Ladies' Night

Rachel McPadden

Who: Rachel McPadden
Age: 47
Location: Chicago

Where you might know her from: She used to be a regular contributor to now-defunct, a site for women that used to get a lot of shit (even post-mortum).

Where I know her from: I can’t even say for sure, but I also wrote for xoJane and we have a lot of friends and acquaintances in common despite never having met in person.

Krista: I used to save this question for last because it kind of freaked me out. Do you consider yourself middle-aged? What is it about the phrase “middle-aged” that evokes such dread? Or maybe that’s just me?

Rachel: I 100% consider myself middle-aged. And it gives me great glee to point out that millennials are approaching middle age. [ed note: Yes!] My therapist is very into the ‘three acts’ of life, meaning roughly 0-30, 30-60, 60-90 (generous life expectancy). I kind of love the idea of 30-60 being the ‘middle act’ of life, especially since I don’t feel all that different at 47 than I did at 30.

At 35, after ‘one of those’ childhoods, I used to say I’d been ’25 for 25 years’ – maybe that feeling just keeps going. The 25-year-old without the life rulebook, doing a pretty good job, staying curious, and one day high-fiving yourself for having towels that match (and aren’t stained with Manic Panic). Not having kids also keeps you young and my skin is fabulous (aside from the occasional hormonal acne no one tells you never goes away).

Krista: What have you been doing during quarantine? Just based on social media, it looks like you’re always up to something cool.

Rachel: I’m really hoping to get to the ‘cool’ creative part of quarantine, but I do have a day job, and thankfully (yet stressfully?) for most of the first month, my husband and I were completing an online training program to become licensed foster parents (still a couple steps away from finishing the whole process). It was a lot of work, felt like grad school (I literally have no idea what grad school feels like), and while I hate to refer to it as a distraction, it provided a focus I needed to ground me during the weirdest, wildest time I’ve personally experienced/am experiencing – quarantine is like a collective acid trip

I have a beautiful, large vintage apartment on a huge park – an affordable luxury of Midwestern living – so the staying home part isn’t terrible. I’m baking, rearranging furniture, cleaning, walking the dog, and trying to stay sane. Our access to great TV and movies is unprecedented, but I really miss ceramics.

Krista: Ok, let’s go back to fostering. Obviously, that’s not something anyone embarks on casually. What led you to the decision to become a foster parent?

Rachel: I’ve always been an advocate for kids, that’s where I’ve put my money. I loved being a nanny professionally and caregiver for friends’ babies, plus we are close to our nieces and nephews. We still want a family and that wasn’t something we could easily access. Researching adoption made me favor foster care — there are kids out there right now needing help. I feel confident we can provide a safe and loving home for children in a difficult time. Within that, we may ‘complete’ our family through adoption if the opportunity arises, but if not, it feels very important to help these kids and families. We’ve got the skills, the inclination, the space, and the hearts for it.

Krista: Completely unrelated—how did you get into ceramics?

Rachel: I started taking ceramics two years ago, after my therapist (a woman I truly love and will continue to mention) suggested I find a class to keep me participating in art regularly and give me some accountability. Making visual art was the only real talent and identity I’d known from a very young age, and somehow for 10 years or more, it was like I was paralyzed. I would draw something maybe once a year and become overwhelmed with insecurity. I always had multiple interests, and would indulge any of those to not make visual art: sewing, writing, home decorating, cooking, baking, literal candle making… many of these were full-on side hustles during that decade+. I can’t explain, but am still making progress.

I picked hand-built ceramics because it seemed the least intimidating design-wise and I recalled loving my brief exposure in junior high. It took me a couple 10-week sessions to come out of my shell, starting with tiny repetitive vessels and not being very active in conversations or demos. When I finally knocked out a large sculptural piece, my teacher and ‘claymates’ were like ‘where did this bitch come from?’ – a reaction I’ve always liked anyway. I was too terrified of failure to mention I’d been to three art schools. I’ve been dug-in ever since and keep signing up for the same class with the same lovely, supportive teacher, Nicole Paulina (an inspirational talent). I’m so fortunate to have an art center in Chicago like Lillstreet with an unparalleled ceramics department that’s so warm and welcoming. Every level of skill, art, and craft are represented and it’s the most special place. I hope I can return soon!

I’m currently also missing the female-identifying pinball league, Belles & Chimes, I’ve participated in for all seven seasons since the Chicago chapter was founded at Logan Arcade.

Krista: And how did you get involved with doing the Quimby’s window displays?

As far as the Quimby’s (iconic Chicago indie book and zine shop) windows go, I worked clothing retail for years and my favorite part was always designing and executing window displays – most were indie boutiques where I had a lot of leeway to get weird. When Liz Mason, the Quimby’s goddess, put together an anniversary zine collecting people’s stories and history with the big Q, I snuck into my piece that it was a dream of mine to do the windows, and Liz made my dreams come true! It’s an honor to provide this service for one of my personal happiest places on earth.

Krista: Do you have a day job? That might sound like a dumb question, but I’m always curious how women my age pay the bills (or don’t). 

Rachel: For eight years or so, I’ve worked an unusual but ‘regular’ job curating daily content for morning radio shows. Like 250 radio shows in six different genres all over the U.S. and beyond. I used to go into an office, but since 2019 have worked from home, so I already had a good routine in place before the ‘rona chaos. But basically, most of the ‘Florida man’ crime stories, celeb news, married couples studies etc. you hear on the radio probably originated with me and my coeditors searching the internet for eight hours a day. I am salaried with bennies and am very, very, very lucky and long live radio.

Krista: You’ve written a few personal essays in your day (which were very funny). Are you still writing? I ask because I consider myself a writer but I haven’t done a lot of personal-type writing lately. Partially, because there aren’t a ton of (paying) outlets for it.

Rachel: I will always love writing, and coming from the ‘90s zine world, personal essays and (as my former alt weekly editor used to say) ‘slumber party talk’ is my wheelhouse. It was inevitable I would work for Jane Pratt. Oddly, a mind-blowing writing workshop with incomparable icon Lynda Barry prompted me to retire from professional confessional essay publishing. Media is a weird thing, I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything (and never say never), but I had a moment of understanding the value of my history and that how I choose to share and write about that was the most personal thing of all.

That said, I’ve contributed to two movie reference books my husband has written since then and helped copyedit them. We also had a music-themed reading series for a while a few years ago at a friend’s hair salon that was a real joy and point of pride (if not slightly ahead of Chicago’s embracing of such events).

Krista: Also, sometimes I feel like personal essays are a younger person’s game–no one wants to read about middle-aged foibles–which I know isn’t true! I sometimes wish we had an xoJane-esque site just for women 40+.

Rachel: An XO-type site for over-40s is always an interesting idea to me. One of my coeditors at work is a bff and just a couple years younger than me. She and I are baffled by how little aging woman discuss aging in even the simplest and most biological terms (not that all women have this biology, but you know). Pre-menopause and menopause are handled like deeply guarded secrets. Not that they are sexy topics, but there’s nothing shameful in continuing to function and navigate the world in an aging body.

Krista: Agreed. I won’t even get into my issues with perimenopause. Not the mechanics of it so much, but the whole ill-defined period of life as a vague concept. Practically any symptom (being tired) or emotion (being angry) can be attributed to perimenopause, which isn’t helpful to anyone. I mean, I’m always tired and angry. Also, I’m dreading the millennials trying to own it. We got here first, dammit!

Rachel: The problem with everything in media skewing ‘young’ is that it’s such a narrow definition. Some 30-year-olds are hopelessly ancient and conservative, and some 70-year-olds deeply culturally attuned and adventurous.

I’m friendly with lots of younger people and it’s funny to me how everyone wants to assure you that you seem, look, or act younger than you are – I’m perfectly comfortable with being representative of my age. I am one example of a human at this age. Big deal. My 93-year-old grandmother is brilliant, hilarious and hip as hell. I’m just trying to keep up.

Krista: It’s funny because I’ve never met you in real life but you essentially set me up on a blind friend date with past “Middle Ages” interviewee, Judy McGuire, which was pretty successful. Do you have a natural knack for connecting strangers? Let me know if you know anyone in Portland because I’m wilting here. 

Rachel: I’m still pretty tickled to be a friend matchmaker. I love Judy, and honestly I wasn’t sure you hadn’t crossed paths at some point anyway – New York always proves to be the biggest city that’s the smallest world. I think you know my sister-in-law or maybe people who went to catholic school with my husband? Facebook showing mutual friends is always intriguing.

Krista: Did you grow up in Chicago or did you move there as an adult? I’m asking because it can sometimes seem like everyone is in California or NYC and nothing in between.

Rachel: I’ve only ever lived in the Midwest; I’m from outside of St. Louis on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. I moved to the Chicago suburbs in junior high, moved back to St. Louis for college (dropped out), stayed for years, and moved back to Chicago when I was introduced to my now husband (a Brooklyn-native, who lived in LA before Chicago). I’ve spent plenty of time on both coasts for business and pleasure, but I’m a hayseed at heart. I love a small pond (if it’s the biggest small pond).

I once had a panic attack on a fashion trade show shuttle bus in Midtown Manhattan that became immobilized at 5pm on the nose when all the people filed out of the buildings and into the streets like giant ants and I knew I couldn’t live there permanently. Give me cheap(ish) rent and lots of space. You haven’t lived till you’ve driven down a wide one-way street.

Krista: You semi-recently celebrated a nine-year wedding anniversary. How did you know you wanted to get married, found the right person, and so on? I’m always interested in women who get married when they aren’t super young.

Rachel: I was a serial monogamist in my 20s while also being extremely independent–and was previously engaged once–but even then it felt like ‘engaged’ was a very different thing than ‘married.’ I don’t know if I ever thought I’d actually get married. My parents were divorced, nothing seemed less appealing than chaining yourself legally to someone under the guise of love.

I still associate love with pain, sickness, terror, nausea. I wanted to avoid it so much that when I met someone who felt that way as well, and yet we couldn’t stop digging a deeper and deeper hole into each other’s lives and brains, we were both like ‘GODAMMIT’ and it was on. It was really hard work. We are both big personality-types, and independent, and full of baggage, but each day we keep giving it a shot and here we are 12+ years later and almost 10 years of marriage.

I don’t know about ‘the one’ or ‘fate’ or whatever, but this person (in spite of himself and myself) clicked with me as someone I could do life with, grow up and grow old with, at nearly 40, or over 40 in his case. I did a lot of ‘faking’ in former relationships and hid behind the ‘safety’ it presented to my family or society while providing the best ‘girlfriend experience’ I could muster. 

With Mike, we are two wholly-formed people who cheerlead each other professionally and creatively (and have had boatloads of therapy). Strong long-term commitments boil down to true companionship for me. We are constantly laughing. We have insane amounts of fun. We love where and how we live. We care for a dog together (or ‘dogs’ before Archie, my dog son, left this plane the first week of quarantine). We will care for children together in a way we did not plan or expect even a couple years ago. Growth, love, education, surprise, adventures, and vulnerability sometimes begin at middle age.

Krista: Well-said! I’m still waiting for my middle-aged emotional growth spurt, but I’m working on it.

If you or anyone you know would be into getting interviewed by me for future editions, please let me know!