#ABoyCanToo and the #MeToo Crisis of Our Day

Driving to pick up my son from school one day last winter, I was listening to a news program on NRP discussing the Trump administration’s reversal of a law protecting trans-gendered men and women from using the bathroom appropriate to the sex with which they identify. That same day, I came across the photo below, and I thought to myself, ‘How wonderful.’

I can’t tell you how many times I have seen similar photos of girls. It seems to be the norm for our society to encourage girls to be as tough or tougher than any boy on the playground. But I rarely see photos like this one above, encouraging boys to be girlish if they want to be.

As I write the word “girlish,” I recognize, too, our society needs new terms for such behavior. To be openly accepting of those who don’t necessarily fit a typical mold of male or female.

And yet, research tells us that as early as preschool, boys and girls alike need to identify with their sex. Their role as girl or boy is necessary to comprehend their place in the larger scheme of things. If you have ever raised a small child, then you understand well that gender stereotypes do indeed come from somewhere.

I promise I never encouraged my son to love trucks or to go nuts over superheroes. He just did. Those desires were in there, waiting for the moment to manifest. Like he had an internal Jarvis just waiting to detect a picture of Spiderman. Assessing photo…..hero identified……activating love of superheroes……Now! Transformation complete. While mom sat idly by in wonder and awe.

Here we are, however, in the current era of #MeToo, and it’s becoming clearer that our society has a real problem. I am not saying the issue is superheroes, mind you, for research explains a small child’s need for such feelings of power and control. They virtually have none, so the instinct to attach oneself to a symbol of power is natural and necessary – and for whatever reason, often a stronger internal desire for boys.

Yet as a mother, I grapple with how to raise a son who is everything he is supposed to be – not too rough, not so energetic that he scares away houseguests, not too bold or outspoken, not too this, not too that. He is supposed to be sensitive as well, but not so sensitive that he gets teased by others. And if you don’t have a son, let me tell you that very young boys start hearing the term “cry baby” from their peers. So even if you are doing your best to raise a tender boy, he will learn from others he is supposed to toughen up and be a man.

In some ways, I am on board with the natural process of boys raising boys to be resilient. My son has learned from his peers to stand up for himself and to not be pushed around. He has learned to be dominant when the moment calls, when other boys are on “his territory” for instance. “This is my house, so I get to make the rules.” “That’s my gun, so I get to use it.” No one can really argue with these declarations. Even boys twice his age seem to abide by this logic. As a result, some sort of respect is gained each time I see him or his friends standing up to announce they are king of the mountain.

In fact, I am pretty sure my son is helping to protect himself from potential bullies by exerting his own power.

And yet, and yet, and yet, exerting power has limits, as we all understand. In a recent visit with one of Asher’s girl friends, she was not willing to play as rough-and-tumble as he wanted, and so she bit his arm. When we spoke of this event in the aftermath, he was visibly stunned. He had no idea that his behavior wasn’t OK with her, that whatever line he crossed had been drawn between them.

Naturally, this led to a discussion about limits and girls and how we don’t get to treat girls the same way unless we have their consent. Unless we know they are on board. And the whole tangled web of gender differences ensues.

In order to teach boundaries, it seems there must be an understanding of what consent means. And it’s a type of consent that isn’t needed with any of the boys Asher plays with. They speak a physical, unspoken language that they learn from one another, as tangible to them as it is intangible to me, a woman who was once a girl.

Navigating our way through gender stereotyping isn’t as easy as it seems in the photo above, as much as I admire the idealism, as much as I want my boy to feel OK with being sensitive and nurturing. He is both of these things in fact, but he is also very much “a boy” who needs to understand that girls are in fact not the same, that girls don’t speak the same language.

Maybe we can help our children be more aware of the differences and to be OK with them. Maybe this is the key to helping solve the #MeToo crisis of our day.

 

 

 

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Every Sunday

Since September, I have had been spending Sundays with my son. We are often alone, hanging out in the house or running errands together. He is nearing seven and a half, and I am finding that he’s maturing into an actual person right now, as in a person I want to spend time with, one who can be patient with my need to do work, one who can disappear into his corner of the house for a while and can even toast a waffle for himself without waking up either of his parents. This kid is learning to navigate his tiny universe without needing mom and dad each moment – and often preferring not to have us around 24/7.

He is reading like a madman, too, devouring chapter books with such titles as I Survived the Sinking of the Titanic, I Survived Pearl Harbor, I Survived a Grizzly Bear Encounter, and you see where I am going. He even has a genre.

Tonight, while reading about the bear encounter, he read each small “shk” of the rattlesnake’s rattling sound. He’s in it to win it. Fully committed to the entire experience. Picture, if you will for a moment, a small finger running beneath each “shk.”

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This is one thing I love so much about him.

When he is not reading someone’s survival story, he’s reading a graphic novel of Poe’s greatest hits, such as “The Raven” and “The Telltale Heart.” He eats up anything slightly horrifying or gruesome, especially if blood and ghosts are involved. My husband and I question if he will be the next Stephen King (or possibly Indiana Jones if going with the survival stuff).

Today, he read me some Poe and then we did some Mad Libs. We’re sort of becoming buds. I mean, we were always buds, but our time together feels more like time together, existing in the same space, having exchanges about why dad and I don’t eat sugar or that being sick means mom needs another hour on the couch. “I know,” he says about me feeling ill. “I understand, mom.” and then his mind takes him wandering into the piano room to look for something.

And when I mentioned disapproval about my mom’s dear friend missing Thanksgiving with us this year, he says, “Well, at least you have me, Mom. I’ll be there.”

I’ll be there, too, sweet boy. Carve me in for every Sunday from now until eternity.

 

 

Feeling a little like Anne Lamott with this title, but…Life Goes On. Eventually.

I can remember so vividly the experience of Daylight Savings Time my junior year of college. It was a bundle-up kind of night with leaves churning in the brisk breeze down the Wilmington city streets, my friends and I squeezed into the four-seater tables that ran along the wall of the underground tavern. The dim lights and stone walls adding to the chilling effect of early November. A bell rang at midnight as the bartender announced we had gained an hour. Cheers went out through the room. Fellow students, friends, and strangers clinking glasses in hurrah.

Daylight Savings used to mean an extra hour to work on the inevitable hangover I had coming later that morning. An extra hour to listen to Beck, Pavement, and Johnny Cash on the jukebox. One more hour to spread apart the enormous questions of the universe, like children with playdough. Life was a sandbox. And we had one more magical hour of playtime, for seemingly no reason at all.

These days, life feels like anything but play. As my husband and I drove down Route 70 yesterday morning, I told him I felt like I was living in a sci-fi novel. That I couldn’t believe the world we lived in. I asked him, “Did you ever think to yourself, This is the world we waited for when we were young? This is the world we dreamt of living in?” The world we picked apart at 2 a.m. while drinking Guinness inside a glorified cellar.

It’s a crazy time, reader. Isn’t it? Even talking about the craziness seems too weighty; my fingers feel tired moving across the keyboard to write this. As I wrote in my last post about being “stuck,” we are caught on tree limbs unable to drift downstream toward that beautiful waterfall we know awaits us.

Sometimes, it’s that waterfall we have to focus on, though. It’s true. We have to hold it in our mind’s eye and carry on as best we can. I’ve been telling my students who show up to an 8:00 a.m. class four mornings a week, students who sit five feet in front of me and bury their noses in their iPhones and notebooks, hoping not to be called on, that sometimes you have to pretend to be interested in something before you can become interested. They hate reading, you see, and they hate taking notes on what they read even more, so I keep asking them to pretend to like it. I am not sure where this crazy, half-baked idea came from, but it seems to be helping lift the mood in any case. I can even say it brings them more into the moment, which is all I can ask for.

But I think there is some real truth to this idea of “pretending” to feel enjoyment until you do.

Let’s face it. There are all kinds of tasks we don’t enjoy, all sorts of uncomfortable scenarios and excruciating circumstances we must live through because there is no fast-forward button. We have no choice. We are stuck where we are. In that classroom. With that president. Living with a challenging relationship or a sick relative. Whatever the case may be, we are in it. So we may as well embrace where we are.

For me, this might mean repeating daily mantras; it might mean popping in Johnny Cash or Prince or Ani Difranco (whatever gets you in the groove). It might mean going to bed early and completing my lesson plan the next morning, even if I have to be up at 5:30 a.m.

It means acting like I enjoy what I am doing every day, even when I am uncomfortable in certain classrooms. In fact, when I start pretending I am having fun, I often do have fun. And if nothing else, I remember to relax, that the waterfall downstream awaits. And in fact, there are even beautiful things about discomfort (which we can get into another time.)

The fact is, we don’t have to make the tough spots even tougher by resenting them. They aren’t there to harm us or because we are worthy of punishment (probably). They are there, and that is all. Life goes on. Eventually. I can hear the waterfall, can you?

 

 

 

 

Stuck

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It’s a sticky October morning on a day determined to reach the mid-80’s again. I am in the house alone before 9:00 a.m., a rarity, as I am usually teaching.

My husband is the one who typically gets my son off to school in the mornings since I am out the door before anyone is awake. But he is up in New York for a couple of days with his parents. His father is fighting cancer and continues to bounce back from major surgeries like he’s the Italian Stallion, aka Rocky Balboa. He just keeps getting up from those punches. God bless him.

I loved getting to spend those precious, early-morning minutes with my boy, those moments when he comes into the master bedroom to deliver his first thoughts of the day. And I have been missing them a lot this fall. He is usually toting blankie and his favorite one or two stuffed animals of the week. Currently, blankie’s two companions are a deflating, glue-shaped balloon, affectionately named Elmer, and a plastic, pink pig (Piggy) obtained from our weekend visit to a local farm, that makes an oinking noise when squeezed. What a motley crew. The fact that a boy can be attached to a balloon restores the waning hoping for humanity I often have these days. I want to be my boy. I want the world to be him. I want all of it to be that simple and beautiful. But instead, I get these moments to cling to.

Accompanying us on our journey to the farm (where we obtained Piggy) was my mom, who was up from Virginia; she drove up in a car “that smelled like a real car,” a reference from Cynthia Rylant’s marvelous children’s book, The Relatives Came. In fact, mom only lives an hour and a half away, so her journey was far from the all day and night drive the relatives in the book had. But the fact that this reference can pop into my head right now is a testament to the restorative properties that early mornings with my son can bring and to the power of words that catch inside our brain, like leaves that get snagged on branches as they float downstream. Some words just do that.

And now I realize I am continuing to digress, which is a testament to the beauty of mornings at the dining room table when you find yourself alone. When you finally make space for all of the water trying to flow toward the well you’ve so desperately needed to fill.

My life has been a pretty low well these days. I have found myself in one of those uncomfortable places. It’s one of those times when you are crossing off days on the calendar. This is a rare place for me to be, but I am here. I feel as if my foot is stuck in between two rocks, but all I want to do is to keep journeying, to see what else lies up ahead. And I am hoping it’s a beautiful waterfall.

The reason I am here is the result of various circumstances. Mostly, I have been having a more challenging semester than is typical, a much more challenging semester in fact. I wake up some nights with my head spinning and my stomach tied in knots. I spend hours on lesson plans for one of my classes and still find them inadequate on the days I enter the classroom. I am working with students who have short attention spans and little desire to be challenged. One class is four days a week and starts at 8:00 am, and I am lucky if 3/4 of the group of eight students shows up each day. I am teaching reading skills to this early morning class, and I am in fact a writing teacher. So there are things. Reasons why school is not going as swimmingly as I would like.

And yet, I am also finding that as the weeks roll by, and they do, that I come up against a little less resistance -within myself and within my students. I am finding that this is what it really means to be a teacher. It means adapting to the harder places you find yourself in; it means shifting into new shapes to meet the needs of students who don’t know their own way forward; it means shucking your syllabus out the window when days call for it. It means listening to your gut, and I mean really, truly listening, to hear what the next steps should be on any given day or week.

It means replenishing the well as often as possible. And by this, I mean your own personal well. Sit beside the proverbial riverbank. Dip those toes in. Maybe even consider adopting a balloon you could bring from room to room or a small, pink pig (insert your favorite animal).

All in all, this semester will likely go down in my memory as one of the greatest learning experiences of my community college days. If I never felt stuck or uncomfortable, sweating out 80-degree days on October afternoons, I’d never really get anywhere. I’d never make it to those beautiful waterfalls waiting downstream.

Girls and Other Single Stories

In her essay, “Girls, Girls, Girls,” Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist, a book of essays I am breezing through with mostly delight right now, writes about modern day portrayals of young women in TV shows such as Girls.

We sort of loved Girls, didn’t we, for its raw, honest look at girls growing into women, at girls and their sexual encounters, at girls struggling to remain friends as they matured and changed. But Gay acknowledges the inadequacies of shows like this in their perpetuation of the “single story,” that writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks of so eloquently. (This is my analogy, not Gay’s.) And if you haven’t watched the TED Talk, I highly recommend it.

At the heart of her argument, Gay reminds us that women want to see ourselves represented in the world. And we long even more for accurate representations of what it is to be female, wife, mother, etc. It’s the etc at the end of that sentence that is Gay’s focus.

Gay, an African American woman, tells us “she” was missing in the show, Girls, the most honest look at young women’s identity crises we have seen on TV. Did anyone else notice? There wasn’t a single person of color on the show, aside from Hannah’s token boyfriend who lasted maybe a couple of episodes. And weren’t we shocked too to learn he was a Republican. At least, I am pretty sure we were supposed to be shocked.

I don’t know about you, but as a white woman sitting comfortably within my place of privilege in the world (Oh yes, I did), I wasn’t focused one bit on the lack of diversity on the show. And after reading Gay’s essay, I felt utterly ashamed of this fact. After all, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had already reminded me so beautifully of the danger of the single story, and yet, I’d overlooked the lack of so many women’s voices. I was a participant in the enduring narrative that “what doesn’t concern me” doesn’t matter. Ouch. The truth hurts sometimes.

In the past two semesters, my classes have included more African American women than has been typical for classes I’ve taught thus far at my community college. And I teach a wide spectrum of courses with varying degrees of ability. My classes often include minorities, in fact, but the black woman’s perspective has been largely missing among my students, until recently.

Here are a few things I have learned from teaching these lovely women, either directly from them or from finding materials that show their perspectives:

  1. I didn’t know anything about my town’s lack of extracurricular activities for black children; classes like authentic hip-hop, for instance, don’t seem to exist. I thought I lived in a place that was rich with activities for “all” families. Why didn’t I know this?
  2. I didn’t know the level at which black women shamed each other for having skin that is “too dark.” In addition, I had no idea that some black women bleach their skin to look whiter. Why didn’t I know this?
  3. I didn’t know the extreme pressure on these women to have straight, white-looking hair, nor did I have any inkling about the health hazards from harmful chemicals or possible hair loss caused from extensions, as Chelsea Johnson tells us in her insightful post from The Well. Why didn’t I know this?
  4. I didn’t know what it meant to be an immigrant woman from Jamaica or Cameroon, about the ways the American Dream is tainted by the realization you aren’t treated equally in your new country. Why didn’t I think enough about this?

Thanks to Ms. Adichie and to the women who have opened up to me about their perspectives, I am learning of my own single stories. I am learning to make more space in my classrooms for these women’s voices – and others.

I am learning that each time I am made aware of my blind spots, I feel surprise, shame, and relief. Relief that I can let one more piece of truth into my life. Surprised and ashamed that’s it’s taken me 44 years for certain veils to be lifted.

We have so much farther to go, don’t we, Lena Dunham.

 

 

Small, Frivolous Things

There are probably a lot of things we don’t know about each other, things we keep from one another. Things we omit when discussing ourselves, even when talking with good friends over vodka martinis or bottles of Bud. At least, this is what life is like for me now, as a grown person.

However, I remember a time when there were no secrets among friends.

When I was say 12 or 13, my best friends knew everything from my obsession over Corey Hart (I wear my sunglasses at night, anyone?) to my deepest fantasy of someday marrying Chris Avery, a soccer player on my brother’s school team. My friends knew I loved Cathy but that her tendency to talk too much really bothered me. They knew that my sixth grade history teacher grated on my nerves and bored me to tears. They knew that I hated Red Rover because of that one girl in PE who was much too rough and would leave your arms burning.

As we get older, however, we talk less about those tiny, mundane secrets, especially about those girlhood fantasies and obsessions, but they are still there. For instance, I have one or two female celebrities that I swoon over sometimes. I want their hair or their figure or their cool sense of style. This might sound surprising, but it’s true. Somewhere inside, I am still 13 and possibly, for good.

Much of the time, however, this part of me is hidden or buried. I don’t want to admit to myself or the world that I’d love to spend an hour reading Cosmo or Vogue. Because I am not supposed to allow myself such frivolity. I mean, I am a college professor, and that stuff doesn’t look good on a resume: hobbies include cutting out pictures for my manifestation board, watching HGTV, and obsessing over Michelle Williams’ latest movies and haircuts. Not so impressive.

But I think these things are oh so necessary. For me, and maybe for you, these moments of perusing through knee level fashion boots and drooling over a house makeover (and for under $500) brings a sense of sanity. It’s these tiny, mundane things in the world that help me forget my troubles. And if you read my last post, you can glean that troubles are sometimes as sharp and biting as the Big Bad Wolf’s pearly white teeth.

I am allowing myself – and you – to get lost in something ridiculous or meaningless. To spend some time perusing the Internet for Game of Thrones paraphernalia (or fill in any fetish you want here). You are allowed to search for the perfect fabric for your favorite arm chair. You are allowed to read sci-fi and romance novels.

You are allowed to “let the soft animal of your body/ love what it loves,” as Mary Oliver tells us in her cherished poem, “Wild Geese.”

It’s really OK. I won’t tell. In fact, maybe we can meet over a cold one and go over the hottest hairstyles together.

More and more

I am going to start this post by saying that some days I am so effin tired of being 40-something. I know this is a time when the nation is drowning in flood waters, contemplating the creation of fallout shelters, and watching our hero in chief stare directly at a solar eclipse, long enough to have photos taken of him pointing at the effin sun. But today, I need to discuss some personal stuff cause I have had it up to here.

It’s just that kind of day. A day for bourbon and profanity. On the rocks with a little ginger, damn it.

I have read all kinds of articles about 40 being the new 30 and all that Hollywood Hallmark stuff. In some ways, I will say, this decade has proven to be golden. One cares so much less about seeking approval. One only has time for folks who are fellow tribe members or for those who can make fun of Pinterest. One doesn’t need to sew Halloween costumes or paint Pokemon in frosting on birthday cakes. Cause, why?

In recent months, however, it keeps occurring to me more and more how many darker aspects lie beneath the surface of this supposedly amazing time of life. And here are some of them:

  1. A slowing metabolism
  2. The inevitability of bifocals
  3. The actual need for a mole doctor
  4. Annual mammograms – what’s the opposite of yowza!?
  5. The fact your 20-year-old students don’t get your references to Back to the Future or Tina Turner pop songs
  6. It’s mostly just men in their 50’s and 60’s who eye you in the produce section (no offense to anyone)
  7. The ability to see through so much shit (although at first positive, over time this lessens faith in your fellow humans)
  8. There really is no sense of style – clothes often feel too young or too old
  9. Certain parts of the body are in constant revolt – leaving you with chronic pain of one kind or another
  10. And the last one. The worst one. Aging parents.

So it took me a minute to get to the most important one. Maybe you are 40-something too and you were waiting for this one. Or perhaps you were taken off guard thinking this piece was simply humorous. If the latter is true for you, I apologize.

You see, there is so much great stuff about aging, but it’s complicated and tarnished by the fact that your parents are aging too. While you might be in the relative prime of your life, despite resenting there isn’t one retail store that gets you, every so often, there’s another call about some doctor’s diagnosis. Then, there’s dread and doom and gloom. A long period of Purgatory, where you know nothing and feel numb to any possible outcome. Then, there’s the relief stage, when you’re thanking God for her many blessings.

Until, another effin call comes. It’s only a matter of time, you see. This time, it could be about the same very person who was declared cancer free. It feels endless, a constant grind of conflicting emotions that one has to hold inside one very small body (I mean, maybe not as small as it was ten years ago, but…).

So right now, I am telling 44 to go screw herself. She is the easiest target and is used to the manic-depressive person dragging her like a rag doll one minute and squeezing her with affection the next.

How can so much great discovery about oneself be accompanied with so many constant reminders that life is going to end? Not only that, but that you will be parent-less one day, and that one day was never supposed to come this soon. There needs to be more time. More time for Thanksgiving pie, for beachside sand castle creations, for shared laughter and political discussions, rants, and arguments. There needs to be “more,” as the late Amy Rosenthal says in her heartbreaking essay You May Want to Marry My Husband.

Can I just have more? More time before I get to the dog-eared pages of my book, the ones that I am unaware of, but are coming. The chapters that will arrive when there is no “more” with those people whom I love. When I will have to redefine the word as I know it and fill in those future chapters without it.