The Talk

Today I wanted to write about anxiety and mental illness and a party and agoraphobia. More accurately that is what I planned to write about yesterday when Z and I figured out our schedule for Sunday to include some writing time for me.

Right before we went to bed we saw the jury had come back and delivered a not guilty verdict. Maybe tomorrow I’ll write about anxiety and mental illness and a party and agoraphobia. But today I can’t.

Today the boys played in the backyard while Z worked on a climbing structure he is building for them. They ran around, they used toy hammers and chisels and mallets and screwdrivers. They hit each other, pulled hair, kicked. Time outs happened. I watched them play, yelled at them when they started in on each other, gave out kisses when T fell onto a stool. My mind was half with them and half thinking about Travon Martin and his parents.

My boys. My beautiful boys with their blond hair and their blue eyes. My boys who are too young to understand that terrible things happen in this world. We are trying to figure out how to explain it to T. He is still obsessed with guns and weapons. He isn’t allowed to play guns at home, he isn’t allowed to have toy guns. It’s all abstract to him at this point. You shoot at the bad guys. Case closed.

The other day I was making dinner while T sat on the sofa and watched Disney Jr. The movie Pocahontas happened to be on. I hadn’t seen it since it first came out. I walked into the room and looked at the screen. A young man was pointing a gun at John Smith and Pocahontas’s brother as they fought with a knife. Suddenly I remembered that the brother was going to get shot. T was riveted. I had the time to turn the TV off, but I didn’t. I stood there and watched it with him. When Pocahontas turned to the kid who shot and cried, “You killed him!” I faced T. “Look at that. Look. That gun killed that man. That is why Daddy and I hate guns. They kill people. The kill good people. They kill bad people. They kill by mistake. They kill on purpose. They are horrible and unsafe and we do not think it is cool or funny when you pretend to have them. Police have guns to protect us, but guns are dangerous. They can kill.”

A little heavy for an almost 4 year old, yes. But T has been fascinated by death for months, it has been a frequent topic of conversation.

So we are trying to let him know what we feel about guns. It is going to be a long road. Obviously he didn’t get what I was trying to explain, but over time he will. And many people will disagree with our approach. That’s fine. We are all allowed to have different views. We are going to teach our kids that in our family we do not believe in owning guns. We don’t think they make us safer. And frankly, we don’t think other people should have guns either.

We are going to have to have a lot of difficult conversations as the boys get older. But we don’t have to have The Talk. Our boys will never be told that they can’t run in public for fear of raising suspicion of the police. Or that they can’t wear a hoodie without being targeted as a criminal. Our boys will think of the police as people who will help them, not as ones who will accuse them of crimes they didn’t commit.

Our boys are different than black boys or brown boys. They are going to get different opportunities. They are going to be treated better-I was going to type for their whole lives, but you know what? I hope and pray (fake pray? agnostic pray?) that it won’t continue for their whole lives. I hope equality happens in their lifetimes.

Today I’m numb and sickened and horrified by the world we live in. I will never understand what it is like for Travon Martin’s parents. And I’m not even grateful for the privilege that accompanies the color of my boy’s skin. It is dirty privilege. It is wrong.

These words don’t come from some ivory tower of race relation perfection. I’ve done and felt plenty that I’m ashamed of in my 36 years. I need to do better. Z needs to do better. You need to do better. We all do.

family cl

I wish we lived in a country where all families were treated with the respect that our family receives.

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Hypocrite

After posting this a couple of weeks ago I asked Z what he thought of it. “Eh.” he said. “What? You don’t agree with me? You don’t think I said the right thing?” “NO!” he replied, “I completely agree. His penis does not define who he is. No, it was just so angry. You do a better job making your point when you aren’t so strident.”

He was absolutely right. I was furious when I wrote the post. Furious and self-righteous. I mean to do a perfect job when it comes to teaching my sons about gender. I have a clear idea of what I want to teach them–women are equal to men. Women deserve respect and equal pay for equal work. I want them to grow up automatically applying the Bechdel Test to every movie they see. I want them to think about why several male fiction writers a generation are heralded as the one who will pen the next Great American Novel while female authors who write about women are relegated to the “chick lit” subgenre. As they get older I want them to realize that the New York Times obituary page skews heavily male–by the 29th of August in 2010 the Times had published obituaries of 606 men and 92 women year to date.

At the same time I want them to understand that women and men are different. Women carry more body fat on average. Because women are built to carry babies. That difference doesn’t make women inferior. Women develop breasts. Even as my boys go through puberty I hope they are never uncomfortable around a nursing woman (I know-that one is a bit of a stretch, they’ll be uncomfortable 24-7 when they are going through puberty). They will know that they were nursed well into toddlerhood. I want them to understand that breasts are not simply for male sexual gratification. Breasts have a job. That doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy breasts, but they should know women are more than boobs.

This stuff is hard-acknowledging the differences. When T was potty training he wept when he learned I didn’t have a penis. He occasionally still gets upset about it and will beg me to stand when I pee. I’m his Mom, he wants me to be the same. Sameness equals comfort. I want him to understand that we are the same in so many ways. That the differences won’t matter when it comes to how much we love each other. And differences can make life interesting.

My hope is our generation will start a real paradigm shift because of the way many of us are raising our children. Our kids will automatically think males and females are equal while understanding historically there has been severe gender bias, that severe gender bias still exists around the globe including in this fine nation. T’s Aunt E and Aunt K have been a part of his life since he was 10 days old. It has never seemed different to him that he has two Aunts because it is all he has known. When he met his baby cousin G this past winter he didn’t question the fact that she has two Mommies.

Yes, that is my hope. And it is desperately important to me. I will always be grateful that my parents taught me I was every bit as significant as any man. I want to augment their lesson by making my boys aware that not every child is lucky enough to be raised with that knowledge. Gender bias, socio-economic bias, racial bias–these things are real. And they are wrong.

All this passion! So when things don’t go as well as planned, when my son tells me that girls don’t like trucks I go off the deep end a little bit. Ok. A big bit.

But here’s the thing. I model traditional gender roles for him all the time. It’s ingrained in me. It’s lazy. I don’t even realize I’m doing it. The other week a friend and I were discussing her son in front of T and I caught myself saying to her, “Oh, he’s just being a teenage boy.” Why did I feel compelled to include his gender? What did I mean? Surely I was sending a message to T about gender roles, the opposite message that I purport to embrace.  I catch myself doing similar things every day.

Several years ago I wrote about not wanting to buy T pink sheets. I’m still ashamed of the choice I made that day. More than a month ago I wrote about people mistaking my long haired boy for a girl. When we went to get our hair trimmed on Friday he begged me not to have his hair cut at all. I did force the issue on the trim, his hair was out of control and snarled-the dead ends needed to go. But he is holding the reins when it comes to length. So some days I fail and other days I succeed.

We also went to the mall on Friday to get new shoes. We’d been shoving his poor feet into a pair that were almost a year old, and as it turns out a size and a half too small. What? Shoes are expensive. We entered Stride Rite and without thinking I led him to the display of superhero and Star Wars shoes on the boy side of the store. After perusing our choices T ambled over the the girl side. “Mom!” he cried, “Look at the princess shoes! I love princesses!” I could feel my heart-rate accelerate. I was trying to figure out how to get him back over to the “boy” shoes at the same time that I was silently praying the salesperson would not tell him those were “girl” shoes. What a hypocrite. There is no way I’d by him princess shoes, especially since people mistake him for a girl as it is. But I also don’t want a salesperson verbalizing what I’m feeling? I was deeply ashamed as I told him I thought the princess shoes were awesome (Lies-the whole princess thing drives me crazy. They don’t strike me as strong role models for girls or boys) while gently leading him back to the boy display and asking him which Star Wars shoes he wanted to try on.

Turns out the fight was over the Spider Man shoes he wanted vs. the Star Wars shoes that were on sale for half the price. We had to have the conversation about what we could afford, one that we will continue to have as he grows. But the point remains, I steered him away from shoes he liked based on gender politics I claim to disavow. My decision makes me deeply uneasy. Am I failing him? Should I not be concerned that more people would mistake him for a girl if he wore pink princess shoes? Because it clearly distresses him when his gender is not clear to strangers. I don’t want to make his life harder just to forward my agenda when it comes to gender issues.

I don’t know, I don’t know what the answer is. I’m not living up to my ideals. I want to do better for him and for myself. Parenting is a messy business. A couple of weeks ago I wrote “[T] isn’t getting this gender role bullshit from Z and me.” And I believed it to be true at the time. But the truth is more complicated than that. I don’t want to pass gender role bullshit on to either boy. Yet I do every day. Now, I think I’m passing along many more messages of equality. And I don’t think my missteps make me a complete failure. But it is more complicated than I’m able to see when I’m angry about what has come out of his mouth. I am part of the problem. So I need to be part of the solution. When I figure out what that solution is I’ll let you know.

new hair cuts.

Our new hair cuts.

new star wars light saber shoes

The shoes he got really are fantastic. He can make the light sabers light up and change color with a button on the sides, but they also light up when he walks.

The family went out for ice cream last night. Z had no idea I was recording him. Neither did the boys, for that matter…

What Just Came Out of Your Mouth?

Tonight we are playing musical beds at my in-laws’ house because my sister-in-law and her family have come to town so we can celebrate my father-in-law’s 70th birthday together. This afternoon I was puttering around the room we are staying in, making a comfy little nest for T to sleep in on the floor. He was following me around and checking things out.

“Mommy? Come look at this!” he dragged me over to the closet and pointed to a shelf above his head. “Is that for me?”

I looked at the toy digger still in its packaging and remembered that my sister-in-law gifted it to the brand new baby in the family either at Christmas or at her baby shower. I explained to T that the digger wasn’t for him, it was baby G’s.

He wasn’t thrilled, but he went about his business. A few moments later he asked me if the digger was a transformer. “Nope.” I replied. “Just a digger.”

A few more moments passed. “But Mom? Girls don’t really like trucks.”

I whipped around to face him and launched into a monologue. “What? That is ridiculous and completely untrue, my friend. The fact that you have a penis has NOTHING to do with what you like. You like Princesses. You like super heros. You like Transformers. Because you are Thomas, not because you are a boy.”

“But Mom!” he cried, “I’m not Thomas! I’m Leonardo!” (Leonardo the Teenage Muntant Ninja Turtle-his latest obsession)

“Fair enough. You are Leonardo. Listen up, Leonardo. What you like has to do with you, not with your penis. Girls and boys get to like whatever they want. Do you go it?”

“I got it.”

“Good.”

Jesus fucking christ. T isn’t even four yet. He isn’t getting this gender role bullshit from Z and me. He isn’t getting it from his awesome teachers at school. Nick Jr. (his surrogate mother) isn’t great in the gender department, but it isn’t terrible either. Yet already the message is somehow getting through.

My approach will be to call bullshit on him whenever he goes there. To be mindful about how we talk about boys and girls-they might pee differently–so? Who cares? How they pee doesn’t mean they can’t achieve the same things. They have a hell of a lot more in common than not. I am fired up and ready to always confront gender issues head on. But man, I am sad. I know he was just trying to get the damn digger, still I’m sad it was so easy for him to declare that girls don’t like trucks. This sadness is legitimate. It doesn’t need to be examined. It has nothing to do with my mental illness. It’s a healthy response and I can take it and use it to work towards changing his attitude  Because rest assured, this kid will be raised to respect women and expect that women can do anything men can if it kills me. Thankfully Z is 100% on the same page.

post pool

Chilling after their Fighting for Feminism lecture, um, I mean after hanging at the pool….

dad furniture

Daddy made some excellent chainsaw furniture for the treehouse at Grandmom and Granddad’s house.

boy in backpack

Someone has a stowaway in his backpack. We’ll let him out as soon as he understands that a girl’s desire to play with trucks can be just as strong and is every bit as legitimate as a boy’s. I kid, I kid. Sort of.

Hey Dude, It’s Not Always About You

In March of last year Andrew Sullivan posted a video by the Washington City Paper called The Terror of Catcalling, Ctd. The next day he posted a reader’s comment:

You struck a nerve with this one, as I was just discussing this very thing a few weeks ago with a group of high-school freshmen in my English class. We were discussing homosexuality because of an allusion to it in the book we were reading, and several boys made comments such as, “That’s disgusting.” We got into the debate and eventually a boy admitted that he was terrified/disgusted when he was once sharing a taxi and the other male passenger made a pass at him.

The lightbulb went off. “Oh,” I said. “I get it. See, you are afraid, because for the first time in your life you have found yourself a victim of unwanted sexual advances by someone who has the physical ability to use force against you.” The boy nodded and shuddered visibly.

“But,” I continued. “As a woman, you learn to live with that from the time you are fourteen, and it never stops. We live with that fear every day of our lives. Every man walking through the parking garage the same time you are is either just a harmless stranger or a potential rapist. Every time.”

The girls in the room nodded, agreeing. The boys seemed genuinely shocked.

“So think about that the next time you hit on a girl. Maybe, like you in the taxi, she doesn’t actually want you to.”

The quote has been making its way around the internets ever since. A couple of days ago a guy who I went to high school with posted it on FB. I immediately “liked” it because I think it really gets to the heart of the matter-men sometimes don’t understand what it is like to live your life looking over your shoulder all the time.

Now wait a sec, you might say. Isn’t that a little over dramatic? Who do you think you are? Some hot little piece of tail that just has the guys lined up waiting to sexually assalt you?

That isn’t the way it works. Sexual assault is not about guys being horny. It is about violence. And control. And asserting your will over someone who is weaker than you. According to the CDC, which last I checked was not some crazy left wing feminist organization, nearly 1 in 5 women will be raped in her lifetime. Nearly 20% of all women. Let that sink in for a sec, guys. Do you have 5 women in your life? For instance, a Mom, two Grandmas, a wife, a daughter? So yeah, one of them.

Ok, ok. You say. I know all this stuff. What are you getting so riled up about? I’ll tell you why I’m riled. A guy who I don’t know commented on the quote on my friend’s page and his response has festered in my head ever since. So I’m trying to respond reasonably to the spirit of his argument  which I think is fairly typical of a certain type of white American dudes in his 20s (yes I FB stalked him enough to ascertain that much about him).

So what did he say that has me so upset? First of all, I’m not going to quote directly. I’m not going to share his name and try to embarrass him. He’ll actually never see this anyway. And it wouldn’t be fair to my fb friend.

The kid asks if the upshot is you can’t hit on anybody ever. He disagrees because you can’t know if someone is interested unless you ask. You just need to respect people’s views after you ask. Then he goes on to say it’s ok to be cool with gay people but also ok not to be cool with them.

Are you surprised I’m so worked up over something that seems rather benign? It’s certainly no diatribe against women or gays. In fact, he’s probably is a nice guy who is decent to the women in his life. His FB cover photo makes me think he has a good heart. So why am I so fucking pissed?

A certain kind of white dude who thinks he is a nice guy (A certain kind, I’m not saying every single nice guy white dude in America ) has a pretty big problem. He can’t fucking get out of his own head and put himself in someone else’s shoes for a second. He thinks “I’m a good guy. I’m not going to make a woman uncomfortable, why shouldn’t I be able to hit on anyone I want? Why should my freedoms be impinged upon? I’m harmless anyway.”

Well, here’s the deal, nice guy. This isn’t about you. Did you read the quote? A freshman in high school hates gays because a guy hit on him in a cab. The age of the guy isn’t clear, but the fact that he is bigger and could overpower the kid is. The kid is scared and uncomfortable during the interaction. “But I would never make someone I’m interested in uncomfortable.” you say. Yes, may I remind you that this isn’t about you?

And also, how do you know?

A woman comes to every new interaction with a history, the sum of every interaction that has proceeded it. She has not only spoken with “nice guys”. She has no idea what kind of guy you are. She is wary, she might be a little frightened. With absolutely no extra information besides the fact that you are hitting on her how the hell is she supposed to immediately get that you are a “nice guy”? Think about how she must feel for a minute. In fact, take more than a minute. Really think about the fact that women are scared every single time they are alone in a parking garage and pass a man. Every single time. That is truth. That is real. Things have gotten pretty good for women in America, but there are still major problems. It’s uncomfortable. You might not want to deal with it. But it is reality.

And if that woman is raped? If the thing she has feared for most of her life happens? She doesn’t receive automatic support and help. Nope. Instead she is asked, “What did you do?” a million different ways. “Did you drink? Did you flirt? Were you not careful? Did you lead him on? Was your skirt too short? Did you make him angry?” “Why were you out so late?” “Why were you walking there alone?” And every question means, “This was your fault.” Please, imagine the woman that is being asked these questions isn’t just some slutty coed, but one of the five closest women in your life. Pretty terrible, huh?

Of course you should be able to approach a woman you are interested it. But may I suggest just talking to her? Trying to get to know her? If you hit on her you put her on the defensive.  And that, my friend, probably isn’t going to work out for you in the long run. So sorry to cramp your style, or your constitutional right to mack, or whatever. Your consolation prize is you don’t have to be scared when you walk through a parking garage. See? You still win.

So when you are faced with an issue involving the treatment of women I beg you to get out of your head and imagine life from their point of view for a moment. If you are saying, “But I should be able to because I’m a nice guy” you are completely missing the point. It’s like saying to a woman, “You don’t have to lock the door to your car! I’m a nice guy and I would NEVER steal from you, so you are totally good!” Pretty ludicrous right?

One more thing-about the “ok not to like gays” part (and that is a direct quote)-I noticed on your FB page that you are a Christian. Being cool with not liking a group of people because of a feature they were born with-skin color, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation is pretty unchristian. It is also ignorant and bigoted. Sorry, I just can’t be politic about this issue. Not liking someone based on their sexual orientation is flat out wrong. There are no two sides to the issue. And I’m not saying you should like everyone and let’s hold hands and kumbaya.  Hell, I don’t like tons of people. But I don’t like them for reasons. Not because they are members of a minority. That isn’t ok.

***UPDATE January 28, 2014***

The very day I posted this almost a year ago it began to bother me that I used the term “slutty coed” within the piece. I’ve thought about editing it ever since. The term was meant to be tongue in cheek. Obviously there is no hierarchy of who deserves to be raped (and I’m not even touching on how the term “slutty coed” is dripping with misogyny). Rape is rape. I was making a joke out of anger and it reads as small and lazy. It doesn’t seem like a joke, it seems like I actually think an anonymous college student deserves to be raped more than your Mom. The idea that anyone would think that is what I actually meant makes me sick to my stomach. And it is my own fault, a result of my own poor writing. So much time has passed since posting this that I don’t feel like an edit would be honest. Instead I’ll say this: If I was writing this piece today I’d find a less lazy way of expressing the thought.

Ok. I feel marginally better now that I’ve gotten that off my chest.

silly t

Man, things got a little intense around here for a minute! How about a picture of T being crazy to sort of lighten the mood a bit…