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.”

How Babies Uncovered the Mystery About Our Common Fear of Spiders

A fear of spiders is something we are all born with, according to a new study.

Ghosts, skeletons, and vampires may give us the creeps this Halloween, but a fear of spiders is something we are all born with, according to a new study.
This fear, technically called arachnophobia (as the 1990 movie by the same name made famous), can cause crippling anxiety for some people and impact their daily life. For years, scientists have been trying to figure out why so many people are afraid of spiders, even in places where they hardly ever come in contact with them. While some experts assumed that we learn this fear from our surroundings as children, others believed it was innate.
Now scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences discovered that the fear is quite real and, in fact, hereditary. During their research, the scientists showed pictures of spiders along with more typically pleasing images, like flowers and fish, to a group of six-month-old infants. The scientists noticed that the children’s pupils dilated significantly when they looked at the spiders. Dilated pupils are a typical measure of the fight-or-flight stress response. The average pupil dilations were 0.14 mm when viewing the spiders, but only 0.03 mm for the flowers – a considerable reaction.
Remarkably, past studies found that babies did not have this same reaction when shown pictures of rhinos, bears, or other typically dangerous animals. This latest research, therefore, proves that babies as young as six months felt stressed out from looking at spiders long before they could have been taught to have this reaction from their parents or through experience.
The research team went on to conclude that arachnophobia has evolutionary origins. There is a part of our brain that causes us to identify certain objects as dangerous so we can react quickly in order to survive. This inherited stress reaction ultimately led to humans associate spiders with fear and unpleasantness, and that we must avoid them at all costs.
According to evolutionary biologist Gordon H. Orians in his book “Snakes, Sunrises, and Shakespeare”, many responses to our environment throughout history have been rooted in our survival mode. These experiences led to some of the ingrained, instinctual fears that are genetically programmed in us today.
Other common fears include snakes, microbes, pointed objects, leopard spots, rugged terrain, and eyes. Maybe it’s time to stop singing the “itsy bitsy spider” song to your littles, and definitely don’t dress up like a tarantula for Halloween.
In all seriousness, though, it’s crucial to understand where certain fears stem from so that we can address them properly with our children. Talk to your kids about their worries; if they bottle them up, it will only get worse. Let them know their concerns are common and that others experience them, too. Show that you understand what they’re going through by sharing your own personal anxiety stories, and reassure them that you’re there to support them whenever they become frightened.
It may take some simple distraction techniques to help kids overcome their fear instincts. If it becomes so bad that their fears interfere with their daily life, you may want to talk to your pediatrician.

Solving the Addiction Crisis Begins With Breaking the Stigma

The stigma around addiction has enormous consequences, not just for our health care system, but how our entire culture views addictive behavior.

This article is the second in a 12-part series about the U.S. addiction crisis. In the interest of compassionate conversation and eliminating stigma, we’ve chosen language that’s cultivated by the Research Recovery Institute and hope it inspires you to as well.
The U.S. drug crisis is impacting everyone, from young children to first responders to librarians. In grappling with this overwhelming life-or-death problem, we may have overlooked one group – drug users – and the way our language generates stigma that only fuels the epidemic.
In his report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health, former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy argues for a “cultural shift” in how we approach addiction. “For far too long,” Murthy writes, “too many in our country have viewed addiction as a moral failing.” The consequence of this definition is an “added burden of shame that has made people with substance use disorders less likely to come forward and seek help.”
The way in which addiction is framed has enormous consequences, not just for how our health care system treats addiction, but how our entire culture views addictive behavior.

“Choice” has consequences

When addiction is framed as a choice, drug treatment is not a medical necessity, but an elective procedure. Historically, that has meant that drug treatment and recovery programs were prohibitively expensive for many people.
Prior to 2014, only one in 10 addicts sought treatment. That low treatment rate was certainly related to limited access to care. It was also related to the stigma that those in the healthcare profession held toward addicts. One study found that healthcare workers have lower regard for their addicted patients than patients with other conditions.
The choice model doesn’t only impact treatment options for addiction. The phrase “war on drugs” suggests that drug abusers are bad guys who have taken the wrong side. Sentencing laws group drug users alongside others deemed to have moral failings sufficiently poisonous to require removal from society.
“Choice” makes it simple to deny treatment to or promote the incarceration of people who elect to become addicted. The choice metaphor has also allowed anyone who hasn’t made the same choice to ignore the problem. Choice implies blame, and this blame has helped us avoid taking any societal responsibility for the drug crisis.
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Parent Co. partnered with Aspenti because they know that carrying the weight of the addiction crisis is everyone’s responsibility.

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How the disease model reduces stigma

The disease model of addiction shifts our national focus from blame to recovery. Under a disease model, addicts are not immoral. They are ill.
Under the Affordable Care Act, addiction treatment became an “essential benefit,” meaning that 2.8 million people suffering from addiction now have coverage. That coverage – especially in states that accepted Medicare expansions – is almost certainly saving lives, as it now covers not only inpatient detox, but also counseling and medication.
Under a disease model, addicts are not criminals. They’re citizens in need of assistance. Portugal, faced with similar drug problems as the U.S., redefined addiction as a disease both medically and legally, expanding medical treatment and decriminalizing drug use. Rather than jailing drug users, Portugal brings them to hearings with social workers.
When drug users are not afraid of arrest, they are also more likely to seek treatment. Now, the rate of drug-related death in Portugal is six per million. In the United States, it’s 312 per million.
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The language of addiction

Efforts to replace the language of choice with the language of disease are already improving access to treatment. But this is not the only language that needs to change.
We don’t talk about heart transplant patients as being “dirty,” but we do talk about drug addicts that way. We don’t talk about cancer patients “relapsing” when their cancers return, but addicts relapse all the time. We don’t demand that people suffering from cancer apologize for their cancers or that people who have had a heart transplant apologize for their diseased organs, even if these people exhibited many dangerous behaviors that contributed to their health problems.
The very word “addict” is a problem. We don’t describe people with cancer as “cancers,” or people who have had heart transplants as “heart transplants.” When we use the word “addict,” we reduce a person to an illness. That term creates stigma despite efforts to view addiction as a medical problem.
Look back to the preceding paragraphs and notice the use of “addict,” and “drug abuser.” Although those paragraphs argue for a compassionate response to addiction, they unintentionally heap blame and shame on people suffering from it.
The Recovery Research Institute‘s Addiction-ary promotes more specific and compassionate addiction vocabulary. Taking its cue from mental health advocates who have shifted the national conversation from “the disabled” to “people with disabilities,” the RRI advocates “person-first” language.
Terms like “abuser” and “addict” define a person in terms of addiction. This definition generates stigma that leads to lower quality care and even discourages people from seeking treatment. Changing our vocabulary to person-first language can help reduce stigma by textually reminding ourselves that people suffering from substance use disorders are just that: people. Not “junkies” or “abusers” or “addicts.” People.
The RRI also advocates avoiding language that implies blame. Instead of “lapse” or “slip,” the RRI recommends more medically-appropriate terms like “resumed” or “recurred.”
Using person-first, blame-neutral language is a good start. Yet one of the greatest challenges comes from a word we probably don’t even think about: “drug.”
The word “drug” is stunningly unspecific. Culturally, it carries many negative connotations, whether the subject is “illicit drugs” or “drug companies.” The word is so stigmatized that many will often reject drugs even when they would be medically beneficial.
Part of better addiction treatment and recovery is greater specificity. Instead of “drug,” the Addiction-ary suggests “medication” when referring to a properly used drug, and “non-medically used psychoactive substance” when referring to illicit or improperly used drugs.

Treating substance use disorder as a moral issue

Addiction is a moral issue, but not for people with substance use disorders. When our society views substance use disorder as a sign of a flawed moral code, we absolve ourselves of any societal obligation to help.
Murthy describes addiction as a “moral test,” not for people with substance use disorders, but for all Americans: “Are we as a nation willing to take on an epidemic that is causing great human suffering and economic loss? Are we able to live up to that most fundamental obligation we have as human beings: to care for one another?”
Person-first. Blame-neutral. Drug-free. Choosing our words more carefully and demanding that media, healthcare, and research organizations do the same will help decrease the stigma of substance use disorders and pave the way to recovery.
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Parent Co. partnered with Aspenti because they know that carrying the weight of the addiction crisis is everyone’s responsibility.

 
 

ICU I See Me

I gestured that I wanted a pen and paper. “What happened?” was the first question I asked as I did my best not to bite through the tube.

I woke up with a tube down my throat. Someone – my husband? – told me to stay calm, and to bite down on the tube if I needed to. I gritted my teeth and tried not to panic. The last thing I remembered was having my baby girl placed on my stomach, and then the next moment blood was gushing out of me and my vision was growing dim at the edges. I told my husband to tell our boys that I loved them and then…now.

Since I couldn’t talk, I gestured that I wanted a pen and paper. What happened? was the first question I asked as I did my best not to bite through the tube. A nurse came in, promising me that they’d get that tube out of my throat in a matter of minutes.

Gritting my teeth, I tried to focus. My husband and the nurse were talking in turns, trying to give me a narrative of what had happened to me, but all I could focus on was the memory of my daughter. I scrawled another note. Where is Adelaide?

The nurse glanced at my note, patted my arm, and said, “In the nursery, hon. I’ll see what I can do to bring her in just as soon as we get the tube out.”

Carefully I nodded, every movement jarring the tube. I forced my lips into an approximation of a smile, trying to convey to the nurse that I was on board with her plan. When she left the room again, my husband tried to tell me yet again what had happened.

After I gave birth I started to bleed out, and I’d been rushed into surgery where I had been for four hours before I was moved to the ICU. I nodded along, but I didn’t comprehend any of what he said. My husband turned on the television so that I would have something to distract me while we waited for them to un-intubate me.

When the nurse came back in with a second nurse, I was both excited and terrified. “You’ll need to cough as we pull the tube out,” nurse two said.

I did as I was told, and even though I complied exactly, it still felt like someone was using sand paper to rip my esophagus out. “You won’t be able to talk normally for a while,” nurse one told me.

“Okay,” I whispered, so relieved that I was able to speak again that tears welled up in my eyes.

“Your daughter will be in shortly,” nurse one said, patting me on the arm again.

All the questions that I hadn’t known that I wanted to ask started to pour out of me in whispered bursts, and my husband did his best to answer them for me. I tried not to stare at the door, but I couldn’t help it.

I was still whispering when the door cracked open, and the nurse came in wheeling a bassinet. My heart leapt in my chest as I caught sight of my little girl. She was just as beautiful as I had remembered, and now that she was here again I realized that everything I had gone through was worth it just to have this moment.

The Not-So-Selfish Question Parents of a Sexually Abused Child Are Afraid to Ask

Your child is protected and receiving counseling. You are left with a big, old vacuum. What about me?

The unthinkable has happened. You’re numb, panicked, and crazed with anger all at the same time. You’re precious jewel has just told you that he or she has been sexually abused – worse yet – by someone you know, love, and trust.
The aftermath of such a tragedy can be a whirlwind of events, police, doctors, social workers, and therapists. The list of new professionals suddenly intruding upon the intimate details of your personal life is staggering. Of course, you cooperate. The safety, health, and welfare of your baby is at stake.
Then, the high tide recedes as the logistics are underway. Your child is protected and receiving counseling. You are left with a big, old vacuum.
What about me?
Please feel not an ounce of shame or weakness asking this question. In fact, it’s one of the single-most important observations you can make, so, go ahead, feel some pride in your self-awareness. You, and perhaps others in your family, are the secondary victims of sexual abuse.
Coping with your reactions to the challenges that now rest on your shoulders can feel overwhelming. You’re trying to keep everything together while, inside, you’re falling apart. You need help, too, especially if you were also a child victim of sexual abuse.
A better you will make a better life for your child.
Throughout the course of my career, I’ve treated many families who have experienced this and other traumas. Individual, group, or family therapy can offer indescribable support that will point you and your family on the road to recovery.
Below I’ve listed some common concerns that emerged among the parents whom I’ve worked with. If you’ve been in this unfortunate situation, they will hopefully provide some comfort and validation.
Remember:

Above all, it’s not your fault

Many parents think, “If I were a better parent, if we didn’t argue so much, if I were home more, if, if, if, if….”  Fill in the blank with your own “if.”  The sad fact is this: There is no sure-fire way to prevent sexual abuse. If there were, I wouldn’t need to write this article.  The “ifs” are a natural way to try to gain control over an awful situation.
Although rates of sexual abuse may reportedly be on the decline, Darkness to Light reports that as many as one in 10 children will be sexually abused by age 18. So, please remember three things:

1 | You are not psychic (at least, I assume you’re not) and could not have prevented this.

2 | A determined sex offender will abuse despite the obstacles in their way.

3 | Sex offenders are exceptionally adept at setting the stage so no one would ever suspect a thing.

Your grief is a big deal

You’ve had a huge shock. It’s perfectly natural for many confusing emotions to come tumbling out of nowhere. Anger at the offender, at the system, at yourself, even – cringe – at your child because you’re wishing they had told you sooner so you could’ve protected them better.
Your child has lost his innocence, and so have you. You’ve lost your sense of safety and your trust in those around you. Perhaps you’re struggling with the profound disappointment that someone you loved is not who you thought they were.
You may even be questioning your own judgment while simultaneously feeling saddened, guilty, confused, shamed, enraged, and yet hopeful, all at once. These feelings are a normal part of the process. Finding support through your own therapist can help you navigate this bumpy terrain.

This is an adjustment period

The old day-to-day normalcy may fade as routines and relationships likely become disrupted. But soon, you will settle into a “new normal.” Don’t rush it. Allow the process to take place naturally. There will be bumps as you and your child find your way. With patience and a comfortable new pattern, an even stronger relationship will emerge between you and your child.

You need education and support

You’re in a situation that you’ve never been in before, so don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t know what to do or say. You might, but it’s okay if you don’t. Bounce situations off the helping professionals in your life.
A therapist who is experienced with evidence-based practices for sexual abuse, such as Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy, would be ideal for you and your child. Your child will likely be learning many new things in treatment, perhaps about boundaries, assertiveness, and healthy relationships. You need to keep up! Active involvement in your healing and your child’s growth can result in a stronger and wiser family unit.

Seeking your own support models great self-care

Remaining involved and engaged in your child’s treatment process is not the same as getting your own needs met. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of seeking out your own individual therapist. Some areas offer groups for parents of sexually abused children. You’ll have a lot on your plate and, yes, this is a crazy-busy time in your life, which actually reinforces the need for professional assistance with stress management.
You’ll be teaching your child that it’s okay to ask for help when there is a problem. You’ll be teaching her that sexual abuse is not to be kept a secret. Some children are quite reluctant to get counseling due to a fear of talking about the “horrible thing,” but research shows that’s exactly what they need to do.
By getting your own treatment, you demonstrate the importance of talking about the hard stuff. Children are amazingly resilient. At times, for whatever reason, adults may have a bit more trouble bouncing back. Your own therapy can offer a private place to break down, out of your child’s sight.
If your own therapy isn’t feasible due to budget or schedule, books like “When Your Child Has Been Molested”, by Kathryn Brohl, with Joyce Case Potter, can be an invaluable resource.
Lastly, if you’re reading this article for a friend or just out of general interest, I’d like to thank you. Parents of sexually abused children are in a lonely position and often have a small or non-existent pool of support to reach out to. It shouldn’t be that way.
RAIIN estimates that every eight minutes, a report of sexual abuse is substantiated. Chances are you know more than one person who has walked this road. Maybe you, with this information in mind, can be the person to help that parent feel not so alone.

How Kids Can Cope With Stress in Our Unpredictable New Reality

This practice gives kids strategies for developing self-awareness, improving mental focus, handling emotions, and increasing kindness and empathy.

In the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, six of the largest school districts in the United States closed, and 1.7 million American students missed school. This figure doesn’t take into account school interruptions after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and elsewhere where officials have no clear timeline for school re-openings for over 350,000 students.
According to some experts, such school closings could have disastrous consequences the likes of which we’ve seen only after Hurricane Katrina. I worry about the students in Texas, Louisiana, Florid, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands who have been displaced by these recent storms, because they may experience the kind of stress my New Orleans students had to handle in 2005 and 2006. Officials on the ground are already reporting a mental health crisis in Puerto Rico. And, as if the hurricanes aren’t enough, scenes of assault weapons spraying bullets on a crowd in Las Vegas pop up in our children’s news feeds and cause more anxiety.
After Hurricane Katrina forced evacuations and devastated New Orleans, I returned home and volunteered to teach creative writing in a public school. My plan was to help children write stories to express their emotions and creative voice. I quickly discovered, however, that many of my students had high levels of anxiety and poor academic success. They had difficulty focusing in class, following my instruction, and sitting still to write. They also fought with each other on the playground. As I got to know them, I learned why.
Many of these children were growing up in poverty, and their families had limited resources to evacuate during the storm. Some had stayed in New Orleans and witnessed trauma. After Katrina, their families moved to other cities – often living in shelters – and my students had missed school. Like many displaced children, they exhibited depression, anxiety, and behavioral disorders. Some also faced other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), including abuse, neglect, exposure to unsafe environments, and a broken family structure.
Research has shown that children who experience stressful events at an early age may have behavior problems and below-average academic and literacy skills. They are also at increased risk for developing health problems as adults. The good news is that children often respond well to interventions, including classroom mindfulness activities. With a mindfulness program, teachers have reported improved classroom behavior of their students especially in the areas of paying attention, self-control, participation, and respect for others. As a long-time practitioner of mindfulness, I decided to teach my students mindful techniques at the start of each writing class.
Mindfulness is a method of paying attention – on purpose, with kindness and patience – to what’s going on inside and outside of you in each moment. This practice gives adults and children strategies for developing self-awareness and acceptance, improving mental focus, handling difficult emotions, and increasing kindness and empathy. In my writing class, I taught my students many of the mindfulness exercises I still use today as a way of preparing them for the day, and for writing. Here is a sample:

Mindful breathing

Feel your breath come into your nose or mouth, into your lungs, and into your tummy. Feel your lungs release each breath before you take another. Put all of your attention on the air going in and out. If you start thinking about something, shift your attention back to your breathing. This exercise helps you focus on where you are and what you are experiencing in your body in the moment.

Squeeze and release

After taking three mindful breaths, focus your attention on your feet. Squeeze all the muscles tight and then release. Move your attention up your body, squeezing and releasing all your muscle groups until your reach your head. End with three more mindful breaths. This exercise, too, brings your awareness to the physical sensations in your body. You can try it lying down to help you relax.

Mind bubbles

Try this one as a way to release the stressful thoughts that are bothering you. Think of your worries as bubbles that pop. Take three mindful breaths and imagine holding a bubble wand. Breathe in and notice your worry. Breathe out and blow your worry through the wand to form a bubble that floats away and pops. This is a way to see your thoughts as temporary and release them. Repeat the visualization until you feel ready to continue your day. This exercise may not take away immediate problems, but it gives you a tool to release troubling thoughts so you are better prepared to face your life.

Finding the pause

Breathe normally, and at the end of each breath, notice the short pause before you breathe in again. Relax a different part of your body during each pause. Continue as long as you wish, relaxing your whole body a little more with each pause. This exercise helps you handle your emotions and problems with more confidence.
I taught my students these or similar techniques, which we used before writing. In the absence of a controlled study, I can only report that I saw many changes in my students over the school year. At the start of my class, the majority of my students could not write a complete grammatical sentence much less a story with an intact narrative thread.
By the end, every student contributed at least one complete story to our classroom collection, which we printed and bound. They also performed on stage, many reading their writing aloud to a packed auditorium. They also improved in paying attention and controlling their behavior. We simply got along better by the end of the year, and my students were calmer, at least in our classroom.
For the teachers and school administrators who have been affected by the 2017 storms, I wish them courage as they face the challenges of returning to school. They too had to evacuate or shelter in place and may struggle to create a safe environment for their students who could be traumatized. I hope they can put interventions in place that allow for healing and growth during this tough time.
No matter how bleak or surreal our daily reality becomes, our kids don’t deserve to fall into a desensitized-yet-anxious funk we often feel, especially after a series of crises. We owe them a way to cope. Mindfulness is a helpful tool.
For more on mindfulnes, visit Barefoot Books. Whitney Stewart is the author of “Mindful Kids: 50 Activities for Kindness, Focus, and Calm“.
 

Every Mother Deserves a Doula: The Benefits of a Supported BIrth

Supported birth is not just a luxury – it is a complete and utter necessity.

I’m 24-years-old, lying flat on my back in a stiff hospital bed. I’ve been forced here by a nurse who told me that regardless of what my doctor had said, “it’s hospital policy.” I’m entangled in wires, attached to monitors. Gray machines are beeping at me. I’m growing more uncomfortable, being held like a hostage in my own body, and I haven’t even begun to feel the force of my contractions.
“Am I having one now?” I ask naively, when a gentle tightening comes across my belly.
The nurse shifts her gaze to the screen next to the bedside.
“Yeah. You’re having one.”
Within a few hours, being on my back is unbearable. I’m twisting and turning, tying myself in knots. I am not being pounded with one contraction after the next, like I anticipated. I am in constant, unrelenting agony. I am blindsided by it and at a loss for how to manage it.
I sense everyone is angry with me for thrashing wildly, tearing at the bed sheets. But I don’t care because I’m angrier. I’m thinking of the time I spent reading pregnancy books that emphasized how important it was to move during labor, how birthing on your back could make for a longer, more difficult delivery, how your pelvis can’t open when you’re laying flat, and how the risk for cesarean birth increases. I did my research, and here I am, suffering at the hands of someone else’s ignorance. Someone who should know better.
My daughter finally emerges, in the early morning, but not before a doctor picks up a knife a slices me from underneath without warning. I almost yell out “Don’t!” I want to command him, but something, a fear of authority perhaps, holds me back. I don’t yet realize that it will be months before I can sit down without wincing, that my nerves have suffered permanent damage from his deep cut.

The advocate I wish I had

It’s been eight years since my first birth, but I’ll never forget how it felt to be so utterly unsupported on one of the most important days of my life. Yes, my then-partner, now-husband held my leg and said encouraging words. But he’d never attended a birth before. How should he know how to offer labor support? Everyone made it out alive, yes. Is this the only standard by which we measure the experience of giving birth? Escaping death?
No one had seemed to care about my choices, my feelings about my body or my baby, or what my recovery would look like as a result of how my body would be manipulated. There had been no one in the room to help me manage my pain, or to be my advocate when policies that lead to riskier birth were forced upon me. From laboring in bed to the episiotomy I received (a procedure that hasn’t been routinely recommended in over a decade), most of what happened during my first birth wasn’t evidence-based. I knew it at the time, but advocating for yourself while you’re in the throes of labor is practically impossible.
It would be years before I would become pregnant again. When I did, I learned there was a profession called a “doula,” a designated person who provides non-medical support during labor and delivery and in the immediate postpartum. I learned that doulas have the power to drastically improve labor outcomes, from decreasing the rate of cesarean birth by a landslide, to making sure women feel supported, empowered, and comforted during delivery.
Personally, a doula could’ve helped me to achieve an evidence-based birth, rather than one that felt convenient for everyone in the room, but torture for me. A doula could’ve saved me from hours of back labor (the most excruciating pain of my life) by letting me know I had the right to informed refusal (as any patient, even a mother in labor, does). A doula could’ve helped my partner be a better support, or spoken up to hospital staff if medical treatments I didn’t want were being pushed upon me.
A doula could’ve been the light when everything seemed dark and terrifying.

The case for doulas

There is no denying that giving birth in the US has become astonishingly dangerous. From having the worst maternal mortality rate in the developed world, to high rates of unnecessary interventions, to women experiencing birth trauma (PTSD-like symptoms post-delivery), supported birth is not just a luxury – it is a complete and utter necessity. Where you give birth is now the biggest predictor of what kind of birth you will have, and your care provider’s preferences and bad hospital policies dictate outcomes, rather than science.
Why shouldn’t they? A traumatic birth can lead to greater cases of postpartum depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Not to mention, the day a woman becomes a mother is a day she will likely remember for the rest of her life. Only too many of us don’t want to.
Women shouldn’t have to learn the hard way that when it comes to giving birth they need to arm themselves with an experienced person whose sole job is to support her, because often times no one else is (or even knows how). It’s why every single pregnant woman deserves a birth doula. It’s why they should be accessible and covered by insurance without question. And because black women are more likely to die in labor than white women, we especially need to make sure women of color have access to doulas, too.
Research also shows that women’s feelings about their births have more to do with labor support and having choices than specific details about the birth. So doulas shouldn’t be brought on board for one specific type of birth. Rather, they should be a standard for every birth. Whether a home birth, a hospital birth, a planned cesarean, or a VBAC, making doulas the new norm can make women feel comforted and supported no matter what type of birth they plan on having – or end up having.
Regardless of positive outcomes demonstrating the importance of labor support, mothers-to-be are routinely subject to messages that tell them that their choices about their own bodies aren’t important. They are told if they plan for their birth at all they will be mocked by the care provider. The narrative of calling women “controlling” or “unreasonable” for wanting to make choices about their own bodies might be centuries old, but it’s certainly not gone. We hear it all the time, and yes – some providers still hold onto the paternalistic attitude that tells women to lay down and be quiet. We should be pushing back against this harmful narrative, not accepting it so easily. These are our births, our bodies, and our babies, after all.
Supported birth is not our normal. We don’t see it or hear about it often enough. And while hospitals and care providers need better policies, training, and an attitude that seeks to protect women’s choices, we still have far to go. Too often, birthing women don’t receive the care they expect. Labor support can help bridge that gap for every birthing person and every type of birth, too.

Emotions for Lunch

My willpower and strength wavered since Noah died, but it was still there somewhere. Sometimes it just gets misplaced amongst all the stresses of life.

Lox, bagels, cream cheese, and sliced cucumbers. I remember thinking how Noah would’ve loved all this food, and being confused at the platters being there and him not. We had just come from the cemetery. My two-year-old son, Noah, had died in a swimming pool accident three days before.

It felt like I didn’t eat for months after he died. I couldn’t stand thinking about him never eating that béchamel and mushroom pizza we used to get at Trader Joe’s. Or him never ever again eating an apple in the shopping cart at Shoprite, then throwing that apple on the floor in the third aisle (which was the candy aisle). We would share a bag of chocolate licorice as we shopped and I would pay for the empty bag.

The stage of depriving myself food, especially anything that Noah loved, lasted a long time. I lost a lot of weight. By the time we began fertility treatments about nine months after the accident, I was eating so little. The pleasure of food was lost. At some point, I went from the need to deprive myself to not being able to stop eating. I don’t remember exactly when or how that shift occurred.

The stress of fertility treatments, money troubles, and the overwhelming brokenness of our lives made me look for something that gave some pleasure. Writing was too difficult at the time. The introspection that it required was impossible. Food binges became the easy way to squash my thoughts for a little while. I found myself constantly in the kitchen, eating anything. No food was safe. I didn’t even know what being hungry felt like anymore.

I never weighed myself but I knew I’d ballooned to the highest weight I’d ever been. I was out of breath and out of my mind. I never looked at my body anymore.

We switched fertility doctors after not having any success or options. At our new clinic, there were kinder doctors and nurses, and a medical study was being conducted! If we qualified, it would save us many thousands of dollars in our next fertility cycle attempt. We told the doctor we would do anything to get another chance. He smiled, “The nurse will call.”

I got that phone call in an Ulta Beauty store. Shopping for lipstick probably.

I answered my cell and went off to a quiet corner of the vanity-lit store. I was told in the most sensitive way possible that, based on my current weight, I needed to lose 55 pounds to qualify. And I needed to do it in about two months to stay within the deadline of the study. The nurse then said that she didn’t want me to hurt myself and that it would be practically impossible and she was so sorry. I remember crying amongst the lighted mirrors displayed on the shelf. I saw myself over and over, magnified in the shiny silver circles and ovals. I told her I would do it. I would be safe about it and I would do it. “Put us on the list,” I begged.

I had to willingly go back to the days of no appetite. No desire to taste or enjoy. I had to burn off this fat to have a baby again. To be a family again.

I started the very next day. I told my boss at my wine sales job that morning what I needed to do. We had a wine luncheon to go to that day (we had them often). Great restaurants and great wine, but I needed to start immediately. I remember telling him what I was going to order: a salad and beef carpaccio, and I would spit all the wine instead of drinking a glass or two of the one I liked best. He gently but firmly encouraged me to keep my eye on the prize. This was the last chance. We had to qualify.

I started walking every night after work. With a borrowed flashlight from my neighbor Kim, at first walking up any slight hill was impossible. My knees hurt. My feet hurt. I was so far from my goal. I talked to God while I walked, and Noah, and myself. The inner dialogue never stopped.

I walked and starved and walked and cried and starved and then started to walk a little faster. I was so hungry. So that’s what hunger feels like! It had been so long. I had nights when I reached my breaking point. I cried for so many reasons. I was hungry. I was tired. I wanted my son back. I was angry at my body for not getting pregnant. I was angry I’d let my gluttony get so out of hand that I may cause us to lose this chance at having a baby again.

Within the first few days of my new regimen, I went to see my regular medical doctor. This was the doctor who had to go out into the hallway when we told her about the accident a week after it happened. She didn’t want to cry in front of us. I remember she was out there for a while.

This visit, I sat down in her office and told her what I needed to do. I asked her if there was anything she could do to help me. I started a medication that would boost my metabolism and eliminate my appetite.

I tried a colonic. It was awful. The water flows in so strongly that it creates spasms in your stomach. It ironically felt like being in labor. I had hoped it would be an easy bonus to the exercise, starvation, meal replacement shakes, and pills, but it wasn’t. It was not only a pain in the ass but also an unbearable pain in the gut.

Then I started to lose weight. Numbers on the scale started dropping. I was now addicted to the empty feeling in my stomach. In a way, I was back to punishing myself for losing Noah. I was punished through gluttony and through hunger. That’s how much losing a child changes you. Basic functions to survive became skewed challenges. You’re not even sure you want to survive.

I’ve never been a woman who talks about dieting. I’m more likely to talk about the latest commercial for whatever bastardized version of Mexican food Taco Bell is featuring. It always looks so good on TV, with a catchy name like BurritoChiladaGordoDelicioso.

But now my body was about pure function, not form. Scientifically, there was a better chance of pregnancy occurring at a healthy BMI versus the form of a chips, bagels, cookies, and canisters of Pringles body I’d been inhabiting.

I did it. I made it to the weight I needed to be! The nurses and doctors were shocked and thrilled. I just kept smiling. My body was going to do it. I was giving it my all. Onto the blood tests, injections, and medications again, but this time it had to work.

We scrounged for the money we needed. Nothing was impossible. We would figure out a way.

December 26th, 2012, Miriam Phoenix was born.

When my husband or our daughter misplaces something in our apartment, and I know the item hasn’t left the confines of our home, I always say “It has to be here somewhere!” Miriam has started saying that too now. My willpower and strength wavered since Noah died, but it was still there somewhere. Sometimes it just gets misplaced amongst all the stresses of life. You shake out that blanket or move the decorative pillows around and you will always find it somewhere.

Peace and Love During Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month

It’s 2017 and I have learned to smile again. I have two amazing “rainbow babies.” Still, I do not forget where I came from.

“Mommy, I wish it was just the three of us,” my five-year-old son Owen said suddenly.
I sighed and mentally prepared myself for what was coming. My little boy adored his father, so I assumed that he meant Daddy, himself, and his big sister, Julia. Instead, he uttered these names: Julia, Owen, and Liam.
My heart sank.
Although still young, my youngest child was beginning to understand. Physically, it was just Owen and Julia. But they also had a big brother whom they never met. Liam was our firstborn son and died at only nine days old.
My husband Brian and I found out we were expecting our first child on January 1, 2008. Everything was going along perfectly – until that day. I was just over 20 weeks and due to have my anatomy scan.
“I found a problem with the baby’s heart,” the doctor said.
Our joy turned to devastation with those words.
It’s 2017 and I have learned to smile again. I have two amazing “rainbow babies. Still, I do not forget where I came from.
On October 25, 1988, President Ronald Reagan declared the entire month of October as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Prior to our tragedy, we had never heard of it. We had never imagined this would be our fate.
Liam had been gone for a few weeks when Brian and I headed down those steps to the church basement in October of 2009. It was dark, quiet, and somber. Everyone was getting ready to light their candles in honor of all our babies.
Until then, Brian and I lived in complete isolation. The bereavement support group and cemetery became the only places where we felt solace. I remember being a “newbie” amongst all those who had experienced loss.
“The pain does soften,” they would say.
At the time, I absolutely refused to believe them. I do now. I have been writing about neonatal loss for several years. It still feels raw and painful, but it’s different somehow. Many of us liken it to a scar – something that will never go away.
Nine years ago, I was a very angry and bitter person. I lashed out at friends and family. I refused to attend events. My own despair was so great, I could barely think at all. I couldn’t see anything beyond my pain. I didn’t want to. I had no idea on how to move forward. The decision to try for a second child was made mostly by my husband.
After Julia’s birth, I felt guilt. I felt as if moving on was a betrayal to Liam. I also felt comfort and joy, which was both scary and beautiful at the same time. I had similar feelings after the birth of Owen.
Slowly, I realized that I was allowed to have both emotions. My sadness for my first baby would always be there. So would the happiness for my living children. They could co-exist.
Today, I still light my candle. I do so, not only for my Liam, but for other angels that we have lost along the way. On October 15th, Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness day, I joined countless others who have experienced this unbearable pain. The candle lighting forms a “wave of light” across the world. In this way, all of our babies will be remembered.
I often wonder what I would say to someone suffering a recent loss. I am not sure any words would suffice. I feel their anguish. Our baby’s lives, no matter how brief, leave footprints on our hearts forever.
They are loved.
They will never ever be forgotten.

What Do I Tell My Granddaughter When Tragedy Strikes?

What do I tell her when she sees I am a million sad miles away when she is showing me her latest gymnastic move and I miss it or asks why my eyes are red?

Tragedy struck again. Once more I planted myself by the television, flipping through the various news channels to hear the latest updates, with tears in my eyes and a pierced heart. It hurts, like a throbbing finger slammed in the door, especially when you know it’s inevitable that there will be another tragedy, another natural disaster, another act of hatred that will leave you teary eyed again.
What do I tell my seven-year-old granddaughter when she comes into my bedroom or sits next to me on the couch as I watch the news and catches snippets of the horrible events before I can find the remote to turn the channel? What do I tell her when she sees that I am a million sad miles away when she is showing me her latest gymnastic move and I miss it or asks why my eyes are red?
I remember when I was a child, eavesdropping on the whispered, somber conversations of my parents when tragedies unfolded in the news or with a family member. Not knowing what to do with the sadness that overtook me, I’d curl up in my bed and feign a stomachache so I could stay in the safety of my room cloaked under my covers with my teddy bears as my protectors.
My mother didn’t associate my fake illness with the enormity of what was going on around me. She didn’t realize that even if I hadn’t snooped and heard her conversations or listened to the news, I reacted to her own feelings/struggles as she tried to make sense or deal with a situation,meven when she tried to mask them.
What I needed then was for her to sit with me, push my bangs out of the way, and look deep into my eyes to explain what happened in terms I could comprehend. I needed her to not leave me out of the conversation and to answer all of my questions.
For by being left out, by everyone thinking that it was best if I knew nothing or as little as possible, I thought the worst. And for a child that is the worst. That feeling of dread stays with you, lingering through your teen years, through adulthood and through parenting your own children until you finally realize how damaging it is to your well-being.
Our children, like us, have a range of emotions that traverse through their bodies. Their sorrow, anger, frustration, uncertainty, and fear are on a different scale than ours, but it’s there and it will manifest into something else – a temper tantrum or clinginess if they are wee ones, or rebellion, addictions, or depression if they are older.
So what do I tell my seven-year-old granddaughter?
I first remind myself that there are no perfect words to say when tragedy strikes. If I am having a particularly difficult time, I google it on the computer and read some of the excellent suggestions on other blogs and parenting sites. A trip to my neighborhood library and a talk with my librarian has also helped me find the right book to address topics I have trouble discussing.
As a former preschool teacher I remember having to talk to a class of five-year-olds about 911, some of whose parents were caught in the aftermath and couldn’t get home. In the weeks following, children’s books played a vital role in helping them cope with their emotions.
I then explain to my granddaughter what happened in a way she can understand and ask her what she’s heard, what her friends may have told her, and clear up any misconceptions knowing how what transpires from her ears to her heart might unsettle her.
And I wait for her deluge of questions to come. They always do, sometimes hours later, when her parents are out running errands without her, or when I’m cooking dinner.
I try my best to answer them. I remind her of the good in the world, of the first responders and heroes and sheroes that helped save many people’s lives, and how we come together regardless of race or religion to help others each time a tragedy happens. I also encourage her to write to express her feelings.
One story she wrote was about the recent hurricanes in which she wished she had a magic wand to stop the flooding. Writing was cathartic for her and she felt empowered thinking of a way she could save others even if it was make-believe.
And always I reiterate to her, over a bowl of her favorite ice-cream or while we’re baking chocolate chip cookies, that although terrible things may happen in the world that shakes us up, we never let go of our hope for the world.
There will never be a script to read when it comes to helping our children deal with a tragedy. So my suggestion is to speak from the heart because when you do those words will be just right – your child can then express what is in his or hers.
There is nothing wrong with wishing upon a star with your own imaginary magic wand for a miracle, like the one my granddaughter wished she had in her story. Just like the lyrics to the song by the late Louis Armstrong: “What a wonderful world” this would be if we could.