I challenge their assumption that the person riding the motorcycle is male. I consider that all of this is working when Jo and I have an exchange about a silver Toyota passing us on the freeway.
Me: He’s driving waaay too fast!
Jo: Or she!!!
And so it has been that raising my children has made me ever more aware of patriarchy, of sexism, of the million ways that He and Him and His is the universal default for every person or creature seen in the world or shown in a story.
And so it has been that I’ve had the idea to make this for almost exactly 7 years, and finally spent the 10 minutes it took this afternoon.
Not only will you be saved from having to remember to change pronouns on every page, your child will soon set the perfect stage for a conversation about unfairness and and feminism when she asks you why you changed the words in so many of her picture books.
I know I’m not being my typical self because when I think about Jo picking up the piece of red sour ribbon candy off the sidewalk, I feel a rush of delight.
He held it up and asked if he could have it. There was hope in his eyes because sometimes I let him eat things off of the ground or the sidewalk, because maybe it will build his immunity. But this particular thing, this ribbon dipped in sour sugar, it was all alone, just soaking up whatever terrible things might have passed by, and I didn’t want Jo to eat it.
So I told him – with my warm but firm tone that I’m working on – that he could not have the candy. I told him that sometimes grown ups put drugs in candy. I internally cringed when I heard this justification come out of my mouth, but 7-year-olds like really good reasons, and I was grasping to give him one.
He stomped his foot and screamed his tight, high-pitched way that basically means, you’re the worst mom I’ve ever had. It also means, “I might do something really fucked up right now that will publicly embarrass and potentially injure you or something nearby.”
Instead of steeling up and getting harder, the way most humans do when they feel the threat of imminent danger, I said something like, “I know it really sucks that you can’t have it. I’m sorry.”
He screamed again, and gave me his death-y-est death glare, and tightened his fist around the candy. I just looked at him – with that warm but firm look I’m working on. Then I kept on looking.
And then he let out this deeper roar and flung that piece of candy as far away as he could. It soared in a floppy red arc right onto the roof of the apartments next to us. Then Jo hopped back on his scooter, and I walked behind him, imagining how good it felt to throw that candy into oblivion, where no one could ever have it, ever.
The whole red ribbon candy story could have turned out differently. I could have gone all steely disciplinarian, like I tend to, and then Jo would have gotten angrier, and thrown the candy at me, or kicked my leg or something. And then I would have yelled some horrible thing at him because I was so mad about what a horrible kid he was being. Imagine a little Tasmanian devil tornado of horrible sucking both of us right up.
But the tornado did not happen, and we got to keep walking down the sidewalk, towards home, and after that, towards more sidewalks with their abandoned candies, towards more chances to break each other or not.
Thank you to Miranda July, whose writing in this book and this book inspired my writing here.
A couple weeks ago, I was doing what I usually do on a Monday morning: sitting in a room full of upholstered chairs with other allergy sufferers, applying ice packs to my arms while waiting the mandatory 30 minutes after getting my allergy shots. I often bring a book to read, but this time I was huddled over my phone, getting all teary-eyed over a text AJ had sent:
I’m gonna let our wack-a-doo nickname slide for now and cut to the chase. For me, there is no more sublime feeling than AJ’s empathetic response when I finally break down and tell him that I’m depressed. Is there any larger comfort than this: to have a person you love respond with caring and softness when you admit to them that you’re struggling with the feeling you hate the most in the whole world? (No, I don’t think there is.)
I’ve admitted depression to AJ a handful of times over the course of our relationship, and this time, like all the others, it fell out of my mouth like defeat. If I’m telling him, it means it’s true. And I never want it to be true. Despite the fact that I know depression well, I will still run and hide when I feel it again, like a child convinced that if she can’t see it, it isn’t there.
For most of January and February and March of this year, I felt it nibbling around the edges, but I’d try to rationalize it away. It was just the rain, the winter, the Trump presidency, my lack of creative inspiration. Finally, though, I blurted it out to Aaron while he stirred something at the stove and I cried a little bit, and then we got distracted by something and it was over. Until I checked my text messages in the allergy clinic waiting room.
The ice was numbing the dull pain in my arm, and I sat there soaking in the relief that comes when someone you love really sees you. As I blinked through tears and started to text him back, a soft wheeze caught in my throat and made me cough. Oh, the familiar rasp of asthma. It intensified even after I dosed up on my inhaler. My throat started to thicken and itch. My nose congested. My face felt unbearably hot. All this in the space of a minute.
I walked into the nurses’ room and told the first one I saw that I was wheezing quite a bit. She calmly said, “Let’s find a room for you.” By her tone, I expected to wait.
I no sooner entered the room that a blood pressure cuff was slapped on my arm and a pulse/blood oxygen thing on my finger. In the next moment, the doctor walked in, and after I listed off all my symptoms, she asked me to please take off my pants and get on the table. She requested .5 somethings of Epinepherine and the nurse’s eyes widened. She had .3 waiting in the syringe already, and dove it back in to suck up another .2 before injecting it into the meaty part of my left thigh.
After I put my pants back on, I was presented with a tray full of little plastic ups with various pills and potions, all of which I sucked down. I then proceeded to “feel like I had drunk 10-15 cups of coffee” just as the doctor explained I would, and the nurse kept me company and took my blood pressure and pulse every 5 minutes.
“When you walked up to me, your face and neck were completely red,” she said. “Some people get really blotchy when they go into anaphylactic shock, and some people get flushed like you did.”
The doctor came back, and ordered another shot of Epinepherine for my virgin thigh, since she wasn’t pleased with my continued wheezing. Once I was re-pantsed, and the nurse deemed me stable enough to leave alone for 10 minutes, I sat in my chair, uncontrollably shaking on my now 20-30 cups of coffee, and checked out the anatomical ear, nose and throat poster next to me. It turns out that the laryngoscopic view of a larynx looks pretty vaginal.
As I sat there, wired as a Christmas tree next to the vaginal larynx poster, I couldn’t help but compare the satisfaction of this medical experience to the deep uncertainty of my own depression.
Thirty minutes ago, I had some physical symptoms for a single minute, walked a few feet and told a nurse about it, and was whisked into a room where I was given all of the help I needed, immediately.
For the last few months (and on and off my whole life) I’ve been struggling to understand, talk about and address my bouts with depression.
Even though it has come and gone dozens of times since my first real depressive winter as a 13 year old, I still feel like I barely know it at all. And it’s hard to talk to other people about something you hardly understand. It comes and goes mysteriously, a shape-shifter, each time with a slightly different texture, weight and character. The closest I’d come to explaining it with a friend recently, when he’d asked me how I was doing, was to admit, “Somewhere between fine and mentally ill.”
And after admitting depression, you rarely get whisked away to a room for effective and immediate treatment. More commonly, people get uncomfortable, nervous, or offer unhelpful advice. So you learn again and again that depression is something that scares people, and you have a short list of confidants—often others who experience it too.
The two times I have sought medical help for it, I was prescribed Zoloft by my OB. It worked a treat the first time, but she never followed up with me about how and when to decrease and come off my dose, so I figured that out alone. The second time, she referred me to a psychiatrist for the anxiety side effects I was experiencing. Riddled with depression, anxiety, a baby and 3-year-old, I called all 5 numbers on the referrals list she emailed me—3 were out of practice and the other 2 had no availability.
I must have called 30 different psychiatrists that I found online before I found one who could see me and took insurance. Once I finally sat in her office, she asked all the right questions and adjusted my dose so that both the anxiety and depression lifted. It was a hard won victory.
Hardly the direct simplicity of my bout with anaphylaxis.
The nurse at the allergy clinic said I could leave once the epinephrine had worn off, as long as none of my symptoms returned. So less than an hour later, I walked out of the old vagina larynx room, and away from the fastest and most effective and satisfying medical treatment of my life. I drove home, breathing easily through my open lungs, that dull, familiar pull of depression in the background, and AJ’s text still unanswered.
Watching your kid hit, kick, bite, headbutt, hair-pull, or in any way hurt another person is pretty much the worst.
Even worse than the worst: when your kid keeps doing all that crap for months, years even, despite doing every damn thing you can think of to get it to stop.
This was my kid, Jo. He dabbled in some hitting and kicking when he was 2. And as a 3- and 4-year-old, he developed a diverse and relentless repertoire of aggressions. Imagine spontaneous and seemingly unmotivated bursts of pre-school-sized cage fighting.
It drove me straight to My Wit’s End and left me there for a long, long time.
Jo is now 7. He’s a smart, emotional, kind, fiery, empathetic child. Truth be told, he still sometimes lashes out, mostly at his little brother or when he feels some deep injustice. But the Jo of today is Nothing like the psychopath I had imagined was in our future 3 years ago. That nightmare time of his 3rd and 4th year is OVER. Jo’s transformation is a miracle to me.
How did we get here?
I’ll tell you.
I kept him alive so his brain could develop.
I tried really, really hard (sometimes successfully!) not to shame him.
And I ranted and raved to a select a few friends who would listen without judging or giving me advice.
That’s pretty much it.
I know that’s not the miracle fix you want. Because going through this is hell, and when it’s happening, you just want to make it stop, instantly and forever.
I know this desperation because I’ve been there, imagined the worst, tried a million things, read more advice books than I ever should (this was the best one), and cried on countless shoulders.
I wish, back then, someone had sat me down on a soft chair in a warm room, wrapped a blanket around my shoulders, and told me these things:
The hitting, kicking, biting, or whatever means literally nothing about who your child is as a person or who she is going to become.
It also has nothing to do with how good of a parent you are. I repeat: nothing.
Your kiddo is quite literally exploring a world of cause and effect “What will that kid do when I bang my hand on his shoulder like this?” He is also exploring ways to say “no” or “NO!!!!” or “I don’t like you.” He will learn other ways.
Don’t take on the shame that other people rain down upon you and your kid. You’re both doing your effing best.
Focus your energy on keeping people safe. In the meantime, her brain will continue developing into a brain that makes more socially acceptable choices. Really. It will.
Make sure you’re clear with him that you cannot and won’t let him hurt other kids.
Keep loving her and letting her know with your energy in those biting-hitting-kicking-hurting moments that you know she’s a good kid who doesn’t want to hurt other kids. (She may want the shovel now, or she may want that kid to give her some space, or she may be curious what happens when she bites his foot, but her primary goal is not to hurt other kids.)
Vent to a select few who don’t judge but just listen about how horrible this all makes you feel. This is crucial, since there is no end to the humiliation and shaming and judgement that we parents of hitter-biter-kicker-hurters carry around. Venting let me offload all my horrible scary feelings, and I would emerge lighter and a little more ready for the next brawl.
Circle back around and read #5 again. Good old fashioned brain development is on your side.
I’ve been there, and it was awful. My son is older now and barely ever does that stuff any more. He is a delight. And your kid is too.
It’s been a long time. I’ve gotten out of the habit of writing here, and my overall happiness factor has suffered as a result. This is a time when my overall happiness factor needs bolstering, given the doldrums of winter and staring daily into the belly of the beast of our current president. It’s hard at times like these to remember that somewhere, beneath the surface, is creativity and life and hope.
This has been a really tricky time for me. Feeling seasonally depressed, creatively deflated, politically afraid and disoriented. Not to mention the fact that the two glorious humans I co-created are growing ever bigger and more complex by the day.
Cal has hit the peak of 3-and-a-half-ness. Oh sweet heaven above. This is a challenging age.
Lucky for me, a teacher of mine, from way back when Jo was an erratic, tantrumy 3 and 4 year old, gave a talk at our preschool. She reminded me of some stuff I knew once. Like how little kid brains are constantly trying to make sure they’re connected to our adult brains, and how when they’re feeling not connected or overwhelmed, their brains can freak out in the form of a tantrum. And during the tantrum, it’s the opposite of helpful to enforce or discuss rules, since their brains have gone all reptilian and they can’t even access the reasoning part of their brain anyway. She also reminded me of this: if a kid is headed towards a tantrum, the best long term choice for all involved is to walk straight into it with them. I know this goes against every natural human instinct in the book, especially when you’re Just So Sick of that whiny, little 3-year-old voice. But I’ve been trying that thing I used to do–the equivalent of walking straight into a hurricane–and it effing works.
I actually just read my own blog post that I wrote 2 and a half years ago as a tutorial. It’s both a shock and an embarrassment to find that not only did I have some pretty refined strategies for how to handle tantrums once, I actually wrote a step-by-step guide about it. Fast forward a couple years, and that same grounded parent and writer is at her wits end with this little person, with scarcely a clue for how to cope.
Well, thanks internet, for preserving a former version of myself who knew what she was doing. There I was, beneath the years, like a bulb sleeping under the frozen ground. Just waiting to be remembered.
Well everyone, I’m on the move today. My sister and I are perched at the airport, bound for DC.
Just after the election, she said, “I would be honored if you would go to the Women’s March with me.” And this is my older sister, who I will forever try to be as cool as, whose love and approval makes me blossom like a tender spring flower. So I instantly said yes, of course, and here we are.
I’ll try to put some updates on Instagram if you crave to know what we’re up to.
To respect and equality for all people everywhere.
On New Years Day, I sat in the hard shell of a chair at the laundromat. I alternately felt fine and so broken that I wondered if any of the other launderers could tell. Did they see how my insides trembled as I struggled to get the washing machine handle to lock? Finally, the metal latch clacked into place, and my wavering insides smoothed down a little.
As the extra capacity washer swooshed our soapy rug around and around, I wondered if this could be considered a nervous breakdown.
For lots of us, the holidays represent a kind of emotional crescendo–family who we usually don’t see swoop into our lives, there’s all this uninterrupted time with our own kids, our partners. We’re suddenly unconstrained by the repetition of work and school schedules.
In this soupy December mix of people and time, two things rose to the surface again and again, not unlike the soapy rug, falling, rising, falling.
I feel like an outsider in my house. AJ and Jo and Cal all seem to have an emotional shorthand, a way they just get each other. I’m not in that club. I don’t love wrestling with flailing limbs or kicking balls hard and fast or watching sports. I like to walk unflinching and straight into emotional conversations, for example. I’m not great at having big talks all sideways, where you’re not making eye contact and also playing basketball. These are just a few of the things.
I get triggered as hell when my kids hit each other. Especially when Jo hits Cal. And then I start buying into this story I have about how they are bad kids, and I am a failed mother. It’s a real horror show.
After a good-old fashioned holiday break, getting wholloped by the old 1. and 2. again and again, I kinda lost it one day after Cal did some hitting and screaming at a new friend’s house. While the mother mercifully told me that it was all developmentally appropriate, I collapsed on the inside.
Fear reached back to that trickiest time when Jo was 3. Then it sloshed forward and swept over me. Falling, rising, falling. All the hitting and kicking. Crying and screaming. Friends leaving. Nasty looks and words from strangers. Shame is a powerful currency, and it was generously paid out to me during that time.
After Cal’s ill-fated playdate, I sent a distress signal to AJ, and by the time he got home, the most basic tasks felt mysterious and overwhelming. I could feel the rules that hold things together slipping away, my grasp on what to do next, how to do the tasks that need doing.
Days later, after the rules slid back into place back again, I kept finding things in weird places–my coat hung up with my shirts in the closet instead of on the hook by the door, playdough in the kitchen cabinet with the peanut butter.
My friend Clio told me that she thought it sounded like PTSD. The validation of that diagnosis helped. Motherhood can be a traumatic event.
From my broken open, PTSD place, the 1. and the 2. demanded my attention.
As for #1: AJ, Jo, and Cal and their shared interests and maleness have a very strong gravitational pull. I’ve been orbiting around them more often than exerting my own gravity. So in the past few days I’ve been building up the bulk of my own planet.
Instead of the typical pillow fight, wrestle fest after dinner, I set up watercolors, because I like to paint. I’ve always told myself the story that my sons don’t like art, and just make a mess, so its not worth the trouble. I was wrong.
I’m also discovering the subtle hues of what works for me in terms of physical play with my boys. I hate flailing limbs, fast smacks, big crashes near my body. But I like close, squeezey wrestling and laying on my back with Cal airplane style balancing on my feet. So it’s not that I only want to sit and do arts and crafts. But if I’m gonna hang with my boys and their physical play, I need fewer flailing limbs, damnit.
As for the #2: I wrote a sign that says “Jo and Cal are good and capable,” because it is exactly this point on which I falter when they are slugging it out. When I can step between them and stop the hitting from this place, this knowing of their goodness and capability, I stay much more solid and clear instead of turning into a shame monster.
I want to be careful not to write this like a problem solved, because it’s not. Like all problems, there’s a rise and a fall. A circling. But I am moving forward in solid ways. My coat is hanging on its hook, the play dough in its smudged plastic tub. And I’m settling into what it feels like to exert my own gravity. I’m a planet of my own.
My parents are conservative Christians who voted for Donald Trump. My brother-in-law is a Sudanese Muslim immigrant who voted Hilary. My sister and I are liberal feminists. Despite the fact that just about every political fault line runs through our small family, we chose to be together this Christmas, and we’ve been talking politics.
Any other time in my life, I would have run screaming from a political conversation with my family. We’ve shied away from triggering topics for years, initially because my sister and I grew away from our conservative, Christian upbringing and more recently, since my sister’s interracial, inter-religious marriage. We all spent 2 weeks in Khartoum for her wedding, and despite our worries that my father might simply drop dead of fear and anxiety, the trip was a smashing success. My parents returned home to their small Southwest town with the glow and enthusiasm of the recently converted.
Our family dynamic is held together by keeping things light, by avoiding the murky waters of political disagreement. So when I checked my phone the morning after the election, I was surprised to see that my Mom had sent a text to all of us.
This exchange started the first conversation we’d all had about the election, ever, and it was so not awful that we agreed to follow up later with a video call.
As the time for the call approached, I wondered how we’d manage to broach the subject again, but the mission was clear from our sober hellos.
“I hardly told anyone who I was voting for,” my mom admitted. She knew full well the shaming she’d receive in her town full of Hillary signs, so she kept her mouth shut.
She hadn’t liked many things Trump said during the campaign, and disagreed with some of his ideas, but her concern for the national debt and economy ultimately sided her with him. We all let that sink in. My sister and I had been hoping that maybe my mom hadn’t voted Trump, since she once mentioned not wanting to vote for either candidate.
Through tears, my sister asked my mom if she remembered a day from our childhood when we were playing in our driveway and some boys biked by and taunted us. We ran inside, crying and scared. Mom packed us immediately into the car, and drove up the street, fuming. As she towered over those boys, booming grown up words about how wrong they’d been, we felt valuable, protected, safe.
My sister continued, “This feels like the opposite of that. A betrayal. You had a chance to protect our family, and you chose not to.”
I saw those words hit my mother. It hurts to remember her soft, sad face as she apologized. She hadn’t thought that the safety of her daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter were at stake in this election. My dad reassured us that congress would keep Trump in check, that law enforcement would keep people safe.
“I hope you’re right,” was my brother-in-law’s solemn reply.
My dad was concerned. “Has anything happened? Have you been mistreated since the election?” Though my sister’s family has not yet been the target of a post-election hate crime, she explained their fear. She said her family is mistreated in little ways all the time.
“What little ways?” Dad asked.
My sister explained how people will yell “Go home!” out their car windows at her mother-in-law who covers her head. How my sister was the one to fill out rental applications during their apartment search, since landlords often don’t reply when they see her husband’s Sudanese name.
My parents were shocked. They had no idea that my brother-in-law and his family are often targets of racism and Islamophobia.
They’ve been slowly absorbing those facts and have been asking my sister and I what they can do to help. They’ve been Facetiming my brother-in-law’s parents in Phoenix to see how they’re doing. And we’re continuing, tentatively, to explore this vast new terrain of political discussion.
It’s been isolating to feel this upsurgence of family closeness in the wake of an election that demonstrates how bitterly divided we are as a country. As my friends gather in corners at work to shake their heads and muse about what Republicans could possibly be thinking, I wince, because they’re looking down their noses at my people. I may not agree with their vote, but they are still my people, and we are doing the vulnerable and difficult work of trying to understand each other.
All those years, by keeping things light, we were trying to protect our ties from weakening. But we’re starting to see that there’s enough love and trust between us to make the risks of knowing each other worthwhile.
This week, I inflated the air mattress and picked my parents up from the airport. As always, their eyes twinkled at the sight of me. They scooped my two sons into their arms, and we tumbled into the easy grace of family who have long loved each other.
We still disagree. There are still sharp frustrations and betrayals among us. My sister and her family are still upset and scared, and I’m afraid for them and the fate of our country. My dad continues to reassure us of his confidence in the system, and my mom is pensive, and reaching out more often to my sister. And for the first time, I feel safe talking to my parents about who I am and what I think, and I’m curious to learn more about who they are.
It turns out that we don’t know each other as well as we thought. Ours is not a family of of deplorables or elitists, immoral bleeding hearts or extremist idiots. And I’d venture to guess that yours isn’t either.
I tore through the first few chapters while trying to help AJ build a new fence for our chickens, a bit of multitasking that did not end well. Not surprisingly, non-fiction reading and power drills do not go hand-in-hand.
In part, I was rapt by the book because I know its author. Ruth reads this blog, and occasionally we get into spirited debates about the direction that feminism is taking or whether Eckhart Tolle is a ray of sunshine or a total sham.
So naturally, I read the book with a mind to the good-natured disagreement that she and I would get to have about what she’d written.
In the first few chapters, she criticized several ways I’ve pursued greater happiness and self-improvement over the years. On the topic of Landmark Education, in particular, I found myself mentally defending what I’d found helpful about it, even though I usually bash the rabid evangelistic tone of Landmark in other company.
There’s also a highly provocative chapter on parenting that will be sure to crack you up or leave you bristling depending on your views on attachment parenting.
Ruth is British, and that remove gives her a unique and dispassionate view of our American obsession with happiness. Her observations are shrewd, well researched and cut to the quick. As much as I feel the pull to educate Ruth on the finer points of mindfulness and why it’s not just another attempt to bypass reality and head straight for Happiness-ville USA, I want to focus here on the brilliance of her overall argument and how she changed my mind.
It was her chapter on positive psychology that really slayed me. She lays out how the positive psychology movement is funded almost entirely by some rich guy with a right wing agenda. It turns out that certain folks with lots of money think it’s a good political strategy to convince people that their happiness has more to do with their mental attitude than the circumstances of their lives. In other words, if we are good students of positive psychology, then our happiness or lack thereof is our own damn fault, and has little to do with structural causes like access to education or a decent-paying job or healthcare or a safe neighborhood.
Thank you for writing this smart, funny, thought-provoking book, Ruth. I now agree with you that various strategies for self-improvement can distract us from the most significant structural causes of unhappiness. No matter how much I learn to boost my confidence as a woman or think positive, the fact is that I live in a country that has created structures that make it harder for me to be happy. So I’m re-focussing my energy on efforts to topple those damn structures. I’m talking to you, America, and your parental leave policies and lack of affordable childcare that rank us among the worst in the world.
As an American with an inclination towards self-improvement, this is an uncomfortable book to read. But it’s that productive kind of discomfort, like a long, hard look in the mirror. You’ll walk away from this book humbled, sober, and a bit more awake.
Perhaps you remember my rant-of-a-post last year about gratitude, and those little clementine oranges I drew on with a sharpie to drive the point home.
Well, I’m still sick and tired of gratitude, and how it’s routinely prescribed as a way to avoid tricky, socially-unacceptable feelings. And I know lots of you are over it too. Well, I have good news. We are not alone!
Woa! Look at me now—feeling gratitude spontaneously, as nature intended.
I am so damn grateful that I am An Honest Mom in the company of so damn many Honest Yous.
May we boldly move through the world feeling our feelings even if they’re painful or embarrassing. And may we have the courage to share the messy details of our lives, since that will make more room for all of us to be whole.