Brother Love and the fabulous impotence of parenting siblings

Parenting, by nature, is a lesson in radical acceptance and humility. But there is something about the nature of sibling relationships that brings a new level of impotence to my days.

Sure, sometimes it’s trying to understand how their ability to ignore you and push your buttons seems to increase exponentially with the number of children. They feed off each other’s insanity and you simply try not to get caught in the crossfire.

But sometimes it’s a breathtakingly profound and beautiful kind of impotence. When the six year old whispers to you at bedtime that you are the person who makes him feel safest and most special, but that his brother is who he loves most in the world. He’s worried it will hurt your feelings, but it takes no effort to smile. You try not to cry and tell him that’s the whole point. His brother is who he’ll have beside him long after you are gone.

Or when you drop off your older child at class and the toddler screams his brother’s name until he is hoarse and hiccoughing. He cries for what seems like forever and you can’t fix it because you aren’t his brother. But after a bagel and some thrift store sunglasses, he finally falls asleep in the car. When he wakes up his brother is home and he runs into the house on his chubby toddler legs, screeching his brother’s name with uninhibited glee.

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In the time it took to write this they have brawled and made peace again. They are unified in their indignant rage that I won’t let the big one dump a box of blocks on the small one’s head, which they both think is a wonderful idea.

It used to be that if I heard the baby upset, his brother had knocked him down or taken something from him. Now a newly minted two year old, it’s usually his own inability to keep agreements and respect gently set boundaries that causes him to scream. Or simply the failure of his budding fine motor skills. Usually the proximate cause of distress is the destruction of a block creation; an undignified attempt to “help.”

Tonight my six year old looks at me, eyes wide and tearful, and says “I feel like he doesn’t care that he hurt my feelings.” He feels indignant but is so clearly searching for an alternate interpretation because he doesn’t want to think poorly of his brother. I explain about his sibling’s unformed prefrontal cortex–his lack of rational brain power and inability to control his impulses. How it will come. I point out all the ways his little brother shows that he cares, even when he knows he’s done wrong. My son soaks it in, nodding.

Even when the toddler cannot control his impulses, he expresses deep empathy for his brother. After having done something outrageously awful he crawls into his brother’s lap and wraps his little arms around him and puckers his lips up for the elusive kiss (they are only rarely offered and never consented to, if requested). Without fail his older sibling looks down into his eyes, caresses his face or returns the embrace, with the tears of rage still fresh on his cheeks.

I’ve never seen love as big and un-ashamed and overwhelming as what they share. It almost hurts to look at.

It might seem crazy, but this is why I had children. I didn’t have them for me, I had them for this. So I could watch them be better to each other than I’ve ever been to anyone. It washes away all the fights and yelling and obstinate refusals to cooperate and we are left with this gorgeous thing.

I mean, last night we were left with me cursing at them both while on the verge of tears because they couldn’t stop horsing around in the bed…but tonight it’s this gorgeous thing 😉

 

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Being a super-woman is never enough

There are days when you give everything you have and it’s nowhere near enough for anyone. And it’s okay, in the long run. You tell yourself a true tale about how healthy it is for all of us to have moments when we know we are loved tremendously and yet cannot come first, for good reasons. These are the very best life lessons, as long as they don’t last forever. And yet they feel like shit.

This too, is alright. Feeling horrible after doing your very best is 90% of mothering, as far as I can tell. Okay, maybe not 90%. But it was a shockingly new feeling for me as a competent childless adult, and has become utterly quotidian.

It’s those days when you have a sleeping toddler chewing on your nipple and your six year old comes downstairs quietly to tell you he’s not feeling well (after just spending the whole morning with his bed-ridden grandmother and infant cousin, who have now all been exposed to whatever summer crud he was incubating).

His big eyes are bright and he energetically tells you how strange it is to be freezing cold in his thick Harry Potter robe when it’s nearly 80 degrees, with much hand waving. And the fever just goes up and up over the course of the night. By 1:30am his fever nightmares awaken him and your spouse spends the rest of the night with him downstairs on the couch because you have a teething piranha on top of you.

You wake up with the baby at 6:45 am (well, you also woke up at 3:30, 4:30, and 5:30…and of course several times before midnight) and feel kind of guilty for your spouse who never came back to bed but at the same time know that you would sleep all day if permitted. But you aren’t. So you get up and tell the distraught toddler where his sibling and father are, because it is a Big Deal that they aren’t where they were supposed to be when he woke up.

The fever breaks and then comes back with a vengeance. Your spouse showers and leaves for work. You watch him walking to the car like one of the poor souls on the Titanic as the last life boat cuts loose.

And it turns out that the newly minted two year old deals with distress and anxiety by hitting. He loves his big brother to pieces and doesn’t know what to do when his wild and boisterous super brother–by some evil magic–turns into a sad, vulnerable, miserable small child. So he runs up to him as he lies pathetically on the couch–eyes closed, breathing shallowly–and slaps him in the face as hard as he can. And then leans over and kisses him on the mouth. Every time you turn around.

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brother love on a normal day

It’s not like you are doing your nails, but people need feeding, your sick baby needs a wet wash cloth on his forehead, you HAVE to drink some coffee. But you feel your heart being ripped out every time you turn your back for a second and realize your 2 year old is savaging his sick sibling. You acknowledge his feelings and talk about how hitting hurts, you sooth his brothers’ tears, you try to distract the toddler with activities and food. Nothing works. Your sick kid is too sick to be alone, he needs you, but having you means having his brother–who at the moment is an evil gremlin hell-bent on destroying everything good and decent in the world.

You tenderly lift all 60 pounds of your first born and carry him up the stairs and put him to bed. Sick babies are light as a feather. Unfortunately, taking him away from his brother means taking him away from you and that is so not okay right now. Cooing at him through the monitor is not enough by half. You are at home full time with these two kids every day and you’ve never felt so incompetent.

Your partner has only been gone two hours when you call and ask him to come home. You feel like a failure because how can it possibly take two parents to take care of one sick kid? He has to keep working but at least he can be a warm body in the room so that when your sad boy wakes from his delirium every 30 minutes, he doesn’t wake up scared and alone.

The icing on the cake is when you hear the distressed clucking of the hens that means the fucking black snake (that you know you are supposed to love because it eats rodents and probably the baby copperheads that almost killed your children, but you can’t because it eats your eggs everyday and you are just pouring greenbacks down its throat) is in the nesting box. You sling the sleepy toddler you just woke up from his nipple-chewing nap across your hip and stomp out to the chicken yard, snatching up one of your son’s many homemade swords on the way.

Yes, you literally battle a fucking 5 foot black snake in shorts and flip flops with a big wooden sword and a baby on your hip and it hisses at you and rattles it’s tail like a rattlesnake and eats the egg you just shoved out of its mouth anyway, all while staring at you with total sass.

You stomp back inside, throw the baby at his grandfather (really it takes three adults to care for a sick kid), put on more appropriate clothing and head back to the fray. You trap the snake and it escapes. You shake it from its hiding place and accidentally drop a pallet on its neck, which makes you feel like a horrible human being. You run for the shovel to finish the job so you will at least feel like a decent person, but it’s gone by the time you get back.

You spend an hour literally shuttling back and forth between the toddler destroying the house and reading to the sick kid. At 5pm you leave your toddler screaming to attend a school meeting. You only stay for an hour. But it doesn’t matter; it was too long. When you get home your husband looks like he’s been dragged behind a truck for several miles and the sick kid has a glazed semiconscious expression that tells you he should have been asleep hours ago. Probably before you left. The toddler is very happy. He wants to be held while you pee because he loves you so much.

You put the sick kid to bed. You finally eat dinner. You nurse the toddler. You start writing. You accidentally delete what you wrote even though it perfectly expressed your complex emotional state. You don’t cry, you just start over.

Because this is it. You have had way worse days. Your worst days are better than so many women’s everydays. It’s all worth telling. It’s all real.

The snake got the egg, again. But my little baby boy saw me fight a big fucking snake with a big fucking sword and if that’s not a win for feminism, I don’t know what is.

None of my beloveds got what they needed from me today and they all felt the loss. But they know they are loved and they know that today is one of the days that happens.

 

“Don’t use sledge-hammer mechanics!”

I am slowly trying to curate and migrate my writing here from the couple of different personal blogs I’ve kept over the years. There was a blog I kept to chronicle our travels when my eldest was a baby and my dissertation field research took us to live in Brazil and Spain for a few years. Many of those posts were more stream-of-consciousness journaling, and yesterday I came across this piece. We had just moved to São Paulo for six weeks and finally gotten settled after having housing arrangements fall through upon arrival:

I have had a significant amount of guilt about how the babe spent about 3 days in 2nd place, competing with our personal housing crisis for attention. It didn’t help that he fell in our hotel room and got a big bump on his forehead to remind me that we weren’t doing right by him. This has resulted in me trying extra hard to be patient and to remember to not force him onto my schedule when I don’t have to. That, in turn, has resulted in several half hour long episodes perched precariously on the edge of a bar stool scooched up as close to the closed apartment door as possible with boo on my lap while he learns to put the key in the lock and take it out again. He is remarkably good at it and has just had a couple of challenging stumbling blocks. One is that he sometimes starts out with the key upside down and on a bad day, helping him turn it right side up results in violent “mommy stop messing with my stuff” hand flapping and yelling.

The other is that he gets very frustrated that the key will not come out unless it is straight up and down in the lock. This one has been hard for him to learn. But I find that when I start out without an agenda, it’s a truly amazing experience. I watch him learn, and he IS learning. He carefully puts the key in the lock, sometimes trying several times, sometimes getting it in a little bit and then wiggling it for a while until it goes all the way. Then he turns it left and right and pulls. Nothing happens. When he seems frustrated I just explain that it has to be straight up and down to come out, and show him. Sometimes when he gets it, he’s really excited. Other times he just takes it in stride and begins again.

I’m not totally sure why, but every time it makes me think about my dad. My dad, who was unwilling to produce female offspring who didn’t know how to use basic household tools. One of the lessons I remember him gently giving me over and over again was about not forcing things. He always said “my dad always told me ‘Don’t use sledge hammer mechanics’.” His father taught him wood working and how to fix things and they would spend the summers doing repairs on their house. It has been one of the best lessons for just surviving around the house. When you get frustrated with a jar that won’t open or something that seems too difficult, make sure you have the right tool for the job and then don’t force it. You will almost always get better results if you stop, take a deep breath, and continue slowly and methodically with the proper instrument.

In retrospect, I find it amusing that this advice came from a guy who regularly did ridiculous things like chop off the end of our picnic table when he needed a piece of wood for something, instead of taking the time to find what he needed. We had a great family story (that he always denied) from when I was about 5 and we were having a picnic in the back yard. We saw a fly and he said “now don’t just go swatting around or you’ll miss it and make a mess.” Then he got the swatter and waited until it was sitting on the edge of the cream corn to thwack it, sending bits of sticky corn flying in all directions. The fly buzzed off happily.

But it was still good advice. So when my little guy flaps his hands wildly, yanking the key and grunting in frustration, he quiets down as soon as I bring my hand up to turn the key into position before slowly and gently pulling it out. I tell him, “don’t use sledge hammer mechanics angel,” and think of my dad.

When I re-read this post I can see hints of the parents we would become. The satisfaction of backing off and watching a child learn without my intervention. I am so much better now about leaving them alone and not trying to “fix” what they haven’t yet mastered.

I can also see so clearly the circumstances that led me to choose to be home with my kids after finishing my degree. These trips were the first time that we had no childcare help from family, while both trying to work full time. It was the toughest time of our lives as a family.

My initial reaction was to roll my eyes at myself for feeling guilty that our son had taken a back seat to the saga of finding housing, which had been an immediate and pressing need. But the unstated context was that to get my research done–which was time and place sensitive and necessary for my degree–I needed him to take a backseat nearly all the time. He was 13 months old and an only child. He didn’t like that and didn’t cooperate. Because we were moving around every few weeks to different cities, we weren’t able to make childcare arrangements. It’s why we started screens so much earlier than I had wanted. Neither my husband nor I got more than the bare minimum of work done, not to mention sleep or time with each other.

I felt guilty because it was three days of being second place…after months of being in second place, with all my instincts raging that this was the opposite of what we all wanted and needed as a family. This was when I decided I would finish my PhD (because the big sacrifices had already been made), but then I was done. When I finished, we restructured our life and housing to be more frugal so we could afford to lose my already meager graduate stipend.

I no longer stress about the times I need to put my kids second in order to deal with a crisis because they come first most of the time. I know it’s not so simple for many parents, nor what all families need or want. But it was what worked for us and it’s surreal to look back on this time of uncertainty when we had no idea what to do. I want to give myself a squeeze and say “don’t worry, you are going to figure this out.”

I also laugh at the notion of our human tendency to preach when we struggle to practice. Not using sledge hammer mechanics is not just good advice for home repair, but for raising kids, too. I fail often, but it’s still great advice. My kids work so much better when I don’t try to force them 🙂

Violent Fear and the struggle to raise peaceful men

Last night a mom friend wrote me, asking advice on resources to educate her 3 year old son about war without scaring him too much, but in a way that would head off romanticization of might, violence, and male warriorhood. I sighed. This is a parenting arena in which we have struggled mightily. It seems that no matter what we do our six year old is fascinated by bellicose activities. While it pales in comparison to some of what I see other kids his age doing, it’s still too much.

In the midst of the Trump nightmare, the epidemic of gun violence in America, the neverending spectre of sexual violence, and the ratcheting up of male rage, getting it right seems of monstrous importance.

We are pretty close to being pacifists and there is no violence or intentional shaming in our home. Until recently there were no toy weapons or media exposure to violence, either. Violence is a fact of life and we aren’t trying to pretend otherwise, but the natural world is full enough of life, death, and struggle without adding sensational, romanticized aggression into the mix. Yet our six year old son latches on to even the slightest reference with a vengeance. I thought Bed Knobs and Broomsticks was about a magical flying bed. He only cares about the five minute clip of zombie armor fighting nazis. We’ve read every Magic Treehouse book and what has stuck with him is a powerful fear of and desire to protect our family from nazis and confederate soldiers.

And yet this is an empathetic child who sings songs to the forest and reassures the poison ivy that it, too, deserves love. What drives this obsession with battle and war? It was easy to produce narratives about existential fear, abuse, or excessive media exposure before it was my kid, with none of those factors at play.

I recently had an “aha!” moment that felt ridiculously obvious and earth shattering at the same time. I was extra sensitive because it was the day of the Orlando shootings and he was trying to get his toddler brother to kill big imaginary bad guys with sticks with him. I just couldn’t. I pulled up a photograph of two men embracing, tears streaming down their faces. I showed it to him and told him what happened in Orlando. I didn’t go into detail and I’d never show him violent imagery. But I wanted him to see the human impact of what I felt he was making a game of. His eyes grew wide. He sat quietly for a moment and said “Is it okay if I make some security upgrades to the house? I want to put in some cameras and booby traps to keep us safe.”

He says things in this vein not infrequently. I always deal with it by talking about how safe our world is, how uncommon violence actually is, and how having weapons in your home and behaving aggressively toward possible intruders just makes it more likely that someone will get hurt. He has never been hurt or seen anyone hurt or heard of any people he knows being victims of violence. He is unbelievably privileged.

But this time he said “But these bad things DO happen all the time” and rattled off everything I’ve shared with him over the past few years. It hasn’t been much, but I talked to him about the Charleston killings. That was the first time I ever discussed current events with him and it prompted a thoughtful few weeks reading about slavery, segregation, and white supremacy. He knows that white supremacists–KKK and neo-nazis–tried to kill my parents before I was born. I’m sure there has been more that I don’t remember because it wasn’t as poignant.

I have been careful not to expose him casually to terror, and there is plenty of it no matter what you do. But as the mother of middle class white boys, I also feel this powerful tug to make sure they don’t walk around blind to the world they need to help bring down if we’re gonna make it.

But in that moment I realized that it doesn’t take much to terrify a child. “Much.” When I write  down what I’ve told him about, it seems like a lot, but it’s only a fraction of the horror I know and absorb every day as a grown up in our society. My six year old is just like the fearful hordes driving Trump’s success. I can only hope that we’ll have given him better tools to cope with his worries by the time he’s of voting age.

His little human brain–that spent thousands of years evolving to kill or run–senses vulnerability and responds by trying to give him tools to reconquer his uncertain and scary world. All his obsession with war and weapons took on a new light. Yes, we need to dismantle that response to fear because this is not the world our human brains evolved for. But no, I don’t need to be scared that somehow I am raising a sociopath. He needs love, safety, and more love and more safety. And reminders of how good people really are. And promises that we will protect him because for six year olds, that’s what parents (should) do.

I felt like an asshole for sharing too much of the world’s ugly, too early. I thought I’d been so careful. But I felt a burden lifted, too. I had started looking at my child and feeling I couldn’t connect because I couldn’t understand his fascination. It’s fear. It’s always been fear. And if we are to be our best as a society we have to remember that even for the grown ones, it’s fear. That’s no excuse for becoming a terrorist–whether to your children, spouse, or everyone else–but to not reproduce these people we have to understand how they came to be.

So this morning my six year old came into the kitchen with tears streaming down his face. He looked at his father.

“Did you tell her?”

My partner had been out in the driveway with the kids and our eldest came over nonchalantly and informed his father he’d touched something that “looked like a slug, but wasn’t.” Pop’s parental instincts went on high alert. We live in the heart of copperhead country and I’ve already killed two babies this year and had two more get away from me. Sure enough, it was a baby copperhead and our son watched as his father killed it with garden loppers. At first he had asked to do the deed himself. He wanted to make us safe. But watching us take its life was too much.

He has been in mourning all day. He vows he will never tell us if he sees another one because he can’t bear the thought if it dying for no reason. When I killed a mother black widow last summer as she sat on her egg sack, we both went through the same sadness. But this time I saw it differently.

This is my small human, seeing something that could kill him and those he loves and feeling great empathy for it because it is alive and also deserves to be here. He buried it beneath a black walnut tree in our yard and made it a gravestone. And I feel hope for humanity.

“Snake died 6-26-2016”

Out of Time How bad family policy screws primary earners, too

My first year in college I ran for student congress on a progressive slate with a student body president candidate who was a woman, black, and queer. I learned a tremendous amount from that experience, but the conversation I recall most often was when she scoffed at someone talking about wanting equality for women. I was taken aback–because isn’t that what this was all about?

“I don’t want the shitty deal men have,” she said. “I don’t want equality; I want justice.”

I have spent years studying social policy and could say a lot about America’s pathetic and inhuman lack of supportive family policies–what it does to women and families, what it does to workers and our economy, how we waste the potential of mothers by pushing them into all-or-nothing career v. family choices because mixing the two is so awful, how leaning in is bullshit and leaning out is impossible for many…the list of what could be said is long.

But that’s not why I’m writing (one handed, while nursing).

I’m writing because when my spouse and I sat down last night to figure out what had to give for us to not lose our minds, we agreed sadly that I was the one who had to find a way to make more time. Me, the one who makes the food, buys the food, and grows the food. Who takes care of the kids all day, every day. The one who has no time for taking a class of her own and rarely gets time away from the children. Who showers once every 5 days and never gets to go to the bathroom alone. Who nurses all night and schleps the baby, changes diapers, ferries the big kid, tends injuries, mends clothes, maintains the family social network, and sometimes works for pay.

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“the weekend”

Why? Because I’m the only one who can. Every moment of my partner’s time is already spoken for. He gets up with the kids at 5:30 and lets me sleep for an hour or two. He hustles to work after helping make lunches or doing a few minutes of reading with our 6 year old. He doesn’t get home until 6:30pm and the kids are in bed an hour later because, well, see above. That means he literally walks through the door and into bedtime routine. For a year all this included an average of six hours a day wearing our sleep-challenged baby, starting between three and four in the morning. When the kids are asleep we collapse to deal with grown up life–paying bills, making decisions about activities and scheduling, planning life. After I go to bed he stays up to clean the kitchen. He tries to play basketball Tuesday nights, but only makes it about once a month. Last week he had to work late. The week before he was sick with the the never-ending kid crud. On the weekends he vacuums and mows the grass, takes the kids to social engagements, lets me have some alone time with no one touching me, including him.

And his is an awesome deal that we are deeply grateful for. This is a privileged working parent’s normal life. He is lucky to have a stable job with flexibility enough that when I have mastitis or one of our kids gets injured, he can work from home or bail on a meeting. He is lucky to only have to leave us for work travel a few times a year. He is so very lucky to make enough that we can afford my choice to not work outside the home.

But when I had mastitis (the third time) a friend had to come over to care for our kids (with her kids in tow) because even though my husband was home, he was still working and I was in bed with chills and a sky high fever. In contrast, when my sister au pair-ed in Germany after high school and the mother (who was paid by the state and accrued social security because mothers at home with young children are also considered workers) broke her leg, the government provided a home helper 12 hours a week to do laundry and cook…because she couldn’t, and someone had to.

As weak as it may be, we do, as a society, have an accepted narrative critiquing the lack of support for employed and at-home mothers. The lack of paid leave, support for breastfeeding on the job, access to affordable childcare, leave to care for sick children, opportunities to advance at work without basically abandoning our offspring, etc. We sometimes extend this language to stay at home fathers, but we rarely stop and ask whether it’s okay for breadwinners–mothers or fathers–to have so little flexibility during their children’s formative years and to miss so much of it altogether. While half of both working fathers and mothers say they struggle with work life balance, twice as many dads say they are not getting enough time with their children.

We don’t talk enough about what mothers want and how to help them get it–whether the 40% who are at home with young children (in married families, 35% in single-mother households) or the 60% who are employed (Bureau of Labor Statistics). But we don’t talk at all about fathers, and 92.6% of those with children under 6 are working, and in over a third of heterosexual married-couple families are the only earner–in 62% the primary earner. It is rare that we question the notion that if someone is mostly home, someone else must be mostly working. Someone has to pay the bills. But what does that person’s life look like?

We have structured our expectations of breadwinners around the assumption that this person is peripheral to the beating heart of the family. We hear about it when women who have responsibilities for young children are also breadwinners, but we rarely ask ourselves what it means for the future of society that we assume it’s okay to ask this of non-mothers, as if somehow that person isn’t a real parent.

When we had our first baby my spouse’s employer gave fathers one day of paternity leave. One. Day. When we had our second they had given up the farce and eliminated even that one day of leave. You got a day off for moving, but not for your child’s birth. We felt lucky he had a couple weeks of vacation and that the birth was uncomplicated.

I sit here, raising boys with a full time working partner–a father who would give anything for more time with his kids, more time with me, more time with friends–and the palor of his days makes me ache. How do I offer this to my sons as a future when this is just about the best gig they’ll get, if they’re lucky? My partner gets snatches of our life when we are at our worst–tired and hectic. His time is not his own. He has handed it over to me with open arms because he knows my days are harder. He comes home and says “what do you want me to do with these 30 minutes? How can I help?” There is no give, no wiggle room. And that’s in a middle class family with a strong support network.

Last night my social media was overflowing with Donald Trump and the Stanford rapist. For months we’ve been drowning in the sick hatred of our North Carolina state legislators. We have a problem with patriarchy, yes, but the (mostly) men whose sense of impotent rage fuels that machine were children once and something happened to them. Yes, institutional racism and sexism. But we have been an economy that doesn’t care for families for a very long time and even in the Golden Age of the 1950s when white middle class families happily got by on one income, fathers were gone at work. For poor families everyone has always worked in one way or another. Mothers working across income levels has not given the other parent any extra freedom to be home with family more. Mothers working has simply meant more work done by the family, on average (58.5 hours of work a week between them in 2011, compared to 50 in 1965).

I am not arguing for simplistic explanations of major social problems, nor that women should be home. Quite the contrary–I am arguing that our public policies have failed to deliver equality, certainly, but have never even contemplated justice for families. There is no amount of money that would convince me to switch places with my spouse. I couldn’t anyway because me working the way he does wouldn’t free him from working the way he does. The jobs in his area–like so many white collar jobs–are not structured to allow for part time options. Because we don’t have equality, we couldn’t get by on my one income the way we can on his because I can’t make nearly as much. But we almost never ask what the costs are to primary earners, mothers or fathers, of this kind of economy. We almost never ask what it means for children to grow up with this view of their future. Sure, we talk about the glass ceiling (some of us, sometimes) and how to make sure girls see women in positions of leadership. But what are we really offering them?

It’s not a new question–in family policy it’s called American exceptionalism because everywhere else in the world that offers such horrendous choices for parents gets dramatically falling birth rates or female labor force participation. They watch us and wonder who on earth raises our children when we have no paid leave, no public daycare, and no public preschool. The answer is parents and grandparents whose lives have been stripped bare. Whose time has no give. And the price is paid in domestic violence, substance abuse, and lifespans shortened by stress and poor health–risk factors that are all exacerbated by the presence of young children. And let’s not forget generation after generation of children who see parenting as an exhausting slog that eats us down to our most vulnerable selves.

The worst part (or perhaps the best part?) is that this ain’t that hard to fix. In 2000 the Netherlands passed a law requiring employers to permit all workers to be part time if they wanted–with proportional losses in pay and benefits, more or less (here’s a nice lay person’s summary). Overnight a quarter of the population went part time. Women AND men. The Dutch choose less work and less income and so would much of America. And they are really happy. Hell yeah, I’d like for us to pay mothers salaries and provide free high quality public childcare from age 0-6 and do a million other things to support breastfeeding and early child development. We need those things. But if we aren’t going to be Sweden, we could still be a way better America and vastly expand means tested benefits for those who really need them and make part time employment options mandatory. Oh, and mandate paid leave for new parents like nearly every other country in the entire world, for crying out loud.

Families come in all shapes and sizes. My circle is full of amazing combinations of multiple mothers, multiple fathers, all one or the other, grandparents and cousins and friends who could be blood. Families where fathers are home with children and families where everyone is employed. Family is what we make it. But this country is failing itself by not acting like our families matter, on so many levels. I want something better for myself, yes, but I also want something better for my full time working partner because he wants to be the parent that his kids deserve. And he could be…if only he had the time.

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today. orlando. emily doe. the big things and small things, always together

Today my kid’s morning plans fell through because his friends were sick. Mama hustled, rustled up some buddies, and forged ahead. At the museum he ran away from us and got lost. Luckily (I guess) he found a friend and mooched lunch off his Grandma and gave her my cell. She was taking care of three kids under five but fed and rescued mine. Only 30 minutes spent searching the 84 acre park. Could have been so much worse.

I was freaked out and angry and frustrated. He should have known better. But he was scared and hungry and tired. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but I was exhausted. Getting a lecture from your six year old that when they get lost is the least appropriate time to get mad will take you down a notch. He was right. I felt like an asshole.

Then his afternoon plans fell through. His friend canceled at the eleventh hour. I spent 45 minutes (while stuck under a sleeping toddler) trying to arrange an alternate playdate. He was disappointed and crying. I felt great sympathy and told him how hard I was trying and how sorry I was. But it was almost dinner time. Sometimes life gives you lemons.

In his ferocious sadness he took a swipe at one of our house plants, uprooting it by accident. He came and told on himself, like he always does. Just a fucking house plant. One my dad had nurtured for decades and that I’d brought to my home when he died of cancer. I felt burned for my efforts and utterly unappreciated. It all seemed so trivial and yet so all consuming. My super mama powers were failing miserably.

Maybe some music would help. Some random bluegrass station. It was all stalker music. I tried a different station. Also stalker music. Apparently every song every written is about women ruining men’s lives just by being. They know where we live and know if there are lights on someone’s home. They talk about our bodies and how it’s all our fault that they can’t help themselves for being out of control “in love” with us. I couldn’t do it, not today.

Everything felt like shit. Today’s problems were small but the world’s problems were big. Fifty people dead in Orlando. A world full of assholes running free after ruining women’s lives. Over and over again.

So I put on the wild super mama cape my kid made as a gift for me during quiet time (before he killed my plant), made from stapled together fabric and ribbon with a pocket for putting things. I turned on some Bev Grant and The Human Condition. Her song about Clifford Glover played softly. That was 1973 but it seems like nothing’s changed. I cried.

Then I went next door and told my mother in law about my day. It was like dredging the bottom of a dirty river looking for a dead body that you maybe did or didn’t want to find. She smiled at me and said “You know, parents have to be therapists all day long, but they never get to be the client.”

I watched my son sitting in the yard picking clover flowers, the late afternoon sun shining on his bent head. He brought me a sweaty handful and kissed me. “These are for you mama.”

Challenging rape culture at home It's never too early--or too late--to practice consent

Like most mothers, I imagine, reading about rapists like Brock Turner unleashes deep fears I could never have imagined before having children. What can we DO to keep our children from perpetuating rape culture?
 
We search for books that set good examples and have talks with them about body autonomy. I have already spent years changing sexist language in our children’s books, talking to my sons about consent (a message they hear from both parents), and mindfully ensuring that their media exposure is as un-sexist as possible. We use the real names for body parts and when they have questions we answer them unflinchingly and honestly, even when we are dying of embarrassment on the inside.
 
But then you have a moment where you find yourself yelling at your kid not to yell at their sibling, or roughly snatching something away from them that they just roughly snatched from another child. Your stomach does a flip flop as you realize this happens all the time. Counteracting rape culture is both harder and more within our control than we might think because rape culture is our culture, at all income and education levels, in all types of households.
 
It’s the norm of forcing kids to do what we say because we are in charge, of dragging and hauling their protesting bodies to where we want them, no matter how they object, of giving them no say in the big decisions that impact their lives. We do these things casually–they are completely accepted and normal. It was done to almost all of us. Even spanking is considered okay by a majority of Americans. But these are the roots of dehumanization and powerlessness that can grow into bitterness and a desire to control and take from others to feel whole, respected, or in charge (for some intense and excellent reading on the roots of violence in early childhood, see Karr-Morse and Wiley’s Ghosts from the Nursery or the works of Alice Miller, such as For your own Good
 
What is desperately needed, in addition to all the important work on changing public culture, is for us to overcome our own hurts and hurtful habits and parent our babies and young children as if they were whole humans, as deserving of respect and autonomy as anyone else.
 
The list of things we must say “no” to is inescapably long and the list of things babies and young children cannot control for themselves is even longer. Recognizing their body autonomy and right to make decisions about what they do and how they do it is the earliest and most important step in overcoming rape culture. 
 
It’s relatively easy to put respectful parenting into practice with babies, even if it’s the most counter-intuitive. It’s very satisfying because you immediately see their independence and capacity expanding. It’s also not hard to step in when my older kid overpowers his sibling to get what he wants. We do a lot of work on consent and body autonomy in the context of the sibling relationship.
 
My biggest challenge at the moment is stopping those wrongs against the younger sibling without doing the same thing to my elder child that he was doing to his brother, all while I feel angry at the injustice of what’s happening. It’s so hard and I fail often. Then I apologize, ask forgiveness, and commit to trying harder to deal with my anger in a less hurtful way. 
 
This is not about parenting without limits–quite the contrary. Limits are crucial. But it is about setting the same standards for ourselves that we set for our kids and enforcing important limits with empathy and respect. It’s really really hard, but it’s key to giving our kids the self esteem and grounding they need to not take their hurts out on others as they grow up. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s about not breaking the natural sense of self worth they were born with. 
 
My mother just walked through the door. My kids haven’t seen her in 3 weeks and have been asking non-stop when she would arrive. They adore her. She could have come in and swept them into her arms, knowing their relationship is one of trust and love. But because their relationship is one of trust and love and respect, she did not. She said “I’m so happy to see you, may I give you a hug?” Our parents have done tremendous work to heal the hurts of their own childhoods; it hasn’t been easy. It inspires me daily to keep working on all this.
 
If you need a hand, organizations like Hand in Hand Parenting are incredible resources. A friend gave us their pamphlets when we became parents. We go back to them regularly and loan them out often. While I sometimes find the RIE resources overwhelming, they are also a helpful tool in my toolkit and I go back to them whenever I’m feeling like I’ve gotten out of sync with my values as a parent. I have no affiliation or ties to these sites or organizations, they are just places I have gotten help when I needed it. There are plenty of others. 
 
We can do this.

becoming your mother

I didn’t become your mother the day you were born, nor the day you were conceived.

I become your mother bit by bit as we muddle our way through life together. Little by little. Day by day.

It’s when I let go of an unreasonable limit I was clinging to for the sake of consistency; when I finally see you and see in your face that the limit is not doing its job. It seemed like a life raft in a turbulent sea. If I hold on tighter things will get better! Except when they don’t.

And it’s also my unwavering commitment to the limits that really matter, no matter what.

I become your mother when I overcome my distaste for frolicking because you need me to frolick with you. And I realize that sometimes there’s nothing in the world better than chasing you through the grass. Your face is open like only a child’s can be. I see your love for me. It awes me and I grow a little more into motherhood.

It’s when I take time for myself while still looking you in the eye and acknowledging that it makes you sad when I won’t play with you because–in that moment–I value what I want more.

It’s singing bedtime songs about the conflicts we’ve had that day, using the well worn tunes to tell you how much more complicated my feelings are than I was able to show in the moment. And how sorry I am when I hurt your feelings.

Perhaps most especially it’s when people ask me how my mother’s day weekend is going and I say “pretty great” even though there have been several meltdowns, no sleep, half the naps needed, and nothing went according to plan. And it’s not a lie.

The story of my motherhood is also the story of your son-hood. Of how this year, for the first time, you’ve been really excited about the day–for me. Your love for me shines through everything we have done the past few days. How you wanted me to watch a show with you, but I wanted to visit the garden. I left and a few minutes later you came bounding out to sit in the clover and pick flowers while daddy mowed a circle around you. You picked an enormous bouquet of fragrant white clover blossoms and got your Grandma to help you find a vase. When I came to find you, you beamed up at me. “Mama, these are for you, for your special day!”

It’s mother’s day eve and like all days, I’m more a mother–more your mother–at the end of the day than I was at the start. When we got home from a long day out you went to find the picture you made for me. The one you’ve been talking about for a week. The one I told you I didn’t want you to give me until mother’s day. The one you hid somewhere upstairs where nobody would find it. But it wasn’t where you had left it.

Daddy quietly asked “did you find a rolled up piece of paper in the corner of the closet?” My throat felt dry. That’s the precise spot where I roll up your immense body of artwork to photograph and then recycle. I had just cleaned it out. I had grabbed a single item and, in a hurry, put it somewhere. I went through all the recycling. I went through the disgusting poopy diaper-filled trash. I looked through every pile. It was simply gone.

And it was past your bedtime. You refused dinner. I saw you unraveling. It was the biggest unraveling you’ve ever had. It was tiredness, hunger, and a deep feeling that I didn’t value your love for me and the effort you had put into my gift. Eventually you retreated upstairs to make a new drawing for me. I heard your sobs. They were heart-wrenching.

The meltdown had terrified the baby, who was nursing and recovering from his own tears. I started crying. I walked to the kitchen and handed your brother to my husband. He was still attached and objecting. I looked him the eyes and told him “your brother needs me. Listen to him. He’s very sad. I need to go to him.” He understood because you are the sun that rises and sets on his days.

I knocked. You were sobbing and holding the paper behind your back. I couldn’t keep back my tears and I wrapped you in my arms and told you how sorry I was. My sadness jolted you out of your own. You patted my head and said matter of factly “Can I show you the new one? The other one wasn’t actually very good. This one is better. It’s you. And there’s Ron, and Hermione, and me, and you know him, with the lightning scar.” We admired the new portrait and hung it on the fridge. We headed to bed and on the way in I saw, folded beneath a pile of outgrown clothes, a piece of brown butcher paper. I showed it to you.

“See, I told you the new one was better.”

I listen to your breathing. Your sadness is gone; your trust restored. I felt broken, but I’m not. I’m just a little bit more a mother than I was when I woke up this morning. And so it goes.

Following my bliss, inspite of myself

When I was young my mother used to talk to me about “following my bliss.” It was eye-roll worthy in the most adolescent way. I was a pragmatist and a realist and cynical and tough. I did not do bliss-following. I didn’t care if Joseph Campbell was some sort of genius. If my mother suggested it, it could not possibly be a good idea.

I still have a slightly allergic response to the phrase, perhaps because it just sounds so…mushy. I do not do yoga. I do not meditate. I do Useful Things and am Very Efficient. I am a planner; I always think wayyyyyy ahead. Following your bliss sounds like something a long haired hippy does while wandering barefoot through a field of wildflowers. The very image makes me itch. Who does that? There are chiggers and ticks and copperheads and how do you plan for health care needs or retirement just chasing bliss (whatever that is) wherever it leads?

Yet when I sat down to write this post about gardening (yup, that’s where this was headed. We get there eventually), I was surprised to find I had misrepresented my own story…to myself. My biggest and best life-altering decisions had, in fact, been made by following my gut when it was in sync with my heart, which is really the crux of what Campbell meant about following your bliss.

When I was 21 my then-boyfriend and I planned to walk the Camino de Santiago during the summer. Five hundred miles in 28 days across northern Spain. He was from the Basque Country and had walked parts of the Camino with his own father as a teenager. We trained together, walking 15 or 20 miles in a day along the roads and paths in our town. Then he found out he couldn’t get the time off from his lab. It was terrifying, but I decided to go by myself. It had become something I needed to do.

On the way to Spain I was robbed of everything I owned except my backpack of clothes and gear for the Camino. After a harrowing adventure securing a new passport and ticket with no identification and no money, I finally arrived…and promptly came down with the worst stomach virus I’ve ever had. I was forced to seek refuge with my boyfriend’s family, the only people I knew in the whole country. After 5 days in bed I had  lost all the stamina built up from months of training. His mother nudged me out of the house to walk around the village and I was exhausted and ready to crawl back in bed after ten minutes. But there was no more time. I had to go or not; I couldn’t postpone indefinitely. The trip had an end date.

I convinced my boyfriend’s sister to drop me off at the tiny village of Roncesvalles at the French border with no money, no cell phone, no credit card, and my insides glued together with Fortasec. I got up at 5am and walked 15 miles the next day. Other pilgrims offered me food because they thought my diet of plain bread was due to lack of money, which was also true. The first day a couple from Barcelona saw my feet and showed me how to sew a loop of thread through a blister after treating it with iodine in order to keep walking without getting an infection.

Going alone was the best thing I could have done. I saw in ways I would not have with a partner and interacted with others in ways I would not have, had I gone with company. The people I met became dear friends. Those 28 days remain the most formative of my entire life. It was–literally and figuratively–a moment of choosing a path, and one that would have been so, so easy to say no to.

Three years later, I made another unlikely, uncomfortable, path-shifting decision. I was about to move to Chicago to work with an amazing scholar in a PhD program I was deeply excited about. I had found a roommate and we were apartment shopping. But I had just fallen in love with a hometown boy. After two weeks dating we knew. He was going to commute between North Carolina and Chicago to be with me while I was in graduate school. I was on my path!

And then one day I was out for a run and, on the side of a busy road, I just stopped. My life with this person was the path. Why was I continuing on the old path as if nothing had changed?

I decided in that moment to stay in my home town and not go off to school. I felt my brain doing somersaults. All my plans and expectations shifted in the blink of an eye. A week later we moved in together. He was so excited he promised never to eat fast food again–a promise he has mostly kept (except on our wedding day when his friends kidnapped him and took him to Bojangles).

I thought everyone would think I was crazy. Mostly they did. I had to arrange a meeting with my most beloved professor and tell him why I wasn’t going off to school, despite the wonderful letter he’d written me and all his advocacy on my behalf. He encouraged me to apply to the local R1 universities and find a way to make it work if graduate school was still what I really wanted (it was and I did).

I worried that my mother would worry about me giving up my life plans for a man. It was just about the least feminist thing a girl could do. But I should have known. My mother smiled and hugged me and said “I wondered whether you might consider staying.” She for sure figured I was following my bliss, but probably knew better than to say it.

I do not look back on these experiences and tell myself I should be a more impetuous and spontaneous person. They do not make me want to buy an open ended ticket to somewhere wild and hope it works out. Most of what has gone well in my life has been the result of good planning and research. But when it came to getting the really big, scary decisions “right,” planning and research only got me part way there.

There have been big decisions since then: choosing to have a baby while in graduate school, asking my family to uproot itself and travel with me for my dissertation, choosing to finish my program even after realizing that I did not want a career until after my children were bigger (if then), choosing not to work for money, having another baby…but all of these life choices were less loaded because the overall trajectory seemed “right.” The stakes were lower because of these pivotal moments where I gave myself permission to find out how strong and capable I really was and take a chance on what I really wanted.

What got me thinking about my mom’s well worn advice to follow my bliss was my gardening problem (told you we’d get here eventually).

Today I went to visit the backyard of our old house, which I fenced off when we let go of the house and moved further out of town. My gardening makes no sense. It is a liability. I spend way too much time on it, and when I am honest with myself I know this to be actually, truly true. My partner is more supportive than I could ask for and only periodically complains that on the weekends he doesn’t see me. I don’t need him to point out that paying for childcare so you can grow food is inefficient. Or that when I say “I just need to go grab a couple of herbs for dinner” it is for sure going to be at least half an hour. Or that maintaining a second large garden 15 minutes away from where we live is ridiculous. I tell myself and everyone else that it’s to save money, to be more self sufficient. None of that is untrue, but well, it kind of is.

What is real is that I don’t listen to the radio when I drive out there because my mind needs empty space. When I open the fence and stoop under the branches of the huge magnolia and into my secret garden, full of song birds and color, everything else disappears and my burdens fall away. Today I worked for three hours in a drenching rain. I worked until my fingers hurt. I didn’t think about anything except pulling weeds and planting sweet potatoes. It’s rare that I get alone time in the garden because I’m with my kids full time. When I head home after gardening alone it’s like coming up for air after being underwater for a long time.

I am not a religious person, or even especially spiritual. I find dirt and stars amazing and that’s enough wonder for a lifetime. I still don’t do yoga or meditate. Campbell suggests that doors will open to your path when you find your “sacred space” and give your mind uncluttered room to connect with your soul. I find it hard to get past all the mysticism, but once I do I can see the moments in my life when I’ve been in that place.

The long hours of solitude on the Camino were a concentrated dose of what I’d attained in fleeting moments throughout my childhood. Dancing vigorously. Doing physically arduous yard work for my dad. Sitting in the silent woods behind my mom’s trailer in winter. Playing hide and seek with my sister in the corn field across the road. Nights around a campfire in the mountains. The natural world and empowering physical effort were clearly at the heart of this. But now I’m busy so often I no longer make these opportunities for myself. Except that I’ve found a way: in my garden.

I’ve been “following my bliss” without realizing it, in spite of my disdain for the concept. I would call my mama to laugh about it together, but I think she already knows. Maybe I will anyway.

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This is the year

To the boy who made us parents:

You have completed six years of life. It was a special birthday for both of us, though we couldn’t really put our finger on why. You told me “this year feels more important,” and it did.

As a scholar I’d say it was probably our completely average timing of entry into middle childhood, which is really a much more dramatic stage than its name suggests. The age when archaeologists tell us most children were finally weaned. When baby teeth begin to fall out. When, in traditional societies, children would be expected to start taking on roles with responsibility in the home and community. The precursor to the precursor of adolescence.

In our home it was just a special year, no more and no less.

This was the year that you completed the transition from wanting only me to none of me at all, if there were other children to play with. Even though you felt guilty for not wanting me, I didn’t mind. I’ve been wanted enough for several lifetimes.

This was the year you began to offer to do helpful things when you saw me struggling, and make a point of letting me know you were sorry when I didn’t get enough sleep or had a bad day.

The year you stopped napping. The year you started reading. The year you stopped being nervous at the idea of being dropped off for an activity without me. The year you started seeing your baby brother as a person and appreciating his potential as a playmate and friend.

This was the year you stopped being afraid that anyone who came to play would take All. Your. Things.

The year you started helping me in the garden, and did the work to make your own bed. And decided you wanted to make your own birthday cake (phew).

The year you learned to save your allowance. And started choosing your own clothes (unfortunately, as we’ve got you covered for the next year but now all bottoms must have belt loops).

The year you started exploring the woods alone. And I didn’t know where you were or what was happening. And it was okay. Better than okay. It was good. Really good.

This was the year you asked big questions about your big disappointments and sadnesses and then paid focused attention to my answers, knowing that I would take you seriously and that if you stayed still you’d find out what you needed to know…like why your brother gets more of my time. You sit perfectly still as I explain about the development of small humans, and how you were when you were his age, and how it won’t last forever. And you take it inside you and put it away in the places it needs to go. Figuring out what you need to be okay. A brunch date, please, a few hours just us? Yes. I can’t wait.

There will be other amazing years. Or perhaps all years will start to look amazing. Maybe the pace of change will remain fast and this will just seem like the first year of the new normal.

I don’t expect to know anymore. To have any idea what lies in store. I don’t care. This is good. You are good.

Happy birthday.