Determined…to Lighten Up

Lately, I’ve seriously resolved to take myself less seriously. It’s a paradox, isn’t it? Just like so many aspects of life. As time goes on, I’m finding that many age-old oxymoronic mantras ring true: less is more, pride brings low, humility brings high, giving is receiving, and so on.
As I find myself five-and-a-half years into marriage and two years into parenthood, I’m creating my own paradoxical saying. I’m determined to not be so determined, or I’m serious about being less serious (whichever you prefer).
I find striving for control a natural instinct. Though the motives of my heart may be pure (e.g. – “I just want what’s best for my family.”), the ripple effects of this habitual behavior in our home are almost palpable. It discourages, undermines, and steals away from what could have been an otherwise pleasant situation.
Manipulating the environment around me to be “just so” tends to go hand-in-hand with taking life too seriously in all the wrong ways, as well as fretting over outcomes that are beyond my control. Allow me to provide a few examples:
Correcting the way my husband loads the dishwasher.
Over-analyzing something he said innocently in passing.
Harping on things I want to get “done” around the house at a time that is only convenient for me.
Worrying excessively about my son’s milestones and whether he’s meeting them.
Comparing him to other children.
Being anxious over my every action as a mother, while spiraling down a wormhole of fear as I consider how each expression and word spoken might impact him as an adult.
(Cue: loud exhale)
There is a time and place to consider and address (almost) all of the examples above. I’m not suggesting that forsaking healthy order and parental responsibilities is the way to go. But letting these petty instances become the soundtrack in my home will suck the joy right out of the people living here.
To what end? That has been the question I’ve been asking myself lately. Why do I do this, and what is it all for in the long run?
Ultimately, the dishes will get cleaned, even if the way in which it happens is not the most efficient. My husband and I will hurt one another’s feelings, whether we intend to or not. Things around the house will get done, and it’s okay if it’s not on my preferred timeline. My son will reach his milestones at his own pace. He already possesses strengths and weaknesses, just like every other human being.
Yet, here’s the doozy for me lately: Not everything I say and do is going to powerfully impact my child. Sadly, it is pretty guaranteed that we’re all going to mess up our kids. This is unavoidable, so I can let that fear go right now.
We’re also going to do some really amazing things for them. Ironically, I think that the more we try to be perfect, the more we’ll probably mess them up.
When I take myself less seriously and simply be me – as a wife, mom, friend, and whatever other role I play in life – I’m reminded that I’m the best wife for my husband and he is the best husband for me because we intentionally chose each other, regardless of whatever our fleeting emotions might tell us.
Similarly, I’m the best mom my son will ever have. He was given to me and I was given to him purposefully, because we suit one another in spite of whatever challenges come our way.
So I will continually try to let go of controlling each facet of my life. I might even resolve to enjoy the imperfections as a sort of beautiful chaos. I aim to free up my husband and son to be themselves while providing them the extra respect, love, grace, patience, and understanding that I hope to receive from them.
I’m determined to stop wasting energy on the insignificant and the inevitable. It’s time to lighten up.

Like Water on Waves

This is a submission in our monthly contest. November’s theme is Gratitude. Enter your own here!
Dear Daughters,
When I was 13, my step-father told me that victims of attacks – women – were attacked because they’d asked for it. If you ask her, almost every woman could recite to you a litany of personal micro-aggressions. Mine is not unique, and yours won’t be either.
Much later in my life, when I discovered I would give birth to you, my daughters, I felt my duty to raise you in a world that objectifies and dismisses you, become a task I was unqualified for. How could I teach you to withstand this onslaught against your body, when I was not able to do the same for myself? When I learned that you were girls, still safe in the haven of my body, a place where no one could touch you without permission, reduce you to the parts that make you girl, and imprint on you the idea that you are less, I wished to find the same safety for you in the physical world.
You are too young to begin recording a lifelong list of transgressions against your character. So I am speaking to you not as your mother, but as your sister, a woman who stands beside you and says, I’m listening; I hear you.
You told me once, “My friend said he was better than me because he’s a boy,” and you lowered your head in shame.
Does a drop of water on a wave know its forward momentum? Imagine, daughters, the potential of every single woman, like water on the wave, if she could gather forces from her sisters around her. Energy builds along a line, moving from droplet to droplet to disrupt a calm surface. If we, as women, push this energy forward, one moment at a time, we become the wave that crests and shatters back against the shoreline.
You said, “Today on the playground a boy kissed me three times even though I told him to stop.” Even though the boy was much younger, four or five and I tried to make excuses for him, –perhaps he is struggling to learn his boundaries, perhaps his mother saw and quickly reprimanded him – I was filled with a sense of dread.
My role as your mother is to live by example. I am determined to show you the good in the world – the men who will march beside you, and the women persisting in a roomful of male politicians – while simultaneously teaching you how to stand against the jagged outcrops in defiance.
In Kindergarten you said, “My friend showed me his private parts,” and I gripped the steering wheel of my car. My mind began to churn against the unconscious cultural rhetoric: children are exploring identity and relationships; no physical harm was done; boys will be boys. I caught a glimpse of you in the rear-view mirror. Your face was pale and your eyes were filled with shame.
You admit you wish you were a boy because they get the best jobs and live the best lives. If you become a woman you will eventually become a mother, and this terrifies you. I am despondent that I have not been able to provide you enough examples of women who persevered.
I am a body divided. I teach you practical things like how to tie your shoes and brush your teeth. At the breakfast table, over bowls of soggy cereal, or in the car on the way to the grocery store, I attempt to fortify your character. I tell you to be polite but firm, respectful but courageous. I say, use your voice, your vocabulary, articulate and command respect; be quiet, this is not a time for you to speak. I give you a model of contradictions to follow, and am terrified.
As your mother, I am sorry that I could not protect you from these instances that have lessened you. As a woman, I stand here to be a witness to your life, and remind you that you are heard. My job as your mother, as a woman, is more urgent now. I am here to protect and love you, to shape your character, raise strong independent thinkers who demand equality, who, when they hear the common voice croak the words meant to subdue and demean, have learned to shout louder, and be the crash of the wave as it breaks on the rock. Be like the water on the waves, my girls; push forward.
Love,
Mom

Women vs. Other Women and the Myth of the Zero-Sum Game

While she’s waiting, she begins to question the very worth of this victory: If she’s so triumphant why is she alone?

A woman’s primary nemesis is a scale – not the bathroom variety, though its adversarial powers are fierce – I am talking about a balance scale, the kind whose likeness is etched in bronze outside a courthouse. The kind of scale that compares the weight of one thing to another and registers the slightest sliver of inequity by dramatically tipping its arm. A woman imagines herself standing alone in the little gold dish on one side of the scale. She is weighted, grounded, secure. She wins if she is more, and she is more only if the other side is less. Like a zero-sum game, the outcome is distributive, never integrative, never shared. All or nothing, winner take all.
In the second gold dish, on the opposite side of the balance arm, stand other women. Women she knows, women she loves, women she has never met yet knows intimate details about. Women who hurt her feelings back in high school, women who pretend to be interested when she talks, yet can’t bring themselves to ask her about her life. Women who begrudge her success in whatever realm it may be: another pregnancy, weight loss, a promotion, a good manicure. Women who complain about her behind her back, or don’t invite her, or don’t bother to learn her name. Women she is “friends” with, but who won’t give her the satisfaction of “liking” the pictures she posts of her daughter’s first tooth, her 5k run, or her 10th anniversary.
These other women, they weigh against her, weaken her, upset her advantage. Standing alone in her little gold dish, she worries their gain will be her loss. She becomes suspicious, reading maltreatment into motives and assuming the worst. She grows wary and defensive and, by turns, isolated and disconnected. She has invested so much time and effort into this notion of measuring herself against another – surely, it means something. It has to mean something. Only one woman can be the best mom, the most organized, the fittest, can have the cleanest house or the smartest kids. Only one woman can tip the scale.
In the interest of self-preservation, she retaliates, scrutinizing her competition, always looking for a crack. She judges, she’s sarcastic, she’s critical, she arms herself with snark. She withholds compliments lest they detract from her own appearance and give the other side an edge. If there’s a finite amount of admiration or approval in the world, she’s not going to waste it on others. Classic strategy of a zero-sum game, remember?
She plays like she’s been taught, mimicking the catty, spiteful maneuvers of effective women everywhere. She grows a second face to wear, like her mother and her mother’s friends, and keeps it by the door in a skin-deep jar. Beauty, her most valuable asset, is the commodity she traffics. If she wants to win favor – men’s favor, in particular – this is how she must act. Girls compete for self-worth, right? That’s just what they do. That’s what the cosmetics industry, soap operas, “Real Housewives,” Miss Universe Pageants, Angelina vs. Jen, and every season of “The Bachelor” espouse: The only way to win is to make them lose.
She wants to win, and let’s say she does. She tips the scale, and finally, after all that fighting, she can rest on her laurels and receive her prize. She waits in her little gold dish, tired and depleted, thinking “What on earth could be worth all this conflict?” She waits, rehearsing a gracious acceptance speech, and she wishes she had someone to share her good news. She can hear the other women from across the long arm of the balance scale, laughing and talking as if nothing were lost. While she’s waiting, she begins to question the very worth of this victory: If she’s so triumphant why is she alone?
She wonders how winning at the other’s expense could be considered a victory at all.
Still no one comes, and she sears with the growing realization she’s been played. She has been duped by the myth that building someone else up must come at a cost to her, for it doesn’t. Life just isn’t a zero-sum game. There is not a limited supply of goodness and beauty, success or happiness.
The truth is the other women grew exponentially as they gave, their strength increasing with every share. Competing with them only kept her apart. This scale – this rudimentary, archaic device – this scale is her opponent, not the creatures on it. Rivaling did nothing but reinforce the status quo, a status quo that dictates aggressive self-promotion and pits the women against each other, a status quo that levies vulnerability and rewards isolation. Why does she invest in it?
Luckily, there is a way out. An easy, obvious, immediate way out.
She withdraws her fortune from the zero-sum bank, climbs out of the little gold dish, and joins the other women.

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.”

Why Your Response to Your Baby's Cries Are Hardwired

A new study found that infant cries activate certain brain regions connected with movement and speech in mothers.

Few things tear up my nerves as much as hearing my baby cry in the car. It doesn’t seem to matter if my infant is fed, freshly diapered, and otherwise content – the second I strap him into his car seat, he falls apart, and sometimes I do, too, because what’s worse than hearing your baby wail but not being able to stop it? After failed attempts to soothe him from the front seat, I end up white-knuckling the steering wheel, with my heart racing fast and my mind made up that I’m never leaving the house again. It goes against every instinct I have not to pick up my poor baby, but of course I can’t hold him in the car (which is why he’s crying in the first place).
Turns out there’s a valid reason for my car-ride stress. In a new study from NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), researchers found that infant cries activate certain brain regions connected with movement and speech in mothers. The study team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to conduct behavioral and brain-imaging studies on a group of 684 new mothers in the following 11 countries: Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Cameroon, France, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kenya, South Korea, and the United States. In the study:

“…Researchers observed and recorded one hour of interaction between the mothers and their 5-month-old babies at home. The team analyzed whether mothers responded to their baby’s cries by showing affection, distracting, nurturing (like feeding or diapering), picking up and holding, or talking. Regardless of which country they came from, mothers were likely to pick up and hold or talk to their crying infant.”

Moreover, the team discovered through fMRI studies of other groups of women that hearing infant cries activated similar brain regions in both new and experienced mothers. The crying stimulated their supplementary motor area, linked to the intention to move and speak; the inferior frontal regions, related to the production of speech; and the superior temporal regions, associated with sound processing.
According to these findings, my urgent impulse to jump in the backseat of the car, scoop up my baby, and calm him with kisses is a hard-wired response (but also, obviously, a terrible idea). When we’re not in the car, however, this need to console my baby, driven by parts of my brain related to movement and speech, is beneficial, since babies need attentive caregivers for healthy development. This study could thus help professionals better understand, identify, and help people at risk of being inattentive or harmful caregivers to young children.
The consistency of behavior and underlying brain activity in the study sample made up of women from all over the world suggests that mothers have an intrinsic response to their babies’ crying. So I guess I can’t blame the anxiety it causes me (solely) on my high-strung nature, or the intense child-centric society in which I live. I suppose I also can’t blame my husband for putting headphones on in the car when the crying gets to be too much, because what this study has also done is expand upon previous research showing how the brains of males and females respond differently to infant crying.
While I’ll continue to avoid any nonessential car rides with my little man until he grows out of this phase (which he will, right?!), it helps to have a better sense of why it’s so distressing and to comprehend on a cognitive level what’s happening when I listen to him cry.
Now, if only I could find a study that reveals the trick to making babies love (or at least tolerate) the dreaded car seat.

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.

I Wouldn’t Wish Labor Pains on My Worst Enemy, But I Would on My Husband

Without the benefit of actual experience, it’s impossible to develop the true understanding that empathy requires.

I wouldn’t wish labor pains on my worst enemy. But I would wish them on my husband.
To be fair, I don’t have that many personal enemies. The mean girl in high school? Ex-boyfriend? They don’t deserve 12 hours of back labor that leaves them feeling like their hips are stuck in a vice. That jerk who cut me off in traffic? I hope she never knows what it’s like to vomit between blood-curdling screams.
The blinding pain, the all-encompassing agony – I don’t think anyone should have to go through that.
Except my husband.
What I wouldn’t give for him to experience labor just as I did.
Here’s the thing. He’s a good husband. The best, really. This isn’t some personal vendetta against him. It’s not like he was off romancing a mistress while I sweated through contraction after contraction. He held my hand, told me how well I was doing, and texted family with updates for hours.
And I hated him for it.
It was the same throughout each of my pregnancies. I was grateful when he gave me a foot rub, but what I really wanted was for him to know what it felt like to have swollen, throbbing feet. Sure, he was sympathetic as he hoisted me out of bed each morning. But I would have preferred that he fully understand the humiliation I felt at not being able to accomplish such a simple task myself.
When my breasts ballooned to triple their normal size, I was grateful for the cooling cabbage leaves he ran out to get (even if they were purple and stained my chest). What I truly needed, though, was for him to know what it was like to have a tiny life solely dependent on something you still weren’t quite sure how to give them.
My husband doled out sympathy for every pregnancy, birth, and postpartum ailment that came my way. But what I really needed was empathy.
Everyone knows that empathy is the trendy version of sympathy. It’s the one you are supposed to offer. But without the benefit of actual experience, it’s impossible to develop the true understanding that empathy requires. My husband could believe me when I told him my pregnancy and breast-feeding struggles, but he had no idea what they actually felt like.
Unfortunately, even talking to other moms doesn’t often provide us with the deep understanding we so desire. Conversations tend to head in one of two directions.
The “I had it way worse – why would you even complain?” exchange:
You: “I was in labor for 16 hours and pushed for another three.”
Playground mom: “Oh I wish I was in labor for only 16 hours! I was in active labor for six days, had back labor the entire time, and one contraction that lasted a solid 24 hours. I pushed for five hours while on a conference call for work. You don’t know how lucky you are!”
Or the “I can totally relate! Except I can’t.” exchange:
You: “Bed rest is really mentally and physically difficult for me.”
Other playground mom: “Oh, I know how you feel! My husband would cook me breakfast in bed on Saturday mornings and, honestly, sometimes I just kinda got bored laying there waiting for him. So hard, but such a blessing!”
You: No comment.
We crave someone who can fully share our experiences, and in turn, validate what we have been through. At the same time, we want recognition of the pain and difficulties that are uniquely ours, without having them watered down by comparisons.
More than wanting to be understood, even, we want to be appreciated. And on some level, we know that even the most sincere “thank you for all that you do” feels a bit inadequate when we think of all the aches and pains we didn’t even bother to clue our partners in on.
My husband will never fully understand what I went through with each of my pregnancies and births. But he knows the rest of the story: the sleepless nights with a child who wants to be walked up and down the halls, the panic the first time you rush your child to the E.R. with an undiagnosed allergic reaction, the pride and nerves you feel when they first hoist a backpack onto their shoulders and wave good-bye.
Occasionally my blood boils when I think of how he technically didn’t have any parenting responsibilities between the moment of conception and the moment of birth (and enjoyed a significantly lighter workload than me for the first few months thereafter). But the more years that come between the birth of my first son and the present day, I realize what a small percentage of parenting that truly was.
My husband might not ever be able to grant me true empathy. But I’ll be okay as long as he believes me when I tell him how difficult it all is.
And, yes, I plan on telling him about it for many years to come.

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.

Teaching My Son About Sex in the Age of Harvey Weinstein

I ended the conversation by asking for his trust – that I be the person he turns to if he has any questions or concerns about sex, now or in the future.

It’s an unseasonably warm Friday afternoon in coastal Maine, and I’ve brought lunch to our back porch for my eight-year-old son and his spritely female friend whom he has known most of his life. They’ve just come up from the tidal shoreline. The air is salty and thick.
I venture back inside to retrieve drinks and, when I return, I am met with giggling and sheepish grinning between the two old friends. It isn’t hard to imagine what they might have been discussing as I’ve gotten used to observing them unfurl so many of life’s mysteries together.
I have been anticipating a conversation about the mechanics of sex with my son for several years now. I had wanted to follow his lead, hoping to answer any questions he might have and then segueing into the details that I would like for him to know. I have wanted to normalize sex for my son in a way that was never done for me so that he might enjoy this vital connection throughout his life in a healthy way, without the hang-ups of shame and disassociation that so many of us have had to shed.
In my adolescence, my mother – while folding clothing together in our laundry room – spoke vaguely of a man planting a seed in a woman.
My father once made a comment about my holding a penny between my knees at all times and referred to me as a “fallen woman” (in apparent jest) when he found out I was sharing an apartment with my boyfriend after graduating from college.
There was no eye contact between any of us in these off-hand and uncomfortable attempts at providing information about the facts of life. There was no mention of love or connection or protection. There was no follow-up, no books to study. I was entirely unprepared as a young woman – as a human – for what it would mean to enter into my sexuality.
For a boy so deeply curious about the inner workings of all things in nature, culture, and even politics – don’t get him started on Donald Trump – my son has been remarkably indifferent, or perhaps reticent, in his inquiry about how babies are made and what our “private parts” have to do with it all. He’s all about being a boy, jokingly intensifying bodily sounds and functions. But outside of speaking about animals mating, he has shown little interest in learning about the human equivalent.
I’ve been teaching him about sexuality in subtle ways from the start. Our language around the body is anatomically correct, and we have a firm policy about listening to the “no’s” we receive from others. I have established this practice with the understanding that honoring physical boundaries now will translate into respectful treatment of partners’ bodies later in life. I feel a particular responsibility in this regard as a mother of boys and as a woman who recently chimed in, “me too” on my social media account.
When my son falls asleep at night, I sit on the edge of his bed, rubbing his back and neck. Sometimes he will convince me to rub his legs and feet, which can feel a little indulgent at times. He directs me to his sore muscles, so I place extra attention there. In these quiet moments, he tests out what it means to share his inner workings and thoughts while nestled in a bed with a woman at his side who loves him with every cell of her being.
I listen intently to what he has to say and engage in this tenderness of touch so that he may one day experience such healthy intimacy as a mature young man in the embrace of someone he loves. I work hard to preserve his connection with his feelings – to help him decipher them and share them verbally so as not to turn on the switch that perpetuates the male tendency to use sex alone as the sole means for connection and comfort.
Back on the porch, I asked the two friends what made them giggle so. My son indicated that they might have been talking about something inappropriate. They had found a couple of horseshoe crabs stuck together down by the shore, and his friend had said that human beings do a similar thing – stick themselves together – to make a baby.
In the brief pause before I spoke, I took in my son’s face – one part cherub, one part Huck Finn – and noticed how he peered at me squarely in the eyes without shame or hesitation in anticipation of my response. I absorbed how comfortable and confident he felt coming to me with this inquiry.
I told him that she was exactly right, that we humans do put ourselves together in a similar way at times. I assured him that I wanted to share everything he wanted to know on the topic, that families like to provide these details to their own children, and so we would have that conversation very soon and in privacy. But if they had any pressing questions, I would be happy to answer those.
They both looked at me and smiled with ease. No questions.
On Sunday afternoon, the house was quiet, and I peeked my head into where my son was working on a drawing. I asked him if we could pick up our conversation, and he suggested nonchalantly that we talk while he continued working. I agreed. As soon as I began to share my thoughts, he turned away from his drawing and looked at me head-on.
I engaged my son in some guessing about what our various parts are meant to do. It turned out he already knew what went where. I was not surprised, but happy to confirm (in anatomically correct language) what he’d already heard in cruder terms at school.
Then we discussed the things that really matter. We spoke about the love and warmth involved in “human mating.” I assured him that, while he will likely hear all sorts of things suggesting that sex is somehow dirty or bad or something to hide, it is actually a beautiful miracle to be cherished between two people.
I ended the conversation by asking for his trust – that I be the person he turns to if he has any questions or concerns about sex, now or in the future. It felt like any other conversation we’ve ever had about the things he needs to know as a human being new to this earth without a map.
I called my sister later that night. We celebrated another hurdle in forging new ground as parents better equipped than our parents were to nurture our children’s emotional and physical well-being. We know that, if they could have, they would have provided us with more information about sex, and we would have learned about the value of our bodies – our rights and responsibilities as women – in less painful ways.
A few days later, my son came home from school and told me about a boy making a joke about breasts using jocular hand gestures. In all earnestness, he said, “ He doesn’t respect women’s bodies.”
I did a little happy dance inside and stifled a smile.
I don’t anticipate that my son will always be so perfectly respectful. I don’t pretend that he will never test out some objectifying behaviors, which are so frequently modeled in our culture. But for now, I feel assured that he is on the path toward learning that sex is something he can discuss openly with me.
I like to imagine that what I’ve shared will live inside him and be available when the time is right. I like to imagine that the prospect of his sexuality causing him or his partners shame or pain will be something he can never understand.

A Sexual Assault Pun is Not a Halloween Costume

I thought maybe we if we all contacted Spirit Halloween, they’d take this costume off their shelves next year:

All the #MeToo headlines in recent weeks have definitely caught my attention and sharpened my Sexual Assault-Dar. I thought maybe we if we all contacted Spirit Halloween, they’d take this costume off their shelves next year:

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about Halloween. I don’t find a lot of things inappropriate. I took my kids to this pumpkin massacre scene earlier in the day, and we all had a good laugh at the one pumpkin lawn-mowing the other pumpkin, whose bloody orange guts were spilling out everywhere. We took selfies and high fived.

But my daughter’s almost 10, and while she’s beginning to notice that girls’ costumes tend to involve short skirts and bathing suits, how the hell am I supposed to explain the rapey gynecologist costume to her? In a couple years, she’ll figure out that her looks are where our culture wants her to put her focus. But we can draw the line at the light riff on sexual assault, can’t we?
It takes a lot to shield her from the headlines about Harvey Weinstein and the other men being exposed in this wave of revelations about past and current abuses. I somehow kept her from knowing about the recent Las Vegas shooting – but the next one may have to be confronted.
We want to preserve the innoncence of our childrens’ experience in this world as long as possible. We are here to be their rocks, to keep their impressionable brains developing on a vector unblemished by the trauma of shootings, natural disasters, and sexual predation.
She’s old enough to process that there is racism in this world. A proud understanding of Rosa Parks’ bravery could inspire her to be strong and stand up for what’s just, to treat her neighbors with sensitivity and respect.
She’s old enough to know that hurricanes are a reality, that people on islands which bore the brunt of the storm need our help. She understands that the oceans are warming and that scientists think our environmental impact is a part of the problem. She knows we had a hurricane here in New York when she was little, and we know we can always find ways to be safe if another one comes.
Somehow explaining that Dr. Howie Feltersnatch (how he felt her snatch) is a joke about a doctor who touches women’s private parts with a creepy grin feels like a conversation we don’t have to have.
Spirit Halloween, your seasonal pop-up shops with overpriced pink hairspray and employee only bathrooms bring us much joy. But you can do better than this.
Get this crap off your shelves!
Tell Spirit Halloween what you think via Twitter or email customer service here.