Thursday, July 20, 2017

Mad Love



My handsome lunch date. Hard to believe this gorgeous little man can sometimes make me crazy.

"You'll see. Having a boy is totally different. You won't love him more than your daughter; but you'll love him differently. And will he love you! He'll be mommy's little boy!"

Having one daughter and one son invites all kinds of comments from people, as does having any configuration of children or having no children or what have you. Basically, if you're between the ages of 18 and 50, everyone needs to comment obsessively on your domestic situation.

People love to stress how different parenting will be based on my kids' genders, which, as a progressive person who understands how harmful gender norms and expectations can be to all sorts of folks, irks me.

Basically, if you raise more than one child, the experiences will be totally different. Their gender is not the sole cause for this.

That said, this progressive woman gave birth to two children who seem intent on upholding societal expectations for gender. Stella basically requires that any article of clothing that enters her room be pink. Her Netflix nickname is "Stella the Stylist." Getting a manicure is the pinnacle of happiness for her. When I accidentally woke her up while checking on her last night, she mumbled in her sleep, "I just need an outfit!"

Sam is a rough and tumble boy obsessed with superheroes, trucks, and sports. He turns toys into swords and guns, and loves nothing more than to wrestle. HARD. He needs a villain to defeat in every game we play. He even, I swear, will sometimes say things like, "Mommy, I'll protect you.You're my princess."

In the meanwhile, I'm running around reminding Stella that she's empowered/independent/strong and Sam that he's kind/sweet/caring. If they insist on conforming, they'll at least do so without the harmful downfall of the patriarchy. 

Raising two very different kids has been wonderful and challenging in very distinct ways. And since I grapple with anxiety, I've noticed that each kid triggers that anxiety in opposing ways.

With Stella, it was all about her lack of sleep and screaming. Before she was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, I had no clue why she was so sensitive to outside stimuli, nor why she would scream when unhappy, rather than talk about it. But not getting enough rest and enduring blood curdling cries for sometimes hours on end left me hanging on by a thread. (You can hear more about this by listening to either my Moth Story Slam story or my Expressing Motherhood story, if you're in the mood.)

Sam has been a fairly normal sleeper. He yells, but he doesn't scream for hours on end. But his physical roughness pushes my buttons in ways that haven't been pushed since I was a kid.

Sam is freakishly strong. This is not a mom bragging about her son, it's a fact. He's this tiny little guy who is at least as strong as me and sometimes even stronger. Since's he's an oppositional threenager, that means that he resists leaving to go to school, going upstairs for his bath, getting into his bed at night, sitting at dinner. I'm basically a police officer trying to move a very resistant protester several times a day.

But that's not the worst of it. He hurts me daily. 99% of the time, it's accidental. He's fiercely affectionate, so he'll run up to hug me and accidentally headbutt me. He'll climb on my lap and his knees and elbows will dig in sharply to areas I didn't even know I had. He'll grab my face to kiss me and his little fingers will leave marks. He'll kick me in the face - hard - in the middle of the night (because he climbs into our bed and sleeps between us every single night these days).

And then, 1% of the time, he hurts me on purpose. He'll get angry that he's not getting the dinner he wanted or that I have the audacity to tell him to stop making a mess, and he'll smack me in the face or throw something at me or kick me in my side. And as pathetic as this sounds, it hurts. It really hurts.

And that's when my anxiety goes from zero to 100. I dealt with a lot of turmoil as a kid, and getting hit brings me instantly back to a bad time. Yes, I know rationally that this is just my kid testing his boundaries, but part of me feels like a helpless kid at the mercy of a dysfunctional home. That's how PTSD works.

So I either get worked up and scream like an idiot, or I retreat into a corner and cry, or I look (on the surface) like I'm handling it well, but later that night I'll fall into a funk.

It's hard to handle something as big as my kid being violent when that violence triggers my mental health issues.

But I am. Even just recognizing that this is why this is so hard for me helps. It's a tough situation for every parent, really. But teaching him that he can't hurt people - accidentally or otherwise - without consequence is important.

And, inevitably, moments after he hurt me, he'll do something so insanely sweet that will make me melt into a puddle of mom-juice. Have you seen those Sour Patch Kids commercials where the Sour Patch Kid does something mean, then does something really cute? First sour, then sweet? Well, that's exactly what Sam does.


Parenting with anxiety is an adventure, that's for sure. And in many ways, it's made me confront and deal with issues that plagued me my entire life. I'm not saying I love getting physically assaulted on a daily basis, but it's certainly made me look back and process things that I'd buried several hundred feet under the ground.

And those fierce hugs that I get several times a day are healing, too.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

On Being Moderately Fat

My sister recently posted this picture of me on Facebook. My initial reaction was, "Damn, I'm fat. I have to untag myself." My second reaction, after a lot of deep breathing and consciously unlearning and resisting societal norms was, "I'm fat; that's who I am. I'm also beautiful and talented and worthy, and I can't run away from what I look like."

I don't write very much about the state of my body. Mostly because it tends to make people uncomfortable. Especially when I use the word "fat."

My dear friend from New York, Alex, inspired me to call myself fat. We were best friends in our formative early twenties, and we were both larger women. Back in those days, we'd get together and eat whatever food was allowed on whatever diet we were on, complain about our upper arms or thighs, get really sad, drink a little, and eventually say really mean thing about ourselves. We did other stuff, too, but being really down on our bodies was definitely part of our bonding.

Then, Alex took a burlesque class, and eventually mustered up the courage to perform for a real audience. The sheer act of taking off her clothes in front of others helped her feel more comfortable in her body. In fact, she gave an amazing Ted Talk about her transformation that is well worth your time. (She's kind of a big deal.)

Alex, aka Lillian Bustle, taught me that the word "fat" is merely a descriptor. Society tells us it's bad, that it's ugly and nasty. But we don't have to accept that.

I hesitate to write about being fat, because I know a chorus of well-meaning friends will be quick to reply, "YOU'RE NOT FAT!" As if being fat is so horrible, so scary, that we have to obliterate the word before it is fully pronounced.

But I wear glasses. If I say, "I wear glasses," nobody screams at me, "YOU DON'T WEAR GLASSES!" I have brown hair, but nobody ever contradicts that. Nobody tells me I'm wrong when I say I'm white or female or am a mother. Why? Because we don't see anything inherently wrong with those descriptors.

I am fat. Objectively so. I'm not big boned or curvy or chubby. I'm fat. And I'm really OK with it. Or, maybe more honestly, I'm working to be OK with it. Every moment of every day.

Not that it's anyone's business, but I'm healthy. Like many fat people, my body is fat not because of gorging on fast food or lack of activity. I cook very healthy, vegetable-heavy meals most days of the week. I drink enough water. I don't drink soda. I work out regularly. I haven't eaten at McDonald's in so long, I can't remember the last time I set foot in one. My blood pressure is great, my cholesterol is great, my resting heart rate is great.

Was I once unhealthy? Yes. I grew up in a traumatic home, and turned to food for comfort. I've struggled with eating disorders - binging, binging and purging, not eating anything, eating very little and then purging that. I once starved myself down to a size 4. I gained three times the recommended amount of weight during my first pregnancy. I've done the Adkins Diet and South Beach Diet and Weight Watchers and The Whole 30 and the Paleo Diet. I've run regularly and done yoga and taken adult dance classes and done weight training and lived in NYC where I walked several miles per day. I've felt suicidal more than once in my life because of how my body looked.

All this to say, that the current state of my body is not because I'm a lazy slob who let herself go.

But damn it, why do I feel the need to justify that? Why is our society still so insistent that women are SEXY! HOT! GORGEOUS! STUNNING! at every age, in every circumstance? And why do we equate thin with beauty? How did that lie get so much momentum? Our society tells women that if they're fat, nobody will love them. And yet Alex and I and so many others found amazing partners who love us just as we are.

Sorry. This is rambly. What was my point?

I guess I want to join the growing number of fat people who are sharing their stories, so we can finally start to eliminate this stigma. Because, to this day, I'm treated differently because of my size.

Just the other day, I ran on the treadmill and was sweaty and gross. I popped by the store on the way home to pick up supplies for slime-making and cookie-baking, because that's how I wanted to bond with my kiddos. I held a package of cookie dough in my hand, and I felt eyes on me. A thin older woman looked at the cookie dough, then looked at me - a fat woman in workout clothes. She laughed. She laughed in my face and then walked away. "Yeah, you burned 30 calories, so why not go eat a bunch of cookies, fatty?"

Don't tell me that's not what she was thinking.

I've been thin and I've been fat and I've been everything in between. I can affirm that fat people are treated differently.

And the thing is, I still have a lot of thin privilege at my size. I can still buy clothes at most stores and sit comfortably in a regular airplane seat and climb a lighthouse on vacation with a weight limit and live in a house with multiple floors without damaging my joints. I know and love a lot of people who struggle with the way their weight infringes upon their lives every day. The tiny amount of discrimination I deal with is nothing compared to what they go through.

But what I'm tired of, what I'm so tired of, is the assumption that I should do more. That if I cut xyz out of my diet or tried this class or meditated or what have you, I could be thin. The damned arrogance of some really good people to assume that someone as intelligent and diligent and tenacious as me isn't doing enough.

And the crass assumption that it's any of their business.

So, the next time you find yourself wanting to laugh at a post making fun of Chris Christie's weight or chuckle at some meme featuring a fat person or want to recommend a diet or lifestyle change to a fat friend, please kindly remind yourself that we are people and we are fine and lovable and valuable just the way we are. And if we want to take measures - drastic or otherwise - to alter our bodies, that's our business. And if we don't - if we've tried and tried and finally just want to be content and happy - that's our business, too.

And maybe someday I'll get up the courage to watch the Food Network while I run on the treadmill. But right now, I hate the idea of being the butt of someone's joke.

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Resources (Including the ones mentioned above)

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Value of Failure

Failure is an excellent teacher.

It's weird, being a mom and a teacher. I mean, I deal with children at the minimum FOURTEEN HOURS A DAY, SEVEN DAYS A WEEK. That's assuming both of my kids sleep through the night. Which is no given.

I'm constantly on, constantly a role model, constantly caring for others than myself. But I'm not writing this blog to vent. (Cue the contented sigh from my microscopic group of loyal readers.)

Before I became a parent, I figured I knew it all. I'd been teaching for six years, and I'd observed what I considered to be parental pitfalls, mistakes I KNEW I'd never make with my own offspring. My kids would never eat fast food, would watch a maximum of 30 minutes of TV per week, would never throw a fit or have a rotten attitude or forget to do homework or leave a lunchbox behind at school.

Of course, the minute I was actually in charge of a small human who had her own personality separate from the one I was trying to cultivate, I realized how naive I'd been. Every "mistake" I'd witnessed other parents making were made by me, plus a million new ones I didn't know existed. This parenting gig is HARD, so hard, and there's no right way to do it.

So I have empathy beyond belief for the parents of the kids I teach. That judgmental vibe I had going on in my early days is gone, replaced by understanding and concern. When a parent expresses shock at their kid's behavior, I believe them (usually).

That said, there is one pattern I've observed as a teacher that gives me pause. (I'm going to say pattern rather than pitfall, even though I really kind of want to say pitfall, but I'm trying to be nice.) Many parents today are trying to shield their kids from all unhappiness and pain, and this tendency is ironically hurting their children.

When a student wastes classroom time and neglects to do an assignment, they'll get a zero in my grade book. A zero is the kiss of death. It can take a solid A down to a C or D instantly. But I'm fair. I accept late work all the way until the end of the term, and I don't even deduct points. My policy is considered too lenient by many. But I've structured it this way so a student will instantly see the logical consequence of their action (I didn't do my work, therefore my grade fell from an A to a C), and then feel empowered to fix it (they can actually watch their grade go back up to an A on their student portal in real time when I put the new grade in).

The ultimate goal is to teach them to be autonomous, independent, tenacious, and not afraid of failure. So they can grow into an adult who has a bad day at work, goes home, dusts themselves off, and comes back the next day ready to make things better.

But what happens more often than not is the minute the zero goes in the grade book, I get an email. Parents can set up the grade book so they get notifications when their kid's grade falls below a certain point. Which is fantastic. I adore when parents are involved in their child's education, and you know I'll sign up for those alerts when my own kids are in middle school. (Because, after all, middle schoolers are not known for always being so forthcoming with information about their school day.)

But the email I get often asks, "Why does Bobby Lee have a zero on that assignment?"

Let's think about this for a minute. If I put the grades in on my planning period, that means Bobby Lee is still at school. Which means the parent wants me to explain his zero before even asking Bobby.

I'm a patient person. I often reply with something along the lines of, "Make sure to talk to Bobby about this, so he can put a plan in place to bring his grade up, but I'll tell you that he didn't complete today's assignment. He can do it tonight for homework and turn it in tomorrow for full credit."

And, nine times out of ten, the parent would reply to me, asking me why he didn't do his work. Had I prompted him enough? Did he understand it? Did he seem sad? What kind of tone was I using?

Sometimes a parent will even scold me for making their kid feel bad by "giving" him a D.

via GIPHY


I have nearly 120 students, roughly 30 per class. As good as I am, I can't always determine why a student didn't do his or her work. And it is never my intention for a kid to feel bad. Ever.

The main problem with this is not that it's annoying or time-consuming for me (I would never, ever complain about such things, ahem), it's that it takes the responsibility of the grade out of the student's hands and into the teacher's and parent's, and it teaches the student to panic when there's a problem.

I get it. When Stella's math grade fell to an NI (the old-school equivalent of a D) on her report card, some mama-bear part of my soul wanted to call the teacher and say, "HOW???" But I knew how. I'd seen Stella's low scores on her math tests, I'd battled my kid to do math homework. The teacher was doing all she could; it was time my kid take some responsibility.

Stella was devastated by her grade. She cried and was upset that we didn't get ice cream like we usually do. We were sympathetic and kind. We didn't yell at her for her low grade, but we didn't offer to make it go away by intimidating her teacher, either. We simply sat down and calmly made a plan to make it better. By seeing what could happen to her grade, Stella had more gumption to work harder at math, and she accepted our assistance more readily. When she brought it up to an S (old-school B) by the next report card, we all celebrated by eating ice cream.

What did Stella learn? Sometimes, we mess up. Maybe through no fault of our own. We stumble, we fall. We can accept the consequences, live through the disappointment, then find a way to make things better.

It wasn't easy when we were in it. It took work on all our parts, and there were days I wanted to magically erase that grade and make her feel better.

But this temporary discomfort is an investment. Someday, God willing, Stella will be in college. Maybe, like her mom, she'll fall for someone who's not really worthy of her, and when that person decimates her heart, she'll fall behind in her course work. And when she sees grades she doesn't like, she won't be defeated. She won't call me up to fix it for her. She'll know she has the power to make things better.

Some day, when Sam is working for a boss he may not really like, he may be required to redo and redo work that he thinks was pretty great the first time. He might get annoyed and even angry, but he'll have the fortitude to do it, without insulting his boss or throwing a fit in the meantime.

Just as we let our kids stumble when they're learning to walk, just as we let our kids get spaghetti sauce all over their clothes when they're learning to feed themselves, we have to learn to let them fail - even in school - so they can learn to overcome it. If we run around and fix all these problems, what kind of adults will they be?

It hurts to watch your kid suffer. But it's our job as parents to teach them that they can withstand bad things, because bad things will happen.

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I wrote a blog entry geared toward teachers on this same topic that is on the JCPSForward site. I encourage all teachers and parents and pretty much everyone to read it.