Wednesday, May 10, 2017

An Ode to Millennials

My first millennial party - A Harry Potter Halloween Spooktacular where nearly all of us arrived in costume. I was in heaven.

When Steven asked me to join his book club, I was wary. Although I admired him as a storyteller and thought he was hilarious, he was so much younger than me (14 years to be exact). What on earth would I have in common with him and other millennials?

But my gut told me to say yes, and if my 41 years on earth have taught me anything, it's to listen to my gut. My gut is freaking smart. I mean, really, I'm pretty sure my gut graduated from Harvard, but I haven't had a chance to ask her.

I liked the group tremendously. They weren't all millennials, but enough of them were, and I found that I enjoyed talking to them. About the book we read, sure. But also about life and politics and religion and All The Important Things.

This wasn't the first time this had happened. When Dave and I come home from dates, I often find myself engaged in a vibrant conversation with our babysitter (who's also become a dear friend), Grace, late into the night. I have a coworker whose teaching style is very much like mine and with whom I mourned Hillary Clinton's loss by trying to hide our tears from our students. But I figured those were flukes. Random younger people whom I admired.

But I think it's deeper than that. On some level, I think I just align, personality-wise, with millennials. Despite the age gap.

Take millennial feminists, for example. I want to write a love letter to millennial feminists. Their absolute comfort in their own skin. Their fearlessness and perseverance. Their solidarity. When you hang out with young feminists, you don't bad mouth other women. You don't ridicule another woman's outfit or talk about why she doesn't deserve her man or comment on how she really should wear spanx under that outfit. You don't put yourself down, hoping she'll correct you. No, "God I'm so fat right now" or "my hair is the worst." You don't apologize when someone else bumps into you. It's ridiculously refreshing. Granted, the women of my generation and older were conditioned to uphold the patriarchy by fearing each other, demeaning each other, drawing clear lines in the sand between each other. And while many women of my generation have unlearned such behaviors, millennial feminists seem to have known all along that sisterhood is crucial, and don't have to constantly fight urges to make catty comments about strangers' outfits.

Millennials have a reputation for being precious and fragile, needing others' support constantly. As a person who now has a number of millennial friends, I have no clue where this idea came from. First off, my younger friends work their butts off. Many of them work two or more jobs, despite their higher educations. (My fellow Gen X'ers and I were able to enter a very robust econony, in case we forgot). They are self-sufficient and independent. True, they party hard (much harder than I am able to at my advanced age), but they work hard beforehand. Some of them own their own homes (an accomplishment that I finally achieved five years ago - at age 36), and they are far more fiscally responsible than I was at their age (when I racked up tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt and had to ask for help from my family and friends to bail myself out.)

They're known for being selfish and narcissistic. Huh. But most of my millennial friends work in professions that exist to serve others (teaching, social work, nursing, enabling people with disabilities to lead full lives). At a Derby party I recently attended at the home of millennials, 100% of the money we collected for the racing pot was donated to charity. Charity, I tell you! I threw many a Derby party in New York City and we never thought to donate any money to charity.

And, also, so what if they feel good about themselves? My generation was so filled with neuroses that we talk about how we can't stand to see a "videotape" of ourselves, constantly commenting on our ugliness. These guys snap a photo of themselves looking nice, maybe in front of a cool location or with a group of friends. THE HORROR!!!! They like how they look and want to capture that moment. I'm just now learning to like how I look. Meaning I have huge chunks of my life where I was barely in a picture. Is that really something to be proud of?

But their cores are softer, perhaps, than my generations. They are more in touch with their emotions and seem to be able to access their empathy more often. They value lifestyles and cultures that are different than their own, and they practice self-care (which sometimes means avoiding triggering concepts or articles). They are open to new people, even an old lady who wants to crash their party, and don't constantly seem to be searching for what makes me different than them.

Plus, and maybe this is more a comment on me, I just have SO MUCH FUN with millennials. Karaoke? Costumes? Board games? Dancing? I've never stopped loving these activities, and when I hang out with young folks, I don't have to work to talk people into doing them with me. I don't want to grow up.

Am I being a bit hyperbolic, a bit one sided? Yes, and I'm sorry. Gen X was pretty badass, too. I remember doing this unit on Gen X in my sociology class in college, studying movies and pop culture and countless texts about our tendency to slack off, our lack of any kind of work ethic, our meager ties with our parents. At the time, I was angry that older folks thought of us as so useless. We had a lot to offer.

Yes, we girls hid our bodies under thick flannel shirts and the boys grew their hair out long. Screw your gender norms! We grew up in homes with higher divorce rates than any generation before, so yeah, our idea of family was a bit skewed. Maybe that's why so many of us waited to have kids until we were older, and why so many of use became such involved parents. And while we may have appeared like slackers, all of my friends and I got jobs out of college and worked very diligently. And now look at us! We're all the responsible, hard-working grownups the boomers feared we'd never be.

Maybe older folks have always and will always be wary of younger folks. Maybe it will always seem to us like they have it easier, that they mess up more, than their values are all wrong, simply because they do not mirror our own.

But I see the Millennial Generation as being, in some ways at least, more centered and healthy than my own. I'll always love friends my own age (and older), but these young guys make me so happy.

Now, excuse me while we take selfies and discuss God in a totally non-judgmental and inclusive way!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Hold onto 9 as long as you can.

If Stella’s current age were an inanimate object, I’d grasp onto it so tightly my fingers would bleed.

She’s 9. Because of her height and early development (thanks maternal genes), she looks older. But she is 9, and it is wonderful.

She’s almost my height and her feet are nearly the same size as mine, meaning that she often borrows my socks. She can read a book in a day and discusses complex ideas like racism and religion and gender norms with me as we lie together in her bed. Her favorite food is sushi and she’s quite good at baking. She writes in her journal, writes poetry, writes graphic novels. She looks after her little brother and can open up the bottle of allergies pills so she can take one each night.

But she’s also such a little girl. When we go to restaurants, the host eyes her and asks if she needs a kids menu. Her response is always, “Yay! They have kids menus here, Mommy!” She likes to curl up in my lap and have me tell her stories. She puts together outfits that are quirky and adorable and obviously free of any worry that someone might judge her. And although her reading level is close to that of a 9th grader’s (ahem, humblebrag, ahem), she loves to sit next to her brother as I read them both Dr. Suess.

She got a Build-a-Bear Workshop gift certificate for her birthday and was elated. I took her, and she was jumping up and down with excitement as we entered. She chose a purple, green, and pink cat with a strawberry scent, a cat sound in the paw, a pink and purple dress, and pink and purple bows. She named her Candy, and slaved over all the details on Candy’s birth certificate. She held her tight as we walked out to get some frozen yogurt.

Suddenly, a cloud crossed over her face. “Mommy, I’m worried.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Do you think Johanna will be sad?” (Johanna was a first Build-a-Bear: a frill-free, basic model.)

“Why would she be sad?”

“She might be jealous that Candy has a strawberry scent and a cat sound. I feel bad for her.” She looked like she might cry.

“Yes, but she’s special because she’s your first. Maybe it would help if Candy could share some of the bows in the 4-pack she got?”

And her face reversed, lighting up like the Eastern sky.

She still thinks I’m cool. She decorates her walls with her own drawings and must sleep with a “lovey.” She doesn’t like scary movies and still watches little kid cartoons. She carries a cat backpack and a cat lunchbox and her favorite outfit is a cat dress with cat leggings. If she’s in a particularly sassy mood, she’ll pair it with a cat ear headband.

I teach adolescents. I know what lies ahead. She’ll always love me and she’ll always be my little girl, but there will come a time when I do something that deeply embarrasses her. She’ll feel smarter than me, exasperated by how little I know about anything. She’ll be worried about what the other kids think about her, will choose her clothes more carefully, will gravitate toward shows and books with more angsty themes. She won’t be an actual little girl.

Many people reassure me that our bond can, in fact, endure throughout her adolescence. There are some kids that resist some of the darker corners of the preteen and teen years, kids that still hug their mothers in public and don’t roll their eyes so frequently that we fear they’ll be stuck that way.

Still, I know I better cherish this time like crazy. I will snuggle up with her in bed tonight. We’ll discuss Trump’s immigration policy while we brush Candy’s strawberry-scented fur. And I’ll try for the millionth time to freeze time.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Empowered in Pink

At the art museum yesterday, I looked over and Stella had created a fashion collage on pink paper.

Stella’s birthday is quickly approaching. And, as always, my incredible daughter has a theme. This year? It’s fashion. A fashion runway party where all the guests will get outfits to model, as well as complete makeovers. (Look it up, it’s a thing.)

Pre-kid Randi is growling with anger. Because back before I’d ever carried a child in my womb, I’d figured this whole motherhood thing out. My kids would never throw fits. My kids would sleep through the night. My kids would be 100% breastfed with no supplementation. My kids would never know the word “McDonalds” until they went to college. And my kids would never, ever buy into cis-gender stereotypical crap.

Stella has taught me so much about myself. Because of our rough start – her not sleeping for her first 16 months and exhibiting early signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder – my own mental health issues had no choice but to come to the surface where I could finally get help for them. Her empathetic heart teaches me every day how self-centered I am. Like when I grumble about a car’s slow driving and she pipes up from the back seat, “Mom, maybe that person is new to driving and just wants to be careful.”

And her complete adoration for everything considered traditionally feminine has shown me how much internalized sexism I needed to shed.

Why did I bristle when Stella wanted to wear frilly, pink dresses? Why did it drive me nuts when she said she wanted to be a baker when she grew up? Why was I so annoyed when I found her meddling with the few pieces of makeup I keep on hand for the five times a year I wear it?

My grandmothers made sure to teach me all the traditional female jobs. I could cook, bake, sew, clean, crochet, and even needlepoint. I loved spending time with my grandmothers, but their old-fashioned views of a “woman’s place” irked me. So, even though I enjoyed all of those activities, I shunned them the minute I could.

When I moved out on my own after college and had to cook, I remembered how much I liked it. And then I’d bake for parties, and found that I couldn’t wait to bake again. I never wanted someone to assume I had to cook or bake, I certainly never wanted a man I was dating to think it was my job to feed him, but I realized I really loved these activities.

Feminism is the radical belief that we shouldn’t be held back by gender stereotypes. But I was holding myself back by forbidding myself to do anything considered “feminine.”

Stella refuses to be held back by such beliefs. The kid wears something in pink daily. She sleeps in a sleep mask. She loves to go to afternoon tea and is obsessed with fashion. She has a Disney princess collection.

She literally sleeps in this My Little Pony sleep mask nightly. And she's also the kind of kid who reads her book over breakfast.

But she’s also the kid who will see an ad with an objectified woman and rant about how sexist it is. She was heartbroken when Hillary Clinton wasn’t elected, and remains shocked that we haven’t had a woman president yet (as am I). She is obsessed with women scientists throughout history. And although she loves Barbies, she always points out how “unrealistic” their waists are and gives them narratives other than some obsession with Ken. We don’t even own a Ken doll, in fact.

Stella embraces all things traditionally feminine because that is her personality. And those things have worth. We shouldn’t expect all women to embrace them, and we certainly shouldn’t tell men they shouldn’t embrace them, either. But just because they are associated with women doesn’t make them bad.

In fact, as Stella would tell you, they can be empowering.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Progress at the Zoo

An easy, enjoyable day at the zoo. And a personal triumph for me.

Today, I took both my kids to the zoo by myself. And I didn't have a single meltdown. I didn't even get snippy - well, not more so than every other parent there . I never felt like I was going to hyperventilate or that I needed to run away for a few minutes. I didn't even usher us home after two hours, as usual. We stayed around four, in fact.

I guess this may not seem like much of an accomplishment, but it's huge for me. As I've mentioned before, I'm really, really good at hiding my anxiety issues about 90% of the time. So most people probably have no clue that activities like taking my kids to the zoo or playground or museums by myself are one of my biggest hurdles. But boy, are they.

Many factors conspired to make today great. It's one of my favorite weather days: sunny, a slight chill in the air, the smell of new Spring buds barely perceptible. I've also been eating well, avoiding foods that make my anxiety worse (like alcohol, dairy, and processed sugar). I've been getting decent sleep (under my highly-recommended weighted blanket) and working out regularly. I've been a bonafide poster child for treating anxiety holistically.

But a huge chunk of my success is attributed to my therapy. I've been seeing a therapist regularly for about seven years now, and less regularly for 20. I've tried traditional talk therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, writing-based therapy, and now EMDR - a far less traditional therapy that's been shown in studies to be not only extremely effective for PTSD, but also incredibly quick compared to other therapies.

How does it work? Well, it sounds strange, I'm not going to lie. You choose some of your most traumatic memories. And you close your eyes and try to remember and retell as many details surrounding the memory as possible, all while listening to a series of pulses in your ears. You work through the same memory until the process of retelling it is no longer seriously painful. And then you move onto the next memory.

I've been at it for about a year, and the progress has been impressive.

Today is the perfect example. I woke up later than I'd meant to. I usually like to be at the zoo when it opens. But my lovely husband got up with the kids so I could sleep later, possibly as penance since he'll be in grad school all day. I felt the panic creep up -- WE'RE GOING TO BE LATE -- and then I let it go. Who cares? It's Saturday. There's no timeline. Besides, it's the off-season, so getting there early isn't so important. And so I made myself a lovely, healthy breakfast, drank my coffee while it was hot, and let the kids watch one more episode of their show.

I started to obsess over what to pack. Water bottles? Snacks? Extra clothes in case Sam has an accident? Lunches? A first aid kit? I dreaded the thought of all that preparation, and I REALLY dreaded the thought of carrying it all. Sam's old enough that we don't need to lug around a stroller, and I did not want to carry a backpack. Besides, I spend almost my entire week planning, packing, preparing, and executing. I get the kids' stuff prepped for school, I pack my own lunch every single day, I do a ton of prep work as a teacher, and as the team leader this year, it's my job to organize the other teachers on my team -- planning events, coordinating schedules, communicating with parents. I spend Monday - Friday putting everything in order and making sure everyone knows everything they're supposed to do. So, I decided that today is my day off, damn it. I'm going to go to the zoo with NOTHING. Money, sunglasses, ID. That's it.

It was so liberating. When we got hungry, I bought food. When we got thirsty, there were water fountains. If there was a boo boo, it could be cleaned at home.

I happily withdrew myself from the Best Mom Contest today by not packing healthy, organic snacks and lunches for my kids. Look at them sucking on artificially colored sugar water from PBA-laden bottles!

While at the zoo, I could feel the old anxiety creep up a couple of times. When folks started to crowd around us in the polar bear exhibit. When Sam bolted from me in the gorilla sanctuary. When both kids whined because they wanted to do different things.

But I was able to handle it. I was able to tolerate the crowds, to firmly warn Sam that he'd get a time out if he didn't stick by me, to calmly ask my kids to use their big kid voices and compromise. I had control over myself and my reactions, and I wanted to shout to every stranger I saw, THIS FEELS AMAZING!

I was able to take this picture without obsessively worrying that one of my kids would fall and get hurt!

I guess this is how people who don't have anxiety always feel? That's incredible to me. I've lived for most of my 41 years grappling with certain situations, dreading certain activities, constantly pretending to be normal. I can't tell you how much more I'm able to enjoy my life now.

So, let me be a walking advertisement for EMDR. I hesitated for so many years, thinking, "I never fought in a war! How could I have PTSD?" But if some seriously you-know-what went down in your childhood, if you find yourself triggered by certain situations, you might be the perfect candidate. If it can make this much of a change in me, I know it can help anyone.

Best of all, I was really able to revel in the sweetness of moments like this one.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

My Internal Voice is No Longer a Jerk

Roughly 25 years. That's how long it's been since I first stepped into a therapist's office. And today was the day that it dawned on me how well it's worked.

I cashed in on a gift certificate for a massage my husband gifted me for my birthday. Massages became my favorite indulgence the moment I discovered them, which is a shame, because they're tough to afford on a teacher's salary. So I usually only get one once (at the most twice) a year.

And while I always try my very best to turn OFF my internal monologue and relax, my internal monologue won't have any of that. She's got a lot to say, and she's not going to let some aromatherapy and acupressure slow her down.

So, I just let my thoughts flow today, and at some point it dawned on me how nice my internal voice was.

She was very complimentary about the massage and the massage therapist, of course.

Yes, thank you. Get that knot. Knock it right out of there. Lord, you're gifted. Do people ever tell you that? Thank you, yes, a hot pack on my forehead absolutely makes me want to propose marriage to you, which I'll just keep to myself.

But the crazy part was how nice she was to me!

At this point, I need to back up her and give you an idea of what my internal monologue used to sound like, back when I first started getting massages, just so you can understand the drastic shift.

Ugh, I should have washed my feet before I came in here. She's going to be grossed out by the smell. CRAP! I didn't shave my legs! She's going to cut her hand on my stubble. She's going to be disgusted out by how fat I am. How will she ever even get to the muscle, with all this fat on top? I want to leave. I'm so embarrassed. Why can't you just lose weight and be normal, you idiot? What right do you think you have to get a massage, when you're so big. I'm never doing this again.

It's awful, I know. But this mean little voice in my head was constant. Every thing I tried to do, she was there to tell me I was going to fail. She constantly told me that nobody loved me, and when friends and family tried to prove otherwise, she'd tell me they were lying. She told me I'd be fired from my job, that I would die alone, that my writing sucked, that I looked stupid on stage and should stop performing, that my life was a waste. Even when I looked confident and happy on the outside, she sulked inside my brain, reminding me that none of the stuff in my life that seemed good would last, that I simply didn't deserve any of it.

The first time I went to therapy, it was court-ordered. My dad had beaten my mom up so badly that he could have killed her, and the court decided (wisely) that my sister and I might need to talk to someone. Instantly, I loved it. It unburdened me, it helped me feel less alone. But when my dad and mom reconciled, Dad cancelled therapy, thinking it was some vast conspiracy against him.

The second time I went to therapy, it was because my angel of a college roommate made the appointment for me. My first love had just revealed he was gay, my sister fell pregnant at 16, and my mom had had a heart attack - all within a few months. I kept pretending everything was fine outside of our tiny room, but Katie watched me cry my eyes out night after night, drink too much at frat parties, and say horrible, horrible things about myself. I was so embarrassed that she thought I needed help, but instantly, it made me feel better. Honestly, it saved my life, as I'd begun to formulate serious suicide plans right around that time.

I can't count how many therapists I've seen in my life. They haven't all been winners (like the animal hoarder I visited in Brooklyn who complained incessantly about her neighbor and told me I should leave Dave because he wasn't doing his fair share of the dishes), but I can assure you I wouldn't be here without them.

And the three I've had since we moved to Louisville have had the largest effect, probably because I've been diligent about going since we arrived. They've helped me face my troubled past, helped me reprogram my knee-jerk reactions, help me learn to experience emotions less dangerously, helped me to truly love and value myself.

And so, today, as the massage therapist worked wonders on my body, my internal monologue was like a sweet girlfriend, sharing a glass of wine with me.

Honey, you deserve this. Yes, relax, breathe deeply. You've got so much going on, but you're doing so well with it all! Look at you, parenting and teaching and storytelling and writing and still taking a little time for yourself. Mmm...that lavender and rosemary is just delicious, isn't it? Helps all that stress just melt away. Feel her work those knots out of your legs - your strong legs that walk miles around your classroom daily. Feel her rub away the tension of a back that lifts up a three year old for a kiss each night. You deserve this. Enjoy it.

OK, yeah, she's a bit cheesy. But I'll take a cheesy internal voice over a bully any day.