I have an essay in Brain, Child today about how I’ve found the topic of gender identity to be both interesting and challenging to navigate as a parent. Here’s a clip:
Now that my son is old enough to dress himself, his drawers are filled with Spiderman shirts, Star Wars pajamas, and Transformers underwear. It seems the best that I can do is just embrace and love his boy-identity while trying to make room for balance. Right now balance means that we snuggle in Star Wars pajamas, encourage him to cry when he is sad, and have a “yes” answer on the ready if he ever asks for a pink bike or a Barbie—two things that I’m pretty sure will never happen. (read the full essay here)
I wrote this essay a few months ago, and things have shifted ever so slightly. My son has fallen in love with the princess-movie Frozen. I won’t go into analysis of gender roles in Frozen. I’m not going to claim that it’s a feminist film, but I am grateful for it. I speculate that my son loves Frozen for the following reasons:
1. Lowbrow Humor: Frozen does a great job of balancing comedy and drama. No matter how many times my son and I watch the film, we chuckle when Kristoff takes a bit of his reindeer’s slobbery carrot, or when Olaf the Snowman sings longingly about a day at the beach. We like that these princesses–or, Anna at least–don’t take themselves too seriously.
2. The Universal Theme of Childhood Loneliness: What kid (or adult) can’t relate to the Anna’s longing for companionship, her continual rejection, and her frustration in trying to solve the mystery of that rejection? Elsa too grapples with a universal conflict: she has a gift that she is told to hide from the world. I love that these princess characters are given meaty conflicts, and I suspect it is one reason my son finds the film compelling.
3. No one Holds Back: When I watch Frozen, I often feel like I am bearing witness to a small miracle of synchronicity that happens when all the right people were hired and cast for a particular project. This is how I feel when watching The Wizard of Oz or The Shining. It feels clear to me that everyone who was hired for this project–the screenwriters, the songwriters, the actors, and the animators–gave it their all. That makes it so infectious, that even my ninja-wannabe son sings along to “Let it go” without self consciousness. Everyone in the world, it seems, sings along to “Let it go.” We just can’t help ourselves.
Frozen has opened a door for my son, and now he’s interested in watching The Pirate Fairy. This might seem like a small thing, but it has larger implications. Some months ago, he dismissed girls as potential friends because they “only care about princesses, not awesome stuff like ninjas.” Now that he’s in on the princess phenomenon his world is a little larger.
So, um, thank you Disney Corporation. (That is a sentence I never thought I’d write.)
“This is amazin’!” my son calls out as he coasts away from me. He’s been riding for two weeks now, and still he says it every time he hits an easy stretch, when the sun is shining, the road is straight and carless, and the slope is ever-so-slightly in his favor.
I know the feeling. My first bike was my trusty companion for years. Sometimes it was my only companion. I was an awkward child, one who couldn’t whistle or cartwheel or kick a ball. Other kids and their ways were a mystery to me. Often, at the end of my block, the neighborhood boys played street hockey; my best friend’s older brothers led the game and sometimes they’d call out to me, “How’s it going Berney?” If I was on foot, I hung my head and kept walking, unsure if they were friendly or teasing.
But when I rode my bike, I moved through the world with ease. I rode an old-school Huffy with a yellow banana seat and handlebars that dipped low. When the road was quiet, I’d zigzag up the street, then turn onto the sidewalk so as not to disturb the street hockey game. “How’s it going, Berney?” one of the brothers would call out, and I’d nod and keep riding. My only destination was the quietest road.
There were times I wasn’t alone, times when kids I recognized from school cruised out of driveways and rode alongside me for a while. On our bikes we were equals, and together we owned the neighborhood. No one would tease or torment. We just rode in figure eights, up and down hills, easily passing the time. We lost ourselves this way.
On the way back to my house there was a gentle hill and I’d lean back and rest my ankles on the handlebars, letting my wheels and gravity carry me. I trusted my bike.
My son is not an awkward child like I was, but he has his moments. There are times when he’s too shy to say his name, and times when he is so lost in his thoughts that he walks into a wall. So I was surprised to notice the ease with which he took to his bike.
Last week he rode the long straight road to our neighborhood middle school. I walked behind him, calling out reminders for him to stop at every corner, my voice nearly lost in the distance between us. Miraculously, he heard and complied.
When we arrived, a boy his age rode up and down a long stretch of pavement on a pink bike. My son joined him and they were instant friends, friends of the moment, racing and circling each other. The boy’s father called out “It was his sister’s bike!” I nodded and smiled, hoping that my gestures conveyed that I was not the sort of parent to judge a little boy for riding a pink bike.
My son isn’t one to judge either, and I held my breath as they challenged each other with near misses, the boy on the pink bike swooping in front of my son, my son steering away just in time to avoid a collision. As I watched, I tried to summon that same trust that I had when I was a child gliding down the hill with my feet on the handlebars.
They rode that same strip of pavement for nearly an hour, sharing the grace of easy friendship. It was long past our usual dinnertime and the sky was growing dark, but I let my son ride until he was sweaty and weary. I was comforted to learn that even in this age of helmets and curfews, of iPads and Netflix, bikes can still amaze.
On July 1, an ordinance that bans disposable bags from grocery stores took effect in my county. In the weeks leading up to the ban, I noticed numerous flyers designed to prepare us for this impending shift, and yet in spite of this ample warning, and in spite of the fact that I’ve had nearly a month to adjust, it seems that I’m always forgetting about my reusable bags (and I have many!) until the moment I’ve set foot in the grocery store.
This isn’t a calamity, because I still have options. A) I can try to heft my purchases with my bare arms, B) I can buy a reusable bag, or C) I can shell out five cents for a paper bag. Five cents means nearly nothing in the context of my grocery bill, but still it hurts my pride, and so in general I opt for A when I can. Yesterday, because I had a range of items too awkward to manage, I opted for B, and after asking the cashier to sell me a reusable bag, I tried to start a conversation.
“Has this bag ban been a pain for you?” I asked her. I’d been wondering this for a few weeks, imagining that the first week or two had yielded an endless stream of frazzled customers and a few choice tantrums. I expected her to simply confirm that, so I was surprised by her answer.
“I had to look for a new job,” she told me. “I can’t take it anymore.” Apparently, there have been more than a handful of tantrum-throwers; she reported that since the bag ban passed every line of customers includes at least one who’s ready to go ballistic, to raise his fist, make idle threats, and conclude “I’m never shopping here again!” (Of course, he’ll have to shop outside the county if he wants a free plastic bag.)
I was more bewildered than surprised to learn this about my fellow Thurston County citizens. It strikes me as quintessentially American that we’ve collectively decided that everyone is entitled to free bags as a part of our shopping experience. And not just that, but since this is a democracy, we need a choice: paper or plastic.
And I guess it’s just as American that we have to legislate an end to this waste, to mandate it rather than trusting in the fairness and responsibility of people’s choices. I mean look at me, Miss Bleeding Heart Liberal: week four of the bag ban and I’m still walking three paces into the grocery store before noticing my empty hands.
Apparently, this is the right tactic because some of us won’t get there on our own. Some of us (e.g. me) may want to keep plastics out of our land and waters, we may collect over a dozen reusable bags only to forget them when it matters and say “yes, please” when we’re offered a plastic bag for our three items. Sometimes it takes a rule to get us to do the right thing, and the disruption to routine is surprisingly noticeable. Apparently, that’s what progress feels like.
But it seems that if we’re ever going to get anywhere, we need to embrace the inconvenience of changing bad cultural habits. We can’t shout at every grocery clerk, proclaiming our god given right to plastic bags. We’ll need to recognize that saving our future will require a great many shifts; remembering to bring my own bag to the store is really just the tip of the iceberg—which, as you know, is melting as I am writing this.
Early this morning, as my partner prepared to leave for work, some part of me thought it would be a good idea to engage her in an argument. Stump had woken up at 4:30, and so I’d been lying in bed for over an hour, trying to nurse him back to sleep, while simultaneously nursing my resentment over a comment my partner had made several days earlier. At 5:30, when Stump sat up and decided he was awake for good, I got up, found Kellie in the shower, opened my mouth, and released all of my venom. My period is due in two days.
I’m not normally like this, and therein lies the problem. Brooding comes naturally to me, but complaining doesn’t. All day long and into the night, every day and every night, I feel things and I think about them. I think about whether or not I should say them out loud. Usually, I choose not to.
Kellie is the opposite. She complains as she goes. She doesn’t brood. My emotions are a mystery to her—and by “mystery”, I don’t mean a puzzle that she longs to solve; I mean simply that she doesn’t know about them. I mean, she does in theory know that I have feelings, but if she’s not thinking about her own feelings, if she’s not constantly gauging every word she hears or says, assessing her own reactions, why would she be worried about mine?
Because of this, Kellie does not understand my PMS. She thinks it’s an annoyance that she has to put up with as part of the contract of being married to me. She does not see the benefit to me losing my cool—quite predictably—once a month.
Here’s an analogy. Some years ago, I took my dog Winston to a trainer because he was exhibiting aggressive behaviors, growling at kids as they ran by him, nipping at me if I tried to look at his hurt paw. The trainer introduced me to the concept of bite threshold.
All dogs, she said, are capable of biting another dog or human, but some dogs require far more to provoke them than others. The way she explained it, even Lassie could bite Timmy, but it would require the perfect combination of circumstances, say a thunderstorm at night and Timmy is wearing a mask and approaching Lassie while holding a large stick. But say you get a dog with an ultra-low threshold. It might just take a toddler waddling towards his food dish and he’s all up in her face.
So let’s say most days my bite threshold is relatively high. I’m no Lassie. I’m prone to growling in the evenings when I’m tired and the kids are tired and everyone’s resisting each other. But I also let a lot of stuff roll off my back.
On PMS days, my threshold suddenly drops. I’m like the sick dog in the above graphic. I might never like “getting my head touched” but on the average day, you’re never going to know that. But scratch me between the ears on a low threshold day and—SNAP! Now you know.
And here’s where the analogy breaks down. I realize that you don’t ever want your dog to snap, but in the case of your partner, you want her to say what’s on her mind sometimes, even if it comes out at 5:30 am when you are in the middle of enjoying your morning shower and expected the house to be quiet for the next forty-five minutes or so. You need her to explain to you, in no uncertain terms, the various reasons why she hates it when you scratch her head, and you do this All The Time. Come on. You want that. Don’t you?
When I was five years old I walked the quarter mile to kindergarten every morning without parental supervision. My best friend, a first-grader, accompanied me. On days when she was home sick, I walked alone. This wasn’t due to any kind of parental negligence. The year was 1983, and this is what people did.
By the time I was in first grade, there had been a string of kidnappings across the country. Our cultural response at the time wasn’t to lock the doors, to keep the kids inside or shuffle them around in cars. Instead, teams of educators visited public schools and taught kids not to take candy from strangers or ride in their cars.
Back then it was normal to walk to a friend’s house and let the day progress from there. Because there were no cell phones, there was no way to check in every minute, but even if there had been, no one seemed that worried. My best friend’s mom would leave to go to the store and we’d raid the fridge and make our own sandwiches. We’d ride our bikes to the park. Maybe we’d leave a note.
Those were the days.
Earlier this week, The Atlantic ran an article about a mother who was arrested for letting her nine-year-old daughter play at the park alone. In brief, the mother had a regular shift at McDonald’s, and allowed the girl to play at the park while she earned a living. When a bystander learned that the girl was unsupervised, she apparently decided that the most helpful thing to do would be to call the cops. The mother was arrested for abandonment; the daughter was placed in state custody.
This comes shortly after an essay on Salon addressing similar issueswent viral; “The Day I Left My Son in the Car” details the years of litigation author Kim Brooks faced after leaving her son in the car unattended for several minutes. As with the above incident, she was reported to the police by a bystander who saw himself as a “good Samaritan.”
Here are two objections I have to this interventionist practice:
1. As a parent, I reserve the right to perform my own risk-benefit analysis—especially when our cultural norms are based on no legitimate evidence. As Lenore Skenazy, founder of Free Range Kids reports: “Our crime rate today is back to what it was when gas was 29 cents a gallon, according to The Christian Science Monitor. It may feel like kids are in constant danger, but they are as safe (if not safer) than we were when our parents let us enjoy the summer outside, on our own, without fear of being arrested.” Statistically speaking, children are far more likely to be injured in a car accident than they are to be snatched from a parked car, and yet there is no cultural taboo around driving with kids.
2. Wanna-be good Samaritans, YOU are the Danger Strangers. I’m sure plenty of us have known kids like the nine-year-old who is now in state custody, kids who have parents (or a single parent) struggling to keep it all together. Some people might respond to this situation by trying to figure out what they can offer. Maybe that simply means keeping a loose eye on the girl while she plays in the park, helping to ensure she stays safe. Maybe, if the kid is in your neighborhood it means getting acquainted with that mom and inviting the kid over once in a while. Apparently, other people call the cops. Who are these people? Is displacing a child to foster care their goal? Do they have any concept of what foster care actually means? If their fear is that a child alone in the park or in a car is in danger of being forcefully removed from her parents, do they realize that by calling the cops they are facilitating EXACTLY THAT?
Conor Freidersdorf, author of the Atlantic article, gets to the heart of the matter when he writes, “Parents ought to enjoy broad latitude in bringing up their children. There are obviously limits. The state ought to intervene if a child is being abused. But letting a 9-year-old go to the park alone doesn’t come close to meeting that threshold.”
It’s true. Our current cultural climate no longer allows us full freedom to make our own parenting decisions. I submit the following lists for your consideration.
Things I won’t do because they are associated with proven risks:
1. Keep a loaded gun in the home.
2. Allow my children to ride a bike without a helmet. (Okay, this is one way we’ve evolved since the eighties.)
3. Offer my children beverages sweetened with corn syrup at every meal.
Note that I am not advocating that any of the above practices be made illegal. If a kid rides by my house without a helmet, or reports that he drinks Coke for breakfast I don’t call the cops.
And here are some things I won’t do, not because I believe that they are actually dangerous in and of themselves, but because I fear being reported and losing my children.
1. Allow my older son to wait in the car if he so chooses while I run a five-minute errand.
2. Send my son (once *I* determine he’s old enough) to the corner store.
3. Allow my son to explore the wooded area one block away from our home.
The above list may sound self-serving, and I won’t deny that’s true. Item one is about avoiding unnecessary complications. But items two and three reflect my desire to teach my children independence. You see, I work with millennials and I’ve seen firsthand the results of helicopter parenting. If my sons choose to live with me or visit often once they’re grown, I don’t want to still be doing their laundry. I don’t want to be the one emailing their college professors when they have the stomach flu and can’t make it to class. I don’t want to sit in on their first job interview.
And, perhaps more importantly, I want them to grow up feeling at ease in the world rather than fearing that something dire will befall them the moment they are out of my sight, that in the two blocks between our house and the corner store they will be mugged or kidnapped in broad daylight, or attacked by a pack of coyotes.
I recently discovered Michael Rosen’s Sad Book when a Facebook friend shared this image, which is the first page of the book.
I was intrigued. Within 48 hours I held a copy in my hands. Here are the reasons why I love it.
1. It fills a need I didn’t know I had. As a contemporary parent, I’ve been turned on to the importance of emotional literacy. I know that I’m supposed to talk to my sons about feelings, to help them learn to name specific feelings. I’ve seen handouts like this one, designed to facilitate this kind of learning.
I haven’t done much of this for two reasons. First of all, I struggle to name my own feelings with that kind of specificity. I don’t feel like a qualified instructor. Perhaps more importantly, I find these handouts a little boring. But the Sad Book takes a single emotion and blows it up. We get to see how sadness manifests in multiple ways. Some of pictures look like sadness; others look like anger, like joy, like beauty.
When my son saw the first page of the Sad Book, he let out a giggle and said: “That guy’s happy!” His initial reaction was the perfect segue to engaging more deeply with both the text and the idea.
2. It doesn’t tell a story. My main complaint about children’s literature today is that so often the illustrations surpass the writing. Many children’s books tell stories that may be serviceable enough, but they only hold a child’s (and a parent’s) attention for as long as it takes to get through the book. They don’t stick with us, or invite multiple readings.
The Sad Book alludes to the story of the author’s loss of his teenage son, but it doesn’t tell that story directly. In short, it’s not so much a story book, but an essay on sadness. This is right, since the point isn’t to make the reader feel sad, but to invite us to look at sadness from an outsider’s perspective.
3. Quentin Blake—who knew? Quentin Blake’s illustration style holds some history for me, since Roald Dahl was my favorite author as a child, and Blake’s sketches illustrate most of his books. I always thought of his style as just that—sketchy. I liked his pictures well enough, but they never struck me as particularly impressive. (I was too young then to appreciate that sometimes simplicity is the hallmark of craft.) But look at this:
The Sad Book strikes me as the best possible showcase for Quentin Blake’s work. His illustrations here manage to balance comedy, tragedy and horror, often times all on a single page, capturing the complexity of the feelings that Rosen describes. Also, if I were an artist I could probably explain this better, but the way he captures light and shadow breaks my heart a little bit.
So that’s my pitch. I think that you should read Michael Rosen’s Sad Book.
Just to offer an alternate perspective, Kellie, my partner, hates the Sad Book. She thinks it’s too sad.
I was thrilled to come across this story the other day. (It’s almost as good as this one about the American student getting stuck inside a vagina sculpture in Germany.) To sum it up, a mother was nursing her 5-month-old baby at a Starbucks in Ottowa, when a fifty-year-old woman walked up to the counter to complain, referring to the action as “disgusting.” The barista, reportedly a teenage male, reassured the complainer that he’d handle it. He then proceeded to offer the nursing mom a free drink along with one of those sweet Starbucks vouchers for another free drink upon her next visit. To top it off, he apologized for the complainer’s poor behavior.
Win, win, win!
There is a lot to learn here, but I’ve got a couple of takeaways:
1. Supporting breastfeeding moms is good PR. I’m serious. You know that international breastfeeding symbol, the one that businesses can put in their window to let women know that it’s a breastfeeding-safe zone ?
When I was a first-time mom toting a newborn around, navigating a brand new world and unsure of what reactions I’d get to my discreet but public nursing, these stickers reassured me that someone had my back. Of course these stickers might not have prevented anyone from harassing me as I ate breakfast with my right hand and cradled my baby’s head with my left, but they at least reassured me that the employees wouldn’t kick me out or demand that I cover up.* Stump is old enough now that I rarely nurse in public, but for the rest of my life I imagine I’ll see these stickers as a kind of endorsement, a sign that this business respects women and shares some of my fundamental values.
In the end, Starbucks got some decent press around this incident. The original Facebook post that featured this story has already collected 27,508 likes and 1,759 shares. Lactivists are loyal customers. Trust me, you want them with you, not against you.
2. Don’t hate the asshole; love the underdog. Who is this awesome teen barista, and how did he get so wise? If I had stood behind the complainer in line, I would have turned red in the face and called her out. In our North American culture, I see breasts featured everywhere all the time to sell things like beer and shoes and video games, but somehow when they’re used to feed an infant they’re suddenly “disgusting”?
But our barista, in a flash, knew that there was nothing to be gained from engaging with this woman directly. He focused his energy on giving a mom and her baby the compassion they needed. And that, I’m learning, is what nursing advocacy should be all about.
*As a first-time mom, I did buy a hooter hider and used it occasionally for the first month or two, but in the end, there are some reasons why covering up doesn’t work for me and many of the other moms I know.
a. My nipple is bare for less than a second. I’ve never caught anyone looking at it. Apparently, the vast majority of people have the discretion to look away.
b. It’s a nipple. So what?
c. I actually kind of need to see what’s going on down there.
d. It seems kind of weird to hide your baby under a piece of fabric.
I moved forward in the TSA line with caution, confused because the rules had changed since the last time I traveled. At the back of the line, a friendly officer had given us the lowdown: You can keep your shoes on unless you think they will set off the metal detector. If you have a belt, you might want to remove it.
I paused just before I reached the conveyor belt. I had a laptop to unpack from my carry-on, but there were none of the usual plastic bins. The officer manning the x-ray stood there waiting for me. “Just leave your laptop in there,” he said. He was gruff.
He hung onto a mid-sized plastic bowl for jewelry. I looked at it. “I have a belt,” I told him. “Good for you,” he answered. My throat made a tiny noise of hesitation. “Let me see it,” he said, throwing me a bone. Flustered, I raised my shirt.
Just above my belt sits my pouch of a belly, totally white and totally stretched out, like a deflated balloon. I could see it. He could see it. I had raised my shirt too high. I took off my belt and placed it in the bowl, avoiding eye contact.
On the other side of the metal detector, I looked at no one as I gathered my suitcase and my carry-on. The belt came through last. As I strung it through the loops, I tracked all the other bodies in my vicinity, careful this time not to lift my shirt too high.
Once I put myself back together–my bag strapped across my shoulder, my suitcase rolling behind me–I had a small revelation: that wasn’t my fault. I noted that my automatic reaction was to assume that somehow “I have a belt,” was an incredibly stupid thing to say, that my choice of words had plunged me into an unavoidable sequence of shaming events, and I was being punished by someone far smarter than me.
But he was just a snarky TSA guy trying to make his job more interesting. He would have found a way to tease me no matter what I said. And if my flash of belly embarrassed him, then good.
When people learn that we keep bees, they think we’re in it for the honey.
That may have once been our intention–a pantry filled with honey jars–but so far we’ve only harvested enough to sweeten the occasional pot of tea. As you know, the bees are fragile these days, weakened by pesticides, nosema, climate change, and so we let them keep their honey; when there’s extra, we share with weaker hives, hoping they might make it through the winter. Honey is sweet, it’s true, but we’ve learned the bees have other things to offer.
When I was a child, insects existed for squashing, for running away from in fear, or for burning with the white-hot eye of a magnifying glass. I never learned to distinguish the bumble from the hornet. As far as I was concerned, bees were mean, and honey came from the store.
But Smoke, my five-year-old son, knows bees. On sunny days, he says excitedly: The honeybees are out! He knows to inspect their legs for pollen, and that busy bees are good news. Today was one of our first sunny spring days, and I watched him approach the hive, carefully, and drop a rock in their water tray so that they would have a place to rest as they drank. When he finds a dead bee on the ground, he picks it up and holds it tenderly.
These bees have made their mark on me too, have helped me to appreciate the beauty of spring in a newly functional way: flowers are food. In our yard, plum and cherry blossoms seduce our bees and we witness them drinking nectar, gathering pollen, helping to ensure that my family will eat fruit from our own yard this summer. With the bees’ help, there will even be a surplus, and I will remember them as I preserve the plums and berries, storing away sweetness for the winter months.
And I’ve come to respect the bees for their inherent selflessness. The bee does not live for the bee. The bee lives for the colony. They don’t share our self-absorption, don’t fret over how to spend their limited days, over how to balance family time and me-time. They serve. That’s all.
When I travel now, I look for honeybees, and am surprised and relieved when I find them. Seeing a bee perched on a lavender plant in Waltham, Massachusetts, or on an ocotillo in Phoenix, Arizona tells me: this place has been bee-approved. Wherever you smell the thick scent of wax and heat, nectar and propolis, you are home.
As it turns out, honey is a minor perk compared to the gifts the bees have delivered to my world: their steady hum, their motion, their treatment of beauty as a purpose, not to conquer, but take and give at once.