Mary Lawless Lee, HAPPILY GREY: Stories, Souvenirs, and Everyday Wonders from the Life In Between

Mary Lawless Lee, HAPPILY GREY: Stories, Souvenirs, and Everyday Wonders from the Life In Between

Zibby interviews digital media personality Mary Lawless Lee about her stunning photographic memoir Happily Grey: Stories, Souvenirs, and Everyday Wonders from the Life In Between. Mary shares the inspiration behind her book’s unique visual format, the story behind the messy bun (which she invented!), and some of the vulnerable details she shares in her memoir, from living with an eating disorder to her first unsuccessful marriage at 21 to finally finding the perfect life partner and having the children she always hoped for. She also talks about the origins of her iconic fashion and lifestyle blog Happily Grey, her first career in nursing, and her exciting new business ventures.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Mary. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Happily Grey: Stories, Souvenirs, and Everyday Wonders from the Life In Between.

Mary Lawless Lee: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to chat today.

Zibby: I have to be honest. I thought at first this book was about your going grey and learning to deal with it and being happy about it. As someone who is going grey — I’m much older than you — I was like, oh, yeah? Happily grey? I could be happily grey. I don’t know. Maybe I should do that.

Mary: Do you know that so many people over the years see my brand — that’s the name of my original brand. They think that there’s an association between the color grey, aging, or they associate it with monochromatic grey tones. I really like muted colors. That’s honestly a part of the inspiration. The book opens with, this isn’t about this. This isn’t about this. It unveils what the meaning behind Happily Grey really is.

Zibby: I, like you, do not have an easy time in the grey areas of life, necessarily. I have to fight against this whole black-and-white mentality. You’re giving us the runway of, this is life. We can live this way. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing all the time. I appreciated the messaging behind that a lot.

Mary: Thank you.

Zibby: You have such an interesting life story. It’s really like you produced a memoir in photographic, very stylized form. It’s like if a memoir were to become an Instagram post inside of a book. This is kind of what you’d get. It’s a compilation, a very visual interpretation of a life, which is super engaging and yet just as heartfelt and intimate in words as a text-only type memoir in many places. I loved that. I thought it was super innovative and really awesome, as a huge memoir lover.

Mary: Thank you. I predominately only read memoirs. I love memoirs because I can learn a lot from other people’s journeys. My story is really told through pictures over the last decade. I wanted there to be that element to some degree within this book. That was important to me. I felt like it would feel very familiar for the reader. We tried to balance it with not interrupting the words and not letting the pictures take over the words, but there being emotion through those photographs as well.

Zibby: That’s awesome. By the way, I wore a messy bun on your behalf. Do you see this? I was getting dressed this morning. I was like, oh, no, wait, this is perfect. I’ll wear a messy bun. That’s invented by the author. It’s perfect.

Mary: It looks awesome.

Zibby: Thank you. Tell me about you inventing the messy bun and how it took off.

Mary: It’s funny because it had nothing to do with a hairstyle. It had nothing to do with me wanting to do hair how-tos or anything. The messy bun came about — I talk about this in my book around the chapter of social media. Being photographed and being in pictures, being the face of my brand felt odd to me. It never felt familiar. It still doesn’t today. I still get camera shy. I still tense up in front of the camera. Turning my head was my go-to. I would wear sunglasses. I would turn my head. Not that I’m a great hairstylist by any means. I just always flipped my head, and it ended up being in a messy bun. Because people always saw the front of my outfit but the back of my head, somehow, I adopted — I didn’t even know it. A friend was like, “Do you realize that you earned this title of messy bun on Pinterest?” Then I started telling people how I did my messy buns, but it was a very accidental coincidence because it came from this motive of not wanting to show my face and connect my eyes to the camera or feel like I was out of vanity. It was truly about the clothes and the fashion and the style. This awkward girl trying to figure out how to be in front of a camera, that, I knew nothing about. I was trying to function in that way. Really, my passion was the fashion at that time.

Zibby: Thank you for giving the rest of us the excuse to have our hair look like this and pretend it is styled. Yours really was styled-looking. From the superficial all the way to the most personal ever, you wrote really openly and beautifully about your eating disorder. You did it in a way where you started early on, and you showed us exactly how it progressed. You talked about when interventions were attempted and how you would maybe go in one direction and then veer very dramatically in another. Then you leave the reader with all these tips on managing and dealing with things and being in this place of recovery but never recovered, so to speak. Tell me more about your journey. Tell the listener what happened, how it started. Catch us up to where you are with it today post-two beautiful children, who I feel like I know after your book.

Mary: That story, it had to be a part of the book. It’s really one of the most important chapters in the book. To be honest with you, I wrote the entire book without it. It was a really big step into vulnerability and honesty and trust to include that. After reading the book for the first time after I turned it in to my publisher , I realized, oh, my god, one of the most important pieces is missing in this book. I have to tell this story. This is one of the biggest struggles in my life. Like I say in the book, I’m not recovered. I am in recovery. This is a daily journey of learning and commitment. I think anyone that’s ever been through an eating disorder or ever struggled with an eating disorder will tell you that. It’s kind of this lifetime thing that you take on. You’re always learning, growing, and evolving through it. It was important to me, one, to step into that vulnerability because of other women in my life that stood up and said, hey, I’ve been there. You’re not alone. This is not totally abnormal. I’ve struggled in this way too.

That’s, honestly, what has given me the courage to continue over the last ten years to do the work, to get honest, to share, to get the accountability around me that I need. I felt so convicted after I read the book for the first time looking at that twenty-three-year-old version of myself knowing, I have to share this story for other women, for my own strength. Shame cannot survive in light. When we open up and we let people in and we tell our stories, I believe that we’re stronger. There’s strength through that. It’s felt liberating to be able to open up and share. I can’t tell you the amount of women that have come to me and have said, I’m there. I’m here. I’ve been there. I’m here in my recovery and in my journey. It’s been life-changing, empowering to be able to have the opportunity to share it in a way that was sacred through these pages. I had thought about sharing it on social media because my platform, my brand, my job is all based on social media, but reserving it for these pages felt kind of like the sacred place, and then that hopefully opening the door for more of these conversations to happen. My eating disorder is also linked in a lot of these other stories because it’s tied to this perception that I grew up with that life is black or white. It’s this or that. You have to fit into this box.

My journey was never about, necessarily, having to be a certain number or a certain weight. It was all about control. When you start really doing the work, the really, really deep work, you start pulling back the layers. You realize a lot of it sometimes is not even connected to body image. A lot of it can be connected to different layers in your life. A lot of that for me was control and thinking that I had to kind of go through life with my pen and my little boxes, checking them off, exactly what I thought it was supposed to look like. Through that was this unrealistic perception that came about. It just continued and continued. As different areas in my life, I lost control, that was where I found it. It’s just such a journey. I’ve learned so much about myself. Someone asked me the other day, do you regret it? I’d never been asked that question. I thought, no. In a way, I’m thankful. I have a lot of grace for that time in my life and what this journey has taught me because it’s definitely been a big part of who I am and my outlook on things. It’s a part of my story. It’s shaped me in a way that I don’t think anything else could have. I hope that by sharing that I’m helping other women out there that are also going through the same thing.

Zibby: It’s beautiful. Not only do you share the huge power of your support groups when you did actually find treatment that you found effective, but even just the details of it and showing us how your mind went to those places. I found it just so powerful. Really, really powerful.

Mary: Thank you. Accountability and honesty, I find with this sort of work, has been the two key components. You have to get honest. You have to have accountability around you. It doesn’t have to be like you have to go scream and shout it and tell ten people. It can be one person. For a long time in my life, it was only one person. If anything, I would say, where to start, those are two great places to start in that journey.

Zibby: I like your segue throughout the book to an area of complete lack of control, which is children.

Mary: Tell me about it.

Zibby: I have four kids, so I know what you’re going through. I’ve been there. It sounds so trite to say it gets easier. In some ways, it gets harder. It’s true. I feel like once I personally was like, okay, these are the kids — this is what we have. I respect who they are. I can’t shape them like they’re some playdough. I am here just to make sure they’re okay and teach them right from wrong and do my best. Otherwise, I was driving myself bananas.

Mary: I can see that. Right now, I have a one-and-a-half-year-old and a three-and-a-half-year-old. I’m currently six months pregnant. I can only imagine. You do, you try so hard. You exhaust so much energy by trying to make sure they’re taking the right path. At the end of the day, my husband and I talk about, we’ve got to give them the right tool set and the right environment. We have to also let them be people and let them fall and make those mistakes. I reflect back on my thirty-four years of living thus far, and those are the big moments. Those are the moments that you really figure out how to trust yourself, who you are. That’s so hard, especially when you’re the parent. You want to them succeed. You want them to do well.

Zibby: I’m interested in how things go with your third kid because I feel like the more kids I had, the more relaxed, in a way, only because it showed me how little what I did mattered. They are who they are. In a way, there’s grace in that.

Mary: I love that.

Zibby: I kind of wish I had known that ahead of time, but maybe you just have to learn it on your own. You had your kids. You have this huge brand. You also include your love story with your husband. I loved hearing how you met him. The two of you are so cute together. Tell me a little bit about meeting Mad and all of that.

Mary: It was wild. I first talk about my divorce — I got married at twenty-one — in my book. I also thought that was a really important story to tell because a lot of other women go through that. It definitely ties into this black-and-white life mentality.

Zibby: You said you were from East Texas where that was super common. Everybody was getting married so early.

Mary: By twenty-three, if you’re not married and at least have a kid on the way or the plans to, it’s odd. It’s abnormal. I grew up with that mentality. I married and met my first best friend, my first love thinking, okay, this is it, and up to that point, had not had any experience prior to that. I learned a lot through that experience. That’s why I felt like that story was so important. It was a key experience in shaping me and getting me ready to meet the person that I actually was meant to be a life partner with. Mad and I’s story is bizarre. It is bizarre. We met through a friend. I was talking to him for the first time. I’m sitting there listening to him talk. It’s not what he’s saying. It’s his mannerisms. It’s his voice. I interrupt him mid-sentence because I could tell he was from the same area that I was from. We grew up within twenty minutes of each other. We’d never met each other. We met each other in Nashville ten years later. We were born at the same hospital. It was just this bizarre familiarity.

Our parents had dinner before we even met each other’s parents because they had mutual friends. Once I was like, “I’m dating this guy,” and he told his parents — it was divine timing and totally meant to be. We dated for seven months. We got married a month before our one-year anniversary of meeting. My mom has always said, when you know, you know. I had never understood that. I got married at twenty-one. I never understood. I’m like, it’s something she just says. When I met him, I felt that deeply. I felt that familiarity in that life partner. Of course, there’s a lot of passion and stuff, but it was deeper than that. We just didn’t waste any time because we really knew. It’s been really sweet being able to build a life together and have this familiarity, sense of home. I think that has really grounded our relationship because we can each respect our upbringing and where we came from. We align on this perspective of where we came from, but where we want to go and how we want to evolve our family.

Zibby: Amazing. I love stories like that, the people right around the corner, but you just never knew them.

Mary: So bizarre. I didn’t know if I was going to get married. I knew I wanted to be a mom. At thirty when I was single working on my career, it’s scary. I just assumed, maybe not for me. That was totally turned upside down in a matter of one night, basically.

Zibby: You also wrote really nicely about that and what it felt like when all your girlfriends were having their babies and second babies. You had gone off on another track and really trusted yourself to leave something that wasn’t right. I’m also divorced and remarried, by the way. Not to just keep talking about myself, but I feel like we had a lot in common. It’s not always so easy to make those decisions. After that, there’s this new perspective on life. That’s all, anything can change in a minute type of thing.

Mary: Going through that divorce was incredibly hard and difficult and a darker period of life, but I wouldn’t have been able to make the decisions I’ve made had I not walked through that time. I really think that those darker moments, those lessons are so pivotal to be able to then get to where you’re going. I always try to encourage friends but then also remind myself when I am going through those times in life to stay in them, stick with them, trust them because there’s reason. There’s clarity that those moments are going to provide.

Zibby: Totally. Tell me about your whole lifestyle brand and how this grew and how you’re running it and evolving and being an entrepreneur in addition to everything else.

Mary: Transparently, I wandered into this world. My background’s in nursing. I worked seven years in critical care nursing at Vanderbilt in the Texas Medical Center. I loved nursing. I loved critical care. I loved the challenge and the pace. I also had a passion for writing. I have been writing and journaling since I was eleven. Everyone asks me how long this book took to write. I share that it was about a year and a half. Really, I think I’ve been writing this book since I was eleven years old in my bed under the sheets with a flashlight. That’s really what it feels like to me because I’ve always loved to journal, loved to write. That’s why I randomly started a blog twelve years ago about fashion. That was a creative outlet for me. It felt like something I was doing for myself outside of work in this stressful, intense, heavy career at the time. I just started writing about fashion. This was prior to Instagram, Pinterest, the social platform. The influencer blogger was not a term. I certainly didn’t set out — that was not the motive. I paid my friend fifty dollars. We created a site. The timing of it, I was really lucky in that sense that I kind of grew up with social platforms. Over the last decade, that brand has evolved into a lifestyle brand in different areas of content depending on — it’s kind of followed the progression of my life.

As I bought my first home, I started talking about interiors. As I had the money to pay for skin care, I started talking about what skin care I liked, relationships when I got married, and then most recently, becoming a mother. I have always looked for the path to connect my past in nursing with this digital world that I wandered into. Becoming a mother was that, was really the bridge to connecting those experiences. My husband and I created a skin-care line. It’s a pregnancy and postpartum skin-care line. We’re launching kids this year in a few months. Really, that’s been my greatest passion. The brand is called Nēmah. I am just so excited to evolve and grow this brand. It really allows me to pull in my science, my math that I used as a nurse, and the nurturing side, the patient care that I love so much and embody that in this brand, and especially through motherhood, which I feel like is one of the most critical times that we need support around us. I learned that through my first. I couldn’t get my hands on the products that I felt like I needed at that time. I was just so shocked when we started doing all this market research. Clean, effective products that spoke transparently about their brand and who they were and their ingredients, I couldn’t find it. Then I started having these conversations with other women and other moms. That’s been a very exciting new adventure that we’ve been working on. We also have a store in West Nashville, if you’re ever in Nashville.

Zibby: I was there not so long ago for a book event of my own. I’ll come back.

Mary: We have an awesome little store in West Nashville. We’re part of L&L Marketplace. It’s kind of set up like Chelsea Market, a lot of small businesses. The shop, Happily Grey, has been an exciting new venture, a huge learning curve. I don’t have experience in retail. We have a brick-and-mortar and an e-comm business. It’s evolved and grown in a way that I never expected it. I love being an entrepreneur. I love the autonomy. I love the excitement of the unknown. I work in an office with nine other women and my husband. He’s the only male in the office. It’s exciting. I just like getting to work with other women and being able to create and dream together and work hard. We work hard, but we also play hard and really enjoy being able to create together.

Zibby: I love that. I’m opening a bookstore, actually, next month. It’s my first brick-and-mortar attempt myself. I know what you’re saying about getting into it. I also work with all women here. It’s really fun with all these brands. We have a team of seventeen women and my husband, who is often having lunch with us. It’s really fun. I was just thinking you should come — I also put on these retreats around authors and books and everything. We have one coming up in Charleston. I feel like you would have so much fun. You could even give out samples of your skin-care line to the attendees or be a partner. I don’t know if you have any interest.

Mary: Please send me the info. I also love Charleston. We haven’t been in a bit. The food in Charleston is so good. Please send me the info. I also would love to hear more about your bookstore. I have this obsession with bookstores. When I visit new cities, I always go in bookstores because I think there’s this warmth and coziness about them. There’s this homey sense of comfort. That’s very, very exciting.

Zibby: Yes, I’ll send it to you when we get off. My contractor for my house made my store. I was like, “Just do the same walls as our house.”

Mary: That’s awesome.

Zibby: Mary, thank you so much for coming on to talk about Happily Grey and your whole journey. I hope we find fun ways to work together. I’m really inspired by you. I really love all your honesty and all of that. More to come.

Mary: Thank you so much. Hopefully, I’ll see you in Charleston.

Zibby: Yes, that’d be fun. Buh-bye.

Mary: Bye.

Mary Lawless Lee, HAPPILY GREY: Stories, Souvenirs, and Everyday Wonders from the Life In Between

HAPPILY GREY: Stories, Souvenirs, and Everyday Wonders from the Life In Between by Mary Lawless Lee

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