The Voice

It’s Mother’s Day and I find myself thinking about being a mom. I became a mom almost exactly two years ago; my daughter’s birthday is in a couple weeks. Motherhood can take many forms — from the traditional, to extended family stepping in, to adoption, and more — and it can start in a lot of ways. For me, it started with a grueling, weekend’s long labor — a place not unfamiliar to many moms. But something happened to me that weekend, besides becoming a mom. (And that in itself would be pretty mind-shifting enough.) That weekend I found my voice.

My 37-hour labor started on a Friday night and it was hard going, even for a first-timer. I had three epidurals, each one failing. I remember feeling a sense of terror beyond panic, beyond all rational thought, at the pain, which was only heightened by the anxiety of the medical staff as things continued to negatively progress. My daughter was transverse — sideways — and in the end they had to do an emergency c-section to pull her out because she was going into distress and things were getting dicey for me, too.

In the birthing room, we had hung a photo of my grandmother, who as an OB nurse at the hospital where I was born helped deliver me into this world. My grandmother, now passed, was one of the strongest, toughest women I ever knew. She was a ball-buster with a big heart. And she was a woman who had a tendency for getting in trouble for having a big mouth and big opinions. (Sound familiar?) She always had a special tenderness with me as a child. I think it was because she was there the moment I first opened my mouth and hollered at the world.

By the end of my labor, it was clear that surgery was the only way and the only thing holding that up was the doctor, who was at another hospital doing another c-section. So, the nurses — God bless them — did everything they could to comfort me and keep me calm while we waited. One even bullied the anesthesiologist into giving me more pain meds even though I’d eventually get a spinal block for the c-section. I definitely felt the spirit of my grandmother in that room full of bossy, loving nurses — almost all of whom were women!

But even though some sliver of my rational mind could see this and process it, the rest had gone primal. When someone would ask me a question, I would think of a response but when I opened my mouth the only thing that would come out were blood-curdling screams. It was like scream diarrhea-of-the-mouth! My husband would say things to me and I would open my mouth and nothing but screams would come out. I could hear people in the hallway wondering aloud if everything was okay in my room. (What they didn’t know was that I came from a long line of screamers. There is a story about my mother screaming so loud when she was in labor with my brother that people came running from another wing of the hospital.)

So I stopped trying to talk. As I laid back and waited for the doctor to come, I just let the screams wash over me. It was my only relief from the contractions that were on top of each other and the white-hot lava of baby-skull ramming into my left hipbone (she was determined that was an exit!). My body was ready to have this baby. Everyone in the room was ready to have this baby. And that baby was trying with all her might to be born! The only thing I could do was wait and scream. And patience has never been my strong suit.

As I laid there, I could feel the muscles in my abdomen trying to push the baby out, even without me trying. I could hear all the noise of all the machines and the people running in and out of the room. I watched my husband’s mouth say words that I could not hear over the sound of my own screams — my own voice coming at full blast.

Then I just felt quiet and still for a brief moment. I just had this sense that it was going to be alright. And I knew it would be over soon. Just then, a nurse ran down the hallway and shouted into the room, “He’s here! He’s here! Let’s roll!” And with that, we flew like the wind to surgery and 20 minutes later I heard the daughter scream at the world and my husband stroked my hair and said, “Hear that? You’re a mother.”

And right away, I had to act like a mother and take care of my child, who had to go to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for five days. My husband was gone (the one time he stepped out to get food or do anything for himself in days!), when the doctors came to talk to me about the treatment necessary to prevent brain damage (and possibly death). My first day on the job, I had to make decisions that would affect my daughter’s life, maybe forever. And I surprised myself with the measure of calm and strength I found in my voice. The doctors, who had looked pensive at the prospect of talking to a woman by herself who had just gone through childbirth, actually appeared to relax in a way when they saw how evenly I handled the situation. I didn’t break down (until after they left). I didn’t waffle. There was no room for doubt. It was time to be strong. My daughter needed me!

Thankfully, two years later my daughter is healthy and happy and has an amazing spirit. (Even in the NICU the nurses commented about how she was stubborn and strong. A bad-ass at day one!) But it’s taken me some time — I guess two years, give or take — to process how profoundly my life has changed. Becoming a parent is transformational, if you want it to be. But even more than that, I feel like the weekend I went through childbirth was a kind of rebirth for me. It was the first time I could ever remember where I could use the full power of my voice — even if it was screams — and no one would stop me. As a survivor of sexual abuse — which relies so much on secrecy and someone silencing your voice — I don’t know if I ever felt like I could just be loud, be screaming, have a big voice without negative consequences.

My voice is silenced no more!

And that’s a good thing, as I raise a girl to become a strong, confident woman with her own voice in a world that will try to silence her with patriarchy and sexism and politics that try to take away her autonomy. I hope if the day ever comes that my daughter is becoming a mother, that I can be one of the images in her mind that helps her stay strong and true to her voice and her power.

My Mother’s Day wish for you is that you find and use your strong voice. I don’t think it has to come from a childbirth experience or even a dramatic experience. But if you haven’t found that experience, yet, seek it out! Don’t waste another day living a life where you don’t speak with your full voice.

It’s kind of like the old adage: Walk softly but carry a big stick.

Except, in this case, I think it’s: Whether you speak softly or loudly, always use your full voice.

Girl, you’ll be a woman soon

HuffPost Women has a new campaign called “The Moment I Knew I Was a Woman, Not a Girl” in which users submit videos chronicling their exile from Girlville. It’s an interesting question, especially considering how dangerous it feels to be Living While Female these days. And it strikes to the core of gender, really. Because it begs the question: If puberty and sex organs are not what make you a woman (and I would argue that they are not), then what does? What act, what experience, what emotional moment is it that turns a person into a woman?

In her book, Bossypants, Tina Fey offers a hilarious, and disturbingly on-point anecdote of when many realize they are, indeed, a woman:

When I was writing the movie Mean Girls—which hopefully is playing on TBS right now!—I went to a workshop taught by Rosalind Wiseman … [who] conducted a lot of self-esteem and bullying workshops with women and girls around the country. She did this particular exercise … with about two hundred grown women, asking them to write down the moment they first “knew they were a woman.” … The group of women was racially and economically diverse, but the answers had a very similar theme. Almost everyone first realized they were becoming a grown woman when some dude did something nasty to them. “I was walking home from ballet and a guy in a car yelled, ‘Lick me!’” “I was babysitting my younger cousins when a guy drove by and yelled, ‘Nice ass.’” There were pretty much zero examples like “I first knew I was a woman when my mother and father took me out to dinner to celebrate my success on the debate team.” It was mostly men yelling shit from cars. Are they a patrol sent out to let girls know they’ve crossed into puberty? If so, it’s working.

I experienced car creepery at thirteen. … I was walking home alone from school and I was wearing a dress. A dude drove by and yelled, “Nice tits.” Embarrassed and enraged, I screamed after him, “Suck my dick.” Sure, it didn’t make any sense, but at least I don’t hold in my anger.

Indeed, pop culture, like so many of our lived experiences, offers little in the way of a clear message — other than “nice tits,” of course. By the time a girl (I’m just going to say girl/woman from here on out, but please know I am not trying to exclude other gender identities or experiences) reaches puberty, you’ve already been introduced to the choose-your-own-adventure nature of the female experience:

  • Choose this door: Oh no! You’ve developed breasts before any of your female classmates! Boys (and probably some girls) notice you and the attention causes jealousy (and perhaps fear) amongst your female classmates. Now you’re branded a slut for the rest of your academic experience, regardless of your sexual history or interest! Therapy to fix scars for life, optional.
  • Or this door: Get ogled by your chemistry teacher and hit-on in front of the entire class. Spend the rest of the year carrying an over-sized sweatshirt to class and dodging “extra credit.” (True story.)
  • Try the fire exit: Spend your adolescence learning the proper way to ridicule your body and self-worth in front of any reflective surface or in any social situation where any authority figure offers you a compliment or praises your efforts. Well, anyone who compliments you really.
  • Oops, dead-end: Fail math. On purpose. Because boys don’t like nerds. (See also: Don’t try in gym class to avoid perspiring/getting muscular/looking like a lesbian.)
  • There’s always cheerleading: To avoid looking like a lesbian/athlete/nerd/ or other non-conforming person subject to intense ridicule and bullying, practice the art of leading a double-life. Pay special attention to pronouns, which celebrities/musicians you publicly endorse, consuming the “appropriate” pop culture for your strategy to work (i.e. disavow any knowledge of Star Wars and make sure to know everything about, say, American Idol), and be sure to wear as much pink and push your tits out as much as possible. Remember: a girl who’s sexually attractive to boys is a popular girl!

Then there’s always the strange universe of feminine product commercials/ads. Be sure to be hairless (because you must erase all evidence that you are a mammal, except for your tits, of course), odorless (because you smell disgusting, obviously), wash and properly scent every orifice (au natural is NOT on the menu, duh), and above all… wear white and jump around (or off stuff like diving boards) when you’re on your period. I’m not really sure what jumping around has to do with being a woman, but I guess it means that periods make you jump for joy? Also, lately I’ve noticed that a lot of period-related products have put a focus on the cuteness of their packaging. We’re supposed to care about how cute our tampon is now, too? This is exhausting!

And it’s gotten me no closer to any kind of universal symbol of womanhood.

Maybe I should delve deeper. Surely, I can unlock the code somewhere in my own experience. (It’s probably somewhere next to the G-spot.) Like the poem says, “Ain’t I a woman?” Well, I was born biologically female and identify as a woman so… oh, right, that’s not a very fun answer. I am a woman, damn it! (Better?)

Well, here’s the thing. When I look back at my own experience and ask myself, “When did you feel like you were a woman, and not a girl?” I don’t really like the answer very much. And not just because of the car creepery (which for me was more like, guys in bleachers at a football game, but same difference). When I think about when I transitioned from girlhood to womanhood, my answer is all tangled up by my experience as a survivor of sexual abuse.

I experienced sexual abuse, off and on, from the age of five through 14. So that meant that in the pre-pubescent years, I was introduced to sexual experiences and thoughts and feelings about my body and other people’s bodies way, way before I was developmentally mature enough or prepared to handle them. In essence, I was hyper-sexualized in childhood. So, by the time I went through puberty, those things that might have seemed new or interesting to many were old and, in fact, highly emotionally charged with negative feelings that I had yet to process. Sex, sexual organs, being objectified by the male gaze, being reduced as a person to simply body parts… these were old news to me. So, by the time someone yelled “nice tits” to me, it just felt expected and dangerously frightening to me. It felt like the terrible experiences that had been only in a private space for years were suddenly possible anywhere by any post-pubescent male (creepy Chemistry teachers, included). It felt like I had grown bullseyes on my chest, rather than breasts. It felt like there was no safe place in the world anymore. And for the life of me, I could not understand how all the other girls could be excited by the attention and possibility. And I did my best to pretend that I liked it when a boy grabbed my ass in the hallway or made some lewd comment. Because I knew if I said I didn’t, it wouldn’t take long before I was called a dyke. And every adolescent girl knows that is one of the worst things to be called — even if you don’t know what it means, yet. (I feel I should clarify here that I am accepting and an ally to lesbians and any other GBTQ person. I’m just trying to highlight the lesbian-baiting in adolescence.)

So, I guess for me, I knew I was a woman when I could successfully pretend that I wanted the male gaze. And even more so when I learned how to deflect it, without looking like a man-hating lesbian, of course. Although, I’m beginning to see from Tina Fey’s story and others that even non-survivors felt threatened by this kind of creepy male interest.

But rather than leave this on a sour note … because right now it’s shaping up to look like the transition from girlhood to womanhood really sucks, from unwanted objectification to the arrival of menses. I think what we should do is re-frame the question. Because, let’s face it, I don’t think what marks manhood is all that much more glamorous or interesting than what marks womanhood.

I think a better question is: When did you finally feel at home in your skin as a woman? (Or man, or cisgender, or what-have-you.) Because my answer to that is much more positive and affirming as an experience and to who I am today. I finally felt at home in my skin as a woman when I was pregnant. Please don’t misconstrue this statement. It’s not a pitch that pregnancy or having kids makes you a woman or even a happy woman. But for me, as a survivor of sexual abuse, it was a time of deep personal healing. At first, it was difficult because I felt very publicly on display in terms of my femaleness. But as I lived in that experience longer and longer, it became more and more healing. It was the first time — maybe in my entire life — when being female and having female body parts did not feel threatening or dangerous or sexual in a way that was uncomfortable. The bigger my belly got, the more in command of my own body I felt (which is ironic, because you become less and less in command of your body the bigger you get!). I finally felt like my body was my space. And it felt like as the fetus grew inside me, that it was somehow healing for me that I could choose for that to happen. I could choose to become pregnant. I could choose to share my body with a fetus (we’ll leave reproductive politics out of this for today).

The funny thing about pregnancy was that it was probably the single most “womanly” I have appeared, in terms of outward appearance. The breasts grow. The belly grows. The hips widen. And even as I gained weight, it’s all a kind of glowing, fertile roundness that is so symbolic of womanhood. And considering that pregnancy is one of the most obvious signs that a woman has sex, it was a kind of display of my sexuality, too. (Albeit, a society approved way.) Somehow, by the end of my pregnancy, I just felt a peace with all my parts and all my womanhood. Finally, I am comfortable being a woman.

That is a much more interesting question and process to me. Maybe we don’t get “nice” stories about the introduction to adulthood. But with any luck, we find our way to peace in our bodies and our lived experiences. And that’s worth sharing. (So please feel free to share yours in the comments.)

Cross-posted on The Sin City Siren.

Frankel Files Part 2: Mommy dearest

As promised, here’s Part 2 of the Frankel Files:

Part 2: Mommy Dearest

The secondary plot (to the main event: marriage on the rocks) on last night’s episode, Paradise Found, was Bethenny’s birthday. And while many women struggle with negative feelings about birthdays because of aging, that doesn’t seem to be Bethenny’s problem. Her problem is a Mommy Problem. She and her mother share the same birthday. But since they are estranged (and Bethenny has talked about having a very difficult childhood and issues of deep neglect from her mother), her birthday just starts the wheels of emotional crisis spinning.

I can relate. And I’m willing to bet that more people do (even if they don’t want to admit it).

While I don’t share the same birthday as my mother, I do not have a relationship with her. There are many reasons for this, but the chief among them is that it was a toxic relationship in my life. It wouldn’t be fair to go into all the nitty gritty here, but suffice it to say that my mother did not raise me even though I lived in the same house as her. I raised myself. And even though we shared a home and genetic material, it was pretty clear to me from a very early age that the teenage accident of my conception was, to her, the biggest mistake of her life. I know, because she told me (and many other people), and often. Believe me, it was no secret.

And so, when I knew that I wanted to get pregnant (because my daughter was very much planned and wanted), I knew I had to end old harmful habits, like my relationship with my mother. It was an incredibly difficult decision that I wrestled with for months. But in the end, I knew I couldn’t move forward unless we could wipe the slate clean.

Now that I am a mother myself, I can see my own childhood with new eyes — something we see Bethenny do often on her show, too. You start to wonder, “Did my mother have this same loving feeling about me?” Or sometimes, “Why didn’t my mother have this same feeling about me?” It’s hard to not wonder sometimes. But it’s also a kind of torture to wonder. If you decide that, yes, my mother did love me at some point and show me motherly affection… then you wonder why it stopped or changed. If you decide that she never felt that way toward you, it’s a dagger to the heart. (Truth, in fact, does hurt.) And you can never really know either way.

When I was pregnant some members of my family gave me the hard sell on mending fences with my mother. One family member even told me I was a terrible daughter and was robbing my mother of her chance to be a grandmother. That was a hard conversation. And it was unfair. My mother is not entitled to have a relationship with me or my child. As Bethenny said last night, just because someone is biologically related to you, it doesn’t mean they have to be in your life.

I know there are a lot of you out there who had similar experiences growing up. Judging from the e-mails I get, there are a lot of you out there who were hurt deeply by one or both of your parents. As you can see, I understand that pain. A lot of people ask me for advice about whether or not to cut off a parent from their lives. I don’t know if there is a clear-cut blueprint or checklist to know if that is the right decision for a person. I know people who have gone the opposite way as me and kept up a relationship with a difficult parent for the sake of the grandparent/grandchild experience. Obviously, that is not what I decided to do. But I don’t think either way is the “right” choice. It’s only whether it is right for you. Sometimes there is just too much broken in a relationship and it can’t be fixed. In other cases, you can just learn to ignore or accept the things that hurt you. For me, there were certain factors that had to be addressed before any relationship could resume. Since my mother was unwilling to go there, that was that. But even more important than my relationship with my mother, I now see (as a mother myself) that the stress and heartache of a bad parent/child relationship is not the dynamic I want to model for my child. Do I really want to teach my daughter that it’s okay for someone (even if they are family) to treat you badly? Hurt you?

Cutting ties with a parent is never an easy or even a popular decision. (My decision is still controversial in my own family.) In fact, there are many times I choose not to discuss it because the societal expectation is that we all worship our parents, specifically mothers, unconditionally. People with good childhoods and nice families find it inconceivable! And even people with dysfunctional backgrounds get uncomfortable, because it makes them question their decision to continue on as they are. (For the record, I don’t judge.) But when people judge me for my decision, what they are not seeing is the heartache that preceded it. And in many cases, they are looking at the situation with parent-goggles. They see the ideal parents (or even their own parents) and they don’t understand that not all parents are like that. If you haven’t experienced bad parenting or witnessed it, maybe it’s hard to imagine what that’s like. But it exists!

What I tell people is this: Parenting is only transformational if you want it to be. If you don’t want to be a parent or have no tools to be a good parent (and no desire to get them), then you won’t be a good parent. Parenthood is not a magical crown that imbues you with good-parenting powers. You have to want it. You have to work at it. We all fall short. But the difference between the “normal” imperfection of your average parent and the train-wreck that is bad parenting is pronounced. And painful. And just because we are all somebody’s child, it doesn’t mean that we have to be chained to them forever.

My birthday wish for Bethenny is that she can learn to embrace a new chapter on birthdays. Maybe we never really let go of the old ties. But we can learn to celebrate the new ones! These days, I feel like my daughter’s birthday is my birthday, because I feel like my life is marked so much more by the passing of her time and her growth than my own. And, after all, the difference between age one and age two is huge. The difference between 35 and 36? Eh, not so much. Furthermore, I almost think of her birthday as a re-birthday for me. It was the day my life changed forever and I got the honor of becoming a mother to an amazing girl! And as I mother her, I almost get the chance to re-mother myself. I get to be an architect of someone’s childhood now. And I take that very seriously. Every time she bounds into a room, her blonde hair bouncing and a smile beaming across her face, my heart skips a beat. Because her joy heals me. Because being the mother to her that I never had is healing and a miracle and joy personified.

Trust your instincts. And embrace the power of the path you take.

The Frankel Files Part 1: On acceptance and unconditional love

"Storytime" statue in Waikiki, Hawaii.

I think Bethenny Ever After is my transformational messaging gateway drug. But I have always said that it is in the mundane, every-day spaces that we usually find something special, even transformative. That’s why you get your “Aha!” moment in the check-out line at the grocery store. That’s why you have so many good ideas in the shower!

On tonight’s episode, we found Bethenny Frankel on vacation in Mexico with her family and her work crew. It was also her birthday, which is always a touchy subject because she share’s her birthday with her (estranged) mother (but we’ll get to that). In this episode, as in many this season, we saw Bethenny and her husband Jason Hoppy fighting. The tone has been ominous but the couple seemed to have some rallying moments, too.

So, as usual, I don’t really want to hash out the gossipy threads. I want to use this as a launch pad to talk about the really important themes that Bethenny’s show brings up, in good ways and bad ways. (Someday I should really send her a thank you card for giving me so many opportunities to talk about things that are so important. Thanks, Bethenny, for being so willing to share the warts part of life!) But I found it hard to decide on just one theme tonight, so that’s why we’re doing a two-parter!

Part One: Mr. Fix-it

A major theme of the night was Bethenny’s on-going marital problems, which are described as a lot of fights about trivial things but also deeply hurtful and potentially game-changing. Maybe this is the “terrible twos” of marriage. Maybe it’s more. Hard to know, since we’re not in their marriage.

What was interesting to me was that Bethenny and Jason had what could be a pivotal conversation, but I wonder if either of them were really listening. After a morning of fighting, they meet on the beach for lunch. Bethenny says something about how maybe you have to just accept that things happen (in this case, she was referring to her long-time assistant Julie leaving). Jason was surprised by her drama-free and relatively healthy way of handling this situation. Then Bethenny says, maybe that’s what they have to do in their marriage, too. But it’s almost an aside. And both of them comment on it and then it’s almost like a thrown-away bit of conversation that goes nowhere.

And I’m screaming at the TV: Wait, wait! You’re missing it! You’re missing a Eureka! moment!

Next month I’ll celebrate 15 years of marriage to my high school sweetheart. Since I married him, my husband and I have both changed a lot. We went through all the struggles and growth of our 20s, not to mention all the time I was in the trenches to heal from childhood trauma and sexual abuse. And now we’re deep in our 30s (and all the mid-life crisis that brings) and raising our daughter together. I love my husband very much. He’s my best friend. But that doesn’t mean that marriage is easy. And there are annoying and even (sometimes) hurtful things that you or your partner might do over time. It’s a partnership that has to be maintained and it will go through trials and tribulations, like every other part of your life experience.

But when Bethenny and Jason were talking about acceptance, I kept waiting for them to stop joking or brushing it aside. Get the epiphany! Let it soak in!

Or to put it another way, my husband and I have a saying, “You married me!” As in, you knew what you were getting when you signed on for this gig.

Now, I’m not saying that we have to accept everything about our spouses/partners without question or comment. I’ve known my husband for 21 years. He is an accomplished mechanical engineer and an amazing father. But damn it if he doesn’t know how to use a hamper! And I mean I find dirty laundry of his stashed away, like he was saving it for winter. Now, I know dirty laundry sounds like a little thing. And in the grand scheme it is. But 15 years of finding dirty duds under the bed, behind the dresser, on the stairs, between the couch cushions…? This type-A neat-freak snaps every now and then!

Okay, okay. We need to go a bit deeper than dirty laundry… My husband was by my side all the way as I worked to heal after so much trauma. And as difficult as it is to be the survivor of sexual violence, it is another kind of hell to be the person who loves the survivor. I watched as my husband had his own journey filled with emotions, including rage (at my abuser), sadness, depression, worry, and hurt. I have no doubt that all he wanted to do was erase the pain from my heart. But, as any survivor knows, it’s not that easy. (Although, here are some tips that might help.) There were so many times along the way that he lifted me up when I felt so low. But he wasn’t perfect. There were times when his emotional cup ran dry or he just plain didn’t know how to help or what to say. And let’s face it, we survivors of trauma… we don’t always know how to express our needs. Hell, sometimes we don’t even know what it is we need. We’re just humans, muddling through.

It ain’t easy being the survivor of trauma. But it’s also no picnic being the one who loves them, either.

And I think that’s where we find Bethenny and Jason. She has talked about experiencing some pretty hard things in her formative years and having to build everything she has through very hard work. I admire her success, because I think it’s important that survivors of childhood trauma have success stories. We can do it! Go, powerful woman!

But my husband always says, when things start going well and you get some calm after the storm, that’s when shit goes down. It’s why you get sick three days after a huge project (or finals in college). It’s why getting the house in the suburbs when you lived in more than a dozen places by age 18 can seem terrifying. And it’s why you fall apart when you finally get everything you ever wanted. You don’t have the struggle to define you anymore. You don’t have “more pressing problems” to worry about. No. Now you have nowhere to out-run the bogeyman from the past you haven’t dealt with yet.

The hard truth is: There is no way to get through your feelings without feeling them. There is no way to process the pain without feeling it. There is no out-running. There is no higher-level rationalizing. There is no compartmentalizing. All of that is bullshit. All of that is a stop-gap. Eventually, time is up. Ding! Now you have to deal.

My guess is that after getting married and having a baby in quick succession. Then having a huge career boom and financial gain (read: never have to worry about paying the rent again)… Yep. Bethenny is just about due to have her clock ding. And from what we’re seeing on her show, it’s ringing loud as a bell! But I wonder if she’s listening. I know I hit the snooze on my emotional alarms for a long time.

Something she said made me think that she’s not quite ready to surrender to the process of healing. In an interview segment she said something about when she married Jason, that she thought he would fix her (implied: because he comes from a good home and is such a put-together person). That’s a huge red-flag to me! Other people can be allies and partners on our healing walk, but they can’t do it for us. My husband loves me, but he couldn’t heal me for me. Nobody can do the work for you.

I don’t envy Bethenny (or Jason) the work she has to do to heal herself. Having been on this walk for a long time (hey, I’m only five years younger than Bethenny), I know how hard it is. At times it feels impossible! I can’t tell Bethenny, or anyone else, exactly how to heal what hurts. Every person is different. But what I do know is that it is worth it, and more.

The joy — and I mean real, sustained, feel it in your bones joy — I have in my life today seemed impossible to me five years ago.

I used to feel like I had to lock away a piece of my heart and protect it. I felt like I had so much taken away from me as a child that it hurt to share even a little thing, like some food off my plate at dinner. I felt like it was impossible for anyone to love me unconditionally, even my husband. In my head, the only way to steel myself for the inevitable (that my husband would one day wake up and realize he had made a horrible mistake in marrying me because I was not worthy), was to always be ready for that bad day to come.

Holy shit! That is a terrible way to live!

I was so scared to lose the love of others, that I was actually cutting myself off from receiving love! It was only after I opened my heart up completely, that I finally received the love I had been wishing for! And that only happened when I accepted that the risk of vulnerability — even the risk of getting hurt — was dwarfed by the powerful feeling of unconditional love. Maybe this sounds simple. And if it is simple for you, awesome for you. But for a lot of us, it’s the hardest equation on the planet.

Maybe this is way off base when it comes to Bethenny. I don’t know her (and, let’s face it, probably never will). Maybe Jason is a total asshole. But if the point of the show is to show some of the warts of life, then that is the trajectory of this post, too. Maybe this doesn’t match up to Bethenny’s life, but maybe it makes some sense to you in yours. We can’t all be fabulous housewives on TV, after all. But we can all feel the beauty of unconditional love in our lives. We can all dare to hope, believe, nurture, and love.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I delve into the Bethenny birthday thing and her mommy issues!

Let’s go bowling!

The Sin City Sirens bowling team for the National Network of Abortion Funds bowl-a-thon will be playing Sunday (April 15) at 1pm at the South Point Bowling alley! Sign up for the team here!

Don’t have time to sign up online? Just show up with a donation and join in the fun! The important thing is to raise funds for this good cause and have a good time!

We’ve raised $290 so far! Thank you to all those who have donated! Please help us reach our goal of $500!

WHO: The Sin City Sirens bowling team
DATE: Sunday, April 15
TIME: 1pm
WHERE: South Point Casino bowling alley (I-15 at Silverado Ranch)


WHY: This is a chance to provide access to women all over the country who struggle to come up with the basic fees for the procedure — which can range from $450 to $3000 — and then sometimes just can’t quite cover all the other added costs. Child care, time off work, gas money to drive to the clinic which can sometimes be in another state, hotel (if there’s a waiting period), additional fees for additional procedures (like transvaginal ultrasounds)… the list goes on and on.

And all you AFAN AIDS Walk walkers… Consider this your chill after-party! Re-hydrate after the fun outside and throw a few strikes to work those arms (it’s cross-training!). And let’s not forget that some women with HIV/AIDS choose or need to terminate their pregnancies because of risks to their health or the fetus.

It’s easy to see why we need the Abortion Funds network! They fill the gaps and help women — often already mothers — who just need that extra bit to break through those roadblocks!

This International Women’s Day, let’s connect and inspire girls!

Happy International Women’s Day!

What, you didn’t know it was International Women’s Day? Wait, you did know that March is Women’s History Month, right?

Okay, okay. Maybe International Women’s Day is not at the top of your annual holiday calendar. But there’s good reason to be thinking about this 101-year-old tradition. So what is IWD?

IWD provides a common day for globally recognising and applauding women’s achievements as well as for observing and highlighting gender inequalities and issues. But not just on IWD, but all year round, many organizations and individuals work tirelessly to support gender equality through a multitude of initiatives, causes and actions.

Sounds good, right? Of course, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Here in America, we are in the middle of the thrashing vortex that is the War on Women (cue: Rush Limbaugh, et al). But compared to what women in many developing countries are dealing with on a day-to-day basis just to survive, it makes us look like a bunch of whiny, privileged assholes.

Yesterday, during a #sheparty tweet chat hosted by the Women’s Media Center, people from across the world (yes, I was tweeted by someone in Germany — in German — luckily that’s the language I took in college) talked about what the issues are facing women around the world and what we can do about it. In particular, there was a focus on how to connect with girls and raise up their voices.

And that’s a great question: How do we connect and inspire girls? I want to hear from you!

Here are some IWD posts to get your idea machine cranking:

And there’s this video, which even with its little ad at the end is still a pretty nifty highlight reel of some amazing accomplishments by women:

Cross-posted on The Sin City Siren.

The hard side of love

On tonight’s episode of Bethenny Ever After… Bethenny Frankel, the reality TV star and cocktail mogul with a razor wit and a soft underbelly, breaks down while talking about her daughter:

I want her to be soft and sweet and nice — and not hard and a survivor like me.

And now I’m crying. And I’m not alone.

As I’ve written before, I am a survivor of sexual abuse as well as a childhood marked by alcoholics, absent parent(s), poverty, and social-skill handicapping transience (because how do you learn the rules of adolescence, girlhood, and young adulthood when you don’t even have the same friends more than one year at time?). And my transition into motherhood and the transformations it has brought in my life have been rich, profound, and at times core-shaking. It took me a long time to want to get on this ride at all, and now that I’m here it’s truly full of surprises! Case in point: All the ways that being a mother has been so joyful, so frustrating, so revealing, so challenging, so exhausting, so cathartic, so heartbreaking, so inspiring, and so deeply healing. Indeed, loving my daughter and being loved by her has been one of the most healing and miraculous experiences of my life. She is joy personified.

So, as a survivor who has worked through my own share of pain, I empathize with Bethenny’s sentiment. I don’t want my daughter to have the kind of experiences in her life that would require her to become a hardened survivor, like me. I want to protect her from those kinds of experiences. And I want to destroy all those who would try to bring those into her life.

When you are a survivor — of sexual violence, domestic violence, poverty… whatever — how do you begin to channel all your rough edges and the resilience and strength it took you to survive into the softness of love? How do you speak with truth and conviction and not seem hard, jaded, or even broken? How do you encourage your own child’s light to shine when no one ever did that for you?

Like Bethenny, I struggle with this. I worry about being too hard around my daughter. I worry that I don’t show her enough love, affection, attention, and praise because I did not experience that. There is no well to draw from for me. There is no example to follow. And no matter how far away from the trauma I get, by virtue of it happening to me in my formative years, there are certain scars that will never fade. For instance, I may learn how to mitigate my survivalist need to plan for any “worst case scenario,” but I probably won’t ever be able to turn it off or even take a vacation from it. That instinct protected me from the dangers that I could avoid. That instinct probably saved my life more than once. And that instinct — which I know comes off as pessimistic or even overly critical at times, despite my best efforts to be transparent in my pragmatism — is part of the very core of who I am. It’s just my nature to always have a Plan B in my back pocket for when things go wrong. Because I’ve lived through some wrong times.

In a lot of ways, I have tried to flip the script on what remains in your life as a survivor. Sure, there are some difficult things to overcome and that process of healing can take years. But, there are some things about being a survivor that you can turn into assets. I am a fighter. I am fiercely loyal. I am resilient — no matter how deeply you wound me, I heal. I am resourceful. And I know how to use anger as a powerful motivator. Being a survivor is rooted in a deep strength. After all, that’s how you survive!

But there’s no denying that strength comes at a cost — especially if you are a woman. I am not the person you call when you want to watch a chick-flick. I don’t like going shopping with other people. I don’t have the patience for a four-hour conversation about which beige you are going to paint your living room. I always have to give myself a pep talk when I wear an outfit that shows a lot of cleavage (because I’m uncomfortable with being a sexual object, even in passing). I don’t cook. And, yes, in my younger days I started more than one bar fight by throwing the first punch (or can of beer).

So I know how hard being a survivor can make you. And, if we’re being honest, it can be easy to just stay in that place. To stay cocooned in that hard shell. I know; I did for a long time. It kind of feels like bullshit to leave it behind. After all that hardness did for you — it helped you fucking survive! And then you come out the other side and the whole world asks you to change. Can you just mellow out a little? Can you soften the edges? Can you try opening up a bit? Can you fall into gender norms more? Can you be nicer? Can you just be less of a bitch, please?! And for a lot of us, this is just too much to take. We throw our hands up and storm off, clutching the hardness all the closer, like a warm coat on a blustery day. No, you can’t take my jacket, asshole. I might need it! And I don’t appreciate you bagging on it! When you’ve come out the other side of trauma and can live free as a survivor, it almost feels like another assault that the world doesn’t give you some kind of respect for that. Yeah, I’m hard. But I had to be, damn it! Yeah, I might make you uncomfortable sometimes, but this is who I had to become to survive. If the worst thing you have to deal with is my hardness, then you don’t know pain. Get over it.

I lived like that for a long time. And I suspect that Bethenny has, too. But I think she has had some recent experiences that are not unlike my own. For one, we both became mothers later in life than the norm. (Our daughters were born only weeks apart.) And, we both have had to find our equilibrium in marriages to men who are from a life made up of experiences and family wholly different from our own. (I know there are rumors of her having marriage woes, but for the benefit of what I’m about to say, I’m going to ignore that for now.) Before I met my now-husband, I didn’t know anyone whose parents were happily married to their original spouse. I didn’t know families that ate “family dinner.” And I definitely did not know how to handle being welcomed into a family that seemed alien (in a good way) to everything I had ever known.

During last season’s finale of Bethenny Ever After…, I remember her saying something about how she had gotten everything she ever wanted and then asking, “Who gets everything they ever wanted?” Like, Holy crap! Now what?!

And I totally get that because, I too feel like I’ve gotten everything I ever wanted. During those nine years that I survived sexual abuse, I would often pray to God (even though my family was not religious and did not go to church). I just started doing it because once I was finally alone in my bedroom and whatever horrors were over for the day, I needed to feel like there was something good in the universe. I needed to feel like I was not alone, in a good way. I would pray for lots of things, some important and some trivial.

But I would always, always pray for two things: that I would one day have a home that was safe and comfortable with no threat of homelessness or danger; and that God would bring someone into my life who loved me, unconditionally. When I was 14 and praying for these things, they were painfully desired and fairly abstract concepts because I did not know what either one felt like. When I was sending up that prayer, I think in my mind I thought I was praying for my father to come back into my life and rescue me. Or perhaps, that once I left home for college I would be so successful that I would be able to afford to provide a safe place for myself and find love on my own terms. I certainly did not think that what would happen was that I would meet a boy when I was 15 that would later become my husband and with whom (after almost 15 years of marriage) I share a safe home filled with unconditional, honest love between us and with our daughter. And somewhere in there I got a college degree and built a nice career for myself, too, among other things.

My life might not be as lavish as Bethenny Frankel’s — no multi-million-dollar liquor deals in my household — but I think I understand the kind of shell-shock she felt last year when you could sort of hear the panic behind the joy when she tearfully talked about getting everything she ever wanted. Because as a survivor, there’s always a sense that nothing good lasts. And that, deep down, you don’t deserve good things in your life. (I mean, what was all that trauma about, if it wasn’t because somehow you deserved it — right?)

And now you have a beautiful baby daughter. A child who is everything wonderful in the world. A baby who adores you unconditionally. And it’s profound. And it scares you.

I don’t want my daughter to be hard like me, either, Bethenny. And I absolutely don’t want her to be a survivor. Strong? Yes! Because she had to become strong to survive? Hell, no!

But I’m a bit hung up on a part of the sentiment that Bethenny puts out there. She doesn’t just want to protect her daughter from being hard and a survivor. She wants her daughter to be sweet and nice, too. And that’s where I disagree. I want my daughter to be a bad ass — in a good way. I want her to be whip-smart, fierce, brave, adventurous, creative, strong, and happy. So, so happy. I want her to be a good person with good values. But she doesn’t have to be “sweet” unless that’s her natural personality.

After thinking about it, I’ve decided that maybe what Bethenny means by soft is love itself. We think of hard as being the opposite of soft. And that, at least a little bit, strength is the opposite of loving. Here’s where I challenge Bethenny and all the other survivors out there to create a new script about what it means to be hard and what it means to be loving. Because I think being loving — open, unconditional, honest love — takes a lot more courage than being hard. It seems easy to stay in the hard shell. But it’s so limiting. And in truth, when we push through the hard shell, that’s when we bust through the last vestiges of trauma. Because just like our capacity to endure and survive, our capacity to love has been inside us all along. And what I have found is that I feel 10x stronger as a loving person then when I was in my shell.

I may never be able to give up the comfort of a back-up plan or ever feel comfortable at “girly” functions because being a survivor is always going to be a part of the fabric of my being. But I also know that I have a loving side. And what I pray for now is that my daughter is happy, healthy, smart and knows she is loved beyond measure. And if my prayer track-record is any indication, I’m going to get everything I ask for, and then some.

Tell Hallmark to stop stealing from local LGBT greeting card company Teazled!

Folks, we need to step up and help one of our own. LGBTQ greeting card company Teazled, which was founded by a fantastic lesbian couple and is based right here in Las Vegas, is in a fight over intellectual property and copyright infringement with the megalith Hallmark. (Full disclosure: The couple go to my church.)

Teazled is not only an amazing little mom-and-mom company, but it represents a cultural shift and an acceptance of LGBTQ individuals. Because, as it turns out, Hallmark doesn’t always “have a card for that,” as the saying goes. But it’s time there were cards for all individuals and families! Enter: Teazled.

“We created Teazled to fill the need for greeting cards for the LGBT community,” Dina says on the video below.

So, it was not only a surprise, but painful to watch as Hallmark launched a “Tell Them” campaign this month. You see, Teazled’s tagline — which was copyrighted in 2011 — is that exact phrase: Tell Them. So far, a cease and desist order has been ignored. But just because they don’t want to acknowledge their wrong-doing, doesn’t make it right. And let’s face it, if the situation were reversed and a little start-up greeting card company was using copyrighted property of Hallmark, ignoring the situation would not be an option.

Want more reasons to support this cause?

  • This is a locally owned company. How many times do we Las Vegans bitch that all we have are mass-corporate chain stores and no variety? Here’s your chance to support a business that is right here!
  • Supporting Teazled supports local artists. They do all the art and writing here!
  • An LGBTQ-owned business needs your help.
  • This business is woman-owned.
  • The owners are Christians who are active in their faith.
  • You can stick it to the 1%!
  • Your purchase of Teazled products and support benefit a small business!
  • You can stick it to Hallmark, who maybe didn’t have the right card for you because of narrow, hetero-normative, sexist, [fill-in-the-blank] reasons.

Teazled is a special company owned by two really amazing women who started this company — their dream — with money they’d saved from hard work and their 401Ks. They contribute to the community and their church. They are raising their family here. And they work toward equality for all people. In short, these are good people. And they deserve our support.

So, here’s what you can do:

  • Check out #TellHallmark and express your reasons for supporting Teazled and encouraging Hallmark to do the right thing.
  • Follow Teazled on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Post the following on your Facebook/Twitter feeds and on Hallmark’s feed: #TellHallmark trademark infringement is NOT a warm greeting.

*Image used with permission from Teazled.

Bullying the playground

imageBullies: They’re not just for kids anymore.

We’ve all seen the sitcom episodes or even heard tales of parents bullying each other on the playground. It’s a tough and tight space, and not just for the kids. After all, that’s my kid that just got pushed on the ground by your kid. Then there’s the intrinsic competition that inevitably creeps in… my kid can climb those stairs better than his. And let’s not even get into the special circle of hell reserved for debates about high-fructose corn syrup and gluten. Parents can’t even agree on whether or not spanking is okay. The sandbox can be a tricky place for the adults as well as the kids.

And since becoming a stay-at-home/work-at-home feminist, I’ve had many encounters with the playground crowd. Early on I tried joining different “mommy groups” and ventured on to Meetup to try and find other progressive, feminist parents to hang with by the monkey bars. But it was a non-starter. Half a dozen playdates and group-meets later, I have found that there aren’t that many moms at the playground like me. I guess I’m just an eclectic mix of pragmatic (yoga pants and running shoes) and feminist (no, gender does not matter at the toddler age). I know there are other feminist parents out there, but maybe they work or don’t live on my side of town or whatever. And that’s okay… until there’s a problem with another, less liberal, parent on the playground.

Let’s take what happened today: My daughter and I went down the park for a pre-nap run-around.

At 20 months, my daughter is in full-on toddler mode and she loves the park. And since she takes after her father, she is also very tall, sometimes a head and shoulders taller than other kids her age or even ones a little older. Because of her height, she’s a lot more comfortable with her body and can attempt some things that other kids her age can’t (because, for instance, their legs aren’t long enough or they can’t reach high enough). This is a mixed blessing, of course. I don’t have to hunch over when I walk hand-in-hand with my toddler. But I also have to keep her from taking risks that are a bit out of her developmental range without the benefit of a few more months of language skills that many kids have by the time they are her height. (How I envied the mom at the park today who could say to her 2.5-year-old, “Let’s try something else.” and the response was, “Okay, mama.”) My daughter’s language skills are coming, but they are all but eclipsed by her physical skills.

My guiding philosophy with playtime is that it is a time for kids to develop skills and learn about risk, which is a lasting benefit from my years as a nanny. This is not necessarily fun or easy as the parent, as we want to protect our kids from falling down or having disappointments. But it’s how they grow. I do my best not to hover but to be a heartbeat away if necessary.

Unfortunately, I have found — sometimes the hard way, like today — that my brand of parenting at the playground is pretty unpopular. It’s almost routine for me to hear a gasp here or there as I let my daughter climb higher than other kids or don’t immediately rush over the moment she trips (often she gets right back up as if nothing has happened, and that’s a good thing). Now, I’m not talking about letting her do things that I know would be dangerous or to not help her if she has hurt herself. I’m talking about normal bumps and measured risk. Let’s be real: Everything on the playground could be dangerous. You can’t remove all risk or all danger, especially when you add in multiple kids and other variables. But that’s part of what the playground is for — an opportunity for kids to learn how to use their bodies and to grow skills and brainpower. But, inevitably, someone disapproves — “Oh my!”… “Is that your kid?”… “Are you gonna…” — of how far I let my daughter run without me right on top of her or how much I’m willing to let her try using her body on the jungle gym.

Today was by far the worst example of this. We went to a park in my neighborhood and there were a few other kids — conveniently, all right around my daughter’s age — playing. At this park there is one main jungle gym that has a few different slides, a climbing tunnel and something that I refer to as a metal high-beam/metal rope-bridge. At about 3.5 feet off the ground, it’s a metal beam that goes between two slides. (I have a good sense of how high it is because my daughter just clears under it.) Spaced evenly along it are level foot-steps (they are kind of like steps but don’t go up and down) and along both sides there is a series of metal bars that resemble a rope-bridge shape. So there are lots of hand-hold places at lots of heights all along the way and the steps are even and flat, so it’s not that challenging. The only challenge of it is that it is off the ground. To be fair, my husband does not like this thing and will not let our daughter play on it. But I do. She takes to it like water! She hits every step and doesn’t struggle at all, since her legs are more than long enough to reach. Plus, I stand next to her with  my hands out the whole time, because something like that does warrant a bit of helicopter parenting. (I told you, I’m not a barbarian about it.) And frankly, she’s taken headers jumping off the couch (which is not that much closer to the ground) that are probably worse considering our flooring is not nearly as padded as the playground mats.

So, when it comes to this beam thing, I decided to let her do it when I could be sure that (1) she could physically do it with minimal help; (2) she understood that this was an activity that must have an adult present (which she does because she always waits for me); (3) that letting her do it a couple of times gets it out of her mind and she goes on to less risky activities that are more fun for both of us. Plus, she enjoys it.

But today, we were seriously bullied by a couple of grandparents out with their three-year-old granddaughter. Now, this kid hit my kid. This kid pushed my kid. This kid got mad at my kid when she was in the tunnel. And on and on. But I tried to help my daughter deal with the situation, because it’s going to happen in life. I tried to steer her away from where that girl was playing. And we tried to just do our own thing. But this playground just has the one big piece of equipment and these two girls are roughly the same size, so they want to do similar things and are also trying to figure out how to play with other kids. This couple was especially full of nervous clucks for me. In fact, at first it was just the grandmother in the playground and then she went and got the grandfather to basically regulate my parenting! Don’t believe me?

So, the platform to step off onto the high beam thing is the same as the platform to enter the tunnel and a small slide. The girls were climbing the stairs up to the platform and then had a three-way choice: tunnel, slide, or high-beam. As the adult, you can’t be on all three sides but the grandfather decided to camp out right at the high-beam side. So, when his grandkid bullied my daughter away from the tunnel and she was uninterested with the slide for the umpteenth time, she turned to go on the high beam. And since there was an adult there (this grandfather), she just went right for it. I mean, to her, there’s an adult so it’s all good. Now, I move around to the high beam opening and am right there, but not fast enough before this man pushes my daughter backwards back on to the platform! Gently, yes. But pushed, yes!

“That’s not for you,” he says.

Excuse me? Did you just push my kid?

I’m trying to get in to this tight space where the high beam opening is and he is blocking me with his body. He even has his arms up to block my daughter, who’s trying to put her foot out again, and in doing this is now blocking me from reaching my daughter completely. In basketball this would be getting boxed out, which for my non-basketball loving readers means that someone has positioned their body to maximize blocking you at every possible point. I was boxed out from my daughter by a bullying grandpa! Now I’m pissed and worried because my daughter does not understand what is happening and she’s stepping out onto the high beam without anyone actually helping her! I finally had to physically push the man out of the way to get a hold of my daughter and then ask him to move out of my way so I could help her across. Fuck him and his judging attitude! But also fuck him for pushing my daughter and telling her that using her body was not for her!

And let me just say that the only time my daughter came anywhere near hurting herself today was when that man got between me and my kid but was paying more attention to scolding me (isn’t this a bit advanced for kids their age? I mean, my granddaughter isn’t coordinated enough to do it and she’s older…) than actually making sure my daughter was safe. Needless to say we left pretty quickly after that.

I enjoy taking my daughter to the park and I’m not going to stop just because of some judgmental parents/grandparents. But bullies really do take the joy out of the experience. And, let’s face it, they are also potentially taking the joy out of the experience (not to mention some safety) for the kids.