Taylor Muhl is her own twin. No. Really. Unbeknownst to her, at the beginning of her pregnancy, Muhl's mother had two fertilized eggs in her womb. But, at some point in the pregnancy, the two fused, creating one fetus with two complete genetic codes, that is, two completely separate strands of DNA. That is the definition of chimerism. Taylor Muhl is a chimera.
Muhl has two immune systems – hers and her sister's. Hers is constantly trying to rid itself of the “foreign" system. But, of course, it can't. The result? Autoimmune issues and flare-ups, as well as a variety of allergies. Muhl has two blood streams as well and a line down the center of her stomach, one side of the line darker than the other. The darker skin tone is her sister's.
It took Muhl many years to want to tell her story. For one, she says, because she only found out a short time ago. “For more than half my life I didn't even know I had chimera. I was told I had a birthmark. My mom was like a flower child so she had me naturally at home with two mid-wives. Her whole pregnancy she ate all fresh, healthy food, no caffeine.
Photo Courtesy of Keith Berson
She went above and beyond to do everything right. So, when I came out and my stomach was like this she was immediately like, 'What did I do?' The midwives had never seen anything like it. They said it would probably go away. They took me to the doctor a few months or a few weeks later and it was the same thing. It must be a birthmark. They said, 'It doesn't look like its causing her any pain.' So, my mom just went with it."
But there were other signs too, like Muhl's obsession with being a twin. “From six or seven-years-old, I would ask my mother all the time if I was a twin. 'Are you sure you didn't have another baby?' I would ask her. Many years later, my mom told me she wondered back then, 'Where is this coming from? Why is she asking me this?' I had a friend who was two years older who basically lived with us for eighteen years. I insisted on everything being the same with us – clothes, hair. And if she did it, I had to do it too. I did that with lots of other friends too until I was fourteen or fifteen-years-old."
Muhl is in her thirties now and says she didn't really think much of the line down her stomach when she was a kid. “I never really noticed it. It wasn't until I was a dancer around eight, nine, or ten that I realized why doesn't every body's stomach look like that. Mom said you're just special. If we went out into public, as I got older she made sure it was covered so no one would say anything and upset me."
But when she was in her early teens, she started getting sick all the time and no one could figure out why. Doctor after doctor would turn her away with a shrug and a, “We just don't know." “I started having autoimmune issues. I'm very sensitive food and medication. I'm allergic to bug bites on one side of my body but not the other. My belly button piercing is on twin's side and I can wear any jewelry in it. But the earrings on my side, I can only wear white gold because my skin is very sensitive."
Many years later, after extensive testing, one doctor finally figured it out. Muhl is a chimera. Interestingly, not every person with chimerism has the same issues and symptoms. Every case is different, which is what makes diagnosis and management so incredibly difficult.
Photo Courtesy of Keith Berson
“After all of these tests we discovered – and this is crazy - my immune system is as low as a cancer patient, but I'm not 'sick.'" She is, however, allergic to nearly everything. After being tested for 150 different allergens, only a handful came back negative. Shellfish, she says is the only thing that seems to give her life-threatening symptoms, the rest cause varying degrees of discomfort. So, she says, “I do a rotating schedule in terms of eating and drinking so as to not expose myself to too much of anything at one time."
How does she handle it all? Well, she says, as holistically as she can. “I was raised very naturally and because my body is so sensitive to medications, unless I'm really, really sick, I do things holistically. That's what really, really helps me. I have to eat all fresh organic food. I have to juice multiple times a week. I'm taking tons of supplements. I've been a dancer for twenty years. So, I'm very into exercise, which helps. I do have to be on birth control because of endometriosis, which is terrible for autoimmune issues because birth control lowers your immune system. And I do suffer from horrible migraines. So, I will take an Excedrin if I have to."
Once she had the diagnosis, Muhl still kept the information mostly to herself, sharing it only with family and friends for the past seven or eight years. “Being in music and modeling and entertainment, I was scared of losing or not getting jobs. If they find out you're sick, they're not taking a chance. 14 hour days, all night shoots, big investors, I could be considered a liability," she explains. “My career was so important I never wanted it to hold me back or limit an opportunity."
But the secret became too much to bear. So, Muhl decided it was time to come clean no matter what the consequences might be. “I got to the point of – what am I doing? If people don't want to work with me, then it's not the right thing for me. Right people will come and wrong people will go their way. I can't pretend that my autoimmune system is ok and that my stomach looks like everyone else's."
She also felt a strong pull to raise awareness about this little-known diagnosis. “There's a reason I was born this way and maybe it's to help or inspire people," Muhl says. And it's already working. After having appeared on the show The Doctors, Muhl started hearing from all kinds of people with all kinds of stories.
“I feel very grateful that my story is being shared. I have so many men and women who reach out to me. They say, “'You make me feel beautiful.' And that's the whole point, not just to help someone who may be a chimera but also to spread body positivity. I know there are a lot of women out there doing that and they are amazing. But there is no one has out there with chimerism doing it. So, it might as well be me."
Her coming out had another interesting – and personal – benefit as well. Always one to look on the bright says, Muhl explains, “When I went on the Doctors show it was like – I'm free! Now when I date a new guy I don't have to worry about telling them anything like that I wear hair extensions because my hair has gotten so thin because of the auto immune issues."
Of course, plenty of judgment and rejection followed her appearance and coming out as well. But even that didn't faze Muhl. She's glad she made the leap out into the public eye. “It feels freeing even though the negativity can be scary at times. It doesn't matter what you do in life, people are always going to judge. Family judge family. It's just life. And if you're doing it publically, it's going to be magnified. I've gotten an overwhelming amount of stuff and nasty stuff as well. You really do have to know that that person is where they are and they are entitled to their opinion.
Others who are really insecure have to find a way to put others down and I have no judgment against them. It's hard to put yourself out there. Some people are not comfortable with different. I'm ok with the hates because that's just where they are in their life. I don't know their story. You just have to focus on doing your best and being who you are." Muhl is a beautiful example of doing just that.
On an interesting side note, Muhl's grandfather was the VP in charge of production at Universal Studios for more than 30 years. She loves to share that tidbit because she says, she is insanely proud of the work he did. But she does want to set the record straight as rumors began to fly as soon as she shared that part of her family history. “I have never had a dime from my grandfather or any other family member. I have never had any handouts from anyone in the business. My grandfather started at the very bottom sweeping floors.
He is a self-made man who came from nothing. He was the simplest man. He had so many offers to do all of these amazing things and he really only took the ones he had too because of obligations. When he passed away, he left my dad and some others very little money but none of that came to me. It's been really frustrating that people think I'm taking advantage, as if I'm filthy rich and getting all of these handouts. People can say what they want, but this is the truth. I'm just honoring him for his work in the arts. I want him to be recognized for everything he's done."
Part of sharing her story had to do with people's responses to her coming forward and appearing on The Doctors. “So many people have said, I can't be a chimera because I'm in the entertainment business. 'She must be a fake because she was so comfortable on stage.' If I was a school teacher, then could I be a chimera? If I worked at an animal hospital? People who are the business are real people. Just because they are in the business doesn't mean they don't have diseases.
That's why I wanted people to know who my Grandfather was and that I've been in the business." But no matter the rejection, Muhl lets it just roll off her back. She says it's all part of being in the entertainment world. “I'm kind of like a firecracker. I've been in the entertainment biz for so long and rejection is such a big part. So, I have a very thick skin."
Taylor Muhl is her own twin. Her condition may be a tough one for people to wrap their heads around. But her message is a simple – yet powerful - one on so many levels. Be yourself. Be strong. Ignore the naysers. Be true to yourself. And – above all else - share your story – it just may be someone else's story too.
New parents re-entering the workforce are often juggling the tangible realities of daycare logistics, sleep deprivation, and a cascade of overwhelming work. No matter how parents build their family, they often struggle with the guilt of being split between home and work and not feeling exceptionally successful in either place.
Women building their families often face a set of challenges different from men. Those who have had children biologically may be navigating the world of pumping at work. Others might feel pulled in multiple directions when bringing a child into their home after adoption. Some women are trying to learn how to care for a newborn for the first time. New parents need all the help they can get with their transition.
Women returning to work after kids sometimes have to address comments such as:
"I didn't think you'd come back."
"You must feel so guilty."
"You missed a lot while you were out."
To counteract this difficult situation, women are finding mentors and making targeting connections. Parent mentors can help new moms address integrating their new life realities with work, finding resources within the organization and local community, and create connections with peers.
There's also an important role for parent mentors to play in discussing career trajectory. Traditionally, men who have families see more promotions compared to women with children. Knowing that having kids may represent a career setback for women, they may work with their mentors to create an action plan to "back on track" or to get recognized for their contributions as quickly as possible after returning to work.
Previously, in a bid to accommodate mothers transitioning back to work, corporate managers would make a show at lessoning the workload for newly returned mothers. This approach actually did more harm than good, as the mother's skills and ambitions were marginalized by these alleged "family friendly" policies, ultimately defining her for the workplace as a mother, rather than a person focused on career.
Today, this is changing. Some larger organizations, such as JP Morgan Chase, have structured mentorship programs that specifically target these issues and provide mentors for new parents. These programs match new parents navigating a transition back to work with volunteer mentors who are interested in helping and sponsoring moms. Mentors in the programs do not need to be moms, or even parents, themselves, but are passionate about making sure the opportunities are available.
It's just one other valuable way corporations are evolving when it comes to building quality relationships with their employees – and successfully retaining them, empowering women who face their own set of special barriers to career growth and leadership success.
Mentoring will always be a two way street. In ideal situations, both parties will benefit from the relationship. It's no different when women mentor working mothers getting back on track on the job. But there a few factors to consider when embracing this new form of mentorship
How to be a good Momtor?
Listen: For those mentoring a new parent, one of the best strategies to take is active listening. Be present and aware while the mentee shares their thoughts, repeat back what you hear in your own words, and acknowledge emotions. The returning mother is facing a range of emotions and potentially complicated situations, and the last thing she wants to hear is advice about how she should be feeling about the transition. Instead, be a sounding board for her feelings and issues with returning to work. Validate her concerns and provide a space where she can express herself without fear of retribution or bull-pen politics. This will allow the mentee a safe space to sort through her feelings and focus on her real challenges as a mother returning to work.
Share: Assure the mentee that they aren't alone, that other parents just like them are navigating the transition back to work. Provide a list of ways you've coped with the transition yourself, as well as your best parenting tips. Don't be afraid to discuss mothering skills as well as career skills. Work on creative solutions to the particular issues your mentee is facing in striking her new work/life balance.
Update Work Goals: A career-minded woman often faces a new reality once a new child enters the picture. Previous career goals may appear out of reach now that she has family responsibilities at home. Each mentee is affected by this differently, but good momtors help parents update her work goals and strategies for realizing them, explaining, where applicable, where the company is in a position to help them with their dreams either through continuing education support or specific training initiatives.
Being a role model for a working mother provides a support system, at work, that they can rely on just like the one they rely on at home with family and friends. Knowing they have someone in the office, who has knowledge about both being a mom and a career woman, will go a long way towards helping them make the transition successfully themselves.