Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Category: In the News

Why My Kids Will Be Getting Jitterbugs Instead of Smartphones

So I’m wearing braces. In my 30s. (I’m cool like that.)

And every few months, I get to sit in a waiting room with a dozen or so middle schoolers and their parents. When it’s my turn, I am called and then seated in one of the twenty dentist chairs that pepper a large room where the orthodontist flits back and forth among the pubescent patients while dental hygienists perform most of the routine parts of the exams.

I tell you this because, in the past two years, I can count on one hand the number of middle schoolers in either of those rooms who

1) didn’t bring or weren’t using their smartphone and

2) weren’t using the installed handheld gaming console that was attached to each dentist chair. (Not kidding.)

Have I already become (at age 35) that miserly curmudgeon who shakes her fist at the younger generation?

Part of me wants to believe that this new shift in technology usage is nothing special. It’s just a new form of communication.

It’s like my generation’s America On-Line. (Remember that?)

Right?

Students and technology

***

A few weeks ago, my sister shared Jean Twenge’s article in the Atlantic, titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?

Par for the Atlantic’s course, it was fantastic and I strongly encourage you to read it.

Among the most surprising trends that Twenge reports are:

  • Rocketing depression since 2012  (especially for girls)
  • Rocketing teenage suicide since 2012 (especially for boys)
  • Increase in feelings of loneliness

But also…

  • Decreased individualism among today’s middle schoolers
  • Decline in teenage dating, sexual activity, and pregnancy
  • Decline in teenage drivers and teenage employment
  • Decline in teenagers face-to-face hanging out with friends

What happened in 2012?

The proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone rose above 50%.

Loneliness chart

One of the most surprising charts from Jean Twenge’s Atlantic article: (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/)

Apparently, teenagers today have more of an in-person relationship with their smartphones than they do with their family (not surprising) or their actual friends. And we’re not just talking about suburban, middle-class teens. This wave of technology is crashing upon both genders, all races, and all socioeconomic levels.

Then, I listened to an episode of On Point called, “How Smartphones are Draining our Brainpower.” The commentators reported on a recent study done at the University of Texas at Austin.

People who have their smartphones in another room did better on cognitive tasks than people who had their smartphones in their pockets or on their desks. Even if the phone was on silent.

I believe it.

I started teaching in 2006 and I’ve watched the wave of smartphones come crashing into the classroom. In 2011, 90% of my international students had smartphones. I started collecting them at the beginning of class because whenever my students didn’t understand a certain word that I said (which was frequently), they pulled out their smartphones to look it up. But then, they were lost when their attention turned back to me.

And it has gotten worse.

Last year, I had a student from Jordan who was so addicted to his smartphone that he didn’t realize when he was checking it. I once jokingly bet him $10 that he couldn’t refrain from checking his phone for 50 minutes. He said he could. He even put it on the front table, a full twenty feet from his chair, as a means to help him not check it. Fifteen minutes later, students were working in small groups and I was walking around and listening to students. Then, I saw him. He was up at the front of the room getting a tissue, and his hand was already on his phone, checking. When I called his name, he looked stunned for a moment before he said, “No! No! I wasn’t thinking! Wait!”

That’s a funny story. But some stories are pretty scary.

One of the callers in this episode of On Point recalled that she recently tried to collect a smartphone from a student so he could take a test and he broke her door handle in protest.

To teenagers today, the smartphone has become a literal limb of their body and violating that privacy feels akin to abuse.

That’s what makes me assert that this wave of technological is far different from the changes that we’ve seen over the last thirty years.

With previous technological change, that technology didn’t follow you around.

It didn’t create an additional reality where you curate your life for all to see.

It didn’t present you a neverending ribbon of beautiful images from other peoples’ lives.

It didn’t require you to interact with it so you wouldn’t lose a line of communication.

You didn’t sleep with it under your pillow.

It was just there. And you walked away from it. Frequently.

***

This whole topic makes me worried.

Like, seriously concerned.

What are parents supposed to do?

There’s the argument, What are you gonna do? Just let your kid be the only one who doesn’t have a smartphone?

Maybe.

I’m not opposed to the idea.

Which brings me to the title of this post. I actually kind of love the idea of buying our kids something akin to today’s Jitterbug when it comes time for them to have a phone. If the point of a phone is to contact your child when they’re out and about, then problem solved.

They can be those adorably out-of-date teenagers just like their parents were, in their Jordache jeans and Ponies sneakers (What? You didn’t have those? Your loss.)

jitterburg

But I really don’t know.

I believe in teenagers being given more responsibility, especially in terms of controlling themselves, monitoring their own behavior, and dealing with the consequences of their mistakes…

But hormones.

And sexting.

(Apparently, that’s what teenagers are doing instead of having sex with one another.)

And, hey, sexting is actually something that teenagers are being arrested for.

Being classified as a “child pornographer” isn’t really a mistake that I want my kids to live with for the remainder of their lives.

***

I try to be a good example to my daughter about my phone use. I don’t do Twitter. I still can’t understand Pinterest (Question: How do I get my pin to show up on other people’s feeds? Answer: Algorithms and magic.) Instagram befuddles me (You mean I can only upload pictures that are on my phone? That’s stupid.) And Facebook is such a time-sink that I took it off my phone completely.

Basically, I use my smartphone for my calendar, my FitBit app (3 miles today!), music/NPR, and reading my kids’ daily daycare reports (Did the baby poop today? When was his last bottle?). Sometimes I send a text and answer a phone call (98% of the time, it’s my husband. The other 2% is spam.) And I’m miffed that I have to use my phone now to log into the university network where I work.

This is how I get things done.

Of course, no one really witnesses me getting things done because I’m not constantly sharing pictures of me getting things done, but you know.

Sacrifices.

***

I realize that this post will probably hit a nerve with some parents. iPhones, iPads, Leap Pads, video games, DVD players, and on and on and on. Even if you don’t buy them for your kids, they’ll use them in school. Or maybe they’ll use them at their orthodontist appointments. (Ha!) It’s guaranteed. You really can’t get around it anymore.

Guys, really, I get it.

Raising kids is neverending, tiring work. There are great uses of handheld electronics. There are educational games! Kids can learn to read or do math! They’re quiet and they hold still while they’re working on them! It’s almost like life before kids!

I’m not going to say media and electronics are the devil.

I let my daughter watch TV. A lot of TV actually.

But the TV doesn’t follow her around.

She can’t turn to the TV when we’re at restaurants or church or a store (usually) or in the library. She can’t manipulate the TV to do whatever she wants and then be rewarded for it. There’s no TV in her room.

And when it goes off, ain’t no amount of crying and begging that will turn it on again.

And she knows it.

That’s what I worry about with smartphones–that they’ve become the new pacifier, the modern, hip version of the cigarette. The new acceptable addiction that goes hand in hand with excessive caffeine consumption.

I worry because the cocktail of smartphones and social media are not only highly addictive, but they actually shape how we interact with and understand the world–and our roles in it.

They can make us believe that no “normal” person deals with depression or has abortions or fights with their spouse or flips off an asshole in traffic while their kids are in the car or can’t stand the hours of 3-6 on Sunday when you’re just trying to get life ready for the week and the baby just, won’t, nap…

We should care about breaking the virtual bubble and grounding our kids in the hard truths of pain and disappointment and the resiliency that comes from moving through and overcoming.

We should care about the fact that we simply don’t know the long-term consequences of letting our kids turn to smartphones to solve their problems and keep them from being bored.

Their brains are being wired and rewired right now.

Although the brain’s plasticity is still pretty limber until later in adulthood, most of its wiring is completed in childhood and adolescence. And once that wiring is complete, it’s extremely hard to rewire it. Ask any language teacher. Ask any counselor who has worked with abused children.

What happens in their formative years is likely to stay with them forever.

They are learning how to feel boredom and cope with stress and make friends and express gratitude and empathy and JOY.

Will they be able to do those basic human interactions without emojis?

Again, I’m not judging you for letting your child use handheld devices. Someday, I might be in the same boat. Right now, my daughter still hands my phone to me as she would a CD (like we’ve taught her–Don’t touch the shiny part!).

But, really, I think we need to be thoughtful and intentional about not only when and how we let our kids use smartphones, but also how we use smartphones.

What I’m saying is that while we’re suspended in this time when we really don’t know what the long-term consequences are, maybe we should avoid giving our kids smartphones altogether.

Of course, feel free to check back with me in eight years, when our oldest is twelve.

It might be a soul-searching moment for me.

***

And if you want to read the study about smartphone’s destroying our brain power…

Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, Maarten W. Bos. Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 2017; 2 (2): 140 DOI: 10.1086/691462

Yay, humanity…

America: Your Thoughts and Prayers Aren’t Enough (I Swear in This Post)

Every time there’s a mass shooting in this country…

Process those words and what they really mean…

Every time there’s a mass shooting in this country…

Every time

Every time

Every time

It’s the same ol’ shit.

We’re horrified. We wonder why. We blame this and that. No, it’s not that. It’s really this.

We talk about a breakdown in decency and culture and family.

We watch the cell phone videos of the carnage until we’re numb to it.

Until it doesn’t feel like reality anymore.

We honor the victims and the heroes who saved lives. News websites post pictures of strong men holding crying women.

We change our Facebook profile pictures to some snazzy cover that announces that “our prayers are with ________.”

A few of us call our representatives and insist on changing gun laws.

But it’s not as many people as those who shout louder,

“DON’T YOU TAKE MY GUNS FROM ME!”

Gun stocks soar.

(Just in time. Because they have been dropping since Trump was elected.)

Then we shrug and shake our heads and say,

“Man, that was tragic. Some people are just crazy. But look how people are responding. The victims were so brave. First responders are our heroes. So tragic. Some people are just crazy. Guess there’s nothing you can do about it. Hope it doesn’t happen here.”

This same ol’ shit will happen again.

And again.

And again.

And we’ll keep reacting the same way again.

And again.

And again.

Sandy Hook happened. And we still couldn’t get out shit together.

Who’s the crazy one?

***

I’m so tired of trying to explain to my international students why we have mass shootings in the United States.

They think it’s crazy.

(It IS crazy).

Why do Americans need guns? They want to know. Do they just love guns? Why do they love guns?  Why don’t you change your laws? I read that most Americans want to change gun laws. Is that true? It’s illegal to own a gun in my country. Do you think there will be a shooting here?

I wish I could say no.

But schools and universities are favorite places to open fire.

Sorry, but I don’t want to be part of a tragic story. I don’t want to be a hero teacher who throws herself in front of her students to protect them (unsuccessfully, of course) from an assailant, armed to the teeth with guns that can mow down hundreds.

I have two kids. I want to go home to them at the end of the day.

So no.

If you’re a politician who says, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims…”

That is not fucking enough.

 

Do your job and pass legislation to stop this shit from happening anymore.

Unkind comments on this post will be immediately deleted.

I’m not in the mood.

Where Did God Go?: Some Thoughts on Hurricane Harvey

I grew up believing that God was in the good and pure and holy and clean things.

And that I would spend my life trying to keep myself good and pure and holy and clean. And by doing that, I would remain close to God.

No.

Because in all of those moments when I thought I was good and pure and holy and clean, I was actually self-righteous. Self-serving. Self-important. Distant. Cold. Judgmental.

Perhaps intellectually, I felt that I was close to God.

But, oh.

No.

Not until those Desperate Moments did I ever really feel God’s presence.

Not until Fire and Separation and Cancer and Death and Pain and Uncertainty.

In those moments, my cold, assured heart broke open.

And I could no longer keep myself good and pure and holy and clean.

I was ungrateful and messy and blasphemous and so, so full of doubt.

I was everything that would separate me from the Love of God.

But then, didn’t I say that I believed that nothing could separate me from the Love of God?

Did I really believe that?

No. I did not. Not anymore.

Because Tragedy had come. And nothing could be any good anymore.

(Has Tragedy ever come for you? Can you imagine it?)

Hurricane Harvey

***

But here is the double-sided nature of God:

The more broken that we are, the more likely we are to be touched by God’s sacred presence. 

Because in our brokenness, we finally have room for God.

When we have lost all the Things that Keep Us Together, we finally reach out our empty hands

and really Receive.

3633244665_09b16e42c3_m

Photo Credit: Caitlin Regan, 2009, flickr.com

***

God’s Peace and Grace to all of you who are facing so much pain and loss and uncertainty because of Hurricane Harvey.

You are not Forgotten.

You are Loved.

One Thing That Google Memo Got Right: Ladies, This One May Hurt

I’ll skip all the stuff that you can guess I’m going to say about James Damore’s memo on “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.”

Like, no, women aren’t naturally prone to gregarious extraversion, which leads to them to avoid negotiating their salaries.

They don’t usually try to negotiate salary because they fear how asking for more money will be perceived by their future employer. And, it turns out, they should be worried about that. Because future employers very often rate women who ask for more money as “unlikeable” and “pushy.” For more on this read Linda Babcock’s Women Don’t Ask or Iris Bohnet’s, What Works: Gender Equality by Design.

Better yet, here’s a decent video summary of What Works:

And don’t get me started about the point about women being naturally neurotic.

***

But like I said, I’m skipping Damore’s points that I disagree with.

One thing Damore gets right is the assertion that he makes that is actually informed by his own personal experience (not what he imagines is the reality of women). He says,

The male gender role is currently inflexible…Feminism has made great progress in freeing women from the female gender role, but men are still very much tied to the male gender role. If we, as a society, allow men to be more “feminine,” then the gender gap will shrink, although probably because men will leave tech and leadership for traditionally “feminine” roles. (emphasis added)

First, my criticism: I have a hard time believing that just rethinking gender roles will lead to more men pursuing “feminine” roles. Money talks. And as long as the jobs that are traditionally done by women (TEACHERS) continue to offer piddly salaries and boatloads of responsibility, ain’t no guys gonna stand for that shit.

But as to Damore’s first point, YES. YES. YES.

The male gender role is inflexible.

What makes it so inflexible?

Shame.

Shame from all sides.

Sociologist Brene Brown writes about this very issue in her book, Daring Greatly. Women and men experience different shame triggers. For women, body image and motherhood are key triggers for shame.

But for men, the key shame trigger is weakness.

She tells this vivid story of a man who came up to talk to her after one of her lectures. He had been brought to the lecture by his wife and daughters and had just listened through a lengthy talk that Brene had given about women’s shame triggers. After watching all the head-nodding between his daughters and wife, he took time to talk to Brene about the lecture, out of earshot of his wife and daughters. And this is what he said:

We (men) have deep shame. Deep shame. But when we reach out and share our stories, we get the emotional shit beat out of us. Before you say anything about those mean coaches, bosses, brothers, and fathers being the only ones (who experience that shame)… My wife and daughters–the ones you signed all of those books for–they’d rather see me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall off. You say you want us to be vulnerable and real, but come on. You can’t stand it. It makes you sick to see us like that. (p. 84-85).

She then connects this story with another story of a twenty-year-old man who participated in a focus group on the topic of men and shame. Here’s how that young man described the confines of the male gender role.

‘Let me show you the box.’ I knew he was a tall guy, but when he stood up, it was clear that he was at least six foot four. He said, ‘Imagine living like this,” as he crouched down and pretended that he was stuffed inside a small box. Still hunched over, he said, ‘You really only have three choices. You spend your life fighting to get out, throwing punches at the side of the box and hoping it will break. You always feel angry and you’re always swinging. Or you just give up. You don’t give a shit about anything.” At that point, he slumped over on the ground. You could have heard a pin drop in the room… ‘Or you stay high so you don’t really notice how unbearable it is. That’s the easiest way.’

Before reading Daring Greatly, it was very easy for me to laugh at any comments from men that fell into the sentiment of “men have it tough.” I have been steeped in not only feminist literature and the psychology of prejudice, but I have also spent years and years addressing misconceptions and bias towards immigrants and international students. (Why are they here? Are they planning on staying?)

I’ve had a world-class education in identifying systems of oppression that work against the marginalized.

So I guess that led to my implicit conclusion that simply being male was probably a much more pleasant experience than being female.

Naive? Definitely.

But then again, I was drawing conclusions based on my outside observations about men. Even though I had been married more than ten years at the time that I read Daring Greatly, I don’t ever remember having a conversation with my husband about men and shame. And even if I knew what to ask (or even that we should talk about this), was I really ready to hear what my husband had to say?

Just as the man pointed out to Brene, was I really ready to see the man I loved completely fail? Completely fall apart? Be completely wrong? Be the loser?

Tough questions.

Striving for gender equality isn’t just a matter of lifting up women or leveling the playing field or sensitizing men to the struggles of women (although, yes, all of those things are important.)

If women are really ready for gender equality, we need to embrace the breaking of the male gender role.

We need to be comfortable with letting the men that we love cry and doubt and fail and lose. Instead of recoiling in their moments of pain, that is when we need to reach out and embrace them and say, “This messed up version of you? I love this. I love you.”

This also means that we have to re-imagine new love stories, ones that don’t hinge on a strong, capable man swooping in to save us from whatever problems we face (bonus points if the problem you need to be saved from is yourself!).

And perhaps more important, we have to reassure men that we don’t want that fantasy anyway.

We have to be open to relationships that don’t fit all the movies or all the songs. And hey, the best guy for us probably isn’t the one who only shows his soft side in the privacy of the bedroom.

The best ones are the ones who do the tough, emotional work that doesn’t come easy for guys. And doing that emotional work in full view of others. Like asking for forgiveness. And moving through rejection. And learning to love again. And expressing grief.

We’ve got to stop loving the image of the silent, stoic, lonely cowboy. Or the unbreakable superhero. Or the cold-as-ice mafia man.

We’ve got to teach our young girls to look for arousal beyond stories of men who dominate and control women (Fifty Shades of Grey), even if the premise is that they’re “protecting” them from danger and doing so for our own good (Twilight).

And, ladies, we have to stop putting all of our hopes and dreams into their hands. And then blaming them when they’re not able to live up to our lofty standards.

I mean, really, who can?

***

Of course, I wouldn’t be writing about any of this had James Damore not written his memo. I’d just be sitting on these little nuggets of information that I had previously gleaned from my own personal reading… And not sharing them at all. Because I didn’t have any current context to draw my readers into this piece.

So there’s another thing that he got right: We should talk about these issues.

It’s hard, yes. For women, we often immediately go on the defensive, anticipating yet another frustrating conversation in which we’re called upon–once again–to solve men’s problems of blindness toward gender inequality. I get it. Really. I want to write off Damore as another guy who just doesn’t get it. That’s so much easier than trying to contribute to any discourse on this topic.

But that doesn’t get us anywhere.

And we’ve got a long way to go.

The inflexibility of gender roles drives a lot of the thinking that leads to guys like Damore concluding that, It’s probably women’s biology that’s holding them back, which is a hop, skip, and a jump away from, This is just the natural order of things.

We know this inflexibility hurts women.

But, let’s be honest: it’s just as damaging to men.

***

Since Damore’s memo went viral, he has doubled down on his stance that Google is promoting an ideological echo chamber. It’s not surprising. He’s being attacked from all sides.

What does our society say men should do when they’re attacked? It tells them to fight back. To dig in their heels. To be a man and stand up to confrontation. And he’s doing just that.

So the question remains…

Women of the world, are we ready to embrace those moments when men experience vulnerable moments of weakness?

Or will we shut them down?

Why are American Women Dying in Childbirth?

 

American women are more likely to die from complications in pregnancy and childbirth compared to women in any other developed country.

It’s true.

But why?

***

At 1:27 p.m. on February 2, 2017, I gave birth to an 8 lb. 10 oz. boy.

Because there was meconium in my amniotic fluid, a NICU team was paged to be present at the birth to make sure that the baby’s lungs were clear.

Those first minutes after birth were very blurry. There was just too much going on to fully appreciate everything that was happening. From my perspective as the birthing mother, I remember my son turning his head upward and looking me in the eyes (that really happened). I remember seeing that he was a boy. (A boy!?! Really!?! What?!?!)

I remember dropping my head back against the bed and crying in relief that it was over. I remember thinking, “Well, that’s the last time I’m doing that.”

I was euphoric and so, so grateful. We had made it. We had survived that. Both of us. That was what I was thinking.

I did not know that I was hemorrhaging. 

This is the thing about hemorrhaging: It happens so fast.

It happens while mothers are crying from happiness that their baby is alive and breathing. It happens while they’re trying to get a good look at their baby’s face. It happens silently as the room’s atmosphere turns from the intensity and suspense of the pushing phase into joy and excitement of the delivery phase.

No woman wants to believe that it’s going to happen to her. I had none of the risk factors associated with postpartum hemorrhage.

But it still happened to me.

While we were celebrating and crying and basking in the joy of the birth, my midwife was tracking my blood loss. I remember looking down and seeing her furrowed brow every time more blood poured out of me. But I didn’t think anything terrible was happening. I was flooded with joy and gratitude that labor was over.

But in the first ten minutes after birth, more and more nurses entered the room and the treatments started. My midwife told me each treatment that she was doing to stop the bleeding. By this time, I had lost about 1200 mL of blood, about 2.5 pints of blood. In other words, I had lost about 25% of the blood in my entire pregnant body.

Surviving postpartum hemorrhage requires a medical professional who quickly realizes what is happening and starts treatment immediately.

In my case, the midwife tried a shot of Pitocin. When that didn’t work, she gave me Cytotec. When that didn’t work, she gave me IV Pitocin. She kept massaging my uterus. She was on her last treatment before starting a blood transfusion: a shot of methergine.

That’s how close we were to a true emergency.

screenshot_20170207-165547

My heart rate during labor. You can see exactly when the hemorrhage begins and how my body responded.

 

Hemorrhage is one of the leading causes of death in childbirth.

Causes of Death in Childbirth

Still.

Let me be clear: postpartum hemorrhage isn’t caused by a lack of care. This would probably have happened to me if I had given birth anywhere else.

But women die from hemorrhage when doctors and nurses don’t quickly recognize the amount of blood loss and begin treatment. Some states, like California, have codified and implemented standardized procedures and training for nurses and doctors so that teams can quickly and efficiently follow protocol to prevent postpartum hemorrhages from killing mothers. Instead of “eye-balling” how much blood a mother loses during delivery, nurses were taught how to collect and measure postpartum blood loss to help them quickly identify hemorrhage.

“Hospitals that adopted the toolkit saw a 21 percent decrease in near deaths from maternal bleeding in the first year; hospitals that didn’t use the protocol had a 1.2 percent reduction.”

But not all states have such standardized protocol.

***

A joint investigation by NPR and ProPublica found that more women are dying of complications related to pregnancy and childbirth compared to any other developed country.

In every 100,000 births in the United States, 26 women die. In other developed countries, the numbers range between 5 and 9 births. And those numbers have climbed from 17 to 26 deaths from 2000-2015.

Seriously.

Seriously.

It seems unimaginable. Really? In the United States? But we have so much technology. We have some of the best hospitals in the world.

Maternal Mortality

What the hell is going on?!?

There were several major findings from this investigation.

  1. The U.S. is spending more money on research, equipment, and training for improving infant outcomes. Think of how much progress we have made in helping premature babies and treating newborns born with previously fatal deformities and diseases.
  2. Decreased education and training about caring for birthing mothers, for both doctors and nurses. This leads to a lack of knowledge that is passed on to the mother when she is discharged from the hospital.
  3. Lack of standardized best practices for caring for birthing mothers among the states. Unlike other developed countries, there is no nationwide effort for reducing the maternal death rate in the United States. Responsibility has been left to individual states to decide if and how they investigate maternal deaths.

America has not conquered maternal mortality. We like to think that because we have advanced technology and highly trained medical professionals that tragedies like a woman dying in childbirth just simply don’t happen anymore.

At least not nearly as much as it used to.

It’s a kind of hubris, really. To think that we have mastered childbirth. We have tamed it and told it who’s boss. In fact, we’re so good at childbirth that we should just focus most of our attention on the infants. They’re the ones that are the most vulnerable, right?

But the truth is…

“In recent decades, under the assumption that it had conquered maternal mortality, the American medical system has focused more on fetal and infant safety and survival than on the mother’s health and well-being.”

~Nina Martin & Renee Montagne, “The Last Person You’d Expect to Die in Childbirth”

***

If there was one major takeaway from this report that I want to share with everyone it’s this:

Women still die in childbirth. 

Giving birth in the United States does not guarantee that both mother and baby make it out alive.

I completely agree with the report’s observations that labor and birth put women in the most vulnerable position in their entire lives. They don’t know what’s going on. They’re immersed in the pain and process of labor. Birthing women depend on everyone around them, doctors and nurses alike, to notice the signs that an emergency is unfolding.

If you or someone you know will be giving birth in the United States in the near future, I strongly encourage you to read ProPublica’s full investigative report on this topic.

This is not a political issue. ProPublica is an independent organization that is not funded by political donations.

This is a human issue.

American women are not immune to maternal mortality.

For the women who die every year from pregnancy and childbirth from preventable or treatable conditions, let’s raise our awareness of this problem and insist that we study this at the national level, not just the state level.

We can do better than this.

The death of a new mother is not like any other sudden death. It blasts a hole in the universe.

~Nina Martin and Renee Montagne, “The Last Person You’d Expect to Die in Childbirth

Why Women Have 20-Week Abortions

You are pregnant.

(Just go with me.)

You met your husband in your 30s. It took a while for you to find the right one, but you did. You waited a few years before thinking about having kids. Then, you started trying. Everyone else was getting pregnant so easily, so you thought it would happen without much effort.

Six months go by.

Then a year.

You’re 35.

You start visiting the experts. You take medications and injections. You and your husband are put through the wringer. You spend $20,000 of your own money.

But it works.

The two lines on the test confirm it.

You are pregnant.

But now, the anxiety sets in. You want to know that everything is okay. You wonder why doctors haven’t invented some special at-home ultrasound for you to check out your uterus everyday. Your bloodwork is normal. The genetic tests have come back normal, but you ask them not to tell you the baby’s gender. Not just yet.  You want to have that moment at your 20-week ultrasound.

When you’re 18 weeks pregnant, you finally feel it.

The baby moves. It kicks you. You rush to your husband so he can feel it too, but it’s still too early for him to feel anything.

You relax a little.

When the day of the 20-week ultrasound comes, you are more excited than nervous. You both stare at the ultrasound screen, not quite sure what you’re seeing. You’re smiling. You’re ecstatic even. Waiting for the technician to tell you if it’s a boy or a girl.

But she is quiet as she moves the wand on your belly. You see feet and legs, kicking and squirming. You see hands and a chest.

“So, you’ve got a little girl,” she tells you.

You cry. Because you were hoping for a girl.

But the technician is still quiet.

“I need to run some measurements by the doctor,” she says as she places the wand in its cradle. “Just one second.”

Your heart bottoms out.

***

The doctor says a word that you’ve never heard before.

Anencephaly.

…baby has no brain… incompatible with life… cannot survive…

But you’re not listening anymore.

Your thoughts are running wild.

You know it’s your fault. You should have gotten pregnant earlier. Why did you selfishly wait to try?

You should have taken more folic acid. That’s what causes brain defects like this.

And then there was that time that you went through those full-body scanners at the airport when you flew home to see your parents for Christmas. All that radiation couldn’t have been good.

And didn’t you have a spicy tuna roll in those first few days of pregnancy, before the test came back positive? That was careless.

You don’t deserve to be a mom.

Get a clue. Spend your energy elsewhere because you’re not cut out for this.

But…

When can we try again? Maybe it will be better next time. Next time, I’ll be more careful. Next time, I won’t take any risks, no matter how small they seem. I swear.

Somehow, you manage to ask the question. You’re not crying. You’re completely numb. As the words come out of your mouth, it doesn’t even sound like you saying them.

“Do you know when we can try again? Because… I’m going to be 36 soon. It took us a few years to get pregnant… and I just…” You can’t finish your sentence.

He tells you that you can start trying again when you’re ready. After you deliver this baby.

Right, you think. I still have a baby in me.

***

You spend the evening sobbing, your thoughts still running wild. You google anencephaly and you almost throw up. You google pictures of babies that have it. Actual babies who are born with it. You read miracle stories of babies surviving anencephaly.

Your husband holds you, but he has nothing to offer except his own tears.

Your head is throbbing, but you don’t want to take any medication because… Then you realize that you no longer have a reason to be careful anymore.

You toss back some Excedrin. You think about having some wine, but you can’t bring yourself to do it.

When you wake up the next day, you lie there in the morning light, your hand on your still-so-small belly. You talk to your baby.

You tell your husband, “I cannot do this. I want this to be over.”

You call the doctor. You talk about abortion. You want to know whether they use anesthetics so the baby won’t feel any pain.

And that is when you find out.

You don’t have a choice.

You will have to give birth to this child–because in the state of Ohio, it is now illegal to end the pregnancy.

You cannot believe it. Your child won’t live. You are suffering. You cannot do another day of this. And now you might be carrying this pregnancy for another 20 weeks.

***

But that’s not what happens.

That would have been much more merciful.

At 23 weeks, your water breaks.

You give birth.

Your baby tries to breathe, but she turns blue. Her lungs are underdeveloped. She makes a horrible noise that no mother should have to hear.

But she keeps trying.

It takes your little girl three hours to die.

In your arms.

***

On its face, this is a fictional story. But it is made up of a collection of stories that I have heard and read from other women who have walked this terrible path. A story like this can, and probably will, happen in the state of Ohio next year.

Because on December 13, 2016, Governor Kasich officially signed a 20-week abortion ban. No exceptions for rape, incest, fetal anomalies, and “only very limited exceptions for women’s health.”

Twenty-week abortion bans have become more and more common. Seventeen states now have similar 20-week abortion bans.

I know, I know. Some of you are thinking, Please. This emotional, fictional story that you just told doesn’t represent all 20-week abortions. I know a lot of those babies didn’t have any problems at all.

So, let’s look at some facts.

How many women would the state of Ohio stop from having abortions after 20 weeks?

In 2014, it was 510 women (Ohio Department of Health’s 2014 report on induced abortions, p. 9).

That was 2% of all abortions performed in that year.

Out of those 510 abortions, how many do you think were performed on viable fetuses?

One.

One abortion.

The other 509 abortions were performed on non-viable fetuses.

***

One of the main reasons that women have abortions after 20 weeks is because they have just learned that their child has a terminal diagnosis. And carrying these pregnancies can put the mother’s life at risk.

This is Mindy Swank. Here, she talks about how she was forced to carry a non-viable pregnancy because her Catholic hospital wouldn’t perform an abortion.

“…he tried to breathe, he was turning blue… he wasn’t conscious. It wasn’t a magical time, like people think.”

Or how about this interview with a woman who had an abortion at 32 weeks?

Or this woman who had an abortion at 21 weeks because her baby had half a heart?

Or the women mentioned in NARAL’s 2016 report entitled “Abortion Bans at 20 Weeks: A Dangerous Restriction for Women”?

These are just a few women who have had to face the reality of how 20-week abortion bans affect women’s physical and emotional health.

***

But let me be pro-life for a moment.

Let me acknowledge that some of you are reading this and thinking, Okay, fine, but I’ve read articles that have talked about women who get third-trimester abortions on perfectly healthy babies! And I won’t stand for that! It’s not right! If those women weren’t so selfish, someone could adopt that baby, someone who could give it a wonderful life!

Let’s assume you are right. Let’s assume there are women who are ending viable pregnancies after 20 weeks.

You know what?

That woman’s right to end her viable pregnancy is intertwined with another woman’ right to end her non-viable pregnancy.

The truth is, not many of these 20-week abortion bans that have been passed in individual states make a distinction between mothers seeking abortions for a non-viable versus a viable fetus.

They’re all lumped together.

Just as they are in the state of Ohio now.

Banning 20-week abortions isn’t simply a matter of “protecting life.”

At least in Ohio, a ban on 20-week abortions doesn’t save babies from certain death because many of these babies will not survive.

Instead, a ban like this amplifies the already unimaginable grief that some pregnant women bear.

The truth is, women in Ohio will soon be forced to carry non-viable pregnancies, regardless of how they feel about it.

There’s nothing pro-life about that.

Week 34: When My Post Went Viral

Well, that was crazy.

Last week on this blog, I published the letter that I wrote to Governor John Kasich about the Heartbeat Bill, which would ban all abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected.

Many of my blog posts generate about 30-50 views. My visitors are usually directly connected with me on Facebook personally or through my Becoming Mother Facebook group. These posts are not widely shared on Facebook. That’s normal.

When I write a post that catches a lot of attention, a handful of people share it on Facebook, and I’ll start getting some traffic from people who don’t normally visit my blog. A blog post like this might reach 200 views.

When I really strike a nerve, around 20-30 people share the post on Facebook and the post might reach around 500 views.

I was expecting my letter about the Heartbeat Bill to receive about the same amount of traffic that my most heavily trafficked posts have received. About 500 views.

I posted it on Thursday, December 8th, around noon. By the end of the night, it had received 272 views.

Awesome, I thought. It’s doing well.

On Friday, as I was sitting at my desk, I decided to check the post’s traffic after I finished my 8:00 a.m. class.

Your stats are booming! WordPress announced to me. Over 100 views in the past hour!

Say what?

By 10:00 a.m., that post had already received 500 views for the day.

Over the rest of the day, I kept watching the numbers climb. And climb.

600. 700. 800.

When it reached 1,000 views, I admit, I started feeling a bit of anxiety, simply because it was a pretty vulnerable letter and it was clearly getting a lot of exposure. But all the feedback had been rather positive. (With the exception of one ridiculous on-line troll who went by the name of “Poopchest.”)

So by the end of Friday, the post had received 1,309 views on that day. I was thinking, Wow, that was crazy. But things will probably calm down tomorrow.

Nope. Saturday was even crazier. It ended up receiving 1,938 views.

It wasn’t until Sunday that the visits started to slow. 649 views on Sunday.

181 views on Monday.

By Tuesday, it had dropped to a typical 32 views.

In total, my letter to the governor had about 4,400 views.

***

I’m a Facebook user, but I’m not so adept at using it that I know all the features that are available.

But my sister does.

She showed me how to search for my post and find out how many times it had been shared by individuals.

It has been shared individually about 700 times.

Here are some of the comments that people have made about the post.

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These are people that I don’t know in real life, who have never met me, and who presumably agree with my reasons for my stance on this issue so much that they would share my post with the people that they know.

I’m truly blown away by this.

It tells me that there are so many women who understand how dangerous a law like this can be to women.

***

 

In March 2016, the Pew Research Center (non-partisan and non-advocacy group) compiled data from a poll about how a cross-section of Americans feels about the legality of abortion.

legal

So who wants this law?

The advocacy group, Faith2Action sure does.

They say “all glory goes to God of the Impossible, praise to the name of Jesus” (Although I doubt Jesus would celebrate more women and children being driven into poverty.)

Faith2Action, trust me when I say, I understand where your celebration comes from. You have equated the outlawing of abortion with “saving innocent lives.”

But you have a short-sighted, simplistic view. In my experience, very few issues can ever be boiled down so simply.

Outlawing abortion doesn’t stop women from having one.

Outlawing it just forces it underground. It makes abortion unsafe. It kills women.

In every time and every place on this earth, where abortion has been illegal, women have still done it. Not because they are heartless, selfish sluts. But because, for many, many reasons, they cannot take care of a child.

***

If we want democracy to work, it can’t just be one side gaining power and forcing their agenda on the whole country.

And we need to learn how to talk to each other.

Pro-lifers cannot just call pro-choicers “murderers” and “selfish sluts.”

Pro-choicers cannot just call pro-lifers “delusional religious fanatics” and “misogynists.”

That kind of language gets us nowhere.

As citizens, we need more dialogue. We need to seek to understand each other and to practice compassion.

A Response to the “Heartbeat Bill”: My Letter to Governor John Kasich

heartbeat

December 8, 2016

Governor John Kasich:

I am writing you in regard to House Bill 493, the “Heartbeat Bill”, which would ban abortions once a heartbeat is detected, which can be as early as six weeks of gestation. There are no provisions for cases of incest, rape, or medical complications that put the mother’s life at risk. If this bill becomes law, once there is a heartbeat, no medical facility or clinic could perform an abortion.

I am truly shocked that this bill has passed both the Ohio House and the Ohio Senate. But when I learned that this bill was tacked on to a larger bill that addressed child abuse, I just shook my head.

Politics.

I am currently 33 weeks pregnant with my second child. I’m due in January 2017. Our first child turned three years old this past August.

I’m telling you this because I know what it means to carry the life of a child.

I grew up in a conservative Christian household. We attended a Southern Baptist Church. I went to church on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. I memorized Bible verses in the AWANA program. I was quite good at that. When I was finally able to vote in 2000, I proudly voted a straight Republican ticket.

I was pro-life. I thought abortion was abhorrent. Women who had abortions must have been heartless, soulless, and godless. They needed to be saved from making the most dreadful, horrifying mistake of their lives. I believed that the U.S. Supreme Court needed to overturn Roe v. Wade. Only then would we be able to stamp out the evil of abortion across this country.

Abortion is murder. Plain and simple. And murder is a crime.

If she gets pregnant, she should suffer the consequences. If she wanted to have sex, she should have at least been responsible.

If she was raped, she shouldn’t make the child suffer. And are we even really sure that she was raped? Getting pregnant from a rape hardly ever happens.

Yes. I had those thoughts.

It was easy to hold these beliefs because they went unchallenged. I socialized mostly with other conservative Christians. At school, I viewed my classmates who weren’t Christians as “the lost.” They didn’t truly have a working moral compass. They needed to be saved.

And as an evangelical Christian, I should be the person who saved them.

I began my college career at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio in 2000. During my four years there, I met a lot of different people who did not grow up in the same conservative circles that I did. In conversations, I began to realize that some of my beliefs about social issues (same-sex marriage, poverty, race, abortion) were not automatically echoed and supported by others. I was challenged to think critically about my opinions. I was challenged to support what I believed.

I’m so very grateful for having been challenged.

Because I began to realize that the foundation upon which I was basing my beliefs on many issues was flimsy at best. What I had to support my opinions were soundbites that crumbled under the power of even the simplest of questions. Jesus never talked about abortion. But he sure talked a lot about caring for the poor and loving others. Especially those who were on the margins of society.

And then a thought occurred to me.

Why did I think it was my responsibility to restrict someone else’s choices?

Who was I to decide how someone else lived their life?

Was I so inherently right in my beliefs that what I thought about the world should be imposed on everyone else?

Once I posed those questions to myself, I was ashamed of how arrogant I sounded.

However, I have to admit that all of my changed beliefs about abortion were still vague abstractions that didn’t directly impact my life. I had never been pregnant. Privately, I wondered if being pregnant and giving birth would change my opinion yet again. Maybe I would revert to my pro-life stance of years past?

But I didn’t.

In fact, I am more pro-choice now than I have ever been.

Because now, I understand what it means to become a mother.

Becoming a mother is not strictly a physical test of endurance. It’s a mental and emotional marathon that not only requires sufficient financial resources, but also a social support network. Otherwise, you will completely implode.

My husband and I are firmly established in the middle class, yet we still found the costs of having a child to be quite burdensome. It cost us $3500 just to give birth in a hospital—and we had health insurance. We spent another $12,000 on car seats, furniture, diapers, formula, clothing, medicine, and other supplies. Because I wanted to return to work, it cost us another $11,000 per year for our child to be in daycare.

There were days in that first year of motherhood when I wasn’t sure that I could go on—and I wasn’t worried about the financial aspect. There were days when I wanted to be free of the constant 24/7 responsibility—and my husband and I had wanted this child.

Now, can you imagine being a 20-some-year-old single woman with a high school diploma, taking some college classes part-time while you work a job that might bring in $20,000 per year? That’s the most common portrait of a woman who gets an abortion in Ohio that emerges from the Ohio Department of Health’s 2014 report on induced abortions (p. 9).

Becoming a mother is a huge responsibility and it’s not one that we should force women to take on if they are not prepared to do so. At a time when Republicans want to slash spending on social programs, outlawing nearly all abortions would not only force unprepared, single women into motherhood, it would drive them into years of poverty as they struggle to not only provide for their children, but to do so with increasingly shrinking assistance from the government.

As I review the Ohio Department of Health’s 2014 report on induced abortions, what strikes me most is that the abortion restrictions in House Bill 493 do not seem to respond to the reality of abortion statistics in the state of Ohio. Here are some interesting facts that I gathered from this report:

  • In 1976, there were roughly 10,000 more abortions in the state of Ohio than there are today (Figure 1, p. 2).
  • Since 2001, the rate of abortions per live births has steadily decreased (Figure 4, p. 5).
  • Since 2001, abortion rates have fallen among women aged 15-34. The sharpest decline in abortion rates occurred among women aged 18-19 (15 fewer abortions per 1,000 births) and aged 20-24 (13 fewer abortions per 1,000 births) (Figure 5, p. 6).
  • Of the 21,186 abortions performed in 2014, there were only 36 instances of post-abortion complications (Table 10a, p. 26). That means 99.8% of abortions were performed with no medical complications.
  • Of all abortions performed in 2014, 53% were performed before 9 weeks of gestation. 31% were performed from 9-12 weeks of gestation. 13% were performed from 13-18 weeks of gestation. Only 2.1% of all abortions were performed after 19 weeks of gestation (Figure 3, p. 2).
  • In 2014, 510 abortions were performed after 19 weeks. Of those abortions, only 1 abortion was performed on a viable fetus. The other 509 abortions were performed on non-viable fetuses. (Table 18, p. 39).

In short, in the state of Ohio…

  • the number of abortions have decreased
  • the rate of abortions has decreased
  • complications of abortion procedures are extremely rare
  • 97% of abortions are performed before 20 weeks
  • after 20 weeks, abortions are almost always performed because the fetus cannot survive outside of the womb.

All of this information makes me question the purpose of the Heartbeat Bill, which now awaits your signature in order to become law.

Is it to decrease abortions?

I doubt it. They’re already decreasing.

Is it to protect women’s health?

Clearly not. Abortions are incredibly safe.

Perhaps passing this law is a moral endeavor?

We should not impose one group’s definition of morality over all residents of this state.

The best conclusion that I can draw is that this bill is purely political. It is a means to appease a vocal and staunchly pro-life segment of Ohio’s population at an opportune moment, presumably to give the U.S. Supreme Court a reason to revisit their decision on Roe v. Wade.

But let’s be honest here.

Many of the people who express such disgust for abortion will never, ever face a reality in which the Heartbeat Bill will ever affect them.

They are men. They are women who would never have an abortion because of their moral opposition. They are women past the age of childbearing. These groups of people can vociferously support anti-abortion laws with no consequence to themselves.

But I am a woman who is affected by this law. I’ve got skin in this game.

As I mentioned before, my husband and I wanted to have a child. We were responsible. We got married, started our professional careers, paid off debt, and made plans for when to have our first child. The importance of my right to have an abortion never occurred to me. After all, we were trying to get pregnant.

But as I held the sonogram pictures from our 20-week ultrasound for our first child, a terrifying thought struck me.

What if we had found out that our child had no brain? Or no kidneys? Or some other fatal abnormality? Would we have been able to have an abortion?

20-week-ultrasound

Truthfully, I didn’t know at the time if the state of Ohio had any abortion restrictions.

The thought scared me. That if we had received devastating news at that ultrasound, that my choices about how to deal with that news might be limited depending on where I lived.

I began to realize that, for me, preserving the right to have an abortion isn’t about “killing babies.”

For me, it’s about offering options for the grieving process.

When you already know that your child will not survive, you fall into this quagmire of grief. The last thing that you need is the government telling you what you can and cannot do in order to move through that grief. Some women find comfort in giving birth and holding their child for however long their child lives. Other women find comfort in ending their pregnancies in the womb, so their child will not be born into a short life of pain.

In Christmas 2015, I had to walk through that path of grief. At nine weeks of pregnancy, I watched the doctor show me our silent, motionless baby, floating on the ultrasound screen. No heartbeat. I do not have the exact words for how I felt in that moment. It was an awful feeling of denial, anger, sadness, guilt, and frustration.

I had the choice to either miscarry naturally or to have a D & C.

I waited for my body to miscarry naturally. But it wouldn’t let go.

After a week of carrying death inside of me, I just could not take it anymore. I wanted to move on. I wanted to let go. I was ready to move through my grief. I called my doctor and scheduled the D & C. The procedure was quick and uneventful. I had no complications. In five months, I was pregnant again.

But under this new law, if my baby still had a heartbeat, even if the diagnosis was terminal, I would not have been allowed to choose that same path. I would be forced to bear that grief for as long as my body wanted. Only then would the government be satisfied.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld that all women have a choice. And because of that ruling, no woman is forced to walk a path that she doesn’t want to. No one will make her have an abortion. No one will make her carry her child to term.

In the end, it’s the mother who bears the emotions of her choice. She is the one who cries the tears. Not the advocacy groups. Not the protesters. Not the government. She, alone, lives with her choice.

And with that in mind, I hope that you consider voices like mine above the voices of those who have no personal stake in this issue. Women like me are the ones who will be affected by this law.

I am not a baby killer. I don’t disrespect life. I don’t need to be taught a lesson in personal responsibility.

I am a mother. I am a wife. I am a Christian. I’m educated, thoughtful, responsible, and compassionate. I deserve to be trusted to make my own health decisions.

Please remember that as you make yours.

Respectfully,

Sharon Tjaden-Glass

Dayton, OH 45459

 

 

What I Know About Muslims

prayer

 

If you’ve never talked to a Muslim, I write this for you. Maybe you’d like to know more about what Muslims are like, but you’ve just never had the chance to talk to one.

Maybe you are a little afraid of Muslims.

Maybe you’re a lot afraid.

Wherever you are in your familiarity with Islam, I write this for you.

Not many Americans have had the opportunity to know and interact with as many Muslims as I have. And so, I consider it both my duty and my gift to share what I know and what I have seen.

***

I first started teaching university international students in 2006, which was one year after King Abdullah II of Saudi Arabia allocated a boatload of money for Saudi citizens–both men and women–to study abroad. Indeed, for the past ten years, I have taught hundreds of Saudi citizens, not to mention students from Kuwait, UAE, and Libya. Nearly all of my students from these countries were Muslim, though it’s important to mention that not all of them were.

Before I started teaching Muslim students, my knowledge of the Middle East and Islam was relegated to what I had read in the news of my post-9/11 world. I was a sophomore in college when September 11th happened and it awoke in me a new desire to understand the Middle East and Islam.

Why do they hate us? I remember thinking. Why do they want to hurt us?

Most of what I pieced together included a bunch of disjointed ideas about the Middle East, gathered from the news.

  • Many of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi Arabian.
  • The United States wanted to have a presence in the Middle East to get oil.
  • Women in the Middle East were oppressed, couldn’t drive, and were forced to wear veils.
  • Jihad meant “holy war” and it was required of all Muslims.
  • Criminals could be beheaded.

This fragmented understanding of Islam and the Middle East is what I took into my classroom at the beginning of my career.

Just as all Christians cannot be described in generalized terms, neither can Muslims. They have their Five Pillars of Islam. But referring to their Pillars of Islam didn’t show me their humanity in the same way that teaching them did.

Allow me to share some stories with you.

***

Zeanab

My first Saudi woman was named Zeanab. She was all smiles. Smiling. All the time. That is how I remember her. She was married to another student, Ali. They were newlyweds. Zeanab believed in destiny and God’s presence in her life. She told me that she had a dream of her husband before they met.

Zeanab was sharp and studious. She always, always, always did her homework. She talked in class. Frequently. She enjoyed working with other students. I loved having her in class.

I remember that another teacher had asked Zeanab if she had helped her husband with his essay. The teacher felt that Ali’s essay did not resemble his usual work and suspected that Zeanab had, probably unknowingly, committed academic dishonesty.

I remember that Zeanab came to me, in tears, at the beginning of one of my classes. She told me,

“I swear to you now that I am not helping Ali with his homework. But if you believe that I am, I will take the zero.”

I remember that.

***

Abdullah

Abdullah was like a lot of my young, 20-year-old Saudi men: single, humorous, and a bit clueless about general life skills, not to mention study skills. He lived with some cousins and friends, other young men just like him. They congregated outside of the building and smoked together during breaks. He was constantly coming to class late and not doing his homework. He fell further and further behind. His test grades were poor. He started acting out in class, and it was driving me nuts.

I scheduled a midterm conference with him, totally expecting him to be either defensive of his actions or combative. I was ready for chauvinism. I was ready to level this guy.

But when he walked through my door and sat down, I changed my mind. Instead of bringing the pain, I asked him what was going on in his life.

He stared at his shoes. He was silent.

“What’s going on, Abdullah?” I softened my voice. “Why aren’t you getting to class on time?”

Silence.

“Is something wrong?”

He looked away, but quietly said,

“This is the first time I live without my mother.”

With his profile facing me, I could see the tears. He pinched his eyes.

In that moment, I was ashamed at myself for assuming that he was just another tough guy who couldn’t stand having an American woman teaching him. Here was a boy trying to be a man, uprooted from his culture, and handed an armload of responsibilities that he never had before. It was like watching a novice swimmer trying to dog-paddle across a lake–with anchors attached to his feet.

***

Asma

Asma joined my class in 2008-2009. She and her husband came from Libya, just several years before the 2011 revolution and toppling of Gaddafi’s regime. They had a little boy, I think around 2-3 years old at the time. While she worked to finish her English language studies so she could start a Ph.D. in pharmacology, her husband stayed with their son at home.

And then she got pregnant.

We talked with her about how the pregnancy would impact her studies. She was determined to finish, but her due date was about one month before she would complete her English study.

It didn’t stop her.

In my morning writing and grammar classes, she was like a tiger feasting on a fresh pile of meat. She would devour everything that I said. While other students struggled to stay awake, she would take mountains of notes. She asked questions. She wrote my answers to her questions in her notebook. She reviewed her tests and asked about her mistakes. Then, she tried to learn from those mistakes.

But she was also putting her body under intense stress.

She went into labor early. I can’t remember how early she gave birth, but her daughter was born just under six pounds. Tiny. But perfectly healthy.

She missed Thursday and Friday classes.

She was back in class on Monday.

She finished our program on time and started her Ph.D. program.

There are few students in the past ten years that I can remember being as driven as Asma. But what made her truly unique was that she always, always, always asked how everyone else was before she talked about herself. She would periodically bring in Libyan snacks and sweets to share with the whole class, including a carafe of Arabic coffee.

She did not complain. She would privately talk to me about the stress that she was experiencing, but she never outsourced her frustration to external factors.

She always saw herself as the one who had control over her life.

***

Hathim

Hathim was in my Fall 2011 class. He was a brilliant student. He was one of the few students in my career who asked me to explain the past perfect tense to him–and then immediately got it. And immediately used it correctly in his writing. Hathim was preparing to enter the Master’s program in electrical engineering.

One day, Hathim was talking excitedly to another student in Arabic before we got started.

“What’s going on?” I asked him.

“You know what King Abdullah just did?”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“He’s going to allow women to vote in local elections soon.”

His eyes shone.

***

Fahad

My father passed away on a Thursday night in June 2014. I found out the following Friday morning. We drove to Minnesota over Father’s Day weekend to attend the funeral. I was gone from class for a whole week.

When I checked my email after returning home, I saw email after email from students, most of them from my Muslim students. All expressing their condolences.

Then Fahad came to my office.

“Teacher, we just wanted you to know that we are so sorry about your father. Be patient, Teacher. God is with you.”

***

Here is what I want to say about Muslims:

When I was in my early 20s, I used to think that Islam somehow convinced its followers to hate Americans and Christianity.

But after just a few interactions with my Muslim students, I knew that could not be the whole story.

I could not simplify terrorism’s origins to strictly religion. My students followed a different religion, but I could still see myself in them. I could see their humanity. Their vulnerability. Their generosity. Their love. If they followed a religion that necessarily espoused hatred, how could their hearts be so tender to someone like me?

It just didn’t make sense.

The jihadist terrorists that we so often hear about in the news are sacrificing themselves for a distorted, extreme version of Islam–but the people who are nurturing and training those terrorists are doing so for much more complex political and economic reasons. Islam doesn’t teach Muslims to be terrorists and jihad doesn’t call all Muslims to strap on suicide vests.

Islam is being used as a tool of terrorism, but the roots of terrorism are economic and political.

But blaming the whole religion of Islam is much easier to explain.

It’s more convenient.

Even though it’s completely misinformed. Even though it’s devoid of context. Even though it’s devoid of humanity.

So when I hear that the idea of establishing a registry of Muslims in America is being floated as an idea that the Trump administration is considering, I smell opportunism ready to reap the harvest of fear.

I can see plenty of Americans–many who have never personally interacted with someone who is Muslim–nodding their heads along with the idea.

Jihadists terrorists need to be stopped! Look what they did to Paris and Brussels! We’re next! Find out who’s here and vet them! Give them tests! Find out who supports Shari’a law! We’ve got to know what they believe and what their values are! They’re anti-American! They’re the next Trojan horse!

To those Americans, I offer you not only my stories of teaching my Muslim students, but also my stories of learning from them what the heart of Islam is.

It’s their intense love and devotion to their family. They cannot understand how Americans could support the idea of nursing homes.

It’s their generosity and hospitality. I cannot tell you how many plates of dates I have been offered and how many cups of Arabic coffee have been poured for me.

It’s their devotion to their faith. To witness all of your Muslim students, faithfully fasting every day in the month of Ramadan. To hear them fall collectively to their knees during Jummah, their Friday prayer. To see them stop in the middle of the day to pray.

These are values and behaviors that I have witnessed over and over again across a range of students from many countries over ten years. To be sure, there is a great range across all of those I have known. Some are more conservative and some are more progressive. Some are a little more hesitant about participating in American culture and others throw themselves headfirst into the American life. Some were amazing students whom I enjoyed teaching every day and others were a pain in the neck and teaching them was a struggle.

But even across the wide range of my experiences, I could see the values and behaviors that were shared among all of them.

I am humbled by my Muslim students.

Because in the beginning, they were more accepting of my religion than I was of theirs.

Week 30: Sitting in the Discomfort

I wish I were talking about the physical discomfort of pregnancy. The concrete discomfort that grows heavier and heavier as these third trimester days pass one after another.

But I’m not.

***

I was struggling with the idea of going to church on this first Sunday after the election. I knew that I would be worshipping God alongside people who had voted for this man. I knew the anger and frustration that I would feel. I knew someone would say something that would send my blood pressure soaring.

But I went.

Because I needed healing. I needed to hear, Help,  save, comfort, and defend us, Gracious Lord.

I sat in an adult Sunday School classroom in which, at nearly 35 years old, I was the youngest person in the room.

We listened to an episode of a DVD series by Max Lucado called You Will Get Through This. Before the election, those words had comforted me through the difficult moments of pregnancy. Now, those words address a completely new range of emotions.

I told myself, No. You will not bring up the pain of the election. You will not be the one to instigate a conversation. You are not here to argue. You are here for healing.

But it didn’t matter. It was on everyone’s mind.

I mean, look at this last election, an older man said. And now people are protesting like this? What has happened in the last twenty years? How did we get here?

I think it’s an erosion of values. Look at the young people of today. They have 1,000 “friends” on Facebook, and they think that’s connection. When I was a kid, we talked to each other. Young people today aren’t really connected to each other.

Yes, I’ve noticed that too. When I was a kid, there was more expectation of looking out for your neighbor. We’ve lost that neighborliness. And we need to bring that back.

It’s Christian values specifically that are being eroded. I mean, I can’t speak to what Muslims are teaching, I don’t have an understanding of it, but we’re starting to see a real decline in Christian values among our young people.

Right! Young people aren’t going to church the way they used to. And why? Where did they go? Why aren’t they coming?

Well, there’s a lot of reasons for that, ones that I don’t know that we can get into now, but it’s having an effect for sure. We see those values falling away more and more.

It was at this point that I thought about leaving. My heart was racing. I was fuming.

Geez, I have no idea why Millenials are leaving the church, I sarcastically mused. Could it be because they don’t think there’s a place for their opinions? Could it be because they are being labeled and dismissed as whiny and disconnected? Erosion of values? What about the values that more Millenials have than Baby Boomers? Values like respect for sexual orientation and differing religious views?

I am a regular contributor to this class. I don’t just sit there and say nothing. I open up. I offer personal stories from my life. I allow myself to be vulnerable in this classroom because, usually, I feel surrounded by supportive fellow Christians. But the next words out of my mouth were going to be full of hurtful, angry words.

So I shut up that morning. Because my words would have only fueled the fire already ablaze in that room. Because there was only enough time to really get pissed off at each other. Not enough time to actually talk through an issue.

Not that morning. That morning, I needed to calm down and think.

I needed to sit in the discomfort of being generalized and labeled and dismissed. I needed to feel the way that millions of working class Americans have been feeling for years. I needed to shut up and listen.

I haven’t been doing enough of that lately.

I let this room full of Baby Boomers talk and I listened to their concerns. I listened with the intention of understanding how they were drawing conclusions.

***

My epiphany didn’t happen in that moment. It didn’t even come to me on that day.

The next day, as I listened to NPR’s Morning Edition, I heard a segment on interviews with working class voters in New Hampshire. Then, a light bulb.

The way that I felt in that Sunday School classroom was the same way that many of the rural, working class of America has felt for years. They have felt that their ideas and concerns have been too often generalized, labeled, and dismissed. They have felt forgotten and unimportant. And in Donald Trump, they saw a person who has pledged to not forget them.

The racism, the sexism, the xenophobia, the lying, the bad business practices… All of that just comes along with Trump’s package. But for many of these voters, all of those vices are not horrible enough to deny Trump their vote. And as disturbing as I find that dismissive attitude, I have to acknowledge that their decision is coming from a need for self-preservation.

He’s going to make America great again.

He’s going to bring back our jobs.

He’s going to bring life back into our dying towns.

Even if he doesn’t accomplish all that he says, at least we’ll get something.

And what about racism and xenophobia? When everyone in your immediate social circles is white and native-born Americans, these vices tend to not rank high on the list of disqualifying characteristics in a candidate.

After all, it doesn’t affect you.

It doesn’t affect your family.

Sure, it will probably affect someone. But that someone is probably a “bad person.” They probably deserve it. And it won’t affect your life.

Perhaps it’s quite telling that the people who have been downright mourning this election for the past week are people who have family, friends, and coworkers who belong to the targeted groups that Trump has scapegoated for the past year and a half.

For them, this election has hurt those they love. They have real fear and anxiety over the future and those fears aren’t completely groundless. Overt racism and hate crimes have jumped since this election. At my own university, faculty and students of color have reported racial bullying on our campus.

***

It used to be that tensions were higher between different cultural groups. Now, tensions are high even between generations of the same cultural group. Our realities are wildly different.

In talking with my own mom, I saw it.

Why are people just now acting racist like this? She wondered aloud. What makes them think they can act like this?

Mom, the racism was always there. It was just under the surface. Now, it’s coming out.

I just can’t believe that.

Of course she has trouble believing that.

Because she grew up in white Christian America. She doesn’t have a non-white friend who was flipped off by white men in a pick-up truck sporting proud Confederate flags. She doesn’t have students who were denied entrance onto a public bus, “unless they took their burqas off” (they were wearing hijabs, but I’m sure the driver didn’t know the difference).

For my mother, it is incredibly difficult to see this racism–because she doesn’t have much interaction with people who aren’t white and aren’t Christian.

But I have to admit that I am also blind.

Because I have benefited from globalization, I don’t have to live in a world where I can’t find a job. A world in which I have been outskilled by a younger, more educated workforce. I don’t have to face that everyday.

Believe it or not, I have empathy for this situation. Because it happened to my father.

He was a working class man with a high school education who was left further and further behind by the increasing technological demands of his job. The burden became so great, he had to retire early. For a man who relied on his work to define his identity, the blow of leaving his job was so crushing that he never truly recovered from it.

***

We have to start recognizing our blind spots.

We have to start trying to understand why many of us view this election as another example of how racism and sexism continue to go unchecked, overlooked, or downright condoned.

At the same time, we have to start trying to understand why many of us view the ability to consider racism and sexism in this election as an absolute privilege.

I can just hear the working class voices right now: Wow, must be nice to be able to be upset about racism and sexism. I’m furious that I can’t pay my rent every month. That I can afford even Obamacare. But, you know, sucks to be you.

When we say “let’s come together,” God, I hope we mean, let’s compromise.

God, I hope “let’s come together,” doesn’t mean, “Just accept that you’re wrong already and come over to the good side. The ‘American’ side.”

But we can only hope to recognize the importance of compromise if we find those spaces in our lives where we connect with people who are different from us. Different in education, race, religion, social class, and on and on. We need to hear different voices. Many different voices. And if we can’t hear them in our immediate communities, we need to seek them out.

***

The other day, I went to seek out how some of my more conservative family members–aunts, uncles, and cousins–were responding to the election. I looked up a few on Facebook and read through their recent posts.

When I got to my uncle, I did a double-take.

Do you know this person? Facebook asked me. Then it showed me a green button to Add Friend.

My uncle had unfriended me on Facebook.

I thought it was a mistake.

But no. He had definitely unfriended me.

Did I say anything to him to offend him? Did I like or react to something that he didn’t like? What did I do?

I still don’t know. Other than being a left-leaning family member.

My heart ached.

To be fair, I didn’t grow up with regular contact with this uncle. We lived in different states. We might have met a few times at family reunions. But just two years ago, he drew close to me and my siblings when my father, his brother, passed away.

He started sending me and my siblings weekly remembrances of my father, who had just then died. Every week or so, he would email some thoughts and memories that he had of my dad. He opened a window into who my father was as a young man. In time, he fell out of the practice of sending us those stories. I didn’t begrudge him of that. We’re all busy. Grief remains, but time marches on.

Our connection to each other became his occasional pictures in my Facebook feed. Fishing and flowers, lakes and his shadow on the ground. Picture of his wife, my aunt.

Now: Gone.

No more window into my father’s life.

What this election is doing to families is sad. Just plain sad. Politics shouldn’t override family relationships. Family should be sacred. We might disagree with each other, but families shouldn’t decide to cut each other off because of political disagreements. Just because what we say to each other makes us uncomfortable.

So I will sit in this discomfort.

I won’t walk away from the table.

I’ll keep going to church.

Even though we are a divided country, I will continue to show up. I will continue to represent the groups to which I belong.

Millenial. Mother. Liberal. Academic. Lutheran.

I’ll keep showing up. I’ll listen to you.

I hope you’ll keep showing up. And that you’ll listen to me.

 

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