Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Category: Love

The Thing We Hope Never Happens (a call to help a hurting mother)

My absolute worst fear is suffering the death of one of my children.

I can imagine coming to grips with the death of anyone in my life.

Except my children.

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***

Last Friday, I was reading my Facebook feed and read a horrific post from a member of my church.

Her daughter-in-law, Britney, was driving on a two-lane road with her five-year-old daughter, Jocelyn, and two-month-old son, Jonah, in the backseat.

You already know how this story ends.

An oncoming car illegally crossed the center to pass a car.

It hit them head on.

crash

It killed the little girl.

The mother and baby boy survived.

In the picture, Jocelyn was balancing on one foot, as if in the midst of dancing. She was posed proudly with her baby brother. Smiling. Blond and smiling. Happy. Just like my daughter.

Jocelyn 2Jocelyn and JonahJocelyn

There at my desk, I cried.

Britney was me. Her kids were my kids.

And my heart was broken for her.

All of this happened just days before Mother’s Day.

***

It was too cruel and unfair for one person to bear.

How could Britney face life and the world, now knowing, now feeling every day, that horrific things like that can happen?

Just like that.

How?

How could she keep going?

But of course I know how.

We all know how.

She’s a mother.

Britney

This is stuff that mothers are made of.

Loving through pain.

Living while part of you is dying.

Believing through despair and doubt.

Resiliency beyond measure.

Pure grit and strength.

***

Britney has already undergone several surgeries to repair her broken bones, including her pelvis. She has been moved out of the ICU and into the trauma unit. (And let’s not forget the fact that she’s just three months postpartum.)

Her newborn son also suffered extensive injuries. Two broken femurs and a broken arm.

Noah

He is currently being cared for around the clock by his grandmother, Lanae, who works as a surgical nurse. He couldn’t be in better hands while his mother is recovering.

***

I made myself imagine what I would do if I were living Britney’s reality.

What would I do?

I would sob and ache and grovel and resent and rage.

For a Long Time.

I would lash out and blame and despair.

I would be out for blood. I would crave Revenge. I would want to hurt and crush and obliterate. I would want to empty the life of the person who didn’t think first, who would rather take a risk, who thought the laws didn’t apply to him.

(Because I think first. Because I don’t want to take the risk. Because I don’t think the laws don’t apply to me.)

And while I would be going through this, I would still have to Get Back Up.

Although I would want to take time off from Life to mourn and process and make meaning, I would have to immediately Get Back Up.

For my son.

Because he would still need to eat and sleep and grow.

He would still need my arms to tell him that he is safe, even though I had just seen how unsafe the world can be.

I would need to decide every hour to keep on practicing the appearance of Love even though I’d be simultaneously steeling my heart from the possibility of Future Pain.

Because Love would have just killed off a part of me.

Love had created a trove of beautiful moments of my little girl — but now there would be no more. And the more time that would pass, the more those memories would lose their clarity. And if I forgot any part of those memories, it would be like losing her all over again.

All I really would want to do is climb into the ground with her so she wouldn’t be alone in the dark.

I would be like this for a Long Time.

***

But I also know that One Day, through the crisis and search to find meaning, I would finally choose Love again.

Because Love is the only path to Peace.

I would keep walking.

Still vulnerable.

Still hurting.

But alive.

And courageous.

***

I used to pray that Life Would Be Okay and Get Better. But I’ve stopped doing that.

Because that’s not what Life is for. The life worth living isn’t a life without pain because the pain is what shows us life’s worth.

When I say prayers now, it is in moments for others who are in pain.

And the prayer is that they keep moving

And keep walking through the pain

And that if they fall, that God will reach a Hand down to help them get back up.

***

Britney,

Our hearts ache with yours in your time of hurting and grieving. My prayer for you is that you keep walking through the pain. Keep moving. And keep believing that there is good in the world even though it is also so very bad at times. In fact, perhaps the world is good because it is bad.

Years from now, I hope that you can look back at these dark hours of your life and see all the light that people are shining on it. It’s always the people who have suffered and cried and walked the Path of Pain that will be the first to reach out their hands to you. Take those hands. Let them help you get back up. And don’t feel guilty about it. You are not a burden.

Because Some Day, it will be you who is the one reaching out and saving someone else.

You are not alone.

And you are Loved.

***

If you would like to help this family financially as they cope with medical and funeral expenses, you can contribute through their GoFundMe fundraiser here.

No gift is too small and you can give anonymously if you prefer.

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If you would like to provide financial assistance to Lanae as she takes care of Jonah full-time, you can donate here.

Lanae

 

Finally, We’ve Had the Baby

I was supposed to have a January baby. Thought there was no way I would end up giving birth in February.

Ha.

Ha.

Just like last time, my expectations for what would happen during this birth didn’t quite pan out.

Like just about everything else in parenthood.

I’ll write about the details later. Not today.

Today, I simply say that life is unpredictable and messy. No matter how much we like to pretend that we have things under control, we very much do not. We don’t like the storms that plow through our neatly plotted lives. They uproot what we’ve planned. They can undo our hard work and make it irrelevant and meaningless.

But a lot of beautiful things can emerge from the storms of our lives.

Like rainbows.

Years ago, my husband worked in a lasers lab. One day, he told me something interesting about rainbows. The shape of a rainbow is actually a circle, not a semi-circle. If you were to be flying above a rainbow and looking down at it, you would see a circle.

It’s your perspective on land that limits your ability to see the full circle.

When you’re too close to the storm, it’s hard to see the full beauty of the rainbow. It’s hard to see that is has no end. That, like many truths in nature, it goes around and around. Forever.

But the more distance that you gain from a turbulent time, the more you realize that even hope and goodness still abound.

In fact, maybe they exist because of the storm.

For these reasons, I especially like the term “rainbow baby.” A “rainbow baby” is a baby who is born after a miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant loss.

Today, we had our own rainbow baby.

Henry Glass

February 2, 2017

1:27 PM

8 pounds 10 ounces

It’s a funny thing though.

Even though this is the deepest part of winter

Even though the storm of labor has just now passed

And I’m sitting here, holding this flawless face in my arms,

I feel like I’m seeing the whole rainbow.

Not just half of it.

“Do You Realize” by the Flaming Lips

Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face
Do you realize we’re floating in space,
Do you realize that happiness makes you cry
Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die

And instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know
You realize that life goes fast
It’s hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun doesn’t go down
It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round

The World is Good Because it is Bad: A Letter to my Unborn Child

My Child,

When I was five years old, my family’s house burned down. To the ground. What was left was a smoky, black carcass that used to be our home. I still remember returning to the site where our home once was.

I didn’t understand. Not really.

hp0024

Me: Easter, 1987

We walked through the safest part of the site, our toes nudging burnt, sooty items. A comb. A jacket. That one stuffed animal that looked like a cat, but was really a mouse.

The smell. Oh. The smell. I will never, ever forget that smell. Smoke and soot and water and grass.

While our house was still on fire, flames still clawing at the windows, the fire trucks and ambulances arrived. I saw my oldest brother, Phillip, throw my youngest sister, DeAnna, from a window on the right side of the house. A firefighter caught her. She was just a toddler. I can still see her sobbing there against the backdrop of flames, wobbling on rubbery legs.

I saw my father climbing out of a second-story window, still in his T-shirt and boxers.

I wasn’t thinking about where my other brother and sister were.

I remember thinking,

“I wonder when the fire will be over so we can go home.”

I remember thinking,

“Mom is so going to be so mad when she comes home to see this.”

That’s the way a five-year-old thinks.

My mother worked as a part-time cake decorator for a grocery store on Saturdays. I never knew who called her that day. Someone had to make that call. I wonder now what was it like to put aside the bag of icing that she had been using to decorate a cake for someone else’s celebration… only to pick up the phone to hear that her world was on fire.

***

That night, we stayed in some stranger’s home.

I don’t remember the people, but they lived in a large, well-kept home in old North Dayton, presumably a family who had signed up to provide temporary housing through the Red Cross.

In the middle of the hardwood floor of their living room was a large, oval, braided rug. While my mother talked to the homeowners, my eyes traced the outer edge of the oval rug, around and around and around. Until it ended in the center.

I wondered what was there in the center, holding it all together.

oval-rug

Someone handed out some canvas bags from the Red Cross. Five bags. One for each of us. The homeless kids.

Inside, there were crayons and a coloring book. A toothbrush and toothpaste. Some soap. A towel. There might have been a T-shirt and sweatpants. I don’t remember for sure.

But I remember the smell of those bags. Sterile.

Like the smell of the hospital where we had just been. Where I had just seen my father hack and cough black mucus into a beige dish just minutes before he was officially discharged.

I remember holding that canvas bag, thinking that it was the only thing in the world that was mine.

Hoping that my parents could afford to buy it for me.

And then the surprise and gratitude when I realized that we didn’t need to pay.

***

We went to church, and the Sunday School teacher looked at me with wet eyes. In her quiet, shaky voice, she told me that everything was going to be just fine.

She pulled out some paper figures from a crinkled envelope. They were dressed in robes and sandals. One of them fell to the ground and I picked it up, feeling the fuzz on the back side. Then, she handed all the figures to me and I helped her arrange them on the felt board as she told the story of the Good Samaritan.

good-samaritan

My child, here is what I want to tell you.

Believe in the goodness of people.

Certainly, not every person will be good to you. Some will bully you. Some will mock you. Some will see you hurting and walk to the other side of the road to avoid you.

Do not expect kindness and empathy from those who have never suffered. Too often, they will find a way to either minimize your pain or blame you for what has happened to you. In their eyes, it will always be your fault. And if they cannot blame you for what you have done, they will blame you for what you have not done.

You really didn’t have it that bad. You should have tried harder. You should have asked. You should have done this. You should have done that.

But always, always, always remember this:

As long as there is injustice and trauma and pain and tragedy in this world, there will be empathy.

Because those who have lost and suffered and cried and bled will be the first to reach out to you when you need help.

Every. Single. Time.

Do not wish away misfortune and pain.

Because a life without either of those is a life without true empathy.

And empathy is what has kept the human race from extinguishing itself.

***

Have faith, my child.

Paradoxes abound in a world where we lean on logic to make sense of the hard times.

This world is good because sometimes it is bad.

Goodness and tragedy can exist at the same time.

God is both light and darkness. Fullness and emptiness. The loud, booming voice and the stillness beside you.

It is all so hard to understand now. Even as you grow and learn and experience, it is still hard to understand. Even I don’t understand it.

But my prayer for you is that you remain open. That you are always looking for more answers. That you never feel that you have arrived at the truth. Because your truth is not someone else’s truth.

But that doesn’t mean Truth doesn’t exist.

***

Some of us are lucky enough to have a life that gets better and better, from beginning to end. As Americans, that is what feels normal and right and just.

But the truth is, most of us don’t.

The truth is, much of the time, we don’t get what we want.

Most of us struggle. We fall. We’re pushed back. We lose. We become sick. We grieve.

And this can make us feel that something has gone tragically wrong. It can make us feel that life is unfair and has no meaning. It can drive us to determine that God isn’t real.

How could God be real when there is so much suffering in this world?

How could God be real when I am suffering so much?

What I want you to understand is that believing that life always improves from beginning to end is an illusion. In fact, some cultures in the world do not plot life’s path as a line, rising at equal intervals, ever into the horizon.

Instead, they see life as a spiral.

A constant moving away and returning.

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Photo credit, Jeff Krause, http://www.flickr.com

Moving away from what matters.

Returning to what matters.

Moving away from truth.

Returning to truth.

Around and around and around.

Until we arrive at the center.

Until we return to God.

What you’ll learn as you walk this path of life is that over and over again, every time you return, you will be caught by the hand of God.

That hand of God is your mother’s voice when you come home with a broken heart.

It’s the friend who sits with you at your father’s funeral.

It’s the doctor who tells you that there is no heartbeat. But it’s not your fault.

It’s the teacher who tells you that everything’s going to be just fine, even when her eyes say otherwise.

It’s the non-profit organization that steps in with a bag of normalcy on a very strange day.

It’s the stranger who opens their home to you when you’ve lost everything.

My child, be that hand of God.

Be the one who gives and comforts and heals.

As Mother Teresa has said…

The good you do today, will often be forgotten.  Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.  Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God.  It was never between you and them anyway.

My child, welcome to this wonderfully complex, sometimes painful, but always beautiful world. It is my hope for you that when you face the hard times, that you are still able to see the larger Truth.

With all my love,

Mom

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.

 

My Heart is Broken

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My heart is so completely broken today.

My heart is broken as a woman, who cringes at the words,

I moved on her like a bitch… Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.

As an academic, who values facts and information and evidence-based decision-making.

I just see how I’m feeling and go based on that.

As an educator, who values critical thinking and acknowledging the limits of my knowledge so I can learn more.

I know more than the generals. Believe me.

As an intercultural communication practitioner, who values the richness, complexity, and benefits of respectful communication between cultures.

(Mexicans) are bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.

I propose a complete and total shutdown of all Muslims entering the U.S.

As a mother, who wants to support her nation’s leader as a role model.

(About his 1-year-old daughter, Tiffany): She’s got great legs.

If I weren’t her father, I’d be dating her. (his daughter, Ivanka)

 

But most of all…

 

My heart is broken as a fellow American

who now knows that there are enough angry and disillusioned people in this country who would rather upend the whole system than try to fix what’s broken.

(Not paying taxes) makes me smart.

We’re going to completely repeal Obamacare.

We’re going to tear up our trade deals.

We’re going to have a deportation force.

We’re going to build a wall. And Mexico is going to pay for it.

 

My heart is broken as a Christian

who values fighting for the poor and the marginalized

How smart can poor people be?

who values humility and forgiveness

Why should I ask God for forgiveness? I don’t make mistakes.

who values compassion

There are simply too many examples to list here. And they all break my heart.

***

I want to believe that I’m being overdramatic. That things won’t change that much. That our system of checks and balances works well enough to stop this ridiculous man-child from engaging in nuclear war when someone insults him.

But there are enough people in this country that have decided that this

racist

sexist

uneducated

narcissistic

6-time bankrupted businessman

buffoon of a human being

is more qualified to be president of this great country than someone who has spent her life serving the public.

***

I fell asleep at 11:30 last night and woke up at 2:40 a.m. with a pit in my stomach. The baby was going crazy, flipping and nudging and turning inside of me. I tried to go back to sleep.

I couldn’t.

I was so sick with worry.

So at 3:10 a.m., I looked at my phone. Hoping for a miracle.

Instead, I lay there in the darkness, overcome with anxiety, tears coming down my face. Deep denial coursing through me.

It’s impossible, I kept thinking. There aren’t enough people in this country that could possibly think he’s a better choice.

And then the fear.

Replaying all the hurtful, painful, idiotic things that he has said over the past year and a half.

And then imagining all the people in my life who voted in favor of those very words.

All the people who really thought that placing this man in the White House would actually result in benefits in their lives.

(For the love of God, I wouldn’t even let this man into my own house , not to mention in the same vicinity as me or my daughter.)

Listen, Americans who voted for Trump.

Donald Trump cares about no one but himself and his image.

He taught us that when he spent $20,000 on a painting of himself. Out of funds from his “charity.”

Write it down. Carve it in stone if you want.

Americans who voted for this man, he will break your heart.

Just as you have broken mine.

trump-photo

What I Will Tell My Kids About Race

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“I think your daughter and Ezra are the only two left in that room,” she said.

I was picking up my then 18-month-old daughter from daycare and I had just been chatting with one of the staff members. As I walked down the hall to my daughter’s room, I looked through the window and saw three kids.

“Which one is Ezra?” I asked, looking back down the hall to where she was standing.

She looked at me blankly.

“There are two other little boys,” I said.

She lowered her voice, put a hand up to her mouth, and whispered…

He’s the little black boy.

That. Right there.

That’s where it starts.

***

Why did she feel compelled to whisper, the little black boy?

My intuition tells me that she thought we shouldn’t acknowledge his race. (Because that would make us racist?)

But whispering words like this also sends an implicit message. One that could be internalized and filed away to young ears: That being black was something to be ashamed of.

It’s a common approach that American educators–many of whom are white women (me included)–use to show that they are being sensitive. It’s called colorblindness. And to some ears, it sounds okay.

I don’t see colors in my classroom. I treat everyone the same.

I teach the kids that we’re all the same. That it doesn’t matter what skin color we have.

That might be okay to teach kids–if it were true.

But it’s not true. Race does matter.

When we create these completely alternate universes in schools where we pretend that we don’t see the shades of our own children’s skins–and acknowledge how that affects their experience in our society–we create a generation of Americans who assume that everyone has the same experiences.

We create situations like this.

In the Storycorps podcast, “Traffic Stop,” a white mother and her adopted black son share the story of the night when he was brutally attacked by police officers during a traffic stop.

What struck me most about this podcast was the mother’s words of colorblindness:

“I thought love would conquer all and that skin color didn’t really matter.”

She speaks with a mother’s love. You love your child unconditionally. No matter what. But in projecting her own unconditional love for her son onto the cultural lens that American society uses to see her son, she blinds herself to the simple fact that…

Not everyone shares her love.

Not everyone believes that race doesn’t matter.

I dare say, she thinks as many white people do–that we have reached a point in our society when racism is not tolerated anymore. We may not believe that racism is completely dead, but it certainly doesn’t reside where we live and work and play. Racism is for the uneducated and the unemployed who need a scapegoat.

And if it dares happens, people say something.

But what about the covert racism that still exists? What about our own implicit biases that shape our split-second reactions?

As Hillary Clinton pointed out in the September 24th debate, implicit bias is not just a police problem. It’s a problem for everyone.

<whisper, whisper>

He’s the little black boy.

<whisper, whisper>

I don’t want to admit that I know he’s black, but he is. It’s the easiest way for you to tell him apart from the crowd of white kids.

I don’t want to admit that I have no idea what he’s wearing or how tall he is or the shape of his eyes or what his hair looks like or what he might be playing with. All I can tell you is that he’s black.

I don’t want to admit that he’s only one of six to eight black kids that we have in this school.

<whisper, whisper>

I don’t feel comfortable saying these thoughts, so I have to whisper them.

Just in case someone overhears us talking about race… let’s use whispers.

Because race doesn’t matter.

And because it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t exist.

Right?

***

When I was in kindergarten and first grade, I went to a predominantly black school.

You read that right.

My family moved to Dayton, Ohio in 1984, well before the Internet and its amazing capability of scoping out a location before moving. We moved into a neighborhood known as Five Oaks. It had a nice ring to it, but the real draw was the fact that the rent was well within our means. For $500 a month, we could live in half of a giant duplex with four bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, a basement, and an attic spread across four floors.

Once upon a time, Five Oaks was a prestigious neighborhood for the wealthy. Which is why there were so many spacious houses available for dirt cheap rent.

Here’s a “tour” around the community, done in 2008 by a community activist.

 Because of our new home’s location, I attended Jefferson Primary School, where 80-90% of the students were black.

My best friend’s name was Princess. Like most of the kids in my class, she was black. I loved her intricately braided hair, like a curtain of beads that softly clinked against each other when she walked. She convinced her friends to include me in their games of Double Dutch jump rope. And when it was clear that 1) I really sucked at it and 2) her friends had no patience for me learning how to do it well, Princess sat with me at recess and clapped her hands against mine, clumsily at first, to “Miss Mary Mack.”

Princess was the only one who came to my sixth birthday party at my house. Even though I invited most of the girls in my thirty-person class.

My other best friend was Colleen. She carried a denim purse with a sticker of a man in a black hat. When I confessed that I didn’t know who he was, she looked at me in shock. You don’t know who Michael Jackson is? Then she showed me her moonwalk, her Rapunzel-like curly hair billowing in the wind. She was unlike anyone else that I had ever seen. Who else in the world had hair like hers?

I didn’t realize until much, much later that she was biracial.

 I knew that my skin was lighter than the skin of most of my classmates. But I had to learn that this difference had value attached to it.

***

It all started with a rock.

Thrown in my face.

My two older brothers and I were playing on the playground at Five Oaks park. A group of four to six black kids approached us and started telling us that we needed to go home.

This was their playground.

They threw rocks at us.

We cowered in front of them.

“That’s right. Get down on your knees and beg!” one of them yelled.

We ran home, rocks still pelting us from behind.

I didn’t understand why.

Why did they hate us? They didn’t even know who we were.

Did we do something wrong?

I could hold on to this memory as proof that racism goes both ways. That black people can be just as racist as white people. That I shouldn’t care about racism–whether it’s overt or covert–against black people because I “got over” the racism that was expressed toward me.

But such conclusions would disregard the larger truth that white spheres of influence are far, far more numerous and powerful. That these children could have been acting out of frustration with one of the many systems that they were just now learning were rigged against them (education, justice, economics–take your pick). Or perhaps they were giddy with the sheer novelty of exerting power over a group of white kids. I mean, really, how often did that opportunity arise in Five Oaks?

The truth is, I could leave the playground. 

I could “get over” this racist incident because I could move to a place where my race would no longer be a reason to torment me.

We could leave Five Oaks. We could move to many other communities where we would have more social capital. More power. More voice. More influence. More advantages. Maybe we wouldn’t be rich by moving, but we could at least move underneath the protection of an umbrella that would look out for “our best interests.”

In fact, we did.

Within three years, we moved to a white working class neighborhood. My new friends were named Amanda and Kristen and Jennifer. I saw new standards of beauty. No more beautifully braided hair. Instead, beautiful was straight, long hair that lay still as sticks across your shoulders and back. I admired their clothes, their shoes, their embroidered backpacks and lunchboxes.

Racism is, at the least, the inability to leave behind your low social capital.

But racism is also knowing that no matter how far you rise, there will always be someone who skews your worth because of your skin color. It may not be everyone. It probably won’t be those who are closest to you. But there will always be someone who will only see your race.

It’s knowing that your race will be used to explain any moments when you behave badly.

It’s knowing that your race will be cited to explain why you struggle in your life.

And if you dare achieve, your race will be referenced as a facet of your identity that you overcame.

Whether you struggle or achieve, you will always wonder–even if only in your own mind–if the person across from you sees your real worth. Your real self.

Racism is knowing that you will never fit into the label of “normal” since society feels the need to add “black” to identify every black person in the news, but never feels compelled to identify when a person is “white.” (Instead, white people just get to be “man” or “woman” or “boy” or “girl.”)

White people would like to believe that race doesn’t matter anymore. In our spheres of whiteness, it is easy to come to that conclusion.

But if you’ve ever stepped outside of that sphere, you know differently.

You know that Princess can never leave.

As long as we keep our circles separate.

***

When I think about what I will teach my children about race, I think most of it will not be in words.

Certainly, some of it will.

But you learn more about race by working alongside someone who is different from you.

Or playing a game together. Or singing a song. Or reading a story.

You learn more about race by sharing a meal with someone.

You learn more by engaging in a common humanity.

Racism becomes more personal and hurtful to you when you hear a white girl call the same kind of hair that you thought was so beautiful and magical–just a year earlier–“nappy” and “dirty.” You take personal offense when the white girl asks the black girl if she ever even washed her hair.

You start to take racism to heart when they hurt your friends.

And so that is one of my biggest jobs as a parent–to expand the sphere of interaction that my daughter has. Beyond white suburbia. And into spheres where she is the outsider. Where she is different. Where she needs someone to include her in a game that she doesn’t know. Where she can make friends with children who are different than her. Not just different in skin color. But different in religion. In social class. In language.

By becoming the other, we learn a lesson in humility and compassion. We learn how to redefine and question the word normal. We begin to recognize the invisible walls that we’ve built around ourselves. We begin to see who they keep out and how they do it.

We may not be able to tear the walls down with only our own two hands.

But we can help others to see the wall.

And maybe together, we can start taking the bricks apart.

To Be Three

The three-year-old birthday is the one that kids really start to understand what’s going on.

“It’s my birthday party!” my daughter reminded me all day long. “I’m having a birthday party today!”

She began her day at 5:00 a.m., two hours earlier than usual. But she was wide awake and ready to go. “I’m ready, Mommy! Let’s go downstairs.”

“Kermit, it’s too early to get up,” I moaned.

When she wouldn’t relent, I tossed her a package of Keebler crackers and peanut butter that I have stashed on my night stand for when wake up hungry at 2:00 a.m. (because another human being is eating my reserves from the inside.)

She made a picnic in her room and ate her crackers contentedly while talking to her stuffed animals. And the Keebler elf. He needed to be updated on what was going on, apparently.

IMG_3676

Awake at 5:00 a.m. + no nap = Asleep at 4:00 p.m. when her party started

***

What I really enjoyed about this birthday was her newly found ability to engage in the actual party. At two years old, the whole day was kind of like, “What are all of these people doing here and why are they staring at me?”

At two years old, opening gifts was traumatic because we tried to get her to put aside the first gift that she opened and open a second gift.

Lesson learned.

This time, we opened a few gifts in the morning and saved the rest for the next day.

IMG_3709

Wooden Cash Register by Hape Toys. Super cute!

For her third birthday party, we asked people to not bring gifts, which translates into people bringing small, inexpensive gifts. And I’m totally for that. I love the $5-$10 gifts that she got. A book. A shirt. A little bead-making set. Yes! That’s plenty. She doesn’t need more toys. She needs more experiences.

We tried to show The Peanuts Movie to ten kids, ranging from ages two to seven. Ha. Ha. Within ten minutes, running after each other while holding balloons was far more fun.

It also didn’t help that they were distracted by the sight of my husband creating a huge slip and slide in the backyard. With the help of our neighbor, he bought a 20 X 100 piece of thick plastic, a bunch of Palmolive, and hooked up a sprinkle. When the kids saw it, you would have thought that they had seen a giant Mickey Mouse in the backyard, personally inviting them to a world of fun.

Of course, we still needed to eat dinner.

When we tried to lure them back inside to eat dinner, there were tantrums everywhere, no matter how many time we told them we were coming back outside.

But eat, they did. And quickly.

And then the fun began.

 

IMG_3700This was a bit of a watershed day for me. Until recently, being a mother to my daughter was a lot of work, work, work, and a little bit of fun mixed in.

But really, it mostly work.

Now she’s walking, talking, using the bathroom (almost on her own!), and playing on her own. It’s a welcome relief to see her enjoying time with her friends without me by her side.

Yes, there’s a little sadness in watching her drift away, but I have to admit, it’s mostly relief. I don’t know if that relief comes from my introverted side or my independent side or from some other aspect of my personality, but the relief is real.

In many ways, we have a long way to go and I’m certainly not wishing the years away.

Because now I’m seeing how much fun being a parent can really be.

IMG_3201

Without a Name: When a Parent has Bipolar Depression

I knew something was seriously wrong when my mother told me that she had woken up late one night to find my father sitting in the living room, talking to some pennies that he had been collecting.

To be fair, there were a lot of other signs before this that made us think, What the hell is going on?

Like when he ominously thanked my mother for all she had done before slowly sinking to the bottom of my brother’s pool. (He eventually came back up.)

Like when he spent that one family reunion handing out tiny envelopes, each carefully labeled with a person’s name and their birth year. Each holding a penny stamped with that year.

Like when he suddenly became completely comatose for a week, refusing to eat or talk, but the doctor said that it wasn’t a stroke, and he should be fully aware of his surroundings.

Like when he insisted that my mother not talk in the house–because it was bugged and the FBI was listening to their every word.

We called it paranoia. We called it depression.

It all started with a sudden change in his career that catapulted him into a future where he could not see his identity.

Although he was still a husband. Although he was still a father. Although he was still, still, still. Once he lost his professional identity, the great unraveling began.

***

I remember walking into the room in our house where Dad had set up his laptop on a cheap table and called it his “office.” Our border collie, Gator, dutifully lay beside his feet. He said, “Sharon, I don’t know what I’m going to do. If I can’t do the bakery business… I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

It was 2006. For twenty-five years, he had been a bakery specialist for SuperValu grocery stores. But faced with increased competition, SuperValu pivoted its marketing strategy towards a higher-end retail model and launched a new produce company, W. Newell & Co.

His boss told him that he could also pivot in his career. He could abandon his twenty-five years of experience in bakery marketing for SuperValu and embrace a new career in produce marketing for W. Newell & Co…. Or…

“Well, you don’t want to know the other option… That’s what my boss told me. Those exact words, Sharon,” he pointed an accusative finger at me, the only person there who was listening.

I don’t remember what I said. Probably something like, “It will be okay. Maybe it’s a good opportunity to learn something new.”

But he just kept saying,

“I’m not a produce man. I’m a bakery man. Always been one. I don’t know what to do.”

Dad_2005

***

Looking back now, I can track my dad’s slow descent into madness. I can see how he withdrew and surrendered, year after year after year. I can see a constellation of strange interactions and responses.

I remember him walking up to an empty cash register at Wal-Mart and suddenly screaming, “I NEED HELP!!! HELP ME DOWN HERE!!!”

I remember my brother telling me that they barely got back into the country after a trip to Jamaica because Dad was “making a fuss” at the airport.

We didn’t know what to call it, so we called it moodinessWe called it angry old man syndrome.

When he started to walk with a strange gait, when he started to lose his facial expressions, when he started to go days without speaking, we began to understand that something else was going on.

The doctors called it Parkinson’s disease.

But we all knew that wasn’t enough.

More doctors added that it was bipolar depression.

It seemed fitting, but we still wondered: What is causing what? Will we find out there’s a third monster, just waiting in the wings? Why now? Why haven’t we seen this until now? Has he always had this and we just didn’t realize it?

Could losing his career really push this precariously balanced snowball down the cliff of his mind?

Or would he always have disintegrated this way, regardless of the stressors in his life?

***

In his last years of life, stranger things started to happen.

He called the sheriff on himself, insisting that he be arrested. He was convinced that the government was going to come and arrest him for not paying taxes on some Parent Plus loans that he had taken out for my sister (He had just received a notice that the loans had been forgiven because of his disability).

The government was coming for him. He just knew it. They would hunt him down–and he deserved it.

But when the sheriff arrived, he said that he couldn’t arrest my dad.

To which my dad screamed, “What does a guy have to DO to get ARRESTED around here?”

“You have to be a danger to yourself or others,” he explained.

“Well, I AM! I’m a dangerous person!”

“Are you going to hurt yourself?” the sheriff asked.

“Yes, I am.”

“If you were going to hurt yourself, what would you use?” he asked.

“A gun.”

My mother interrupted, “You don’t have a gun.”

“Then, a knife! I’d use a knife!”

God bless this sheriff, who mercifully took my mother aside and asked her if she wanted him to take him to a nearby psychiatric hospital. She said yes.

***

My mother. Oh, my mother.

The things this woman has plowed through. The pain that she’s endured over and over again.

Sometimes, there are no words.

***

Last summer, she passed out in a grocery store while shopping because her doctor had her on medication that caused extremely low blood pressure. I sat with her in the emergency room while they checked her out, making sure she was okay.

We told stories to pass the time. It was coming up on the one year anniversary of my father’s death, and she asked me how I was doing. The conversation stalled for a moment and she started laughing.

“What are you laughing about?” I asked.

She told me of a time she needed to drive my dad back to this psychiatric hospital, on one of his particularly manic days. It was mid-February in Minnesota, the high for the day averaging a balmy five degrees below zero.

My father was growing frustrated that they hadn’t already arrived at the hospital, so he started banging the dashboard of the car.

“Quit that!” my mother yelled at him. “You’ll set off the airbags.”

He hit the dashboard harder.

Then, God knows why, he rolled the window down and started making bird calls.

My mother cranked up the radio to drown out the sound of his bird calls. With the windows rolled down, freezing air pouring in, she could see strangers peering curiously into the chaotic scene of their small Ford Focus wagon.

Sitting in that emergency room, two years later, we laughed about this.

“How did you get through all of that?” I joked with her.

She smiled. “What else was there to do? I could cry about it or laugh. So I laughed about it. It was the only way to get through it.”

***

How do you love your father when he makes your mother miserable?

Where do you place the blame when you know it’s not his fault?

There were times when my mother would open up and tell me how bad it had gotten and I would hang up the phone and think, What if she leaves him? What will happen? Who will take care of him? 

Truth be told, part of me wanted her to leave him. Because he was that heavy stone, pulling her down in the dark, suffocating depths of psychosis. And my mother didn’t deserve that. Couldn’t she be released of her marriage vows if the partnership threatened her very well-being? Wasn’t marriage about bringing out the best in each other?

But then… who would take care of him?

Who?

I try to fathom what it was like for my mother to have been caught in this conflict every day.

To be married to someone who had become so completely different than the man she fell in love with.

To be caught in the tension between her love for his past self and her anger toward his present self.

To run through the narrow list of options every day and still come to the same conclusion:

I promised in sickness or in health.

For me, I couldn’t choose to end my connection to my father. He is half of my DNA. He is my nose, my chin, my dark features. He is my stubbornness, my sarcasm, my sentimentality, my impeccable memory, and my gift for storytelling. We are ISFJs, the practical workers who work with their “noses to the grindstone, shoulders to the wheel” (as Dad would put it) and then quietly revel in a job well done.  

But it was different for my mother.

For my mother in those last years, showing love for my father was a painstaking, daily decision. One in which my father rarely even acknowledged and, on a bad day, even resented. She could have chosen to walk away after thirty-four years of marriage, chalking up their connection to nothing more than years and years of shared memories.

But she didn’t.

And that is how my mother has schooled me.

She showed me that love is more than fortifying the ship as it sails along on smooth winds. She showed me that love is also grabbing his hand when the ship crashes and refusing to let go when you see him sinking. Even as something dark and terrifying grabs hold of him and takes him down.

Sometimes, your love for your partner cannot be returned.

And when it can’t, your love needs to be strong enough to hold the both of you.

SCN_0046

***

It took me time to understand how sick my father really was. That’s the way it is with illnesses that alter behaviors, emotions, and moods. I think it would have been easier for our family to understand and adjust if some visible growth had invaded his body rather than this invisible force that laid waste to his mind.

We could have understood earlier that he wasn’t just “being difficult” or “acting funny.” We could have understood that a bad exchange with him wasn’t because we said something wrong or because he was suddenly a terrible person.

But it took years to diagnose him with bipolar depression. And without a name to call it, we just called it “Dad.” And for me, this is what hurt the most.

Because this wasn’t my dad.

***

I didn’t see my father many times in the last years of his life. They lived in Texas for a few years, and then, they moved to Minnesota. I lived in Ohio.

I wish I had known that 2006-2011 would be the last years that I could still have semi-normal conversations with him. Ones in which he would at least say something after I said something, even if it didn’t quite respond to what I said.

I wish there had been some kind of map at the beginning of his descent into mental illness. Some kind of markers along the way that read,

This is your last chance to tell your father you love him–and have him believe it.

Or This is the last time that you’ll see him smile without being prompted.

Or This is the last time that he’ll make a joke with you about politics.

But there were no markers. No maps.

There were just moments upon moments when we decided to draw close to each other or to move away.

To move away.

To move away.

Until he was gone.

***

I don’t tend to be a mystical person. But sometimes, I wonder.

This past March, I was making some cookies for St. Patrick’s Day with my daughter. We were using mint chips instead of chocolate chips and adding green food coloring. As I transferred each piping hot cookie from the sheet to the cooling rack, I could almost hear my dad crooning one of his favorite sayings as he would rub his hands together excitedly.

You’ve got to have the patience of Job, he would say, as if he were advising himself from giving in to his childlike temptations.

Baking was his life and I smiled as I thought, He would love to have seen this.

And then this song came up on Pandora:

Remember when our songs were just like prayers

Like gospel hymns that you called in the air

Come down, come down sweet reverence

Unto my simple house and ring… and ring…

It was Gregory Alan Isakov’s “Stable Song,” the same song that I used for the video that I created for my dad’s funeral.

I looked out into the kitchen, partially expecting to see him standing there. It was just a millisecond, I’m sure, but for that millisecond, I really had the expectation that he would be there when I turned around.

I would see him inching his way toward one of my cookies with his sneaky smile. I would tell him, Hands off!

But he would grab one anyway, shove it in his mouth, and then say, Heh? What was that? Did you say something?

Then I would laugh and poke him in his belly.

Then his hands, already in motion to grab a second cookie, would instinctively curl up to protect his middle, only to arrive too late, leaving me free to poke him mercilessly until he would twirl out of the kitchen, hands clutched around his belly.

For that moment, he was not only alive, but fully restored. There was no anger or paranoia. No delusions or mania. Instead, he was funny, charming, and tender. He was the man I always knew him to be.

And that was how I was caught in one of the paradoxes of grief: the simultaneous desire to laugh and cry.

Then the hurt all over again. Wishing that I had the superhuman ability to push into another dimension, where we are not caught between these two fundamental dichotomies of human biology and physics. Alive or dead. The past or the present.

I pray to God that this is true—that there is another possible reality, one in which life and time are suspended so that there can be no more loss or illness or deviation.

Only wholeness.

 

 

Gorillas and Refugees

Now that social media has started to calm down on the great debate of whether a human being or a gorilla is more valuable and of whether your child entering a zoo enclosure means you’re a negligent parent, maybe we can step back and get some perspective on what we pay attention to on social media. All week long, social media users have been sharing post after post about the killing of Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo.

It’s the mother’s fault. Get control of your child! 

Or Did they really have to kill Harambe?

Or Leave the mother alone! You can’t always be in control of them! 

Fine. Everyone feel better now?

Good.

While we’ve been distracted by the death of an endangered gorilla and our unspoken love of shaming other parents, 880 migrants died last week as they tried to cross the Mediterranean on smuggler’s ships.

capsized_boat

Photo credit: CNN.com

2,500 people have died in this manner since the beginning of the year.

***

It doesn’t bother me that people feel the need to talk about the Harambe story.

I get it.

I think most Americans can more easily identify with this story, and thus feel like they have something to say about it. Most of us can imagine being the parent that takes our child to the zoo and then being forced to watch your child being handled by a 400-pound gorilla. Some of us can even find the compassion in our hearts to mourn the death of an endangered gorilla, who spent his life under the constant parading gaze of humans.

Our imaginations can take us this far.

But our imagination stumbles when it comes to the refugee crisis.

We probably don’t know any refugees. In fact, given how long the U.S. refugee settlement process takes, it will probably be years before we have any refugees living in our communities. In the meantime, this whole refugee crisis thing seems like some horrific story happening in some other world.

Quite simply, there’s no fertile soil in our hearts for these seeds of compassion to grow.

It’s hard to imagine being forced out of our homes because our city is now rubble.

aleppo

Aleppo, Syria: FoxNews.com

It’s hard to imagine walking six hundred miles with our children.

It’s hard to imagine strapping life vests to our loved ones, telling them It’s going to be okay.

life vests.jpg

Photo credit: CNN.com

It’s hard to imagine sleeping in the hallway of a train, like this.

railroad cars.jpg

But that, my friends, is exactly what we need to do.

Imagine.

Practice compassion.

And direct our attention toward something more worthy of our energy and angst.

drowned_child

5/31/2016

Beautiful, The Bitch

When I was a teenage girl, I had very little in common with Beautiful.

I was sure of it.

Here is what Beautiful and I shared:

  • I was white.
  • I had long hair.
  • I had pretty good skin.

That was it.

I met Beautiful for the first time in the public library, where I spent Saturdays paging through crinkled copies of Teen. And if I was being really adventurous, it was Seventeen.

Beautiful was white, tall, and thin. She had straight, white teeth. Thin legs, small hips, flat stomach. A flat, flat stomach. I cannot overemphasize flat. She had boobs, although I had no idea what size they were. I just knew they were bigger than mine. She usually had long, straight hair, and it was usually light brown or blond. She could spin in place, her hair perfectly fanning against the wind. She wore short dresses and high heels. Her skin was flawless and her eyes were dark and drew you into her stare.

Seventeen_magazine_1994

It only took me 2 minutes to find a picture of Beautiful.

Real women were like Beautiful. Other women existed, yes, but you didn’t want to look like them because their lives were sad. They never really got what they wanted.

But not Beautiful.

Beautiful always got what she wanted. Simply because she was Beautiful. Beautiful could make a man forget everything that he valued. She could change his mind. She could consume him.

This unspoken narrative was parroted everywhere I looked.

Teen_magazine_1993

This is how I first learned that women achieve their goals through manipulating men. By using their bodies.

And let’s be clear about what the chief goal was: to be loved by a man. Being the recipient of a man’s love was the pinnacle of female existence.

My male readers (I know I have a few) might be thinking at this point, Who cares! Why are women so hell-bent on being like Beautiful? Can’t they recognize that these are advertisements? Don’t they realize that guys don’t really care about all of that?

Well, no, girls don’t really know that. Especially young girls.

Young girls gaze out at the world and see that the women who are happy in every known form of media look at least a little like Beautiful. And the ones that don’t look like Beautiful are constantly cut down to size, derided, and Internet-shamed (see Amy Schumer, Melissa McCarthy, etc.) to remind them that they are breaking the rules.

***

I was 10 years old when I first started gazing out at the world and noticing what made women happy and how. It was all so clear to me–the women who were happy and had great lives were Beautiful. They were married and had great jobs.

This was also when I first realized how different I was from Beautiful.

I tried a lot of horrifyingly awkward ways of shaping and changing my hair and my body so that I resembled Beautiful. I put my faith in Cover Girl and Pantene and Gillette.

Being like Beautiful required that I stop being free and start learning the rules.

It’s when I started caring about leg hair and body odor and matching my clothes. It’s when I learned where I should buy my clothes. And because I was too poor to buy my clothes from those stores, I quickly learned where I could buy cheap imitations, hoping that no one would notice.

I learned how to pee in a public bathroom without farting and if–God forbid–I had to actually poop, I learned how to do it as quietly and discreetly as possible, for fear that another girl would know that I was currently pooping.

I learned how to hide.

How to suck it in.

How to button it up.

Which clothes would cover my rolls.

Which ones would give me the appearance of boobs.

I learned which masks to put on. The aw-so-sweet-I’m-gonna-cry one. The I’m-so-surprised one. The I’m-so-angry-with-you-until-you-apologize one.

I learned all of these rules through shame–either directed at me or at another girl. I quickly learned the reasons that you could be worthy of teasing. And I made it my ultimate goal to never, ever be singled out.

It was the reason that I preferred to be silent much of the time at school. Most people never make fun of the girl who never talks. She’s not an obvious target. I tried to blend in as much as possible. I opened up only to my close friends, many of whom also shared the same fears.

Although I wanted desperately to look like Beautiful, I didn’t.

I was Overweight. Shy. Weak. Spineless. Powerless. Voiceless.

But I was also Pure. Good. Obedient. Trustworthy. Godly.

Over the course of my teenage years the pounds kept coming and coming until I was 50 pounds overweight in my junior year of high school.

I clung to the promise of the Ugly-Duckling narrative that was played out in countless teen movies like She’s All That. I told myself that someone, somewhere out there would someday see how beautiful I was on the inside. Because, ultimately, the world is a place of justice and fairness.

***

But when I was 17 years old, I starved my way from 195 pounds to 155 pounds in four months.

Yeah.

Why?

A boy, of course.

Even though we clicked on all other levels, he told me that he couldn’t be with someone that he didn’t find attractive.

Well, that’s it. I thought. I’m done believing that it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

Fuck. That.

I’m not terribly proud of this. It shows how much I hated myself. It shows that I derived my own self-worth through the eyes of someone else. That I thought that I was so ugly and fat that I didn’t deserve food. That I thought that the only way I would ever be happy would be if a man loved me. And I couldn’t be loved unless I stopped looking like myself and started looking like Beautiful.

So I starved myself.

And what happened?

He started to like me.

And it wasn’t just him. One of the security guards during my night shift at Target started to blush whenever I talked to him. One of the stock guys said, “You losing weight? It looks nice.” (It. Not you.) I got hit on by male customers while cashiering. One guy even had the balls to ask for my phone number, his wingman digging his elbow into his ribs to urge him on.

Holy shit, I thought, completely flushed as I clumsily declined his offer and turned away. I have to learn how to turn guys down now.

It was the power that I dreamed of.

But it made me feel like everything that I had reassured myself–that true beauty was on the inside–was nothing but bullshit.

It made me feel like Beautiful had been right.

What a smug Bitch.

***

But being like Beautiful left me feeling empty.

Now that I was like Beautiful, now that I could turn heads, is that really wanted I wanted for myself? Did I really enjoy being objectified and positively judged simply because of how I looked? Is that really the way that I wanted to spend my life? Achieving what I wanted by using men?

And if my answer to these question was yes, what kind of a person was I? I would lead a self-centered, egotistical existence, caring nothing for the hearts that I would trample on along the way. And weren’t women supposed to be nurturing? Caring? Loving?

Can you see the conundrum that I faced?

Now that I had this power, I didn’t want it. I wanted the universe to take it back.

***

But perhaps the biggest problem of all was this: Beautiful was a Bitch.

I didn’t like the idea of becoming Beautiful the Bitch.

I wanted to be better than her. I wanted to be Beautiful + 1. I wanted to have the waist, the hips, and the boobs of Beautiful because it would give me power.

But I wouldn’t use that power.

I wanted to be Beautiful because it was an implicit, persuasive argument–even if it was irrational and unfair. I knew that Beautiful was powerful. And I had seen enough to know that everyone listened to Beautiful when she talked.

But I would be different. I would be like the right-handed knight that fights with his left hand for a challenge. Even though I could use my looks, I would use my wit instead. I would surprise people. They might not say it, but they would think, Damn, she’s smart. Not what I expected. Or maybe they would think, She could be so full of herself, but she’s really down-to-earth. Wow.

I would turn Beautiful on her head. I would make people rethink Beautiful to the point that it would kill her.

***

Of course, none of that happened.

Beautiful is still alive and well.

And while I am starting to see the last ten years creep into the corners of my face, Beautiful is still that ageless, flawless wonder.

My desire to be like Beautiful has become more lukewarm these days. I have thankfully moved past those days of extreme self-denial when I believed I was undeserving. It took a relationship built on discovering and celebrating what made each of us Amazing. We redefined Beautiful to include intelligence, drive, compassion, openness, and even forgiveness.

It has changed how I feel about Beautiful.

I realized that I wanted more than what Beautiful could get by herself. Beautiful got lust, but not love. Envy, but not friendship. Pride, but not acceptance.

When I see Beautiful now, I see that she is that smug, bitchy friend who was terrified of someone realizing that she was nothing special. She never bothered to explore who she could really be because being what everyone else wanted was enough. It made her one-dimensional. If you turned her to the side, she would completely disappear, leaving not even a trace.

And that is not how I want to live my life. I want to be remembered. I want to leave not just trace, but a trail.

***

When I look in the mirror today, I see a version of Beautiful.

Sharon_2015

But I also see that 17-year-old girl, who was desperate for someone to love her because she thought it was the only way she could ever be happy. I still feel her broken heart. I still hear her vicious thoughts, full of self-loathing and shame.

Ugly. Fat. Uncool. Poor. 

Sharon_1998

1998: Tenth grade

Ugly thoughts. Truly, ugly thoughts.

I wish I could go back in time and give her a hug. I wish I could tell her to open her eyes and her heart so that she can see that Beautiful is just another way to control women and mold them into being lifelong consumers of products that will never solve all of their “problems.” I wish I could tell her that Beautiful is a Bitch and that if a guy only wants Beautiful, let him go. Because Beautiful is a myth.

And you can never become a myth when you’re Real.

I wish I could undo all the damaging messages that Beautiful has whispered into her ears. I wish I could help her be as carefree and wholehearted as this little girl.

Sharon_1991

1991: Fourth grade

This girl cared more about learning about the planets and stars and her multiplication tables than matching her clothes. She loved a good book, especially Goosebumps and The Babysitter’s Club. She looked forward to reading all Saturday afternoon at the library. When she had a question, she asked and didn’t feel stupid.

She played on the playground like it was no one’s business. She ran and sweated and got dirty. She sang out loud with abandon. She never thought twice about saying exactly what she thought because she believed wholeheartedly that people would always be kind and accepting. Because God made people. And God is love.

This girl didn’t realize that she lived in a working class family–or even that this was something that people found shameful.

This girl made decisions based on what she thought was interesting and fun, not based on what she thought other people might not tease her about.

Like all mothers, I want a better world for my own daughter. A world of diversity and openness rather than selectivity and judgment. Where the goal is to seek to understand ourselves and each other better, rather than trying to reshape ourselves so that they fit into acceptable boxes that make it easier for us to determine whose voice should be valued and respected.

I wish that there were some magical way of doing this.

I wish the hands of a Just God would reach down into our nations and instill in our cultures an equal respect for both genders. Perhaps then, women would be more equally represented in the upper echelons of our government and corporations and institutions.

There’s a saying that I hear a lot in my church. I’m not sure if it’s a Lutheran thing or not, but I like it.

They say, God’s work. Our hands.

I know that this is how real social change happens. By each of us putting our hands into the messy work of change. And every day, I am doing that. Every day, I’m showing my daughter what it means to be a woman who loves herself.

Valentine_picure

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