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Exit Interviews: How reporter Ashley Locke channels her chosen mother's "I'll knife you energy"
“The power that I feel, I want other women to feel. I want them to feel that their stories matter.”
It has been my intention to pass the mic on my newsletter for a while. To this end, I’m launching a new series here that I’m calling Exit Interviews — conversations with folks about their own initiations. And I’m so glad that I get to kick this off with my friend Ashley.
Ashley Locke is a brilliant reporter and producer for NPR and WBUR’s Here and Now based out of Central Mass., where her husband Chris heads up the brewing team at Start Line Brewing. (Chris is my former classmate from Emerson.) Our interview hinges on the impact of Ashley’s “chosen mom,” Judy, on her own initiations — growing into a skillful storyteller, experiencing early pregnancy loss, and becoming a mother to son Otis, who just turned one.
We also discuss what it means to determine the right timing and ethics of telling our initiation stories, and those of other women and marginalized people — important considerations for all storytellers. As she says, “The power that I feel, I want other women to feel. I want them to feel that their stories matter.” As do I.
So let’s get into it! I can’t wait to hear what y’all think of this post format. Let us know in the comments below!
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Ryan: Firstly, how do you define “initiation”?
Ashley: I have thought about this idea of initiation several times in my life, but didn’t have the word to name it. I feel like I’ve already lived several lives. There was life with my birth mom — then leaving her at 14 to live with dad and Judy, his partner at the time and my chosen mom. There was leaving Arcata, CA, a town of less than ten thousand, to go to LA, a city of more than 10 million — then leaving LA for Boston, and landing at WBUR. There was going through an early stage miscarriage — very different from your journey, but it felt like such a tidal wave to go through again, after losing Judy just before our wedding. And now, I’m in the initiation of becoming Otis’ mom.
I’m realizing that a lot of our initiations are about loss. How what we lose or leave behind changes us. I’m glad we can figure out how to reclaim some of the pain as a sign of growth and strength.
This matters to me personally and professionally. As a reporter and producer, I interview people pretty much every day that have been through trauma. For example, I was working on a story about refugees from Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul. And we were eager to hear from someone who got on a plane, like, yesterday. But I talked to this refugee organization and they said, “We wait at least a few months before we even tell refugees about media opportunities, because we want them to speak from a place of strength, and people are in shock when they leave their country with a suitcase.”
That really stuck with me. So often, the news is quick to jump on getting survivors on the air, but are they ready? Journalism is the first draft of history, but I think more and more, I feel this ethical tug. Like, do we need to put them on the air today? Would this still be interesting six months from now? We’re not CNN. We don't have to compete in that way. I don't want trauma, mine or theirs, to just be what happens to us, and there's no good that comes out of it.
“I’m realizing that a lot of our initiations are about loss. How what we lose or leave behind changes us. I’m glad we can figure out how to reclaim some of the pain as a sign of growth and strength.”
Ryan: What you’re saying is so thoughtful. I've been seeing this perspective in journalism more and more. Particularly because I read a lot of work here on Substack, where people have set their own terms for reader-supported journalism. For example, , who is everywhere right now with her book Fat Talk coming out. She frames her current work of fighting fatphobia as a form of repairing harm, following her years of working in women's magazines for years and reporting on people's bodies in ways she now sees as less than ideal. Her argument for having a subscriber-supported platform is that she does not have to participate as often in the kinds of storytelling that cause further harm — i.e., irresponsibly reported stories about Ozempic. There’s a feeling among many of us that there has to be a better way to tell women’s stories.
I do think there's still such a preference for the hot take, with journalism. But in telling our own initiation stories, I find there is sort of a “middle distance” at which the storytelling is actually more helpful for the person telling it and helpful for other people to hear it. That point at which you’re close enough that you remember it and it's still visceral, but far enough away that you’ve been able to glean some wisdom from it that is worth sharing. Those are often the stories I choose to take on here.
Ashley: Yeah. I don't know how often talking to someone on the day their house burned down is valuable.
Ryan: Right. Especially in America, we always want to impose a silver lining immediately. I think that urge, plus this need for immediacy, warps the storytelling. And yet I also empathize with the position of being a journalist and knowing that sometimes that it's not your call to make, how the story gets shaped.
Ryan: We talked about stories that might fit into that “middle distance” for you, and you said that it would feel good to talk about your chosen mom, Judy, and also about the grief of losing her a few years ago, before you became a mother yourself.
How are you thinking about the origins of your love story with your chosen mom?
Ashley: Judy was always a part of my life from day one. My dad's twin sister Denise and Judy were best friends. They were both hairdressers together. When my parents got divorced when I was six, Judy needed someone to come over and fix some cabinets for her, and my dad showed up, and it went from there. I was about seven years old when my dad moved in with Judy. My birth mom had custody of me, so I would have visitation with them every Wednesday night and every other weekend.
It wasn't, like, love at first sight. (Laughs.) There were a lot of rules at Judy's house. I realize now that they were made out of love, but at the time I was like, “What, I can't eat whatever I want? I can't grab an R-rated movie from the shelf at the video store? I don't understand.” With my birth mom, my twin brother and I were left on our own a lot. But when I was 14, we had a falling out with our birth mom, and the situation there just got really unbearable, so we decided that we wanted to go live with our dad and Judy.
Judy's mom had just passed away, like, the day before. She was trying to juggle her mom's affairs and her own grief, and also welcoming two new people to her home. It was such a gracious, generous loving thing to do, and it wasn't an easy transition. My birth mom was also not happy that we left, and she fought it for a long time.
But Judy gave me a lot of stability. We had dinner every night at six o'clock. My brother Cody and I would do chores around the house and earn an allowance – regular kid things that I did not have with my birth mom. Because Judy was a hairdresser, she would also highlight my hair for me, a process that took several hours, and it would just be one-on-one time, us talking about life and love and challenges and growth. She made me feel very heard, and she gave some tough love sometimes, but I think I needed it.
She also made life really fun. I'd never been on a vacation before with my birth mom. After Judy’s mom had died, her mom had left her a little money, and she used the money to pay for me to go on a class trip to Europe with my AP European History class, and she paid for my best friend, who couldn't afford it, to go too. That first plane ride and trip launched me into wanting to explore the world. Which I’ve now done, because she gave that up for me.
My dad and Judy separated right after I finished college. They had been together 15 years and remained friends. Judy assured me that nothing would change between she and I – that she would love me just the same. And she did.
Ryan: She sounds amazing.
Ashley. She was.
“It wasn't, like, love at first sight. She just made me feel very heard, and she gave some tough love sometimes, but I think I needed it.”
Ryan: What should people know about how to honor the importance of a chosen family member like Judy, especially for those who are estranged from their families of origin?
Ashley: It's more common than people realize, that many adults have a chosen family. I have been estranged from my biological mother since I left home at 14. I was told she passed away just weeks after I gave birth to my son. Since then, I've produced stories about estrangement, and researchers have validated to me that my situation is not unique, but that there is a lot of stigma around talking about it.
I think it is the responsibility of people like me, who are managing some level of estrangement, whether it be temporary or permanent, to keep telling their stories. To share their complicated, messy identity. To show others how there is more than one path to having a family.
Everyone just wants to feel understood and loved. Wouldn't it be wonderful to know there's more than one way to do that? And it is such a powerful gift to be able to make that choice. That is what I want people to understand about families like mine.
“I think it is the responsibility of people like me, who are managing some level of estrangement … to keep telling their stories. To share their complicated, messy identity. To show others how there is more than one path to having a family.”
Ryan: When I think about the Joseph Campbell structure of initiation, which I wrote about last week, the way he laid it out is this: there's a call of some sort, there's a moment where things are never going to be the same again. And then there's the woods and journey in between, trials that are hard and confusing. And then maybe there feels like an exit out of it, where you're able to look back and reflect on that.
Not all initiations follow this pattern. Some might. What do you think? Did the story of losing Judy begin with a call? Was there a woods? And where are you now?
Ashley: Judy died unexpectedly, the day after our dog died. So I did wake up the next morning to a bunch of voicemails. When I called back, a friend of Judy's told me she died.
I was only in California for a week, to clean out her house and go to her memorial. If anyone else is going through a loss, I would encourage them to take off more time, as much time as they need. Looking back, I wish I had, because it felt like I deserved that.
Ryan: I strongly agree. I wrote about this in a previous post – that we need far more time for bereavement than we’re typically given in the U.S., though this is changing.
Ashley: Even my dad was like, “Are you done going through all this stuff?” I’m like, “No! You can't just throw her away!” Obviously I didn’t want to save everything, but I wanted more time to touch it, and feel it, and smell it, and say goodbye.
Everything was happening so fast. The world kept spinning as if nothing had happened, but my whole world had changed.
Ryan: That’s a common, valid feeling.
Ashley: As a writer, it still really hurts me that I was so shaken up that I didn't even write an obituary for her. And I write obituaries for people all the time.
Luckily we lived in such a small town, and Judy knew everyone. When I got to her memorial, everyone from her life was there. That showed me that the people who really care about you – they're not looking at social media, they're not checking the newspaper to see where you’ll be. They just know what's going on in your life. That made me really miss the closeness of community in a small town.
“If anyone else is going through a loss, I would encourage them to take off more time, as much time as they need. Looking back, I wish I had, because it felt like I deserved that.”
Ryan: How did things evolve from there?
Ashley: It got to be the year anniversary of her death the first year. I felt very anxious about marking the occasion. My counselor was like, “It doesn't have to be some big thing. You could just have a drink or something.” So Chris and I had an Old Rasputin, her favorite drink, and it was great.
But I don't know at what point you come out of the woods, necessarily. I think you're always kind of in the woods when you lose someone like that. It’s like losing a limb. I can still go on, but it is really hard without Judy here. I don't know if that's ever going to change.
Ryan: What does it feel like to tell your story now, five years later, from the middle distance?
Ashley: Firstly, I was really honored that you asked. As a journalist, the tables rarely get turned on you. I feel like a lot of friends come to me for counseling and advice and hugs and love, but it's not very often that people ask, “How are you doing? What do you need? Like, your mom died four years ago. Do you wanna talk about that?” After a month, people move on.
It still isn't easy for me to talk about, but I feel like I am in a place of strength now when I talk about her. I think about her every day, and the wisdom that she taught me about how to be a good person, and a good mother, and a good journalist, and a good friend. I'm wearing hoops, because she’d always have hoops on. And she had this little necklace with this silver ball on the end. When you would shake it, it was just almost like bells, but it sounded mystical, like fairies or something. It’s like, the sound of Judy. I still have it.
So I feel like I've absorbed a lot of who she was – and that the best parts of her, as corny as it sounds like, live on through me.
Ryan: This speaks to your earlier point about the right timing for retelling our initiation stories. Because there's this other artificially imposed timeline of storytelling about loss in America – where you have a month where this matters, and then everybody has quote-unquote moved on. When in fact the meaning-making continues. And in some ways, it gets sweeter and better. More empowering, sometimes, or healing. But people aren't eliciting the story from you anymore.
“I feel like a lot of friends come to me for counseling and advice and hugs and love, but it's not very often that people ask, “How are you doing? What do you need?”
What was it like to move through pregnancy loss without your chosen mom? I imagine that was also hard, and the kind of story folks don’t often elicit from people like us who have had that experience.
Ashley: The first time I found out I was pregnant was March of 2021. I peed on the stick after 12 months of trying to conceive — during a pandemic! — and got the positive sign. We were so excited! The next month, April of 2021, the pregnancy came crashing to an end. It was still Covid times, so Chris watched what was soon to be one of the worst experiences of my life on FaceTime. The tech at my first ultrasound appointment could not tell me anything, but an older man came to see me and explained that I had a blighted ovum. I had an egg sack in my uterus, but the egg never really developed. It just, like, reabsorbed into me. There was no baby.
The doctor said, “This is very common and there's no reason to believe you couldn't try again.” He treated me as if I had just fallen off my bike, and could get up again and go. He gave me a prescription for Misoprostol to help my body not be pregnant anymore. I remember walking through CVS like a zombie to get the pills.
We had told several friends and family members we were expecting. Most of the time people didn't know what to say to us after our loss, so they didn't say anything. That is not the right thing to do, by the way.
[Ed: Wondering about the right thing to do? I share some ideas here.]
I never got the guts to go to a support group. I reached out to one, for sure. A few months later, I found out I was pregnant again. I was thrilled that it felt like things were turning around for us. But the anxiety of my loss made me afraid to be too happy for this new pregnancy. I'm still angry that my loss robbed me of some of the joy I so desperately wanted in my second pregnancy.
I do wonder what I would learn about Judy if she knew this had happened to me. She always wanted to have children of her own, but had some medical issues that prevented that from being a reality. I'm sure she could relate to me and would know the perfect thing to say to comfort me. She would not have been one of the quiet people in my life.
“Most of the time people didn't know what to say to us after our loss, so they didn't say anything. That is not the right thing to do, by the way.”
Ryan: How is Judy being integrated into the selves that you've created after losing her? And where does it still feel like there's an ache?
Ashley: I think whenever there are big life moments, you definitely miss your person. It’s hard knowing that Otis won't get to meet her. It was really hard to get married, and she wasn't there. Something that I've also talked about with my counselor is how when someone you lose is gone, then you're trying to find ways to fill that hole. Not intentionally. But I’ve wanted certain people in my life to fill in for Judy, and they can't, because that's not who they are.
It's been hard to figure out what my dad’s role is in my life now that she's gone. I don't think he's looking to absorb any new responsibilities. (Laughs.) My counselor put it to me like this: “You wouldn't go to the hardware store for bread. You can't expect one person to be your everything.”
I feel like I do need to lean on my support system more and not carry the burden of mothering on my own. I haven't quite figured that out yet. My mother-in-law says I put up walls. I like to think of them as boundaries. (Laughs.) She's very loving and she wants to help in any way she can, but I'm still working through this feeling of, “I don't want her to pity me.” I appreciate her support, but I don't feel like a broken person. I just have a different story.
I think having a baby also makes you think a lot about how you were raised. You wonder: what were you like as a baby, and what choices did your parents make? And what choices should I make? I don't feel like I have anyone to ask those questions to. So that's hard. But there is no right way to do it. You just have to trust your intuition, not give a fuck, and live the life that you want for you and your family.
Ryan: Yeah. As Joan Didion would say: That is what there is to do.
“I don't feel like a broken person. I just have a different story.”
Ryan: You and I have talked about how becoming a mother yourself made you immediately give less fucks, and the fact that Judy was a person who modeled that attitude for you early on. What does this actually look like in your daily life as a mother?
Ashley: I was getting ready to get checked out of the hospital after giving birth and I was tearing someone a new one, because I was unhappy with something that had happened. It's like this button got pushed in me: “Mama Bear, activate!”
At first I thought it was hormonal or something. But Judy did not give birth to me, and she still had that same fierce love and that “I'll knife you” kind of attitude.
Judy had a first marriage before she was with my dad, and her ex-husband was really horrible to her. Because she was raised Catholic, they were together for 17 years before they finally got divorced, because she felt like, “I need to be a good girl. I need to try and work this out.” She carried that failed relationship as a lesson for her entire life. She wanted me to be independent. She wanted me to advocate for myself. She wanted me to not let a man dictate anything about me.
Now that I’m a mom, I think, “What would Judy do in this situation?” Because she always spoke up for herself, and was our constant defender. She'd always say, “The truth works, tell the truth.” Or she’d say, “I always have an opinion about something, and you can always tell me to fuck off, but I'm gonna tell you what I think.” I guess I have embraced that.
Ryan: Those are beautiful lessons. And hard ones, that she paid for with her own initiations – that are now like heirlooms that you get to receive.
Ashley: Yes. She never wanted me to just settle for something, or do something out of obligation. She just really wanted me to be happy and live my best life. And so I'm trying.
“Judy did not give birth to me, and she still had that same fierce love and that ‘I'll knife you’ kind of attitude.”
Ryan: What does that best life look like?
Ashley: Definitely having balance, and being in good health, and not taking things too seriously. Laughing with Otis, and spending time together as a family with Chris.
At work, I feel like I'm really crushing it. I'm trying to get women's voices elevated. The power that I feel, I want other women to feel. I want them to feel that their stories matter. As we talked about at the beginning, traditional media is still a hard machine to do that work through. But I try my best to make sure that the freedom that I feel to be myself, and have my concerns heard, allows others to have a voice too.
I also think having my best life is not putting myself last. That's so much harder than it's ever been before, and I'm definitely not perfect at it. But I’m also trying not to be perfect. I have struggled with that my whole life, and now I’m just trying to be in the moment.
Ryan: That resonates. I feel like it's taken me a long time to get to that same place. It's hard when you feel like you have to make your chosen people love you, because chosen people can leave. It’s hard to trust that you can be imperfect and still be worth the commitment.
Ashley: And every time you go through, like you said, a new initiation, it's like you have to reboot. You have to start the process over again.
Ryan: And grieve.
Ashley: Yeah. Grieving the situation is different with every initiation. You're in a new club now, and the rules are different.
But asking for help is also part of that process. I think that’s definitely part of me living my best life. A friend and I were talking recently about how hard it is to ask for help. In the same way that sometimes you know that you need to get to the gym, and all you have to do is put your sneakers on, but you just can’t put your sneakers on — that is sometimes how it feels to be a mom, to know that you should just pick up the phone and ask for help, and yet you just can’t ask for help. But I’m trying.
Ryan: I guess that’s what we’re doing right now, isn’t it? Picking up the phone for each other.
Ashley: It is.
“In the same way that sometimes you know that you need to get to the gym, and all you have to do is put your sneakers on, but you just can’t put your sneakers on — that is sometimes how it feels to be a mom, to know that you should just pick up the phone and ask for help, and yet you just can’t ask for help. But I’m trying.”
As mentioned, Ashley works as a reporter and producer for WBUR’s Here and Now. Her most recent feature focused on the challenges of paying for childcare when you’re an early childhood educator yourself (a topic close to my heart). Check it out here.
On Initiation Writes, we often talk about the restorative power of art and time in nature in the healing process. Ashley’s work dovetailed with this in a meaningful way when she covered the making of murals in CA after the Camp Fire.
Ashley has also vulnerably shared her pregnancy story in the past as part of her quest to encourage others to share their stories, too. Here’s her doing so vis a vis the Omicron vaccine for pregnant people. And this is how she used the responses they received on the show.
In this piece, produced by Ashley, two gerontologists discuss the issue gendered ageism. Ashley also produced this beautiful conversation between two grandparents who are raising their grandchildren, all too often without necessary social supports but with enormous amounts of resourcefulness and love.
For those processing pregnancy loss, I continue to recommend the six-week series at RTZ Hope (where I sometimes teach, and still keep in touch with fellow loss parents) as well as PSI, which has drop-in groups for seemingly every kind of struggle, and put me back together for free after my own loss. You’re not alone.
Don’t forget to share your own definition of “initiation” to our subscriber thread here!
If you’re new to this concept of initiations, or this Substack — I invite you to start here with the About, my recent Initiations 101 post, and/or my first post, in which I detail my own initiations, and the reasons why this newsletter exists.