What Is To Be Done? vigilant love, overcoming the paralysis of white guilt, and preparing for the long fight

For the past week my social media spaces have been overflowing with disbelief and shock, followed by fear and confusion, and now something like glazed, depressed paralysis, emotional exhaustion, and hopelessness. Friends of color seem to be retreating from social media as the waves of hate crimes spread–reported in personal detail by local observers as well as in news articles from across the country. White liberals are overdosing on tales of hate and bickering among themselves about whether or not wearing safety pins is useful.

Everyone wants to “do” something, but what is to be done? Even in my neck of the woods–a vibrant, diverse community on a blue island in North Carolina where many already lead lives of “doing,” we are struggling.

We must do what we should have been doing all along; what needed doing yesterday and will continue to be needed for the rest of our lives in this deeply imperfect, yet magnificent country:

First, figure out who your base of personal support is and tap into it, immediately. Family, close friends, community of parents, colleagues, faith community, neighbors. If you feel isolated, hook into local or national groups that are lovingly fighting for justice. I know many who are finding solace and support at pantsuit nation or by tapping into local organizations with an online presence that can help sustain them. In my state, Reverend Barber’s NAACP is increasingly where I look for loving, powerful leadership on social justice.

My parents survived a time when they were hunted and persecuted for working for justice, but coming out of the sixties they had severed ties with their families and were adrift in communities of their own making; rich in passion but short on loving acceptance. The sense that the atrocities of the present demanded everything they had to give and more, every day, for as long as it took, eventually wrung them dry. No one can survive a state of permanent crisis and the children of those movements have seen first hand the cost of giving everything. There was not enough left for spouses; not enough left for children; and not enough left to come home to when the individual battles were won or lost.

When fighting for justice in America, the individual battles will mostly be lost, so y’all need to understand that this has always been–and will always be–the long fight. There are times to give everything, and I hope we can tell when that time comes, but in Trump’s America building love and kindness in our proximate communities will nourish our struggle and weaken the sway of hate, at the same time.

Second, get over your guilt. This is mostly a message for my white sisters and brothers out there, but the reality is nearly all of us have internalized this in some way. Getting over guilt is not the same as accepting the status quo of injustice and violent privilege as acceptable, nor is it about tolerating complacency. But guilt is debilitating and utterly useless. There can be no absolution for the guilt of unearned privilege. Since whatever privilege you have was not asked for, no one can cleanse you of it. It is especially important that we not look to friends who do not share that unearned privilege to dull its shine.

Step away from your device and do something that to you feels deeply useful, after careful reflection and consultation with people you trust in your own community. Part of the burden of privilege is fumbling through trying to be an agent for change despite it. You will stumble. You will probably embarrass yourself and discover you are not as aware as you thought you were. You will realize that your mistakes actually hurt someone else–quite possibly someone who had already been hurt a lot. You will feel shame that you are not better. This is where guilt usually kicks in and that’s when action and function stop.

Instead, look at yourself hard. Love your imperfect self enough to recognize that your life is worth occupying with pride, that the movements you care about deserve your imperfect effort, and don’t make the same mistake twice. Apologize when apologies are useful, otherwise dust yourself off and keep working. Women especially have had guilt and the need to be liked drilled into us; it’s a losing battle so let it go.

Now, to work.

Third, listen actively to those with less privilege and those most at risk. Really listen, with as little defensiveness and as much humility and love as possible to the people in your life and in your community. Seek out the places where they are already active and tune in, rather than asking them to do more communicating for your benefit. Chances are if you aren’t hearing anything it’s not that they aren’t speaking.

Fourth, identify the organizations and individuals in your community who are most vulnerable. Make time for them. Find resources for them. Maybe you will take care of your neighbor’s children so they can meet with an immigration lawyer. Maybe you will pick up the Afghan refugee mother walking on the highway with three kids and figure out why she’s there and where she needs to go. Maybe you will see protestors screaming hatred outside a Planned Parenthood while frightened, vulnerable women try to get health care and you will go inside, hug the front desk staff, and write them a check for $100. Maybe you will start challenging racism and sexism at work. Maybe you will sit down with your kids and make cards for the immigrant families in your neighborhood to let them know you are there for them. Maybe you will join the NAACP and start going to Moral Mondays. Maybe you will make sure that you have your kids’ back 110% to stand up to hate at school, which seems to be the frontline of this battle right now. Learn the real history of the place you live, your neighborhood, and the places you travel. Talk about the history of struggle with your kids so they understand how we came to be where we are.

If you are privileged, you can use that privilege to speak to others who will listen to you. It’s not fair, but it’s there. If you are white, if you are cis, if you are straight, if you are male, if you are well off…you look like most of our legislators. You put on a suit and get yourself to the legislature and make some appointments.

My mother tithed 10% of her income for years to social justice organizations. She is my inspiration daily. She shows up in the big ways and the small. She retired early despite taking a major hit in retirement so that she could give time to my babies and to her real work–the support and nourishment of social justice movements around the country.

We live in a community of “doers.” They bring out the best in us in terms of our ongoing commitment to social justice. We already gave money and time, where we felt we could. I’m a non-conflict averse extrovert so having difficult conversations about difficult topics is a contribution I’ve long been able to make as a straight, white ally. But guilt creeps in about my physical presence at places where I want to show solidarity but have felt my children’s needs got in the way. My own childhood experience makes the balance hard. I know what political fear and too much external activism looks likes for children, because that was my life. I don’t want my kids to be afraid the way that I was. I want them to know that I, at least, will be rock solid. But now is when the ante is getting upped.

Here’s my commitment right now: we will renew our membership to the NAACP (why did we let it lapse?) and instead of giving at the holidays we will give every month, and more than before. We will do better kin-keeping with our most vulnerable friends, who we often lose touch with because their daily lives don’t touch ours as often. I will get it together to make sure that every Thursday I have a lunch made so that when we drive by the homeless man who is always on our way to class, we have something to offer besides a smile. We will increase our monthly support for MomsRising.org, which does some of the best work I’ve seen and gets intersectionality. We will continue to support #BlackLivesMatter and will find more public ways of committing ourselves. We will participate in the Monday afternoon community building group our neighbor has started in response to the election outcome, which will focus on concrete service projects and protest our kids can be involved in. I will take my students to the Moral March on Raleigh this February to close out our quarter focused on social movements.

I will support my 6 year old son’s decision to wear a safety pin everyday on his shirt. I didn’t know what it was, read up on it, worried it was not useful or even worse than useless, and then decided that this was a case where I had to pay attention to what was actually happening in front of me. This child came home and said “This pin means that if someone isn’t safe we will bring them home and take care of them.” We sat down and talked about what it meant to wear that–that it was no light commitment. That wearing it meant that if he ever saw someone being bullied or hurt or treated poorly because of something about them like their sex, race, who they loved, or where they were from, what their body looked like, that he was committing to defend them. That he would speak up if it was something someone else said privately to him. That he would ask for help from a grown up if he couldn’t handle it. But that he would not be silent. We’ve talked about a lot of this before, but until he put on his safety pin, we had not talked about it in this way. It was the right time.

I will try my best to confront the Ku Klux Klan peacefully when they march somewhere in my state on December 3rd. I have protested them in person before and it feels especially important for white allies to show up with a strong, peaceful presence and not let them march unanswered. The violence in Annaheim has made me think I will not take chances bringing my children, but if I can find a way to separate myself from those looking for a fight and stand up for love and against white supremacy, I will be there.

I will take a step back from social media and focus on the real people in my real life, lest we go deaf from the hopeless wailing bouncing around this echo chamber.

Finally, commit to hope. When you have children, there really is no other option, anyway. They are here and we will fight for them to have a place to live that is worth having. That fight will be big and small. It will ebb and flow. There are no enemies except fear and what our legacies of hate and injustice have allowed to flourish. All people can change. I’ve seen white supremacist murderers change. I’ve seen a klansmen’s daughter put her life and livelihood on the line for Civil Rights and workers’ rights in the South. I’ve seen the tiny, incremental changes brought by never letting our kids see us let injustice go unchallenged.

I see the ferocious refusal of people of color to die quietly in America and it is a raw hope in the future that demands my participation. This country was built on slavery and the intentional division of indentured white immigrants, enslaved Africans, and Native people. The struggles of the oppressed have brought every good thing we have and that’s a legacy we can be proud of and hopeful about.

This is a time of great darkness, but I remind myself that when I’ve thought the worst of people I have been wrong far more often than when I’ve thought the best of them. Look inward, get your loved ones safe in the shelter of your hopeful light. Then turn outward and do the work, with love and hope.

I’ll see you there.

Why I Refuse to Hate Duke

It’s March. The time of year when all of a sudden many of the Carolina fans in my Facebook feed start behaving like Donald Trump supporters, high on xenophobic mob juice. The time of year when people who know me from UNC (I’ve been an undergrad, a graduate student, and an employee there) think they can assume I’m a Tarheel. This, in turn, makes it okay to say things about Duke, its players and people, that they’d never want their mothers to hear. The time of year when it only takes a day or two of first round games for me to get tired of defending my family and our nuanced take on college sports allegiances.

Because I am not a Carolina fan, despite the place being full of wonderful people I know well and love, including some of the best professors and best students I’ve ever had. Despite growing up in Chapel Hill. But that’s not what get’s people worked up. It’s that I won’t let them say nasty things about Duke, which is basically heresy.

On principle, I refuse to hate Duke because the language of hate creates a behavioral permissiveness that leads to horrific outcomes. If you are complaining about what Donald Trump’s hate speech does to stadiums full of angry white people, then take a minute to recall the kinds of behavior that result from inciting hatred in the same atmosphere over a ball game. That bad behavior–when you throw glass bottles at Duke players as they leave the court, yell threatening things at the players about their sisters and mothers, use homophobic and violent language to put down their players–is what we are teaching a generation of young people to both take and give. A good rivalry should be something different.

But more to the point, I can’t hate Duke because there’s nothing nasty about Duke that, at its core, isn’t true about Carolina. I can just see y’all’s eyebrows climbing and the retorts spilling forth. But the elitism! The whiteness! The snobbery! Did we mention the elitism? And the whiteness!!!?? We let ourselves go with self-righteous fury toward the evil empire of privilege that is Dook…which is a big lie and arguably has been for a long time. Especially coming from Carolina. And my most progressive friends are the worst behaved. Like their public university street cred sanctifies their rudeness. But it doesn’t.

My parents worked with Dean Smith and his wife on equal rights efforts in the community when I was a baby. My sister and I went to high school with their kids, who are amazing women. My mom and dad both went to graduate school at UNC (though if your dissertation is on the history of white supremacy at Carolina and documents the foul people they name their buildings for and how they used slavery to build the entire institution, maybe you get negative legacy points?). I loved Carolina basketball as a child, and I loved Dean.

But I wasn’t fond of Carolina students, as a group. Those were the people who destroyed my town every time they won a game against Duke. I snuck out to watch the 1991 Duke NCAA victory bonfire with a friend and was so impressed that they were contained on campus and only immolated themselves and destroyed their own furniture! Those Carolina frat boys were the beloved sons who could do no wrong, yet harassed me nonstop beginning at age 10 anytime I was on Franklin street after dark. Don’t get me wrong, frats are frats. But at Duke, when the pressure of reprehensible greek behavior became too intense, the frats were kicked off campus. At UNC they still reign supreme.

I was a student organizer in high school and was involved in both the Duke and UNC anti-sweatshop sit-ins that constituted part of a nationwide movement to bring accountability to the licensed apparel industry. The sit-in at Duke was the first and inspired a wave of protests at universities across the nation. It was fascinating to watch how Duke’s more agile bureaucracy interacted in a far more substantive way with its student activists. At UNC student organizers were treated like outside agitators and the administrators in South building gave us the perennial runaround, politely inviting us to lots of committee meetings and then pushing through their own agenda during the summer.

I watched this happen to student movements at UNC time and again–first as an active young community member, later as a leader in Student Congress–whether it was support for the housekeepers (who in 1997 forced the University to settle a lawsuit on violating the 13th and 14th amendments to the US Constitution), pushing back against steep tuition increases, or renaming campus buildings for non-KKK Grand Dragons. Much of UNC’s administration was an old boys’ club of the worst southern kind–the kind that thinks it’s not and earnestly sells itself as the “light on the hill.” And that was long before the recent, um, changes. As an undergrad, I remember being told “if you hate Carolina so much, maybe you belong at Duke.” I thought, if you really love something you ought to want to make it better. But no, disloyalty to the Tarheel brand would not be tolerated. Nothing could have turned me off faster than a consistent refusal to be self critical.

But I was still a Carolina basketball fan. I liked watching the games and felt my public school pride. And then I met my husband, who’d gone to Duke, and we had babies and watching basketball fell to the bottom of my priority list. He grew up in a trailer in the woods, just like me, but he’d gone to that other school down the road. My spouse doesn’t care what team I like. He’d rather I liked Carolina more because then maybe I’d make time to watch the games. He’s a committed Duke fan, but he always pulls for the ACC.

What our marriage changed was something different. We bought a home together in Durham, a city that was progressive, exciting, integrated, and affordable. For years I took the Duke campus shuttle to the Robertson Scholars Bus, which ferried anyone who wanted to travel between Duke and UNC for free. I used the bus to get to my graduate classes and teach at Carolina.

I learned a lot in the 7 years that we lived in central Durham–the first 7 years of my life in a “house divided.” I got a look at Duke from the inside. The students on the bus with me. The workers. The many many UNC employees that commuted by bus from their homes in Durham because they couldn’t afford to live in Chapel Hill. I watched the Duke lacrosse scandal unfold from the inside, relatively speaking (the house was a short walk from ours). I noticed that racism and elitism at Duke operated in a different institutional context–a less comfortable one for the status quo of privilege–because of Durham, a strong community that spoke up for social justice and aimed to hold its institutions accountable.

I am embarrassed to say I was shocked at how diverse the students were. There were actually American people of color (please cringe now), not the ridiculous image I had in my head of token international students who were just as rich as the certainly overwhelming majority rich white people that were Duke’s essence. And they were WAY more present on campus than what I’d experienced at UNC, where I’d felt like the public spaces were dominated by white frat culture, with wee pockets that black students staked out for themselves in front of the cafeteria or the undergrad library, with everyone else seemingly invisible. Invisible like the teeny little Unsung Founders Memorial where you can literally sit your ass down, put your feet up, and eat your lunch on the backs of slaves, all in the shadow of Silent Sam.

After a few months of riding the bus and grudgingly finding these Duke students awfully interesting real people, I sat down with my husband and looked up the numbers. Carolina is 71% white. Duke is 46% white. My mind was blown. Could that be right? Duke is 10% African American to UNC’s 9% (8% in 2014). Duke does just as well at attracting (and much better at retaining) black students. I knew it first hand in a sense; we were constantly having to send our black undergrads (and white, for that matter) for coursework on race to Duke…because at Carolina we had no one teaching those classes.

Yes, 19% of Carolina students are first generation. But you know what? 10% of Duke’s are, too. One in every ten Duke students comes from a family where they are the first to go to college. Those kids have a harder time finishing and are harder to teach, but Duke does a better job of it, with higher retention and graduation rates.

I am not arguing that Duke is the light on the hill that UNC fans want to think Carolina is; far from it. All these big institutions have big issues. Duke is still expensive and has more rich students than Carolina. But whenever I point out anything positive happening at Duke, progressive Carolina fans call me out for–at a minimum–my disloyalty to the public university system. And I call bullshit.

UNC is only 20% a public school, and the rest of its money comes from tuition, rich donors, Pepsi, and the NSF just like the any private school. Carolina was designed as a publicly financed university for the white male children of the home-grown aristocracy. Every working class white person, woman, and person of color that has stepped through those doors has done so because of struggles for access by those same people, often facing great opposition from the powers that be on the Board of Trustees and in the state house. UNC fought federal orders to better integrate until 1981, for crying out loud (and only acquiesced then because the demands were watered down by the new Reagan White House).

Carolina has never been a university of the people. It’s excellent to try to make it that way, and I’m proud of what we’ve achieved. But let’s not lie to ourselves. If you want to look at where the most substantive work is happening to educate the citizens of North Carolina, look at the other 15 schools in the system, picking up UNC’s fiscal droppings and trying to make ends meet with no big donors and sports teams to bring in extra cash. Or our awesome network of 54 community colleges that provide the actual training that most of us need to operate in the real world and gain job skills. There are many wonderful things about Carolina, but man-of-the-people self righteousness, we have not earned.

Why does any of this matter, you fierce basketball fans might ask. To a lot of people it doesn’t. But this is about the people who–whether they realize it or not–think being Carolina fans gives them some sort of working man’s license to shit on the young adults who go to Duke and the kids who play basketball there.

I had to ask my husband why people hate Grayson Allen, because I keep seeing friends of mine saying nasty things about him, but I haven’t watched any games and have no idea. He reminded me about the cult of hatred for white Duke players (by other white people). Sure, he tripped someone. Not anything more egregious than other people do all the time with no one caring. People like Duke’s black players (except when they hate them for “being too white,” like Battier). But the white players just seem to ooze the privilege people associate with Duke, even if those same kids at another school would go thoroughly unhated.

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We enjoyed this final step in the WSJ’s Madness Machine

But it’s about basketball, my dear, not politics. Can’t you agree Coach K is totally hatable? Well, here’s what I’ve observed about the people involved in the sport, and the way they run their programs. Coach K treats his players like dignified young adults worthy of respect and a good education in exchange for what they bring Duke. And he knows the game, at the end of the day, is a game. Roy Williams fails on both these fronts. Sure, Coach K is a huge conservative. Funny that. I wouldn’t want him to be my elected representative, but he takes a lot better care of the young men and families in his program than we do at Carolina. Dean was different. But that’s not been Carolina men’s basketball for a long time and we should be honest with ourselves about it.

I grew up in Chapel Hill. I have 3 degrees from UNC. I know scores of truly amazing people at UNC…and at Duke. Both of those campuses are full of incredible young people, many of whom would not have been there 60 years ago. Neither they nor their players deserve to be treated like dirt. And I’m sorry, but it’s pretty much a one way hate street. In particular, I am tired of supposedly progressive people talking a level of trash that transcends basic human decency in defense of a place with the level of white supremacist history and lingering institutional racism and sexism that Carolina has.

Duke TOTALLY has its issues, but let’s get off our high horses okay? Basketball does not exist in isolation from the rest of the institution, as the scandals at UNC have shown. Carolina fans don’t get to hate Duke on grounds of elitism, I’m sorry, we just don’t.

We shouldn’t have to dig too deep to just cheer our own teams on and call it a day. We can even wish the other team ill on the court (I’m not asking for miracles). In our house the rule is if we can’t explain what we’re saying or doing to our children in a truthful manner without violating the norms of acceptable behavior we are trying to teach them as social beings, then we shouldn’t be doing it. Let’s start there.

I don’t care about what basketball team people like, I care about how we behave in public, how we treat other human beings, and, beyond that, perhaps that we question our self righteous assumptions once in a while.

Even if you don’t stop hating Duke, you might at least stop acting like a drunken sailor all month on my Facebook feed.

Kid’s books about people of color, that aren’t about race

When my then-4-year-old son went through a stage of voraciously devouring children’s books, our home stash was quickly exhausted. But the library was so hit or miss, especially when he picked his own books. The majority were so sexist and so gender binary I was constantly deconstructing, changing words, or getting into explanations that, for him, ruined the flow of the story. The issues with race were less in your face, but also problematic. Often, protagonists of color were just lacking, unless it was a book about the Civil Rights Movement or an explicit celebration of the culture of a particular ethnic group.

I asked a feminist friend of mine for some good suggestions on the gender front. My son was at an impressionable age where he was just starting to ask questions (and absorb societal assumptions). She said one of the hardest things for her to find were books with characters that were non-gender conforming, without that being the point of the story. If there was a boy wearing a skirt, he was discovering his homosexuality and learning to stand up to school yard bullies. But where were the stories where the boy wore a skirt, just because, and nothing bad happened?

Books focused on struggles to cope with oppression validate the daily reality of children facing discrimination. They are crucial for helping budding allies understand their own privilege and the challenges their friends are facing. In longer stories for older readers, the nuanced and multifaceted nature of each character is easier to develop and experiences of oppression can be part of the story without being the whole story. These books are important, many of them are tremendously good, and they are a big part of our library. Teaching my sons about privilege is a given. Our first difficult discussions about complex social realities were about white privilege. Understanding privilege will always be central to learning in our home because oppressive notions of white masculinity have been the drivers of our world’s biggest problems for a damn long time. As the mother of white boys, undermining that legacy is quite possibly the most important contribution I can make to social justice.

But for creating a reading world that reflected the world I wanted my young child to see as normal, it wasn’t enough. There was something problematic about always equating non-heteronormativity or non-whiteness with the hardships of being seen as different.

In terms of gender, I want to prime him for openness and viewing a full spectrum of ways-of-being as normal, not teach him that if he wears a skirt he needs to be ready for a fight. There will be time enough to learn that. Likewise, I want his stories to be full of protagonists who reflect the real world–a world that is mostly not white and male. But in many cases, if people of color are the protagonists in children’s books, it’s because it is a story about the struggle against oppression, overcoming the odds, or standing up to racism.

There’s a subtle and problematic message imparted by this paradigm in young children’s literature–that only if the story is about Identity X do you deserve to be front and center. There just aren’t enough books where non-white non-males protagonize the stories…just because. Just because white males should not be the fall back main character that everyone is supposed to identify with. And let me be clear that I do not think that any symbol or representation of “culture” make a book somehow narrow  and not applicable to a mainstream audience. That would be the other side of this same coin. Books can show characters in the context of their history and culture as they carry forth a story that may not be primarily about the struggles of being “different,” etc.

A few days ago, some friends and I were discussing the #1000blackgirlbooks campaign, wondering hopefully whether it had produced a booklist (it hasn’t). Someone else raised exactly this concern and I came home and started digging around, both to see what the booklists had to offer and what I had in my own library. Common Sense Media’s list is mostly geared toward older kids. There’s a cool wiki oriented toward the picture book crowd, which yielded some good new material. It’s a catch all collection of books about people of color.

I also discovered, while poking around, that there may be a reason there seems to be a dearth of books with protagonists of color that aren’t “about” race (other than the big one that we live in a white-centric culture where white authors, who mostly write white characters–and also many characters of color–get published the most). This really interesting article at the Lee & Low open book blog discusses the possible pressure for African American and Latin@ children’s authors and illustrators to create books meeting the “cultural content” requirements of the Pura Belpré and Coretta Scott King Awards. In particular, their books are far more likely to be about race and culture than those of Asian American authors, who don’t have a similarly high profile award to shoot for.

There’s more discussion of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center stats on publishing multicultural content here. The comments on both posts are fascinating. Overall it’s pretty abysmal. People of color are 37% of the US population and are present in only 14% of the children’s books at CCBC. And that’s at an organization that’s mindful about the problem. The number had been stagnant at 10% for the past 20 years, so this was seen as a major improvement.

But all this got me curious. What books do we have in our home collection that are protagonized by characters of color without being primarily focused on that dimension of identity? Many of our beloved books are “multicultural” in the sense that the characters are of diverse backgrounds (Magic Schoolbus books, The Hungry Thing and Hungry Thing Returns, What Makes a Baby, Fletcher Hatches an Egg, Rosie Revere Engineer, Locomotive..the list is pretty much endless). Many more are about Jewish traditions and history, the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights Movement, the reconnection of children from immigrant families with their cultural roots. But there weren’t very many that both had protagonists of color and weren’t focused specifically on culture or struggles against discrimination. Here are a few that we love, mostly for younger kids:

  1. A is for Activist and Counting on Community by Innosanto Nagara. My 21 month old’s favorite board books. Can’t say enough awesomeness about these, especially for a red diaper baby like me. Beautiful illustrations. Perfect message about the world we and our kids are working for.img_3822
  2. Little Robot and the Zita the Space Girl series by Ben Hatke. These graphic novels are wonderful stories with female protagonists of color. My son did his first sight reading with Little Robot. tumblr_o0wtiua9tp1t3i99fo2_1280
  3. The Corduroy books by Don Freeman. Corduroy and A Pocket for Corduroy. Classics.pocketlastpage_400-7lvl0qlog7ocgg0wks8cc8kog-cfgi4gyt1wgggc04kksk0kgog-th
  4. I dream of trains by Angela Johnson, illustrated by Loren Long. Our elder son is a steam train lover and we’ve collected a lot of train books. This book is set in Tennessee in 1900. The book engages the struggle of aspects of black life in the post-Reconstruction-era South in the context of a story about the hopes and dreams of a boy who lived along Casey Jones’ famed route. Wind Flyers, another collaboration between Johnson and Long, is also a beloved favorite.
  5. Cherries and Cherry Pits by Vera B. Williams. I love this book. It’s from 1987 and is a quintessential 80s book. The stories and pictures are fun and beautiful.cherries01
  6. Umbrella by Taro Yashima. Gorgeous illustrations and a story of anticipation. So good. tumblr_ndjen3ekwt1rqpa8po1_500
  7. On Mother’s Lap, by Ann Herbert Scott, illustrated by Glo Coalson. My mama found this for us when I was pregnant with our second. Not sure it did anything for my big kid to help him accept sharing me with his brother, but it was wonderful for me 😉9780618051595
  8. Just us Women by Jeannette Caines, illustrated by Pat Cummings. This is a fun picture book, though for us there’s a slight mismatch between the age at which the story appeals to the expected audience (pre-adolescence) and the format (short picture book format for young kids). justuswomen



Let’s grow the lists! What’s in your library?


Doing what works

I don’t believe in The Mommy Wars. The overwhelming majority of parents I’ve interacted with are generous, humble, and restrained in their assessment of other people’s parenting. There’s an unspoken code of conduct that you just don’t s**t on what people do differently from you because it’s so hard, no matter how you slice it. It took me a long time to learn that and it still takes mindfulness. I’m always impressed with people who are good at this without trying.

Even those of us who have to work at humility learn pretty fast once we are out of the newlywed stage of parenting–that heady moment around 2 months when they don’t poop at night anymore and you slept for 5 hours once, so you have a lot of advice to share. If you have a second kid, the pace of humility acquisition picks up noticeably. Lo and behold you are a different family, you have to do a million things differently because it turns out your first kid isn’t who you thought they’d be and you have to factor them into what you do with the next one. Your kids are totally different from each other. You remember the (maybe a smidge self righteous) advice you shared early on with other moms with such certainty, and cringe. Because those things worked on kid #1, and now they don’t.

That’s all just life. It’s not a war. Parents forgive each other for these universal sins of beginner’s hubris.

Even when folks are visibly taken aback by something about my parenting, I’ve never had anyone be mean. Yes, it happens, I don’t want to dismiss the bad experiences people have. That is real. But our own insecurities about parenting can create a thick filter through which we see judgment lurking behind every attempt to connect. I know I’ve carelessly said things that hurt people when I didn’t mean to (especially when caught off guard), so I try to assume that’s what’s happening when I feel judged.

This attempt to think well of others is not always successful. But I’m a perfectly mediocre parent in plenty of ways, and am still surprised at how positive I feel about the mamasphere at the end of the day. In fact, it’s the overwhelming generosity and support I usually feel from other parents–friends and strangers–that spurs me to be more mindful and less judgmental of others. The very best of paying it forward.

But if the internets are to be believed, parents are just being judged to death, left and right. And it’s not just a straw man so we can justify our feel-good blogs; parents do seem to feel constantly scrutinized. Yet how to reconcile this with the fact that most folks I know walk on egg shells around sensitive parenting topics and really believe different is ok?

Surely it’s a combination of all of us needing to practice mindfulness in how we treat others’ parenting choices (and unavoidable realities), as well as taking some responsibility for not interpreting everything as an attack. Since we can’t control other people’s behavior, the latter has always felt like a more realistic place to start.

So what’s the key to building an immunity to feeling judged? When I look back at the times this has worked best for me, it’s been when I was doing what worked for my family and was confident in my decision. When I’m most likely to feel judged it’s when I’m uncertain whether I’m doing the right thing. I’m not saying one can just flip a switch and feel confident about parenting. But as a sensitive person who worries a lot about social relationships, it was empowering to figure out I had something to say about how I felt.

So often we do what we think we are supposed to do without ever stopping to ask ourselves whether it works for our family. We disregard our own instincts because of what someone else said was required for good parenting, even if it makes our life miserable.

My 20 month old sleeps in the jogging stroller. It’s where he goes down for nap. It’s where he goes down for bed. He practically climbs in by himself, opens his mouth for daddy to brush his teeth, and conks out while we jiggle the stroller in the middle of the living room. He stays there until he gets squirmy. At nap time it’s usually 45 minutes. At bedtime more like 2 hours. I’d leave him there all night if he’d stay. It works.

It wasn’t always this way. Our house has three rooms total and one of them is dedicated to sleeping humans. Except this new, fourth human does not believe in sleeping and never has (especially not in a bed, that is for losers). There was the first year when he slept in a carrier perhaps half his total sleep hours. Neither of us remember anything of that year. It was a fog of utter and total exhaustion. Luckily the elder child just slept right through it all.

I remember a former neighbor commenting about our back yard “getting out of hand this past year.” My eyeballs rolled around as I tried to focus on what she was saying. I think I stuttered something about it having been a tough year. I couldn’t even fathom yard management being anywhere near the top of the list of things that weren’t getting done, but should be.

The stroller was a discovery of necessity because our one year old weighed as much as a 3 year old and my partner was developing back problems from wearing him in the carrier so much. At first we took him on uncomfortable walks in the dark and all kinds of bad weather. Then one muggy, mosquito ridden day I tried just circling the porch. Then just jiggling. Then just jiggling inside. It sounds ridiculous, but it worked. It’s been working for 6 months. Heaven help us when it stops working, as someday it surely will.


I wouldn’t hawk this as as a stroke of parenting genius, but it gets as close to getting the job done as anything right now.


my kids would die without cheese. In 5 lb blocks.

Then there’s our nearly six year old who eats cheese toast for breakfast, cucumbers and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, and pesto cheesy rice for dinner. Pretty much every day. Breakfast and lunch have shifted at various moments, but this is the dinner he’s been eating for about 8 months now. It became his go-to when he figured out he could meet my criteria for a green vegetable without having to eat something separate from the rest of his meal.

Yes, I know about the French and how their kids eat whatever is put before them. That doesn’t work for us and I really don’t care. He doesn’t want to eat what we are eating and I don’t want to eat the boring thing he wants to eat.

I look at the big picture and ask myself what my deep priorities are for his health. What I care about is that he get two greens a day and some good protein; that his diet primarily be real, whole foods without chemical nast and added sugar. On that, we are golden. He thinks a protein bar is a fancy treat. Does it matter if there’s very little variation right now? Not to me. Someday there will be. All of a sudden one day he asked for my hard boiled egg and now occasionally he eats one.

We fight about important things like tooth brushing. This was not worth a fight. I made a thousand pounds of pesto from my own garlic and basil last summer and froze it in ice cube trays. I make vast mounds of rice cooked in bone broth and freeze it. If one wants to consider the assembly process “cooking multiple separate meals” to appease a whiny kid, so be it. I love to cook and make delightfully creative meals that the rest of us eat–including the toddler (for now). This is what works for our family. We will run out of pesto in about a week and there won’t be any more until May. Soon something else will have to start working. C’est la vie.


When I realized we were about to run out of pesto I started experimenting with winter greens in the garden. Dandelion chickweed pesto was not a hit with anyone.

But here’s the rub with all this. After seeing a silly video of my toddler double fisting his brother’s leftover pesto cheesy rice, a friend of mine asked what he was eating. When I told her, she wondered wistfully how I get my kids to eat such healthy food. I almost snorted my beer because it was so ridiculous, given that this one food is the only food he’ll eat. But she didn’t know that. Her kids eat carrots and tomatoes and sweet peppers. Mine only eats pesto cheesy rice.

If we all knew everyone else’s ridiculousness, our kids would inevitably seem more well-rounded. But who cares? This works for my family. Any time I find myself feeling envious of someone else’s seemingly perfect family, I think of all the times I’ve been shocked at someone who can only see 2% of my life saying something like that about my family.

Why not just do what works for ourselves, be inspired to try new things when we see others doing something different that we think might be better, and hold on to the reality that no one has it all figured out.

I’m not advocating laissez faire parenting. I’m sure some people think beating the crap out of their kids “works” for them. I hope it’s obvious that’s not what I mean. I know what empirical evidence actually shows to be the range of things that are healthy, safe, and normal. So do a lot of parents. It’s a big range, even if you have strong feelings about particular aspects of parenting (which most of us do).  But all that information is far less definitive than we like to think it is. The reason it’s easy to get conflicting messages is because most of it isn’t all that certain. Admitting uncertainty is not the academe‘s strong suite, so that can be your starting point the next time someone tells you “the experts all say…”. Except climate change and the superiority of Swedish social democracy, those are settled ;).

When we are confident in our own critical thinking skills, our own judgment about what is best for us, our own wisdom about our own families …if we can get to that place, then all the perceived judgment just starts to run down like water off a duck’s back.

I know parents who planned to “do” attachment parenting and their identity as parents was very tied up in this plan. But it turned out that it didn’t work for them. Whether because breastfeeding didn’t work the way they had hoped, their careers didn’t cooperate the way they thought they would, their support network turned out to be not that supportive, or they just weren’t the same person as a parent that they’d been before…it just didn’t work. They felt everyone was telling them that was how you had to parent to be a good parent. Mostly they judged themselves. But there are a million ways to deeply love and bond with your kid. You have to do what works for your family.

I know just as many parents who never planned to parent “intensively,” but once in it found it to be, quite simply, what worked for them. Often they had no support at all–be it cosleeping, breastfeeding, or wanting to stay home and not put their kid in daycare–sometimes even from their partner, which is the toughest and loneliest divide.

I am inspired by the parents who take their reality and perform an acrobatic combination of figuring out how to cope with what is and pushing through on what is central to who they are, even if it seems too hard. That process is never pretty and is often what we judge so carelessly from the outside.

Because we live in a country with zero public policy support for most families to have true freedom to choose “what works,” just focusing on ourselves is only part of the story. You never know what someone else is going through. The majority of parents in this country struggle to have room for choice, so these Mommy Wars are like an elite sparring match with no applicability to the lives of those parents struggling the most.

Judging and feeling judged are interconnected.

At the end of the day I find that thinking the best of others, taking different approaches as inspiration and food for thought (rather than comparison), and tending my own nest in the way that works for me has made me better at being generous and understanding of others. It’s a work in progress, but it’s what works.

quick fingerless toddler mittens


Let’s be honest. It probably occurred to you that your toddler’s fingers were freezing after they started turning that special shade of red on its way to blue. There are many excellent and beautiful patterns out there but around here we are about speed and utility. How much will it matter if I screw up the pattern? Can I read it on half a cup of coffee and while being interrupted every 3 seconds to repair the lego diesel engine and figure out if those screams are real pain or not? Oh, wait, it only works if I know yarn weights and know the weight of the particular ball of yarn I have on hand? Can I finish it before someone gets hungry again? Well sh*t.

I made this up as I went. You can do it with whatever yarn you have. These were made for a big 18 month old with wool I got at a yard sale. I didn’t bother measuring his hand. I discovered after starting that my 5 year old had cut it up for a project and tried to re-roll it for me (what I get for allowing 30 minutes to lapse between when I set out the yarn and when I started the project). I made one glove one stitch smaller (it fit a tad better). It was all fine. Until he was 5 my eldest preferred gloves like these as well, in hideous color combinations he specially requested.

If you don’t already crochet, here’s a basic tutorial.

What you need:

  • ball of yarn you hope is enough in the color of dirt the gloves are most likely to become caked in (mine was big fat dark gray wool)
  • crochet hook that is reasonable for that yarn (mine was 5mm)
  • maybe scissors, or teeth
  • 30 min to 8 hours depending on # of interruptions

What you do:

  1. slip knot, ch 15, slip stitch to close the circle
  2. ch 2, hdc 15 in the chain loop you just made [run the tail of the yarn alongside the chain row and cover with this new row, snip off any extra or just keep going until it’s gone], slip stitch to close, repeat 2 more times, before slip stitching to close the third row, ch 3
  3. repeat the previous pattern and hdc into the 3 new stitches, bringing the total to 18. this is the only difference, repeat 3 more times and tie off, weaving the tail of the yarn back in

This pattern makes the narrower, 4-finger portion of the glove first and finishes at the wrist. You can make the wrist longer by simply continuing step 3 for more than 4 rows. You could make the fingers longer by repeating the rows from step 2. If your yarn is skinnier than mine and your hook smaller, you’ll chain more at the outset and maybe use more than 3 new chains for the thumb hole. The glove is 2.25-2.5 inches across at the fingers and 2.75-3 at the wrist, which makes it easier to copy the pattern with a different size yarn.

He wore them today. There were no complaints about putting them on, no requests to take them off. They were perfect for allowing his wee fingers to carefully rearrange Grandma’s collection of glass jars. Heh.