Birds, Bees and Blue Hair

We’ve been pretty open with our daughter about sex from the beginning, I thought. We taught Adrienne the anatomical names for all of her girl parts (and let her sing them in the grocery store). We provided answers on how babies are made as soon as she asked. When we saw she was shy about discussing these things with us (who really WANTS to talk about sex with their parents?), we bought her age appropriate books about how her body functions and about how sex works. With illustrations. We’ve talked about birth control. About STDs. About consent. About assault. About unplanned pregnancy.

We’ve tried to take any sense of shame out of sex, because that’s what causes the secrecy and the damage. We want her to know that her worth as a person and our love for her are in no way tied to her sexual decisions. And we want her to be able to come to us if there’s a problem, to understand that her sexual decisions are in her hands, not ours, and not a potential partner’s.

I actually thought, having done all this, (go ahead and laugh, veteran parents) that I was almost done. That she knows what she needs to know – and so very much more than I knew.

But we’ve never talked about pleasure. We’ve never talked about her having her own expectations for sex. And we’ve never talked about the sexual environment that she will have to come of age in. In this interview, author Peggy Orenstein talks about what it’s like for girls out there right now.

And it is fucking terrifying.

In her book, Girls & Sex, Orenstein explores the current sexual environment for adolescent girls. She discusses how culture is impacting the sexual expectations girls put on themselves, and that boys put on them: the pressure to look and act sexy at ever younger ages; oral sex as social currency; the way alcohol drives hook-up culture; and the notion of sex as the gateway to a relationship, instead of the other way around.

Did I mention this is terrifying? I really want to bury my head in the sand on this one. I want to…but I won’t. The book illuminates both the things I’ve been doing wrong, and what I think I’ve been doing right.

On the wrong end, I’ve been talking to her about relationships as though we’re still in the era I dated in. And the current environment makes that era seem quaint. The fact is, things are so different that I can’t give her much relationship guidance that will make sense. The thing I can help her develop, though, is a strong enough sense of self so she’s not doing anything – sexual or otherwise – because she’s pressured to. I can help her learn to listen to her intuition about when she’s being respected and when she’s being used. It doesn’t feel like enough; but it’s what we have.

And the stuff I’m doing right? First, being openly accepting of same-sex relationships. Orenstein notes that young same-sex couples have a different dynamic, and much to teach us about reciprocity and equality in sexual relationships. Also, encouraging Adrienne’s friend relationships, and her self-expression when it comes to her appearance. She’s friends with a group of girls who support one another, smart, kind girls who are into science and fandom and all sorts of good mischief, who have their sights set higher than our small town, and who don’t much care what the middle-school queen bees are doing. They seem to like being a little outside the norm with how they look – androgynous dress, hair in edgy colors and styles. And each time Adrienne has come to us asking about doing something new, our answer has been a carefully considered yes. I had thought this was because we want her to express herself (and because, you know, we’re awesome like that). And we do; but Orenstein’s work made me wonder if these things might have a value I hadn’t considered.

I’d thought about the down side – that any kind of non-typical appearance can be a magnet for judgment. But what if choosing to look a little ‘outside the box’ has a benefit? What if these girls, by seeing themselves as outside the mainstream, are insulating themselves against those mainstream pressures? Thin insulation, to be sure. But I hope that, layered on top of a strong sense of self, the examples of respectful relationships that are abundant among our close friends, and the knowledge that we can talk about sex like we can talk about anything else, she may avoid some of the more horrifying aspects of the alcohol-fueled hook-up culture. I dare to hope that she and her friends and the other young women in my life can develop their sexuality on their own terms, on their own timeline.

So, I am not almost done. And I won’t be, for years. Time to brush the sand out of my hair and initiate some more hard conversations.

No, people do not buy steak on food stamps

Where does the persistent myth come from that people live like kings on public assistance? Probably from people who have never been there.

Anthony and I both come from tough economic backgrounds. My family was on government assistance for awhile; his was not, but struggled all the same. Neither of us ever went hungry, but there were sometimes strings of days where oatmeal was dinner. And while we are thankful to be raising our own child in better financial circumstances, there are things we learned growing up this way that we don’t want to lose – and that we hope to pass on to Adrienne.

Similarly, while we are not religious, we still try to incorporate into our family life some of the traditions we were raised with. One of these is Lent – a season of penance and almsgiving that precedes Easter. One of our family’s Lenten practices has been to spend a week living on the food budget of a family of three who receives SNAP benefits (food stamps). It’s about half of what we spend on groceries in a typical week, and we donate the difference to a local food bank.

There are, of course, many flaws in such an experiment: we know that this is temporary; in the event of a true emergency we could access our usual resources; we have a full-service supermarket where we live, and a car to transport our purchases. But it is a humbling reminder, and it gives Adri a window into what life is often like for families with less – including the ones her parents were raised in. Here are some of the things we learned.

At the grocery store. Adri and I did the week’s shopping. She knew the budget and ran the calculator. Rather than planning a menu and shopping from a list like we usually do (what sounds good for dinner this week?), we shopped the sales and put meals together on the fly based on what was most cost effective, trying to keep health in mind where we could. It took nearly twice as long as usual, but we ended up with these simple meals for the week:

  • Tuna helper with peas; apples
  • Protein pasta with marinara; grapes
  • Homemade chicken and dumplings with veggies; homemade applesauce
  • Sloppy joes, celery and carrot sticks, grapes
  • Turkey chili and corn bread
  • Tilapia, rice, broccoli, bananas
  • Leftovers

I felt pretty proud that we put together such a decent menu – for a second. Then I realize that I can do this because Anthony and I come from mothers who were masters at stretching a food dollar, and they passed those skills to us – not just in economizing, but in cooking and keeping food. People who grew up homeless, with addicted parents, in a series of foster homes, didn’t have that kind of stability. Without those skills, where would that leave us? Loading the cart with frozen pizza.

It’s also made possible by our pre-existing prosperity – the grocery store, the car. The grocery store is two miles from home, one way. Divide roughly what the groceries weighed by what I can carry at a time, and I’d have to make that walk every single day – not something I can do while I work full time, as most people on food assistance do. Or, pay four dollars a day round trip transportation, which, even if I could afford it on this budget, doesn’t operate in the evening when I get home from work. Anthony and I also have a regular and dependable work schedules, which means we are home to cook dinner.

At home. Everything takes a lot more work, a lot more thought and planning. If we’re leaving the house we have to think about whether we’ll be hungry while we’re out (no stopping for an unplanned snack or meal out), and plan accordingly. I pre-cut, cooked and parceled up some of the fresh fruit, veggies and hard boiled eggs so we’d have go-to food in the absence of the string cheese, nuts, yogurt and crackers we are used to snacking on but couldn’t afford. But those containers and plastic bags I used to do that were not purchased on this budget. What if I couldn’t afford the containers?

It seems we can’t do anything without thinking about it. Adri drank one of the flavored waters we bought for her lunch, which meant one day during the week there was no drink in her lunch. Not a tragedy, but not something she would normally think twice about – which is the whole idea.

I’m aware that my efforts – cooking, packaging, planning – shield Adri from the full impact of what it’s like to live this way, but I’m not sure how to do it differently. And certainly, that’s what I would do if this was not temporary – just the way our parents did for us. This bit of real life falls on parents hard.

While the meals are as balanced as we could make them, they don’t contain the variety and flavors we’re used to; herbs and spices just don’t fit in the budget. It’s more carb-heavy than the way we usually eat, and I feel sluggish and blue. Food is utilitarian; the enjoyment we derive from planning, preparing and eating healthy, good-tasting meals is nowhere to be found.

The weekend – when we are all home eating all three meals – looms large, and the weekend meals are cobbled together from whatever’s left: Saturday’s breakfast sees one of us eating cereal, another the last bit of egg salad, the other one peanut butter on the last of the bread. No fruit or veggies for anyone, because those are gone.

After. We’re humbled. Grateful for what we have. We slip back into our usual buying and eating patterns thankfully, but with a tinge of emptiness, of sadness, because there are so many people for whom this is not a choice. We also ended the week wanting to hug our mothers, who deployed incredible skill and effort to make a way out of no way; who scrimped and canned and preserved, who saved coins in a jar to buy a kid a McDonald’s cheeseburger once every month or so.

I don’t want to lose the perspective our backgrounds have given us. It’s true we worked hard for what we have, but our place of birth, our talents, our hardworking families – these are all unearned gifts. We didn’t hit a home run; we were born on third base.

Slaying the Dragon of Shame

Adrienne had her friend Anna over this afternoon, and as Anna’s mom was picking her up, we were talking about last week’s talent show at the middle school. It was clear Anna’s mom had been there to see her perform.

I could feel that hot, prickly rush start to crawl up my neck.

Her mom had gone? Not only did I not go…I didn’t know it was a thing parents could attend.

Worst. Mother. EVER.

You know that feeling. That hot flood of emotion when you’re late to an important meeting. When there’s an empty package of Oreos in your hand you don’t remember eating. When you forgot about the Halloween party and your kid is the only one in class without a costume. It’s not guilt (I did something awful). It’s shame (I AM awful). It happens to perfectionists all the time – it’s the reason we’re perfectionists.

It’s different than embarrassment – it’s not that mortifying but hilarious story you tell on yourself later for laughs. We rarely talk about it. Or, at least, we rarely did before Brene Brown. Her book “I Thought it was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame,” has brought us a powerful dose of the only antidote to shame: talking about it.

Brown explains that shame can be hooked to traumatic events, to abuse, to an illness or injury that makes you feel like you’re the only one in the world to have this thing wrong with you. But it isn’t always; women experience shame around many ‘ordinary’ experiences like motherhood, work, sex, appearance, especially when the unrealistic expectations for perfection in one realm collide with the unrealistic expectations for perfection in another. But one of the things that helps us be resilient to shame and its destructive effects is the willingness and courage to break our silence, to speak out about the very things that have caused us shame. In illustrating this, she relates a little about the history of the word courage:

The root of the word courage is cor, heart, and in its original form meant, ‘to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ These days, courage is most often associated with the kind of heroism that involves violence and blood – like St. George slaying the dragon with his sword.

But have you ever heard about St. Martha and her dragon? It’s a very different kind of courage.

Martha is the sister of Lazarus and of Mary Magdalene. We first encounter her in the Bible when Jesus comes to visit her home. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet while Martha bustles about, cleaning up, preparing food. Yep – everyone’s having a good time except Martha, who’s making dinner and doing the dishes. When she complains about this to Jesus, he reminds her, “Mary has chosen the better part.”

What!?

For most of my life, this story pissed me off every time I heard it. Typical, I’d think. Busting your ass making sure everyone’s fed and here’s someone not only not helping, but not even appreciating your effort, and giving you a hard time in the bargain. Sounds like the experience of Thanksgiving for about half the women I know.

As I’ve grown older though, I’ve started to see that story as a reminder to choose connection, choose presence, despite all there is to do. It’s not a zero-sum game; if Martha had sat down next to Mary, everyone would not have died of starvation, their skeletons still gathering dust in the same spot today. If they were hungry, they might have tipped the house boy to run to the market for takeout. They might have all gotten their bony asses up and headed to the kitchen and continued their conversation there. If Jesus could turn water into wine, imagine what he might have done with leftovers.

But that’s not all of Martha’s story – not by a long shot.

According to legend, some years later, Martha was summoned by villagers who were being terrorized by a fierce dragon. She must have had quite a reputation; I bet if there was a firebreathing dragon in my neighborhood, I wouldn’t be the first person my neighbors think to call. But the villagers’ trust was well placed. Martha slew that dragon – not with a sword, but with gentleness and compassion. She tamed and befriended the dragon, tying it to her sash and leading it away. A very different kind of courage – and the kind we might employ to tame our shame-dragons.

When it comes to my shame-dragon, a sword just doesn’t do me any good. I’m already seared by the flames of worthlessness, burned by feelings of inadequacy, the vultures circling as they wait to pick over what’s left of my dignity. How is a blade going to help? In order to tame the shame-dragon, I need the balm of Martha’s gentleness; the healing salve of self-compassion. Touched with a radical belief in my own okayness, with a fundamental unwillingness to add pain on top of pain, the shame dragon transforms. What was scaly and searing and ugly becomes humble, quirky, and even a little funny-looking.

So I missed the talent show. And it’s not the worst thing in the world.

The Hard Conversations: Teens and Trafficking

One of the hardest conversations I’ve had with my young teen so far is about human trafficking. It felt like I nearly eviscerated myself to come up with what to say, so I’m sharing it here in case you’d like to use it with the kids in your life, or in case you spot a big gaping hole that we should be filling.

This is what we told her:

There’s this terrible thing called human trafficking, that happens all over the world. Just lately it’s been in the news because it has happened to kids close to our community. It’s hard to talk about, but knowing about hard stuff like this gives us a better chance to protect ourselves. Have you heard of it? (Her answer was no.)

What it is, is slavery. People lure or recruit kids and teens in all kinds of different ways by earning their trust – maybe offering to start you off in a career in modeling, maybe give you a new iPhone, any of a million things. Recruiters get to know you over time, and then eventually, when someone goes with one, they’ll be trapped. Forced to be prostitutes or to work like slaves, beaten and mistreated, and never allowed to go back to their families – sometimes even taken from the country so they can never get home.

These recruiters are another reason not to put personal information online, and a good reason to be suspicious of people who want to give you things, or when someone approaches you and it doesn’t feel right. They hang out in places kids hang out – malls, parks, theaters. That’s why we don’t let you be unsupervised in those places.

We reviewed things she can do if she feels she’s in danger. Many things we’ve worked with her on for her entire life, but something we’re emphasizing now that she’s older is – do everything you can not to go to a second location once you feel like you’re in danger. Make. A. Scene. And also know that if you make the worst scene ever, scream, kick, bite, palm-heel strike someone to the face and it all turns out to be a terrible misunderstanding and the person in question is legit, you’ll never, ever be in trouble with us and we will figure it out together.

We also set up some some ‘safe words’ and phrases she can call or text us with if she needs help but, for whatever reason, can’t articulate it – not just in terms of trafficking, but just being anywhere or in any situation she doesn’t feel safe.

And that took ALL of our parental fortitude for the week, so I hope she doesn’t have any hard questions for me for a few days.

Confessions of a Reformed Valentine Hater

There’s plenty to hate about Valentine’s Day: the retail machine, where men have to feel worthless unless they purchase flowers/candy/jewelry, and women have to feel worthless unless they receive them. The way the ‘celebration’ focuses exclusively on couples. The fact that there have been red hearts in the stores since the day after Christmas.

I willingly hated it all. Valentine’s day and I had some rough years, when the circumstances of my life were just not conducive to romance – or at least, not the kind you see in the jewelry store ads. I felt left out. Pissed off. Bitter.

The last few years though, I’ve been giving more thought to my relationship with myself. As a perfectionist, my inner voice is a relentless asshat, an abusive spouse, a controlling parent. And it’s impossible to feel loved when you’re being yelled at all the time, no matter how many diamonds and roses come your way.

So I’ve been experimenting with the previously alien notion of loving myself. Not in the abstract, but actively treating myself lovingly. Pushing myself less. Talking to myself in my head the way I talk to my sweet daughter. Not all the time – the asshat is still there – but whenever I remember.

It is changing my heart.

Changing it from a fragile, brittle thing into something expansive and elastic; something that is not destroyed if other people make mistakes with it. And somewhere in there, I stopped hating Valentine’s day.

The fact is, with Christmas long past and spring still just a dream, this is a great time for a minor holiday. For a little treat, for extra snuggles. For getting yourself a new pair of PJs and curling up with a blanket, a good book, your pet, or someone you love (big or little) to watch a good movie. For a house to smell like fresh-baked cookies. For a mom or dad to go mildly insane and carve everything in their kid’s lunch bag into a heart. To give a treat and a Valentine to your elderly neighbor. To give your nearest and dearest a funny card card or a silly little gift.

Yep, ideally we should do this stuff all the time. But ideally my house would always be as clean as it is when I know company’s coming. Is it? Of course not. And it turns out I don’t mind having an external reason to do something a little extra special, for myself and for others.

And if you just can’t get over your hatred of Valentine’s day, February 15 is my second-favorite February holiday: discount chocolate day.

Do something nice for yourself. You deserve it.

A kinder, gentler new year

In the brief lull between Christmas and New Year, we can already hear the hoofbeats of their approach: the next set of expectations.

We just ran the brutal gauntlet of holiday demands, trying to make a dark time of year merry and bright, with no more time, energy or money than we usually have. And we mostly did it, like we mostly always do. We made a way out of no way. And now…we rest?

Nope. In just a few days it will be time to get thin, get organized, get energized, and Achieve Our Dreams in 2017!!! Or to flog ourselves and each other for any shortcomings therein.

Let’s not go to that party this year.

In part, this approaching set of expectations springs from a natural need for balance after the holidays. Our houses are overflowing with gifts and paper and chaos and we want order and space. What seemed festive a month ago now just seems suffocating. After weeks of rich meals and sweet holiday treats, soup and a salad seems like a relief. There’s nothing wrong with any of that.

What’s wrong is when those natural, gentle yearnings are wrenched from our hearts, twisted, and handed back to us as a pointed and painful yoke of expectation – we SHOULD be thinner, our home MUST look a certain way, we OUGHT to feel positive and motivated at the start of a new year. The media has a hand in creating this painful yoke, for sure; so do cultural expectations, and so does our own perfectionism. So this year let’s not give them the material. Let’s not tune in to the same old boring January drumbeat of thinner and better organized. Let’s listen instead to the quieter, wilder beating of our own hearts.

Holidays and Hard Times

Anthony and I were both raised in the kind of economic background I’ve come to think of as “broke, not poor.” Hardworking people with middle-class values and sensibilities, without two nickels to rub together. Every year at Christmas, I’m struck by how much of the way we handle the holidays, which minimizes our stress and maximizes our peace, is due to the example they set – the gifts they left us. Let’s unwrap them.

Make the small things big. It’s a cliché because it’s true: the things you remember most about the holidays aren’t likely to be things you unwrap. It’s fun to make a tradition out of watching your favorite holiday movie, complete with PJs and popcorn (and nobody on their phones!), baking cookies, looking at holiday lights. These kinds of delightful (cheap or free) activities can save your holiday if you’re broke, and if you’re not, they’re still a great way to make the holidays more about feelings than things.

Christmas comes on the same day every year. Whenever someone asked my mother how she managed the holidays, this was her wry response. In other words – you know it’s coming, so plan ahead. Even the ‘basics’ – like a holiday dinner, or baking – require money. Every September she would begin, week by week, to stock up on food she knew she would need during the holiday season. She could never have purchased the ingredients for baking and the holiday dinners in a single month. But ten or twelve weeks of one or two extra things with each visit to the grocery store, she could do. Extra flour and sugar one week, dried fruit the next, nuts and sweet potatoes after that…this meant that by the time she arrived at the big day, the only purchase required was the turkey or the ham – which she had planned for. I still do this, just because it’s nice to spread out the cost.

At the house of a childhood friend (similar economics, a lot more kids) it wasn’t unheard of to find a Barbie in the freezer or a Tonka truck hidden in the basement – her mom bought presents all year long. This was easier, of course, in the days when what we got for Christmas was whatever was in stock at K-Mart. The digital age and the media onslaught that now tells children what they want for six relentless weeks before the holiday makes this more challenging.

Debt: don’t. You have to be at a certain economic level to even have a credit card, and sometimes our folks were there and sometimes they weren’t, but ain’t nobody put Christmas on the Visa card in my family – chiefly because if the future financials looked the like current ones, there’s no conceivable way to pay it off. As a result, Anthony and I don’t debt for the holidays either, didn’t even in our brokest days. Remember Christmas Club accounts? They were dedicated bank accounts that would skim a little off of every paycheck of the year, and you couldn’t access the money until November 1. We did this until we had the discipline to do it ourselves, which took awhile. We have done many regrettable things with our money because we didn’t know how to middle-class, but this is something we did right, from the get. And it’s because of the example we had.

When in doubt, bake something. Having a stash of goodies in the house is a hedge against that thing where someone gives you a gift and you don’t have anything for them. In higher economic circles this is merely awkward, but when there’s no money for last-minute gifts, when you don’t have a choice, it can be a big, dripping shame sandwich. When you can respond with a plate of holiday cookies or a tin of homemade fudge, it just feels better. Baking also goes a long way in adding a feeling of warmth and tradition to your holiday and your home when things are feeling bleak.

One December, Anthony came home from school and announced, in the way kids do, that he had to bring a treat the next day for the class holiday party. His mom was home alone with the kids, no money and a bare larder. This was the 70s, y’all. No internet. No Pinterest. And any mom who couldn’t produce baked goods on demand was getting a close-up look at that shame sandwich. So she stirred up cornflakes with melted marshmallow, added a crap-ton of green food coloring and shaped the mess into wreaths. Whenever she would see actual recipes for these in later years, in magazines and on the backs of cereal boxes, she was all, “Pfft. I invented those.” Necessity is a mother.

Help someone else. This time of year is packed with opportunities to do kind things for other people – and many only require time, not money. Write to deployed soldiers. Visit people in nursing homes. Walk dogs at the animal shelter. Finding something you and your children can do together is a great way to get the focus off what you don’t have, and on what you do.

Keep your perspectacles on. Christmas can feel so freighted with emotion and expectation that it’s hard to see past it. But it will pass; so don’t do anything that, one way or another, you’ll still be paying for once the holiday has come and gone.

So if you’re an imperfect parent, raising your kids in imperfect circumstances (and aren’t we all?), take heart. The gifts you’re giving your children will last far longer than whatever’s under the tree this year.