If you watch the trends of media, whether it be print, internet, or tv, you’ve probably noticed that every couple of months there is a new version of the “mommy war” being played out. Last month’s battle du jour was surrounding moms who work vs. moms who stay at home. Today, a firestorm has ignited over a provocative photo and article in Time magazine about extended breastfeeding and attachment parenting. These manufactured mommy wars are predictable because they tend to provoke strong reactions from mothers who feel judged, as well as mothers who want to feel superior for their choices. A litany of analysis, outrage, and defensiveness usually follows. Women tear each other down, while the entity responsible for initiating the battle reaps the benefit (whether it be a hot debate on a talk show or a political playing card). The insecurities of women surrounding their parenting choices are frequently pawns in the ratings game, and I think the most recent Time magazine article and photo of a preschooler breastfeeding are intended to incite such a reaction. I don’t much care if you breastfed your kid until they started kindergarten, or if you fed them formula from day one. I don’t really care if you turned your infant car-seat forward-facing prior to age 2, or if you homeschool, or if you send your kids to daycare while you go to work. Do you cosleep? Did you circumcise your son? I DON’T CARE. Do you babywear? Push your kid around in a stroller? Use a leash for your kid at Disneyland? Whatever. Good for you. When it comes to issues of motherhood, there is one issue I care about: some kids don’t have one. All of these petty wars about the choices of capable, loving mothers is just a lot of white noise to me, Quite honestly, I’m often astonished at the non-essential parenting issues I see moms getting their panties in a wad about. Particularly when there are so many kids in this world not being parented at all. This is the only mommy war I’ll wage. I’m confident that most mothers are doing the best that they can for their kids, even if their choices are different than mine. I think it’s ridiculous that so much energy is spent on debating largely inconsequential parenting decisions when so very little attention is given to the children who DON’T HAVE PARENTS. Why isn’t this causing outrage? Making magazine covers? Inciting ranty twitter posts? This is the war I’ll be involved in: We, as a society, are not doing enough to protect at-risk and motherless children, both in our country and globally. (Because apparently we’re too busy worrying about that kid whose mom gave him formula). The kind of war I’ll get behind will advocate for kids with bigger issues than a mom who goes to work. Or doesn’t. I’ll get upset about the fact that LA County’s family court system is so atrocious that they recently allowed press into court hearings for minors, in the hopes that this might finally provide some accountability for social workers who aren’t doing their job. Let me repeat that: social workers are so understaffed and/or screwing up so badly that reporters are allowed into confidential court proceedings in the hopes that it will shape them up. I’ll be disturbed by the 18-year-olds I regularly see on adoption photolistings who, despite being old enough to live independently, place themselves on national photolistings because they desperately want a mom and a dad in their adult life. Because, in one teen’s words, he "wants to become a member of a permanent family". I’ll whine about how, when we called our Christian agency about a healthy African American boy from LA county who was in need of a home, we were told that they had no prospective adoptive parents willing to accept a placement of a black child. NOT ONE. I’ll get my panties in a wad about a system that requires foster children to be placed in an adoptive home for 6 months before terminating parental rights, regardless of an absence of reunification efforts by the birth parents. I’ll be angry about how this scares away prospective adoptive parents, and hurts children by leaving them in a limbo even after years of no contact or even abandonment by their birth family. I’ll rant about how children whose parents have failed them should be made legally freed for adoption AS SOON AS POSSIBLE, so that more people would be willing to step forward and adopt. I’ll get behind complaining about how the government renames orphans and calls them "wards of the state", and renames orphanages and calls them "group homes", and how we collectively turn a blind eye to the fact that we have hundreds of thousands of children waiting for families in the US. I’ll be appalled over how many children around the world will age out of orphanages, due to lack of paperwork or other factors that make them ineligible for adoption. I’ll continue posting about the deplorable conditions of third world orphanages, and the developmental challenges that neglected children will face. I’ll fight for the moms who don’t have access to prenatal care, or for the moms who have to abandon their children because of poverty. I’ll be mad that such inequities exist, and I’ll support organizations that help change it. The only mommy war I support involves moms banding together to talk about the number of children in our world who are missing out on basic human needs. Security. Love. Affection. Let’s wage a war about that. Not everyone can adopt, but we can all do something. Even if it’s just using our voices for something more productive than personal parenting choices. Let’s stop quibbling about what competent mothers are choosing for their kids, and step it up for the kids that don’t have one.
I’m going to reveal some not-so-flattering aspects of my personality in this post, so there is a little trepidation here . . . but maybe it will resonate with some of you. I have a really difficult time with managing my stress. Granted, I have a lot going on . . . I have several jobs and four kids, and finding the balance between those things can be difficult. It would be easy to blame my stress level on these things, but the truth I know about myself is that stress seems to be a default for me regardless of what I have going on in my life. I feel stressed when I have to much going on, and I feel stressed when I have a break. This week my stress was at a DEFCON level 5. Our family was invited to attend a conference at Disney World for women in social media. It involves some conference time for me, but it also includes a week of tickets to the Disney World parks and some really fun VIP experiences for the kids. I’ve been so excited for this event. Afterwards, we’ll get to spend some time with my family in Florida. From there, I’ll head down to Miami to speak at Mom 2.0 and reconnect with some dear friends. It’s an epic vacation time full of good things. But instead of looking to all of this with joy, I’ve been filled with stress over the details. My laptop crashed and completely died – so I had to work off a different laptop and send mine in for data recovery. It all worked out but it was inconvenient. I was trying desperately to catch up on several writing assignments so that I could be present with the kids during this vacation. Mark had several speaking gigs last week which meant a little less time to get these things done. I had to pack for nearly two weeks away from home, along with packing up stuff for the kids. I was also trying to pack in such a way that there would be less stress on our trip. As if my anal-retentive packing techniques would somehow prevent mid-flight screaming or theme park meltdowns. Having their daily clothing organized will totally prevent Karis from acting like a two-year-old, right? None of my stressors this week involved tragedies or insurmountable hurdles, but I was treating them as such. I was miserable and anxious for the better part of last week. It sort of came to a head one night when I found myself panicked and exhausted and unable to sleep at 3am. I stumbled out to the living room and decided to catch up on some blog reading. I logged into my google reader and these were the first few posts:
a woman who is grieving the loss of a baby
a friend who is surviving throat cancer and learning to eat whole foods again
a woman who is separated from her husband and dealing with crippling anxiety
a friend who is remembering the death of her teenage son two years ago
another blogger who is dealing with chronic pain and reconstructive surgeries after a life-threatening plane crash and severe burns that cover her body
And I can’t sleep because I am having a hard time with packing. For Disney World. Wahhhh. I had a little come-to-Jesus moment with myself that night in the dark. I gave myself a hand-slap for being so ridiculous and anxious about things that don’t matter . . . things I should be grateful for. I reminded myself of times in my life that have been objectively stressful – and how in those times, I promised myself to never sweat the small stuff. I was bummed that, once again, I allowed my perspective to slip. You know what doesn’t really help in terms of learning gratefulness? Putting yourself into a self-induced shame spiral. But I did it anyway. I know I’m not alone in this. I know that gratitude is an easy thing to aspire to, but a difficult place to live. Stress seems to be a default condition for me. It’s one I’m working on. I’m going to do my best, over the next two weeks, to live in a stress-free place. I’m going to try hard to slip into vacation mode, and hope that being away from my house and my computer and my usual commitments will help me be more present with my kids and more grateful for my blessings. That’s my goal for the week. And for life, too. But we’ll start here.
Last week I talked a bit about how often I notice people dancing around racial descriptors, and how this has led to some awkward interchanges. A friend pointed out that perhaps I was glossing over the context of racial descriptors, and so I want to talk a bit about that. In fact, I think it’s relevant because I think some of the negative context around pointing out someone’s race is what has led to the general unease about acknowledging or discussing issues of race in today’s society. I think many of us probably grew up hearing people use racial descriptors in a negative way. I can certainly remember my grandparents doing it:
Another black family just moved in. They’re taking over this neighborhood! Those Puerto Ricans behind me were talking so loud. I nearly got in an accident with someone today! He was Asian.
Hopefully I don’t need to explain how these are examples of inappropriate racial referencing. In this instances, the race of the individual is irrelevant, but included in the conversation to confirm a generalization or prejudice. The reference to race is not about describing the other person, but rather about ascribing a stereotype or judgment to the situation based on another person’s race. As a result of growing up with this kind of racism, many of us had well-meaning parents or teachers who wanted to create a better environment, but in doing so we were taught that we should ignore race. “Race doesn’t matter” . . . we were told. Everyone’s equal. Don’t notice someone’s race, and for heaven’s sake, don’t talk about it if you do. This is the credo that I think a lot of white folks were raised on, and while it’s certainly an improvement over the more overt racism of racial ascription, it has (in my opinion) created a generation of people wearing a set of blinders to the real and ongoing issues of prejudice that people of color deal with. It has also created a society in which mentioning someone’s race is deemed offensive. Which is kind of a problem when a black friend tries to describe her experiences of subtle racism, and her white friends argue with her that no one notices race, and that she’s being overly sensitive. Or when I talk to a preschool teacher about my son’s experience as the only African American in his class and it results in an awkward conversation where the teacher feels as though I’m being confrontational. Or when I mention my concerns about the prejudice my sons may face and I’m told I’m just being paranoid. The idea that race doesn’t matter is a lovely dream, but the truth is that it DOES matter. Still. Today.
Another way I see this sense of racial denial play out is that people frequently relate stories to me about how their kids don’t notice race, as if this is a confirmation that their children don’t hold any prejudice. But here’s the kicker, that I think both children and adults need to learn:
It’s possible to notice race without prejudice.
In fact, it might even be optimal to notice race. According to Nurture Shock, parents who don’t talk to their kids about race are setting them up to view diversity as a negative thing. Not to mention, I believe that every child notices race on some level . . . it might not hold much weight, but I think if asked, most children could point out what children of color are in their class or friend circle. That doesn’t make them budding racists. So, to sum it up:
People shouldn’t be judged on race.
BUT Race does matter.
Everyone is equal
BUT Not everyone is treated equally
I get the collective cringe when someone is described according to their race. For many of us, there is a deeply engrained notion that it’s wrong, and depending on the context, it sometimes is. Therefore, it’s really important to recognize context, and not presume that every mention of a person’s race has a racist undertone. Sometimes it’s an apt way to describe a person’s appearance (as my children do, all the time, in regards to children of all races). Other times, it’s appropriate to acknowledge race to promote cultural sensitivity. Culture and race are a part of identity, and when we pretend that we don’t see someone’s race, in a way we are denying a part of their experience. Last night, I took the kids to see the Alvin Ailey dance company. At intermission, India pointed out, rather loudly, that all of the dancers have brown skin. I felt that familiar cringe creep up . . . my first instinct was to shush her, or to whisper, or ask her to be quiet. I felt a little squicky about the people around me hearing her say this so directly, and worried about what they thought of her for being so direct. I could have easily said something to shame her observation in that moment, but instead I fought through my discomfort and baggage and acknowledged what was an innocent observation on her behalf. “You’re right – this is a mostly African American cast,” I answered, without whispering. Then we had a discussion about who Alvin Ailey was, and why his contribution to the African American community was so great. On the way home, we continued our discussion. I explained more about the Revelation dance, and how the spirituals in that number were songs that were sung by slaves as a way to express their hope and faith in the middle of a horrible circumstance. It ended up being one of the best discussions I’ve had with the kids about historical racism, and I felt glad that my daughter was able to freely make observations without my discomfort shaming her into pretending not to notice.
A couple weeks ago, I posted a list of resources for talking to kids about racism. As it happens, a few people “pinned” the post onto Pinterest. As a blogger, checking Pinterest is interesting, because you can see commentary on your posts from people who don’t necessarily read your blog (or know anything about you). Last week, I noticed a comment on a pin of that post – the description was “how to talk to kids about race”. A woman replied (I’m assumed without having actually read the post);
This is so great! We always teach our kids never to notice the race of others. Whenever one of them comments on someone else’s race, we remind them that we don’t talk about that.
Of course, the irony here is that this is exactly the opposite of what my message was . . . so I found it amusing but also a bit disconcerting. It got me thinking a little, though, about how prevalent this mindset is. I notice how uncomfortable my students are at the beginning of each semester when I teach a graduate level diversity class. It is really hard for some of them to talk openly about racial bias, especially in a diverse classroom. And honestly? I don’t know that I am completely immune to it myself. I definitely think our society has some unspoken rules about talking about race. Here’s a few ways I have seen it play out: _________________________________________ The kids and I are at Trader Joe’s. I’m in a long check-out line, and the kids are anxious to go up to the manager’s station and get their prized lollipop. This is a new store, so the kids aren’t as familiar with the layout, but I send them up by themselves because it’s in my line of vision and because it makes them feel important. I can see the kids standing in front of the long counter at the front of the store, confused, because there are three different windows, and they can’t read the sign that designates which window they should approach. There are three people behind the counter: a white man, a white woman, and a black man. The black man is the one working behind the sign that says “manager’s station”. My kids look back at me with confusion, since they can’t read it. “Which one?” they pantomime. I point, but they can’t tell where I’m pointing. They are about 20 feet away from me in a crowded store, so I have to yell to be heard. “It’s the man!” I yell. “Which one?” They ask. “The one in the Hawaiian shirt” I yell back, realizing they are both wearing the same thing. “Which one?” They implore. I look around. At least 15 people are within earshot, likely hearing everything I’m saying. Again, I try to avoid saying it. “The guy on the right!” I yell. They remain confused . . . still not quite old enough to understand that concept. I wrestle in my mind. What can’t I just say it? This is ridiculous. It’s a descriptor. I’m just going to say it. “The black guy!” I yell. My kids nod appreciatively, but simultaneously I swear I hear a record scratch, as every eye in the checkout line turns on me. Me, who dared to speak it out loud. Me, who referred to someone by their race. Some people shake their head, others roll their eyes at my apparent rudeness. The bagger looks embarrassed for me, and I regret having said it. _________________________________________ I am at a playdate with a group of other moms. There is a new mom there, and we are making small talk, as people do. She asks about the ages of my kids, and I ask about hers. Then she asks which children are mine – and glances out at the playground, where about 20 kids of similar age are playing. “My daughter is the blond there, in the pink dress . . . with the ponytail. And the other one is the blond toddler on the ladder. And my sons are the two black boys*.” She looks like a deer in headlights. A couple other moms look stunned, too. Someone pipes in to explain that my children are adopted, but I feel like what she’s really trying to do is rescue me from my guffaw. I quietly wonder why I feel like I have to play the “descriptor dance” whenever pointing out my boys at school pickup or after church. Why do I have to list 5 descriptors when one is the most obvious? Especially when they are so often the minority, why do I have to skirt around it and describe their shirt, their hair, their age . . . when referring to their race cuts to the chase? _________________________________________ We are at preschool for open house, seated at a child’s table with several other parents and their small children. A little girl points to my son, and excitedly makes an observation to her mom. CURIOUS GIRL: Mommy, do you SEE him!?! He’s brown! MORTIFIED MOM: (clearly embarrassed) Honey, be quiet. CURIOUS GIRL: Mommy, do you see? Do you see that boy? MORTIFIED MOM: Sweetie, BE QUIET. Be quiet right now. CURIOUS GIRL: But mommy, look! He’s brown. MORTIFIED MOM: (whispering through gritted teeth) If you don’t stop saying that right now, I will give you a spanking. _________________________________________ These are just a few examples from my own life. Obviously, I don’t think everyone has such hang-ups with talking about race . . . in fact I suspect that this is an issue unique to white folks. But I do find it interesting that in seven years of raising black children, I have never had the experience of someone describing his race without some serious dancing around other descriptors first. “The one with the braids? Blue shirt? Brown hair?” Always. Contrast this with my own kids, who I’ve raised to talk really openly about race. They are at a very diverse preschool, and it is so interesting to hear them describe their classmates to one another. Almost always, if they are talking about a schoolmate that the other doesn’t know, one will say, “what color skin and hair does he have?” And the other will describe – with no judgment and no baggage surrounding it, the skin color of their friend. What do you think? Do you notice a reluctance for people to use racial descriptors? Have we gone so overboard with our good intentions to not judge others based on skin color, that we can’t even comfortably mention skin color now? And more importantly, what do you think all of this dancing around really does in terms of defeating racism?
My friend Tracey wrote an interesting post about love today (you can read her post about making love work here). It spurred some interesting discussion in the comment section, and one commenter theorized that if love feels like work, it’s probably not going to work. I think this is an interesting question : is it really “love’” if it feels like work? I will confess, I have some strong opinions on this one, but I think it really depends on each person’s end goal. If the end goal is to be in a relationship where you perpetually feel the ease of love and infatuation that one experiences at the beginning of a relationship, then that philosophy of love is probably adverse to feeling like the relationship might involve work. I would speculate, from my years as a marriage and family therapist, that couples who hold these work-free expectations for relationships do not tend to have long-term marriages, but rather tend to seek a new person when the feelings of initial infatuation fade away with their current partner. And, you know? That’s a lifestyle a lot of people choose. We can all think of celebrities (or politicans *cough*) who appear to me on this plan. I had a professor in grad school who had a seven-year deal with his wife. Every seven years, they renegotiated if they still felt like continuing. They aren’t married anymore. If, on the other hand, your end goal is to be holding your spouse’s hand in the nursing home some day, I think you have your work cut out for you. One of the most common laments I heard from divorcing couples was “marriage shouldn’t feel this hard.” And while I definitely think there are times when “hard” translates to “time to leave”, I also think that many couples are genuinely shocked to learn that, several years in, marriage requires some sacrifice, some compromise of self, and yes . . . some work. While I think that marital relationships can and should maintain those warm feelings of love in the long-term, I also think that there are some seasons where that love is going to me more above loving behavior and less about loving feelings. It’s trite but it’s true: love is a verb. It’s a feeling, too, yes . . . but feelings are temperamental little buggers, and shouldn’t be followed at every whim. Some seasons are not as conducive to loving feelings, and it’s in those moments that we have to “fake it till we make it” and work at loving behaviors with confidence that the loving feelings will follow. Mark and I have certainly had seasons where our relationship felt like work. In our first year of marriage, as two selfish and immature 20somethings, it felt like A LOT of work. We hit our stride for a while . . . and then Mark was in a horrible accident that left him dependent on others for pretty much every function of daily living. During that season, our life was about hospitals and wheelchairs, wound dressings and physical therapy appointments. It wasn’t romantic. It felt like work. Later, after we’d hit our stride again, we dealt with recurrent pregnancy loss. . . a season in which our nightly routine involved Mark giving me progesterone injections – not exactly the kind of physical contact that leads to feelings of passion. Dealing with each subsequent miscarriage made for a dark time for me personally, and our relationship suffered but survived because we worked at it. Then we dealt with the stress of being foster parents, two stressful pregnancies, and the fallout of my PTSD after the Haiti earthquake. Like married couples are prone to do, sometimes we were each other’s buffer in the stress, but other times we took it out on each other. While it would be nice to say that it’s all smooth sailing right now, we continue to be in a season where our marriage requires a lot of work. We have four small kids . . . WE’RE EXHAUSTED. Sometimes we are short with each other. Date nights are few and far between, and it would often be so much easier to maintain a parallel existence than to continue to push towards emotional intimacy. But there is a statement that Mark and I say constantly when we are making decisions about the kids: pay now or pay later. Parenting children well is a lot of hard work, but we continue to dig in and be present, even when it would be easier to slack off, tune out, or abdicate to screen-time, because we get that the work we do now will contribute to our kid’s well-being in the long-term. I feel the same way about my marriage. The work of our relationship, like so many other things in life, is something I’m willing to do because the payoff is so great. Edited to add: Tracey followed up about the comments to her original post, and wrote a response from her perspective. Again, a really interesting conversation in the comment section. Check it out.