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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.

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.