Archive for the ‘Parenting’ Category

My son and #YesAllWomen

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

 

Last week my firstborn, 14-year-old Elliott, informed me that a group of girls at his middle school were (and I am quoting him directly here) “causing a fuss about #YesAllWomen.”

I was delighted, shocked and confused at the same time. Ever since the Isla Vista killings on May 23rd, I’d been mulling over how I was going to talk to my children about the latest mass murder to occur in the good old USA. I even started a blog post about it that bore the long-winded title “I know I should talk to my kids about Isla Vista but I don’t know if I can.”

Why the hangup? You try telling your third grade daughter about the ubiquity of gender-based violence. You try telling your keenly logical Asperger’s son about the misogyny that fuels so much of said violence–because this is what he will say:

xlrwadxvplsgsqnuaafa

And that is exactly what came out of Elliott’s mouth when he explained how uncomfortable the girls’ fuss made him.

Asperger’s tends to produce thinking that is black/white, good/bad, wrong/right. To him, the fact that HE has never committed an atrocity against women or girls in his life PROVES that “not all men.” If that is a FACT, and really and truly a FACT, then it MUST be brought to everyone’s attention.

 

50500145

 

Please do not read the above and think that my son is an unfeeling robot on autopilot, as current stereotypes might lead you to believe. In fact, he has an extremely tender heart, a characteristic not usually attributed to Aspies but should be; the Aspies in my acquaintance (and there are many) may flounder with the finer points of social etiquette but they are loyal and loving when it counts. I remember well how Elliott’s already pale cheeks whitened several shades when I explained the Newtown shootings over a year ago.* CHILDREN WERE NOT TO BE SHOT AT IN SCHOOL, his mind raced. CHILDREN WERE NOT TO BE SHOT AT. WRONG WRONG WRONG. I think that the detachment some see in spectrum people is really just terrible confusion and anxiety at a world that isn’t easily categorized as they would like.

The “fuss” that the girls were causing involved writing down some of their favorite #YesAllWomen tweets and posting them on the walls of their school. I thought this was fan-freaking-tastic and told him so.

“But it made me feel bad,” Elliott said.

“Why?” I said.

“Because I don’t do that stuff,” he said.

“I know that,” I said.

“But posting all that makes me think that I’m like that, but I’m really not,” he said.

I sighed. “And you felt like you had to tell those girls that you were NOT ALL MEN, right?”

He looked bewildered and more than a little embarrassed: did his mother actually know what happened on the internet?!!

 

121005-1C4161451-tdy-121005-moms-kids-01.blocks_desktop_large

 

I found an excuse to take him for a walk around the neighborhood, as I’ve found my kids do their best thinking when active. We must have gone back and forth for at least 30 minutes before I stopped him on Park Avenue and asked, “Elliott, have you ever made fun of someone just because she was a girl?”

“No,” he said immediately.

“Have you ever made fun of a girl’s clothes?”

“Why would I do that?” he asked.

“Have you ever called a girl a slut?”

He looked like he was going to throw up. “No way,” he said.

“Have you ever hurt a girl? Physically or mentally? Have you? HAVE YOU?” By now I had my hands on his shoulders and I was staring directly into his adorable hazel eyes.**

“NO!” he shouted, so loudly that I’m sure the neighbors heard.

“THEN YOU DON’T NEED TO WORRY,” I announced, “BECAUSE THE GIRLS IN SCHOOL ARE NOT TALKING TO YOU.”

2014-05-18 16.35.53

 

He made a face like the one above (taken in response to the lousy defense in the first quarter of the Minnesota Lynx home opener), took a deep breath, and….

UNDERSTOOD.

We hugged. It was amazing. It was beautiful. I have a feeling it will go down as one of my favorite parenting moments, ever.

Which is why I am blogging it and sharing it with you, and with the Elliott of the future when he Googles his mother’s name.

Elliott, if you are reading this, know that I love you and I am so proud of the boy you are and the man you will become.

Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 *it sickens me that I must have this conversation every few months. GUN SENSE NOW!

 **seriously, he’s the cutest boy in the world

 

 

What makes a “good” Aspie mother? (with a giveaway!)

Monday, February 10th, 2014

 

Last week, Gina Crosley-Corcoran of the blog The Feminist Breeder wrote on her Facebook fan page that her oldest son was recently diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.  When I saw her post, I responded as I always do to parents sharing this news for the first time: “WELCOME TO THE CLUB!”

In my essay in the book The Good Mother Myth, I write about my son’s diagnosis:

…I hardly mourned when my son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when he was seven. After all, as countless psychologists reminded me, this was likely the same neurological quirk that made Bill Gates the wealthiest man in the world.  Hell, in my wholly overeducated social circle (I am one of very few with “just” a bachelor’s degree), you’d be hard pressed to find a young boy without a spot on the autism spectrum.  

The words here are elegant and composed, but in 2007 I was a wreck.  In truth, I had been a wreck ever since my perfectly adorable infant opened his mouth in February 2000 and SCREAMED.  He wouldn’t stop for months.

 

Elliott02

 

So I did mourn: I mourned the stubbornly persistent belief that parenting was supposed to look like it did on TV, that my child and I would be so naturally in sync that I would know his every need, that my child would be warmly accepted into the fabric of modern society by virtue of his very existence.

Instead, I had a kid who was regularly singled out by frustrated relatives as well as preschool, kindergarten, and grade school teachers for not being their version of “normal.” I had his preschool classmate tell me, upon learning whose mother I was: “I don’t like Elliott.  He screams a lot.”

I have to pause here an collect myself because I am tearing up.  I haven’t thought about that preschool experience in years, yet the memory still makes me clench my teeth so hard I can feel my crowns loosen.

It is painful to imagine a world that might not love your child as much as you love him.  This is true for any parent of any kid, with or without special needs.  A childhood diagnosis, however, kicks this panic up a thousand notches, for moms especially.

Why moms?  Because we parent under the excruciating glare of  The Good Mother Myth.

 

WIN_20140210_113314

 

Gina herself has an essay in this anthology, a poignant look at abuse and neglect she suffered in her childhood and her determination to break the cycle with her own kids.  I write in my own essay about how much I fear passing on my family’s tendency towards anxiety:

My seven-year-old daughter Miriam bites her nails.  She chews them down to angry red nubs that even I, her loving (good!) mother, must admit are really quite ugly.  “It’s a bad habit,” she laments, using language she learned from a Berenstain Bears book on the subject.  “I want to stop it, but I can’t.”  I tell her I know how she feels.  When I was her age, my fingers were raw and bloody too, like the tips of ten half-eaten hot dogs.  

You didn’t ask, but I’ll tell you anyway: I believe that autism is genetic.  My wholly unscientific theory is that in the latter part of the 20th century, nerds and geeks who might have been isolated from one another were suddenly let loose on the campuses of research universities and liberal arts colleges where they met, fell in love, and decided to breed (this theory holds true for my friends in same-sex couples, who selected donors that shared their interests, like, y’know, science and engineering).

Gina is very well-known in the blogosphere and in social media, so naturally the post about her son drew a lot of traffic.  What drew even MORE traffic was a series of followup comments and posts between Gina and autistic self-advocates who objected to what they perceived as Gina’s desire to “cure” her son of his condition.  I won’t take a side in the debate, which as of this writing has devolved into a very bitter affair that includes name-calling, accusations of lying and harassment, the works.  Nothing good comes of that, online or elsewhere.

Here’s what I do know: there is genuine and deep pain on all sides.  Autistic adults hurt because they feel humiliated and denigrated when the complexity of their lives is reduced to the image of a missing puzzle piece and ridiculous stunts like turning the Empire State Building blue.  I can’t speak for Gina, but holy crap did I feel hurt and vulnerable when people tried to tell me the “best” way to support my son’s diagnosis.  For a few years there I walked around like an open wound.  Every suggestion stabbed my heart to a very familiar refrain:

“YOU ARE NOT A GOOD MOTHER.”

 

2014-01-17 11.54.59

 

There is good news: my son is the coolest boy in the universe, and I would not change a damn thing about him.  Not a damn thing!  I WANT to give him the tools he needs to be a happy, socially successful adult., so I offer him help with skills that don’t come naturally–like reciprocal conversation, sensory processing, nonverbal communication, etc–but I wouldn’t change him.  He knows he has Asperger’s, and he’s not ashamed of it.  In fact, he wrote a short essay for his school newspaper about his life as an Aspie.  I love him so much that I want not only to be a GOOD mother, but the BEST mother that he needs.

I don’t always succeed, though, and that’s why I’m sharing some other good news:  the kind people at Seal Press, publishers of The Good Mother Myth, want to send a Radical Housewife reader a copy of the book for FREE.  Yes, FREE!  In addition to Gina and me, contributors include Sharon Lerner, K.J. Dell’Antonia, Soraya Chemaly, Jennifer Baumgardner, and many other smart, funny, thoughtful parents who are committed to doing the best they can.

Which is pretty good, I think.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Seven alternatives to Miley Cyrus

Monday, October 7th, 2013

 

As the parent of a 13-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter, I have an interest in the ongoing pop culture debates over art vs. raunch, nakedness vs. maturity, empowerment vs. exploitation.

But I am also an admitted fan of pop music, and in my considered opinion, the stuff Miley Cyrus is putting out is just boring.

I could spend hours discussing the impact of Rihanna, Ke$ha and Britney on impressionable children, because “We Found Love,” “Tik Tok,” and “Toxic” are kickass singles.  I tried “We Can’t Stop,” but I don’t get it.  I don’t even think it would be a good Rihanna record.

As a result, Miley’s antics with foam fingers, teddy bears, and cultural appropriation are not even on my kids’ radar–but they might be on yours. If that true, then I’m here to help!  Below is a Radical Housewife-approved list of hip-hop/pop gems by women that I guarantee inspiring mad twerking that you can feel good about.

 

Your kids might be surprised to learn that this talk show host used to be cool:

 

Mary’s groove is as fierce as her clothes are hideous:

 

Everyone in my house loves M.I.A.–and the family that galangs together, stays together:

 

Miley DREAMS of being as hot as Neneh Cherry:

 

Amanda Blank is Brooklyn’s answer to Ke$ha (and that’s a good thing):

 

One of my closest college pals went to high school with Santigold, a totally pointless factoid I trot out to seem “hip”:

 

And Le Tigre, of course:

 

If you disagree with these selections, please refrain from writing me an open letter.  I’d prefer you just leave me a comment.

 

 

 

Good mothers, bad mothers

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

 

 

This fall, my son, an eighth grader, enrolled in an advanced math course for gifted kids at the University of Minnesota.

I AM A GOOD MOTHER.

He has spent more than a few nights cussing me out for “forcing” him to do something that is so hard.

I AM A BAD MOTHER.

One reason this math is so hard is that, for the previous thirteen years of his life, the math has been so goddamn easy.  For once he is receiving instruction appropriate for his intellect.

I AM A GOOD MOTHER.

His intellect may be highly developed, but many of his other skills are not.  He did most of his first assignment in ballpoint pen because it did not occur to him to walk downstairs to get a pencil.  Unfortunately, many of the problems written in pen were wrong.  Did I neglect to tell him that you can’t erase pen?

I AM A BAD MOTHER.

When he forgot his math book and supplies at home, I brought them to school for him.

I AM A GOOD MOTHER.

When I dropped them off, I chewed him out royally–this was the fourth time in two weeks that the math stuff had been left one place or another.  He sobbed that he was a stupid idiot and I obviously hated him and believed he would be a loser all his life and he might as well quit the human race.

I AM A BAD MOTHER.

….well?

Which is it?

 

cover

 

If you’re like me, you ask yourself this question a thousand times an hour, a million times a day–despite knowing that it is unanswerable.  When I thrash myself against the good/bad binary, I am wasting energy that would be better used to care for myself and for the kids who are counting me.

So why do it?  Whose interest does it serve?  Offhand, I could name a few: the Bugaboo company, Phyllis Schlafly, Us Weekly magazine, patriarchal capitalism, the usual axis of evil.

Avital Norman Nathman knows that The Good Mother Myth won’t be shattered by the anthology of the same name that’s being released by Seal Press in January 2014–but like I tell my math student, sometimes it’s worth it to put yourself out there and TRY instead of just shaking your fist at the universe.  Or something to that effect.

Speaking of putting yourself out there, The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality features an essay I wrote last summer that is some of the most vulnerable stuff I’ve ever had the nerve to share with the reading public.  I’m scared that you’ll hate it and think I’m a loser and/or stupid idiot and I might as well quit the human race, because only BAD mothers admit to frailty…or was it GOOD mothers?  I can’t remember anymore…

I hope you’ll pre-order it anyway, either from Amazon or from the indie bookseller of your choice.  To sign up for a newsletter about the book and its fab editor and contributors, put your info in the handy widget on the upper right hand corner of your screen.

And if any of you are algebra experts, say so in the comments.

 

 

 

Away from the numbers

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

 

(If you don’t know the song the above title refers to, allow me to introduce you to the Jam.  You can thank me later.)

 

It’s back to school time, dear readers, so you get a quiz: what is the gender of the child in the 44 shirt below?

 

 

The August 2013 issue of the Minnesota Women’s Press featured the theme “What She Wore,” which is your big clue that the child in the photograph is yours truly in 1972.

I write about my “Free to Be…You and Me”  childhood a lot, not so much to idealize it as to wonder what the hell happened to that period in American culture when gender neutrality was a viable fashion option for people of all ages.  I’m not saying that gender neutrality is perfect, but hell, it’s got to be better than today’s compulsory superhero vs. princess gender binary coding–as well as its opposite, the mad ping-ponging from one end of the spectrum to the other.  Mommy blogger Katie Vyktoriah knew she would get mileage out of a story called “What Happened When My Son Wore a Pink Headband to Walmart,” including a coveted repost on HuffPo and the sympathy of millions when the story when viral.

Too bad it was fake.

 

When my first child was born in 2000, I searched high and low for number shirts, naively expecting that such things would be available at Target and other fine purveyors of children’s wear.  Instead I found aisles of blue Thomas the Tank Engine onesies and pink Cinderella tops and nothing, I repeat, NOTHING, in between.

It’s hard out here for a mama.  Just imagine how hard it is for kids!  And when it’s hard for kids, mamas do things they ordinarily wouldn’t.  As I write in my column for the aformentioned MWP issue, my own mother shocked the hell out of me when she dragged me (and I mean that literally) into the Southdale Dayton’s in 1984.

My mother steered me toward the juniors department, where she yanked Guess tops off the racks. “These shoulder pads will make you look fantastic,” she announced happily.  They didn’t. My mother howled with frustration every time she fished a pair of puffy ovals out of the trash. I didn’t want to disappoint her (or my junior high friends; we were a heavily padded bunch), but the sudden insistence on feminine performance didn’t sit well with me. I was a girl, but I didn’t want to be girly, for girly style was not only fussy and impractical, it was weak. It was wimpy. It was dumb. 

 

 

Fortunately, as I write in the piece, a li’l book called Whipping Girl helped to straighten (pun very much intended) me out, as did parenting, a job that is too complicated and messy to fit in an either/or box.  I remained resentful of my mother for those horrific Dayton’s trips for years until I realized a disturbing truth:

If I knew of a product that would armor my children against social condemnation, I would put it on my Visa card in a hurry. 

 

 

 

Speaking of numbers, this time of year always shocks me into realizing that my kids are really and truly growing up.  As the saying goes, the years are short but the days are soooooooo looooooong.  Every year I snap first day pictures of the dynamic duo on the front stoop, and after the bus pulls away, I load the pictures up and compare them to years past.

Damn.  Remember when they were six and one?  Eight and three?  Twelve and seven?  I do.

Parents are routinely cautioned about sleepless nights and dirty diapers, but they aren’t warned about how much crazier things get when we realize that OUR BABIES are going to be vulnerable in the stupidest, most meaningless ways.

And that we will do stupid things as we attempt to protect them.

Elliott and Miriam of the future, if you are reading these words in a Google cache somewhere in the mid-21st century, know this: to me, you are both number one.  I love you no matter what.  Please forgive me.

 

 

 

 

 

Fed by love

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

 

A common theme in my writing about parenting is my overwhelming need to untangle generational parenting styles to figure out what will benefit my own children the most.  In plainer language, I want to do better than my mom, whom I understand wanted to do better than her mom, et cetera.

Rationally, I expect that my own kids will do the same thing, should they decide to become parents.  Emotionally, I wonder how I will react when that time comes.  Will I freak out?  Will I respect their choices?  Will I assume that they are rejecting my way when they strike out on their own?

This month’s Minnesota Women’s Press is food-themed, a loaded subject for women, mothers most of all.  When we feed our children’s bodies, we imagine ourselves filling their hearts and souls.  Which we’re not, but tell that to the Paula Deen, Rachael Ray, and whoever else the Food Network is pushing.

When my maternal grandmother died in 2003, I opened her eulogy with the following words: “my grandmother is the smell of butter.”  When I wrote about her for the Women’s Press in 2009, I declared: “butter was the woman’s natural milieu; I think she probably dabbed it behind her ears.”

She loved butter, and she probably loved us too, but she never said so.  If she declared her love for anything, it was probably for Johnny Carson and the Marlboro Light 100s she chain smoked.  That was much less embarrassing and vulnerable than admitting to loving a person.  Sheesh.

 

 

My current column is titled “When food means ‘I love you.’”  I would very much like for my children to see food as a source of nourishment and/or delight, not as a conduit of my affection for them.  Already, however, I am touchy when my hard work is sniffed at or spat out.  If Elliott dislikes my chicken fried rice then he must not love me.  If my coffee cake is burned I must be a failure.  ALL LESSONS LEARNED AT MY FOREMOTHERS’ KNEES!  That they, in turn, learned from the women before them!  At least they could do it in an age before Pinterest and mothering as an Olympic-level sport.  From the column:

I follow a number of so-called “mom blogs,” and you’d think to read them that not even abortion is as loaded a topic as whether children ought to eat yogurt that contains high-fructose corn syrup. Even though we 21st-century moms aren’t shy about telling our little darlings we love them, our culture compels us to express our care and concern through cookery.

Here I must cop to the fact that the chicken I put in that fried rice recipe was not a free-wheeling hippy-dippy bird that I picked up at Seward Co-op.  Elliott could taste it!   I just hope I can handle the grief when my future grandchildren are organic vegan gourmets who turn up their noses at the kind of nut cheeses I bring for Christmas.

Oh my.

 

 

Right now is a difficult time of year to strive for balance, emotionally or nutritionally, for bizarre schedules and hot weather lead to nights where ice cream is the only thing on the menu, and carrot-spinach ripple it ain’t.  I am trying very hard to let myself off the guilt roller coaster so I can enjoy it.

And I also committed to say “I LOVE YOU” with words and smooches several hundred times a day without fail…but I do that anyway.

 

 

YUMMY!

 

 

Parenting as Plan A

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

 

 

Yesterday the FDA approved plans to sell emergency contraception over the counter to anyone over the age of 15.  This is a good thing, but it is not in compliance with a federal ruling that ordered Plan B be available to ANYONE who walks into a CVS and buys it.  To quote the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: “The medical evidence demonstrates that EC is safe and effective in preventing pregnancy for all reproductive-age females.”  ALL females.  ALL.

When I was a teen, before I had my state-issued driver’s license, I relied on these thin plastic cards to get discounts at the Southdale movie theater:

 

 

Don’t I look awesome? Matt calls it my Julia Cafritz period, but my ferocity was all an act.  Inside I was a trembling, anxious, fearful mess.  My contraception was my mother’s insistence that should I require it, she would be only too happy to help me procure some.  This embarrassed me into celibacy until I left for college (though my scowl may have been a contributing factor).

Yesterday’s announcement is a small step forward for girls like the one in the plastic card pictured above.  We cannot forget, however, that the arbitrary identification requirement is a serious barrier for people who don’t look like her.  With this policy in place, 13-year-olds and undocumented women can purchase Tylenol and Robitussin, both extremely toxic in large doses, but they cannot buy Plan B.  Why?

 

 

Conservatives who protest the availability of condoms in high school health clinics are suddenly horrified that Plan B doesn’t protect against sexually transmitted infections.  The drum of “parents’ rights” is beaten long and loud.   Safe, FDA-approved medications are “dangerous.”  Human sexuality is scary and wrong.  There is no right to premarital, non-procreative sex.  Since no one fears eternal damnation these days, fear of pregnancy needs to keep kids out of each others’ pants.

This has not been one of my happiest parenting weeks.  I received some very disappointing news about my son’s grades, which led Matt and me to have THAT TALK with him.  While he curled into a surly ball in the corner of the couch, a very familiar scowl on his face, I could almost hear the thought “this sucks” rattling around his teenage brain.  While my mouth was blabbering all the Very Important Lessons that my son needed to learn about his school responsibilities, inside my head I was thinking the same goddamn thing: “this sucks!”

So much about parenting sucks.  It sucks to be the bad guy all the time, it sucks to clean up all the messes, both emotional and literal, it sucks to send the person you love the most in the world to the place you hated the most in the world (middle school).  It also sucks that there is tremendous social pressure to say WHY NO, PARENTING DOES NOT SUCK AT ANY TIME EVER, IN FACT IT IS THE BEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED TO ME.

Which it is, of course, but it’s not a gig for the faint of heart or the unprepared.  It really needs to be your Plan A.

If all sex can’t be planned, at least parenthood ought to be.  A person’s ability to decide her future, whether it’s Plan A, B or C, ought not to depend whether she has an ID card in her pocket.  

Scowl.

 

 

 

Racism in your own backyard

Friday, July 13th, 2012

 

Minnesota Public Radio News recently published an essay of mine called “Racism in the neighborhood.” I began work on the piece in October 2011, just after the community event that I mention in the first paragraph.  Like a lot of things in my life, it languished as my fall careened towards disaster and my winter proved no better.  And my spring?  Meh. Now I’m not suggesting that I’m in the midst of what Camus would call an invincible summer, but I’m starting to get a few things back on track.  I certainly aim to post here more often, gentle readers.  I appreciate your patience.

Below is the complete text of the essay, accompanied by a photo of Miriam and Megan playing in the backyard of Michele Norris’s house.  The Grace of Silence is a wonderful read, and I highly recommend it.  Elliott promises me that he will get started on it soon–after he finishes memorizing every character in The Halo Encyclopedia, of course.

 

 

Last fall, I attended an event sponsored by Building Bridges, a community organization that, according to its mission statement, “seeks to understand how race and racism impact our communities and to build the future of our neighborhoods together.” The group’s name reflects the yawning gap exposed when south Minneapolis neighbors clashed over a proposal to create an off-leash dog area in a park named for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It’s also a literal reference to the east-west divide created when Interstate Hwy. 35W was built in the 1950s.

Held in Minneapolis’ Field neighborhood, the event featured remarks from Minneapolis native Michele Norris, former co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered and author of the 2010 memoir The Grace of Silence. Norris grew up in a two-story Tudor on a corner lot only three blocks away from where we feted her, and her book describes not only her Minneapolis childhood but also the painful legacy of racism in the silence and secrets carried by members of her family and, by extension, members of her hometown and nation.

Here in Field our discussions over the book are personal, indeed — Norris spent her childhood on the same street where my children Elliott and Miriam are spending theirs. The corner house where Norris lived with her parents Belvin and Betty is where my kids and their friends alight from the bus every afternoon.

My kids were thrilled when they learned that “the lady on the radio” once lived on the block. But their joy turned to confusion when I shared that Norris’ white neighbors put their homes up for sale as soon as the block’s first black family moved in. Next door, Norris wrote, “the forlorn For Sale sign sat in front of the house for weeks. At one point, someone attached a flyer that read BEWARE NEGRO NEIGHBORS.”

When he heard that, Elliott looked stricken, as if he’d bit into an apple and tasted a worm. To a young white child in the Midwest of the 21st century, racism is not unfamiliar, but it is too easily categorized as the distant past, or something that occurred in the South. His school did a terrific job teaching about the horrors of the Middle Passage as part of a unit on colonial history, and the work of Dr. King is recalled throughout the year, not just around his birthday. But racism, here? In this bucolic backyard, where friends of many different colors like to play with one another?

His reaction was immediate: “that’s awful,” he said, adding quickly: “We can’t tell Kelcy and Megan about this.” Like the Norris sisters, these two dear friends are African-American.

“Why? I asked.

He looked at me like I was insane. “It would hurt them,” he said.

I couldn’t blame Elliott for automatically defaulting to silence. As Norris writes, “the mere mention of the word race can make some people apopleptic or pious or frozen by anxiety, only to beat a hasty retreat to their comfort zone: grim taciturnity.” Norris acknowledged that even she and her husband struggle with how much they care to expose their own kids to what she writes is “a four-hundred-year-old cancerous social disease.”

Though the discussion that evening was fascinating, heartfelt and honest, I had to admit later that I had attended in hopes it would immediately thaw my own anxiety about discussing the thorny issues of race with my children and their friends. It’s melting, but like most parents, I am impatient; I want to fix ugliness for them now.

On June 26, 2012, 5-year-old Nizzel George was killed when gang members fired into the north Minneapolis home where he slept. We heard the story reported on public radio as we drove to summer swimming lessons.

“Could that happen to me?” Elliott asked anxiously.

“No,” I replied.

Nizzel may have lived in the same city, but he inhabited a different world. The north side might as well be on another planet, racked by poverty, unemployment, violence and the painful legacy of racial quarantining — the same separate but unequal attitudes that confronted the Norrises when they were among the first to integrate the south side. How could I begin to untangle all this for a confused 12-year-old, a kid who wanted answers now?

Our human response to discomfort is fight or flight, anger or withdrawal, seething or silence. Rarely do we allow ourselves the opportunity to grapple with nuance, yet this is where the real transformations occur. Building Bridges and The Grace of Silence are essential tools as we tread that middle path — and I’m happy to say that the book is now on my son’s nightstand.

 

 

An interview with Davina Rhine, author of “Rebel Moms” (including a giveaway!)

Friday, June 1st, 2012

 

THIS IS IT, MAMAS!  My first-ever reader giveaway.  I’m playin’ in the big leagues now, so Dooce had better watch her skinny back.  Read the following delightful interview with Davina Rhine, then follow the instructions for the chance to win an autographed copy of her book Rebel Moms: The Off Road Map for the Off Road Mom.  It just received a positive review from the hipstress bible of record (that would be BUST magazine, natch), so you know you want it…..

Photos are courtesy of Rhine’s Rebel Moms Facebook page.

THE RADICAL HOUSEWIFE: The first question is obvious, but necessary: what inspired you to create the book and to publish it yourself?

DAVINA RHINE: The inspiration to write the book was definitely a lack of examples of moms who were sharing the real story of motherhood and real womanhood with today’s struggles … the nitty gritty. All I kept hearing were the marketed voices of the perfect mom with a perfect life in some perfect place- and in the beginning you mistake that as the way it really is. Which of course makes you feel like you will never be good enough or there’s something wrong with you. Rebel Moms is a glorious, blazing, bold rejection of that. Secondly, as a mom with tattoos, strong political activism, and a huge participation in art and music, I needed women whom I could relate to.

Working Mother [magazine] glorified the corporate mom whom I wasn’t, but Tattoo magazine didn’t really seem to capture the mom role either.  Hip Mama had the women’s voice in snippets that I identified with but not the whole story.  Rebel Moms is the whole story for the mom in all stages of life and womanhood and gives a varied perspective on parenting and living righteously and with gusto. It’s a collection of 52 mentors baring it all for the punk mom, the hip hop mom, the activist mom, the feminist mom, the Wiccan mom, the Buddhist mom, the atheist mom, the artist mom, the political mom,  the poet mom, the Christian mom, the rockabilly mom, the subculture mom, and the mainstream mom who wants off the wagon.

 

How did you track down all these mamas, especially the BIG gets, like Janis “The Female Elvis” Martin and Ariel “HipMama” Gore?

The interview process overall took 4 years, from 2002-2006. Luckily, at the time social media was available but not as wide blown as it is now. So I just reached out online with a proposal of the project, shared some of my published works thus far, and then followed up with additional online and phone interviews.

It was amazing not only how receptive all these amazing women were to the project, but also the fact that they were willing to share it all so that it could help another mom. You know, the story you don’t get otherwise.

I think if I was to due it today it would much more difficult to reach some of the more known moms-since social media is in everyone’s lives now. I was able to speak to Maya Angelou who had to decline because of her schedule. I also spoke to Angelina Jolie’s manager who promised to get my proposal to her, but I never heard back.

It’s true that the social media explosion has created more spaces for the non-June Cleaver mom.  That being said, this is probably the only parenting book on the market with this many tattoos–or to feature an interview with a Suicide Girl.  Talk to me about the decision to devote a full chapter to “ink slingers & piercers,” those who REALLY transgress what a mom “should” look like.

The decision for the.chapter types actually was defined more by the professions or defining hobbies or life stage of the women, which inadvertently there were enough for a stand alone chapter on the moms who work in the body art and mod field. And Rebel Moms of course was intentionally written for the mom whose voice was completely absent from the regular dialogue of parenthood and whom breaks the rules-the bad girl grown up smart, awesome, and a fighter, and a righteous parent. I like to joke that Rebel Moms used to be Riot Grrrls!  But actually that is pretty close to the truth…even if their background isn’t Riot Grrrl ( like me ), their attitude and politics basically are.

 

The chapters definitely reflect the cursory look into the ‘bad girl’ gone mom transition … and looks at the question of ‘who is the subculture/counterculture mom’? And what can we learn from her to be better parents while making the world a better, and infinitely cooler, place for our kids?

These are moms you definitely know won’t shy away from the hard topics of life, of being female, of motherhood- and they wear their the heart on their sleeves, quite literally, and aren’t afraid to share their truth on parenting, and the world.

You’ve practically anticipated my next observation–that many of your subjects discuss parenting in the presence of deep trauma, including rape, domestic violence, addiction, poverty, etc.  To what extent to you think those experiences turned them into rebel moms?  And how have they reacted to seeing these difficult personal stories appear in print?

Well, many of the moms were tenaciously themselves and drawn to their particular subculture before experiencing a trauma … But I think if anything those interests then became supports in terms of local community (Dawna and her friends rejecting our society’s beauty standards which encourage/aggravate anorexia), musical and artistic expression (RM Selena addressing social political issues via her band Menstrual Tramps), and political action (post-rape: Natasha fighting for legal changes to criminalize westerners who exploit sex slaves overseas etc).

Now we know many moms endure rape, poverty, domestic violence, who are mainstream and yes there are much better supports than what were prior but they still tend to treat the symptoms vs addressing the causes. As a feminist mom that definitely puts you in the Rebel Mom camp.

THANK GAWD!  I have no tattoos, so I wasn’t sure I would qualify.  Heh.

The question is: are you naturally bold and not afraid to step up and out ? Or does your gravitation towards feminism empower you and thus free you to be bold and independent? It’s a tough question! Kind of like which came first, the chicken or the egg?  But on the other hand, RM Kristen shares she was always drawn to beautiful women with boldly colored hair, and body art and modifications, even as a kid–and it was who she was. No trauma, no rebellion, just her-as she was always meant to be.

 

For the most part many of the moms have been thrilled to see their story in print including the hard parts. A couple have been less than thrilled because what they shared was deeply personal and sometimes that is hard to look back it especially when you have moved on to a different stage in your life. But overall the moms are very glad there is now a literal book of mentors to help women and mothers by example and within the real of life and resources or lack thereof. It’s a great tool belt!

I agree!

AND NOW THE GIVEAWAY!

Behold the nifty raffle widget! Follow its instructions to enter (if your DSL is slow because someone in your house is re-streaming the fourth season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” it may take a sec to load. Don’t panic):
a Rafflecopter giveaway

This book is enormous (628 pages!), so I must limit the contest to residents of the USA only.  I can’t afford to ship it to Brazil, sorry.

Good luck, rebels!

Touching memory

Friday, May 25th, 2012

 

The following essay was first published by HipMama.com on March 13, 2009. I am rerunning it because I’m still reeling from turning the last page of Alison Bechdel’s new graphic novel Are You My Mother?  The book is dense as hell, and I will likely devote a few dozen original posts to it, but I was most touched (pun intended!) by this particularly devastating panel:

When you read my 2009 essay, you’ll understand why I want Alison Bechdel to be my new big sister–or better yet, my new therapist.

The piece was healing to write, exciting to publish, and has caused rifts in my family that reverberate even three years later.  I welcome your thoughts, especially if you’ve read Bechdel’s book.

 

“Touch, Memory”

by Shannon Drury

My most powerful childhood memory is very simple, like all the deepest recollections are: as my mother leaned against the sink of our butter-yellow Minneapolis kitchen, I barreled into her and squashed my face her soft belly. I could have been no older than five, for my head reached no higher than the motherly bulge that bumped out below the high waistband of her 1970s-era jeans. I luxuriated in the warmth that lay there as I wrapped my arms tightly around the back of her legs. I felt at home. I was safe.

Did she hold me in return? Did she ruffle my hair? Did she have any idea of the comfort I felt in that moment?

I tried to tell her about this feeling much later. I was twenty-eight, and I’d just given birth to my first child. Afterwards, I saw that my body was different. I told her that I had the pooch under my belly button that she had, too. I understood now that the soft place I had loved was the place was proof of her motherhood: we were connected by the physical proof that we’d carried children.

When I told her this, she squirmed. “I’m fat,” she moaned. “I’m disgusting. You’re making fun of me.”

But I remember hugging you there, I said, and how important you felt to me. I remember how soft you were. You felt good.

She looked uncomfortable. I knew then that my hair hadn’t been ruffled. She had a different interpretation of the moment we shared; while I remember the safety of a mother’s body, she felt embarrassment and shame, perhaps blaming me for calling attention to what she saw an imperfection. Soon it would not only be her motherly body that was imperfect: mine would be too.

*

My mother and I no longer speak. Sometime after that simple hug in the kitchen of our old house on Dupont Avenue, our relationship changed. It took becoming a mother myself to realize that the chasm between my mother and her emotions was too wide for me to bridge. Too often the only way to gain insight into her feelings was to endure one of her blistering, white-hot rages, but even those seemed out of her control, too much like a furious id unleashed from an unsuspecting ego. My mother’s long undiagnosed mental illness did to her what gamma radiation did to poor Bruce Banner in my dog-eared comic books. The latter at least figured out how to use it for the proverbial good.

As I mothered my children with my body, I remembered something else: or more accurately, its lack. The aforementioned memory is my only one of spontaneous touch. And I was the one who hugged her, not the other way around. Today I pet my daughter and son with abandon, kissing them, hugging them, holding their hands, touching the softness of their unblemished cheeks, losing my fingers in the tangles of their hair. I have no such corollary. I can’t recall so much as a goodnight kiss.

Thirty years since that hug, I wonder what happened to that soft place I knew. Yet her hugs and kisses with my children, her grandchildren, seemed genuine. What had happened? Was it me? Did I have years of her affection that were inexplicably forgotten?

This thought gives no comfort. Which option is worse: lacking affection entirely, or having it only to lose it? The latter implies a change in one or both parties that affected the outcome, which also implies that there is someone who can be blamed.

*

As my son grew older, he grew difficult. “There’s something wrong with him,” my mother said more than once. She began to withdraw from him, preferring the company of his much cuddlier younger sister.

Watching this became unendurable. I had to let her go.

*

Touch imprints powerfully upon the memory. I remember one particular embrace, early in my relationship with the man who would become my husband. I tucked my head into his right shoulder and felt as a child once more. The sense of calm security was profound. I never doubted that this person would be my family for the rest of my life.

In the hold’s immediate aftermath, I panicked. Was I losing my independent, feminist principles in the arms of a man whom I wanted to take care of me? Did I have some warped infantilization in my admittedly fragile psyche?

Much later, I understood. I was feeling what I had felt that day in the kitchen. I flashed back to the safety of a loved one’s body. Inside Matt’s arms I experienced the unconditional acceptance and love that I hadn’t known since I was five years old.

*

In the bathtub, my two-year-old daughter touched my breasts. “Your boo-boos,” she cooed. Yes, I said, they are mine. “I have boo-boos,” she continued, “but mine are little.” I nodded.

I had to fight the urge to slap her pudgy hand away. My conditioning, it seemed, was complete. Nervous schoolteachers taught that bodies are not for sharing; the chill running through my childhood home enforced the same message.

I love my daughter with every part of my body and soul, and I know I want her to have what I didn’t. I give her access to my body when she needs it. I nursed her until I was physically unable. I answer her questions when she asks them. I let her touch if she needs to.

After her hands learned all that they needed to, they went back to her plastic boat. She was satisfied. It lasted three seconds.

*

My mother asked in an e-mail message that I return all of the family photo albums that were stored in my attic. She said that it was only fair — before my son was born I had promised to reorganize them into fresh, acid-free books that would halt the degeneration of the nearly forty-year-old film. I said I would, and I didn’t. Now she wanted those memories back.

I peeled picture after picture from their sticky pages. I am playing on city park equipment, built of metal that scorched and wood that splintered, replaced long ago by fiberglass and plastic. In a delicate baptismal gown I am held by a series of elderly folk who determinedly clung to the Brylcreem and horn-rimmed glasses of their own lost generation. So many of the things that touched me once are gone forever.

Other hands, the thick-fingered North Dakota laborer hands she inherited from her father, have withdrawn for their own reasons. They wish to hold age-browned squares of paper instead of the hot, nail-bitten hands of a anxious little girl, and years later, her troubled little boy.

When I was done, I left the paper grocery bag of photo albums at my sister’s back doorstep. If there were any objections to the gaping white holes that skipped across every page, I never heard them.

*

In calmer moments, one can draw a clinical line from the sternness of the prairie farm people to the emotional reserve of their children. A trained professional and a stack of thoughtful books theorize that the illness coursing through her brain detached her from reason.

But reason isn’t in it, I seethe. Reason isn’t behind the cradling warmth that a child needs from her mother; that drive is instinctive. Parents embrace the children who need them. Parents don’t seek out scientific studies proving that untouched babies fail to synthesize the hormones needed for growth and metabolic functioning. Among the reams of paperwork passing into the hands of fumbling new parents at the check-out desks of hospitals are no flyers warning that untouched babies will die. Unvaccinated babies, yes, or babies lacking car seats. To tell a parent that a baby needs touch sounds as silly as telling that parent to breathe, to eat, or to live.

At a certain point in their development, children lose the smooth softness that invites the instantaneous snuggle or caress. Baby fat melts into angles at noses and elbows. Their rounded flesh roughens; their bodies smell sour, not sweet. Their appeal grows complicated as they age, the inverse of The Very Hungry Caterpillar story that I read to both of my kids when they were young. And as their shells harden, perhaps the grown-ups around them do, too.

The therapist squinted, then pursed her thin lips. “This must have been very hard for you,” was all she could say.

*

My mother was right, after all: there is something wrong with him.

For my son hurts me. My scalp tingles for hours from the memory of the pull of his hands on my hair. I get kicked, in my stomach, knees, and face. I feel a dark and frightening id of my own bubbling to my lips before Matt intervenes and sends everyone, grown-ups and children alike, to their rooms for time-out.

Ten minutes later, I pad upstairs to his room, where I find him wrapped like a burrito in a thick comforter, still crying. His damp, red-rimmed eyes are wild with fear. He doesn’t know where this comes from. I have an idea, and months later another set of logical, reason-based professionals will prove me right. For now, his mind is not the battleground; my body is. Two models of parenting, from my mother and from my species, are at war over what I must do.

I peel away the blanket. His body lies curled into a fetal coil, his hands tucked beneath his tear-streaked chin. I creak the springs of the mattress as I ease my weight in beside him, pulling the blanket back over us. This cocoon feels good. I put my face into the tangled hair that still smells of the strawberry shampoo we washed it in.

Here Matt will find us, wrapped up together, our arms and legs touching, at peace.

*

What will my son remember of this moment? Will he recall the feel of my imprint? Of my shape curling around his? Will I tell him that I needed the relief of our touch as much as he does? When he understands that our family’s Incredible Hulk-like curse has fallen upon him, will he come to resent my needs as much as his grandmother seems to? Will he tear himself from me, or be torn? Can I hold on tightly enough to stop that from happening? Do I even have the right to try?

In any event, I can be sure he will ask one day about the loose pictures stashed in the Converse All-Stars shoebox. He will ask me to identify the young, red-haired woman holding me at the baptismal font. I must answer honestly: she is my mother.

Mother. How might his memory react to the mention of that word?

He might feel her thick fingers enveloping his plump little hand as he edged towards the new plastic slides at McRae Park for the first time.

He might even recall, as I do, the moment that she let him go.