Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Dear Boys, #YesAllWomen

My dearest boys,

If you've seen me crying over the last couple of days it is because I am overwhelmed yet again with senseless gun violence. On Friday night a young man killed six people because, as he explained, he was getting revenge against all the women who had ever rejected him. In his mind, the unwillingness of women to have sex with him and the willingness of those same women to have sex with other, obviously less deserving men, was a terrible injustice that needed to be addressed. On top of the terrible tragedy that has left more American families devastated and broken, there are reactions to the shooter's justification that have been appalling and alarming. There seem to be people out there who think that there is a place for sentences that begin with "Well, maybe if one woman would have just given him a chance..." Let me be very clear, boys. There is no place for it.

As boys who will one day grow in to men, there are certain things I want to make sure you understand. There is a culture that we have allowed to exist in America that makes men think women are property. It is a subtle message and most men, if asked, would not acknowledge that this is how they think of females. And yet, the rhetoric, the expectations, and the way blame is assigned point to something very sinister.

So, I've made you a list of things to remember. A lot of these are concepts that I hope to teach you over many years, by talking with you honestly about my life and experiences and calling attention to moments that I think can be helpful in teaching you important lessons. But, I also thought that for future reference it would be good to have these things written down. I probably won't be ready to show you this for some time. Sex and intimate relationships are a ways off, given that you just recently learned you have a penis, but someday we'll go through this list and I'll reiterate its importance often. It is likely incomplete, and so I will continue to add to it as I think of more. Maybe some of the people reading this can help out and add their own suggestions as well.

So, here we go*:

1. Sex is not something that you are entitled to. You get to have sex when a woman decides she wants to have sex with you, and you want to have sex with her as well. That's the only acceptable scenario.

2. The reward for being a good friend to a woman is that you get to have her as a good friend. A woman doesn't owe you anything for being a decent human being. If you aren't interested in the friendship, then don't pursue it. But being a good friend does not entitle you to gratitude sex. See number 1.

3. Getting rejected stinks. It crushes the ego, makes us doubt our own worth, and can leave us feeling incredibly hurt. None of that is pleasant. But it's part of life. There is nothing about being a male that means you shouldn't have to feel those things. Hopefully over the course of your life you will develop skills for coping with some of these challenging emotions. I hope to help you do just that. Please don't ever think that someone has done something wrong for making you feel these things. She has not. Loving you is not a requirement of everyone in the human race, despite how easily it comes to me.

4. There are certain things you will never understand because you are not women. That's okay. But what's not okay is dismissing what a woman tells you about her experiences with men because you are not that kind of man. You can't possibly know what it feels like to be female. So, if a woman is telling you about it, listen. You might actually learn something.

5. A woman's clothes have absolutely nothing to do with consent to have sex. Either she says she wants to have sex with you or she doesn't. The idea that a woman's outfit can be at fault for unwanted sexual advances a) puts blame on a victim and b) suggests that the man who made the advances was not in control of his own actions. You are always in control of your actions. 

6. If you are at a party and you see a girl being taken advantage of, do something.

7. Talk to me. Or your father. Or each other. I don't really care who. But don't feel like you have to hide all your feelings. Having feelings and talking about them does not chip away at your manhood. What it does do is give you an outlet for dealing with some of the tough stuff. You are, first and foremost, a human being. We all have feelings. Some of them are wonderful, some of them are pretty miserable. It's important to be comfortable with both.

8. So we're clear. All of this is important. But most important of all - it's never okay to physically harm another person. End of discussion. It doesn't matter how the person made you feel. Or how wrong she was. Violence. Never. Okay. 

What else? 

*Of course I recognize that you may not be interested in women at all. In that case, filter out what still applies. I'm sure we can make a whole other list of things to consider when approaching your relationships with other men.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Most Important Lesson I'm Trying to Learn

It's become my mantra.

I say it to myself over and over again.

But, sometimes, it's really hard to do.

Don't take it personally. 

We, mothers. We love and we provide and we play. We do all that is asked of us and more. We read and we tickle and we kiss. We cook and we feed and we tuck in. We give and we give because that is our job, and we ask for little in return, because that's the nature of the position. It's not about getting anything back, it's about the giving, providing and teaching. But, sometimes, in order to do this job successfully, we do need to put in a request. Usually a seemingly small one ("come here, so we can put on your shoes," "hold my hand so we can safely cross the street"). And when that request is met with a defiant "no" or a tantrum of epic proportions or an invitation to begin a game of "catch me if you can," it's hard not to feel like it's about making our lives difficult. But,

Don't take it personally. 

Toddlers are fascinating humans. They are learning the ins and outs of their world. They are exploring every facet of existence and figuring out how just how far they can push the limits of the people around them. As awful as their resistance can feel sometimes, it is actually what they are supposed to be doing. We each have our own ways of figuring out how to deal with our children and different tactics are going to work for different families. But, for me, more than figuring out how to work through the challenging behavior is the importance of realizing that the behavior itself is not being employed as some sort of punishment for me.

Don't take it personally. 

The way children grow and develop tends to leave us unprepared for toddlerhood. They start out knowing nothing and needing us for every aspect of life. As time goes on and they learn how to fend for themselves they (hopefully) begin to establish some independence. Again, this is what we want to happen. And yet, that desire not to conform to what's being asked of them, to insist on doing things their own way in their own time can sometimes feel like a major slap in the face. Additionally, as our children get older and seem to understand so much of the world around them, it seems impossible that they can't sense how close to the brink we sometimes are. There are moments when I just can't believe that my son doesn't realize how badly I need his cooperation. His inability to just do the simple thing I am asking feels like betrayal. And yet.

Don't take it personally.

And, not taking it personally does not mean that it's not personal. It is. But not in the sense that it's a personal attack against me. It's personal in the fact that it has to be a sign that I'm doing something right. My son's comfort in fighting me on the everyday details of life tell me that he understands my love is unconditional. He is not afraid to push me. If nothing else, that must mean that he knows innately that I'm not going anywhere. It may make it significantly harder to do my job and it may even feel spiteful at times. But, it's not about hurting me. Or punishing me. Or being ungrateful. It's about growth and learning. It's about testing and evolving. It's about being a toddler.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Can We Please Stop Talking About the Texting?

I can't decide what I find more frightening - the notion that a man could go to the movies with his wife and be shot dead in the middle of the theater by a man in the row behind him, or the fact that in the aftermath of this horror show the national discourse seems to be about the ramifications of texting during a movie.

Let me tell you something about Curtis Reeves. He was a disaster waiting to happen. A 71-year-old man, walking around with a concealed weapon and the legally sound idea in his mind that if, at any moment, he should perceive a threat, he is within his right to shoot to kill. This is a recipe for tragedy.

That anyone is discussing whether Chad Oulson should have left the theater to text his daughter boggles my mind. This has absolutely nothing to do with the massive problem we are facing as a country. People behave badly sometimes. In grocery stores, in movie theaters, in parking lots - you name it. Somehow we have given our citizens the idea that killing others is an acceptable way to respond to a mild nuisance - as long as you can pretend that you were afraid. How far away are we from someone claiming he feared a mother of three was going to use her minivan as a weapon as she swooped in to a parking spot he was waiting for? If Reeves could be so quick to draw his weapon and use it lethally, why would anyone assume that he wouldn't have done so had someone stepped on his foot on the way to the bathroom?

In the wake of the horror in Newtown and the myriad of other mass shootings we have lived through over the course of the last few years, the NRA would have us believe that the answer to the situation is more guns. The saying I've heard over and over is that "the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." Well, thank you Curtis Reeves for showing us exactly why that argument is a dangerous one and should be dismissed immediately. Curtis Reeves was supposed to be one of the good guys. And you know who he stopped? A 43-year-old father who made the mistake of wanting to see a movie in the middle of the day. And you know why? Because we've allowed him to think it was what he was entitled to do.

There is only one thing that could have and would have stopped Curtis Reeves from killing Chad Oulson on January 13th: not having a gun. It's as simple as that. A fight may have begun, punches may have been thrown, two grown men may have been thrown out of a movie. But no one would be dead.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Why Social Media is Actually Great for a Mother's Mental Health

This morning I read an article in the Parents section of The Huffington Post about the falseness of family life that is depicted by parents through social media. In this article, Megan Davies Mennes makes a point I've heard several times. She discusses how ridiculous it is that parents use sites like Facebook and Instagram to post photos of their children that paint the most idealistic pictures of what their lives with their children are like. She comments on how these photos show nothing of what happens in between the few perfect moments and claims that we are essentially lying to the world about what goes on in our homes. I've heard this argument made in other places as well, and I recall one particular article suggesting that we are doing a disservice to our friends who are struggling as mothers when we make it look like our lives are a picnic.

And the truth is, there is merit in what these articles are saying. Being a parent is challenging on the best of days and to suggest to others that your life is a breeze or that your children are perfect angels is dishonest no matter who you are. But, I don't really believe that's what's parents are trying to do. Nobody shares the negative details of their lives on social media - so why should parents be any different? I see photos of couples out enjoying themselves all the time. Does that mean they never argue? Does it mean that all the moments off-camera are as pleasant as the ones in front of it? Of course not. They just choose not to share their less pleasant moments with me and the rest of their friends. People often post pictures of beautiful sunsets and beaches. Strangely no one seems to share photos of the sky on gray, overcast, miserable days. That doesn't mean that it never rains where they live. It just means they recognize the beauty in a specific instant, and want to share it.

Additionally, and more importantly, there is an important piece of this conversation on parents and social media that is being overlooked. Being at home with young children, whether full time or not, can be an isolating and tremendously overwhelming experience. One of the traps that parents can fall into is getting so caught up in the difficult aspects that they miss the wonderful moments that pop up from time to time.

The desire to capture moments to post on social media sites creates a situation where parents are specifically looking to appreciate small moments. Do I think it would be wonderful if parents looked to appreciate these moments on their own, without feeling the need to share them publicly? Sure. But, it also can't be ignored that the presence of social media has led many parents to pay more attention to how fun, silly, and sweet their sometimes difficult children can be. It's so important for parents to be able to pause for a second and enjoy the little things, for their own well-being and for their children's. It's good for the parenting soul, it provides the fuel that helps power us through the tantrums and the arguments and the sleepless nights. Who cares what the impetus behind it is?

From what I see on television and in film and in general out in the world, parenting tends to get a bad rap. Parents are portrayed as being miserable and often seem to be pining for the days before their children came along and ruined everything. It's hard for me to think that a few pictures of smiling, cuddly children are going to suddenly make everyone think that the lives we're leading as parents are the most carefree days of our lives. If anything, the message these photos should be sending is "sure, everything you've heard about being a parent is true, but there's also some awesomeness - stay tuned to see some of it."

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Leaving Babies in Carseats - On Realizing it Could Happen To Me

When I first had my son, a friend of mine told me about an article she'd read about babies dying when their parents had accidentally left them in their carseats for extended periods of time. This friend went on to inform me of the recommendation that parents leave their purses, laptops or briefcases in the backseat with the child, so as not to head in to work for the day without peeking in the back and making sure it's empty. Apparently, I thought at the time, we are conditioned to remember our cell phones more than our children.

I recall scoffing at my friend. If not to her face, then certainly when I recounted the conversation to my husband. I brought the conversation up with friends of mine - some who were parents, some who were not - and each time I adamantly expressed that I could not fathom leaving a child in a car or needing some kind of back-up plan to ensure I didn't make that error. I had the same thought that many people have upon hearing a horror story like this - what kind of a parent forgets about a baby?

But, part of what makes being human so special is the ability to recognize when we've made a mistake. Our ignorance is dangerous to our well-being and sometimes we don't even realize the ways in which we are just plain wrong. For me, this is one of those cases. I reread a 2009 article from the Washington Post yesterday dealing with this epidemic. It is called hyperthermia - when babies literally overheat from being in the car too long. It is an incredibly traumatic piece of writing, filled with images and scenarios that could give a person nightmares for years.

I realized after I read it that I was having a really hard time thinking about anything else. Initially, I thought this was because, as I said, the article was very descriptive and disturbing. But upon further reflection, I came to the conclusion that the reason this article was haunting me so much was the understanding I have after two years of motherhood that this could potentially happen to me. Not because I am a bad mother or because I don't love my son enough. On the contrary, I like to think I'm a pretty decent mother and it would be impossible for me to love my son more than I already do. But I now understand that bad things can happen when the right set of circumstances come together.

Consider these two facts:

1. My son is in daycare three days a week. On the days he is not in daycare, we often make plans to go to friends houses or museums. I cannot tell you how many times I have gotten in the car on a non-daycare day and instinctively driven in the direction of daycare. Sometimes I get all the way there before realizing that's not where I meant to go.

2. A few weeks ago, I stopped at the grocery store to pick up one or two things before getting my son from daycare. Then, I picked him up, drove home and brought him inside, leaving the groceries in the trunk. I had to throw away milk, eggs, and produce after it sat in the heat of my trunk for hours before I remembered it.

I understand that it seems like a baby is different. I understand that to the typical, functioning, non-stressed out brain, it seems impossible to forget about another human being. But what's important - imperative - to understand is that our brains go into autopilot. The reason I've driven to daycare so many times on days I don't need to go there is that I'm not actively thinking about what I need to do. I have a routine and my brain automatically follows it. If that routine gets changed for some reason - and in the large majority of these tragic cases, that is exactly what has happened - the brain often doesn't remember to make the adjustment.

The complexity, however, is that it thinks it has. Many of these parents report that when the sitter called to find out where the baby was, the response was 'What do you mean? Isn't he with you?' Their brains have checked off the box that says they've taken care of everything that needs taking care of. It's exactly what my brain did with the groceries. I didn't remember leaving them in the car until I went into the fridge for the milk and it wasn't there. I thought I had done it. It's not that I was careless because the items in my car didn't hold a lot of value to me. In fact, I was really pissed at myself for wasting all that food. It happened because I was doing many things at once and I got distracted and I thought I'd done what I intended to do. I am not so sure I couldn't have done the same thing on a much more horrific scale given the contributing circumstances that are present in most of the reported cases of hyperthermia.

I bring this up for a couple of reasons. One, I am always saying that, as parents, we need to judge each other less, and that is never more true than in these situations. I was right there two years ago, thinking that these parents must be morons or at least extremely neglectful people. But, really, these parents are just human beings who are juggling jobs and responsibilities like all of us are and whose momentary brain dysfunction led to the ultimate loss. There is no experience worse than losing a child, except perhaps losing a child due to something you did. These people are suffering enough without our judgment.

And two, because I shouldn't have scoffed at the notion of putting my purse in the backseat. There are all kinds of bills being proposed to enhance car safety standards and lower the instances of hyperthermia. Hopefully, in time, changes will be made. But, in the meantime, there is something we can do as parents. We can take the extra precautions to make sure we protect ourselves against our own hard drive malfunctions. We can stop being ignorant to the point of thinking it can't happen to us. Brains are funny things. Sometimes they really trip us up. Most of the time the consequences are minor. A wasted half-gallon of milk. A 10-minute detour in the wrong direction. Sometimes, they are much more severe. Why chance it? 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Dear Jason Collins, Thank You.

Dear Jason,

Two weeks ago, I wrote my son a letter. He is 20-months old and though he is not yet asking me why sometimes bad things happen, I couldn't stop thinking about the fact that one day he would, and I wouldn't know what to say. And so after the terrifying events at the Boston Marathon, I sat down and I wrote to him. I told him that I didn't have any answers. I told him that sometimes the world doesn't make very much sense to me. And I told him that the only way we can get through these devastating moments is to focus on all the good that's out there. The two people who orchestrated the attack in Boston were far outnumbered by the amazing people who volunteered their time, their homes, and their money to make sure those most affected were taken care of.

What I reminded my son in that letter, and really what I reminded myself as well, is that when something happens to shake our faith in humanity, the key to restoring it is often right there beside it. And now, two weeks later, here you are, standing before America, telling our children that it is okay for them to be exactly who they are.

I am not sure you fully understand the gift you have given my son and the other children of his generation. I have no way of knowing what will happen next. But, the mere fact of your existence goes a long way in shattering some of the stereotypes that exist.  I was recently telling another mother about how anxious my husband is to start playing sports with our son. I relayed a conversation I had with my husband where I warned him that it was possible our son wouldn't be that interested in sports, and that he would have to be okay with it. As I told this woman the story, I said "I just want him to realize that it's possible our son --" and before I finished my sentence, she cut me off and said "could be gay?"

The funny thing was, she wasn't being outwardly homophobic or discriminatory. She wasn't suggesting that there was anything wrong with him if he was gay or that it was a problem if he wasn't interested in sports. The interesting part was that she took those two things to be synonymous. These stereotypes are such a part of our culture that even people who believe themselves to be loving and open-minded have adopted them without realizing it. Your courage in sharing your story, whether others follow your lead or not, is a huge step towards helping us all rethink these ideas.

I read a lot of the comments yesterday after your article came out. One of the most fascinating themes I came across were the people who suggested that nothing you have done is heroic. These people suggested that there's nothing wrong with being gay, but that there's no reason to give you a front page article or call it news. I have been called an idealist before, but these people have far surpassed me. I wish it was true that this isn't news. I wish the world we live in was so incredibly welcoming and warm that an NBA player being gay meant nothing. But the fact of the matter is, that's not the world we live in, and in this flawed world, it means a great deal. You have taken the first step to knocking down a major barrier in this country. You have taken the words of Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo and you've made them mean something. So much of this problem is a matter of ignorance, and you have provided education and information in a way that no one else has.

I also came across a number of people who have suggested that the fact that you have an identical twin who is straight proves that being gay is a choice. I do not wish to go into the scientific specifics of this, all I want to say is that I have an identical twin sister who is taller than I am. No one has ever suggested that I chose to be short.

I have been thinking a lot about how scary this must have been for you. After so many years of guarding this secret, letting it go in such a public way must have been terrifying. Your courage is truly remarkable. Thank you for doing this. Thank you for taking us all by the hand and leading us down this road. I know that the haters can be really loud. I know that the nastiness that comes out of people's mouths is sometimes almost too horrible to be believed. But as I told my son after the bombing in Boston, the good people are out there. The love is out there. There are so many people who have been positively affected by your act of bravery, including so many young children who don't even know it yet.

As a mother, I wanted to say thank you. It just got a little easier to raise my son in America.

All the best,

Monday, April 15, 2013

To My Son, On This Sad and Tragic Day

Dearest Matthew,

You are only 20-months-old and so, for the moment, I am spared the task of having to explain to you that which has no explanation. You played in the park today and enjoyed your chicken fingers and laughed and jumped and didn't know that just 300 miles away people's lives were falling apart. You don't know that a mother will never see her 8-year-old child again or that runners whose legs carried them 26.2 miles no longer have those legs. You don't realize that just five months ago we were out in the streets of Philadelphia cheering on your Uncle Dan as he crossed the finish line like so many today. You haven't asked me why someone would want to hurt marathon runners and spectators who were celebrating such a special achievement.

But, it doesn't stop me from thinking about it. You won't be too young forever. One day you will look me in the eye and you will want to know why someone would hurt innocent people for no reason. You will want to know how to feel safe when people are working overtime to infect our safe spaces with fear and terror.  And what will I tell you? How can I comfort you when I am struggling so much myself to make sense of the world I have brought you into?

The short answer, my dear sweet boy, is that I don't know. I have no magic answers. I have no explanations. You would have figured this out one day, anyway, so I may as well just tell you now: I am just a person, and sometimes the world confuses me, too.

The long answer, though, is that we have no choice. When evil people try and bully us into surrendering our happiness, the only thing we can do is refuse. There are wonderful people who work to protect us and keep us safe and they will continue to try and do so effectively. We will keep going to school and seeing movies and taking trains and cheering on our friends and family as they accomplish their biggest goals. We will make sure to enjoy the good moments as they come. We will try a little harder not to take each other and Daddy and everyone we love for granted.

And most importantly, we will be kind. We will reach out and help others in need whenever we are able to. On days like today, it would be easy for us to focus on the fact that terrible people did a terrible thing. But that's not the whole story.  There are also runners who finished a marathon and kept running to the nearest hospital to donate blood. There are volunteers who ran towards the blasts instead of away from them to help as many people as possible. There are people posting on the internet that they have room in their homes if anyone needs a place to sleep.

It sometimes feels like evil is winning, but it isn't. It can only win if we let it. The good people of our world far outnumber the bad guys. It is our job to be part of the kindness. To keep putting it out there, insisting that we won't go away no matter how much they try to scare us.

It's not a perfect answer. It's not even close to a perfect world. But it's the one we've got, and we have to find a way to live in it. I am going to hug you tight as often as you'll let me and continue to pray that we won't have to have this conversation again.

I love you so very, very much,

My thoughts and prayers are with everyone affected in Boston. Sending love and support.