Tag Archives: children

Anxiety and Never-Not

8 Jun

I have never not been a worrier.

I can’t remember a time when the unappeasable spectre of What If wasn’t buried somewhere deep in my brain. It’s been there since before I can remember; certainly before I had any real names for it. Before I had words like anxiety or apprehension or intrusive thoughts, it was there, shivering and electric.

I say never not instead of always, because the former implies the possibility of an absence.

As a kid, I was obsessed with the binary of good/bad. There were good kids, like Heather, who smiled and ate everything on her plate and did whatever she told and never seemed to feel squinched up and mean inside. Then there were kids like Jay, who used art time exclusively to draw pictures of penises urinating some kind of black tar-like substance. It seemed pretty clear to me early on which side of the line I was on: I struggled to behave and do what was expected of me, and also I thought Jay’s dick pics were hilarious. I didn’t want to be a bad kid, but it seemed like I didn’t have a choice; it was a sort of malignancy that grew and grew in me, no matter what I did. I tried not to talk too much or interrupt or fidget, but my efforts lasted an hour or two at most. And meanwhile Heather smiled serenely, secure in the knowledge that she would never feel the impulse to scrawl a pair of hairy testicles across a pink sheet of construction paper.

I wish I could say I accepted my badness with glee, but I didn’t. Instead, I thought about how all of my teachers must hate me. Sometimes it was all I could think about, although that didn’t stop me from doing bad things.

I stopped sleeping the summer I turned seven, because I was sure that I would die in my sleep. I became obsessed with the idea that I might stop breathing and, if I wasn’t awake, wouldn’t be able to think myself into taking a breath again. How was I supposed to trust my fluttering, fragile body to take care of itself through the long, black hours of sleep? I remember the nights stretching out lonely and miserable in front of me and wishing so hard that I could just be unconscious. I didn’t want to play. I didn’t want to read. I didn’t even want to watch TV. I just wanted to not think about dying every time I closed my eyes. I thought up funny ways to try to alleviate my anxiety – like holding my breath until I passed out (which didn’t work), or sleeping in the hallway so that if I did stop breathing one of my parents could find me and quickly resuscitate me (this just meant that I got tripped over a lot). Nothing worked.

And then one day the fear went away as easily as it had come.

I used to love the high that worrying gave me – the hours before a test or a recital when I would ride the wave of glittering panic, my fingers and toes tingling with anticipating. Then I would feel the heavy needle of my anxiety shift into its groove as I sat down at my desk or stepped out onto the stage, and with my adrenaline-flushed cheeks I would outshine everyone else. Worrying made me a superbly good performer. Afterwards I would crash, hard. There was never a moment of triumph, no feeling of success – only a weepy, high-strung post-performance haze.

When I was older, I started making up rituals – they were for “good luck” I said, although what I really meant was that if I didn’t do them I would have bad luck. One of them involved spelling out a series of words in sign language; I would do this either behind my back or next to my thigh whenever I thought about it, which was often. Another had something to do with running from the fridge to the dining room table and back again before the fridge door closed – if I was able to do this even just once while setting the table, then none of the things I worried about would happen. I fully gave myself over to magical thinking, because even thought I knew logically that doing these things wouldn’t change my luck, I couldn’t stop the What If machine in my head. I still can’t stop it – it’s whirring and buzzing in my head as I type this, speeding up my clunking thoughts just as I should be settling down for the night.

I wish I could tell you that there’s an end to anxiety. I wish I could say that I took a pill or discovered the healing power of long walks or learned transcendental meditation, but none of that would be true. Every day this awful beast scoops me up in its huge maw and shakes me until my bones clink together. Some days I can outrun him for longer than others, but there’s never a time when he doesn’t catch me.

I am still an excellent performer, and I still crash and cry afterwards. I jitter and skitter through my days, gritting my teeth through the intrusive thoughts until I can drug myself to sleep at night. By now, this is the only way I know how to manage things; it’s a system of sorts. although it doesn’t offer much relief.

I can’t say what my life would look like without anxiety, but I know that even with it, I’ve managed to create something good. That might sound absurdly hopeful, but I can’t help it. The only way to live with it is to be absurd about it, even in the face of all the known facts. So I pace and cry and don’t sleep and drag myself to therapy and take my pills and believe so hard in never-not instead of always. The idea that this jolting misery could be here forever is unbearable, so I stick with never not when I can.

I have never not lived like this.

But I could someday.

Maybe.

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On Babies and Gender

21 Jan

When I was pregnant with Theo I was, like most expectant parents, very much a blind idealist about what raising children in general and my child in particular were going to be like. Oh, I wasn’t going to be one of those parents, plunking their kids down in front of the television, feeding them sugary food, giving into their tantrums. I was going to be always alert and engaged, loving but firm, and naturally I would feed my child nothing but the homemade goodness that I, Betty Crocker aspirant that I am, would whip up from raw, organic ingredients. My kid would sleep through the night. My kid would never cry on a crowded bus. My kid would be perfect.

My kid would be raised without all of the gender baggage that my peers and I had grown up with.

I had (and continue to have, I suppose) such an incredibly specific hangup about the word gender and the way that it’s tossed around in relation to babies and small children, especially with regards to the mid-pregnancy anatomy ultrasound. This ultrasound, for those of you not in the know, happens at about twenty weeks gestation and is meant to look for any fetal anatomical issues. In reality, most people look forward to it as the first chance that they get to find out their baby’s sex. Except they don’t say sex. They say gender. They speak excitedly about learning what gender their child is, and then plan out cute gender reveal parties to spring on their unsuspecting families. They start picking out pink or blue coming home outfits, and plan their nursery decoration scheme around the idea of either boy or girl. They talk about sex and gender as if the two words are synonymous, and either can somehow be discovered by a cursory look at someone’s naked body.

I seriously cannot emphasize this point enough: sex does not equal gender.

You cannot learn an unborn fetal gender through an ultrasound. Gender is a social construct that has nothing to do with a person’s genitalia and everything to do with certain ideas that are programmed into us about how a person should dress and act based on certain physical characteristics. And for that matter, you can’t even tell fetal sex based on an ultrasound – the only way to know the particular arrangement of X and Y chromosomes of any given person is through a DNA test, which in the case of an unborn baby would typically mean amniocentesis. Ultrasounds cannot reveal gender. So whenever people refer to their anatomy scan as a their “gender scan,” I feel like I want to tear my own hair out.

It was even worse when I was pregnant, probably because I was a member of several online parenting communities and wound up wading through all kinds of baby ridiculousness every time I went online (although, now that I have an actual kid and not just an ideal baby in my head, I may, admittedly, no longer find all of the posts to be so terrible after all). I was part of a small but rabid group of people who felt the need to comment and correct every single time someone conflated sex with gender. We were well-intentioned but oh-so-smug, and for almost all of us the birth of our children proved us to be hypocrites. It’s incredibly easy to talk a good game about raising children without gender; in practice it’s much, much harder.

The gendering of my son began the moment the doctor exclaimed, “it’s a boy!” Though I had no more way of knowing my child’s gender five minutes after his birth than I had five minutes before, I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t felt expectations and anxieties forming around those three little words. Our child, who had been referred to during my pregnancy as Pele or “it,” immediately became a he. My husband and I gave him a traditionally male name (Theodore) and the hospital wrapped him in a blue receiving blanket. Although I’d bought only gender-neutral clothing before Theo was born, I quickly fell into the trap of the (insanely adorable) Baby Boy section at Baby Gap. Soon he was wearing tiny sweater-vests and button down shirts, a mini-version of a corporate executive in a high-stakes job. I thought he looked equal parts adorable and hilarious.

Still, pronouns and pint-sized business-wear aside, I’ve tried to keep Theo’s life pretty gender-free. My mother had given me all the beautiful little caps and sweaters she’d knitted for me when I was a baby, and I often dressed him in those, complete with all the ribbon and rosette detailing. In the summer, I put him in onesies and leg warmers because it was easier to change his diaper that way. My grandmother sent me a pink sleeper with butterflies and kittens on it, and I dressed him in that. People would often stop me on the street to tell me how sweet my daughter looked; I wouldn’t bother to correct them, but if I dropped a “he” or “him” into the conversation they would become confused or sometimes even upset, apologizing profusely for guessing the wrong gender. I would just laugh it off and say that it was basically impossible to tell if a baby was a girl or a boy, but I felt uneasy about the whole thing. Their language and their entire attitude often changed once they realized that Theo was my son and not my daughter. I couldn’t understand why – after all, he was the exact same baby that they’d been cooing over five minutes before.

I guess I’ve spent the last three years trying, in ways big and small, to deconstruct gender for Theo. I’ve given him trucks and trains to play with, yes, but also dolls and a kitchen set. I switch up the pronouns in books so that it’s not just boys doing boy things and girls doing girl things all the time. He still wears sweater vests and cardigans and dress shirts, but he also wears leggings and skinny jeans, and I always try to find him clothing in brighter colours whenever possible. He has long hair because he doesn’t want to get it cut, and I have no real interest in forcing the issue because he should be able to have his hair whatever length makes him happy. What’s funny is that though I’m conscious of how I teach my son about gender, I don’t think of him as a boy, really – I just think of him as Theo, his own individual person with his own likes and dislikes. I mean, yes, I call him a boy, but I try pretty hard not to attach any specific meaning to the word boy. So I was surprised, and a little excited when, after posting his recent birthday letter, a handful of people began leaving comments about what a wonderful relationship I seemed with my daughter, while others mentioned how sweet my son was.

I thought, I might actually be doing something right.

Because when I went back and re-read what I’d written, I realized that, because it was written in the second person, there was no way of telling Theo’s gender. And looking through the list of his likes and dislikes, nothing seemed to especially indicate traditionally male or female interests. That, coupled with the picture of him in a yellow cardigan, long hair and skinny jeans, gave people the idea that he could be anything. Not definitely a boy. Not definitively a girl. His very own person, whoever that is.

I might actually be doing something right.

I recognize that it’s going to be hard-going to keep up even a semblance of this sort of gender neutrality as Theo gets older, especially once he starts school. Eventually he will realize that the world has sorted almost everything into two neat little boxes: boy things and girl things. He may no longer want to play with dolls. He may no longer play at cooking or cleaning. He may ask me to stop switching pronouns in books, may no longer want to wear skinny jeans. Or he may not stop doing any of those things, an act of gender defiance that carries the very real threat of teasing or bullying by his peers. This last fact is why I don’t push too hard to erase all ideas of gender from Theo’s head – because I know that unless I’m willing to stay home full-time, homeschool him, and only allow him to be around like-minded people, he’s going to have to interact with folks who are frightened, and might even become violent, over the idea of someone not fitting neatly into the gender binary.

And it’s not that I want Theo to fit in at all costs; I just want him to be safe.

It’s important for me to remind myself that Theo is a person in his own right, and not just an extension of myself or else some kind of social experiment. I have to weigh the benefits of my idealism and good intentions against the possible real-world consequences that he might face, especially in places like the classroom or the schoolyard or the school bus, places where I am not there to protect or explain. There’s so much that I want to him to understand about gender and how it functions in our society, but I worry that if I explain it too soon or too quickly, he might repeat what I say to his friends and end up ostracized as the weird kid. And while I believe that what I say is the truth, I know that it’s a truth that so many other people don’t believe in. To say that gender is a social construct does not mean that it does not play an oppressive role in society; just because something was invented by people does not mean it can’t be used to hurt others. So I don’t want to make this his fight, at least not until he’s old enough to know that it is a fight, sometimes a dangerous one.

Mostly, though, I just want my kid to be himself. I want him to like whatever he likes, and dress however he wants to dress. I want him to be fully comfortable expressing who he is in whatever way he needs to. I want to be able to mitigate the idea that he can’t do or like certain things because they’re girl things. I want him to know that all toys and all games and all jobs and all clothing are for anyone, no matter what they’ve got between their legs. I want him to know that whether he’s a boy or a girl or anything else that he happens to be, that I will love him just as fiercely as I do now.

Because I love this person so, so much.

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Five Year Old Indian Girl Kidnapped, Sexually Assaulted and Left For Dead

26 Apr

Trigger warning for rape, sexual assault, abduction, torture and murder.

A reader from India asked me to blog about this at the end of last week. At the time, I told her that I was feeling burned out, but promised to write about it on Monday or Tuesday. I’ve been procrastinating, though. As much as I know that this is something that’s important to talk about, I’ve had a hard time bringing myself to read about it, let alone write about it.

But I promised that I would. And it’s important. So let’s do this.

In India, a five-year-old girl was kidnapped, raped, tortured and left for dead.

She was held captive for four days.

Her parents say that the police ignored their reports that their daughter was missing.

Her parents say that the police offered them money to keep quiet about their daughter’s rape.

She is now in critical condition in the hospital.

She’s five.

When I was five, my biggest upsets in life were that I couldn’t wear my party dresses to kindergarten and that I wasn’t allowed to have chocolate milk with every meal.

And, you know, here I sit in my privilege saying that I’m too burned out to read her story, that it’s too hard for me to write about.

Of course, for other people, other women, this type of story is the daily reality that they have to live with. They don’t have the ability to tune out and think about other things the way I do.

This girl, this five year old girl, is fighting for her life, in part because the police weren’t terribly interested in finding her. Because she’s just a girl. Because she’s disposable. Because she was born in a country where sex-selective abortion is so common that, in some provinces, 126 males are born for every 100 females.

This, on the heels of the brutal gang rape in India that happened back in December. In that case, the victim wasn’t so lucky – she died of her wounds several days after her attack. The most brutal of her rapists, who was sixteen years old, received a sentence of only three years in a “reform home” because of his status as a minor.

This, in conjunction with another breaking story about a five year old Indian girl who was raped and murdered.

And yet another breaking story about a thirteen year old Indian girl who was gang-raped.

And a story about a six year old Indian girl who was raped.

And a story about eleven and thirteen year old sisters who were raped by their mother’s boyfriend.

All of these rapes happened within a week’s span. All of this is in just one country. And these are just a few select stories I pulled – there are more, so many more. Not just in India, but everywhere.

There are people who want to dismiss this as a problem with the way that Indian culture treats women. There are people who say that, sure, this type of thing happens over there, but it would never happen here. Maybe India has a culture of rape, but here in the West we sure don’t.

But, of course, we do.

Rape culture knows no borders, and while it might be worse or more obvious in certain parts of the world, the truth is that it’s everywhere. We all live in it. We all participate in it.

In fact, just today, a university student in Arizona was photographed holding a sign that said, “You Deserve Rape.” This man, Dean Saxton, is well-known for delivering “inflammatory sermons” on the University of Arizona campus. Today’s sermon was about how women who dress like “whores” are responsible for being raped or assaulted.

It just seems so relentless. Every day there’s a new story of some kind of horrific sexual assault, every day I hear about police and politicians who don’t care, every day there are men and women spreading the message that rape is somehow the victims fault. It just feels like it never ends, and it’s sometimes so hard to keep fighting in the face of something that’s so unbelievably pervasive and overwhelming.

But we need to keep fighting. That much is obvious.

I want to share with you guys the message that my reader sent me, because her words are more powerful than anything that I can come up with right now:

The last time it happened, I signed petitions with friends for severe punishment to those rapists who raped a 23 year old, I wrote articles, protested, debated. But the second case, that happened just yesterday has shattered me so much I seem to have lost my voice In India, we all protest and then our voices just die down. No kind of internal pressure makes the government take strict decisions. Rather, in the December 2012 case, a religious leader came up with the hideous statement that had the girl begged for her life from the rapists and called them her brothers, they would have stopped and she would have survived. One of the leading female politicians said, “Women shouldn’t go out after 9 at night or dress provocatively.” We scream, we shout and the police bashes up innocent protesters and social workers and students. Our voices die down within the country and awareness is blindfolded by our own leaders.

I am writing to you to beg you to talk about these women just like you talk about those who are close to home. Perhaps international pressure and shouts for justice would reach the deaf ears of our religious and political leaders and the pathetic, perverse men who don’t think twice before doing this to us women. Why should we dress modestly? Clothes provoke them, no clothes provoke them, we get raped in a sari, in jeans, in skirts, in salwaar kammeez and even if only our face shows. We get raped in the morning and at nights. If they can’t control their desires after 9, shouldn’t the men be locked up after 9? A lot of people blame the victim back home and not the criminal. How is that fair? 

Indian women today are aware, enlightened and educated but far from safe. We are scared to go out and work and we’re scared to stay inside. Who knows what familiar face would be the Big Bad Wolf? And he strikes us at any age, at 23, at 45, at 5! 

So as a woman to another, this is a plea to support our protest because even though we may speak different tongues and belong to different nations, we suffer the same abuses. 

Please raise your voice. Help spread the word about this. Join us in this fight. Because together, we are much stronger. Together, we can beat this.

We have to.

A few inspiring images from the protests in India:

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My Sister Claire, Or Why No One Should Ever Tell Folktales To Children

12 Mar

Have you ever heard of the myth of the changeling? It’s an old one, woven throughout most of the folklore of Western Europe. The details differ from region to region, but the basic premise is always the same: some kind of fantastical being, usually a fairy, elf, or troll, secretly switches its own offspring for a human child. The switch isn’t discovered until it’s too late.

This exchange might be made for a variety of reasons – some tales tell of fairies and elves taking children as servants or slaves, while a handful of Norwegian myths explain that trolls were left in the place of human babies to help prevent inbreeding (because, of course, we all need a fresh injection of troll in our family trees every now and again). Some stories say that the fairies and elves did it out of a desire for human love, and some, like a few variations of the ballad of Tam Lin, refer to the idea that the fairies must sacrifice a life to hell every seven years. One popular version of the tale tells that fairy children require human breast milk, and so the switch is made to ensure the continuation of the fairy species.

When my youngest sister was born, though, I wasn’t overly concerned with why the fairies had left her in place of the child my mother gave birth to – I was just fascinated by the fact that we now had what I thought was almost certainly a changeling in the family.

It was my Irish grandfather who first put the idea into my head. See, my sister was born with slanted eyes and sharply pointed ears, and although the hospital staff seemed to feel that the shape of her ears, at least, had somehow been stretched or compressed into that shape as she’d passed through the birth canal, my Poppa thought otherwise. I remember him muttering darkly that she looked like she had the fairy blood, something that made my mother laugh. When my four-year-old sister Catherine heard, she started crying, saying that she wanted to be a fairy and it wasn’t fair.

I wasn’t laughing or crying, though. I was paying attention.

When Claire was born, I was nearly eleven years old, and happened to be cursed-slash-blessed with a huge appetite for books, a love of mythologizing my own life, and a day-dreamy streak a mile wide. I’d recently been reading books of Irish and Scottish folk tales, so it didn’t take me long to put the idea of my sister having fairy blood and the myth of changeling together.

It didn’t help that Claire was totally unlike my sister Catherine and I. We’d both been skinny, temperamental babies, chronically underweight throughout our childhoods. Claire, meanwhile, was enormous and placid, constantly ranking in the 99th percentile for height and weight and nearly always in a happy, smiling mood. And while, yes, her ears did round out as she grew older, her eyes kept their epicanthic fold and turned a startling green. On top of all that, my mother gave her an other-worldly sounding Gaelic middle name, one that she’d found in a Maeve Binchy book.

I tried to treat Claire as my very own human sister, but the idea that she was a changeling almost certainly coloured some of the things I did and said to Claire.

Like the time when I told her when she was about three years old that she was actually a Victorian princess stolen from her real family by time-traveling bandits.

I even had evidence to back me up – a picture frame that someone had given us containing a sepia-toned image of a thoughtful-looking woman in a huge, frilly dress. This photograph, I told Claire, was a picture of her real mother. Maybe she would see her again one day, and maybe not. She couldn’t go looking for her unless we told her the secrets of time travel because, of course, at this point, the mid 1990s, everyone she’d known and loved in her own time was dead.

Catherine got in on the act, and my mother laughed a couple of times over Claire’s reactions.

She laughed, that is, until she went to hug Claire, who pushed her away, screaming,

“I HATE YOU. I WANT MY REAL MOTHER. TAKE ME BACK TO MY REAL MOTHER.”

She may or may not be scarred for life. It’s probably too early to say.

It was around that time that my parents separated, and my mother, sisters and I moved into low-income housing. The only benefit to our new living situation was that it was backed by a former land-fill site, nicknamed Mount Trashmore, which was covered by acres and acres of meadows and fields. The landfill, which leaked methane gas but was, naturally, considered safe enough for poor people, was a paradise to us. It was that fact, coupled with the series of books I was reading around that time that took place in Renaissance England, that renewed my interest in fairies. After all, if Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare believed in fairies, then why couldn’t I?

And it’s not like I really believed, except that I sort of did. Or rather, like Mulder’s famous poster, I wanted to believe.

Did I mention the daydreaming and tendency to mythologize?

I started having my sisters perform little rituals. We would leave food in the backyard for the fairies, and chant rhymes that I’d made up. We built nests for the fairies in the fields near our house. I wove daisy chains for us to wear in our hair, and tried to build a maypole. And while Catherine and Claire and I were far apart enough in age that we were rarely able to find something that interested all three of us, these activities, for whatever reason, deeply absorbed each one of us.

I don’t really know how or why our own personal fairy kingdom came to and end. I guess I outgrew it, or at least became embarrassed by it, once I started high school and discovered boys. I don’t know, either, what effect it had on Catherine or Claire, or if they even fully remember it. I do know, though, that it was a nice time, maybe one of the nicest the three of us had together while growing up.

So thanks for that, little changeling sister. I’m glad we got you, although I would still like to know what happened to the real Claire. If you ever find her, let me know okay?

I love you. Happy birthday. You’re the best (possibly non-human) baby sister ever.

Claire, Catherine and I - see what I mean? Totally a changeling.

Claire, Catherine and I – see what I mean? Totally a changeling.

Shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School

14 Dec

Every weekday morning Matt and I go through the same routine of getting Theo up and fed and dressed, making sure that he’s ready for another day at daycare. Every morning I kiss him goodbye, and, if I’m lucky, I get to hear him tell me that he loves me. He doesn’t really know what that means, of course, but he knows that it’s something that we say to each other, something that makes people smile. He knows that I like to hear it.

Every morning I watch Matt push Theo’s stroller out the front door and down the sidewalk, and I feel good, because I know he’s safe. He’s safe with Matt, and he’ll be safe at daycare. I know that I won’t have to worry about him all day long; I will be able to devote all (well, most) of my thoughts to yoga, writing, and all of the daily tasks that are part of managing a yoga studio. I can focus on things like drafting invoices, digging through endless paperwork, and updating our studio website and blog.

I don’t worry about Theo because his daycare is a good one. We chose it carefully, after polling local friends for recommendations and doing exhaustive online searches for ratings and reviews. Theo loves his daycare, and I know that the staff and other kids there love him. He’s always excited to be dropped off in the morning, running into his room without even a kiss goodbye for Matt, and in the evening he often doesn’t want to leave.

It would never occur to me that daycare wasn’t a safe place for him.

Just like it almost certainly didn’t occur to parents in Newtown, Connecticut to think of their children’s school as an unsafe place for them.

As you’ve probably heard, 27 people were killed in a shooting today at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

At least 20 of those people were children.

An entire classroom is still unaccounted for.

Although there isn’t much information available, sources are saying that most of the shootings took place in a kindergarten classroom.

Why on earth would someone want to shoot five year olds?

Seriously, why?

This is the kind of thing that my brain has a hard time processing. Less than two weeks before Christmas, 20 families have lost a young child; countless other families will spend the holidays in the hospital with sons and daughters who are fighting for their lives or else enduring tedious, painful recoveries. I don’t know why the fact that it’s nearly Christmas, and the fact that tonight is the 7th night of Hanukkah, makes this tragedy seem, if possible, even more devastating, but somehow it does.

Maybe because I can’t help thinking about those 20 families, and how every December from now on they’ll have to watch the world around them celebrate while they are forced to confront painful memories of their child’s death. I can’t help imagining how every time they decorate a tree or light a menorah, they will have to think about that one person who isn’t there to hang ornaments or add their voice to the blessings sung as the candles are lit. Every time they draw up a shopping list for holiday gifts, they’ll notice that one name is conspicuously absent. Every festive meal will have one chair empty. The holidays will never not be a time of death and mourning for them.

What is especially awful is how commonplace mass shootings are starting to seem. You start to wonder if you have room in your heart and your mind to remember all of the victims, regular, every-day people who went to school, or the mall, or a movie theatre and thought that they were safe. You start to wonder if anyone is ever really safe, and then realize that you can’t live your life thinking that way. You start to build walls, emotionally and mentally, as a form of self-protection. You don’t think about it because you can’t; after the initial shock, you try hard to forget, knowing all the while how lucky you are to be able to do so, while others have to live through constant reminders of what they’ve lost.

In the days to come, there will be a lot of talk about gun control; people who are for it, and people who are against it. The NRA will issue its typical statement, something along the lines of, It’s not guns that kill people, people kill people. Conservatives will talk about the second amendment. Liberals will be told not to “exploit” this tragedy to further their own agenda; they’ll be shut down with cries of, Today is not the day to talk about gun control.

As a friend of mine said today on Facebook, those people are right. Today is not the day to talk about gun control. That day passed many years and many homicides ago.

Gun-related violence is a problem, one that is only growing worse. How is it exploitative to look at a tragedy like this, dissect it, and try to figure out how to prevent it in the future? How is it exploitative to point out that, without a semi-automatic pistol, the shooter would not have been able to injure or kill nearly so many people? How is it exploitative to wonder what laws need to change in order for something like this to never, ever happen again?

And yeah, you can say that guns don’t kill people, people kill people, but there’s no way that a guy with a knife or a sword or a bow and arrow would have been able to create this kind of tragedy.

I’m glad that Theo is still so young, because that means that I won’t have to try to explain this to him. I can hold him close, and cover him in kisses, and cry quietly into his hair without him wondering why; at not-quite-two, I’m sure he’ll just write it off as another weird mom thing. And if he does happen to notice that I’m not really myself right now, well, he’ll be able to forget about it soon enough. Sadly, there’s a part of me that wonders how soon it will be until I can forget about it, too.

But forgetting makes it easier to avoid having to deal with what’s happened. It makes it easier not to ask the difficult questions, or make difficult decisions. Forgetting means that we don’t have to change anything, that we don’t have to be confronted with this kind of rage and sorrow until the next shooting happens.

Forgetting guarantees that this will happen again.

And to anyone who thinks that I’m trying to take their rights away from them, I’ve got news for you: I’m not.

I just want all of our kids to be safe in all of the places where they should be safe. They deserve that much, at the very least.

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Red Fraggle is a Feminist Icon

13 Dec

It wasn’t until I learned that I was pregnant with Theo that I suddenly realized how very little I knew about, well, babies. I mean, in theory they’re great, but in practice they’re kind of terrifying. Like, I was going to be responsible for what now? I could barely even take care of myself, never mind another person, and one who was tiny, helpless and incontinent at that.

Being the book-o-phile that I am, my solution was to immediately run out and buy a ton of books about pregnancy, childbirth and parenting. I also went online and joined a bunch of mommy communities, which were, um, interesting. After sifting through all of the information available to us, Matt and I began to try to come up with the Best Plan Possible for raising our kid. Because, you know, that’s totally a thing that’s going to work out.

Babies just love plans, and are definitely going to turn out exactly the way you want them to.

Sorry, I’ll wait until your done laughing your fool head off before I continue.

One of the things that Matt and I decided was that we were going to follow the AAP’s guidelines and not expose our children to any television under the age of two. That wouldn’t be overly challenging, we figured; after all, we barely watched television ourselves, and surely it would be easy to watch what little we did after our bundle of joy went to bed. Anyway, we thought, what benefit was there in letting our children watch television? Especially when the world around them was so fascinating? Surely we would be happy to engage and entertain our children at all times. Surely we would never, ever want a short, say, half-hour break from them.

Of course, one of the first things you do when you become a parent is break all of your own rules. You quickly learn that there aren’t very many hard and fast rules, and the few that do exist weren’t created by you. Sure, it’s great to be consistent and back your words up with actions, but when you become a parent you learn how valuable flexibility can be. It’s easy to be an expert on childrearing when it’s all still theoretical; once you have an actual, physical, screaming baby, it’s often advantageous to revisit your policies and re-evaluate what your priorities are.

All of this is to say that we totally caved on the no TV thing.

When Theo was fourteen or fifteen months old, we started watching short YouTube clips of Fraggle Rock at bedtime. It was nice to spend 10 minutes every evening curled up together on our big bed, watching nostalgic television by lamplight. Afterwards, we would talk about what we’d just watched, and then I would nurse Theo to sleep. It was a pretty great way to end the day.

In the course of revisiting one of my favourite childhood shows, I realized something: Fraggle Rock was pretty fucking progressive with regards to gender roles.

I also realized that Red Fraggle was probably my first real feminist icon.

When it came to strong female role models, I was actually a pretty lucky kid. I had my mother, who was and continues to be a kick-ass inspiration, a woman who always worked outside the house, raised three kids on her own after my father left, and recently purchased her first home after spending year and years saving up for a downpayment. I had my grandmother, a women who also worked outside the home for her entire adult life, and who once took her employer to court because he wouldn’t allow women to wear pants in the workplace. I had my aunt, an Egyptologist who travelled to the Middle East for archeological digs. I had my great-aunt who, as a missionary to Niger in the 1960s, dedicated her life to educating girls. I definitely wasn’t lacking for real-life women to look up to and be inspired by.

But I wasn’t able to relate to those women and their accomplishments in the same way that I could relate to an adorable red-headed muppet who was about the same size I was and dealt with a lot of the same issues I did.

Red Fraggle is just awesome. She’s smart, funny, opinionated, competitive and likes to be in charge. She speaks her mind, like, frequently, and the other Fraggles almost always listen to what she has to say (even if they don’t ultimately agree with her). She’s adventurous, athletic and generally pretty fearless. She doesn’t wear pink (except for her hair ribbons). Oh, and she’s sarcastic. So delightfully sarcastic.

She also has some of the best lines spoken by a female character in a children’s show, like, ever. The following is from season one, episode fifteen, ‘I Don’t Care’:

Red: Hey Mokey! They gave me somebody else’s lines for this scene!

Mokey; Uh, let’s see, you say, I know my prince will come and rescue me.

Red: Who needs a prince? I can rescue me!

Mokey: And then you say, hark, I think I hear the hoofbeats of his fiery charger.

Red: Oh good grief.

[a brief interlude of dialogue between Mokey and Boober]

Red: But I don’t have to be rescued, Mokey! I can climb on this trellis! Better yet, I’ll swing on this vine. Why don’t we call it the Tale of the Triumphant Princess?

What’s great is that Red has no issue being a princess, she just wants to be a princess who can take care of herself. She’s totally fine with being feminine and girly, but she doesn’t want to have to rely on anyone else. Instead of waiting around to be rescued, she wants to take charge of her own destiny – a pretty admirable trait.

Red challenges traditional gender roles, both openly and tacitly. One of the best things about Fraggle Rock is that the other characters are totally fine with her behaviour. Sure, she can be abrasive and obnoxious at times, and yeah, she has a hard time admitting when she’s wrong, but these aren’t presented as being character flaws because she’s female; they’re presented as being negative traits because of the impact they have on herself and other people.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, Red is the best swimmer in Fraggle Rock. Better than any of the boys, even.

The neat thing about this show is that it’s not just Red who challenges gender roles; it’s Boober and Wembley too. It’s presented as being totally fine for Boober, a male Fraggle, to prefer to stay home all day washing socks and cooking. It’s also fine for Wembley to “wemble”, i.e. waiver with indecisiveness. That last one is especially interesting because a lot of Wembley’s “wembling” comes from a place of not wanting to pick sides when his friends argue and, ultimately, not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings. It’s pretty rare for a male character to be shown as being so openly emotional. Rare, but awesome.

Mokey and Gobo, the two remaining Fraggles in the main cast of characters, are more typical of their genders: Mokey, a wispy poet who wears long flowing robes and speaks in a vague, dreamy voice is the sort of den mother of Fraggle Rock, and Gobo, bold, adventurous and a natural leader, spends his days exploring the rock and coming up with escapades for his friends. They participate in breaking down gender barriers, though, by letting their friends be who they are and encouraging them to do the things they love. They never ask Red, Boober or Wembley to behave in a certain way because of their gender; they only ask that each of them treats the others with respect.

Anyway, I guess it’s clear that we’ve totally, unapologetically broken our rules about television. We still don’t watch much of it; mostly just Fraggle Rock and Mister Dressup (okay, and sometimes Jay-Z videos, but only because Theo specifically asks for them). Children’s television, especially newer shows, are still pretty much a foreign country to me, one that I’m sure I will someday have to explore. Until then, I’m happy with my Fraggles and the lessons they’re teaching my son. For example, swimming before breakfast is great, music and dancing are a necessity, and boys and girls are totally, happily equal.

Sounds like utopia to me.

Red

On Childbirth And Bodily Autonomy

29 Oct

A friend of mine recently gave birth. She’d planned on have a natural, drug-free childbirth, but instead wound up having an emergency c-section. After 30 hours of labour, her son’s head still wouldn’t (or couldn’t) engage, and his heart rate started to plummet frighteningly low. After a few minutes of discussing their options with her midwife and the on-call OB, they decided that a caesarean was her best option.

Her son was born not long after that, a whopping 9 pounds 5 ounces, with a full head of dark hair. He was beautiful and healthy, but instead of feeling as if she’d made a decision that could potentially have saved his life, she felt as though it had been her fault that she’d had to have a c-section. She thought that if she’d just somehow tried harder, or prepared better, she could have had the birth she’d wanted.

I talked to her a few days after her son’s birth, and, of course, asked how she was feeling. “I feel like I failed,” she said, sounding as if she was about to cry. “My son is only a few days old and I’ve already failed him.”

I knew what she meant, because I’d been there. When I’d found out that I would have to have a caesarean, I also, irrationally, had felt as if it was my fault, as if I was already failing my son. I still feel weird about my son’s birth, even now, nearly two years later, or rather I feel like other people are weird about it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone ask about my childbirth experience, only to shut down the whole conversation when I tell them I had a planned c-section. I often get the sense that other people think that I haven’t really given birth, or that I’ve taken the easy way out.

If you don’t have kids and/or haven’t spent a billion hours on the internet debating all things baby, you might be wondering why natural childbirth is such a big deal. Why does anyone even care?

For starters, giving birth without drugs or interventions means that you and your child will not have to experience the side effects of sedation or the potential harm from invasive procedures. Babies born naturally are more alert, which will make bonding and breastfeeding easier. Plus, not having an epidural means that you can get up and walk around during labour, or find the position that works best for you when it’s time to push. Without drugs, the mother’s recovery will be faster, and she can often leave the hospital the same day, if she wants to. And, of course, there’s the persistent idea that childbirth is more of a “real” experience if you are able to feel every sensation associated with it.

Many people advocate for natural births these days; even the nurse who taught our prenatal class was pretty anti-epidural. Part of this comes as a backlash against the medical model of childbirth, which, not that long ago, saw women in labour being put into a Twilight Sleep, a drug-induced state in which women were conscious but not lucid, and, though these women still experienced pain, were not able to remember it afterwards. In many ways, natural childbirth is an attempt to reassert control over our own bodies; to tell the doctors (most of whom were and are still men) that pregnancy is not a disease, and should not be pathologized. Another part of  the desire for drug-free childbirth comes from the assumption that “natural” is better, or from the idea that our bodies are designed to give birth without the aid of drugs or interventions.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to have a natural birth, and I don’t just mean the physical pain and exertion associated with drug-free childbirth. Hospitals make many people anxious, and trying to give birth while surrounded by beeping machines and scary-looking medical equipment is challenging, to put it mildly. On top of that, you have a regular rotation of people coming in and out of your room, wanting to check how far you’ve dilated, what your heart rate is, what the baby’s heart rate is, and a whole laundry list of other stuff. So giving birth in a hospital setting isn’t exactly conducive to that whole Mother Earth Goddess ideal that many of us hold.

So why not give birth at home? Good question. The answers range from being worried about not making it to the hospital in time if there are complications to not want to have to be bothered cleaning up the mess afterwards, and everything in between. One response that I hear very frequently form Ontario women is that they weren’t able to find a midwife; this was my experience as well.

When I had my first prenatal visit with my family doctor, I was eight weeks pregnant. She asked if I’d thought about how I wanted to give birth, and I told her that I wanted a midwife rather than an OB. She looked at me like I was crazy, and said that there was no way I would be able to find a midwife this far into my pregnancy. But I’m only eight weeks! I said. Technically I’ve only been pregnant for six weeks, if you take into account the fact that the first two weeks of  a 40 week pregnancy happen before a woman ovulates.

My doctor just shrugged and said that there weren’t enough midwives in Ontario, then asked what hospital I wanted to deliver at. When I told her, she frowned and said, Oh, I don’t know if we’ll be able to get you into Mount Sinai this far into your pregnancy. I honestly thought that she was exaggerating, but it took three referrals before we were able to find an OB at Mount Sinai who was still taking patients for my due date.

That was how I learned how insanely competitive giving birth is in Toronto.

There are 540 registered midwives in Ontario, serving a total population of 12,851,821. 1 in 10 births in this province are attended by midwives; 4 out of 10 pregnant women in Ontario would like a midwife but can’t get one. That obviously makes having a midwife-assisted birth in general, and a home birth in particular, pretty challenging. Which, as I said above, can make having a natural birth difficult or even impossible.

That being said, you would think that the natural birth community would be pretty understanding of the fact that most women still end up using the medical model of childbirth. While I would say that the majority of us are pretty chill no matter how your kid comes into the world, there seem to be a lot of people passing judgment on how women give birth.

It’s bad enough that some proponents of natural childbirth make women feel as if they’ve “failed” if they end up having unplanned interventions, but that’s nothing compared to their treatment of women who know ahead of time that they want an epidural, or those who choose to have a planned c-section. The funny thing is that these are often the same women who are very pro-choice and will throw around the phrase “my body, my choice”.

Well, is it our choice, or isn’t it?

It’s different, they’ll argue, when there’s a wanted child involved. It’s not your body anymore. You need to act in the child’s best interests. They’ll send you scary news articles, like this one, which references a study showing that children born before 37 weeks are 5 times as likely to have autism. That particular article is one that someone sent me when they found out I was going to have a planned c-section at 36 weeks; when I told her that the article had upset me, she said that she wasn’t trying to be mean, just giving me the “facts”.

Here are the facts: if I had had a natural childbirth, my son could have died. If my pregnancy had progressed past 36 weeks, my doctor felt that there was a good chance that my water would break, which could have lead to an umbilical cord prolapse, which would have meant death or brain damage to my son.

The thing is, no matter whether or not you are carrying a child, it’s still your body. You still have bodily autonomy. I’m not saying pregnant women should go out and do lines of coke chased by vodka shots, but I do think that we need to allow women to make choices regarding childbirth without judging them.

The argument that I hear most from people decrying women who choose the medical model of childbirth is that they’re selfish. They want an epidural because it’s easier for them. They want a c-section because they don’t want to have to go through labour. They’re planning to be induced at 39 weeks because they want to skip out on the last week of pregnancy. If these are thoughts that you enjoy thinking, here’s something I really, really want you to keep in mind: you do not know the whole story.

You don’t know why someone wants an epidural, I mean, not really. You don’t know why they might want a c-section. Sure, they might give you a reason, but what they tell you may not necessarily be the whole truth. They might have a medical condition that indicates a c-section, or they might be a survivor of sexual abuse and feel triggered by the idea of a vaginal birth. Or they might just not want to have a natural birth, and that’s okay too. Know why? Because bodily autonomy, that’s why.

The thing that frustrates me the most about this judgmental behaviour is how purely anti-woman it is. It stems from the idea that most women aren’t capable of making decisions regarding how they want to give birth. It assumes that a woman who chooses to have a planned c-section hasn’t done her research, has been brainwashed by the medical establishment, or is uneducated when it comes to birth options. It plays into the idea that women are irrational, thoughtless and downright selfish. It promotes the idea that, being left to our own devices, we will make choices that are harmful to us and our children.

These are the same ideas that lead to the body policing that many pregnant women have to endure. We’re told to eat more, but not gain too much weight. We’re cautioned not to exercise too hard, but also to stay fit and healthy. We have people watching every bite we eat, and I even know someone who was denied service at Starbucks because the barista didn’t think that she should have caffeine. When are we going to let women be responsible for their own bodies?

Look, I’m all for natural childbirth. That was what I wanted when I was pregnant with Theo, and if I ever have another child, I would like to try for an unmedicated VBAC. But that’s my choice, based on research that I’ve done and what I’ve heard from friends. If another woman makes a different choice, then I’m sure as hell not going to tell her she’s wrong. Your child’s birth is one of the most important days in your life (I mean, probably, right?), so why would you want to make someone feel bad about how theirs went down? Shouldn’t we be celebrating the fact that we all went through hell, in one way or another, to bring our children into this world?

I think a big part of the problem is that we still haven’t really figured this childbirth stuff out. We still don’t know what works best for us, both as individuals and as a society. The medical model of childbirth has seen the infant mortality rate decline 90% in the last hundred years, and the maternal mortality rate has declined by 99% in that time. On the other hand, within that medical model women still feel as if they are being bullied into interventions and procedures that they don’t want, and often come out of childbirth feeling as if they were coerced into accepting “help” that they felt they didn’t need.

I don’t know what the answer is, I really don’t. More midwives, for a start. Better education about birth options and the possible complications of interventions would also be good. Above all, though, I think we need to put more trust in women. I think we need to allow women to make more of their own choices, and we need to believe that they are capable of making the right choices, not just for themselves, but for their children.