The Old Normal, and the Imperative of Self-Defense Training for Women

In light of the countless high-profile assault charges recently meted I challenge us, individually, collectively, indivisibly, to say no. To scream no.

I was “date raped” in college. I put that in quotes because I wasn’t on a date at all. We were merely friends, or so I thought, and he had offered to escort me home after a late-night party. He was an upperclassman, a leader in our social house, respected by all accounts and ostensibly charged with the task of getting me home safely.
Instead, he brought me to his room.
The feeling that sticks with me more than any other when I look back on that experience is the shame I feel for not having done a better job of preventing it.
I blame him, too, of course, for his calculated coercion tactics (“Let me walk you back to your dorm. It’s late.”) and his psychological maneuvering (“Here, we can just snuggle…” and not long after, “You know you want this, Jill.”).
A rugby player, he was significantly brawnier than me, and back then, I didn’t know my own strength or many tools for how to use it. When he didn’t appear to hear my protests, the following notion flickered at the edges of my jangled, buzzing mind: Resist and you could instigate him further … submit and, with luck, it’ll be over quickly.
So why do I still carry the bulk of the blame 20 years later? I’m not entirely sure, but I have a few theories….
First, I have reduced this person in my mind to the basest of characters, a coarse operative, if you will, a 20th century equivalent of the nefarious Shakespearean rogue who somehow plants himself at the right hand of the King. How can you require anything, let alone decent behavior on the most basic level, from someone so odious and depraved? He is a victim of his own awfulness. He must be sickening to himself, I tell myself. We can’t expect anything from people like this, so we expect everything from ourselves instead.
Here’s how this plays out in my mind: You see, I could have taken some right action along the way. I could have had one less drink. I could have been smarter. I could have predicted and therefore prevented the assault. How ridiculous and innocent I was! How stupid and naïve! How blind.
While those things could be true of every young, trusting undergrad, this misappropriation of guilt makes me feel less the victim somehow. It helps me take back some control. It helps me believe that I will be the one in control next time, should there be a next time. I know now that I wouldn’t give a second thought to acting “unpleasant” or “making a scene,” even though society constantly reminds us that it’s “unbecoming” for a woman to get angry.
Second, I believe that each person in any kind of relationship makes up half the equation. If you’re annoyed with your partner for being irritable, think on how your behavior exacerbates his impatience. You’re angry with a friend for not considering your feelings? When was the last time you considered hers? If your child is non-communicative, what could you do to help him feel he can talk to you? While it’s easy to heap blame on others, I do my best to own my role in every interaction, whether I’m the one who’s hurt or doing the hurting.
So how does this compute when the “hurt” is rape?
It doesn’t (I repeat over and over to myself). It is not your fault if someone abuses you. You didn’t “ask for it,” whatever you happened to be doing with your hips, like moving them when you walk, which is kinetically necessary as far as I’m concerned. You didn’t toss your head back in laughter to show him your bare neck. You did it because you thought something was funny.
And no, the abuse you’ve suffered has nothing to do with how carefully you considered your reputation – my girlhood warning to avoid emitting a sexual selfhood of any perceptible or desirable kind.
Which brings me to the third, and perhaps most difficult self-inflicted guilt-wad to deal with: the memory of my father’s reaction to the incident. I told my parents voluntarily because rape felt like less of a personal shortcoming if I could talk openly about it with the people who love me the most and had worked so hard to raise me well. I would feel like I had betrayed them less if I could tell them and have them understand and still accept me, regardless.
Of course, my father was deeply worried for me, as any normal father would be, and spitting mad at the upperclassman (I remember watching his knuckles whitening as his fists clenched and unclenched involuntarily). But in his state of shock and confusion, the words he managed to conjure up came in the form of a question: “How could you put yourself in this position?”
Oh god, how? I thought in a panic. I’ve failed them. I’ve failed at being a strong woman on my first go-round, my first chance at proving myself worthy of respect and dignity and real, untainted, caring love. I’ve ruined myself. It’s over.
I wanted to crawl inside a hole.
Despite all the shame, I talked candidly to the nurses at the college infirmary about my experience and made myself available to any other students who had suffered through abuse, on campus or in life. I figured that if we could sit together in the pain, at least we would not be alone. And while the option was presented to me, I decided not to press charges. That admired, affable upperclassman’s friends and family were, and are, none the wiser.
I am fine with that. Because I am wiser now.
In light of the countless high-profile assault charges recently meted – and to shine a light on a systemic cultural sickness that we all knew was there long before the avalanche of allegations came crashing down – I challenge us, individually, collectively, indivisibly, to say no. To scream no louder and louder and louder and louder until we are finally heard and the perpetrators back the fuck off.
We must dismiss anything that insults our own souls until our souls are fully restored. We must break the chain of sexual discrimination and violence against women and children and anyone perceived as lesser or different or weak – a chain that’s made up of centuries of generational links of learned hostility, social exclusion, androcentrism, patriarchal privilege, and sexual objectification.
We do this through sound parenting and education and programs that support socioeconomic equity. But we also do it by fighting back, by taking the attacker by surprise with a palm thrust to the nose and a knee to the groin, by shocking the playground bully with a scrappy uppercut to the jaw. We’ve been fighting for a long time, of course, and we will continue to fight until a woman no longer shoulders the blame for a man’s reprehensible behavior.
We clearly have a long way to go. Prominent elected officials and so-called “civil servants” commit and even brag about sexual assault and somehow manage to retain their positions. The Women’s Action Team in Brattleboro, Vermont, galvanized in the fall of 2016 “with the explicit purpose of advancing reproductive justice and combating rape culture and misogyny,” said filmmaker and photographer Willow O’Feral in an interview on Vermont Public Radio’s Morning Edition.
“(W)e are here to say, ‘we are not going to take this,’” she continued. “‘We are fighting back.’” O’Feral’s latest film, “Break The Silence”, features women talking about their reproductive and sexual health histories. Proceeds from the film will support a transportation fund that helps minors gain access to Planned Parenthood’s medical support and abortion services.
I recently worked with my sons’ taekwondo teacher to organize a women’s self-defense class. When I polled my online network to gauge interest, the response was enormous – astounding, really, for a loosely populated northeastern state known for its happiness index and high quality of life. Dozens and dozens of women responded, admitting they’d been searching for opportunities to build these skills, to feel safer, to know they would have what it takes in case … just in case.
Last weekend, nine women managed to carve four hours out of their Sunday to attend. One of them was my mother, who has been reeling from an unsettling encounter with one of the night watchmen at her continuing care facility. We each had our nervous tics, our hurdles, our fear-facing moments, our breakthroughs, but no one practiced those maneuvers with as much vigor as my mom.
I don’t think I will ever forget the sight of her, a 100-pound spitfire of a 76-year-old grandma, feet planted firmly on the floor, her small arms raised, palms front in the universal gesture of defense. “Back off! I don’t know you! Go away!!” she shouted. “Back off! Back off! Back off!! BACK!!! OFF!!!” Over and over in a voice so angry and adrenaline-tinged that I hardly recognized it as hers.
At last, the instructor (playing the advancing attacker), stopped and backed away.
When it was over, my mother stood there visibly shaking, her eyes ablaze with fight and fury. It was as though she was rooted to the spot, riveted by the specter of her own power. Slowly and very gently, the instructor came to her, kneeled in front of her, and took her hand.
“You won,” she said, with a tenderness that dredged a sob from the pit of my gut. “He left. He’s gone. You won.”

The Lesson in the Succulent

It’s so many of us who have moved our own hardier selves right down to the bottom of the list of things that need to be cared for.

I’m losing another succulent.
Rather I am, in fact, losing the last remnant of my third succulent arrangement that I bought after the first two succumbed to the very same illness this last pathetic sucker has.
What’s the illness, you ask?
Neglect.
Succulents are easy, they say. They’re hardy. They don’t require much and they’re hard to kill and they look pretty and they’re totally trending on Etsy.
Sign me up.
Except around here, where there are two smallish humans and two medium-sized humans and two large humans and one dog who all are slightly less hardy than, say, a succulent, and require much more than a sunny corner of the house and an occasional squirt of water, all “easy to keep alive” means is you’re moving to the back of the list, buddy.
And the list is long, isn’t it? It’s three square meals cooked from scratch with farm fresh organic and locally sourced ingredients prepared with love (read: take out) that everyone hates and makes gagging noises over and feeds to the dog when you aren’t looking.
It’s a never ending mountain of laundry that we are doomed to cart up and down 800 flights of stairs everyday like Sisyphus, except worse, because it also smells like armpits mixed with old milk.
It’s bills, too, and groceries and work and worrying about them and worrying about us and worrying about our marriages and worrying about our parents and worrying about our cholesterol and cancer and trying desperately to remember if we locked the door before we laid our head down.
It’s taking on the full responsibility of an entire household like a martyr goddess because a) we’re good at getting this crap done and b) we love the heck out of these people and want to see them thrive.
So the succulent falls to the bottom of the pile. Tomorrow – we say to ourselves as we lie there debating whether to check the doors for the second time – we will take care of it. We will water it and trim it up nice and clean off the dead parts and put it in the sun and love up on it a little bit until it remembers that it’s supposed to grow and not wither away into another mess we have to clean up.
Tomorrow. Or the next day. Definitely next week.
Sound familiar?
This succulent is so many of us. It’s so many of us mamas and caretakers and lovers and servers who get so busy in the noble pursuit of keeping the people we love alive that we have moved our own hardier selves right down to the bottom of the list.
Where we are busy getting neglected.
Where we are thirsty and wrinkly and shriveled up and, well, kind of sad looking.
I get it. Believe me. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in some silly mama task, like cleaning out the kids’ closets, and maybe the radio is on and I’m jamming a little bit and my caffeine has kicked in and it annoys the freaking hell out of me that I have to stop and pee or eat or attend to some other stupid basic human need like catching my breath.
Then other times, I accidentally sit down on the couch before it is sit-down-on-the-couch-time and my body is like “oh, thank God,” and my kids are like “oh, heck no,” and I can physically feel myself drying up and dying a little.
It’s times like that, when I feel this weird kinship with my succulent that was once lovely and is now sort of struggling, that I’m compelled to remind us all that “easy to keep alive” (a.k.a. “harder to kill”) doesn’t mean immortal.
Let this little sad guy be a warning to us all and maybe the impetus to take care of ourselves once in a while. Maybe even often. Because nothing thrives without a little loving care.
Including us.
This was originally published on the author’s Facebook page.

A Straightforward Approach to Teaching My Kids About Sex

I made a conscious decision early on to be open and honest with my kids and to incorporate sexuality and sexual education naturally into their lives.

The week before my 13th birthday, my mother, a registered nurse, handed me the small booklet called “A Doctor Talks to 9-to-12-Year-Olds.” That and occasional reminders to “be a good girl” and to “save myself for marriage” were the extent of my sexual education at home.
In seventh grade, after my mother hesitantly agreed to sign a paper allowing me to participate in the public school’s sexual education program, I remember thinking finally some real information might be shared. Mrs. Trent’s classroom was covered with posters of Voyager and Spacelab with planet mobiles made by students hanging from the ceiling. She encouraged questions and went into great detail in her answers.
But the fertilization part was exactly like in the doctor’s book. It wasn’t until the last day of our chapter on sexuality that it looked like we might finally be getting to the truth about exactly what sex is. I don’t recall what was shared and don’t remember asking any questions, but clearly, I still didn’t get it. My journal at the time states in big bold letters: “Today Mrs. Trent told us all about SEXUAL INTERSECTION!”
With my lack of information in mind, I made a conscious decision early on to be open and honest with my own children and to incorporate sexuality and sexual education naturally into their lives. The only problem was, with no experience talking as a child or with a child about the subject, I wasn’t confident in my own knowledge. I felt awkward and uncomfortable, and I didn’t know what to say or how to say it.
So I bought books. Peter Mayle and Arthur Robins’ “Where Did I Come From” and Robie Harris and Michael Emberley’s “It’s So Amazing” had a place on my children’s bookshelf before they could read. Sometimes I’d find them looking at the pictures like any other book. Every once in a while, I’d pick one up and casually read a few pages to them just as I did “Frog and Toad” or “Winnie the Pooh”.
Despite my deeply ingrained Catholic guilt and my lack of role models for valuable communication, I gradually became more relaxed about addressing the basics. I learned things no one ever told me about. The vas deferens and clitoris never made an appearance in Mrs. Trent’s basic diagram. I was using words that I’d never heard spoken out loud and certainly never said myself. Vagina became common vernacular.
From the start, I attempted to be straight-forward and factual with my children about puberty and sex. Even as a little dude, my son knew about menstruation. When he was five and found a tampon on the bathroom counter and questioned whether I smoked cigars, I gave him the basic details about periods.
My description must have included some facts about gestation because, over a year later, when he and his older sister were playing LIFE, they had gone around the board twice and my daughter had two cars full of children. I overheard my son say to his sister, “Hey, you haven’t had a period in five years!”
At first, I was thinking, “The kid is a math whiz!” and then I realized that he was no more than seven and actually grasped the fetal-growth concept I had shared so far back that I barely remembered the conversation. Point is, the kids seemed to be listening, and they seemed to be willing to share and ask questions.
During the summers, when we had some time on our hands and my children were each around 11, I made them sit with me and read through “It’s So Amazing”. My son hated it, but I told him that it was my responsibility as his mother to give him this information. Did he know how much I wanted to be a good mother? Yes? Well then, dude, you have to help me out, here.
When the subject came up in seventh-grade health, he told me he was glad he’d already heard all that information and more, and he wasn’t as uncomfortable as many of his friends clearly were.
Those early talks helped set the stage for the more difficult conversations as my children have moved through their teenage years. We’ve talked about blow jobs and masturbation, reproductive health and orgasms, hook-ups and body image, sexual orientation, identity, and sexual pressure.
We’ve talked about asserting needs, desires and limits, and a girl’s right to pleasure. When a subject gets tricky and I don’t know how to address it, I’ll check out sites like More Than Sex-Ed or Peggy Orenstein’s book “Girls and Sex” for tips.
I’ve had frank conversations with my children about the easy access to pornography and how watching it might shape ideas of what sex is or should be. I’ve shared that, when I was young, about the only access to such images were in the magazines I found at one of the houses where I babysat and how the videos were far less graphic and only available at XXX stores or if friends passed the contraband around.
Music wasn’t as graphic either. Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” was scandalous (at least in my house), and the first time I ever saw sex was when I had it myself. Now people can watch it on their phones.
I am not like my mother. I don’t say “Just Say No” without giving explanations. Just as we talk about what alcohol and drugs do to your body and when and why you might not want to make that choice, we also talk about how the images in pornography may stay in your mind and become an expectation of how you or your partners should feel, act, or pretend to act. We talk about how those videos aren’t real life.
I tell them how I hope that, when the time is right, they will have more authentic experiences. We talk about respect, for themselves and others. We talk about the emotions that go into the decision to have intercourse.
I was the first person my daughter told after she had sex for the first time. I would never have told my mother, who tried, awkwardly, when I was 29 to return to the conversation we didn’t have when I was 13, asking if I felt comfortable choosing a white wedding dress as we prepared for my wedding.
I had conversations with my own daughter for several months as she considered whether her long-term boyfriend should be her first lover. Of course, we talked about safe sex. And we talked about protecting the heart.
She still calls me from college and shares anecdotes of her relationships. Sometimes she asks for guidance, and I promise no judgment. All indications are that she is confident in her sexuality. She’s taking care of herself and has healthy attitudes about what she wants and how she should be treated. That is what I was hoping for when we first opened up “Where Did I Come From?” when she was tiny.
My children came from a safe place where they could talk about anything, and still can.

Alexa, What Does It Take to Be Human?

Could a tiny smart computer fill in all my gaps in parenting? The better question is, should it?

Mattel pulled a much-anticipated and hotly-debated toy recently.
Aristotle, a device geared for children anywhere from infancy to adolescence, was set up to be the kid’s version of Alexa. It boasted features such as the ability to soothe a crying baby, teach ABCs, reinforce good manners, play interactive games, and help kids with homework. Marketed as an “all-in-one nursery necessity” on Mattel’s website, it also offered e-commerce functionality that would enable Aristotle to automatically reorder baby products based on user feedback.
This little gadget would be the next big thing, engineered to “comfort, entertain, teach, and assist during each development state – evolving with a child as their needs change.”
You see where this is heading.
How much do we let artificial intelligence narrate our children’s lives? How can we put something like this in charge of soothing our kids to sleep, teaching the alphabet, and eventually helping with homework?
Could a tiny smart computer fill in all my gaps in parenting? The better question is, should it? I know what being saddled with my phone and Wi-Fi all hours of the waking day does to my psyche. What could it possibly do to a toddler or an 11-year-old?
The director of the M.I.T. Initiative on Technology and Self, Sherry Turke, said something in her approval of Mattel’s decision to nix Aristotle that made me pause: “The ground rules of human beinghood are laid down very early” and these machines have “changed the ground rules of how people think about personhood.”
Is this true? By creating Siri and Alexa and all manner of innumerable smart devices, have we changed what it means to be human?
Do you remember the little origami fortune tellers you could make out of a paper? You’d ask it a question – say, “who will I marry?” or “will I have a pool when I grow up?” – and then you’d pick a number, count it out, and open the flap to reveal your future.
I never got the pool. But I also never forgot that it was just a game. I didn’t really think I would marry David or Nick. But maybe if I carried it around all the time and asked it every question from age eight and onward, I would forget it was not, in fact, in charge of my fate.
Turke went on to say that “we can’t put children in this position of pretend empathy and then expect that children will know what empathy is. Or give them pretend as-if relationships, and then think that we’ll have children who know what relationships are.”
Have the things that used to define us as highly evolved creatures – our rationality and morality and curiosity – changed so much? Do we still care to defend right and wrong and ask why of the universe or are we content to ask Siri? Do we, the grown-ups, still know what empathy is? When I watch the news, I wonder.
Do we know what it means to develop and nurture and uphold sustainable relationships? I hope so.
Aristotle was a free-thinking scientist and philosopher. He was a man who believed in things acting according to their function. I do not believe he would have entrusted the development of our children’s minds to a computer. I’m not even sure where he’d put artificial intelligence in the hierarchical system. Is it animal, vegetable, mineral, or none of the above?
The ground rules of “beinghood” are constantly evolving, but the core of what makes us human stands. We still care enough to write great literature, fight injustice, love and lose and love again, and cancel a toy before it begins to raise our children. We still hold a tiny bit of prescience over the rightness and wrongness of where our curiosity is leading us.
As long as we are able to look up from our toys and ask of each other and the world, “What does it all mean?”, our humanity remains intact. Technology is a marvel and a necessary in the modern world, but it cannot define us. This is a new game we are playing, and we must play it wisely.

Back to School: The Borderlands of Motherhood

This time of year, many of us find ourselves in a brief but trying part of these borderlands, the back-to-school weeks.

Life transitions don’t typically happen overnight. Your ticket might say you’ve arrived, but the emotional work of adjustment does not have a time or date.

Back-to-school can be a particularly trying time because of its ability to manifest, in one concentrated week or two, all the many ways parenthood can both fill us with pleasure and wear us down. It can be exciting to see a brand-new school year begin, but if you’re feeling a little unsteady in this period of transition, you’d hardly be alone.

The back-to-school period, like childbirth (or any major life transition), is a liminal one. This means that for a while, we sit in the ‘in between,’ straddling two life phases. One foot in the old world, one foot in the new.

It can be exciting. We’re marking a new life phase and a new accomplishment, both for our children and for ourselves. Yet, in the midst of so much anticipation and hope, things can also feel a little unknown, and downright raw.

Welcome to the what we call the ‘borderlands’ of motherhood, those periods of transition where the promise of your destination awaits, but your passport still needs to be stamped, the guards don’t smile, you’re a little homesick, and your luggage might be missing. You’re traveling forward, but you haven’t arrived just yet.

This time of year, many of us find ourselves in a brief but trying part of these borderlands, the back-to-school weeks. While you’re there, here’s what you might find:

Tough feelings

Parenthood can make us joyful. It can also make us worried, anxious, frustrated, and sad, depending on the day and what we’re managing. The new school year is filled with possibilities for these feelings. We can worry about how our children will make friends or get along with their teachers. We can worry we haven’t remembered all the crucial calendar dates. We can be frustrated our children won’t wake up on time. We can be a little sad to see them move on, one step closer to the fantastic, grown people they promise to become.

That little goodbye at the school gate can feel every bit as emotional as the day they arrived into the world. In an instant, they, and you, are in a new life stage. The awe and intensity of that realization can make the most steely of us a little less so.

Sleep disturbance and fatigue

Back-to-school brings with it a change in rest patterns. The low key schedules of school holidays are over. You might be staying up later than usual trying to get clothes and lunches packed. You might be up earlier trying to set the stage for your new school year routine. You might not be sleeping very well at all given all the worries that a new school year can bring.

Then there is the physical and emotional strain of trying to adjust to so many new roles, activities, and responsibilities. Yes, your children are the ones completing the activities, but you are the one making sure they get there, get back, and get everything done. This work takes its toll.

Relationship stress

For many reasons, the work of raising children can stress your relationship with your partner. These fault lines can come into vivid color during the back-to-school period.

It’s possible your partner shares in the many to-do’s a school year brings. It’s also possible that she doesn’t. It’s possible your partner does not see eye-to-eye with you on the school your child will attend, the routines you adhere to, or the priorities you each place on activities. It’s possible he doesn’t share the same worries, concerns, or frustrations you do with specific aspects of the school experience. You are two different human beings. The possibilities for different world views are infinite. So are the stresses and disagreements these differences can introduce.

Financial strain

Kids are expensive, especially this time of year. Whether you are paying a hefty tuition bill or handing over large sums for new school supplies, clothes, and after-school activities, this time of year can be pricey. It’s no secret that bills can also impact all the factors discussed above. Worry, lost sleep, and relationship stress can all stem from uncertainty or disagreements over money. Education costs a lot. So, it seems, does everything else these days. It can be especially hard this time of year to feel like things are balanced financially.

Mourning the loss of the old

All new beginnings come with goodbyes. A goodbye to the old year. A goodbye to the smaller clothes. A goodbye to the sweet artwork of last year. With goodbyes can come sadness. Completely normal sadness. When we lose something we have held dear, like an old identity, old role, or old relationship, we can feel grief. You might miss the warmth of last year’s teacher. You might miss the nurturing embrace of a school for younger children. You or your child might be missing old friends.

The years that have led up to this point may have been wonderful ones. Even if they weren’t particularly notable, saying goodbye to them can bring a twinge of regret. With a new school year, we have to leave one life stage and step into the next one. While hellos can be exciting, it’s harder to relish a farewell.

Losing support networks

On the subject of loss, one change that can be felt acutely this time of year is the loss of a prior support or care-giving arrangement. Many families have care-giving arrangements for their children that are designed to end when school begins. This means that a human being who provided support and love to your family moves on to another employment arrangement. The intersection between care, love, and finances can feel stark this time of year.

“The village” is a bona fide requirement for parenting. Today, with so many families living away from extended support networks, early childhood caregivers can become a vital part of the village we create. They listen to our stories, provide perspective and wisdom, and reassure us that things will be just fine. Sure, your children are adjusting to their days away from you at school, but you too can be adjusting to your new days away from your own sense of support. Having to say goodbye to people who have provided such essential care and friendship to our families is not easy.

Culture shock

Make no mistake, a school is a living terrain unto itself. It may as well have a geographical border. It has its own unspoken way of doing things. It will have a social order, which lives and breathes both in the parents and the students. It has a culture all its own. If you are new, the learning curve can be both steep and surprisingly difficult to acclimate to in the beginning.

Culture shock is a well-documented response in travelers that occurs when one must adjust to a new culture quickly. It can manifest itself in many ways, but principally take its toll on the emotional health of the newcomer. Not understanding the invisible rules of a new place can feel disorienting, confusing, and downright exhausting.

Your notably social brain does not like its familiar rules to change up. Don’t be surprised if it puts up a fight and you feel a little lonely, tired, or down for a while. Your brain has a lot of new learning to do. Things should feel better eventually.

If any of the above rings true, giving yourself enough space, time, and self-acceptance to acknowledge the impact on your wellbeing is important. Motherhood’s borderlands are real. We all travel through them, and we should do everything we can to travel a little more comfortably.

Expertise

With a new year comes new list of never-before-seen hurdles you must work through. Having to feel like we don’t really know what we are doing (again!!) can be disheartening, especially when we see so many veteran parents at the school gate making it all look so easy. Remember, not a single parent out there was given an instruction manual. The only difference between you and the parent who seems to have it all together is practice.

Parenting is a muscle that has to be built and used. The more opportunity you give yourself to roll your sleeves up and learn, the more confident you will feel about your ability to tackle this. For the next couple of weeks, try to commit to getting better at just one thing that has been nagging at you. Give it your all for an hour a day. Experiment, mess up, try again, and then keep trying. Pay attention to the the power of practice. Watch and observe yourself. You will get better at practically anything you want to get better at if you put in the time.

Connection

Remember those new mama friends you couldn’t have lived without after your baby was born? Birth was a borderland time and they acted as your fellow travelers.

In the back-to-school version, you need these relationships again, yet this time with parents of school-age children. These relationships will serve the same powerful purpose as those early motherhood friendships. They will help you make sense of the world. They will provide some comic relief. They will offer a sense of shelter and belonging in the midst of unknown terrain.

For mothers, friendships are big magic and big medicine. By taking your social connections seriously, you are building up a resource that takes on a completely new importance in these times of transition. It’s not a vanity. It’s crucial. Keep trying to find a kindred spirit or two.

Outlook

If your outlook is skewed to the negative side, and you find yourself regularly anxious or low as a result, it’s possible you might need to push back a bit. Sometimes it pays to be cautious, and sometimes we need to embrace the possibilities in a new situation. The key here is accuracy. Ask yourself if you have evidence for how you are feeling about a situation, and then choose your outlook.

A new school or a new year can be filled with uncertainty. When the brain feels unsure, it can be tempted to withdraw into skepticism or weariness. However, a new school year is also filled with possibilities. There are rewarding new relationships that have yet to be made for both you and your child. There are as-yet untapped wonders, challenges, joys, curiosities, and accomplishments to look forward to.

Remember that the borderlands are only the beginning, they look nothing like the green and pleasant land ahead. When you feel unsure or negative, remind yourself to try and take in the full picture (of both the strains and the possibilities) as you make up your mind about today.

There’s so much possibility on the horizon. Welcome to the new school year and its promise. You’ll be a seasoned traveler before you know it.

This was originally published here.

Teaching Our Kids to Embrace the Lessons of Envy

Sitting with that envy and letting it be your teacher may be a good idea for all of us, including our kids.

My Twitter feed informed me that a writer whose work has been published in many of the same Internet corners as mine was up for an award. It then clued me into the fact that three writer acquaintances were signing book deals the same week.
I sent sincere congratulations, excited to see the names of people I either knew as friends or whose work I followed as a fan moving up in the world of words.
I also felt the ugly E-word I had been taught to fear since my childhood days in Sunday School: Envy. Satisfied with my own place in the freelance writing world, there was still no denying that the recognition of others made me catch a breath.
I didn’t do what I was taught to when the big E-word hit. Instead of pretending I didn’t feel it, shaming myself for the feeling, or being disgusted by my own shallowness, I sat with that envy and let it be my teacher.
Science says that may be a good idea for all of us, including our kids.

The two kinds of envy

English limits envy to one word, one definition, and people understand that definition as one that denotes envy as an undesirable feeling that should be banished. Many other languages have more than one word to describe envy, and the Dutch language probably makes the clearest distinction. The translations of the two words connected to envy define one as malicious and the other as benign.
Even those of us who speak English and are only familiar with the one definition know the experience of feeling both kinds of envy. Malicious envy is dangerous because it hopes for the person who is being envied to fail or to be harmed in some way. Malicious envy makes us have strong negative feelings that draw us deeper into a hole of dislike for a person. It’s toxic.
Those experiencing benign envy can enhance their existence by asking important questions about why it exists. Benign envy doesn’t wish anyone harm. It’s simply a longing, wanting something we don’t have that feels important to us, whether it is an accomplishment or a way of life. After pouring over research, writer Maria Konnikova found that benign envy can be a “driver of change for the better.”

Questions to ask

Susan Cain, bestselling author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”, recognizes benign envy as a valuable emotion when people choose jobs. As a lawyer, she didn’t envy other lawyers when they were promoted, and this helped her realize she was in the wrong career.
Instead, she envied writers and psychologists, and this realization helped her leave a perfectly good career to pursue her passion. Had she not listened to that voice, people everywhere would likely know much less about the power of introversion.
Learning to address benign envy and teaching our kids to do the same is important. Benign envy can serve as a guide as opposed to a roadblock. Marcia Reynolds, PsyD, says asking the right questions helps us unlock truths that move us forward, and we can ask these of our kids as well when they feel envy, questions such as:

What is it that I envy?

Is it a certain career or more free time? A particular accomplishment or a way of life? Benign envy is an indicator of what we want. Knowing what we envy helps us understand our true desires. Saying what we envy is so much more important than pretending envy doesn’t exist.

Why do I feel this envy?

Is our life super busy, so we envy our friend who always seems to have time for quality over quantity? Have we spread ourselves so thin that we aren’t focusing on our true goals, so when a friend lands that dream job we realize we weren’t even working to attain the skills we needed to apply?
I felt envy because I have unmet writing goals, and instead of putting them front and center I push them back to tackle on another day. They are hard goals to achieve. They take work, and it’s been easier to make excuses than make time. Addressing benign envy helps me acknowledge that.

What can I do to achieve what I want?

This is where addressing envy can be life changing. Knowing what I envy and why I envy, I can now figure out what I want to do about it. How do I make my life, not a reflection of someone else’s, but the best that I want it to be? What work can I do to move closer to accomplishing my own goals?

When malicious envy exists

Benign envy is easy enough to break down and benefit from, but what about when we feel the dreaded malicious envy? How do we help our kids deal with this toxic form of coveting, and how do we deal with it ourselves?
Malicious envy is difficult because it often comes with feelings of deep dislike for the person we envy. We convince ourselves that they don’t deserve all they’ve been given, and that we have no control over making our own lives what we want them to be.
A study by psychologist Niels van de Ven found that people who feel malicious envy complain about the recipient of what they see as undeserved bounty, but they don’t make positive changes in their own lives. Who wants to confess to just feeling nasty towards someone? Shouldn’t we just bury these emotions?
As ugly as this type of envy can be, dealing with it is still key, and we need to let our kids know that. We want our kids to discuss their feelings, not hide them, so we need to be able to do the same and walk them through the process.
When anyone in our home experiences malicious envy, we still need to ask questions: What is the underlying issue that makes you want this person to fail or view them negatively based on their accomplishment? Is this about envying their accomplishment or just disliking them?
These are the questions that uncover the deeper issues underneath the surface of malicious envy. Once addressed, we can work to teach our kids and ourselves how to move past them.
Envy, even benign envy, is uncomfortable, which is why most of us are fine with the advice to pretend it doesn’t happen and move on. But in refusing to address it, we lose the opportunity to evaluate our own choices, and we teach our kids to do the same.
Living consciously, even if it means being aware of uncomfortable feelings, is better than sweeping issues under the rug. Parents and children who know how to dig deeper to understand the motives behind their envy stand a better chance of creating the lives they desire.

Why Sugar Coating the History of Slavery Is a Bad Idea If We Want to Empower Our Kids

If our kids don’t know what happened in the past, how will they ever work towards a better future and ensure that we never go back to those dark times?

“The difference between a lady and a woman back in colonial times was that ladies had more power and influence because of the number of slaves they owned.” These were the words spoken to my family while on a recent tour of the Peyton Randolph House in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.
Peyton Randolph was elected the presiding officer of the First Continental Congress at Philadelphia in 1774 and the Speaker of Virginia’s House of Burgesses in the years leading to the Revolution. He and his wife Betty Harrison Randolph owned 27 slaves. This now historic site is set up to educate visitors about the stark contrasts between freedom and slavery at the house of one of America’s most prominent families.
As we left the tour, I pondered how I was going to explain the concept of slavery to my young white children. It is not exactly a common conversation topic at our dinner table. Nonetheless, I know deep in my heart how critical it is that they learn about this awful part of American history. If they don’t know what happened in the past, how will they ever work towards a better future and ensure that we never go back to those dark times?
I asked my 9-year-old son what he thought of the tour and if he knew anything about what was discussed. He immediately linked the idea of slavery and racism to what he learned in school about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. I was proud that his school incorporated these lessons into their social studies curriculum. Not all schools are brave enough to delve into such challenging topics.
I can remember how shocked I was in college when I sat in my Women’s Studies history class to discover that much of the history I was taught in high school and earlier completely left out women’s roles in important historical events.
Given the current tension in America between people of different backgrounds, such as the horrific showing of hatred in Charlottesville, I have to wonder what role we as parents must play in order to ensure our children get an honest education about history – without frightening them too much.

Are they too young to learn about slavery?

The answer is a resounding “no” from experts at Scholastic. They explain that conversations about skin color typically start in preschool as children become more curious about other people and the world around them.
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, said children are not waiting around for adults to talk about these issues. She found that kids are ready to discuss these topics early and are already doing so whether we realize it or not.
Unfortunately, many parents shy away from talking about the world’s ugliness with their kids, hoping that they will stay naïve and innocent for as long as possible. Thomas says this is not the best approach to take. It is more effective if we are in touch with our children earlier on and address these issues together as they grow.
It may be difficult to find the appropriate time or place to bring up slavery. Keep an eye out for opportunities that pop up, like a TV show, a book, a song, or an event that touches on the topic. Or maybe your young child notices that someone else has darker skin than they do. The more subtley you broach the topic, the easier it will be for both you and your child.
An article in Parenting magazine offered a really clever way to begin the conversation with young children. Invite them to help cook some eggs with you in the kitchen. Be sure to have some white eggs and brown eggs. Ask your child what they notice about the eggs. What is different about them on the outside?
Then crack the eggs together and ask them what they notice about the insides of the eggs. Point out how they are the same inside. Then make the link by explaining how eggs are just like people – they come in different shades, but they are the same on the inside. We should not judge someone by their appearance.

Tips for teaching children about slavery

Because talking to our kids about slavery is such a challenging task, I scoured the internet for expert advice on how best to address it. Here are some amazing tips to consider:

Examine your own biases first

Before you even begin to talk to your children about slavery and racism, take some time to look inside yourself and acknowledge your own experiences, biases, or privileges that may influence how you address these issues.
Don’t be afraid to share your own struggles about these topics with your kids. You can tell them that you are not an expert and want to work together with them to learn more. Consider taking the online test about bias created by Harvard experts.

Tell them the truth

Slavery is a very complicated issue that tends to be over-simplified to the detriment of children’s education. Be sure to use correct definitions and tell the whole story.
Many resources only cover the Underground Railroad or the Emancipation Proclamation, but there is a lot more to the history of slavery. Turn to expert resources, like the Teaching Tolerance website that will walk you through the most effective ways to talk about the details of slavery.

Avoid generalizations and stereotypes

Choose your words carefully. Not every Northerner was an abolitionist, and not every Southerner supported slavery. Although the North ended slavery decades before the Civil War, the people there continued to profit from it by manufacturing the whips, lashes, and chains used to enforce slavery in the South.
Also, be careful not to say that people were “born a slave.” Nature does not make people slaves; people enslave other people. Slaves were people treated like property and tortured for profit.

Celebrate the positives

There are tons of awful details about how slaves were treated that we do not want to dwell on too much with our children. Be sure to also focus on some of the heroes of that time who fought for their freedom, such as Arnold Cragston, a slave by day who rowed others to freedom by night, and Milla Granson who taught fellow slaves to read and write.

Encourage them to express their emotions

Learning about slavery can be very distressing. Give your children a safe space to reflect on how it makes them feel. Their emotions can range from anger, shock, frustration, sadness, hopelessness, and fear. Then ask them to look for ways to transform those negative emotions into positives, like hope and activism.

Link history to present time

The most important reason to study the awful parts of history is to ensure that it does not repeat itself. Take time to draw links between slavery then and racism and slavery today.
Human trafficking and forced child labor are examples of how slavery is still going on today. Sadly, racism is still entrenched in American culture. Explain to your children that slavery caused racism, and people are still fighting it. (Unfortunately, there are all too many examples in the news every day to point to.)

Be a good role model

Many Americans think people are “naturally” racist, that racism is genetic. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. According to experts, humans are not born racist. Instead, racism is a product of history. Our children are watching and listening to us.
Dr. Beverly Tatum, psychologist, educator, author, and past president of Spelman College, suggests that the best way to reduce children’s prejudices is to model an inclusive home, demonstrating that we have friends of all backgrounds. She explains that “parents who have learned to lead multicultural lives, connecting with people different from themselves, are more likely to have children who develop those important life skills at an early age.”

Resources

Fortunately, we have plenty of well thought out resources to turn to when it is time to talk to our kids about slavery.

Books

Books are a wonderful way to initiate a discussion about slavery with children. Young readers can safely experience scary, sad, and uncomfortable issues through reading. Here’s a list of recommended books for kids about slavery:

  • “Now Let Me Fly: The Story of a Slave Family” by Dolores Johnson
  • “If You Lived When There Was Slavery In America” by Anne Kamma
  • “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” by Terry M. West
  • “If You Traveled on the Underground Railroad” by Ellen Levine and Larry Johnson
  • “Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad” by Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson
  • “Lest We Forget” by Velma Maia Thomas
  • “Unspoken” by Henry Cole
  • “Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky” by Faith Ringgold
  • “Frederick Douglas: The Last Days Of Slavery” by William Miller
  • “Nettie’s Trip South” by Anne Turner
  • “Many Thousands Gone: African Americans From Slavery To Freedom” by Virginia Hamilton et al.
  • “The Price of Freedom: How One Town Stood Up to Slavery” by Dennis Brindell Fradin, Judith Bloom Fradin, and Eric Velasquez

Films

As children get older, it is helpful to sit with them and watch documentaries or movies that address slavery and racism. “Roots”, “12 Years a Slave”, “Amistad”, “The Underground Railroad”, and “A Woman Called Moses” are some of the most popular ones to explore.
Common Sense Media also has an online database of suggested African-American experience films.

Field Trips/Museums

Visiting hands-on exhibits like the one at Colonial Williamsburg offers experiences that your children will remember forever. Here are some museums to visit that address slavery:

Hope is on the horizon

The best news of all is that after our visit to Colonial Williamsburg, my son found the idea of slavery so ridiculous and unbelievable. The concept of treating people differently because of the color of their skin is so foreign to him. He plays with kids of all backgrounds at school and would never dream of it being any other way.
We can only hope that this next generation will be color blind and never put up with intolerance of any kind.

No, Dads of Daughters Don't Need Shotguns

You’ve heard it a billion times in reference to our girls. “Oh, better get the shotgun ready!” It’s time to think about what we’re actually saying.

There was an announcement on a friends’ group text recently. “We’re having a baby girl!!” gushed the mom-to-be.
What followed was a flurry of congratulatory messages.
“We’re so happy for you.”
“Can’t wait to meet your bundle of joy.”
“Get that baby registry going! I looove shopping for baby girls.”
Then came one that made me stop in my tracks: “Time for your husband to buy a shotgun.”
Sure, I’ve heard it a billion times. I’m sure I’ve said it myself, casually, like it was expected of me to perpetuate the idea of the overprotective father needing to shelter his helpless daughter from her bevy of suitors.
There’s nothing wrong with the idea of dads wanting to protect their kids. But there is something wrong with the idea that only girls need protecting, and that they need protection from boys who are going to be wooing them.
The gender stereotyping behind the statement didn’t really strike me until recently. Somehow, through repetition over the years, the comment has gained a certain credibility, as though it can’t be questioned.
But we should question things. Especially when it disenfranchises our young women.
First off, shouldn’t we be empowering girls to protect themselves? Maybe their weapon of choice won’t be a shotgun (at least, I hope not!).
Instead we should be inspiring our young women with weapons of self-confidence – knowing their own worth so they don’t settle, never being apologetic for saying no, developing the grit to pursue their goals and the resolve to set their own indisputable boundaries.
Instead, we’re inadvertently sending them the message that, when it comes to relationships, they fall squarely in the hapless category.
We’re sending an archaic message to our young men, too: You’re the one going to be winning her over. And you’re going to be met with resistance in the process.
We’re telling the next generation of young men that it’s somehow cool to be the bad boy chasing down the girl, circumventing the hovering dad looming large on the front porch. Just maybe it’s okay to entertain the idea that a young man is capable of winning the dad (and mom) over, too, with his politeness and hard work and commitment to their daughter.
Or, maybe, it’s the young lady who will be ringing his doorbell.
Then there’s the other line we dash off when we see a handsome little fella. Truth be told, I’ve typed out the cliché on Facebook more often than I’d like to acknowledge: “He’s going to be a real heartbreaker.”
I don’t know how that line has become a compliment. Like, really? We want someone’s kid to grow up and break hearts? And that’s going to happen because he’s good looking?
I don’t think we’re giving the next generation enough credit. Yes, young men will break hearts. So will young women. Hopefully, it won’t be because they’re eye candy, but because they’re in a loving relationship that happened to end.
Both these cultural clichés, one tailored to little girls and the other to little boys, have long outlived their “cuteness.” It’s time to build up our kids, whatever their gender, for things that truly count: their kind heartedness, not their ability to break hearts; their confidence, not their propensity to cower in the shadows.
The next time I’m tempted to recommend that a new dad purchase a shotgun, I’m going to hold that thought and dig a little deeper. I’m going to replace clichés with a genuine compliment about making the world a brighter, lovelier place with their new unique addition.

Your Family's Guide to Observing the Solar Eclipse Like Pros

Here’s what you need to know about experiencing the incredible phenomenon of a total eclipse with your kids.

This summer, the moon will pass between the sun and the Earth so that its shadow completely blocks the sun’s rays, creating a total solar eclipse.
My family has been planning to observe the eclipse for almost a year now. We have combined excitement, adventure, science, and storytelling to help our children understand the event. NASA has been our primary resource for all things eclipse related.
Here’s what you need to know about experiencing this incredible phenomenon with children.

When will the solar eclipse occur?

Monday, August 21, 2017. The next total solar eclipse in the United States will be in April of 2024. This will be the only time to experience an event like this with your children while they are still children. The next time the moon’s shadow completely blocks out the sun, your kids will be adults.

Where will it happen?

This interactive map can help you locate the path of the eclipse. The path of totality spans across the continental U.S. from Oregon to South Carolina, but all of North America will experience at least some of this incredible sight. This video shows what the eclipse will look like across various points on the continental U.S. and other locations in North America.
In celebration of the eclipse, there are countless events popping up across the country, including ones sponsored by NASA, public libraries, National Parks, and zoos.
If you are outside of the path of totality, you don’t have to miss out! You can still tune in to experience this incredible event. NASA will be streaming live video of eclipse coverage on their website and social media feeds.

What do you need?

The entire eclipse process is a lengthy one, lasting approximately two-and-a-half hours from when the moon begins to partially cover the sun, through totality, ending when the moon passes completely on the other side.
If you are observing as a family and not at a special event location, be prepared to occupy the time. Bring water, snacks, and fun activities. Fun activities can be anything from favorite books, games, or toys to eclipse related science or art projects. Also, be sure to bring equipment to view the eclipse safely!

Safety first

Eye safety is critical when experiencing the eclipse. There is a brief window when can you view the total eclipse – the moon surrounded by the sun’s corona – with the naked eye. At all other times, it is unsafe to look directly at the sun.
Eclipse glasses are the only safe way to directly view the eclipse. When purchasing eclipse glasses, be sure to check that they meet the ISO 12312-2 international safety standard for direct solar viewing. Some events may provide eclipse glasses for safe viewing.
Eclipse glasses need to be worn any time the eyes are exposed to the sun’s rays or anytime outside of that moment of totality. There are a few tell-tale signs to let you know when it is safe to take off your glasses, and when you should immediately put them back on again. Knowing what to expect can help keep you safe.
There are many indirect methods to view the eclipse, including ones you can make yourself. Solar viewing projectors are easy to make and have fantastic history. This pinhole projector can be printed either in 2D (on paper) or in 3D!

Helping kids understand the solar eclipse

Sometimes astrological concepts are a little difficult for kids – and adults – to wrap their minds around. Visual models and playful activities are always great tools to illustrate abstract concepts.
This activity uses a ping pong ball to represent the moon and a basketball to represent the sun. When there is a large distance between the ping pong ball and the basketball, the person holding the ping pong ball can “block out” the basketball, the same way that the moon can block out the sun during a total solar eclipse.

Have fun!

This is definitely a once-in-a-childhood experience, if not a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Make it memorable! NASA has many suggestions on their site, including time capsules and dancing along the path.
Take time to learn about the human history of eclipses. Make some predictions on the shape of the corona and record what you see after viewing the eclipse. You could even create your own solar eclipse playlist!
Most importantly, let your children weigh in on how they want to celebrate or commemorate this event. Now is the perfect time to create a special family tradition.

The Childhood Illness You Cannot See

No one ever mentions that children, even at very young ages, can suffer from depression

Of all the potential illnesses, deformities, or complications that you worry your child will encounter from the moment you find out that you are pregnant, Major Depressive Disorder is usually not one that crosses your mind. You read-up on and are well informed by your doctors of potential postpartum depression for mothers. But no one ever mentions that children, even at very young ages, can suffer from depression.
When the nurse or midwife presents your seemingly healthy baby to you, you check out their 10 little fingers and toes, kiss their head, and snuggle them close. You go on to celebrate each milestone they reach as a baby, a toddler, and a small child. Together, you experience the highs and lows of growing up – those so called “growing pains” we all endure.
Then suddenly, at the age of 10 or shortly thereafter, your perfect child attempts to commit suicide. You are blindsided. People often say, “How did the parents not know?” and “I would have known if it was my kid.”
The truth is, yes, parents do know when their child is different, and yes, they do take it seriously and try everything in their power to help them – to provide them peace, comfort, and happiness at all costs. In fact, many times the whole family participates in receiving therapy. Literally no stone goes left unturned to try to get to the bottom of why their perfect precious child struggles socially and emotionally.
 
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It is almost more common now for children to suffer from anxiety, depression, ADHD, or some variation of autism spectrum disorder than any other childhood illness. The reasons for the drastic rise in social and emotional disorders are unclear. Some studies suggest the increased use of mobile electronic devices. Kids are exposed to social media, the internet, video games, etc. at much younger ages and use them for extended periods of time.
Other studies suggest genetic components of these disorders. Children with parents who suffer from depression, addictions, or anxiety are likely predisposed to develop similar tendencies at some point during their life.
There is also the school of thought that these kids are extraordinary or gifted. They are so intellectually gifted that their intelligence is beyond comprehension for a typical human brain.
Regardless of the underlying groundwork, these kids all tend to be bullied by peers, misunderstood by adults, and categorized by the established, old-fashioned school system as defiant, bad kids. For many parents with gifted kids, these events are the catalyst for years of struggle, anxiety, and depression.
I am speaking from personal experience. I am a scientist, a teacher, and most importantly, a mom. My son was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder at the age of eight. He frequently referred to himself as stupid, a worthless kid, having no friends, and felt that he didn’t deserve to live.
By the age of 10, he had attempted suicide twice, even though we were all in weekly therapy, working with teachers to provide extra assistance at school, talking to his peer’s parents to keep him involved in play dates, talking to coaches to keep him involved in sports, and limiting screen time as suggested by doctors.
I hate to say none of that mattered. Maybe it did to some extent. But when your child is so depressed that they are determined to end their life, you spend countless hours racking your brain trying to figure out what you missed. What else could you, his mom, have done to make a difference?
There is nothing that makes you feel more lonely, scared, and insignificant than your child suffering, especially from an illness or disorder that you can’t see and that most people have no level of understanding.
As a close to our story, we were fortunate and did catch my son in time to save his life. He spent six weeks in a children’s hospital. He now finally understands, or is at least beginning to understand, his feelings are not his fault and that they are not permanent. He engages in intense therapy, and we have found a medication (at a low dose) that helps him control his anxieties.
We work hard every day as a family to express our feelings, both happy and sad ones, in the most positive ways possible. Most importantly, we continue to remind ourselves that we do the best we can until we know better.
And then we do better.