Copyright: The Tired Feminist

The joy and the heartache of Mother’s Day

*Trigger Warning*

It’s Mother’s Day and everyone’s posting pictures on social media feeds of themselves as children with their much-adored moms. It’s a sweet gesture and I hope those moms feel the love and maybe have a giggle at long-ago hairstyles and the behind-the-scenes madness it probably took to get that shot. (As a mother of a young child, I know just the circus of a family photo session!) But it’s bittersweet for me, even sparking a flash of jealousy, or two.

Don’t get me wrong. I adore my daughter. She is the light of my life. She brings me joy. Having her has helped me find a voice I never had before. All those statements would be cliché if they weren’t truly and deeply true. Opening myself up to being a mother; carrying that pregnancy in my body; knowing the thrills and chills of motherhood has been one of the most fulfilling, messy, magical, scary, beautiful experiences of my life. To know my daughter and to have the honor of parenting her is a healing act for me on an almost daily basis.

But damn it if I still cringe at Mother’s Day. Unfortunately, I have only known my daughter for three years and I’ve spent almost 37 years being someone else’s daughter. Healing takes time.

So, as I scroll through happy photos and the sentimental statuses of friends who love their mothers, I do feel a little jealous and a little pain in my heart. I’m sure I could summon a dusty memory from my childhood that doesn’t reek with drama and hurt, but to me it would feel false to post that publicly. It would present an image to the world that was incomplete and a daresay just this side of false. Oh, the memory would be real, of course. But to single it out, plucking it strategically from a voluminous catalog of disappointment, betrayal, neglect, and attacks on my innocence — that would feel like a lie. A convenient lie. One I told the world for a long time, because that’s so much easier than admitting the truth. My mother was not a good parent. And in ways too intense and too upsetting to share, her actions showed me that she did not like me, and quite possibly didn’t love me.

Now, most of the time I can safely walk through my life and not give this old wound much thought. When my daughter bounds into the room, her golden hair bouncing in the light and her face illuminated with happiness, my heart swells and everything bad about my life before her disappears into a foggy and ever-distant past. We go on adventures. We even have little conversations now that she’s mastering simple-sentence structures. I see the world more and more through her eyes. I encourage her to marvel and experiment and study this existence. And as she does, I see her wonder and amazement and it feels like the old scar tissue melts down a little more with each of those moments. Love is a healing tonic, a salve to the wounds. It binds. Its heals. It allows us to grow. And I am so grateful for that. I am so deeply grateful for my daughter and to be her mom.

And then as Mother’s Day approaches I find I have a sort of cognitive dissonance. My daughter is not quite old enough to know what it means, beyond making me a crafted present at school. (Which I adore beyond all my other possessions.) Perhaps when she’s older it will change. I don’t know. But for now, as I pass the displays every damn place I go and see the ads during all my favorite shows (truly, I’m the last person on the planet without a DVR), it just grows and grows. I manage to put it off and put it out of my mind as long as possible. My mind keeps forgetting about it and then I have to remind myself to remember it. (I do have a mother-in-law, after all.) And then in the final count-down, those last days before Mother’s Day, it just consumes every place I go whether in the real world or online. And I feel sort of trapped by all the people sharing warm, happy memories. I feel like I’m claustrophobic and trapped in a tight space.

Worst of all, I feel like if I talk about it with anyone but my closest loved ones — who already know the pains and the whys — that people will think less of me. How is it that having a bad parent makes you the bad child? Why is it that having a bad mother means I’m a bad daughter? Why do the kids have to bear the mistakes of the parents — like scarlet As on our chests. Right where our hearts were ripped out.

You can’t go on Facebook on Mother’s Day and say, “I’m glad you’re all having a wonderful Mother’s Day. Just thought you should know, this just reminds me what a shitty mom I had. Thanks.”

It wouldn’t be a very nice thing. It would be passive-aggressive. And why should I dampen anyone else’s good time? That’s not fair. But it’s also not fair to me — and all the kids like me, and I know you are out there — that we have to just endure the collective emotional dump of these myopic holidays. (Father’s Day is an equally painful landmine for many.)

Maybe if there weren’t emotional landmines around already, it would be easier. Just a few days ago, I gave testimony at the Nevada Legislature in favor of a comprehensive sex education bill. Many people who oppose the bill had testified about how pregnancy was the consequence, the punishment, for teens who did not practice abstinence. More than one mother — I know they were mothers because they all made sure to mention how many children and grandchildren they had — got up and said that if teens made the mistake of having sex, then they should have to live with the consequences. Because that will make a person really love their baby! One woman talked about how her daughter had gotten into drugs and sex and then became pregnant and how having that baby forced her to get clean and straighten out her life. If that actually happened, good for that person. More importantly, good for that baby. Because if having a child is a life-sentence for the mom, guess what, it’s no less a life-sentence for the kid!

I should know, I’m one of those babies of a teen mom.

So, I testified about the hardships of growing up with a teen mom. I talked about our poverty. The lack of choices my mother had because of her limited education. But I also talked about how deeply flawed she was and ill-equipped to be a quality parent. I talked about the emotional scars she left. And, in the context of sex education, I told the legislators that the kids like me deserve quality information, because we might not have anyone else in our lives who will give it to us. But it was not easy to do, to talk about these things in the public square, so to speak. I cried during my testimony, which I found to be extremely embarrassing. I am not a public crying type. And I suppose it shows how deep the shame of being the child of a teen mom is. 36 years later, I still feel the shame that society has placed on both her and me. After all, I’m the product of the “sin.” I’m the living, breathing scarlet A on my mother’s chest.

A couple days later, I was shopping for groceries and passed a display of flowers. (Mother’s Day, in case you forgot!) I stopped a moment and looked at the pretty flowers. There was a basket of tulips — orange and pink. They looked so bright and cheery. I had a sudden flashback to memories of my mom planting tulips along the side of our house. I adored those tulips. But that sweet memory gets polluted by another, adjacent, memory of the man who sexually abused me. He brought me tulips once, because they were my favorite. And I have felt a little ill whenever I see a tulip ever since. But on this day in the grocery store, standing still in front of the pots of flowers, I just marveled at the beauty even as the conflicting and terrible memories washed over me. Maybe tulips could have been one bright memory with my mother, but it got destroyed by someone else. And then I had a little inner dialogue with myself. Maybe I could reclaim them. Look at how pretty they are! But if I bought them and brought them home and all I thought about was the pain every time I saw them — that’s like bringing pain right into my house. Why do that? I couldn’t decide if I was strong enough to reclaim it. And I wasn’t willing to take that chance. So I walked away.

That’s the thing about troubled childhoods. Those memories and pains bubble up to the surface all the time, no matter what day it is. There are these little moments all the time. Being the survivor of sexual abuse, I know that all too well. I mean, how innocent are tulips? And yet, if I see them, I feel angry. I’ve been through a lot of therapy and read lots of books. I could probably do some kind of reverse-aversion therapy to tulips. I’m sure over time I could condition my mind to make new memories and welcome them back in again. But sometimes I just have to give myself a pass. I have so many other, more important things, to tackle. Maybe I just have to let little things like tulips slide by.

Unfortunately for me, one of the bigger things I have to deal with is that Mother’s Day is not going away. And now that I’m a mom, I want to embrace this holiday. I want to build new, better, happy memories. I want to focus on the positive. So that is the reverse-aversion therapy I’m focusing on today.

I wish I was alone in this, but I know I’m not. I know some of you are going through the same things. And I didn’t even touch on those who lost their mother; the women who wanted to have a baby and couldn’t; and so many others. Mother’s Day might be about celebrating moms, but that idea can be a painful one to a silently suffering minority. We watch your joy and we bide our time until it’s over.

My wish for everyone out there is that we can all find some peace. I hear people say, “Let go of the past.” And I wonder, how do I get it to let go of me? I have forgiven all I am capable of forgiving. I have let go of all I can un-grasp. But there’s no walking away from the scars. Like a bad knee that aches when it rains, the scars hurt sometimes. To deny that hurt is a lie. But I think it is possible to somehow find a kind of peace with it. We can acknowledge it. We can sit with it. And I think at the point when we stop judging ourselves for the pain we feel (why can’t I just let this go?) then a kind of peace can settle in.

In the meantime, I’m going to go hug my daughter. And I’m going to try and “like” all the happy mom memories I see today. Because I am glad that there are so many good moms out there. That’s a good thing. It gives me hope.

Photo by Bill Hughes

I organized this hate crimes event because I’m a mom

Cross-posted from The Sin City Siren:

Are you ready for the NOH8 in Las Vegas hate crimes event? I can’t believe it’s almost here! You can still RSVP here.

And all this planning has me thinking about the first time I organized an event for Erin Davies and her “fag bug.” I spent most of the summer of 2007 organizing two events for the fag bug — a caravan down the Strip and an event at the Beauty Bar on July 26, 2007. (If you remember those posts, you are an SCS Super Fan! xoxo) I even roped family and friends into helping me distribute fliers at First Friday in July. If you live in Las Vegas, you know that is proof that my family and friends love me!

When I organized the first fag bug event I was in a much different place in my life. I had just left my stable, full-time job as a staff writer at Las Vegas CityLife to strike out on my own. I had started The Sin City Siren just a few months earlier — May 6, 2007 to be exact. (Say, it looks like there’s an anniversary coming up…) In a lot of ways, I feel like the history of Erin Davies’ fag bug dovetails with that of SCS. Her car was vandalized with anti-gay hate speech on the National Day of Silence in April 2007, right around the same time I was mulling jumping into the online journalism/blogging landscape. And through organizing that first Las Vegas event in 2007, Erin and I have forged a friendship sealed by activism and our inexplicable shared idealism that the world is not as evil as all the bad news leads us to believe.

Erin Davies inside her "fag bug" car at the Beauty Bar on July 26, 2007. Photo by Bill Hughes

Erin Davies inside her “fag bug” car at the Beauty Bar on July 26, 2007. Photo by Bill Hughes

In truth, I would say that organizing Erin’s fag bug event in 2007 was a turning point in my life and career. I had just spent nearly 10 years in traditional print journalism and was feeling beat down by the weight of cynicism that pervades newsrooms. I was known as a Pollyanna because I had an unusual ability to see the good in people, despite my daily job reporting quite the opposite. Unusual for the vocation. Maybe unusual for all I know to be true in this world even today — as I sadly continue to write and report on rape culture and attacks (figurative and literal) on women’s rights these past six years on SCS.

How is it possible that I still see the good in people or our world? In a word: fagbug.

When I set about to organize the 2007 fag bug events I hadn’t done any organizing in 10 years (or since I was in college, for those keeping track at home). But I know a lot of people in this town and I just decided that if I could get unwilling sources to open up on the record, how hard could it be to call in a few favors to do some good? It turns out, it was both more work and surprisingly easy all at the same time. It took a while to get momentum rolling but when I lucked into a women’s HRC meeting exploring the idea of creating an off-shoot group (it became Women’s Empowerment Network), it was like the hand of destiny was tapping us all. They needed an event to get people to organize around and get engaged in a new group, I needed people who could help. There are many things about Las Vegas I don’t like, but one thing that is great about this town is the deep generosity that lies just below the surface. By the time we had our last volunteer meeting it was not just standing room only, we ended up shutting down a rather large Starbucks because we went over building occupancy!

And that was just the preview to what ended up being a really inspiring, dynamic, fun event at the Beauty Bar. We packed that place with so many LGBTQ Las Vegans, we practically turned the venue pink for the night! So many people stepped up and donated time and money and resources — from comped rooms on the Strip, to a take at the door, to local musicians playing for free, to a local Volkswagen dealer giving Erin’s car a free tune-up (which actually indirectly led to VW sponsoring her trip later on) — it was all so amazing to me. After covering this town for years as a journalist, I thought I knew what Las Vegas was. But that night, I finally got to see the real heart and soul of Las Vegas. And that couldn’t have come at a better time; a time when I was beginning to lose faith in the humanity of people and my Pollyanna spirit was draining out of me. That night gave me the courage to go on as a journalist, a blogger, and as it turns out, an activist.

Erin Davies and I pose in front of her fag bug at the Beauty Bar on July 26, 2007. Photo by Bill Hughes

So when Erin sent me a message a few months ago asking about coming to Las Vegas… How could I say no?

Even as I started organizing the event for tomorrow — Friday, 7pm, 101 S. Rancho Drive — I began to wonder if this is coming into my life again for a reason. After nearly six years doing The Sin City Siren, I’m feeling the frayed edges of burn-out creeping in. How many more times do I have to write about no justice for rape survivors? How many more stories about women being threatened out of their rights do I need to write? How much more misogyny, homophobia, and racism can I take?! But as I talked with Erin and started reaching out to organizations and organizers, I started to feel that old spark again.

Could that be hope returning?

This time around my motivations are different, more personal. Now I’m somebody’s mother. And that somebody is linked to Las Vegas for life, because she was born here. This is my daughter’s home town. And for all the bitching I do about all the failings of Las Vegas, specifically, and Nevada in general — and let’s face it that is a loooong list — it just begs the question: What are you going to do about it?

As I have been planning the NOH8 in Las Vegas hate crimes event, featuring Erin Davies, I have been thinking about all the ways our society is designed to discriminate, limit, and box-in my child. She’s only two and society is already teaching her that some things are “for boys” and some are “for girls.” She’s already getting indoctrinated in the gender-binary of a life defined by being a gender that is “opposite” the one and only other gender. And because our society labels the female gender as weak, all this gender-coding is already putting road-blocks in the way of her future success. She will someday have to argue the  point that she is qualified and worth equal pay. And that’s only after she navigates an educational system so burdened with patriarchal systems of oppression (not to mention racism and classicism) that she will have to prove her worth to be treated equally to math, science, technology, and if she is skilled for it like her father, engineering classes. And we haven’t even talked about sports…

My daughter is already growing up in a world that wants to limit who she is. It wants to define who she is. And it wants to take away opportunities, based on nothing more than archaic systems of oppression labeled “tradition.” What if she is not heterosexual? What if she is transgender? What if she one day falls in love with a person of color and that coupling faces discrimination and racism? As a mother, I can’t protect her from everything. I can’t walk ahead of her through her life and punch all those assholes in the face. (That’s hyperbole, not an actual threat, mind you.) I am doing my best to dismantle what I can and to give her the tools I hope will help her to do the same — more even.

But that’s not all I can do. I know how to organize. I still have a lot of friends. (Love you!) And for whatever reason or act of God, my name still has some credibility attached to it, a political chip I’m willing to cash in if it means I can inch my daughter’s home town just that much closer to a fair and equitable place to grow up. More than that, it’s worth all this work — and yes, time away from my munchkin lately — because so many other people’s sons and daughters are getting victimized by hate and discrimination every single day. What kind of mother would I be if I didn’t stand in solidarity with them? Because if there’s anything being a parent has taught me is that we really do need a village because this shit is hard work.

Hatred and acts of hate don’t just anger me, they hurt us all. Every time someone paints hate speech on a block wall to scare and silence their neighbor; every time a rape victim is taunted by cyber-bullies until she takes her own life just to escape the torture; every time a mom has to drive her kids to school in their minivan covered in “dyke” and “fag;” every time a legislator is threatened with bodily harm because she talks about having an abortion … every single time things like this happen, we are all harmed. We can’t separate out these hates as different or unique. These are all rooted in the same bigotry, intolerance, and fear that feed into such a deep reservoir of hate. And that hate will undo us all. It will take us all down. It will destroy our spirit and the ones we love, if we let it.

The hate crimes event tomorrow is my line in the sand. No more hate! Whether it’s acted out like racism, homophobia, misogyny, or any other form of bigotry — it’s all hate! And just like so many have rallied around Boston as a show of support and a symbol of how much bigger love is than hate, we must all unite and rally to stand against hate everywhere — like right here in Las Vegas.

Alright Las Vegas, I’ll see you there.

NOH8 in Las Vegas_fagbug

Copyright: The Tired Feminist

TMF: Spidey Sense tingling!

Copyright: The Tired Feminist

It doesn’t get more obviously gendered then the toddler underwear aisle.

Now this particular TMF: Tired Marketing Fail hits closer to home than most because Andrea Shindeldecker of Oak Park, Illinois is a mom after my own heart. You see, her five-year-old daughter LOVES Spiderman! Sure, other superheroes are great and all, but Spidey is tops. Sound like another little girl you’ve heard about on this blog before? Yep, as I’ve said before, my toddler is one of Spidey’s biggest fans. So, when this Change.org petition hit my inbox with the simple title Spiderman Underpants… well, you had me at Spiderman.

This TMF goes out to all the little girls who love superheroes and find no love at their local department stores. I’ll let Andrea explain:

Where to begin? My name is Andrea Shindeldecker and I’m many things, but as we say in the business, I am first and foremost, a mother. A mother to two amazing girls. I tell them every day that they are awesome and that they can accomplish whatever they strive for and that boys and girls, men and women are equal. The lessons they’re learning in the store aisles, reflect that my sincerest lesson, may hold a kernel of falsehood.

My first-born, Charlotte will be 5 in 2 days. She LOVES Spider-Man. All the superheros, but Spidey is her one, truest love. She has begged, since she was beginning to potty train, for Spidey undies. We even tried the boys. While buying out of the boys department works for t-shirts and pajamas, alas, not for underwear. Today, she got mad. She told me that it’s NOT FAIR. That she loves Spider-Man and knows more about him than lots of kids. It’s not fair that she can’t have the Spidey undies and it makes her SO MAD. If she’s not allowed to have something as silly as the underwear, what else can’t she have? A very good question indeed.

It’s not just Spider-Man that she can’t have. It happens with all the children’s characters. A boy who loves Dora or Cinderella, a little girl that wants both Thor and Foofa underwear. Every day, they’re told told that what they want is only for children of the opposite gender. It seems like such a small thing, but what we are telling small children, on their first MAJOR transition out of babyhood is that their favorite character is not for them. That they are wrong. What a terrible message. Kids can and do like whatever they want. Heroes and princesses alike, are for all children. And if a favored hero can be worn on a day they are nervous such as a recital or a first day at a new school; then why should we deny them that small comfort!? Why should we tell our kids they can only want the characters on one side of the store aisle?
It’s a big world, and we tell our kids they are free to be themselves and pursue their own paths. However, we tell them from a young age that they can’t be themselves, they can be pink or blue. I want my kids to feel free to embrace all their facets of their diamond personalities, to dream of being like strong heroes and courageous princesses, to be every color of the rainbow. I wish that for your kids too.

Let’s start with the underwear, and we’ll work our way out to the outermost layers of clothing.

This is a classic example of tired marketing failing our kids! Frankly, it’s a classic example of capitalism failing, if you get right down to it. I mean, isn’t the idea of capitalism all about supply and demand? Well, our little girls are demanding Spiderman underpants! Where are their Spiderman underpants?!

I must admit, when I first saw this email in my inbox, I got excited that maybe someone was finally making girl-style superhero underwear. Because my toddler is closing in on three-years-old and we’re right in the middle of the Age of Potty Training. And one of the things that delighted her was discovering she could have Spiderman underwear. I went ahead and bought her the boy-style briefs, but they proved uncomfortable for her and she would quickly take them off. And now, every time she looks at them, there’s a little disappointment on her cherubic face.

And just like that, my two-year-old has had her first experience with gender conformity. Society is telling her in not-so-subtle terms that Spidey is not for girls. Those underpants are not for you. And that fucking sucks!

And like Andrea, I have no desire to leave the boys out of this game because they are getting screwed here, too. If you’re little boy likes Dora the Explorer, Hello Kitty, princesses, or even just the color pink… fuggitaboutit. Not only will he face open mockery for his choice, but those girl-style panties won’t comfortably fit his needs anymore than the Spideys did for my daughter.

Honestly, we live in a time when comic book movies are enjoyed be people of all genders. I went to see Iron Man 2 one week before I gave birth to my daughter. That’s how much I wanted to see that movie! If you have ever been pregnant or known someone in the late-stages of pregnancy, you have to have some sense of the discomfort quotient I was willingly putting up with to see a comic book movie. (And I would do it again.)

So, if we all agree that girls and women can like comic books and watch comic book movies and be all up in the superhero business… then what’s the hold up on delivering what little girls want? And let’s not delivery this underpants-style equality in batches. Let’s de-segregate the underwear aisle!

And let’s not stop there… Because it ain’t any better in the diaper aisle:

Copyright: The Tired Feminist

Is there a reason why diapers are ONLY pink and blue in the major brands?

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The Girl Scouts: On leadership, inclusiveness, and cookies

With the news that The Boy Scouts of America is toying with ending its discriminatory policy against GBT (and presumably L) people, I can’t help but compare them to The Girl Scouts of the USA. In fairness, I must admit up front that I am an alum of the organization. But that’s not enough to completely cloud what truly are stark differences between the two organizations.

Girl Scouts encourage activities — such as sports, camping and outdoor adventures, and pursuing interest in STEM — long considered “for the boys” according to sexist cultural mores. And that was just when I was a kid in the 1980s. They’ve come a long way since then. The Girl Scouts excel in promoting and providing opportunities for leadership. It turns out that 60 percent of the women in Congress — House and Senate — were in the youth program. Considering only about eight percent of the general female population has ever been a Girl Scout, this is pretty significant news.

Not only are the Girls more inclusive in their policies toward LGBT individuals, but when certain troop leaders have, well, gone rogue, the Girl Scouts have shown a history of acting swiftly to resolve those issues. Meanwhile, GSUSA does a lot to help make sure that girls who might otherwise slip through the cracks, or not have access, find a home in a troop of their own. From holding troop meetings during school lunch periods in at-risk schools, to welcoming kids with special needs, to the Girl Scouts Behind Bars program (giving girls time with their mothers who are in jail), Girl Scouts is adept at meeting the needs of kids in a complicated world.

Likewise, when a girl from their own ranks, working on an ecological badge, noticed that one of the main ingredients (palm oil) in many Girl Scout cookies was an ecological nightmare to harvest (let alone its links to obesity), the organization listened and implemented a plan to roll-out newly sourced palm oil while the ingredients in the cookies are changed.

Indeed, the Girl Scouts’ willingness to be nimble in a modern world may be its greatest strength. After all, what screams stuck-in-the-dark-ages more than a strict adherence to bigotry rooted in nothing more than “tradition” and ignorance?

I’m not saying that the Girl Scouts are perfect. No organization, especially one as big as they are, could be. … But I will say this: They have not one but two vegan cookies (one of them is the beloved Thin Mints!). And in its own way, that speaks volumes. I mean, what do the Boy Scouts have? Pop corn? Seriously?

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We need a little Christmas

In the movie Grosse Pointe Blank, there’s a conversation about the Buddhist concept of shakubuku, a philosophical argument designed to get you to challenge everything you have ever “known” to be true.

A swift spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality forever. I think I’m a bit like John Cusack’s character here, “That would be good. I think.”

In some ways, having a child is like shakubuku. Being a parent has altered my reality forever. And living with my daughter — watching her grow up and, at times, challenge my authority — sometimes feels like daily shakubuku.

I used to “know” that I hated Christmas. But then I met my daughter. I could see things in a fresh light — through her eyes. Children have no baggage. They do not see the spirits of Christmas past. They only see today. They only see that which delights them. (Like living with a tiny, tyrannical Buddha.)

This year we put up a tree for the first time since my daughter was born. (And certainly the first time for my husband and I in maybe 12 years.) It just seemed like an exercise in futility until she was old enough to both appreciate it and to understand language enough to grasp the concept that a tree is not for touching, “only looking with our eyes.” (Ask any parent of a small child how many times they have to repeat that or something similar all season long.) We only put soft ornaments and left the breakable ones in the box, just in case. But at two-and-a-half, she’s actually done pretty well. I’ve only found ornaments off the tree twice in about a month. Not bad.

More than any ornament, what seems to fascinate my daughter most are the little twinkly lights on the tree. We have spent quite a bit of time laying under the tree and staring up into the “preddy wites.” She can proudly name all the colors of the lights on our tree and can lay there for a half hour or more — an eternity in toddler time — pointing at different ones and exclaiming, “Green! Purple! Yellow! Red! Orange!”

My daughter has shifted my gaze on Christmas. I no longer crane my neck to look backward. And I spend less time fretting about the obligations and consternations. (And I am a big fan of Cyber Monday! Didn’t stand in line at a postal service once this season!) Instead, I revel in the small-scale wonder of a toddler’s joy. Christmas lights are pretty!

We have been enjoying the music of the holidays, too. My daughter nearly has Jingle Bells down pat. I barely miss the cookies and cakes that I’m not allowed; food allergies are such a Scrooge! But all that time (and frustration) in the kitchen would mean I’d miss more still moments looking at the lights, reading stories, and cuddling on the couch watching the Caillou Christmas special. (What did I tell you? Tiny tyrant.)

I feel lucky to be an architect of my daughter’s childhood. It’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly. And I hope that as I strive to give her great holiday experiences that will one day be memories, that she will feel the echo of all the giggles and delight. But what she may not realize is how much she’s rewritten the script of my life and altered my reality forever — even about something as fleeting as Christmas.

Whatever your belief system (or lack thereof), I wish for you to have a happy winter season filled with laughter and love.

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A Feminist Parent’s Gift Guide

We can do better.

Perhaps it is the natural out-growth of keeping an eagle-eye out for Tired Marketing Fails or it is just the nature of being a feminist parent, but I find shopping for my toddler to be the hardest of my entire holiday gift list.

We do our best to give our kids an environment that is filled with stimulating toys that spark creativity and imagination. Many moons ago when I was working as a nanny to put myself through college, I stumbled upon an academic paper about a psychological experiment designed to track when gendered toy choices entered the equation. (I’m afraid my college years pre-date any of the useful parts of the internet and I can’t find a link to this right now.) The researchers were surprised to note that children who were raised in neutral settings (i.e. no one labeled things as being for boys or for girls only), reacted to toys like trucks and dolls similarly. In fact, caring and nurturing for dolls is a developmental milestone in pretend play (especially if the toddler has siblings). But in our culture, we see dolls as an extension of babies and babies are of the domestic sphere and therefore labeled female. This paper made big impression on me in how I worked with children as a nanny and later a preschool teacher. Our society says there’s something wrong with boys playing with dolls, but if we were really listening to biology we would be encouraging children of all genders and gender-identities to have equal access to pretend play scenarios, including dolls, little kitchens, little tool benches, and all the things toddler want to do to mimic us adults.

Now that I’m a mom, I feel the burden of information like this all the more. Am I walking the walk in my own home? What am I modeling for my daughter in my behavior and in the toys and games we play? (Please click here if you need a pep talk and a reminder that we are not failing our kids!)

And if you are encouraging your child to be living life to their own beat, then you will also come up against walls of sexism that try to discourage you. As I shared on KNPR last week, my daughter’s favorite character is Spiderman. I have only found one Spidey shirt in a “girl’s” section. And I have never seen Spidey in a pink-colored toy aisle. Of course, that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have plenty of Spidey shirts and toys. They just come from “across the aisle.” I worry about the point in her life when peer pressure or a misguided parent or teacher tries to turn her away from this much like people did with one of my brothers at a similar age when he was obsessed with Cinderella. Sigh. But for now, I am happy to indulge (within reason, I’m not made of money).

This year it seems harder than ever as Las Vegas has been hit by the great recession particularly hard and many small and independent toy shops have closed up. Even the megalith ToysRUs is well on the other side of town from humble Tired Feminist headquarters. But honestly, that’s fine by me because that place gives me hives… And I’ve found some pretty great inspiration on the internet for children’s gifts that take the sexist-conformist-gender-policing out of the equation. (But check back soon for my Xmas-themed TMF!)

Before I launch into the list, I wanted to just make a couple of things clear: (1) I have not received any kind of compensation for any item, brand, or shop on this list. (I did not even tell them that they are being featured.) And (2) I know this list is skewed a bit to the girl gift side, but that is because in my research, I found so many more pro-girl sites. I would add to this point that when I was looking at traditional sites like Amazon, ToysRUs, Target and more, boys are hugely favored in creative/imaginative toys and activities that promote science, math, sports, technology and so many other areas that girls are traditionally left out of. So, I erred on the side of leveling the playing field. Finally, this post offers some good tips for creating a non-sexist holiday shopping list for kids.

Websites:

  • A Mighty Girl: This site has an amazing collection of gender-neutral and pro-girl items from books to clothes that is wonderfully curated by two parents who were fed up with the status quo. (Some readers might remember I profiled them before.) The site has items for sale in a special Amazon shop as well as links to many other thoughtful and empowering internet shops. Definitely worth perusing.
  • MindWare: This site has some a great selection of award-winning, pro-learning and creativity toys and games. As a bonus, their toddler section is not nearly as anemic as some.
  • A Closet of Her Own: This site offers clothing for girls who like things that are traditionally labeled for boys. You’ll find t-shirts with dinosaurs, trucks, and sports themes in the more gender-traditional pinks and purples. I waffled about including this site on the list because it does hue toward stereotypical color-branding, but this might be a good site to send family or friends who just can’t stomach shopping in the “boy” section for their female grandchild or niece.
  • Etsy: You’ll have to do some digging and creative searches, but there is a treasure trove of gift options on Etsy, depending on the seller. (I like this Montessori-inspired dollhouse, which is not only gender-neutral but shows a boy and girl playing with it.)
  • Uncommon Goods: This site does a lot of upcycling and re-purposing. They offer some interesting kid’s gifts, especially for babies.

Holiday gift lists:

  • AAUW’s Gift Guide for Girls has some top-notch suggestions, including GoldieBlox, engineering gifts for girls (designed by a female engineer).
  • Offbeat Families has a fun gift list that includes items for children of all ages (and adults, too). This list is good for anyone who veers toward Dr. Who and alternative culture.
  • Daisy & Zelda offer a list with good alternatives to bad ideas.

And if that’s not enough for you… I have some ideas of my own!

  • DIY: The easiest way to avoid negative gender stereotypes sold by big-box corporations is to just avoid that scene entirely. My husband and I are making a play-kitchen for my daughter out of some furniture pieces we salvaged from a thrift store. (You really only need to make a pretend sink and pretend oven and the rest is gravy.) I know there are feminists shaking their heads at me and saying, “But giving a girl a kitchen is sexist!” But I strongly disagree. Ignoring the things that are problematic does not make them go away. Someday my child will be a grown up and need to feed herself at least three times a day. When that day comes, I want her to know how to take care of herself. She sees her mommy and daddy in the kitchen, cooking and cleaning. She wants to mimic what we do! Pretending to cook is not what is sexist. Telling children that only girls should pretend to cook is what is sexist! (Build this kind of kitchen. Not that.) So buck the sexism and build your kid an awesome pretend tool bench or sew a beautiful set of play clothes or create a replica of the solar system out of Styrofoam balls on their bedroom ceiling. Do it your way and skip the sexist baggage all together! (PS: Etsy is a great place to check out stuff that people did to get ideas — or just buy what somebody else had time to do.)
  • Go! Go! Sports Girls! This a fantastic line of dolls (ages 3+) that depict girls playing all kinds of sports — baseball, soccer, basketball, etc. Some girls have glasses. The girls represent different races. … It’s pretty great.
  • Genderific Coloring Books are good for all genders and kids of all ages, these coloring books are all about breaking down gender roles!
  • Double-down on Experiences: Why not splurge on a family-style gift that can lead to many shared experiences? We got a bike-trailer last year and it has been worth every penny. Our daughter loves it. We get exercise. And it has a lot of repeat use-value. If biking is not your thing, why not get camping gear or your kid’s first pair of hiking boots?
  • Invest in your child’s DIY spirit: Maybe it’s the former preschool teacher in me, but I love encouraging art projects. Get an easel, an art smock, and a book (or internet search) on some fun projects to do! (You might want to also get a tarp for your floor, depending on the project.) For older kids, why not take a class on jewelry making or wood-working? Build your own print-screening machine and make funny family t-shirts. (Tie-dying shirts is an oldie but fun.)

Have I left something out that you have found? Leave all your great non-sexist gift ideas in the comments!

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

Called to the principal’s office

Last week I awoke to a phone call from my daughter’s day school administrator.

“Did you know that your daughter has a rash?” she said in the same curt, accusatory tone she uses at all times (or at least every time I have spoken with her).

It’s 8 am and I had elected to sleep in a bit after a late night working. My husband — my daughter’s father, might I add — had probably only minutes before dropped her off. As I was wiping my eyes, looking at the clock and processing this question, my brain slowly clunked into gear.

“I did not see her this morning.”

“Well, she has a rash on her face and all over her back,” the administrator said.

I sat up and thought a moment. The night before, my two-and-a-half-year-old toddler had thrown an epic tantrum (two, in fact). One because I had to wash her beloved stuffed pig, which had gotten dirty (see video). And the other at bedtime, because she didn’t want to go to bed. And in her protest, she kicked me and my husband. The penalty for this is usually a time-out, but at bedtime, the penalty changes to taking away story-time privileges. Honestly, it is the punishment I hate the most. But giving her a time-out in her bedroom when she is supposed to be going to bed anyway seems like a mixed-message and very ineffective. Taking away something she enjoys then becomes the other option. And, in the long run, as parents all over the world have had to reassure themselves (and sometimes their children), it is for their own good. I can’t raise a child that goes around kicking people when she doesn’t get her way.

But dear lord — deliver us from the tantruming! The wailing and gnashing of teeth! Mixed in with her screaming comes kicking and rolling around on the floor. Sometimes she mashes her little face into the carpet and gets rug-burn. And it was at this thought, that I remembered I was on the phone.

“She had a bad night last night. She through a pretty big tantrum at bedtime. You know how they are at this age,” I said.

The school administrator was not amused, or even sympathetic. “Well, sometimes these rashes are a sign of strep throat. We are concerned.”

I had taken my daughter to the doctor the day before to get a cough checked out. The doctor assured me that it was going around and would clear up on its own. She did not have a fever and, besides coughing, was in good spirits and pretty much her normal self.

“We were just at the doctor yesterday. I even have a note saying she’s okay for school,” I said.

“This rash seems pretty bad.”

And by now, my mind is fully awake and it dawns on me that my husband is probably only blocks away from the school (since he just dropped our daughter off).

“Did you call my husband? I’m sure he’s just around the corner.”

“We thought you should know.”

This seemed like a strange answer to me. On the one hand, I do want to know if my daughter is sick. But on the other, this conversation is steering toward: Take your child home. I’m at home. My husband is mere blocks away. If you really want a child out of there quickly, why not call the parent is most likely to be closest?

And then it dawned on me: I’m getting this call because I’M THE MOM. This is not the first time this has happened at this school and maybe if I had not been asleep when the phone rang, it would have occurred to me sooner. I told the administrator that my husband was still so close, I’d call him to turn around and check out the situation. The administrator was not amused, but I didn’t give her a choice.

A short while later, my husband called me from the school parking lot. He had our daughter and was bringing her home. Did she have a fever? No. Was she out of sorts? No. And what about this rash situation?

“There’s a rad patch on her cheek. I think it’s rug-burn,” my husband said, understandably annoyed by the whole situation.

When he got back to the school, the administrator had left on an errand. My husband talked with our daughter’s teacher, who agreed that the rash — on one cheek and seemingly nowhere else — looked like rug-burn. But the teacher had no power to over-ride the administrator’s ruling. My husband was understandably frustrated by the administrator, who did not speak to him at all and then left, and now spending a large chunk of his morning driving our toddler to and from home for no reason.

Once I got her home, I put my daughter in the shower, thinking if this was something topical irritating her skin, we should wash it off from anywhere on her body. When I got her out, the rash had gone down significantly. Ten minutes later, it had nearly vanished. At intervals throughout the day I checked her temp and she never had a fever. Then, I took her back to the doctor to get a note for school. I think the doctor was as annoyed by this situation as I was! (He even offered to give me that day’s copay back because it was a ridiculous situation.) Think about it. If my daughter had strep throat — or anything else that would be contagious or bad at school — he would have already found it the day before!

I spent the day furious at the school administrator for her obvious sexism and disrespect! She clings to a cultural stereotype and sexist mythology that a woman is the only true parent of a child, especially when it comes to anything messy. The administrator passed up talking to my husband in person in favor of calling me at home (for something that was nothing).  Because somehow ONLY THE MOM knows what to do! Apparently, moms have special powers. If that’s true, I didn’t get mine. Such a blatant, archaic, and sexist world-view! Meanwhile, this is very disrespectful to my husband, who is treated as a lesser, second-rate parent, in these situations. And finally, this is disrespectful to a board-certified doctor.

Give me a break!

The whole thing got me thinking about how our culture continues with this myth of the mother, while simultaneously devaluing men as competent, willing, loving, and smart parents. My husband and I are equal parents to our child. We are both educated, professional people and we do the best we can, just like most parents out there. But our genders, or even our genitals, do not make either one of us a better or worse parent. When we elevate women as the only true parents and simultaneously turn fatherhood into a second class of parenthood, we not only condone the institutionalized sexism in our society, but we enable it. When our culture disrespects the value of a male parent, we send a clear message. When it comes to parenting: Men need not apply.

For ages we have been talking about inequality in the domestic sphere. This is usually framed around the second-shift, the unequal divide in household duties. Taking care of the domestic sphere is considered beneath a man because it is “woman’s work.” This lays some of the groundwork for the mythology of motherhood. Raising children is women’s work, after all. And the only way to regain any power in this structure is for women to then become the supreme parent. Women become elevated by their achievement of supreme parenting and virtue by being a domestic goddess.

This is not to say that there is no reward or virtue to being a parent or even a domestic god/goddess. I strive to be a good parent to my daughter. But that effort, that desire, is the same for my husband. There is no scenario in which my husband would lose interest in being an active parent or in caring for our child as much as I do. And I would take this a step further and say that single fathers and gay fathers are not impaired in parenting because of their gender. Men are equally capable of parenting as women. Period. It is clear, however, that our society does not agree. Just look at how quick we are to dismiss dead-beat dads as, let’s face it, almost expected. But if a mother walks out? Oh, the wailing and gnashing of teeth!

This episode at the school also got me thinking in another way. What message do we send our children if we constantly put motherhood on a pedestal and similarly push the lion’s share of parenting burdens on women? If I am seen as the parent-in-charge, so to speak, isn’t this one of the ways my daughter internalizes gender inequalities as status-quo? If the world treats my husband like he’s a saint because he takes her to the park, she will start to see how men are treated differently as parents than women. (Believe me, when I take her to the park, it is a much different experience.) Likewise, if people expect so much more from me because I am the female parent, we send a clear message that parenting is “women’s work.” (And also, might I add, a woman’s fault if things go badly.)

I am not sure how things will go at school on Monday. (I have two doctor’s notes now, so that should help.) But I am troubled by this pattern. (The school calls me if my husband is running late to pick up our daughter. Because I am my husband’s keeper, too?) Should I find another school and, perhaps, find the same problem? My daughter loves her teacher, so it would break my heart to disrupt her life like that. Should I confront the administrator, who, if I’m being honest, shows no signs of a willingness to change her world view?

This problem is not unique. It’s systemic. It’s woven into the fabric of our culture. And at the end of the day, I suppose the best we can do is live by example and try to push the dial forward when we can. There is a big world outside our home and my daughter is being exposed to it more each day. I cannot right every wrong. And I cannot shield her from the inequality and injustices that happen outside our front door.

So I will leave you with this question: How do you handle/confront sexism and inequality as a parent?

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The gift of the grandparents

Don’t look now but we are actually in the holiday season. Love it. Curse it. Get white-knuckled trying to keep yourself from hiding under a rock… It’s here, my lovelies.

Actually, I think the holidays are sort of like a corporate-ninjas — soundlessly moving the dial back a little more each year. If my calculations are correct, “The Holidays” now start at exactly 12:01:01 am on October 1. Because retailers want to get the full effect of the all-important fourth quarter bump that puts many “in the black.” (That’s why Black Friday is, well, black, my friends.) And if you think this is the only way that corporations have contrived your Christmas experience, it’s best not to think about how, “according to legend the Santa Claus at Macy’s in New York City is often said to be the real Santa Claus.” Or how “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was penned by a Montgomery Ward copywriter. And while Coca Cola might not have invented our culture’s modern-day Santa, it is indelibly linked with creating his modern image.

I am pretty uncomfortable with the year-end, mass-consumer orgy ritual. Don’t get me wrong. I have grown to love Christmas as I watch it through the eyes of my toddler. And I have always loved holiday lights, holiday cards, and many delicious holiday foods (and drinks). I’m not all Scrooge. I’m just not down with worshiping at the altar of materialism and excess. I think it’s vulgar. It’s dehumanizing (to many low-wage workers and to the many who line up for hours to stampede into sales). And the longer we escalate to Christmas the more stress — about money, making “perfect” holiday memories for our kids, and so on — we’re piling on ourselves. You can’t sustain level 11 for 16 straight weeks. No wonder everybody is sick!

But it’s not all bad… right?

Okay, it’s actually not all bad. And I do enjoy many aspects of the holidays, like charity, getting together with family and friends, and enjoying simple things like walking through the Ethel M Cactus Garden glittering with lights. It’s free and it’s delightful! And seeing my daughter’s chocolate-smeared smiling face at the end was pretty great. Now that kind of holiday fun I can get behind all day long!

But the holidays are not a restaurant where you can order ala carte. The holidays are a cultural institution. So much so that Americans feel at liberty to publicly shun those who don’t participate, whether it is for religious reasons, monetary reasons, or philosophical differences. This is America. Act in unison or face The Wrath, you communist, Jewish/Muslim, hippie, Satan-worshippers! Duh!

Right, so… How do well-intentioned people navigate the holidays? Or, more importantly to Tired Feminist reader, Jessica:

Now that we are moving into holiday season, I’d love see a post about talking to family members and grandparents in particular about gifts. I’m not sure how to approach the importance of what I want my daughter to receive or not as far as toys go without coming across as a complete ass to well intentioned grandparents. I’m hoping you may have some good ideas.

Oh, is that all, Jessica? Holy crap!

I mean, sure, Jessica. Let’s talk about that… right now. Here I go… (Is this a trap?) … ahem… Yes, this is a tricky one. But let’s just dive in. No need to be terrified!

Right off the bat, I feel like I should come clean here. When it comes to this issue with my own daughter, we have gotten off fairly easy. For one, my family (both in-law and biological) is pretty respectful and cooperative for the most part. And two, I don’t live within 1,000 miles of my family. So, a lot of pressure is off for me in the gift-giving game. Often, I can preview what is being given to my daughter because I have to open up a postal package to get to the actual gift inside for her. So far, the only things we’ve had to strategically put away are items that were not age-appropriate, yet. (They come out when the time is right later on, so it’s no biggie.) I miss my family all the time, but especially during the holidays. But I have to admit, when it comes to worrying about any sort of un-intentional gifting gaffe, I get something of a pass because of the distance.

But what if you live around the corner or across town from your child’s grandparents? Or, like one of my friends, across town from your adopted children’s grandparents whom they only see once a year? I don’t know if I can think of a more difficult scenario than that! These particular grandparents are well-intentioned, I am sure. But imagine the guilt-shopping that happens in this dynamic. You want to express a loss and a love through gobs and gobs of presents! These are not only grandchildren they never get to see, but also grandchildren who are being raised by a stranger because your own child was unfit. Needless to say, this resulted in not only an avalanche of unneeded and not altogether desirable gifts, but a real parenting conundrum for my friend.

In my friend’s situation, he took a two-pronged approach:

  1. Establish what your family values are, regardless of what gifts are received. If someone gives your child a sexist toy, try to do your best to use it as a teaching opportunity (after the gifter is gone, is probably preferable). I am already plotting strategies for how to deal with Disney princesses… because I will not be able to isolate my daughter from them forever. No, this might not dissuade your child from enjoying that toy/movie/whatever in the moment, but don’t discount that the lesson may still permeate.
  2. When all else fails, take the path of least resistance. After countless conversations trying to persuade the grandparents to cool it, my friend finally had to just accept that the gift avalanche was going to happen. It actually became a teachable moment between him and his kids as they got older and became uncomfortable with it on their own terms (see… the lessons can permeate).

In thinking about this and other grandparent gifting dilemmas, I have thought of some more tips that may help:

  • Have the talk. I know this is really hard to do. I have talked with both my in-laws and my own family. Sometimes they listen to me and sometimes they nod their head and think to themselves, “Yeah, right.” One thing I have learned is to not be overly dramatic or demanding about it. For instance, I keep the don’ts to one or two really important things. Not a whole list of don’ts. I offer a short and (I hope) meaningful explanation of why they are don’ts and then I move on.
  • Steer the shopping. While I don’t really worry about my family going crazy. My dad is very stereotypical in that he never knows what to buy people. You could talk about how you love the Smurfs all day long for six months straight and he’d still come to you later on and go, “Hey, do you like the Smurfs?” My dad not only likes direction, it makes him feel very satisfied to know he’s gotten someone something they really want. Don’t assume that everyone in your family is picking up what seems obvious to you. Help them out and send them an Amazon wishlist with items you pick out for your kid(s). Those suggestions could go a long way. And if you live nearby, offer to go shopping with the grandparent(s). If they pick up something you would rather not see under the tree, gently steer them to a better choice. “Joe doesn’t really go for action figures. He’s really into trucks and cars…”
  • Take the opportunity to get rid of other less-desirable items. We have a philosophy that when you bring something new in, something old should leave. It keeps our house from turning into a hoarders’ den and it also matches our values that stuff is not what is important. People are what is important. But nobody said this endeavor has to be entirely altruistic. Maybe you can’t get rid of this year’s offending gift, but you can certainly get rid of last year’s annoying gift (that is now not that interesting).
  • If the grandparents live in town, you could consider having place-specific stuff. This is something I learned about the hard way because my parents are divorced. Toys and clothes at one house did not travel to another house. Same for grandparents (and since each of my parent re-married, that was a total of four sets of grandparents). In the divorced-child scenario this becomes about the parents fighting. But in a functional family dynamic, this can just mean that some toys are for Grandma’s house and some toys are at-home toys and some toys are car-toys… etc. My daughter already has this just with Mommy’s car and Daddy’s car. Although you don’t have to be a huge stickler about it (no need to traumatize), if you can end up limiting your kid’s exposure to the offending gift by limiting their time with it, that could be a kind of win.
  • Lose the batteries. Shrink the dress. Sometimes accidents happen. Not all parenting moments are proud ones, but sometimes they are sanity-saving.
  • You can ban certain items. But do it judiciously and be prepared to explain why to both your kid(s) and the grandparents involved. Probably more than once. This is probably best reserved as a nuclear option.

My final piece of advice is to remember that grandparents are having a holiday experience here, too. No matter how off-the-mark the gift may be, the intention is love. And as much as I am greedy about having my holiday memories and experiences as a mother with my daughter, grandparents are looking for that same fix but on the grandparent scale. Sometimes it is an act of love to go with the flow and just let them have their moment. They get their memories for later and you get to be your kid’s parent for the rest of her/his life.

This always reminds me of how when I was a kid my grandmother used to buy me M&Ms. I was sort of luke-warm about M&Ms as candies go. But she would always bring them for me as I was her “M&M Kid” because of the two Ms in my name. And I had to eat at least a few (and once the bag is open, you just end up eating them all anyway) so she could see me enjoy them. Sometimes I didn’t feel like it. But when I ate the candy and she would hug me and call me her M&M Kid, she would also be so happy and smiling. It was something special she did just for me. I was her only grandchild who was the M&M Kid. She had other grandkids and I’m sure they each had special things, too. But this was the one that was just for me. It was how I started to learn that gifts are not just given, they are received.

I hope that somewhere in all this, I have been able to offer a little help to you, Jessica. And to all of you readers out there. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but if you send me questions, I’ll do my best.

Here’s hoping you have a happy and sane holiday season!

TMF: Paul Frank edition

This TMF is a classic example of tired marketing (FAIL!). All of these shirts are part of the Small Paul collection for toddlers and babies that I found at Babies R Us. See if you can spot the difference between the shirts marketed to boys and the shirts marketed to girls:

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Are you getting the message? Even in the hipster realm of toddler clothes, the gender rules still apply. Boys do stuff. Girls look cute! I guess Paul Frank gets some points for a slightly more subtle approach. The shirts aren’t entirely pink and blue. But I think the pink bow in the skull keeps things neatly in the confines of societal gender norms.

Even hipsters can’t out-run gender coding in children’s apparel, it seems.

Spotted a Tired Marketing FAIL? Send it to me and maybe it will be featured next time!

Physical therapy

About a month ago I started doing physical therapy. Like most forms of therapy, it’s a time-intensive, difficult, and sometimes intense process. Emphasis on process. And while I went through physical therapy once before, in my 20s for a problem with my shoulder, this time around has been a much more emotional — and enlightening — experience. I don’t know if it is because I am older or if it is because of the nature of my pain this time around, but I have found physical therapy to be much more than just the physical part it was before.

This time around the physical therapists and I are working on my core, which was essentially ripped apart by pregnancy. (Word to all the moms and expectant moms out there: I strongly encourage you to explore physical therapy if you are having back/leg/knee issues!) Even after some reconstructive surgery last year (for severe diastasis recti and deep, permanent tears in much of my abdomen), I have gained very little functional strength back, which has in turn put a lot of stress on other muscle groups — especially my back and knees. By the time I went to physical therapy, my knees were so inflamed, they were visibly bulging. And I had a constant limp because I could barely use the lower right side of my body without shearing pain. Not good!

Even though I had been having trouble sleeping, because of the pain, and my daily life was grinding to a snail’s pace because I was so hobbled by pain, it still took me a while to actually go to physical therapy after my doctor recommended it. I have no good explanation for this other than, I was afraid. This doesn’t really make a lot of sense, considering my last experience with PT was good. I had a problem with my shoulder, I got PT, I got better. You’d think a positive experience would make me more inclined to go this time around. Eh, not so much.

I was really worried about people poking around my abdomen, because it hurt even when my daughter would rest against me while sitting on my lap. But more than that, I was not looking forward to having people touch my hips and glutes and other groin-adjacent areas that were on fire with pain. Yes, I wanted the pain to end! But as a survivor of sexual abuse, I was already finding the pain I felt to be triggering. Knowing that rehabilitating painful areas often meant feeling more pain (if temporarily) was scary.

Ah, the catch-22 of healing, whether emotional or physical: In order to find an end to the pain, you will often have to feel even more pain.

But I screwed my courage to the sticking place and went. There’s a whole team of therapists at the place I go. And each of them offer their own brand of insight, tough-love, and humor. And I have found the process to be difficult, painful, intimate, rewarding, and eye-opening.

A big part of this physical therapy process has been getting incredibly painful massage. (Nothing relaxing about it!) In the beginning, they would find wherever I hurt the worst and quite literally press their hands or fists deep into those spots. One therapist calls them “demons.” Maybe. But there were a couple of times early on when someone was poking a fist into a tender spot and it was all I could do to stop myself from throwing a punch. (I had to remind myself that I am a reformed punk rocker with a life in the beige suburbs.)

At the same time, it was amazing and sometimes quite emotionally intense the feelings and impulses that bubbled up during and after those sessions. I had been warned early on during physical therapy that people experience pain and rehabilitation in a variety of ways, including emotional ways. But I was not at all prepared for where my mind and heart went. Even that fleeting impulse to deck somebody… it’s been years and years since I had that impulse. (Even longer since I actually did it.) And those moments threw me for a loop.

Don’t poke a wild animal, right?

Well, as this process has gone on, I have definitely had to wrestle with some wild parts of me that I thought were long dormant. There have definitely been moments that triggered some bad trips down sexual abuse lane. But (thankfully) those have been far fewer than I feared. It’s interesting to me that the cause of my current physical problems is because of pregnancy — which is an experience I am glad I went through and don’t regret for a second — but that because the pain I feel now is in the same part of my body as pain I felt in my childhood, it is such an emotional sensation now. When the therapists work on my left hip — which is where my daughter was trying to exit my body during childbirth — I am flooded with memories of that 37-hour experience. And I’m sure when we work that area, my impulse to scream is much stronger. Just like that instinct to throw a punch kicks in every now and then.

There is a sign on the wall at PT that says, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” But I have had a different experience with my process. Perhaps processing pain (emotional, physical, or otherwise) is a way of letting personal power in. Furthermore, I don’t see the places on my body that need help as really weak. Damaged, maybe. Overworked, definitely. But weak? No. I think they are actually really strong. Because I think those places that get damaged at the places that took the brunt of the trauma/attack/injury. And they had to get by with less structural integrity, less strength. They had to adapt. And when it comes to emotional pain, maybe those are the places on the body that could take it. Those were the places that were, in fact, strong enough. That doesn’t mean I think they should take it forever or we should all live in pain. Indeed, I think quite the opposite. But there is something important — especially for those of us who have survived something horrible — in recognizing how strong we are. How resilient and strong we are to survive!

These days, I am getting around a lot better. There is still more PT to come and it is still really hard. (And it’s still tough for me to sit at the computer for very long, which is why I’ve been such a negligent blogger.) But as I get stronger and as the pieces of my body start to work together better, I have a sense of feeling more solid in myself. And I feel like my body is working better, too. My digestion (and IBS) have improved. I’m sleeping better.

Things fall apart. But things also get mended.