. There’s plenty of room for us all to coexist, in fact to thrive, by including the full range of adulthood.

SFL: What will you write next?

My goal right now is to continue opening doors to conversations and understanding by speaking in most any venue that will have me. I’ve been surprised at the warm reception and frankness exhibited by many men when they find out about my project. If no man steps up to write the male perspective, I guess I might have to.

SFL: Thank you!

You’re so welcome, Sue. Thanks for asking.

There you have it. Readers, please add your comments and keep the conversation going.

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They don’t have kids either. Your reaction?

I’m still waiting for my ultrasound results from last week. The kind technician took a tour through my non-reproductive parts. This is your liver, your pancreas, your spleen, your gall bladder . . . We skipped the uterus and ovaries altogether because . . .  irrelevant. I will never hear, “This is your baby.”

While I wait to hear why my stomach is giving me a hard time, trying to join my dad in thinking that no news must be good news, I have some questions for you to ponder today. They’re sparked by the book I’m reading, Do You Have Kids: Life When the Answer is No by sister Oregonian Kate Kaufmann. This book, coming out April 2, is amazing. I’ll tell you more about it next week, and I’m hoping to bring Kate in for an interview and/or guest post.

Kate’s last chapter offers some great responses to the questions people ask. We have all dealt with nosy questions from people who have children, but I’m wondering how we react when we meet other people who don’t have children? Let’s talk about it.

1) How do you react when you meet others struggling with partners who are unwilling or unable to have children? Do you feel glad to have found someone caught in the same dilemma? Do you feel sorry for them? Do you urge them to get out of the relationship ASAP or to stick with their partner and enjoy the childless life?

2) How do you feel when you encounter someone who is militantly childfree with no regrets? Glad? Angry? Sorry for them? Do you feel tempted to hide the fact that you want/wanted children?

3) When you meet people who have lost their children to death, divorce or something else, do you think at least they had children or feel grateful you will never experience the pain of such a loss?

I could ask questions all day, but these should keep you busy for now. As they say in school, read and discuss. I look forward to your comments.

Do pre-order Kate’s book. It is jammed with great information.

 

 

The sorrow of a childless ultrasound test

Dear friends,

This morning, I’m going to the hospital for an ultrasound test. It’s the same kind of test women look forward to having to see their babies growing in the womb. Oh look, there’s his fingers. I can hear his heartbeat! They go home with a picture to show everyone. Of course sometimes, the test turns tragic, showing no baby or a baby that is deformed or has died. To me that’s worse than never having a baby.

But it’s not that kind of ultrasound. Whatever else might be inside me, there is no baby. The technicians will be seeking the cause of my persistent stomach problems. I’m torn between hoping they find something—finally an answer!—and hoping they don’t. At least I’m pretty sure this will not be the kind where they stick a wand up your vagina. Been there, hated that. Let’s keep it all on the outside, please.

It’s not my first ultrasound, but I’m always a little sad that I’ll never have the one where I see my baby. Not that I’d know what it was. In my experience, it’s all a bunch of fuzzy dots that don’t make any sense to me. When I did this three years ago for basically the same problem, it was a fascinating tour through my parts. There’s your liver, there’s your gall bladder, there’s your kidneys . . .

Anyway. I’ll be going alone. I won’t be anesthetized, so there’s no reason I can’t drive myself. But this morning, hungry from fasting, headachy from lack of caffeine, and a bit scared of what they might find, I wish I had someone to hold my hand. I wish my late husband Fred was still here.

Lately I’ve been getting a taste of what it’s like to be single and childless at 66. I drove myself to the ER when this started with incredible pain one night in December. A friend took me for my colonoscopy/endoscopy three weeks ago. Afterward, I was back to being alone, even though the instructions said to have someone with you for 24 hours. There is no family member nearby to whom it would naturally fall to take care of me.

Would having children solve this? Not really. My friends’ grown children live far away, work full-time and are busy with their own children. Besides, I’m not sure I’d want a grown-up child treating me like an old person and telling me what to do. In fact, I’m sure I don’t want that.

So what am I saying? Having an ultrasound for something other than a baby makes me sad. And build up your support network, whether it be family or friends. No matter how independent you think you are, you’re going to need it.

I’m confident that whatever they find, I’ll be okay. If I can survive my daily speed walks with Annie up and down the hills here, I’m pretty healthy. We both are.

As always, I cherish your comments.

 

Motherhood vs. career: Sigrid Nunez’ take

sigridnunez-bymarionettingerI was sort-of listening to Fresh Air on NPR the other day while going through old photos when I suddenly realized the guest, author Sigrid Nunez, and host Terry Gross, were talking about childlessness. I started taking notes.

Nunez has a new book, The Friend, in which a childless woman inherits a Great Dane left behind by a friend who committed suicide. I’m looking forward to reading it because, you know, dog. Also because it sounds wonderful. Watch this clip of Nunez reading from her book. I think you’ll fall in love with her just like I have.

This is her seventh published novel. I had forgotten Nunez was also one of the authors included in the book Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. I reviewed it here at Childless by Marriage in 2015.

In her essay, “The Most Important Thing,” Nunez talks about her decision not to have children. They just didn’t fit with her career, she decided after considering the lives of other woman writers. “No young woman aspiring to a literary career could ignore the fact that the women writers of the highest achievement, women like Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, did not have children,” she observes.

The rest of Nunez’s essay is devoted to great women writers who gave birth to unwanted children, who left their children behind, or who, like Sylvia Plath, were famously anguished at not being able to have both a meaningful career and kids. She did not want to be the mother who shooed away her child because she was busy writing.

On NPR, Nunez, who never married, said she had never had a relationship with a man that felt strong enough to have a child, and she never thought she would be a good single mother.

But unlike many who choose to be “childfree,” Nunez does not downplay the effects of choosing not to have children. Gross asked if people warned her she would regret her choice. Here is here answer:

“Yes, and I think that that’s very reasonable. I mean, as far as I’m concerned, missing having had children is enormous. I don’t – you know, I did what I had to do, or, you know, my life turned out as it has. But it’s never – I’ve never not been aware that in not having been a mother and not having had a child I have missed one of life’s greatest, most interesting, most meaningful experiences. I did. I did. But, you know, you can’t do everything. You can’t have everything.”

That’s not the same as regret, she stressed. She simply knew she could not have the life she wanted as a writer and be the kind of mother she would have wanted to be. Now in her 60s, she admitted she worries about being alone in old age but will just have to deal with it.

So this raises the question, once again: Are there certain careers, especially for women, which are simply not compatible with motherhood? In my Childless by Marriage book, I quoted an artist who said she couldn’t possibly do her art and raise children. I still remember that freezing afternoon when we were both selling our wares at an outdoor fair. She was so sincere she made me feel like a slacker for even asking the question.

At this point in my own life, I’m reluctant to leave my writing and my music even for the dog, so would I really be happy immersed in children and grandchildren? I thought I would be, but I’ll never know. How about you? Do you feel a conflict between career/art/vocation and the possibility of raising children? Do you think, like Nunez, that we might have to choose one or the other?

I look forward to your comments.

 

Have you ever pretended to be a Mom?

“Our kids.” “My son.” “Being a mom . . .”

I have been going through old writings from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Most are columns or essays, some of them published in the community newspapers where I worked or sent out as freelance pieces to various magazines and newspapers. In addition to being embarrassed—I really thought that was good?—I’m surprised to read frequent phrases like the above that implied I had children. Did I really consider myself a mom or was I trying to fit in with the rest of the world?

I had three stepchildren. The older two, in their teens when Fred and I got married, did not live with us. The youngest, only 7 when we met, lived with us from age 12 to 20, flying to Texas to spend time with his mom for holidays and summer vacation. Sure, I was doing full-time mom duty for a while, but did I really think of myself that way? Certainly not on Mother’s Day when the honors went to Fred’s ex. Certainly not when it came to decisions about “our son’s” religion, extracurricular activities, or his future. Certainly not when other women talked about their children’s birth and younger years. Certainly not when I tried to hug my stepson and he backed away.

I was kind of a mom, but in my writing, I seemed to imply that I was a full-fledged just-like-everybody-else mom. So why did my “son” call me “Sue?” Maybe it was just too complicated to explain that these were stepchildren, that I had not given birth to them. Or was I embarrassed, feeling that I had failed?

Who was to know different? Not the photographer who kept calling me “Mom” as he posed us for a family portrait. Not the school secretary who called to tell me young Mr. Lick had not shown up for class. Not the Boy Scout leader who wanted me to bring two dozen cookies. Not the other moms who sent their kids to our house to play. In most cases, I did not set them straight.

It’s as difficult to put myself back in that head space as it is to fit into the skinny clothes I wore then. I know I wanted desperately to be a mom. I guess I claimed as much of that status as I could, aware that it could be taken away at any minute.

These days, with Fred gone and no contact with the kids beyond Facebook, I just tell people I never had any children. That’s not quite true either, is it? I still love Fred’s kids and pray for them every day. But they’ve got a mom. I’m just Sue.

This seems like an odd post. Things have been odd lately for me, going through all these old writings, dealing with some worrisome medical issues, and slogging through the rainy days of winter. But maybe you have experienced some of this, too.

My questions for today: Have you ever pretended to be a mom or dad when you’re not? If you have stepchildren, do you feel like their parent? Do you claim that status among other people? Please comment. I want to know what you think. Tell me I’m not the only one.

Pictures of Kids? Not So Much

We sat around a table at the senior center last week passing around photos for a writing exercise. I was a stranger in this group that meets every week. I had come to check out the visiting writing teacher. My seat faced a wall-sized mirror, so I was looking at myself all the time, feeling too young and overdressed for this group.

The people were incredibly friendly, but I soon felt like an outcast in another way: Most of the photos included children. Kids lined up along a fence. Kids posing at Christmas with Grandma and Grandpa. Kids in the front row of family reunion pictures. You know the kind, where the original couple is surrounded by the many generations. Yeah. I don’t have a lot of those pictures. My albums are full of dogs, cats, buildings, beaches, mountains, and flowers.

The picture I brought, which inspired some smiles, showed my first husband, my father and my brother all leaning down looking into the back of the VW bus that we took on our first honeymoon. That was in 1974, when I was 22 and had no doubts about being a mom someday, and no clue that the marriage wouldn’t last. The honeymoon, a road trip all over the western U.S. and Canada, was great. At home, we didn’t do so well.

But back to the pictures. I suspect most of us don’t keep actual printed photo albums anymore. I don’t, although I have quite a few from the past. We store pictures on our phones, tablets and computers and post them on social media, but it’s still the same. My friends show me pictures of their children and grandchildren. I show them pictures of my dog or the weird bear statue somebody draped in garlands this Christmas (Bondage Bear, I called him). I have some pictures of my nieces and nephews, but I don’t see them often, and it’s not the same.  I take a lot of pictures to accompany my blogs and other writing projects. But I’ll never line my children up on the front porch for the annual first-day-of-school photo. Or pose with their kids at Christmas.

What does that leave me to share or to save in albums? And who would I save those albums for? When I die, who is going to care?

I rarely get my own picture taken. Most of the pics I put online are selfies or photos I paid a professional to take. No one seems anxious to save my image or put it on the wall like the 1800s picture of my great-grandma Louise that I study at my dad’s house, looking for features that have been passed down, trying to sense the kind of person she was. Does anyone believe all those Facebook pictures will even exist in a hundred years? (remember floppy disks? Gone!)

I have been thinking about piecing together a family-tree style collection of photos of all my loved ones, especially those who have died, so I can look at them all in one place. The tree will not go on beyond me. My line goes only backward, not forward. I’m a twig that will never reproduce. So who would I do it for? Me. It would make me happy, and that’s good enough.

My brother, the only person with exactly the same ancestors, might be interested, but he is surrounded by children and grandchildren these days. His branch of the tree is getting heavy with new branches.

Back to that photo I passed around. The seniors got a laugh at the old VW with its “lawnmower” engine in the back. My ex, shirtless, squatted in front of the engine. He was the real mechanic in the group, but my father, still dressed up from the wedding, was bent over supervising while my brother, back in jeans and tee shirt, stood back, looking worried. It was his bus that we were about to drive all over hell and gone with “Just Married” painted in blue all over it and only three working cylinders. I could write a lot more about that picture than I could about yet another string of blonde, blue-eyed Oregon kids.

So what do you take pictures of? Do you put them in albums or other kinds of collections? Who will care about them when you’re gone? Does it matter? Please share in the comments.

 

 

 

 

 

Younger wife + older husband with kids = trouble

Dear readers,
Happy 2019. A continuing theme here is the dilemma that occurs when your partner has been married before and already has children. In many cases, they don’t want to have any more. That was my story. So where does that leave you? In response to a comment on my October post on the subject, “Younger Wives, Older Husbands, No Babies,” I received this comment from NH. I want to share it with you and get your reactions.
MDOE37 said: Song and verse….second marriage for both, he was 6 years older with custody of a 13 year old son. Decided a couple years into the marriage that he was done. Raise mine, none for you.

NH responded:

Interesting. I’m in a similar position. Second marriage for both. He is 50, I’m 43. He has three kids from a previous marriage (12, 17, 20), I’m childless NOT by choice. First husband didn’t want them. Made damn sure I would never get pregnant. It was awful. Fast forward 15 years and now I’m remarried. He’s a wonderful man. Initially, he did not want kids and told me so while dating. At that time, I was still brainwashed into thinking I would be a terrible mom anyway (and I was 38), so I didn’t think twice when he asked me to marry him.

Turns out I’m a great momma, even better than Bio Mom (say the 12- and 17-year-olds, plus Dad). The 20-year-old hates me, because Mom has made up all kinds of lies to cover her mistakes. Bio Mom cheated on Dad, many times. Dad had enough and filed for divorce. She didn’t want the kids to find out so brainwashed them into crazy stories, INCLUDING telling them I caused their divorce even though I wasn’t in their life until years later. She was so convincing it took the youngest until this year to realize the timelines didn’t add up. Not joking. Two weeks ago, she told us that of all her friends with divorced parents, she has the most awesome stepmom and a dad that is still around and loves them. She said her mom is the problem. She sees, and doesn’t like what she sees. Eldest still believes the mom, and is pretty mean to the younger two if they don’t fall in line with her lies.

Anyway, my desire to have children kicked into overdrive once I realized I didn’t suck and got closer with the children. DH conceded. We went to a lecture for older adults about fertility. Spoke for 15 minutes with a doctor who told us IVF was the only way. Possibly donor eggs/sperm. That scared the husband, and now he doesn’t want kids anymore. He’s worried about my health, as I’m older, and worried he’ll have a nervous breakdown dealing with his ex, current kids and a new baby. Especially a baby that isn’t his and can’t guarantee if they’ll be healthy because the genetics are not ours. At one point, he told me he loved me so much that he thought we should get divorced so that I could go have a baby on my own, or with a younger man. I lost it.

THAT, on top of the grief and insane depression I’ve had over not being a mother, just crushed me. I went from being really sad, to really sad and angry. I know a lot of it is tied to my first husband and the mind games he used to pull on this subject. I’ve been in therapy and started taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds. I was a healthy, thriving, happy single person until coming into this life. I fell in love with someone who does love me, and wants to take care of me for the long haul . . . but he comes with all this baggage (much of which I’m not sharing here). A lot of this came out after we got married, and if I say anything to anyone their first comment is “you should have known.” Ummm, I’m not able to predict the future so how would I have known?

I’ve never married a guy with kids before. Waited a year into our relationship before meeting the kids because I wanted to be sure it was for real. They were very pleasant, until we got engaged. Once the ex found out we were serious, she got to work trying to wreck our relationship, and ruin me. At that time, we had moved in together, were building a house and planning to get married. OMG! Never had to deal with a high conflict ex, never moved somewhere because someone else made the decision and we just had to follow. Lots of “nevers,” and it’s been really hard. He promised me it would get better, and we have made progress, but I think all the bad stuff, and the hormones, and the depression/anxiety have just broken me. I’ve lost myself, feel completely mental, and am so far away from friends and family. I’m alone. There is no one to give me a hug if I’m sad (my husband travels a lot). Now, I feel like I’m giving up my chance to have children.

These kids will never have a mother/child relationship with me. They are grateful I’ve taught them so many things their mother hasn’t (well the younger two), but they’ll always be terrified to show their appreciation because of how Mom will behave if she finds out. Eldest is a tattletale, Mom’s spy. She should be in college, elsewhere, but dropped out. Things were getting so much better, and now are reverting because she moved back home. I’m the evil step-mom again because eldest says so, so my depression is getting worse. My anger is getting worse. I feel like I don’t have any control over my own life. I can’t even control my professional life, because we live in the sticks (not by choice . . . because Mom ran off her with the kids and he followed), so there are no jobs in my field. Thankfully, I was able to obtain a work-from-home position, but it’s entry level and I’m an executive. I have always made things work, my entire life. Adjusted to whatever situation I was in to make it work. This is the first time I feel like I’m constantly fighting to make it work, and it’s not.

In short, I don’t know if LOVE is enough. He is a strong, caring, kind, funny, provider. I love him dearly. He tells me they consider me family, and everyone really does care about me. I do not love dealing with the baggage and how he has chosen not to stand up for his ex’s dumb decisions. My mother-in-law told me he never would AFTER we got married, and said “good luck dealing with that evil B****” . . . and laughed. If I ever complained about not having kids or what I had to deal with, she would just say “You knew, and is nothing ever good enough for you? Can’t you just be happy with my grandkids?” What? Has a childless women EVER received that comment from their MIL before?

I wish I knew how crazy the ex was before we were married. I wish I knew my MIL wasn’t really the funny, kind person she portrayed. I wish I knew I wouldn’t be strong enough to deal with it all, and how it would change me.

Now, I feel broken. My anger towards dealing with all of this pain has turned me into a very unhappy, negative person. I don’t even recognize myself anymore. I don’t even know how to look at my days in a positive light. It’s just all gray and cloudy. I didn’t know trying to be a decent stepparent would mean I would get treated like crap for years. I feel lied to and taken advantage of, and now cash strapped because I’ve paid for so much in this household it’s not even funny. No, we don’t share financial accounts. We’ve dealt with too many court/money situations and I don’t want his ex knowing what I do, how much I make and how much I have saved. It’s none of her business. She’s constantly having the kids ask me how much I make. Awesome, huh?

Guess I should have done my research. Now I feel really ignorant. The honeymoon has worn off and we’ve only been together five years, married for three. I’ve heard it takes seven to work out most of the kinks. I don’t know if I can make it to seven years at this rate. But then, I’ll feel like a failure. Divorced again because I made a bad decision and didn’t know what this life would be like.

Does anyone have any advice? Is this what it is like? Does it get better? How do you stay sane when you don’t have a support network near you?

Please help.

Thank you, and terribly sorry for the long note. I happened to stumble across this and felt connected in some way, I guess.

So there it is. Heartbreaking. What advice do you have for NH? Does her story strike familiar chords with you? Please comment.