Raising a Daughter in Scary But Hopeful Times

Recently, I had the chance to catch up with an old friend whose family was expecting their third child: a daughter, after two sons. [Actually, I started this post more than a month ago, and as it happens, said daughter was born TODAY, early this morning! So read on, in honour of wee baby EC’s birth day.] This friend is from a two-son, no-daughter family himself. He said, “I should pick your brain sometime about how to raise a girl. I’ll have no idea what I’m doing.”

I’d like to say that I have all the answers, since a) I am a daughter and b) I have a daughter I’ve managed to get to age 5 relatively unscathed.

jean-jacket-mom-daughter
And we’re jean jacket buds.

Let’s see:

  1. Always wipe front to back
  2. Don’t over-clean and irritate those girl parts
  3. Keep a close eye on her interactions with her big brothers, because it’s easy for big brothers to abuse their power without realizing it.

Annnnd… that’s about the only straightforward advice I have. As soon as you’re past the diaper stage – and sometimes while you’re still in it – other things that differentiate raising a girl from raising a boy get sticky and complicated.

Once upon a time, I was a girl. (Still am, in some ways.) I was always happy and proud to be one, and never wished I were a boy – girls are the best! I was fortunate to have many strong, wise, smart female role models in my life, including my mom, my aunts, and my grandmothers. Also, I grew up between two sisters (with a brother as well), and my best friends were all girls (past about age 5).

Now I’m a grown-up woman, and I still wouldn’t trade that for anything. There are lots of awesome and basically magical things about being a female human. That being said, I have come to understand a lot more about the blood, sweat, and tears that went into the status of womanhood today, and the breadth of the progress we have yet to make. I’ve thought and read and discussed a lot about what feminism means to me now, as a mother and as a teacher. Often, the process makes me mad, and always, it makes me feel fiercely protective of my little girl.

Obviously, girls, like all children, are individuals. The main things you can justifiably say about “Girls” as a group are not about their personalities, hobbies, habits, or tendencies. They are about the ways society sees and treats them. In my career I have taught literally hundreds of girls between the ages of three and eighteen, observing and getting to know them in many different contexts.

Here are a few thoughts that I hope will be helpful – or they may just confuse things worse than ever. But I think they’re important.

Pretty is as pretty does

The wish to be physically appealing is extremely powerful. I believe that this is partly instinctive, but mightily reinforced by the media. Society teaches girls and women that making themselves pretty should be their top priority.

Not too long ago, it was our duty to be pretty for men. Nowadays, it’s ostensibly for “us” – the company line is that it’s empowering to feel beautiful. Frankly, this is often true. Most women I know do feel most confident when they know they look good. I’m sure most men are the same.

Where the empowerment argument falls down is that the standards for women are flat-out ridiculous. As in, the consumer engine is all up in our appearances, down to Every. Single. Detail. Not just the quality of our hair and the state of our toenails, but everything in between, including the consistency of our breasts and the look of our vulvas. (And when I mention hair, I mean ALL the hair, in EVERY place.) There is no part of the external female anatomy that is exempt from society’s opinion.

And the expectation is perfection, literally. Women’s products are designed to minimize or conceal “imperfections” – or even “correct” them, as though every unique quirk of our bodies is a MISTAKE. I feel the outrageousness of this as I write it, but sadly, it’s no exaggeration. Society’s collective sense of entitlement to judge female people on and by their looks is inescapable and crushing. The engine never stops, because there are people making obscene amounts of money off of women feeling bad about themselves.

Tiny girls are able to love themselves and their appearances naturally and abundantly. Sean was worried at one point because AB loves to admire herself in the mirror, strike cool poses and so on – is she too focused on her looks? Will she grow up vain?

But this time of a little girl being able to enjoy her reflection without self-judgment and criticism is fleeting. Due to the above phenomenon, a girl’s self-esteem is often extremely fragile. I was already worrying about whether my body was good enough by the time I was nine (ballet class did not help in that regard, even though I adored ballet) and I fretted about my crooked teeth as soon as I got them, which was even earlier. Every insecurity a girl can have is promptly and thoroughly validated by the media. I watch my daughter enjoying her beauty, and it squeezes my heart. I know all too well the self-consciousness that creeps in, so soon, on young girls.

So here’s a quandary: do I tell my daughter she’s beautiful to reinforce her confidence, or treat appearance as unimportant so that she will focus on her character and skills? (The internet is all over both sides of this argument, BTW. It’s no help.) Personally, I try to do both. I tell her she’s beautiful often, because I can’t pretend that Beauty isn’t an issue. She IS beautiful, and she will need this knowledge-ammo to fight off the counter-messages. Plus… we all know it feels good to hear that. (She tells me I’m beautiful too, with sincerity and delight, usually when I wear a skirt or something pink – or any outfit she chose for me.)

[Here is a wonderful blog post about a mom who learned, for her daughters’ sake, to agree with them that she was beautiful. This had a big impact on me when I first read it, back when my own daughter was baby. Since then, I try very hard not to be self-critical in front of my kids. And in general (though that’s harder).]

We also talk about her character on a regular basis, discussing almost every day what makes a good friend, how much we learn from hard work, what courage looks like, and other traits we want to foster. I only use the word ugly when we’re talking about certain behaviours (which could be another whole post). I want her to know deep down, as she grows, that in real life, inner beauty is the greatest determining factor of overall beauty.

Nurturing is for everybody

Society may have been telling girls that we want to play with dolls for generations, but it’s not out of the blue. The nurturing tendency among girls is not solely a learned thing. As my daughter already knows, girls are born with all their eggs already in place in their bodies (in fact, AB seems quite proud of this). It makes sense that certain instincts come with them. Even in families trying hard to avoid gender-norming their kids, you often have tiny toddler girls pretending to be mamas (and tiny toddler boys who freak out with excitement around construction equipment). Many’s the kindergarten girl I’ve seen taking a random object – like a block or a chalkboard eraser – and mothering it.

I guess it’s not surprising that so many of the vocations dominated by women – child care, education, nursing, veterinary medicine, home health care, social work, not to mention parenting – are those in which the nurturing instincts are an asset. I am proud of the skills and accomplishments of these women, as well as those of the women who pioneer in male-dominated fields, who deal with chauvinism every day in order to pound their boots on that glass ceiling.

At some point, my daughter will have to contend with all this. Particularly divisive are the many perceptions that complicate a woman’s choice to mother – or not. “Parenting isn’t real work”… “Working mothers can’t fully succeed in their careers”… “A woman isn’t a real woman until she’s a mother”  and many more, often in conflict with each other. For now, though, I encourage my daughter to nurture (as well as to build things, play with trucks, and so on) – and I encourage the caring tendency in my son, too. We all need comfort and care, at every age. The world needs more nurturing, always, from everyone.

little_girl_puppy

Pink is STUPID… Or AWESOME

I looooved pink when I was little girl. Then, around age 12, I went off it and didn’t start to enjoy it again until I was an adult. That’s partly because I came of age in the 90s – grunge and pink didn’t mix well – but partly because I saw it as a dumb, girly colour. Which is awful. I hate that I internalized that message for so long. Pink is fun. It’s happy.

It might also be a little bit of a trap. When my daughter was born, I didn’t want her to feel like she had to choose pink as the be-all and end-all of everything. But of course, people love to buy cute pink clothes for girl babies (and they are adorable). Although I dressed her in all the colours, as soon as she began choosing for herself, she overwhelmingly chose pink. These days, purple and turquoise (thanks, Frozen) are also really popular, and she loves multicoloured things… But nothing can sway her love of pink.

The part that makes a protective parent mad is when you go to the toy section of a department store and find your totally-pink aisle and your zero-pink aisle. As though there’s no middle ground, for anyone. Really?? In the 21st century?

Here’s a question I can’t answer: is it good that they’ve started making “girl” Lego? Because it seems like you shouldn’t have to – Lego is for everyone (with strong and able fingers). But then… I’ll be honest. I probably would have done lots more fine-motor play-building if I’d had more colours and shapes to work with. When we gave AB a Lego set with all sorts of colours (including pink and purple and turquoise) and lots of random wheels and windows and funny parts, BOTH kids got really excited and built like crazy. More variety = MORE FUN.

[On the topic of pink, dolls, and many other very pertinent things, I highly recommend “Cinderella Ate My Daughter“, by Peggy Orenstein, to be read by EVERYONE with girls in their lives.]

little_girl_art_paint

No means No. Except when it doesn’t.

Girls start out quite knowledgeable about their physical boundaries. Society blurs that line for them, however, from a very young age. There are a million insidious messages about how a woman should be, permeating a girl’s psyche as she grows. We should be kind, gracious, altruistic, polite, agreeable, generous, accepting, and friendly. All great qualities – I aspire to them myself, and encourage them in all the children I know. The problem arises when they are so  ingrained, to the exclusion of other qualities, that they affect a girl’s protection of her boundaries.

Even in 2018, there are potent forces telling girls and women to avoid being confrontational, defensive, or inconvenient. I see ALL THE TIME our tendency to sacrifice ourselves and enable other people – sometimes in good ways and sometimes in bad. On the one hand, you have the professions I mentioned earlier in which women care and give every day in extraordinary ways. On the other hand, you have millions of women becoming recipients of unwanted sexual attention, language, and/or contact, from men who exploit that politeness, friendliness, acceptance, and the desire not to make a fuss or be a pain. And please don’t misunderstand: I do not blame the women. This stems from the burden of centuries of misogyny.

[Here is an excellent article about sex from a woman’s perspective that I honestly believe every woman who’s ever been sexually active, no matter how good her sex life may be, can relate to on some level. And here is a post I wrote when AB was a toddler about managing the complexities of the physical relationship between her and my son.]

My Hubbibi and I have had many earnest conversations about the word NO, especially regarding our kids. I know that sometimes no doesn’t really mean no… Sometimes kids screech and giggle “no” during a physical game when they actually enjoy it and want to continue. BUT. I don’t think it’s up to me or anyone else to decide which Nos are real and which aren’t. Not even if parents (for example) traditionally have that leeway. Some words MUST mean what they say. I always tell students: “When someone says stop, you must stop.”

If “Stop” and “No” are open for interpretation, how does a person make herself clear? If people feel entitled to construe another person’s “No” however they like, then you have… well, you have the status quo. You have #metoo, in its millions.

Don’t even get me started on the folks who object to the new Ontario Sex Ed curriculum that finally takes on consent. Keep kids in the dark about sexual health and of course they will be blindsided.

The Herbivore’s Dilemma

To take the above idea even further, girls learn young that the dangers they face can be grave indeed. Consensus says that girls aren’t safe by themselves. Young boys are in a similar category – all children have to be careful of “stranger danger” – but as we get older, the understanding deepens for women. It is an extraordinarily strong (and trained) woman who is physically able to overpower your average adult male. In the Survival Game of reality, female humans are the Herbivores – for their whole lives. Depressingly, this is a biological and statistical truth. We are the prey. We are always aware of it. It is part of our everyday existence to avoid situations that leave us vulnerable to predators.

In my mind, this is the most deep-seated reason why so many women had a profound emotional response to Wonder Woman. We vicariously walked with her right into danger, and just dealt with it like a BOSS. The idea of being unafraid, of knowing you can protect yourself and your people… That’s the dream. it’s huge.

little_girl_joy

I wish it were unnecessary, but I will be teaching my daughter everything I know about personal protection. [Here is a pretty good article that covers many of the things I learned in a personal protection workshop I took a few years ago. We also learned how to put up our “fence” – guarding hands – and say loudly and aggressively, “Back off!” and if that doesn’t work, “Back the f*ck off!!!” Haven’t shared that with AB yet, but apparently it can help a lot.]

Contradictions, Hypocrisy, and Injustice

Last year at OELC iArts, it was my privilege to have an in-depth discussion with our group of Dance Majors, based on the question “What bugs you about the way society treats girls?” These junior high students know what’s up. They are angered by the impossible standards of beauty, and the way that all forms of media prey on their insecurities.

Even more, the double standards in their daily lives are infuriating. Boys get away with all kinds of things that girls can’t. Boys can, for example, wear basically whatever they want. Girls are not allowed to violate the dress code – it’s distracting (to boys) – always the girl’s fault… but short shorts are IN. It’s impossible to be fashionable and adhere to the dress code. Girls reported being made to wear random lost-and-found shirts to cover up visible bra straps – but god forbid they should propose removing the bra to solve the problem. Already, in Grade 7, the sexualization of EVERYTHING involving girls is rampant.

There’s a lot of unfairness. And a lot of pain. The unspoken expectations, the things that are just easier for boys, the things boys – and men – feel entitled to say and do around and to girls, the things that society says girls need to care about, the things it won’t let them do…. It’s a LOT.

Furthermore, the mixed messages start right away, and never stop. Girls can do anything boys can… but in reality, they are not treated the same. Girls should do everything in their power to be pretty, but they should not care or even really be aware of it. Women should own their sexuality, but not TOO much. Women should act more like men when they lead, but if they do they’ll be called cold and heartless – and people will still feel entitled to comment on their appearance.

As a family with two living children, a boy and a girl, things are sticky sometimes. Double-standards and mixed messages have to be dealt with, often on the fly as they come up. I try to be as honest as I can about how things are, within age-appropriate limits. We discuss how people grow up with different ideas about how to treat others, and then we think together about what we believe is right. My kids are already pretty thoughtful and astute people in many ways, and have some wise things to say. They know that we will never shut down their questions or invalidate their frustrations – and that we will love them no matter what. We hope that’s enough.

little_girl_smiling

Dilovely, didn’t you say “Scary But Hopeful”?

Okay, right. I acknowledge that this started out as parenting advice and became a feminist Di-atribe. (And I almost apologized for it, then backspaced. Because raising a daughter to live fully in this world = FEMINISM. No apologies.)

Yes, my understanding of, and frustration with, the status quo for women has grown with every year that goes by. It seems like, in this day and age, in a country like Canada, we should be over the silliness. Over the stupid beauty standards, the antiquated attitudes, and the misogyny so deeply embedded that some people don’t even see it. At times, it feels like we haven’t come nearly as far as we should, given the work that has gone into dismantling the patriarchy. Sometimes it even feels like we’re regressing.

However! I am also very grateful to raise my family in this place and time. Here and now, I do feel safe most of the time, and my daughter does too. Girls attend school – at all levels – in numbers that couldn’t have been imagined a century ago. We explicitly teach about consent. The pay gap is a household topic of conversation. The Prime Minister’s latest budget focused heavily on improving the lives of women. The Cabinet has gender parity. Awesome female heroes are more and more visible in movies and TV shows – and in real life too.

[If you need inspiration, news, resources, book lists, blog posts, or anything else to learn about girls or help girls learn about themselves, please mine the riches of A Mighty Girl. It is an absolute treasure trove and will make you feel better about the world.]

I’m grateful for the campaigns that mainstream companies are working on, because although they’re not without difficulties, they are highly visible and they do seep into the public consciousness. Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty has done some good work, bringing up issues mothers and daughters need to consider. And the original #likeagirl video made by Always consistently makes me cry.

Particularly the moment where a smiling teenage girl acknowledges she doesn’t have to accept “run like a girl” for its connotations. She says, “I would run like… myself,” putting both hands over her heart. She does know her worth, but the world tries hard to rob her of this. The woman asks her gently, “Would you like a chance to re-do it?”

Yes. Girls would like a chance to reclaim their self-compassion and take loving custody of their own value as people, please.  YES.

This can happen. The world is shifting. There may be a sexual predator slash nincompoop currently terrorizing the White House, but I’ll say this for him: he (unintentionally) rallied millions of women to take louder, stronger ownership of their feminist ideals. This is helping to put feminism where it should be: as the mainstream, default position for ALL non-misogynist humans. The #metoo movement has swelled past its banks on the power of women knowing they can’t let others just get away with shit anymore. Complacency is not an option.

I am also comforted by the knowledge that we have sisterhood to draw upon. We can bring our daughters into the fold as women who know the profound power of our bodies, hearts, and minds. We understand the strength of unity. The variants of our tenderness are blessings, sources of energy and healing. We know that daughters and mothers and sisters, joined with our allies, are already in the process of uplifting this chaotic jumble called humanity and making it better.

And there are lots of fantastic fathers out there, raising daughters with their own hearts and minds open to who those girls will become.

I am sincere when I say that I feel real optimism for our girls. It is truly exciting to be part of this new wave. We are in it together, all the daughters and all the sons, feeling the thrill of a changing, learning, evolving humanity.

We’ve got this.

***

Photo credits, in order: 1. Auntie Beth, 2. Bess-Hamiti, 3. pikauisan, 4. yohoprashant, 4. cherylholt, 5. skimpton007. Photos 2-5 via Pixabay.

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8 Unromantic-Sounding Ways I Know We Will Last

two hearts making an effort

“How’s your relationship these days?” is not a question most of us ever ask people. I’ve probably only ever asked it of newlyweds (where it’s more like “How’s married life?” nudge-nudge) or of very close friends with whom I have a precedent of relationship discussions.

It is a bit odd, though. Among parents, there are the constant “how are your kids” conversations, and it’s expected that you’ll dish on the hard parts as well as the fun parts. But for some reason, even though Sean and I are at the age where the majority of our friends are in committed relationships, we rarely discuss that very important aspect of daily life. Somehow, it feels rude or intrusive to ask, even though we certainly care about the answer.

One result of this is that when friends have major relationship troubles or break up, it’s often a complete shock – sometimes even to close friends. You think, But they always seemed fine!

Obviously, the reasons to break up are as diverse and numerous as the couples who do it. For the couples who stay together, there are myriad reasons for that, too. Presumably, though, most couples who’ve had a long-term relationship – whatever its future – had a period of awesomeness at some point. A chapter, of whatever length, where the connection was uplifting and the chemistry was wild and both parties thought, “This could be IT!”

Setting aside the Big Bad Wolves of Relationship Destruction (infidelity, abuse, addiction, etc.), how else do those paths diverge, such that some couples stay together and some split up?

I can only speak for myself in this, of course. I’m no expert. If someone asked me, “How can you be sure you’ll be together forever?” I’d say, “I’m not. It’s impossible to be a hundred percent sure. But I am supremely confident.”

How, you ask, can I be supremely confident without blind faith? What’s the secret? And could it be helpful to anyone else?

Well, shucks, that’s why I’m writing this. So that you can all SOAK UP MY GLORIOUS WISDOMAlors, voilà: here is my carefully crafted counsel, based on my own untrained and entirely non-objective experience of thirteen years with the same person (9.5 of them married).

1. Let Your Inner Grub Out.

If you’re gonna be with someone for the long haul, they need to see the real you, and your real habits. Not dressed up, not scrubbed down. When Sean and I moved in together, cohabitation was our way to make sure that neither of us had habits that would be deal-breakers for the other. We are lucky to have very similar scores on the slob-to-neat-freak scale. If I forget to put the CDs back in their cases (yes, we’re sooo retro, we still have CDs), or if he forgets to put his nasal rinse packet in the garbage, we know we’re about even. We have also found we’re able to handle each other’s dirty laundry and live with each other’s stinkier sides, and we like each other even in comfy pants and scruffy hoodies.

2. Get Used To Non-Perfection.

Speaking of grubs, your personality-related grubbiness is gonna need airing out too. We all have our flaws. We all have at least one side that’s lazy or naggy or procrastinatey or judgey or grumpy or insensitive or whatever. (Fun game: guess which ones are mine!!) And if you join yourself with a person, you join yourself with their flaws. Those flaws are not going anywhere. And Sean and I are well aware of the less awesome parts of each other – and ourselves. Sometimes we drive each other a little bit bonkers with that. But even though we know we can’t change each other, we do support each other’s quests for self-improvement, which are constantly evolving.

3. Forget Sweet Talk. Try Straight Talk.

Speaking of imperfections, it’s good to know we can live with each other’s, but sometimes discussion is necessary. It’s amazing how easy it is to find yourself playing games, manipulating, expecting someone to read your mind if you’re feeling pouty. But that’s lame. If my husband is driving me bonkers in some way, and I never articulate it to him, then what chance is there to improve things? If he’s upset with me for something, I want him to tell me – even when it hurts to hear. (Contrary to some beliefs, it is NOT more respectful to say nothing in an attempt to spare someone’s feelings.) It usually hurts, although we also take pains to word things as plainly-but-tactfully as possible. Those moments are really hard, but bearable – and worth it – if they come from a place of caring. Leaving those unsaid things to fester, on the other hand, is a great way to drive spikes into the potential cracks in a relationship. (We consider that, true to our marriage vows, being irresponsible with spikes is not an option. We have invested; what we have is not disposable or replaceable; therefore, proper maintenance is necessary.)

4. Learn To Mess Up Properly.

Speaking of upsetting each other, Sean and I have learned, many times, that if you handle mistakes with honesty and sincerity, it works way better than denying or deflecting blame. THIS IS HARD, too. Admitting you’re wrong… I honestly think everyone struggles with it. True apology feels deeply vulnerable. But it’s also humbling, illuminating, disarming, and endearing. It allows a couple to be a team, with both members party to the resolution. And I’ve noticed that when a person can be candid about mistakes, those aforementioned flaws and foibles can sometimes even be… kinda cute.

5. Never Mind About That Honeymoon Phase.

Speaking of admitting things, let’s be frank: the exorbitant new-relationship ecstasy does not last forever. Sometimes Sean and I look back on how snuggly-wuggly and cutesie-wootsie we once were, and we think, Yeesh. Our friends must have been nauseated. That swooning stage is not sustainable, long-term. And to be even franker, in a long relationship, there are sometimes downright cool periods – times when you feel distant or annoyed or just not that attracted to each other, or even disconnected.

N.B.: DON’T PANIC. It doesn’t mean the spark is gone forever.

For me, those are usually the times when I’m feeling deflated about life in general. Fortunately, I’ve learned not to put stock in those times. I know that that’s just how I feel if I’m short on sleep, or not eating right, or stressed out about certain things. I wait it out. I know it will pass. It always does. If it needs a little nudge, some of that straight talk (see #3) comes in very handy. Invariably, the moment comes when I look at my husband and feel the affection/happiness/spark surge back in.

It’s also worth mentioning that, in my experience, the settled, solid, non-swooning phase is, in many ways, more sublime than its predecessor. And it still includes kisses that make me weak in the knees.

6. Go Ahead And Take Love For Granted.

Speaking of sometimes-latent affection, one of the perks of being in a committed relationship is getting to take love for granted – in a way. It’s not that I take love in general for granted; it took me ages (years, even) to tell my high school/university boyfriend that I loved him, because I wanted to be absolutely sure I knew what I meant, and meant it well. But once you’ve taken that leap and decided that yes, this is love!, it’s your right – and responsibility – to trust that it’s there… even at times (see #5) when you feel crotchety and not-so-loving. My Hubbibi and I always end phone and text conversations with “I love you.” Especially if we’ve been exasperated with each other, or having a difficult conversation, we both know that by saying “I love you,” we’re affirming that we don’t take challenging moments as bad signs, that we both trust in the proof of our history. Unless one of us were to go through a fundamental change, we know: I’m me, and you’re you, and we love each other.

Furthermore, I really believe that the out-loud declaration of “I love you” is, for lack of a better analogy, like a valve that opens to let the love flow. The absence of “I love you,” on the other hand, is not just a silent moment; it’s a gaping hole through which the love can gradually – and painfully – drain out. I know couples have very different outlooks on when to say it, how often to say it, not wanting it to “mean nothing” if said too often. I see where they’re coming from, but I don’t think saving I love yous for special occasions makes sense. Love, with your life partner, is a gift – but not the diamond-bracelet kind of gift. It must be a practical, everyday gift, like a high-quality glue that can get kinda grungy but does not let go. Even if you say it dozens of times a day, it still means everything.

7. Love Is Not All You Need.

Speaking of love, it’s not the last word. It’s also really important to like each other. If you don’t enjoy each other’s company, all the good chemistry in the world won’t make up for it. I always smile when I see that quote on someone’s wedding program, “This day I will marry my best friend,” etc., because I think that’s the dream. What more could you want? Permanent sleepovers with your best friend! Always coming home to your favourite person! Once you cohabit, and more so once you have kids, it won’t always be “quality” time. There will be many humdrum household activities to share. Once in a while you might think, “Remember when we used to do FUN stuff together??” And you will again. But in the meantime, even if you don’t spend lots of time together (couples on opposite shifts, or with very different hobbies, for example), just sharing those run-of-the-mill activities can be lovely with a cherished friend.

8. Smarten Up And Be Grateful.

There are lots of couples out there who make their marriages function even though they’re not particularly happy or compatible together. Sean and I are fortunate in lots of ways some couples aren’t: we have very well-matched senses of humour; we enjoy the same simple ways to spend time together; we like the same music; we have similar nerdy and/or intellectual tendencies; we have harmonious politics; we genuinely love each other’s families.

We do, however, have differences that can be difficult. We aren’t passionate about all the same things; we don’t have the same style of communication; we have different instincts on a lot of minor issues; but all those things are surmountable with some conscious effort. And with the time we’ve already spent together, we owe each other that conscious effort. Who are we to let small things mess up our relationship when other couples have such larger hurdles?

Ignoring my good fortune seems spoiled to me – like living in such abundance that you feel entitled to waste perfectly good food – and I HATE wasting food. I’ve made a habit of intentionally appreciating the good things, so that when things don’t seem super-rosy, I never forget that I’m still an extremely lucky gal.

One more thing… A Note About Mental Illness.

As many of you know, my beloved Hubbibi is subject to chemical depression sometimes. It took a long time for both of us to understand that while depression can be triggered or catalyzed by circumstances, at its foundation it has nothing to do with how many things are good in one’s life. I have had to pull myself back from feeling like my failings were directly contributing to his depression.

The thing is, before our marriage, we did almost break up – several times – and I mostly blame the depression. It’s an illness that steals your mojo, takes the glow out of even your favourite people and things, makes you feel like stuff isn’t worth doing, saps your motivation to do even the things you know are good for you.

So again, speaking just from my own perspective… If your relationship seems lacklustre despite solid history, consider that mental health (or lack of it) could be an issue. Because there are ways to deal with that. We would never have gotten through those almost-breakups, not to mention having children, not to mention losing one child, without confronting those issues head-on. Being open about this, and being a united team where mental health is concerned, has saved us multiple times.

Just sayin’.

So, to sum up:

If someone were to ask me, “How did you know that Sean was THE ONE?” I’d say, “I didn’t. But I knew he was a super-special-awesome one.”

If someone were to ask me, “How do you know Sean IS the one?” I’d say something annoying like, “He is… because he is.”

I don’t necessarily believe there’s only one human in the world I could possibly make a life with. But Sean is the person I’ve chosen, who has also chosen me, with whom to build something special and interesting and beautiful. He is the only person with whom I can have THIS life, and this life is the one I want.

***

P.S.: To read more about mental health struggles and successes, please click here.


 

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Trans Day of Remembrance – November 20th

trans day of Remembrance
Thinking of you.

Today is November 20th. It is International Children’s Day, which is well-known. Less well known is the fact that it is also Trans Day of Remembrance.

Last Thursday, I went to a Professional Development workshop on Safer and Inclusive Schools, regarding the LGBTQ community in our education system.

It was a fascinating day, led by an incredibly well-spoken guy from the Canada Humans Rights Trust organization Egale. This facilitator, as a gay man who is also black, had a unique perspective on otherness and marginalization. We, as teachers and administrators in both elementary and secondary schools, learned a lot, discussed a lot, and asked all the questions we had time for. Many new thoughts were provoked, for all of us.

Although LGBTQ rights and equity have come a long way in Canada in recent years, there is still a long way to go, especially regarding transgender and transsexual individuals, and gender non-conformism overall.

Our facilitator agreed, it’s a very complex topic to talk about, and unfortunately I’m not able to elaborate in this post on all the discussion we had.

For now, just try to imagine what it would feel like to know you were in the wrong body. Not just to feel different from the people around you, but to know that the gender you had been assigned since birth was not yours.

People in this situation are often forced to hide their true selves, because they don’t have safe environments to be who they are. And even those who are able to live in a manner consistent with their personal gender identity often end up dealing with discrimination and violence. Lives are lost every year in the trans community because of this.

If you’d like to learn more about issues facing transgender and transsexual people, please take a look at this list of Must-Read Trans Blogs at bilerico.com. I am also looking forward to reading the books that were recommended to us:

Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin

beyond-magenta
Beyond Magenta

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirsten Cronn-Mills

beautiful music for ugly children book cover
Beautiful Music for Ugly Children

For today, I’m going to try to figure out a way to at least introduce this topic with my Grade 5-6 class – enough that, just in case any of my students might be fundamentally different from how I am seeing them, they’ll know there’s someone at school they can talk to.

gender identity

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Things I’ve Learned About Being A Baby Loss Mama – Three Years Later

Pregnancy-and-Infant-Loss-Remembrance-Day
Photo from pregnancyandbaby.com.

It’s October 15th: Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.

On July 9th, 2011, as you know, our Sebastian was stillborn at 35.5 weeks’ gestation. I have learned things, since then, about mothering an invisible child. Although I don’t presume to speak for other babylost parents here, some will relate.

  • It gets easier. Functioning day-to-day, compartmentalizing to get things done, packing away anguish for later – all that gets easier, gradually. They’re habits formed of necessity.
  • It also gets harder. Since Sebastian died, every day that passes takes me further from him. It’s agonizing, feeling so distant, trying to really remember his face (since our photos didn’t truly capture him). The older my living children grow, the more his infant existence seems out-of-context, and the more difficult it is to mention Sebastian in conversation – even though I yearn to acknowledge him.
  • The pain is the same. Underneath the coping habits, when I unpack it, the sorrow is the same sorrow it was three years ago, the loss the same loss, the love the same love. That’s what people mean when they say you never “get over” losing a child: they’ll always be your child, and they’ll never not be gone. That truth just hurts – and it rears up unexpectedly.
  • The awkwardness still exists. I sadly confess, I am no better at answering that awful question, “How many children do you have?” People meet me with my toddler, and I still talk around it: “I also have a five-year-old at home.” I can’t make myself add “and a baby in my heart,” even though I always think it, and mourn.
  • The club exists.There is an immediate kinship between bereaved parents. I’ve felt it with many who have lost children of any age, whether through miscarriage, disease, accident, or suicide. It’s not a happy club… and yet there is comfort in it.
  • I always know how old he’d be. Right now, he’d be three-and-a-quarter. There’s always a pang when I see the children of my pregnancy buddies – kids “his” age. Thank goodness, they are beautiful and healthy. I wish Sebastian could play with them.
  • Different versions of my family exist in my mind. I relate to your family with two close sons. We envisioned, almost were, that family. I relate, too, to the family with two boys and a little girl: that’s the family we are in my heart.
  • Grieving is different for everyone. I mentioned that Sean and I had a heart-to-heart last Sebastian Day, arising from my loneliness in grief. It was an important talk, one we both needed, revealing that neither of us is alone – we just grieve very differently. We must remember each other’s grief, even if we can’t see it, so we can still support each other.
  • It’s tricky to grieve an unknown sibling. Sometimes, E mentions Sebastian casually, without sadness. But as he grows, he understands his own loss more – the unfairness of having a brother he never met. Sometimes, when he’s feeling fragile, he cries. He adores his sister, but does wish we could’ve kept that brother.
  • Your babies are your babies, no matter how small. Sebastian changed my life dramatically, but I’ll never forget my first loss: an appleseed-sized person whose heartbeat stopped on May 28th, 2008. That tiny life will always matter to me, as part of my family and my remembrance.
  • The same things hurt.When friends, even close ones, accidentally forget or negate Sebastian’s existence, I understand… but it still hurts. I know that, having birthed him, I have the unique inability not to count him as one of my children.
  • The same things heal. When someone mentions him – by name, especially – that acknowledgement is profoundly important to me. Bringing him up doesn’t “remind” me; he’s always in my thoughts anyway. It helps to know that Sean and I aren’t alone in grieving him. I recently discovered that my sister-in-law has a Sebastian tattoo, and really appreciated the reminder: he’s in many hearts besides ours.

If you are able, tonight at 7 pm, please consider lighting a candle in your window for this Remembrance Day Wave Of Light. You never know when that small flame will comfort someone in need.

***


 

 

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How Fine the Line

grief-kent-sorensen
“Grief” by Kent Sorensen. Statue in Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris.

We had awful, awful news at our school last week.

A five-year-old girl died after returning home from school one afternoon. One of our own kindergarten students.

It’s like a punch in the gut, a slap in the face that makes you see stars, and makes the colours all weirdly bright. Suddenly danger is brilliantly visible in every cranny of space and every second of time. A moment’s inattention at the wheel. A tiny speck of the wrong person’s breakfast. A fleeting loss of balance at the top of the stairs. A brush with an angry bee. An unpredictable catch of the scarf. An unthinking dash into the street. Or simply being in a normal place at an unlucky time.

This girl is gone forever because of a moment that could happen to anyone.

Most five-year-olds are pure, solid vitality. But all at once, we are looking at our children and seeing the thinness of their skins, the narrowness of their airways, the fragility of their spines, the delicacy of their skulls, and the ever-so-fine tripwire that is the difference between a beating heart and a still one.

We teachers cry and our hearts break. We can’t think too closely about this girl’s family, for fear of disintegrating and being unable to teach. We are parents, even those of us with no children of our own. There’s a reason we call them “our” kids.

Abruptly, the reality is there in front of us: it is monumental and terrifying that each of us is responsible for so many beating hearts, every day.

How is it possible for this just-begun life to be snuffed out? One child fights cancer for years of her young existence, and another is extinguished with not even a fever’s warning. Neither circumstance makes sense.

At home, I clasp my living children extra tender-fierce. I enfold my stillborn salmon-spirit-Sebastian in the centre. The fear that all parents feel, the unseen lining to every moment of their children’s growth, is now busting through the seams. It’s real: the fear, the death, the beating hearts.

Last Friday was the quietest Friday in memory, as the student body came to school with this new knowledge. They talked earnestly with their teachers, thought differently about their own siblings – and how maybe they want to keep them after all.

We are shaky, holding each other in the Light.

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Wishful Thinking for the New Year

Happy New Year, lovely Di-hards. I’m making wishes today.

shooting star
Image credit

This one is for you:  I wish for your baby to be born so sweet and healthy that the whole world smiles.

And you: I wish for that project you’re working on to grow wings and take off (with you in the pilot seat, of course).

And you: I wish for you to kick that disease in the ass and leave it in the dust. Super-spy-ninja-maverick-style.

And you: I wish for you to get that job. The good one.

And you: I wish for your question to be answered, and for the answer to make you happy.

And you: I wish for you to find your stride and discover how it feels to be fit in this wonderful body you have right now.

And you: I wish for your creativity to flow like golden syrup, astonishing even yourself.

And you: I wish for your dear one to get better, sooner than you expect.

And you: I wish for you to find a new pocket of time for doing what you love most.

And you: I wish for those ends to get closer together, so they meet more easily.

And you: I wish for you to uncover a whole new level of communication with those closest to you.

And you: I wish for you to find your own surefire way to reject crap.

And you: I wish for you to take unprecedented care of yourself, and to feel the effects right away.

And you: I wish for the confusion to lift from your brain, leaving a clear blue certainty.

And you: I wish for your pain to become, slowly but perceptibly, easier to bear.

And you: I wish for you to find that person- the one who makes the person in your dreams seem like a paper doll, and who instinctively knows the best way to love Amazing You.

And you: I wish for the happiness you found last year to take root, blossom, and bear fruit.

Sending you my love, and these – my best wishes,

*Di*

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Ladders from Dark Places

This past Thursday, October 10th, was World Mental Health Day.

The ladder. Image by Dilovely
The ladder

Please, let’s talk.

Mental health, or lack thereof, is a subject very close to my heart. Several people who share my blood have struggled with depression and similar mental illnesses. So has my husband.

In fact, my Hubbibi was suffering from depression when we first got together. It had dogged him for a long time, on-and-off. I remember him explaining it to me like this: “You know how when you’re a kid, you get that feeling of euphoric excitement when you think about Christmas? At my worst moments, I would think about my own mortality and feel like that.”

Those words chilled me completely – partly because that was the love of my life talking, and partly because I’d never heard it explained quite so accessibly.

Fortunately for me, and for all of us who love him, Sean didn’t become a permanent victim of his illness. When I asked him what held him back from that terminal edge, he admitted that he would think about his mom. He knew he couldn’t do that to her.

Although I like to think that I (or at least our blossoming relationship) was somewhat helpful in Sean’s turning a corner, it is actually his mom who deserves the real credit – for literally putting the phone in his hand to call the doctor. He got back on his feet, with the help of serotonin re-uptake inhibitors.

Obviously, the thought of Mom is not enough for everyone who considers suicide. I lost a friend to mental illness a few years ago, and although I know he loved his mom, the problems he faced – enlarged by depression – appeared insurmountable. Unsurvivable.

I don’t actually know how fine that line is, between enduring and evanescing. Personally, I have never come close enough to it to tell, although I can imagine situations in which I might. And I realize the precariousness of our intricate bodily chemicals, over which we have so little control. As a parent, it scares me to think of how easy it can be for someone – especially a young someone – to fall into dark places.

For Sean, it is well worth the hard journey back up the ladder. Not that you’re necessarily “home free” if you climb it; Sean has recently gone back on medication after several years off. But he’s learned to recognize warning signs in himself, and we talk about it openly.  We are both optimistic.

Just this past week, Glennon Doyle Melton of Momastery – a wise woman who knows a LOT about dark places – posted an essay called 5 Things I Know About the Path. It’s really good. My favourite is #4:

“You always have enough strength and courage and wisdom. You always have exactly what you need for your daily trek. Sometimes you won’t believe this- because you will encounter stretches of the path that are treacherous and terrifying, but if you give up in the middle of those stretches – if you sit down permanently in them- then you have to live there. Don’t live in the dark, scary parts. Trust and keep moving.  There will be a clearing soon and you will feel the warm sun again. The One who created your path is outside of time, so your life is an epic movie that has already been scripted. Maktub – it’s already been written. You’ve already made it. So don’t plan or worry – your job is to Trust Your Path and participate fully and notice as much as you possibly can and keep on moving.”
***

I have a request to make. Please, if you have ever known success against mental illness, either in yourself or in someone you love, I would really appreciate it if you could leave a comment to share your insight. What helped in turning the corner or climbing the ladder? What made the most difference?

Thank you. You never know when your hard-earned lesson might be someone else’s first rung.

***

P.S. Sean, thank you for your openness and courage. I love you jillions, honey.


 

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Here we are. Two years.

Clump_of_trees_with_sun_rays_below_the_clouds_-_geograph.org.uk_-_728841

It’s here. This day has been homing in on me for weeks.

As I begin to write this, at 2:21 p.m., it was exactly two years ago that my husband and I wandered around the mall with my induction prescription in hand, wondering how we’d manage family phone calls to tell everyone that the baby had died.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been realizing that hot weather is now a trigger for me. It gets warm and sticky and suddenly I think of cabbage leaves and ice packs and bitter sage tea (it wasn’t any better iced). Sorrowing days. Plans and purposes unhooked, dangling. And so much crying. Writing and crying.

And, as I am grateful to remember, enormous love.

We have been using the air conditioning more than usual, because my coping skills diminish in proportion to the rising humidity. I regularly get tears in my eyes over some inconsequential thing; at first I kept thinking, What is wrong with me?? But once I made the connection, it all made perfect sense.

Feeling grouchy, frustrated, and short-fused is not cleansing grief. When I’m just grumpy, and not feeling close to my Sebastian, it just makes me depressed. And anyway, how do I put into words what it means to “feel close” to a son I only held in my arms once he was already gone?

I have a friend whose beloved stillborn son should have turned four just as my firstborn did. She is an amazing source of wisdom and words that fit perfectly. She says Crying is love. This is exactly true. Crying is the best way I know to access what I have of my son – which is mostly just love.

As I was telling another caring friend who wrote me a much-needed note this morning, a day like this shows me how seldom I let myself think deeply about Sebastian. I can’t afford to get weepy every hour (especially because E already does that). Reality needs me to function reasonably well.

Even at times when I am thinking of him, I’m not necessarily feeling him. Yesterday, our little family took a trip to the local pottery shop to make a clay memorial marker for Sebastian. I was glad we did, but mostly I thought about Are those letters straight and Is E getting bored and It’s almost Baby AB’s nap time and Please don’t let anyone impale him/herself on an etching tool.

I guess that’s for the best. I mean, I know it is. I wouldn’t have wanted to weep all over our clay masterpiece. But it’s a good thing there are days like today, when I can sink into the sadness for a little while (the length of a baby nap). Strangely, it’s sort of a good sad. Good in a heartbreaking way, because that’s how I get to feel close to my baby.

Last night, waiting for sleep, all I could think of was his face. I still remember it – I deliberately tried to imprint it on my mind – but it’s getting harder. I thought about the feel of his cheek, so incredibly soft, but cool and pale and lean, never having had the chance to fill in. I lay there and listened to his sister breathing beside me, she of the warm, rosy, very chubby cheeks. My heart was so full, it was hard to breathe.

I know there are countless ways to lose a child. When I hear the awful stories of other bereaved parents, I usually feel grateful that our loss was as simple and peaceful and unpreventable as it was. At the same time, when I think of how it felt to let my little boy leave my arms forever… the pain comes back, sharp and raw. The simple version of loss still hurts a lot.

Also when I think of E, and how he would have played with his brother, how they’d probably share a bunk bed already, and chase each other, and squabble over dinky cars… and how I’m not sure we are succeeding in keeping him reminded that he once had a baby brother he never met – how one of these days, it will suddenly become real for him, and I don’t know what we’ll do then… Those thoughts hurt a lot too.

I ferociously wish I could protect my E from this loss, and I’m incredibly thankful for him and for my vivacious little rainbow girl, and I miss my tiny unknowable boy so much, and I love all three of them to death-defying heights.

As I finish writing this (having done some reality in the interim), it’s 10:36 p.m. Two years ago, I was feeling the first twinges of contractions, and I was just over four hours away from giving birth.

So tomorrow is Sebastian’s birthday.

A lot has happened in those two years. I know I am different. Still his same mom, though.

Thank you so much for reading today.

***

Image from Wikimedia Commons.


 

 

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Now I’m just sad.

Now the Boston manhunt has come to its conclusion and the case is waiting, I am left with a broken feeling.

After my last post, two of my philosophical readers had a discussion in the comments. One wrote:

Imagine you live in a small, impoverished village in a third-world country like Pakistan or Afghanistan. Imagine that one day you hear a noise overhead, and several seconds later your village and its residents, including your parents and siblings and husband and both your small children, have been mutilated and dismembered. Bodies and parts of bodies are everywhere. You hear horrible screams expressing unimaginable pain and traumatic suffering. Somehow you yourself are spared, and you subsequently learn that everything you lived for and cherished has been destroyed because of a U.S. drone-fired missile. What would be your feelings about the United States of America? Would you ask yourself how this could possibly be allowed to happen? Would you wonder how the most privileged people in the world could be so cruel? Would you do everything in your power to seek retribution?

If not, you would be a truly exceptional human being.

Understanding what happened in Boston could be as simple as this: “Don’t be baffled when others do unto you as you have done unto them.”

I absolutely agree that in that situation, in addition to being engulfed in sorrow, I’d be enraged at the perpetrators. But who are they? Whom should I blame? And what should be done about it?

I know that some people, terrorists especially, lay blame thick and wide. It’s understandable, if not quite rational. But as the second commenter put it,

the urge/need to retaliate “in kind” is also NOT going to serve any useful purpose. Will it bring your family back? NO. Will it stop the future bombings? NO…in fact, if anything, it will escalate the cycle and create more heartache for OTHER innocent families. This whole idea of “he/she/they started it” to justify such planned atrocity is EXACTLY the problem.

My feeling of frustration the other day stemmed mostly from the fact that these lives were lost and these people were maimed – and we didn’t even know why. It’s not like the finish line of the Boston Marathon is a bastion of capitalism, like the Twin Towers.  Horrible as the 9/11 terrorists’ message was, at least it was obvious. What kind of a protest is it that sheds so much blood without leaving us a clue as to the message? What an incredible waste.

We have been told that the bombers were two brothers who came to the U.S. about a decade ago. Before that, they lived in a refuge for those fleeing the violence of rebellion – but then the refuge too descended into violence.

The younger brother, Dzokhar, who is said to be in hospital and unable to communicate, is 19 years old. That means he came to the United States when he was barely older than Martin Richard, the 8-year-old who died in the bombing.

 martin-richard

It’s painful to look at this now-famous picture of Martin, not just because he died so tragically, innocently, and unexpectedly, but also because his message, wonderfully well-intentioned, is not one he could have fully understood as an American boy. The brothers Tsarnaev, when they arrived in America, would have known first-hand what real war looks like. The idea of “no more hurting people” might have seemed like an unattainable dream.

I’m not excusing what they did. I’m not saying they had no choice. I’m saying… it’s sad. The older brother, Tamerlan, would have arrived in the U.S. as a teenager; it would not surprise me if he already had a chip on his shoulder, and probably a large one. Dzokhar came of age in the U.S.; he has now lived on this side of the ocean for longer than in his native land.

How does a decade go by and lead to this? A kid huddling in a boat in someone’s backyard, covered in blood. That image weighs on me: part hide-and-seek, part wounded animal. Although his brother Tamerlan was apparently a radical Islamist and quoted as saying he had no American friends, Dzokhar was reported to be a quiet, nice boy, a good student, a talented wrestler, relatively well-liked. So how is he also a man who concocts a bloodbath by filling pressure cookers with shrapnel?

Every aspect of this makes me sad. It’s so broken. The “immigrant experience” should not end like this.

According to The Centre for Research on Globalization: The Chechen origin and reported military training of the two brothers raises some pointed questions about past U.S. support for the Chechen insurgency and who sponsored the brothers to live in the United States, paid for their college tuition, receive [sic] military training abroad, and paid for Tamerlan’s Wai Kru martial arts training in Boston.

It does seem like when we pay to arm people in developing countries, it comes back to bite us eventually.

There are lots of people praying right now. Of course we pray for the victims and their families, but there is a movement to pray for Dzokhar as well. I’m glad about that, even though there is a certain tone of Let’s pray for the enemy because we’re good Christians/Catholics, or Let’s pray for the enemy, as long as he repents.

Insofar as I pray, I will pray for him, as well as the victims and their families, because his life is obviously a nightmare in which he has no idea what to do. If he survives, this will still be true.

Such a waste.

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Sigh.

memorial at boston marathon bomb site
Image from boston.com

I just don’t understand.

What point could you possibly be trying to make?

You got something against long-distance runners? Did you try to do the Boston Marathon once and not finish?

Or do you have something against mobility in general? Thanks to you, dozens of people have lost limbs. Boom. Just like that. Perhaps you’re an amputee with a bitter heart? If you are, that’s still no excuse.

Maybe it’s humans you don’t like. Especially humans celebrating the miracle of human bodies, joints and lungs and muscles all flowing in harmony to accomplish a personal goal.

At least three people so far have lost their lives. Including an 8-year-old boy. Was that what you had in mind? To cut down a third-grader and critically injure his family, just because they were waiting to see their dad finish the race? I guess so, because that’s what you’re dealing with when you decide to fling death into a crowd of humans. You’re asking to kill innocents.

COME ON.

I’ve written before about perpetrating horror for no good reason. I don’t know what your reason was – I’m sure you had one. It’s just that

no reason is good enough.

Not for this. Even if there are many of you, and you all agreed this was a good idea,

it was not.

People are angry – beyond angry. They’re calling you the worst names they can think of. Is that what you wanted? Did you just need some attention, to feel really badass and rebellious? To get people talking about you? Bravo.

When these things happen, I always wonder at what factors brought those responsible to this desperate point. I do still wonder, but honestly… I’m so tired of this. Tired of being heartsick, haunted by blood and tears and screams and lives ripped apart. Tired of being reminded that evil exists and that no one is safe. Tired of re-realizing that nothing is sacred – not elementary schools, not shopping malls, not finish lines. It makes my brain and spirit hurt.

There are humans out there born into violent lives, who have endured unimaginable suffering, and who still spend their lives making the case for love. If they can rise above the brutality, you could have too. And you should have.

There has got to be a better way to make your point. Whatever it is.

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