Tag Archives: Parenting

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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Now You Are Three

19 Jan

Dear Theo,

Yesterday was your birthday. Yesterday marked the third anniversary of the day you stopped being this strange creature that inhabited my body and started being your very own small, wrinkly, independently-breathing person.

In three short years you have gone from this:

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To this:

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You are the funniest. You are outgoing and charming and engaging, and honestly I don’t know where you get any of those qualities from, because both your father and I are strictly introverts. When you see another kid who looks to be about your age, you’ll walk up to them in a way that would make John Cleese proud, wave your hands around and start shouting gibberish. This is your approach to making new friends, and weirdly it seems to work for you. You take an enormous delight in the sublimely ridiculous, and I can’t say that I blame you. It’s certainly better than my own approach, which, as a teenager, involved dressing all in black, reading the French existentialist canon, and glaring balefully around me muttering, “life is absurd.” You might agree that life is, indeed, absurd, but so far you view this as to your benefit rather than to your detriment.

You love language, a fact that tickles me right past pink and well into magenta territory. You often come home from school and announce that you have a new favourite book, and at bedtime you beg for just one more story. You can already spell a few words – Theodore, Mama, Dada, Papa, Noah and Canada – and you recognize them and “read” them when you see them. You’re starting to sort of maybe kind of sound out words when you see them, and the thought of you learning to read makes me so excited that my head might explode. You love memorizing things, and can recite entire books by heart. You are developing into a fine book nerd, and nothing could make me prouder.

If you inherited your love of language from me, then you almost certainly inherited your love of science and technology from your father. You’re all about space these days – there are times when all you want to talk about are orbiters and external fuel tanks and solid rocket boosters. You got upset the other day when I told you that we were on a mission in the grocery store – you thought that only astronauts were allowed to go on missions, because they have mission control. You’re into other tech-type stuff too – when your great-grandmother gave you a fleece shirt with a puffy vest for Christmas, you exclaimed, “Oh, a robot suit!” You love building things, whether out of Lego, wooden blocks, or these wonky connecting-straw things they have at the art gallery. You’re never happier than when we let you put together your train tracks all over the house, a crazy railroad running from the living room to the dining room and out to the kitchen. Maybe you’ll take after your grandfather or aunt and become an engineer.

Lately you’re all about defining yourself by your likes and dislikes. You love telling me about all of your favourites: your favourite colour is green, your favourite doll is your Cabbage Patch Kid, Sammy Kyle, your favourite books are Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site and The Gruffalo. Your favourite foods are spaghetti and chicken fingers, and your favourite pants are skinny jeans. Your favourite truck is a fire truck. Your favourite car is Lightning McQueen from Cars, even though you’ve never actually seen that movie. Your favourite streetcar is the St. Clair car. Your favourite city is Toronto, and your favourite hockey team is the Toronto Maples Leafs, but also sometimes the Habs. Your favourite astronaut is Chris Hadfield (or, as you call him, Chris The Hadfield). Your favourite painting is Soldier and Girl at Station by Alex Colville. Your favourite musician is John Coltrane, and every time I go to put a record on you ask for Blue Train. You are a fine little hipster-in-training.

You hate sleep. I mean, you really hate sleep. You spend the hours past your bedtime trying to engage me in conversation, promising that you have to tell me something or ask me something, or else you try to delay the inevitable by asking for just one more glass of milk or one more cuddle. We’ve found ourselves having to invent arbitrary bedtime rules (only three stories, only one glass of milk, the baby gate goes up if you come out of your room five times) because otherwise you will never, ever sleep. You sometimes stay up until past ten, which drives me bonkers because that’s the only time alone I get with your father, but you’re never cranky in the morning. In fact, your daycare teachers often remark on how you always seem to be in a good mood. There isn’t much that seems to faze you.

You’re still nursing, a fact that simultaneously surprises me, slightly embarrasses me and makes me strangely proud. I didn’t even think that we’d make it past the first month of breastfeeding, let alone three years. And yet, here we are.

Here we are.

You’re asserting your independence a lot these days, in ways both big and small. Being your mom can be challenging sometimes, most often because I’m not always sure what to do when you’re ignoring me or else being flat-out defiant. I don’t like yelling, and I don’t like giving time-outs – I guess what I really hate is being the bad guy. Especially since your arguments can be so funny and persuasive. But I know that setting boundaries and disciplining you are a form of loving you, so I figure that the best I can do is to try hard not to react emotionally to your behaviour. Instead of punishing you because I am angry or sad (although I recognize that I am totally entitled to those feelings), I try to stay calm, react rationally and not take your behaviour personally. Because it’s not personal; this is what small children are like.

There is so much to admire about you. Your kindness and compassion still amaze me, although they probably shouldn’t by now. You’re so good at reading other peoples’ emotions, and love to comment on what you think other people are feeling. You are quick to offer a hug if you think that someone else is down. One evening, when you overheard me crying in the bedroom, you ran in and asked if I was crying because someone had shouted at me. You tell me all the time that you love me, and you have an ongoing list of the other people that you love: your father, your grandparents, you aunts and uncles, you cousins, Nathan, Audra, Jairus, Nico, Frances, Nico’s Dad (who I’m not even sure you’ve ever met), Eden, Isadora, Michael. Pretty much anyone that you can think of ends up on that list. You have two best friends – Noah and Malcolm – and you often tell me that the three of you are the three musketeers. Baby’s first literary reference! Unknowingly made, but still.

You are a wonder. Your words, your thoughts, your actions amaze me on a daily basis. And when I say this – all of this, everything that I’ve written here – it’s not because I think that you are better or smarter than other kids. I’m sure that you’re exactly average, and if you weren’t that wouldn’t matter one bit. But you’re not average to me – to me, you are a very particular set of characteristics that add up to something incredibly remarkable. I cherish each and every single tiny thing that makes you you, even the stuff that I find frustrating and difficult to handle. Because those are the things that make up who you are, and I love you entirely. Yes, I love all of the things that are easy to love – your charm, your humour, your never-ending desire to know – but I also love the challenging parts, too. I love all of you.

I am so excited to see what this coming year, this year of three, is going to bring. Because, knowing you, it’s only going to be bigger and brighter than what’s come before.

Much love,

Mama

How To Be A Grownup

19 Oct

It’s late afternoon on Thanksgiving Monday. I’m lying on a chaise longue on my mother’s back deck, a ratty old knitted blanket across my lap and a book that I am not reading in my hands. I am pretending to be a 19th-century invalid, recuperating from a non-specific ailment at a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. I am breathing deeply, imagining that I am taking something called the fresh air cure. The sun is warm, its light buttery and yellow. I can hear my son laughing in the distance as my husband chases him around my mother’s small garden, and I pretend that he is a small Swiss child who lives in a nearby thatched cottage. I tell myself that he is amused by the antics of the goats he is herding. This is, I assume, what small, 19th-century Swiss mountain children do: live in picturesque cottages and laugh heartily as they herd their goats.

I am thirty one years old and I am still playing pretend.

Is this what grownups are supposed to do?

Ten years or so into my purported adulthood and I’m still not really sure how to be a grownup, or what that even means. As a kid, I thought that being an adult meant that you did whatever you wanted, although for some reason all of my grownup fantasies were oddly baking-specific. For instance, I imagined myself making cookies whenever I pleased, and thought about how I would be allowed to use the electric mixer without any help. I would, I told myself, be able to wear party dresses every day of my life. And while all of these facts are empirically true and have been true for over a decade, the ability to do these things is neither as satisfying as I thought they would be, nor do they make me feel especially like a grownup.

What does adulthood mean? What is it supposed to look like? As a kid, there seemed to be recognizable difference between adults and not-adults, but now that demarcation is becoming less and less clear. There also seem to be more stages on the way to adulthood than I’d first realized – I used to think that you were either a child or an adult, but now it turns out that, rather than being a binary, it’s more like an evolutionary process, from infant to toddler to preschooler to that nebulous age between when grade school starts and puberty begins to teenager to university student to young adult to – what? Just plain adult, I guess.

Except that I’m not really sure if I feel like an adult.

Mostly I just still feel like myself.

It probably doesn’t help that I don’t look so very different from my teenage self; sure, there are a few lines here and wrinkles there, but the basic structure is exactly the same. I dress the same way that I did as a teenager, too, or rather I dress the way that my teenage self would have had the funds been available. I don’t wear what I think of as grownup clothing: crisp white shirts, tailored suits, prim polyester dresses in black or grey or navy. I like the same things as I did when I was a teenager, more or less – reading, writing, watching painfully earnest indie movies, dressing up, acting out, telling bad jokes, sitting on people’s living room floors while drinking and playing board games. I still read Little Women when I’m feeling down and want literature that’s akin to comfort food. I still get that same funny ache at the end of Empire Records when everyone is dancing on the roof, just like I did when I was sixteen. I still put waaaay too much sugar in my coffee. When we drive past a cemetery or over a bridge, I still hold my breath.

I’m still me, and I can’t help having this weird sense of disappointment over not being the prettier, smarter, more capable creature that I thought growing up would turn me into.

Maybe  part of the problem is that I’m no longer certain of what being an adult looks like. I used to think that there was a sort of set formula: you finished high school, went to university, started a career, fell in love, got married, bought a house, had kids, then watched your own kids repeat the same steps. But then I watched as this blueprint, which seemed to be the  How-To guide accepted and promoted by family, teachers, guidance counsellors, and just about every movie or book that I’d ever seen or read, failed my parents and many of their peers. They hated their jobs. They hated each other. My father stopped being a lawyer, left my mother, and moved to the city where he lived in a bachelor apartment and worked as a bike courier. My mother was exhausted and miserable, trying to raise three kids by herself on a secretary’s salary – by the end of the day, once everyone was fed and bathed, once the homework was done and the dishes were clean and half a dozen petty arguments had been mediated, it was all she could do to sit in front of the television and fall asleep to the sound of the laugh track of some corny late-90s sitcom.

That wasn’t what I wanted for my life.

I didn’t know how else to move ahead, though, so I tried my hardest to follow that old How-To guide. As the end of high school approached, the adults in my life encouraged me to apply to universities. Or rather, there wasn’t even much encouragement – it was just assumed that this was what I would do, and any divergence from that plan seemed impossible. There didn’t seem to be any alternatives that my parents or guidance counsellors felt were acceptable. College, it was intimated, was for the not-so-bright, and with my critical thinking skills I belonged in an undergrad program somewhere. Getting a job was out of the question, unless I wanted to be stuck working at McDonald’s for the rest of my life. Even taking a year off to figure my shit out was frowned upon – I was too flighty, they said, and would almost certainly never go back to school if I left. So my mother scraped together the hundred or so dollars needed for the application process, and I filled out the forms, and it felt like we were doing the right thing.

And I don’t mean to make it sound like I didn’t want to go to university – I did, I swear I did. I just want to make it clear that it also felt like that was the only way that I had of moving forward with my life. And I was desperate for some way, any way, of moving forward.

The problem with university was that while everyone agreed that I belonged there, no one seemed certain how I was supposed to pay for it. The provincial loan system was Byzantine, the forms and online application difficult to navigate, and the resulting funding amount impossible to understand. For example, the government could refuse to give you a loan if your parents earned a certain amount per year, even if said parents were not helping you pay for your education. Lines of credit from the bank weren’t much better – I mean, they were fine, I guess, if you had someone to co-sign. I didn’t.

When I asked the grownups around me how I could possibly afford this education that was supposed to be so critical to my life, they gave these strange sort of blank stares and suggested that I get a summer job.

Because when they’d gone to post-secondary school, a summer job had been enough to pay a year’s tuition and then some. That was obviously no longer the case.

The good old How-To guide hadn’t anticipated changes like this.

I managed to finish two years of university on a combination of government student loans, kind student affairs workers and a healthy state of denial. By the end of that second year, though, my finances were so badly fucked up that there was no question of finishing my degree. Two steps in to my path to adulthood, and I was already failing the model. Or rather, the model was failing me.

I’ve spent the last ten years trying to figure out if and how I can make the old blueprints work for me. It’s true that I can check off a few things on the list – I did manage to fall in love once or twice, I am married, I do have a kid. On the flip side, I haven’t finished school, I’m not sure that I would call my hodge-podge of jobs a “career,” and I can’t imagine a time when I will ever be able to own a house. Even the things that I’ve managed to check off seem, upon closer examination, to grow a bit murkier. My marriage doesn’t necessarily always look like what I thought a marriage should be. I don’t spend as much time with my son as I could. I often worry that I’m a bad partner or a bad mother. I am slowly learning that marriage and motherhood aren’t so much accomplishments as they are a lifelong work in progress. I’m also learning that being a wife and mother aren’t necessarily fool-proof indicators of adulthood; it’s not as if some magic switch is flipped when you say “I do,” or in the moment that your child is first placed in your arms.

So where does that leave me?

It’s both freeing and terrifying to realize that the old formula for adulthood doesn’t apply to my life is both dizzyingly freeing and incredibly terrifying. On the one hand, in theory, my life gets to be whatever I want it to be. On the other hand, I have no fucking clue what I’m doing, and the potential for failure seems high. It’s like wandering in the forest without a map, or even a guide to the flora and fauna – this glade seems like a nice place to build my home, but what if it floods every year during the spring thaw? These berries look tasty, but what if they’re poisonous? Of course there’s always the possibility of a happy ending, but it seems to be equally probable that I will die alone, frozen to death, maybe, or else eaten by wolves.

Lately I’ve been looking hard at my friends’ lives, trying to pick and choose the things that I want to emulate. What’s funny is that it’s not the friends who have the most material successes, the ones with the best jobs or the nicest houses that I’m drawn to, but rather the ones who have certain traits and behaviours that I covet. I admire, for instance, my friend who makes difficult choices, who goes ahead and does things even when he’s afraid or thinks that something is impossible. I admire another friend who’s an expert at saying no. I want to be more like the friend who seems to have that extra split second to figure out if their emotional reaction to any given situation is warranted and appropriate. I want to be like the friend who seems effortlessly organized, who holds family meetings every week to figure out who will be where doing what when during the next seven days. I want to be the person who fights for their beliefs without being disrespectful or unnecessarily cruel to the people who don’t agree with me. I want to be measured, calm, and collected.

And I want to do all of this and still be able to get a little weepy over Empire Records.

What I’m realizing is that, while creating a guide to my own personal grownup life, the best place to start is with myself. I need to work harder to build the type of person that I’m happy with before extending my energy outward. I need put a dot in the middle of the map marked you are here and then radiate all other lines outward from that spot. When I write this all out, it sounds unbelievably selfish, but I also can’t think of any other way to make a guide that suits the kind of life I want to live; because before I make that guide, I have to figure out my own shit, which means answering all of the big questions like what the fuck do I want, and why am I even here, and where do I go next?

Maybe that’s the best way to be a grownup.

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How To Talk To New Parents

9 Oct

Social media can be an amazing tool for first-time parents. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and their ilk give housebound caregivers the chance to connect with other people without having to leave their bedroom. They make it easier to find others who are currently in or have been in similar situations. They provide a platform where people can ask for advice, pose specific questions (often of the is-this-normal variety), share milestones and pictures and funny anecdotes, or just flat-out vent about how hard parenting is. Because let’s be real: parenting is fucking hard.

I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend in how some people reply to these social media posts, though – some people (most often people WHO ARE PARENTS) are condescending, dismissive and even sometimes unintentionally (I hope) hurtful in their responses. I’ve experienced this myself, and lately I’ve been noticing that a few of my friends with new babies have been enduring this same unfortunate phenomenon. What I’ve noticed the most is people saying things like, “Oh, you think it’s bad now? Wait until she’s a toddler!” or “Wait until you have two!” or “It’s fine if you can’t breastfeed, you can just give formula!” or worst of all, “Just relax, this is supposed to be a happy time!”

First of all: telling someone to relax very often results in THE EXACT OPPOSITE OF THAT HAPPENING. Also? If a parent thinks that what they’re going through is bad? It’s probably bad! And how is it at all a good idea to respond to someone talking about how difficult things and how much they are struggling with the assurance that things will only get worse? WHY WOULD YOU EVEN SAY THAT? Is that intended to be some kind of warning, like, get out now while you still can? Finally, things like breastfeeding or co-sleeping or having a natural childbirth may not feel like a big deal to some people, but to others they can matter a whole fuck of a lot. I know that when Theo was a baby, breastfeeding him was literally the only thing I felt like I was doing right as a parent. If I’d had to stop, or had been unable to do it, I would have been devastated, and hearing someone downplay or otherwise invalidate how I felt would have made me feel even worse.

So with all of that in mind, I thought that it might be smart to put together a handy-dandy guide for talking to new parents. So let’s get started!

A few things to keep in mind with regards to new babies:

1. Remember that the transition from non-parenthood to parenthood is one of the scariest, most stressful, and most physically gruelling things a person can go through. If you’re a woman who has recently experienced pregnancy, your body is suddenly totally unfamiliar and your hormones are all fucking over the place. If you’re breastfeeding, you suddenly have a baby attached to your nipple every few hours, which, let me tell you, is not a sensation that’s necessarily easy to get used to. Even if you haven’t given birth and are not breastfeeding, just the very fact of having a new baby is physically draining. Like, there’s a reason that sleep deprivation is a form of torture, you know? On top of all that, your entire way of living has completely changed. Everything suddenly revolves around this tiny, helpless little being, and all of the familiar road-markers of your old life have suddenly disappeared. Worst of all, you’re often expected to map out your new life on your own, without much in the way of practical help. There is no real way to prepare for the type of culture shock you will experience when becoming a new parent.

2. Keep in mind that newborns are often terrible. Terrible! Not on purpose, of course, and this doesn’t apply to all babies, but the fact remains that infants are frequently some of the most unpleasant people. First of all, they seem to hate you. They scream all the time, and when they’re not screaming, they’re staring at you balefully. They never smile – not even when you are devoting all of your time and energy to taking care of them. They just take and take and take from you and never, ever give back. If they were a grownup friend, you would dump them in a hot second. You can’t dump your kid, though – I mean, you can, but it’s generally frowned upon. And of course you love your baby and you rationally recognize that soon the baby will start smiling and gurgling and generally being much more pleasant, but neither of those facts mitigate how terrible it feels to be screamed for ten consecutive hours a day. And when you add on the fact that new parents often struggle with things like feeding and getting their child to sleep and whatnot, it becomes pretty clear that the early days of parenthood are not always the magical snuggly bonding time that we tend to get all starry-eyed and wistful over.

3. Remind yourself that all kids are different. Just because your newborn was an angel who slept twenty three hours a day and was a champion breastfeeder does not mean that every baby will be like that. Just because your child was more difficult as a toddler than as an infant does not mean that that will hold true for everyone. For example, I find Theo much easier and more fun as a toddler than he was as an infant. Like, when he is upset, he can now actually tell me what’s wrong! We’ve also been lucky in the fact that Theo is quite verbal, which helps cut down on tantrums and meltdowns. An added bonus of his verbal skills is that we can now have real conversations about real things instead of my having to produce an endless monologue that goes something like, “Do you see the sky? The sky is blue. Blue is such a pretty colour! Your eyes are blue! My eyes are brown! Do you see the doggie over there? The doggie says woof woof! What a nice doggie! I like doggies! Do you like doggies?”

But not every kid is like Theo. Not every kid is this verbal at the age of two and a half, and lots of other children his age are much more prone to tantrums. This is a (relatively easier) age for us, but it isn’t for everyone. All kids are different.

A few DOs and DON’Ts for how to talk to the new parents in your life:

1. DO offer advice, especially if the parent asks for it. Bonus points if this advice is based on your own personal experience

2. DON’T expect that parent to follow your advice. They might, they might not. You are offering that advice because you are friends with that person and care for them, and the future of your relationship should not hinge on whether or not they do what you advised.

3. DO try to be helpful if/when you visit your friend – bring food, offer to clean or tidy, ask if the parents would like you to take the baby out for a walk so that they can shower/eat/have some time together. Feel free to offer specific services or else just plain ask the parents what would be the most helpful for them. Remember that these visits should be more about making things easier for the new parents rather than giving you the chance to cuddle a tiny baby.

4. DON’T tell horror stories, either about your own early parenting days or those of people you know. These types of stories usually aren’t helpful, and can actually be pretty scary.

5. DO listen and make sympathetic noises.

6. DON’T invalidate their feelings. Seriously. Don’t tell them that they’re overreacting or being silly. Don’t make remarks about how the human race could never have survived if every parent was this hung up on the small stuff. Just don’t.

7. That being said, DO remind them that babies grow and change very quickly, that this stage will soon be over and that things will get better.

8. DON’T tell them that you understand their struggle because you have a new puppy and puppies are actually more difficult and time-consuming than babies. Seriously. I wish that this point wasn’t based on a true story, but alas.

9. DO keep an eye out for symptoms of postpartum depression.

10. DON’T tell the parents that they should be enjoying themselves more than they are, or that this is supposed to be the “happiest time in their lives.” Probably it is a super happy time for them, but it’s likely also incredibly stressful and worrisome.

A final note:

Remember that your friends’ experiences as new parents are not about you. This is not your chance to re-hash everything about your own parenting. This is not your chance to show off your knowledge and expertise. What you should be doing now is supporting your friends as much as possible, in the same way that others hopefully supported (or will support) you as a new parent. Your words and behaviour towards your friends should be with their welfare in mind, rather than how you can make yourself look better or smarter. In short, be the kind of person that you would want to have around when things get tough.

And maybe you could even offer to change a diaper or two. Maybe.

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Guest Post: Three Compliments

4 Oct

This week has been incredibly hectic, and I haven’t had the chance to write anything here, not even the reading list for David Gilmour which I promise is STILL COMING. In light of that, a few friends have stepped in and offered guest posts – here’s one from my lovely friend Joanna, whom I’ve known since high school, about the ways that we “compliment” babies and toddlers. Enjoy! 

Three Compliments by Joanna Schmidt

Three “Compliments” I’d prefer you wouldn’t give my baby:

I love my kids. They are the most important people in my life. So naturally, hearing them complimented warms my heart. I love when they are called cute or pretty or someone says their hair is lovely. Even more so, I love when people tell me that my child is clever or funny, kind or a good older sibling.

There are, however, a few “compliments” that I find to be not so complimentary:

1. “He’s such a flirt” or “ooo, he’s flirting with me!”

My son is 13 months old. Sometimes he’s outgoing and has a quick smile that lights up his face. He will play peek-a-boo with anyone that will give him a grin, whether at home or with a stranger in the grocery line. Funny noises make him break into an infectious giggle. Like all of us, he’s sometimes shy, and that means he sometimes puts his head down and looks up at strangers through the lashes on his big blue eyes, a nervous smile on his face.

Also, he wants to kiss ALL the babies.

However, none of these things is flirting. He is socializing. He is learning about his environment and the people in it. He is developing a sense of self worth as his smiles and interactions are causing others to smile back at him. He is playing games and having fun.

Check out the Wikipedia definition of flirting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flirting Flirting has sexual undertones or seductive undertones. Babies are cute and cuddly. They give drooly smiles. They are adorable. Babies are not sexual. They are not seductive.

2. “Watch out mama, the girls are going to love him!”

This one is tricky. Because, you know, it might be true. He’s classic cute baby. He has these lovely wispy curls and big Disney Princess eyes. He’s tall for his age. It is likely that he will fit society’s narrow definition of traditional attractiveness when he gets older.

The thing is, as parents, we’re busy trying to teach our kids that being attractive is not necessarily what makes you loveable. We’re teaching them that how you act and what you do are the things that define you.

One of my proudest parenting moments to date has been in a conversation with my then 4 year old daughter. She was watching Beauty and the Beast and turned to me, totally unprompted and said of Gaston,

Belle doesn’t like him because he’s mean. The other three beautiful girls think that he’s beautiful but he’s not because he’s not nice. He’s a bully and I think that he’s really the beast.”

SO FREAKIN’ PROUD!

Secondly, the idea of watch out mama also bothers me – what are you saying about these girls that you imagine are going to love my son? Why would I need to watch out? What does this statement say about how we view young women?

And finally, I’m also very conscious that at his age, he has not asserted anything about his sexuality yet. His sister is six. Recently two of my female friends were married. She was very excited for them and proclaimed, “I’m so glad they are happy but I don’t want to marry a girl”. She says things like, “When I grow up and fall in love with a boy, I think it will be L______.” We’re pretty safe now to use terms like boy/man/husband/boyfriend with her. But my boys are younger than her and have not expressed their preferences yet. With them I use terms like person that you fall in love with, or the partner/person that you choose to marry. Statistically it is likely they will be attracted to females, however, until I know for sure I don’t want to make assumptions. Assumptions can alienate. Assumptions could make it hard for one of my boys to express who he is. And really, wouldn’t that be so incredibly sad?

3. He’s going to be such a heartbreaker!

And here’s the big one. This is what made me write this. I hear this often about my little baby boy.

Since when was it a good thing to break someone’s heart? Have you ever had your heart broken? Have you ever had to break someone’s heart? It SUCKS!

My hope is that he is NOT a heart breaker. My hope is that he finds just the right person at just the right time and they love each other forever. I know this is unlikely but I don’t want my son to be a person who causes or feels pain. I still like to wish that he’ll be one of the lucky few that falls in love with his best friend in high school and lives happily ever after.

The other thing that I don’t like about the “heartbreaker” comment is that it sets him apart from the babies that are not “heartbreakers”. Does that mean there are babies that are not as conventionally attractive that are bound to have their hearts broken over and over?

So, here’s the thing. Please feel free to compliment my child. Sometimes hearing that you’ve noticed that he/she has grown up a lot in his/her behaviours lately, or hearing that they made a choice that was kind or compassionate is what gets me through my, at times, difficult days. If my child overhears that, (s)he will catch my eye and see pride and joy and hopefully make a good choice again.

And me? I’ll try to notice the same moments and communicate that pride to your children too.

Joanna's three children

Joanna’s three children

How To Talk To Your Son About His Body

14 Aug

I loved this post on how to talk to your daughter about her body, and I wanted to create something similar for parents of boys. My friend Nathan and I put this list together, and would love to hear your input.

How to talk to your son about his body, step one: talk to your son about his body. Give him the vocabulary that he needs to communicate how he feels about himself.

Teach him that it’s normal to think about his appearance.

Teach him that it’s fine to want to be handsome or pretty.

Teach him that being a boy doesn’t take away his right to have feelings about his body.

If your son tells you that he is unhappy because he is too fat or too skinny, don’t dismiss him. Don’t tell him that boys don’t have to worry about stuff like that. Don’t tell him that he’s lucky that he’s not a girl, because then it would really be a problem.

Listen to him – really listen – and keep your opinions about his appearance to yourself. Don’t tell him that you’ll help him lose weight. Don’t tell him that he’ll bulk up when he gets older. Just listen, and encourage him to explain how and why he feels that way.

If your son is older, talk to him about male bodies in the media. Ask him what he thinks of the storefronts for Hollister or Abercrombie and Fitch; ask him if he thinks that images represent how he thinks men should look. Talk about the fact that Photoshop is used to alter images of boys as well as those of girls.

Don’t make jokes about your son’s weight. In fact, don’t make any comments about his weight. Don’t talk about how funny it is that he was so skinny as a little kid and now he’s not. Don’t poke him in the side and tell him that his ribs stick out. Don’t sigh enviously over how thin he is.

Don’t assume that you can talk about your son’s body any differently than you talk about your daughter’s.

If you notice that your son is gaining or losing weight, remember that these can be signs of depression. Without asking leading questions or otherwise being obvious about it, try to get some insight into how your son is feeling. Be sensitive to the fact that if you’ve noticed a change in your son’s weight, chances are good that he’s very much aware of it and may feel ashamed or embarrassed.

If you notice that your son is rapidly losing weight, seems to be trying to limit what he eats, or is otherwise occupied with the idea that he is fat, remember that eating disorders are on the rise among teenage boys. If you suspect that your son might have an eating disorder, don’t try to “fix” him by telling him that his body is fine and he has nothing to worry about. Eating disorders are serious, and if you have are concerned that your son might have one, you should contact your pediatrician immediately.

Don’t comment on other men’s bodies – neither positively nor negatively. Don’t communicate an idealized version of masculine beauty, and don’t run other men down. And for the love of God don’t make jokes about hair loss, or say that you don’t find bald men attractive. Don’t make jokes about short men. Don’t make jokes about body hair. Don’t make jokes about penis size. Seriously. Those things aren’t funny.

Don’t make negative comments about your own body. Don’t let him overhear you calling yourself fat, or saying that you should go on a diet. He will learn to love and accept his body by watching how you treat yours. Always remember that he will take his cues on body acceptance from you.

Teach your son to be kind to himself.

Teach him to be kind to other people.

Teach your son that his body is good for all kinds of things – dancing, sports, digging in the dirt, yoga, gymnastics, figure skating, or even just sitting quietly and thinking.

Teach him to move his body in lots of different ways, from lifting big rocks to spinning pirouettes, because those things are fun and they feel good. Teach him to stretch and touch his toes because this will help keep his muscles flexible and elastic. Teach him to do cartwheels because there is no greater expression of joy. Teach him to lie in a patch of sunlight and dive into a good book.

Don’t teach your son about “good” foods and “bad” foods, because food shouldn’t be subject to moral judgment. Instead, teach him about foods that will fill him up and give him energy versus foods that will leave him feeling unsatisfied and cranky an hour later. Teach him that candy and desserts are great, but that they won’t give him the drive he needs to get through the day.

Teach your son to cook. Teach him to cook anything and everything – scrambled eggs, macaroni and cheese, tooth-achingly rich chocolate cake. Teach him how to sauté vegetables and whisk egg whites.

Prove to your son that he doesn’t need a woman to cook for him.

Prove to him that there is no such thing as a “girly” interest or hobby.

Teach your son that people come in all different shapes and sizes. Teach him that there is no one specific way that he, as a boy, should look or act – his appearance and his interests are perfect because he is perfect. But teach him, too, that there is nothing bad or shameful about feeling uncomfortable with his body. Teach him that there is nothing wrong with wanting to talk about his body, or wanting to find ways to feel happier in his body.

Teach him that you’re there to listen.

Teach him that he’s not alone.

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It’s Just A Piece Of Paper

13 Jul

I’ve been thinking a lot about my education, or lack thereof, lately.

I’m sure that a lot of this is because of my book; I’ve been editing the shit out of it this week, and it feels like it’s sort of taken over my life. Most of the book takes place in 2003, right around the time that I had to drop out of university. That personal failure, combined with a bunch of other stuff, made that autumn one of the lowest points in my life. In fact, leaving school was a huge part of the reason that I ended up being hospitalized for depression that year.

I’d always known that I’d go to university; there was never any question about that. My father was a lawyer, and my mother spent most of my childhood finishing her Bachelor of Arts in night school, graduating when I was sixteen. I can still remember what I wore to her graduation – a long, sort of shiny black skirt with pinky-purple flowers on it, and a pink tank top with spaghetti straps. Fuck, I can even remember what I had on when my father was called to the bar. I was four years old, and my mother insisted I wear this red flowered dress with a huge white, lacy collar. I hated that dress, because that damn collar made me feel like a clown. After the ceremony, my father took me to meet a supreme court judge. Trying to think up something suitably grownup to say, I shyly said to her, “I certainly admire these burgundy carpets.”

So education was always a big part of my life, and I grew up with the understanding that I would earn at the very least an undergraduate degree. And considering the fact that, after earning her BA, my mother took a leave of absence from her job in order to earn her Master’s of Social Work, I don’t think that it’s much of a stretch to say that my parents hoped I would go on to complete a graduate degree or two as well.

Look, before we go any further, let’s get this out of the way now: I’m smart. I know that. I’m not trying to be vain or conceited; I honestly don’t think there’s anything vain about knowing your strong points. And for a long time, “smart” was the only thing I had – I wasn’t pretty, or popular, or especially talented in any of the ways that I wanted to be talented. The funny thing is, back then I would’ve given up being smart in a heartbeat if that meant that I could have been any of the other things on that list, especially the oh-so-desirable “pretty.” But I couldn’t, so I stuck with being the brainy geek.

In my final year of high school, I applied to a bunch of universities, all of them at least a couple of hours away from home. I knew that there was no fucking way that I was sticking around Kitchener; I’d been waiting pretty much my entire life to get out of there. I was thrilled when I got into my top pick, Dalhousie, and I moved to Halifax in August of 2001.

I was a good student. I got As or Bs in all of my classes, even Astronomy which, by the way, was technically a physics class (although, to be fair, it was a physics class geared specifically towards arts students). I’d thought that I wanted to study English, but in first year I fell in love with Latin and that class, along with Ancient History, was my favourite that year. In my second year, I officially declared Classics as my major, and settled in for the four year slog towards a Bachelor of Arts with honours. And you know what? I loved every fucking minute of that slog. I loved my classes, I loved my profs, I loved the other students, I loved the stupid wine and cheese events my department had, I loved all the nerdy Classics jokes, I even loved studying and writing papers. I loved all of it. Most of all, I loved learning.

Unfortunately, sometime during my second year, things started to fall apart for me financially. My government loan suffered at the hands of a bureaucratic fuck up, and I couldn’t get a student line of credit because I had no one to co-sign for me. I ended up somehow doing a full year of classes without paying for them and Dalhousie, needless to say, was pretty pissed. Then, when I tried to figure out how to register for my third year, I discovered something tricky: you can’t register for classes if you owe the school money, but you can’t get a government student loan if you’re not a registered student.

Can anyone say Catch-22?

So, after spending a month enduring a ridiculous circle-jerk involving various student services employees (with a couple of useless assists from the student aid office), I realized that I had to quit. Finishing my degree just wasn’t going to happen. Not then. Probably not ever, if I’m being totally honest with myself.

That moment, when I went from thinking of myself as a student to realizing that I was now one of the working poor, was one of the most shameful in my life. I can’t think of anything else in my life that embarrasses me as much as the fact that I had to leave school. Even now, it makes me fucking heartsick to think about; in fact, when I was talking about it with a friend today, I started crying. Ten fucking years later, and the memory of having to leave my degree unfinished still turns me into a stupid, mascara-smeared mess.

I guess I’d thought that I would’ve been over this whole lack-of-education thing by now, but I’m not. Oh boy, am I ever not. When I meet someone new, I’ll mention that I went to Dal, and that I took Classics, but unless I absolutely have to, I will never, ever admit that I didn’t finish my degree. If, somehow, it does come up, I will always carefully point out that I had to leave for financial reasons, and not because I failed any of my classes. When faced with well-educated people, I have a borderline pathetic need to prove how smart I am, to the point of being obnoxious about it.

The funny thing is, when I tell people that I wasn’t able to finish my degree, they’ll often laugh and say, “Oh, it’s just a piece of paper.” Which is easy to say when you’ve come out the other side with that piece of paper clutched firmly in your hands. But to dismiss it as being just a piece of paper is to ignore the fact that it’s a very, very expensive piece of paper that has the ability to magically gain respect and open doors. I get that saying that is an attempt to put me at ease, to make me feel like the playing field has been levelled, but let’s be honest: the field will never be level. You and your degree will always been on the higher ground, and I will always, always be down here, feeling small and stupid and mean.

We talk a lot in our society about how education is pretty much a cure-all for all kinds of social ills. Poverty, neglect, abuse, poor health and hygiene: you name it, and a bunch of people will tell you that education is the key. But what we don’t talk about is how fucking unattainable post-secondary education is to a huge part of our population. Oh, sure, there are government loans, but they can be hard to get, and they often fall short. Student lines of credit aren’t available to kids who don’t have someone to co-sign, and working full time over the summer just isn’t enough to cover tuition anymore. And all of that doesn’t even touch on the fact that tuition fees are rising at an alarming rate; I don’t even want to think about what they’ll be like by the time my son graduates from high school.

Higher education is a business, and don’t you ever forget it. We may like to have these misty-eyed ideas that we live in an egalitarian country where everyone has an equal opportunity for success, but anyone who honestly believes that is seriously fucking kidding themselves. Universities and colleges want your money, and if you can’t find a way to pay them, well, they’re not interested in educating you. You could be the smartest kid in the world, but if you’re poor – well, I’m not going to say that post-secondary school is impossible, but I will say that you’ve got a way harder road ahead of you than most. What makes all this even more difficult is the fact that most people who’ve earned university degrees don’t seem to be aware of the luck or privilege that helped them along; they truly believe that it was all their own hard work and sacrifice.

Which is really just another way of saying that poor people don’t work as hard or sacrifice enough.

Whenever I talk about my half-finished degree, someone will inevitably tell me that I’ll finish it someday. But the truth is that I probably won’t. What’s the point? Why shovel tens of thousands of dollars into that hole when all that I’ll get out of it is a piece of paper that says that I’m pretty good at translating things into Latin? I mean, sure, I would love to someday earn my BA, but if I’m being honest with myself, I know that there are so many other things that I would need to spend that money on before I wasted it on myself.

My kid, though? My kid is going to earn that piece of paper. We started an education fund for him when he was born, and we’ve asked our family to contribute to it in lieu of presents. My kid is never going to have to quit school because he doesn’t have enough money. My kid is never going to have to sit through two months of classes without a textbook because his loan hasn’t come in and he can’t afford them. My kid will never have to live off of one crappy cafeteria dinner a day because he had to cancel part of his meal plan in order to pay his phone bill. My kid is going to accomplish what I was never able to.

And once he has his degree, I will never, ever refer to it as just a piece of paper.

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