Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Everything's still not awesome on the playground

Lily and a cousin. Expressing themselves.

"Today was the worst day," Lily told me one afternoon last week when I picked her up from school.

"What happened?" I asked. 

Blinking back tears, she told me that she was playing basketball at recess with her friends, but they wouldn't pass the ball to her. I asked her which friends she was playing with- she rattled off the names of a bunch of boys, several of whom she'd been in class since kindergarten. 

"Were there any other girls playing?" I asked.

No. She was the only one. 

"They just kept passing it to each other."

My throat clenched. The whole thing felt very familiar. 

Because 30 years ago, I was Lily. Wanting to play basketball at recess and none of the boys would pass me the ball. By the time I reached fourth or fifth grade, I stopped trying to play with them. Years of being among the last picked for basketball or kickball or softball or dodgeball reinforcing what I had come to understand was the truth: I just wasn't good enough.

And it's true. I wasn't the fastest. I wasn't the best shot. I wasn't he tallest. I wasn't the most coordinated. 

On the other hand, I was always willing to try. 

And I was always willing to pass the ball.

I told Lily, I was sorry. That I knew how she felt. It was frustrating to want to play with her friends but feeling as if they didn't want to play with her. I suggested she find other kids to play basketball with. 

Here's the thing. I know most of these boys Lily mentioned. They are sweet kids. Maybe they played basketball together on a team or something. Their excluding Lily was probably nothing personal. It could've just been habit, you know? They're so used to playing with each other that adding someone new might throw them off.

They have their own thing going on.

The boys I went to school with had their own thing going on, too. 

It wasn't always like that. When we were in first and second grade, I remember racing around the playground with them playing "Ghostbusters." I was always Janine, naturally. There were limited roles for girls when playing "Ghostbusters" back then (we didn't have Melissa McCarthy or Kristen Wiig). Just the secretary or the love interest. And let's be honest, second graders aren't including love interests in their ghost-snatching scenarios.

But at some point, we drifted away from "Ghostbusters." The boys went on to play basketball or dodgeball. The girls drifted over to hopscotch or jump rope. Sometimes we'd shoot baskets. A couple of the girls were really athletic. They'd sometimes play basketball with the boys at recess. They were always the first girls picked for teams (though generally, not the first kids picked- even the less athletic boys were picked ahead of the most athletic girls). 

We had this old-school phys-ed teacher. Picture the typical 80s/90s-era elementary school gym teacher. He was that guy. Tall, tanned, shorts that were a little too short. He used his whistle a lot and had lots of cheesy catch phrases and bad jokes. He was impressed with the sportsy kids and indifferent to the less sportsy ones.

It should come as no surprise that I did not relish P.E.. I don't remember ever reaching the top of the rope. I still can't turn a cartwheel. In all those years of doing fitness tests, I achieved just one pull-up, one time. My mile times were average. I was usually at the back end of any batting lineup. It wasn't that I didn't try- I always tried to do the best I could. It's just that my best wasn't all that impressive. And had no confidence in my abilities.

But I was an active kid. I loved riding my bike and hiking with my family. I enjoyed running- even if I wasn't all that fast. I played soccer for years. Just rec league, but I wasn't shy about getting dirty.  

For most of my life, I had this perception of myself that I wasn't athletic. Recess and gym class in elementary school were the roots of this. I'm certain of it.

When I started practicing yoga, I realized I was wrong about myself. I'm actually quite strong and really flexible. When I played indoor soccer in my 20s, I was one of the better shooters on my team. And we had a pretty talented team. We had a three-season stint as league champions, in fact.

Lily is a different kid than I was. She's more outspoken and confident. She believes in her own authority in a way I never have. I love that about her. And it is also infuriating. 

It's hard not to project my own experiences on my girls though.

Like that the boys I grew up with just didn't think girls were as good as they were at sports. And maybe I wasn't. But maybe I could've been had I just gotten to play. If they passed the ball to me once and a while.

It starts early, this division. Jovie's first season of soccer was on a co-ed team of 5 and 6 year olds. There were just a few girls on the team and already the boys were excluding them when it came to sharing the ball. They've heard the phrase "girls suck" from boys chasing them on the playground, even from their own male cousins. Family they've grown up with. 

They're 6 and 8 and it's happening. Already. This insidious indoctrination about their worth as humans. I mean on the one hand, I know these boys- they're not mean kids. I know their parents. They're good parents. I could brush it off as just playground hijinks. It's child's play, right?

Casual sexism. Child's play. 

I'm not trying to be some millennial snowflake. I want to raise sturdy, resilient girls who don't crumble at the slightest offense. And my kids aren't perfect either. Just the other day Jovie farted right in my face. Unapologetically. Lily doesn't always have a lot of patience for classmates who learn differently than she does. They're all works in progress. 

We're all works in progress.

I was out to dinner with a friend recently and we touched on the #MeToo movement. He expressed some hope that things would be better for women moving forward because of all the conversations people are having and the increased awareness, etc. I told him I'm  not so optimistic. It's not that I don't support #MeToo and #TimesUp and all the awareness being raised about what girls and women experience walking through a world that is openly hostile to them in very sneaky ways. These are the ripples that will bring about the change over time. I know that. 

It's just that our gender roles- the way we interact with each other- it's so ingrained in us. And from such an early age. It's in our marrow and ways we are still not even conscious of.  

At 5 and 6 the boys on Jovie's team have already decided that they don't need to include her in their game. By 9 or 10 they've decided girls are inferior. By middle school...

Let me share you a story about middle school that I hadn't shared because I was too embarrassed about it. Last year I was subbing in a seventh grade classroom for an instructional assistant I'd subbed for frequently. I was familiar with several of the kids in the class. At one point in the class, one of the boys I'd taught before did something obnoxious. I rolled my eyes and groaned at him as if to say, "Dude, really?"

This kid took my groan and turned it into a moan. Like a moan of sexual pleasure. If I addressed him at all in class- he'd moan at me. Not just that one day either. Anytime I was in that classroom, he'd smirk and then moan at me. Me, his 36-year-old, pregnant teacher. It was mortifying and belittling. And I did nothing. He needed to be written up. But I was uncomfortable about how to address it. Like what would I say, even? "I think this kid is making sexually explicit noises at me?" Would they think I was mis-interpreting his actions? Or that I had done something inappropriate? Or that it wasn't something worth getting administrators involved with? As a sub, all this stuff felt murky. You just sort of end up lowering your standards for behavior.

I should've said something. Because he needed to be called out. I'm still kicking myself for that. Backing down to a 12 year old.

And here's why I don't have a lot of confidence in the future. Because this boy is the future. And he wasn't an anomaly.

I spent the second half of the year co-teaching eighth grade science with a male teacher. I observed right off the bat that the boys behaved differently for him than they did for me. And it wasn't just because I was a substitute. I saw this in other rooms where I was subbing as an instructional assistant with female teachers. They showed more respect for male teachers than they did for female teachers. (Though I should note, in general, most middle schoolers didn't have much respect for any teacher male or female.)

I feel as if #MeToo is as much about women finally being aware of what overt and subtle sexism looks like as it is about calling out men who assault and harass women. Because honestly, it's such a part of the air we breathe as women, there are things I never would've even considered calling out. 

When I was 11 and 12, I never liked riding my bike to the shopping center near my house because of the men who'd whistle at my sister and me. The boys who walked behind me one day after school barking and howling at me when I was in sixth grade not only humiliated me, they made me feel unsafe. The boys who snapped my bra, the boys in high school who told me I was sexually frustrated anytime I crunched on ice, the boss who tried to get me to take my shirt off during a party outside of work. Looking back, it feels as if all of this was more about power than sexuality. More about seeing me squirm or blush. More about making sure I knew were I stood. 

In a place where the ground is never sure beneath my feet. That's how it goes for us, I think.

I don't know what happens to girls and boys. I don't know when the shift occurs. When they go from playing as equals to not passing the ball to each other. It's such a quiet thing. But I think it's this crucial moment for both. 

I took the girls to see "The Lego Movie 2" this weekend and was pleased to see it touch on this very topic. Based five years after the last installment, ever-plucky construction worker Emmet is living with his special best friend Lucy/Wyld Style and the various other Master Builders in a Mad Max-styled wasteland called Apocalypseburg. 

Anything "cute" has been banished for fear that it would attract the alien invaders made from Duplo blocks. Apocalypseburg, of course, is the brainwork of the little boy Finn from the last movie, now a teenager. And the glitter-bombing Duplo invaders from the Sis-Star System are the work of his annoying little sister, Bea. 

Lucy presses Emmet to be darker and moodier in order to anticipate the danger awaiting them around every rainbow-bricked corner. "You can't keep pretending everything is awesome," she tells him. "It isn't." And he tries his best to be a little broodier, but just can't muster the same brand of sulky cynicism Lucy has.

When Emmet builds an adorable dream house (featuring a trampoline room, toaster room and double-decker porch swing) that results in Lucy and several of their buddies being kidnapped by a mysterious visitor from the Systar System, he realizes it's up to him to save them.

While floundering his way to their rescue he joins up with über manly-man Rex   Dangervest and his crew of velociraptor lackeys. Rex, with his perpetual five o'clock shadow, chiseled features and chaps (they're basically like vests for legs, he says), tells Emmet to become a real man, he needs to "Crack open his pain bone and suck out the marrow."

Rex, the galaxy defending, cowboy, archeologist and raptor trainer, tells Emmet the only way he can save his friends is to peel off every last vestige of sweetness and friendliness and replace it with a drive to destroy anything that gets in his way. We watch Emmet wrestle with this- his soft, fun-loving self struggling to embrace Rex's hard-edged toughness. And he ultimately listens to Rex, thinking that's how he'd most impress Lucy.

How appropriate, I thought. "The Lego Movie 2" addressing toxic masculinity when the term, for better or worse, is such a flashpoint. It's no coincidence, either, that both Emmet and Rex are voiced by Chris Pratt.

The male characters aren't the only ones trying to figure out their identity. Part way through the movie we learn that emo-chick Lucy had actually taken a Sharpie marker to darken most of her pink and purple locks because she didn't think she looked mature enough or that she'd be taken seriously with technicolor hair. The seemingly dubious shape-shifting Queen Watevra Wa'Nabi is only trying to return to her truest form (a heart) via a forced marriage to Batman (who himself is perpetually wrestling his dark, Batmanny demons). Everyone's kind of a mess.

Again, it all feels very familiar.

Everything is not awesome.

And in fact, just as all hope seems to be lost, "Everything is Awesome" from the original "Lego Movie" gets a reprise.




Lily didn't understand why I laughed out loud at the lyrics:

"Everything's not awesome.
Whoa, I think I finally get Radiohead.
Bro, you should check out Elliot Smith.
What's the point? There's no hope.
Awesomeness was a pipedream."

Because I listened to all the Radiohead and Elliot Smith in my least awesome days.
I mean, "Everything's Not Awesome" could pretty much be the theme song for the past couple years, no?
I don't know how it goes for boys. What it's like for them to navigate shifting identities and expectations as they get older. I know it's not easy for any human. Growing up. I only observed that they older they got, the more space boys seemed to take up- either physically or with words and actions. They were encouraged to be bigger and louder and stronger.
For me, I always associate this time between the ages of, like 11 or 12 through high school with this creeping feeling I wasn't quite good enough. And that boys were just... better. Over the years that feeling manifested itself in different ways. Meekness, probably in elementary school. But then frustration and resentment in middle and high school. There were times when I know I was overtly hostile toward the boys around me. So much so they'd call me a femi-Nazi or "Stupid Haller". They used these words like swords, I think. They probably thought I hated all boys and men. I didn't though. I just didn't understand them. And didn't like how at times I felt inferior to them, while knowing that I had awareness beyond my years.
It's only now, decades later that I've been able to put words to that frustration. That I feel validated. I wasn't crazy. Or shrill. 
I am grateful that my girls will grow up with the language of feminism. That they will understand better than I that they aren't objects to be scrutinized and judged. They they are self possessed and can speak up when they feel uncomfortable or wronged or belittled. I'm an imperfect teacher, though. I'm sure there are yawning gaps in the example I set. Ones I hope will be filled in by friends and teachers and aunts and mentors.
I don't want them to end up being the 37 year old woman who didn't call out the 12 year old for being lewd.

I recognize that a mother of three girls doesn't have a full picture of what it's like to raise boys. I have all these nephews, but not first-hand experience in "boy world." I was listening to 1A on NPR.org this morning. There was a segment, "How to Raise Boys" during which one of the commentators said we should be raising boys to be more full hearted. And actually, we should be raising all humans to be more full hearted. But I think that idea of full-heartedness is particularly touchy for boys. Because it's a little bit more mushy and vulnerable and men, I feel, aren't at ease with the idea of vulnerability. The commentator went to say that she'd like to see more parents feeling comfortable letting their kids express their full selves and tending to their emotional live. She added that she didn't want people to underestimate boys' ability to be full human beings.

We're raising girls now to understand they can be all the things: Astronauts, ballerinas, athletes, artists, bakers, teachers, CEOs, the President. They can be these things and they can still be soft. They can still like glitter and rainbows. Or not. 

Lily and Jovie's gym teachers are the polar opposite of mine growing up. Two strong, beautiful, goofy women who celebrate their femininity while encouraging all the kids to be active and healthy. They're like celebrities in that school, Ms. Findley and Ms. Jennelle. They greet the kids in the morning with Golden Retriever levels of enthusiasm and periodically don costumes- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Woody and Buzz. Ms. Jennelle shows up to work with her hair curled and makeup matching whatever activewear she has on that day (if it's yellow, that means canary-colored eyeliner; if it's blue, then it's cobalt eyeshadow). I told her one day that I admired her whole look. She said she thought it helped the girls see they could be both fancy and fit. And I loved that. 

Boys need that, too. Like the equivalent of Rosie the Riveter- or even a male Ms. Jennelle to show them they can both play hard and be delicate. Both tough and tender. Intelligent and compassionate. They can like the color pink and like velociraptors. They can grow up to be all the things: Astronauts, ballerinas, athletes, artists, bakers, teachers, CEOs, the President. 

And ideally, maybe it wouldn't matter much who that role model was- a Ms. Jennelle or a Mr. Jennelle. 

The world I want for my daughters and nieces and all my wonderful nephews is the one where everyone feels comfortable expressing their truest selves. And everyone gets passed the ball.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

My sister needs a five-year plan, let's help her out

Laura in her element, with her son Henry (holding my Annie) and daughter Rosie. 
The other day my sister Laura texted me:

"Sue. I want you to pick a plan for me for the next 5 years...If you could drive my life what would you do?"

Her request overwhelmed me. I don't even have my own five-year plan. And Laura's life is infinitely more complicated than mine. 

I wrote her back with a couple of broad suggestions– things that were already on her radar (finding less expensive housing and a better-paying job with better hours). I reminded her that life would shift on its own as her kids get older. Hopefully, she'd get some more sleep and have more flexibility for working while they were in school. I told her I thought she should find a way to go back to school so she could improve her chances of finding that better-paying job. That there had to be scholarships for working moms or maybe nonprofits that could help her with childcare or expenses. 

A couple years ago, I interviewed a single mom who was pursuing her CNA in central Pennsylvania. Through the United Way, she found a charity offering this stability and workforce development program that supported families as they worked toward more long-term financial independence. In addition to helping poor families make ends meet by footing medical bills, paying utilities and offering access to food, the charity focused on improving participants' job prospects by providing GED classes, financial literacy education, job coaching and training programs. I keep thinking there has to be something similar down here in Virginia that might help my sister. 

Everything I shared with her seemed kind of vague and amorphous. Nothing concrete for her to take action on.

I'm just one little, old person. I don't have enough information.

"I want to crowd source your five year plan. We just need to talk to the right people."

Laura told me to do it. 

So that's why I'm here today. 

My sister Laura needs help. She's not asking for handouts or pity- just ideas for what she should do in the next five years to improve her long-term prospects and stability.

Here's her current situation:

She's 45 with a high school diploma and some college under her belt. She and her husband of 20 years divorced almost two years ago. She's the mother of nine, ages 18 months to 27 years old. Five of her kids currently live with her full time (save for two weekends a month). 

Before we move on- because this is the part where people's eyes tend to get wide in disbelief- Laura understands she has a lot of children. And that people question her decision to have such a large family. And wonder about everything from her intellectual faculties to her knowledge of birth control to her awareness about overpopulation. She has been the recipient of endless commentary, joking and lecturing over the years. Yes, she has many, many beautiful, intelligent, big-hearted children. No, today she is not seeking opinions about the lunacy of having a such a large family. Why don't we just shelve those thoughts for a future post I'll title: Why Laura Shouldn't Have Had So Many Kids.*

She was a stay-at-home mom for more than 20 years- though she did have stints working at her kids school and a cafe near where she lived.

Without treading into painful territory, let's just say the child support Laura receives for four of the children who live with her is insufficient. 

For work, she drives a bus for her school district. The advantages of this job are that she can take her kids with her to work and that she has the same schedule more or less as her school-aged kids. Through this job, she also has health insurance for herself and her youngest. On the downside, she has next to no take-home pay after the insurance is deducted rom her paycheck. The job also requires that she and her four youngest kids get up by 5:30 each morning to be on the bus. They don't get home in the evening until after 5. She is exhausted. And the kids are exhausted.

Though most of my siblings live in the area, we're at least an hour away from Laura– which limits our ability to help her with the kids day to day. She doesn't have local backup. 

At one point, Laura thought about cleaning houses near where I live to bring in some extra income. After her morning bus run, she figured she'd drive the hour to me, drop off her two littlest for me to watch, clean a house and drive an hour back to make her afternoon bus run. But it became obvious that the logistics of this plan were tricky- she wouldn't have quite enough time to clean and then there was all the driving and constant worry about timing.

In order to cut living expenses, she'd like to move out of the house she's currently renting. She'd saved up some money to pay for the move (getting the carpets cleaned at the old place, security deposits at the new place, etc.), but a car repair bill wiped out much of that savings. She has medical and tax debt she is working to pay off as well.

Again, I'm not sharing any of this expecting charity. It's just to illustrate how thin the margins are for my sister. Perpetually living on the razor's edge is a source of constant worry and stress for her. She has no peace of mind and little optimism that she can pull herself out of her situation. 

I suspect this is the case for many, many single mothers out there. I know she is not alone.

Laura wants a map out of her current life, which isn't sustainable for her financially, physically or mentally. What's more, she needs some measure of hope that she won't forever feel as if she's drowning while treading water as furiously as she can.

So, I guess I was hoping we– you and me and Laura, too- could build a boat for her. Not a literal one, of course. What the hell would Laura do with a boat? Maybe burn it for firewood. Maybe drag it to the woods and hide in it when the kids are out of control.

No, we need, a metaphorical life raft. 

I asked Laura what she thought she'd like to do job/career wise. 

"I want to help people," she responded. "I'm thinking social work because I think I can use that in criminal justice- I think I can use it in lots of different capacities, but I can also do nursing and kind of have the same ... Or maybe there is something else you can think of if I got a business degree that would be helpful if we decided to actually put together a business."

(Laura, our two other sisters and I periodically discuss business ideas- selling Laura's delicious cinnamon buns in a food truck, or a boutique for Jen, or a retreat center for world weary women that each of us would have a hand in running. We have ideas for books and podcasts.)

Laura is so people-oriented and so caring- I do feel social work in some capacity is her calling. To this day, my friends and friends of friends still turn to her for counsel when they are going through difficult times. She's an excellent listener, she's warm and empathetic. She helps people feel heard and understood.

She's also hardworking- she's tough. Physically strong and not afraid to get her hands dirty. And having raised such a large brood and now driving a school bus full of wiley kids- she knows how to manage chaos.

So, help me build this raft. 

And then, while we're at it, let's find a way to turn that raft into a yacht. Because she sure the hell deserves more than a rowboat for her life.

Laura currently lives outside of Warrenton, Va. 

What ideas do you have for her? What suggestions? What advice? What wisdom? 

Are there any services you know of she could turn to where she might receive job coaching or career help? Any programs or schools that she should look into for careers in social work or nursing? Any places that might help her make ends meet while she attempts to move up the next rung of the ladder? Scholarships she should apply for? Any resources to help with childcare? Or resources to help her get her finances in order?

What do you think her five-year plan should be? I'm not a great planner- what does an actionable five-year plan even look like? What goals should she set for the short term? What should she think about longer term? What tools should she be using to help reach her goals?

And even if you don't have any specific advice, if you just have words of encouragement. Or have stories or anecdotes to share that might illustrate for her what's possible- I'm sure she'd welcome any and everything. 

I know she's not the only woman in the world to feel as if the deck is stacked against her. Or that she must be the idiot for not being able to get her arms around her life when everyone else seems to be managing theirs. 

So... I'm putting this out there to the public braintrust. Can we crowd source a better life for my sister and her kids?

I believe in this village.

To share your thoughts, post a comment, or email me at susanjennings9@gmail.com or Laura at adork74@gmail.com (our Mom has suggested she change her email address to something a little more self-affirming). 

* More than likely, I will never write this post. Her children are each gifts to our planet.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

We Get to Be Enough


So, there's this scene in "A Star is Born" when Lady Gaga as aspiring singer Ally steps onto the stage for the first time to perform with Bradley Cooper, playing rockstar Jackson Maine. As Ally starts singing the song she wrote, her eyes light up. As if a flame's been lit inside her. As if she's arriving into herself. And then when she hits the chorus the second time, she's this woman possessed. Her wings outstretched. As if she becomes a phoenix owning her own magnificence. 




That's the moment I want. That right there. You know? That's the moment we all want, I think. To enter into our most realized selves and to own it in whatever form it takes. 

Am I asking for too much? Please don't answer that question. Let's pretend it was rhetorical.

The opportunity for phoenix-rising moments seem few and far between in my day-to-day life. So, you know, I attempt to embrace my more modest existence.

I had this thought the other day while doing yet another round of dishes: The job I do here at home is important. My role matters. 

I actually said it out loud midway through rinsing out a cereal bowl. "What I do here matters."

It felt silly to say it. And it feels really silly to write it. Because of course it's important. OF COURSE it is, right? 

Preparing meals for my family is important. Maintaining a comfortable, clean place for us to live in is important. Showing up for them at the end of the day is important. Just being present. That's important.

Still, I'm always finding ways to be dismissive of my life and my time.

I tell myself things like it's more important that Brad gets a full night's sleep because he's the one who has to get up and go to work every day. That I can squeeze the things I need- sleep or quiet time or time for creativity- into the corners of my life. That the contents of my day is always less interesting than the contents of Brad's or the girls. That the stuff I do here- taking care of the girls, cleaning, cooking, etc.– is secondary to the work people do outside of the home. 

I spend a lot of time worrying.

I worry about whether I'm going to ever contribute anything important. Anything of significance. I worry I will never do that one the thing I'm meant to do. Whatever that is. I worry that I'm not doing enough to ensure my children grow into confident, well-rounded, kind people. 

I worry about the example I'm setting for the girls. With me as a role model (at least for the time being). Are the girls going to have big enough dreams for themselves? 

Or am I limiting their vision to motherhood and homemaking? 

And see, there I go again. Minimizing this role that I know has helped mold me into a better person (at the very least a more humble person- cut to a flashback of me cleaning chunky spit-up out of my hair). 

Am I the only mom who does this?

When I ask about the future, Lily says she wants to be an astronaut. And a veterinarian. And a farmer. 

Jovie's less committal. Maybe she'll be an artist or a pop star. Or a teacher and a mom. 

They seem to understand they can be many things in life. Which is encouraging, right?

Maybe I worry too much. That's a side effect of motherhood. Of womanhood even. That constant questioning, anxiety, second-guessing. Always doubtful. Never quite feeling like my legs are under me.

Maybe that's why I have to give myself pep talks while doing the dishes. There's not really anyone else around here to do it, is there? When I worked at the newspaper I'd get feedback from co-workers and my boss about how I was doing. At home? Who the hell knows? Some days I feel like the only measure of my performance is the amount of fur and hair in the vacuum canister and how well the kids cleaned their plates at dinner.

Growing up, I always looked at my dad- dressed in his suit, working late, going on business trips, talking about briefings or current affairs at the dinner table and thought what he did must be so important. That he must be so important. I've always had a tremendous amount of respect for him. I saw him– and still see him– as being an authority on so much. Everything from international affairs to astrophysics to orchid care to car maintenance.

But it was different with Mom. Mom was always dressed in flannel and jeans spotted in bleach. She never wore makeup or did much to style her hair– not that she needed to do anything, she was always so adorable. Still is. Compared with Dad, Mom was always softer and more accessible. 

What I remember about her growing up was that she was always there. 

She was there to see us off to school in the morning and there when we got home. She was there vacuuming floors and dusting and washing windows. There baking bread and making spaghetti sauce (inevitably dusted in flour or splashed with tomatoes). She was there flipping through her Bon Appetits in search of recipes to try. There rifling through one of several junk drawers searching for lost glasses or keys or cash. There asking about school. There driving me to piano lessons and soccer practice and Sarah to dance class and Steve to whatever sport he was trying out at the time. 

When she wasn't there she was either at the grocery store (the woman was always at the grocery store) or at the hospital, where she worked as a nurse. 

Her laughter, her poking around the kitchen, her cooking smells– that was what made home, home.

But of course, there was more to Mom than just being the mom.

Terry Gross recently interviewed actress and comedian Pamela Adlon who created and stars in the FX show "Better Things" in which she plays a single mom raising three girls. In the interview, Gross made the observation that on the show Adlon's daughters have no curiosity about their mom's life. 

"You could be going through the most like extraordinary or excruciating thing and they don't even want to know about it," Gross says.

I heard this and thought about sitting at the dinner table and listening to the girls buzz about their day and Brad unloading about his and me feeling as if there wasn't a whole lot to say and the girls really not caring too much about it anyway.

And then I thought of my own mom. Was I ever curious about her? Did I ever ask about her day and listen? Like, really listen? Did I ever try to get to know her? Probably not. Ugh. Definitely not. I was the quintessential self-absorbed adolescent. 

And really, it wasn't until I became a mom a whopping eight years ago that I found myself wondering about her more. Wanting to know more about how she survived having six children with her sense of humor in tact. 

Each day, each milestone, each headache sparks more questions. 

Adlon reflects on being surrounded by her own kids and their chattering and describes this feeling of being alone within the chaos.

I wonder how often Mom felt that way. Alone within the chaos.

I feel that way sometimes. Spending the daylight hours being the lone adult can feel so isolating.

The thing is, Mom was always doing extraordinary things on top of being an extraordinary mom. She prepared extraordinary food. Cultivated extraordinary gardens. Offered her patients extraordinary care. Showed extraordinary kindness to whoever she came across- friends and strangers alike. 

Not that I recognized any of that when I was living with her. More often I'd roll my eyes at her forgetfulness and sigh heavily each time she called me over to help her with the computer. 

I'm ashamed to say her absent-mindedness always clouded her intelligence in my teenaged mind. But she's a smart lady. And passionate and persistent.  

When I was in high school, Mom went back to school to get her Bachelor's in nursing. She had to take a math class or two. These classes were not easy for her. I remember her sitting at the kitchen table covered in sheets of notebook paper each containing a single problem which she worked through again and again until she figured it out. She's the model of perseverance. 

And her brain never stops churning. She's always reading- especially nonfiction about healthcare- and then sending me suggestions of books I should read- usually exposés on Big Pharma or celebrations of gut bacteria or ruminations on end-of-life planning. She's an ardent advocate of reforming the medical-industrial complex.

To this day she wakes before the sun rises and, fueled by coffee and more coffee, doesn't stop moving until she dons her cotton nightgowns and collapses in bed by 8. 

She is Wonder Woman, clad in flannel, her nose dusted in flour, her reading glasses? Who knows where?

Whether I saw it or not as a kid, Mom was this whole, rounded-out person. She wasn't just the person who washed the windows or chauffeured me around to the soundtrack of Celine Dion and John Denver.

I see this now. 

I've been rolling this all around in my head. The work we do in the home matters. Whether it's carried out by a mother or father or both. It matters. If all the constructs of modern civilization were to just disappear tomorrow and humans were left in the dust to eek out our existence- what would we need? Food and shelter. Companionship. A fire to gather around and share stories at the end of the day. These are the things that sustain our body and soul. 

So why then does it feel as if the domesticity is this afterthought? Cancel that. It's certainly not an afterthought for everyone carrying it out. It's the stuff we do no matter what the rest of the day throws at us. But it's not valued really. It's not like society has any great respect for the person cleaning the sheets, folding the laundry, making the lunch, wiping the toothpaste out of the sink, mowing the lawn, mopping the floor. 

We're all that person doing these jobs on any given day. Not just the moms. 

It's just right now I'm the mom and this is what I do the most. I'm subjective. I'm not trying to be defensive. This (very obvious) idea that the tending of our most basic needs is a worthy use of my time was an epiphany to me. Come by honestly at a sink full of dishes, not while listening to über-conservative evangelicals fuss about family values and gender roles or while reading a stack of Martha Steward Livings. I consider myself a feminist and am not suggesting working moms be shooed back into their slippers and house coats to save the children. 

No, I'm just noting that it feels like our society places more emphasis, more value on the stuff that happens outside our doorsteps. We are starstruck by the advice and dreams and counsel of CEOs, celebrities, athletes, those folks on the TED Talk circuits and even politicians more than our own mothers and fathers. 

I'm just as guilty. I mean, how much respect did I have for my own mother who worked 12-hour, overnight shifts as a nurse on weekends after carrying the weight of an eight-person family on her back all week? The answer is not nearly enough.

Maybe it doesn't matter so much what the girls see me doing day to day. Maybe it matters more that they see me owning my life and taking pride in and celebrating myself. No matter what shape that takes. 

So that's, that I suppose. I apologize (as always) for the rambling and the whining. I don't mean to grouse. Or sound as if I feel unappreciated. It's all OK. I'm as always sorting things out.

It's just, I had this thought that this needed to be said today: 

If you do nothing more in your day than tend to the quiet, ceaseless needs of your body and the needs of those you love, well that's enough. And it's a worthy way to spend your days. Even better if you do these things alongside the things that make your soul surge. That make you rise up like a phoenix, owning your magnificence. 

Even better still if you can just own your magnificence. Exactly as you are. 

Right 

this 

moment.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The necessity of getting what you want and what you need


My crew of shorties rolling three deep.

It was Valentine's Day and at pickup the kids were beaming. Toting bags stuffed with cards and candy from their friends. 

There was a kindergartner - a little boy with big grey eyes fringed by thick lashes - who always dotes on Annie. If she's in the stroller, he'll skip over and stare down at her, gently stroking her hair and commenting about how cute she is. If I'm wearing her in the Baby Bjorn, he'll play with her feet. Sometimes I'll kneel so he can talk to her. 

On Valentine's Day, the little boy spotted Annie and bounded over to where I was  holding her in the Bjorn. He held up his hands and she grabbed his fingers. He was smitten. He wanted to give her a hug. My quads burned as I half squatted down for him to give her a squeeze. I started to stand up, but he reached for her again, though not for a hug this time.

The din of all the sugar-filled kids faded as I watch this boy, so earnest and so sweet, fixate on my little Annie. He extended his pointer finger toward her head and I worried he might poke her. Instead, he used it to trace a tiny heart on her forehead. I couldn't see her face as he did this. But she wasn't wiggling or crying. And me? I was enamored by the tenderness of the gesture. How gentle he was. How focused. How intent.

He told me he wanted to come to my house so he could have a playdate with Annie. Annie who gnaws on her toys rather than playing with them. Who would most likely try to grab fistfuls of his hair and squirm out of his lap. He wanted to walk with us as we left school. When we separated at the corner, he yelled goodbye to Annie from across the street.

Later that evening, I smiled at a post my friend Beth made on Facebook:

"Everyone should experience Valentines Day like a kindergartener. Love everyone you see. Be completely in love with love."

I thought of Annie's little friend. What Beth says is so true. 

I remembered the day a couple weeks back at pickup when it was snowing. Giant, round flakes. Snow globe flakes. As the kindergartners walked out the door, their eyes gazed skyward. They opened their mouths and stuck out their tongues. They staggered toward their parents this way. Eyes up, tongues out. I caught the eye of their teacher, a neighbor and friend. We smiled at each other with complete, unspoken understanding that the smile was for these small people and their unadulterated joy and how lucky we were to be witnesses.

"Be completely in love with love." 

Live completely in the wonder of each minute.

I think about Annie and our small, quiet days together. 

I think about how she inspires so much love in me. And so much love in others- like that kindergartner and Lily's friend who calls herself Annie's, "Fairy God Sister." And the cashiers at Target and the strangers at the grocery store. All pausing in their day to smile at her and make goofy faces and goofy noises in the hopes that she'll smile back. She mostly doesn't smile back. But she doesn't cry either. She locks eyes with them or studies their faces. They seem contented by these interactions. As if it's broken the monotony of their days.

"She's so cute," strangers tell me. "She's adorable." "Look at those dimples!" "Her eyes are so bright."

And I don't deny any of it. I stand there with a dumb grin on my face. My eyes a little watery. Carrying her around, I feel like a peacock with my tail feathers on display. Or a pro wrestler hoisting one of those giant victory belts over their head. I have zero humility when it comes to her. 

Annie is my prize, I feel like. This miraculous thing I won. Looking at her fills me with gratitude. 


A gorilla mother and her baby.
The grand prize winning photo in the
Nature's Best Photography exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History.

The thing with Annie is, I didn't think she was a possibility. Not because of any physical problems. I'm fortunate to come from a line of very fertile women. I know how lucky I am in this regard. I didn't think she was a possibility because of a conversation Brad and I had on a different Valentine's Day- years ago. Some time after we had Jovie. 

We were having dinner at an Italian restaurant we liked and I said playfully, "When do you want to have our third baby?" and Brad more or less shut down. He told me he didn't think he wanted to have another child. That two seemed to be enough and that he was worried about the financial burden of another child and that it would be a struggle to put two kids through college, much less three. We'd need a bigger house, a bigger car. 

I tried to explain that I'd come from a big family and had always envisioned having at least three children. But the whole conversation felt very final. Like a verdict. Like there was no room for discussion. So I kind of shut down, too. I've never been good at difficult conversations. My family growing up was so traditional. It always seemed as if Dad made the major decisions and Mom followed suit. As much as I knew that dynamic didn't work for me, I still fell back into old patterns. 

And anyway, my arguments for a third child felt feeble against Brad's more practical concerns. I felt as if I seemed greedy. Like I was asking for another scoop of ice cream or an expensive toy. I told myself to be happy with what I already had (and who wouldn't be happy with two such funny, kind little girls). I needed to be pragmatic and move on.

But I never stopped wanting that third baby. It weighed on me, this baby. I couldn't put into words why I felt so strongly about growing our family just a little more- only that I felt like we weren't quite complete. Like I wasn't fulfilling some deep part of myself.

I mourned the loss of this child that only ever existed in my imagination. I held on to the baby gear for awhile, but eventually gave it away or sold it at yard sales. Keeping it around when it would never be used was depressing. But seeing it go didn't really bring me much comfort or acceptance either. 

Lily and Jovie started preschool. We moved to Virginia. Then in what seemed like an instant they were both in school full time. It felt as if the door to the little years was slammed shut. My heart broke. 

I'd like to say that Brad and I had a grownup conversation in which I laid out my case for another child and we talked through the logistics and I won him over. 

What really happened was that as my resentment came to a head, and Brad knew there was a wedge cracking the foundation of our relationship. He started to thaw on the topic. It wasn't that he came to see the logic in a third child- is there any logic to having children?- but that he finally saw how important it was to me. I don't think it hurt that we'd moved to a neighborhood filled with families of five. It didn't appear as if the third kid led to ruin- these families seemed to be functioning (or maybe dysfunctioining) just fine. 

Brad is a worrier with the heart of a caretaker. I knew that plunging into fatherhood for a third time was out of his comfort zone. I know that he felt anxious about the mechanics of it all- resuming life with an infant when we seemed to be reaching a cruising altitude with the other two. Shouldn't we just focus on offering the two that we had the best lives we could? He made a fair point. Knowing this about him made him coming around on the idea of growing our family an even bigger gift. Because I knew what it cost him in peace of mind. 

But watching Brad with Annie now- he loves her. And what's not to love, really? He sees that she's filled a hole in our family. He's embraced a third round of fatherhood as graciously as he did the other two. He sees that it's doable. And he got that minivan he'd been lusting after for years.

Annie was our missing piece.

I've been thinking about the idea of want. How want seems to come with an asterisk of negativity. How we are taught that want is reserved for excess and nonessentials. 

I'm in agreement with these basic principles of want. But I also believe that there are wants that are also needs. 

Humans have these deep aches for things that might seem unnecessary in our career-centric, consumer-driven culture. We've come to believe that there are certain wants that are more acceptable than others. A nice house, for instance. A nice car. Vacations. The deluge of knick-knacks and throw pillows and housewares that arrive with each new season at Target. 

Women, and I think mothers especially, are told it's OK to want. But that our wants should be limited to particular things. 

We're told that given all we do to raise the children and keep the house and fulfill the spouse we deserve to "treat ourselves." But the things we're trained to want aren't necessarily the things that will nourish us. In the name of "self-care" we're told to get a pedicure or buy that pair of boots or change our hair or get a massage or splurge on the venti latte. All these fleeting, one-off things that stop feeding us as soon as a nail gets chipped or our roots start showing.

While any of these things are nice, I'd argue they're band-aids for the things we really want. And also the things we really need. That when we can fulfill the deeper things that meet both needs and wants, all the other stuff sort of ends up in the dust bin. 

As humans, as women, as mothers, we need and want to feel heard. To create. To share our visions. To share our wisdom. To feel as if we're fulfilling our purpose in the grander plan. 

It sounds trite, but I think of Moana, who knew she was destined for something outside of her island without knowing precisely what it was. She was called to the sea. 

I think of Beth (i.e. my sweater buddy!)* on this week's episode of "This is Us." 

Beth's character has been adrift for months after losing her job. A visit home to see her mother stirs up memories of her childhood. How her father called her his "little island girl who danced before she could walk." How she used to dance ballet. How through high school she'd trained to become a principal dancer in a prestigious company but then her father died and her dream died, too. Instead, she went on to college and a successful career as an urban planner. She remembers her love of dance and is lucky enough to have a husband who understands the value of need-wants. Randall drops her off at a studio where she dances for the first time, I guess, since she was a teenager. Her face while dancing- it was as if she'd found herself again. As if she'd come home to herself.

That. 

That is the thing I'm talking about.

That is the need-want we were all put on this Earth to fulfill. 

I don't believe it's a selfish thing, either. It's not about greed or self absorption or running away from the life you have. It doesn't have to be about upheaval and overturning all you've already created. It's about honoring the person you are called to be in the space you're in. Adjusting as need be. 

When we as individuals tend to our hearts in this way, it is better for all of us, I think. It is  generative. 

It is an act of love for ourselves and what comes out of its fulfillment is an act of love for all of creation.     


The vision board I made with my sisters recently.

My sister Laura and I talk about dreams we have. There's that trip to Tahiti (obviously) and the one where we find a beautiful piece of land and create a gathering place for tired women to come and unload their burdens and maybe get closer to figuring out the nature of their own need-wants.

For my sister Sarah it's art and working with animals. Same with Jen, I think.

Since childhood writing has been something I've felt called to do. Not that there's been a disembodied voice from the heavens telling me to write. Only that there's been an ever-present, insistent, bossy voice in my own head telling me to write. And write. And write. And to keep doing it even when it feels pointless. Sometimes that voice finds helpers in the form of other people- encouraging me to continue doing the thing I know I'm supposed to do when I'm filled with self doubt. Sometimes the voice goes dormant for a time. But it always returns. Like a migrating bird. 

For me, being a mother is also a need-want. Even when I was young, I knew I was destined to drive a minivan (though I spent years in denial of the actual minivan part). Each of my children have expanded my heart and helped me be more aware of daily joys. Re-reading, this feels like an understatement. 

The world needed Lily, Jovie  and  Annie, too. Children inspire love in the people they come across. From besotted kindergartners to strangers on the subway. They soften our hearts even if for a moment. Having children is an act of hope and an act of defiance against a world that feels so cynical.

My girls are a remedy. A salve.

Just like poetry and art and music and dance.

Annie has helped me understand that. 

Just like as with Lily and Jovie, I'm anxious to see what her need-wants will be. Where she will fall into herself.

She's different than the older two. Maybe a little more serious. A little more introverted. 

She is content to crawl around the floor looking for this or that to play with. She doesn't fuss at me when I redirect her from the boundless dust bunnies littering our floors back to her own toys  and then again from the basket of cat toys she's raided for the tenth time in a morning. She doesn't fuss when I lay her down in her crib so I can get dressed for the day. She'll amuse herself with a toy  and often fall asleep for an hour or two. 

She doesn't even fuss much when she wakes up. I'll hear her babbling on the monitor. When I go upstairs to get her, she'll be on her tummy snuggling with her toy elephant or playing with a blanket. "Hi Baby!" I say and she pops her head up like a baby harp seal and a smile spreads across her face like the sun cresting a hill. 

She knits our family together into a tight little circle. We all gather around when she's laughing. We all take turns kissing her cheeks and smoothing her silky hair.

Around her, we're all like the kindergartners catching snowflakes on our tongues. Silly and buoyant and perfectly present. 

She inspires us to trace hearts on everyone's foreheads. 

To expand on the love she's laid before us. To fill the world with it.

We're all better when we chase these sorts of needs. These wants. They're the things most worth seeking. Most worth fighting for. Most worth waiting for.


***

*Because I'm a dork: Here's young Beth on "This is Us" wearing a very bold fuchsia sweater with gold and turquoise accents with a white turtleneck.



And here's me, circa 1991ish wearing the same  bold fuchsia sweater with a white turtleneck.