Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: shame

On Shaming Other Mothers: A Book Review of “I’m Just Happy to Be Here”

Last January, a video was circling around Facebook of a mother who was putting her children in a grocery cart, in the middle of a winter, in below-zero degree weather…

..and they weren’t wearing shoes.

Oh, the howling that ensued.

Child abuse! That’s the worst! Some people shouldn’t have kids! I would have called CPS on her ass!

That was the general tone of the comments.

Maybe you agree. Maybe you think this woman deserves to be shamed on social media.

I’ve got a book for you.

Happy to Be Here

Janelle Hanchett, “I’m Just Happy to Be Here,” 2018.

Janelle Hanchett is the blogger of the wildly popular blog, Renegade Mothering. (Check out this recent post, “You are Not Going Crazy: America is Gaslighting You.”)

She’s a married mother of four children. She has a Master’s in English. She’s whip-smart. Hilarious. Cutting. Raw. Emotional. Authentic.

And she’s an alcoholic.

With borderline personality disorder.

Say what?

Yeah. Guess what? All of those things can happen together.

And, luckily for us, Janelle was ballsy enough to put it out there for the whole world to see.

This book will make you re-examine your stereotypes of motherhood. It will make you stretch your definition of who can possibly ever be redeemed for the consequences of their bad decisions and years of absence or neglect. It will repeatedly evoke emotional reactions that will force you to consider the limits of your No Judgment Here mentality.

It definitely did so for me.

She shows us how the mind of an addicted person unravels in stages, how an addicted mind can rationalize one step, then the next one, then the next, until you’ve lost everyone you love and you’re living in a trailer, pooping into bags (that’s the extent of my spoilers).

Then she recounts the concerted energy that she put into self-reflection in order to pinpoint the actual thoughts, insights, and specific decisions that she made in order to take back her life.

What Janelle shows us over and over in her book is that shame doesn’t motivate people to change. 

Only love can do that.

And love starts with empathy.

***

Let me repeat that.

Shaming another mother for her bad mothering doesn’t make her stop being a bad mother. Especially when addiction or mental health is involved. (And let’s be honest, either one or both of those factors are usually involved when mothers go completely off the rails.)

Yes, you’re right: the mother who brought her kids to the grocery store in winter without shoes exercised terrible judgment.

You’re right.

But how does “being right” help those kids?

It doesn’t.

It just makes you feel better about yourself.

Posting videos like this is an exercise in vanity. And as Janelle’s mentor reminded us poignantly in her book,

Do you want to be right, or do you want to be free?

In a twist of true irony, the pursuit of “being right” is often responsible for Janelle’s downfall into addiction. It’s her Achilles heel. She must be right. She cannot be wrongUntil, quite frankly, it doesn’t matter anymore about who is right and who is wrong.

Rarely, if ever, is “being right” the destination on the path to happiness.

***

Whether or not we want to admit, the United States needs this book right now. The opioid epidemic and all the subsequent outbreaks of substance abuse that have stemmed from it are turning a lot of women into lifelong addicts.

If you’re not one of them, be grateful. Period. Don’t follow that gratitude with a list of reasons that other women did become addicted. (a.k.a. Well, if they hadn’t done this, then that wouldn’t have happened!)

But more importantly, you need to develop some empathy for the mothers who do struggle with addiction.

These women don’t need your shame. Neither do they need your pity.

They need help. They need love. They need friends. Sometimes those all come together.

***

There is so much truth in this book. And it’s for everyone. Not just women who have experienced addiction. I found myself nodding along in many places throughout this book. Janelle unearths beautiful kernels of truth in surprising moments throughout her difficult journey.

The most powerful moment for me came in the following paragraph, which I read in a children’s museum as my daughter played. There I was, reading this book on my Kindle, in a crowded room, children running and playing, parents scrolling on their phones.

And me, crying.

Of course, I was crying. (Hope it wasn’t too obvious.)

She writes,

I didn’t want the pain to be gone. I wanted it to mean something.

When I found my voice, I didn’t find answers–I found purpose for every moment I had lived. I found power in every blackened room in my mind, every fear, every sad parent, every futile word and nightmare memory.

Because it led me to you, to the place where we are the same, to the place where words draw a line from my bones to yours, and you look at me and say, “I know,” and I look back at you, thinking, Well, I’ll be damned. I guess we’ve been here all along.

I know, Janelle.

Thank you for your gift of this book.

Yeah, I’m a Selfish Mother: A Response to a Reader

Reader Comment

I’ve recently been called “selfish” by one of my readers for having taken my child to daycare while he had diarrhea.

Selfish.

It’s a heavy, knife-twisting word for women.

There’s nothing worse than a selfish woman.

Except a selfish mother.

SELFISH red stamp text

How dare I take my child to daycare while he had diarrhea?

I dared because there were three viruses going around in his classroom and every child had at least one of them. (And as you’ll find out later in this post–we got all of them). That’s what daycare centers are. They are veritable petri dishes of illness. Everyone who uses a daycare knows it. And none of us point fingers at each other saying, Ohhh… I’m so mad at you because your kid got my kid sick! That never happens. Ever.

I dared because I had already called the doctor and she told me that we were doing everything we could. The virus would just have to run its course. And this bug lasts about 5-7 days…

I dared because he didn’t have measles or rubella. He had diarrhea.

I dared because he was only having diarrhea when he ate, not continuously throughout the day.

I dared because his teachers said they would call me if he got worse. And because they’re an Amazing Sort of Awesome, they said, “Don’t worry. We can handle poop.”

I dared because every morning, I was up at 5:30, giving him baths and scrubbing poop off laundry before it could actually be washed another two or three times (And then I had to get another child ready.)

I dared because I had been up several times each night that week, changing vile, vile diapers, rocking him when he couldn’t go back to sleep, and then listening to his screams when I couldn’t calm him down.

I dared because I had to work. I didn’t have sick leave and I had to administer and grade final exams before the university’s deadline. (Not a task you can really hand over to a substitute.)

I dared because I was headed for a breakdown in my mental sanity.

That’s how I dared.

Thanks for asking.

***

What is it about motherhood that makes mothers so quick to point out what they perceive are another mother’s failings?

Honestly, how can you know the whole context of a situation when you’re outside of it?

You can’t.

And why is the word “selfish” just about the worst thing that you can call a mother?

As I sit here now thinking about that word, a knot is forming in my stomach and my heart is thumping.

Selfish?

Selfish!

Are you serious!?!?

But then…

Isn’t this reader right?

Aren’t I selfish for wanting someone else to take over some of the burden that both my husband and I had been dealing with all night long for days on end?

Yes. In fact, I was selfish.

Selfish in my need for self-preservation.

But should I be ashamed that I couldn’t handle all of this at the same time?

Should I be ashamed that I desperately wanted out of my life, if only for just those worst, most miserable days in the last few weeks?

I should?

Why?

***

After Henry’s diarrhea tapered off, a bad cold hit him–and, subsequently, all of us–hard. We were all plagued with it to varying degrees. Mine lived mostly in my throat and chest. For everyone else, it set up house in their noses.

And then came the Infamous Daycare Puking Bug.

Over last weekend, Henry went through it.

Doug got it.

When it hit me at 10:00 p.m. on Monday night, I was in denial at the first twinges of nausea.

Nope… Nope… That’s not what this is.

All night, I twisted and turned as the first ripples of nausea swelled into cresting ocean waves. At 1:00 a.m., I allowed myself to believe that, yes indeed…

It was happening to me.

I dreamed that instead of puking into the toilet, I puked in the shower.

When 6:00 a.m. came and Henry started crying, I pulled myself out of bed and held the walls as I walked down the hallway. From my toes to my shoulders, everything ached. All the way down into my bones, I ached. When I opened the door and smelled the poop, I turned around and told Doug that I couldn’t do it.

Unsure about what had happened the night before, I checked the bathroom. No puke.

Just unbelievable nausea.

I lay back down until Doug needed me. As I sank into the bed, I was certain that nothing had ever felt so good as to be lying there in the cool sheets, my head against the pillow. When he called for my help, I only did what was absolutely necessary.

I couldn’t hold the baby.

I couldn’t even hold the bags.

I put food in containers for the kids. I sent along extra clothes and bibs.

When they were mercifully gone, I ate six saltines and went back to bed.

I woke up at 12:45 and ate six more saltines.

Then I slept until 2.

Then I ate a banana.

And slept until I heard Henry crying.

I rolled over, blinking. The clock read 5:55. Morning or night? I wasn’t too sure.

It turned out to be night, so I helped put one child to bed.

Then I ate a bowl of cereal.

And went back to bed.

***

Was it selfish of me to send the kids to daycare while I stayed home sicker than I’ve been in two years?

Yes.

Is it selfish of me to send my kids to daycare in this last week before Christmas even though I don’t have to teach, simply because we’re paying for it? Is it selfish that I crave this time to work on creative projects that have nothing to do with my kids or my work?

Yep. It sure is. I’m selfish.

You caught me.

But here’s the harder question: Should I be ashamed of being selfish?

I think this is where I disagree with my reader.

I don’t think I should be ashamed of taking time to care for myself–and it shouldn’t matter whether my needs are physical, emotional, or mental. It’s all important. This whole culture of “real parents are the ones who always put their kids first” is setting us up for rampant depression and divorce.

I love my kids, but, nope. They don’t always come first. Especially when I’m on the brink.

I care about having enough wherewithal to get through not only the days, but the weeks, the months, and the years.

So yeah, I’m selfish.

So selfish.

But I’m not going to feel badly about it this time.

I Heart Formula Feeding (and I don’t care who knows it)

Listen to me read this post here:

 

Or read the post below here:

Something that I should say first

(I shouldn’t have to, but I know how quickly the mind jumps to conclusions…)

I think breastfeeding is awesome.

My love of formula feeding in no way diminishes your breastfeeding experience.

Infant feeding isn’t a zero-sum issue.

(And by the way, when did it become one?)

img_3803

Formula feeding, one week old

img_3812

As I’ve written about extensively in my book and in other blog posts, breastfeeding was so much worse than childbirth for me. (And I gave birth without drugs).

With my first baby, I was overcome with feelings of guilt (This shit might actually keep her brain from developing as much as it would if I were breastfeeding…) and shame (If I were a better mother, I would have kept pumping, even just a little bit. Every little bit helps.)

In my mind, I wasn’t allowed to openly love formula feeding. Proclaiming how much I loved formula feeding would have been akin to saying that I didn’t particularly care about the health of my child.

That’s what I thought.

When I try to trace back where those thoughts came from, I realize how much of my own insinuations were responsible for the guilt and shame that I felt. I read four or five credible books about breastfeeding when I was pregnant. (The Breastfeeding Book by Martha and William Sears was particularly good.) My takeaway from this and the other books was that, as long as I stuck with breastfeeding, my chances of success were very, very high.

I just needed to buckle down and commit to the process.

Because, let’s face it, breastfeeding is better for me and the baby.

I LOVED THIS MESSAGE.

Because if there’s one thing my friends and family know about me, it’s that I CAN BUCKLE DOWN AND COMMIT like no other.

I’m like a dog with a bone when I move something to the top of the priority list.

And in those first weeks after my first child was born…

Let’s just say, Ruff, ruff.

***

There’s a difference between loving the way that you feed your child and doing it simply because you hate the alternative.

I had to learn this the hard way with my first child.

Because, I confess, I didn’t love formula feeding her.

I just hated the alternative of breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding made me absolutely miserable. It brought me no joy. It only brought physical and emotional pain. Feelings of inadequacy and resentment. And days and days of being awake for 22 out of 24 hours (and that brings you to the brink of psychosis, let me tell you).

So I quietly switched to formula feeding when my daughter was 12 days old. Every time, someone saw us feeding her tiny bottles of formula, the mental tape of guilt and shame ran its course in my mind.

I bit my lip and hoped no one would say anything.

Most people didn’t.

But some did.

And then I was prepared with my boilerplate speech that grew increasingly awkward as I tried to figure out on-the-fly if this audience really needed to know the shape of my nipples or the amount of milk that I was producing. (Does anyone really need to know that?)

It was agonizing.

img_3823

***

But this post isn’t supposed to be about how hard breastfeeding was for me.

It’s supposed to be about how awesome formula feeding has been for me.

I’ll admit, I didn’t automatically switch to loving formula feeding after having my second baby simply because I had done it before.

But once I realized the absolute deluge of work that having a second child heaped upon us, I was ALL ABOUT FORMULA FEEDING.

With no grandparents living nearby to constantly stop by and help out, we bear the full load by ourselves. (Read: full-time jobs, daycare drop-off/pick-up, hours of housecleaning every day, lawn mowing (a HUGE yard), shopping, doctor visits, dentist visits, blah, blah, blah…)

So trying to breastfeed when my body wasn’t cooperating?

Nope.

Breastfeeding even if my body were cooperating would have been a challenge.

I think the only way I would be breastfeeding right now is if…

1) I truly loved the experience of breastfeeding

and

2) I could hire outside help to pick up my share of the household chores.

Barring those two crucial factors, breastfeeding would just not happen.

Because now, the day is doubly full of responsibilities.

Now, there are no simply no free moments to wade through the quagmire of the Internet and second guess everything that I’m doing and compare this product and that product and this method and that method.

I no longer run Google searches like “infant formula obesity” or “does formula cause diarrhea?” or “comparison of intelligence breastfed and formula fed” or “mother child bonding only breastfeeding?” And then get sidetracked into a discussion board where self-righteous and insecure young mothers tear each other apart.

So unh-uh. Ain’t nobody got time for that any more.

***

If you’ve gotten this far, perhaps you want some specific reasons that I love formula feeding.

Here are my top reasons, in order of importance to me.

  1. I know exactly how much my baby has eaten (This always helped put my mind at ease in those early weeks when your baby is trying to regain their birth weight.)
  2. I know exactly what ingredients my baby has eaten.
  3. I don’t have to worry about how my diet affects my baby. (After ten months of pregnancy, this is a huge relief, I can tell you.)
  4. My body starts to feel like it belongs to me again, much sooner.
  5. I can more easily share night feeding responsibilities.
  6. I don’t have to pump at night or at work, just to keep my milk supply up.
  7. Actually, just, I DON’T HAVE TO PUMP. (Those machines are like a form of torture, I swear to God. And of course, they were invented by a dude.)
  8. I don’t have to scrape the bottom of my soul for the willpower to endure a baby’s incessant need to nurse all day, for several days–just to get my baby through a growth spurt.
  9. I can get a babysitter and leave the house–without wondering how soon I’ll need to pump or nurse before my boobs explode.
  10. I will never run out of food for my baby–even if my body isn’t cooperating (a statement of middle-class privilege, I acknowledge. Although… so are a lot of these reasons…)
  11. If I get sick, I can take time to recover without having a baby attached to me all hours of the day.
  12. I can exercise without worrying about diminishing my milk supply.
  13. Actually, I can just live life without worrying about diminishing my milk supply.
  14. I only spend 2 hours per day feeding my child (20 minutes X 5-6 feedings), rather than 4.5 hours per day (45 minutes X 5-6 feedings–that was about the fastest I could ever nurse).
  15. I didn’t have to worry about whether my baby would take a bottle at daycare.
  16. I don’t have to confront the frustrating situation of wondering if some nut job is going to find my breastfeeding “inappropriate.” (IT’S NOT. GET OVER IT.)
  17. I’m sure I could go on…

***

I write this post specifically for mothers who are formula feeding.

Because I know what it’s like to be sitting in a group of moms and overhear someone refer to infant formula as “garbage.” Or hear another mom say, “Well, if that’s how you want to feed your baby…”

It ain’t fun.

And, if you were raised to be “ladylike” like me, you didn’t stand up for yourself. (Instead, you just pretended that you didn’t hear… and then complained about it later to an accepting audience as a means to let off steam. Being female is a bitch, isn’t it?)

What I want to say to you is this:

There will be sooo many times in motherhood when you can’t please everyone, no matter what you do.

This truth hit home hard just a month ago when another daycare mom who was considering withdrawing her baby (who had started just weeks earlier) called our daycare center a “dirty”, “expensive,” “baby factory.” (Expensive, sure, but dirty? Uh, have you been to other daycare centers???) After I told her that I liked our daycare, she said,

“Huh. I just thought my baby deserved better. But you’re fine with this, right?”

Ick. I couldn’t get out of the conversation fast enough.

Trust me. There will always be someone who will try to make you feel badly about how you’re raising your kids. No matter what you’re doing.

And if you need even more assurance that everything’s going to be okay, here’s Adam explaining why baby formula isn’t poison.

Press on, moms.

There will always be someone who is sure you’re not doing the best that you can. (And for some reason, it’s their responsibility to let you know about it.)

Press on.

Breastfeeding: It’s Complicated

That’s how I would summarize my previous experience with breastfeeding.

Before having my first child, I envisioned myself being one of those women who breastfed throughout maternity leave, dutifully pumped at work, and kept up the routine as long as I could. That’s how I always pictured that first year with my daughter. Nursing and pumping. As long as possible.

But my body had other ideas.

Although I’ve always been a strong believer in the power and wisdom of my own body, breastfeeding was truly not in the cards for me. We could talk about what it felt like to have postpartum thyroiditis. We could talk about my boobs, my nipples, how often we nursed, how her latch was, and the interventions that we tried.

But I’m kind of over that.

I’m kind of done explaining and justifying my experiences, anticipating all the nay-sayers who would just write off my truth as “one more woman who didn’t try hard enough.”

Yeah. Done with that.

Let me just say that, to me, breastfeeding was like trying to pull a dry, fraying end of a piece of thread through the tiniest of needles. Over and over again.

I could only nurse in Just This Way. And even then, I missed the needle over and over again. Only a tiny amount ever making it through the needle.

And then finding out that, hey, I didn’t even have a full spool of thread to work with.

breastfeeding

***

So here we are, just weeks away from the reality of breastfeeding another child. Wondering if this time will be just as awful as the last time. Hoping that this time, I’ll at least be spared the insomnia (courtesy of postpartum thyroiditis) that came with nursing our first child.

Maybe this time, I’ll be able to sleep between feedings.

Maybe this time, I’ll make at least 50% of what the baby needs, rather than 20%. 

Maybe this time, I’ll be able to make it three weeks instead of twelve days.

Maybe these seem like low standards, but they are monumental to me. I don’t have high expectations for what nursing will be like this time. I don’t plan on committing to a die-hard schedule that will increase my milk production at the cost of my own physical and mental health.

The truth is, for me, breastfeeding was much, much harder than childbirth.

And I gave birth with no drugs.

With childbirth, my body seemed to know the procedure. My hips cooperated. My uterus contracted and my baby responded well. I pushed like a pro. My blood loss was typical. And my body succeeded in making the slow journey back to its pre-pregnancy condition.

But with breastfeeding, my body couldn’t get the procedure right. It kept trying to drop into the process, only to be stopped by barrier after barrier after barrier.

Finally, I was forced to accept the fact that–despite everyone who assured me that I could breastfeed if I worked hard enough–I simply could not.

***

So this time, the internal dialogue will focus more on my own self-care.

 I’ll do this as long as I’m healthy.

I need to sleep at least 5 hours a day. At the very least.

If the baby is still hungry, I’ll consider formula.

If I’m not producing more than 1/2 ounce in a pumping session, I should consider whether or not I want to stick with breastfeeding.

If I stop breastfeeding, the baby will be fine. I will be fine. And if people judge me for it, I know they have no idea what I’ve been through. 

There was a time in my life when I would have thought that even thinking these thoughts would ultimately lead to me exclusively formula feeding, which–according to strong breastfeeding advocates–was the unhealthiest decision I could make for my newborn.

I thought that.

And I was all about the healthiest decision for my newborn.

But I did not factor my own health into my decision-making.

I thought that what I needed was not as important as what my baby needed. And while new mothers definitely experience a certain amount of humbling and re-prioritizing, it should never be at the detriment of her own health.

Yeah, you feel shitty in the newborn period. You’re sore and exhausted and overwhelmed. But there’s a difference between feeling shitty and feeling like you’re clinging to the edge of life.

Sleeping 1-3 hours per day because you’re nursing or pumping will do that to you.

So if you’re reading this and you’re feeling like a failure for not breastfeeding your child, let me be the first to tell you a simple truth: You are a good mom because of who you are. Not because of anything that you do.

These decisions about feeding, diapering, and sleeping don’t have “winning” sides.

Just love your child. And your child will love you.

It’s that simple.

Talking about the hard stuff: Teacher as agent of social change

**Disclaimer: This post is quite off-topic compared to my usual posts about motherhood, but, hey, I happen to think a lot about other things, too.

Every now and then, some topic comes up in my advanced speaking and listening class that causes me to put on my social-justice-superhero cape and tackle an issue head-on. Sometimes, the topic is the death penalty. Sometimes, it’s death with dignity.

This term, it was rape.

First, some background: I teach English to international students in an intensive English program. In other words, I’m teaching adults who want to earn a college degree… but don’t have strong enough English skills to do so yet.

Our students primarily come from two countries, but, trust me, we have all kinds of students. The motivated. The goofballs. The hapless wanderers. The spoiled rich kids. The budding scholars. The “I-here-for-vacation-only-Teacher”s. The lost. The dreamers. The future politicians. The victims of their own self-doubt.

We have them all.

Some days, I leave my job feeling like nothing that I do makes a difference. Some days, I feel that my students don’t care about anything besides this grand illusion that they can just extract the essence of this “academic knowledge” from the university and then infuse themselves with all of it, like a patient hooked up to an IV. (And, hey, there are days when I totally wish that I could simply transfuse all of them with a healthy dose of phonics).

It’s hard for my students to understand that all knowledge is culturally situated. No knowledge is pure of the context and culture in which it is taught, so they can’t simply absorb academic knowledge at an American university without absorbing pieces of American culture along with it.

Hell, it was hard for me to understand this when I was their age (and I was struggling with these ideas in my native language). In my freshmen English class in college, I struggled particularly with an excerpt of Paolo Freire’s Pedadgogy of the Oppressed, for two main reasons:

1) I couldn’t understand the excerpt because–even though I had been an Honors English student in high school–my reading ability wasn’t developed enough to easily parse out academic English

2) I had no personal experience to understand Freire’s “banking concept” of education.

With the help of some in-class discussions, I finally understood Freire’s “banking concept” of education.

Yes! I get it!

But why did he write about this? Everyone knows that this is how people learn. You listen to your teacher, memorize, and repeat.

Well, maybe not in English, but for math and science, that makes perfect sense.

Oh… wait. Freire thought the banking concept was bullshit?

Oops.

And even though I eventually understood that Freire was decrying the widespread belief in the banking concept of education, I still couldn’t quite understand what he meant about critical pedagogy or transformative social justice. What did any of that mean? How did empowering citizens to transform society have anything to do with getting an education?

Wasn’t an education just learning how to do your future job? Wasn’t that why we were all studying in college? To become teachers and doctors and lawyers and business people? That was why were studying, wasn’t it?

Wasn’t it?

This is where I got stuck. And I think this is where my students get stuck, too.

***

As a teacher, now reflecting back on Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I not only understand Freire’s argument to move education into the realm of social justice, but I also understand how limiting the definition of “education” to “technical skills for a job” keeps a population from making societal change.

It keeps us believing in the American dream, that if we just work hard enough, all of our dreams will come true. Even worse, it keeps us believing that the poor, the uneducated, and the imprisoned are in those positions for the sole reason that they chose to be. That they have earned their lot in life solely because of their lack of enterprise and effort. In this extreme sense of individualism, no other factors are strong enough to influence a person’s life as much as his/her individual ability and effort.

I believe that teachers are especially situated in society to confront these myths.

***

At the same time, I am an agent of this very narrow view of education.

I deliver language lessons.

For the purpose of increasing my student’s English language proficiency.

For the purpose of them preparing for jobs.

My job description does not include any language about the necessity of teaching for social change. Although my particular university does boast about its Marianist values–one of which is social justice–my primary job is to deliver instruction that helps my students improve their English, and (hopefully!) develop their ability to be independent learners.

***

And yet, I found myself in a classroom of international students with a teachable moment ripe in the air. One student had just said that he thought boys and girls should be taught together until they are 10 years old.

Why? Because it would decrease the instances of rape.

I did a double-take. “Did you say rape?”

He nodded.

“So this is a problem in your country?”

He nodded.

I thought for a moment. “How does putting girls and boys together in the same class decrease the number of rapes?”

He shook his head for a moment, as if processing the idea. As if figuring out how to phrase something that was so obvious that it didn’t usually require words.

“It’s just, maybe it happens more when there are a lot of girls together in one room. When there are boys and girls together, I think the rape will be less.”

Oh boy.

This is the moment that language teachers dream of–that moment to engage. That moment when language takes it rightful place as a conveyor of ideas, not this monolithic body of knowledge that my students need to acquire before they can actually communicate.

This is the moment when my students move beyond the in my country, we do this, and in my opinion, it’s very important because...

This is the moment when I have a choice–to confront age-old, culturally embedded stereotypes about gender and violence–or to move on in the language lesson because of my fear of the emotions that the discussion would summon forth.

I chose to engage. Carefully. But to engage nonetheless.

“What causes rape?” I asked.

Silence.

“Anyone?”

Silence.

“Is rape going to happen if a lot of girls or women are gathered in one place and a man is teaching them?” I asked.

Slience, and then a quiet, “…maybe.”

“Okay. Here’s a question: Why do people rape?”

Silence.

“Why do you think people rape?” I repeated.

“…maybe because the woman is dress very… not nice. Maybe too sexy.”

I didn’t laugh or roll my eyes. I just shook my head. “Nope.”

Someone else spoke. “Maybe because she walk alone at night.”

“Nope,” I said.

“But I know a story, Teacher,” one student said. “One woman, she walk alone at night, and this happened to her. It terrible.”

“I agree. It is terrible. But it’s also not her fault.”

Silence.

“Listen, rape is not the woman’s fault.” (I used “woman” because for this group of students, the concept of a woman raping a man is totally impossible–but that’s another topic).

At this point, I could see the fierce agreement in the eyes of my female students.

“People rape because they want power or control over someone else. It’s not because a woman is too sexy. Rape isn’t about sex. It’s about power and control. And rape happens over and over and over again… Why?”

Silence.

“Because we don’t talk about it,” I said. “Because rape is so shameful that we’d rather go to our graves not talking about it then to invite that shame onto our families.”

At this point, the heaviness in the room was palpable.

“Isn’t that right?” I asked.

Around the room, heads nodded. Even those of my male students.

“Rape happens because of power and shame,” I stated emphatically. “And unless we start talking about it, it’s going to continue to happen. Can you imagine if this happened to your daughter? Your sister? Can you imagine how you would feel if you couldn’t do anything about it because you didn’t want people to know about the rape? Can you imagine this?”

And at this point I could see on their faces that they could imagine this horrible reality–because some of them had lived it.

One of my students softly said, “It’s happen in schools sometimes, but also it’s happen a lot in families. Like between cousins.”

Heads nodded.

***

Some days, I leave work feeling like nothing I can do makes a difference.

Some days, I leave work feeling like this is the only thing that I can do that makes a difference.

%d bloggers like this: