Keeping Up

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It’s exhausting to watch today’s young mothers. They are constantly on the go, unable to get the hours of sleep that they need. There appears to be little room for slacker moms in the present environment that lauds women who dedicate huge portions of their lives to driving their children from one class, practice, event to another. It’s no longer acceptable to just shoo the kids outside and tell them to use their imaginations to entertain themselves. I’m drained just observing the sagas of motherhood that are in full view on Facebook. I have to admit that I would probably be a total flop as a mom by current standards.

I have to bow in admiration to the young women who are creating such wonderful lives for their children, starting with the monthly professional photographs that track the first years of the offspring. Most of them are elaborately creative with special little outfits that must indeed take a great deal of thought and time to put together. I myself have random snapshots of my girls taken from a rather lousy camera in all modes of dress, including j a simple cotton t-shirt and a diaper. Dressing them up meant choosing the least stained and best fitting togs in the drawer. For daughter number two that often meant wearing a somewhat used little dress that big sister had already worn. It never occurred to me to go all out for anything other than those once in a blue moon photographs taken at Penny’s or the studios that talked me into purchasing package deals of standard issue but slightly better quality images.

It seems as though every single modern day child is enrolled in dozens of activities. They learn to swim only slightly later than mastering the art of walking which I strongly advocate, but then they join neighborhood swim teams requiring practices and early morning meets during the most coveted hours of the weekend. Generous parents forego their own rest to provide their little ones with opportunities to learn how to compete and challenge themselves. There’s way more than just soccer practices to which mom’s across the land are driving the kids. Baseball, football, cheerleading, dance, karate, lessons in Chinese, robotics, volleyball, track, music. The list goes on and on and on with most youngsters involved in multiple activities that require time, money and total involvement. The old neighborhood games have been supplanted with highly organized opportunities that require mothers and fathers to change the way they spend their free time. In fact, free time is a kind of oxymoronic phrase in parental vernacular. The devotion to helping the kids develop their talents that parents so willingly provide is unrelentingly selfless, and I find myself thinking that I was indeed a slacker when it was my time to be a mom.

I managed to sign my girls up for swim lessons each summer but I honestly had no idea that there was such an animal as a swim team. I dropped them off at Patty Owen’s dance studio to learn a few steps and when the younger one expressed resistance I gladly allowed her to quit. For the most part my involvement in their activities was minimal other than getting them from one place to another. Mostly I encouraged them to use their imaginations to create fun and adventures around the neighborhood. I enjoyed hosting sleepovers and watching them play, but my budget was far too limited to keep pace with the kind of entertainment that children enjoy today.

Birthday parties are increasingly extravagant. I can hardly believe how much thought and effort is put into them with special themes, decorations and gorgeous cakes. I usually whipped up a few homemade items, bought a balloon or two and called it a celebration. We never went to any special places or hired entertainers. Instead I turned on the soundtrack from Grease and let the party goers dance on the back of my sofa to the strains of Greased Lightning. My “swim” party consisted of hotdogs in the backyard with the garden hose and a midsize blow up kiddie pool. Since the other mothers operated much like me the children never complained. Life was rather ordinary even on birthdays.

I honestly don’t know how modern mothers keep up with all that they have to do. I get exhausted just thinking about all of their duties. My own daughters have schedules that would easily match that of an important executive. Their calendars are crowded with demands that they must fulfill with precision. It’s easier to see them by attending the various events than to expect them to drop by for a visit. I’m privy to their datebooks and so I plan things with them accordingly. Sometimes I even help them when they have to be in three places at one time. The logistics of getting everyone in the right locations at the right times can be akin to being an air traffic controller.

I greatly admire all of the moms who are so generously dedicated to their little ones. At the same time I worry that they may indeed be burning themselves out. The stress of all of that time consuming parenting must be overwhelming. I certainly hope that they find moments for themselves along the way because mothering is a marathon that doesn’t end even when the kids leave home. It’s a long haul that is beautiful and exciting, but it requires stamina and energy that will easily dwindle if “me” time isn’t a central part of the routine.

If I have one bit of advice for all moms it’s that as long as the love is ever present the children will be alright. What they most need are hugs and kisses and someone who is willing to listen to them when they are afraid. They will thrive the most when their mamas are rested and happy. If achieving that state means cutting back on perfection they will never notice the change other than seeing a mother who is calm and collected. The important thing for children is feeling safe, and knowing that someone truly cares about their well being. Sometimes all it takes to get there is a great big hug.

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My Hybrid Feminism

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If there is one thing of which I am certain it is that politics have become toxic, and there is no such thing in most cases of a rational conversation about beliefs. While there are multiple points of few, most of them are immoveable. The idea of possibly changing someone’s way of thinking is ridiculous for the most part, and yet so many continue to try. Their posts and rants litter the commentaries of social media essentially for naught other than allowing the world to see where they stand. Those who agree with them rally in support and those who are at odds often condemn them for their ignorance and even ugliness. For those of us caught in the middle it can become a kind of irrational nightmare as we too struggle to enforce a bit of diplomacy which never quite gains traction. Instead we are accused of being without moral compass, cafeteria citizens who pick and choose what we support. We independents are seen as the worst form of persons because we don’t appear to be guided by a philosophy that might describe from whence we form our opinions.

I’m a combination of many different political persuasions. As a woman I am a hybrid feminist, part progressive and part conservative. I grew up in a world when most women stayed home to care for their families. My mother was somewhat unique in our neighborhood in being a single parent due to our father’s death. She was the child of a woman who was unable to either read or write. Mama’s high school diploma was considered a great achievement, and she might have been content with stopping her education there had she not suddenly found herself responsible for supporting a family. She worked hard to hold down a job and earn a college degree, but at the same time she urged me to always put my husband and children first because she believed that nothing was more important.

I grew up surrounded by friends with large families because birth control was still somewhat unreliable. My mother cautioned me to be “ladylike” and to save myself for someone who loved and cherished me. While she emphasized the power of education and urged me to go to college, she also maintained that all of that was secondary to building a strong foundation for the family that I would one day have. Once I was married, she urged me to be respectful of my husband, and sometimes criticized the amount of time that I spent on my job when I would become involved in projects that kept me away from my family far into the night.

I rallied around the feminist movements of the sixties and seventies. I planned my family by carefully using birth control. I earned two degrees and moved up the ranks in my profession. All the while my always enlightened husband supported every single idea that I had for living my life both in conjunction with his, and independently at times. I fulfilled my own wishes while also somehow balancing the many duties of family life. To this day, my husband and I see each other as equal partners, and we confer with one another in all of our decisions. He is as proud of my accomplishments as I am of his. As a woman I have enjoyed the freedom to be the person that I want to be.

Sadly, for the most progressive women, my brand of feminism is not enough to satisfy them. When I note that I struggle with the concept of abortion because in my heart I believe that it is a form of murder, they maintain that I am ignorant and that I obviously don’t care about the plight of women. When I mention that I did not work full time during my daughters’ early years so that I might build a strong foundation for them, I am told that my thinking is old fashioned and quaint. If I suggest that all women should allow each other to form their own opinions, I hear that there is only one way on  “ the right side of history.” If I complain that the rhetoric about men is often too generalized and damning, I am met with derision and disbelief. I am often made to feel that I am not a feminist at all, but an ancient throw back to a time when women were degraded and made to be prisoners of a male dominated society.

I’m not an angry woman. Perhaps I have been lucky in my interactions with men and the world of work. I have found boorish “male chauvinist pigs” to be the exception rather than the rule. I have been supported again and again by amazing people both male and female. I have enjoyed a freedom of mind and action that might have amazed my female ancestors. I don’t want to have to walk in tandem or be dominated by any form of group think. I take each issue individually and after study and contemplation form my own personal opinions. I firmly believe that this is the way feminism is supposed to be. I support my sisters by allowing them to think however they wish, but ask them to respect my philosophies as well. We need not argue because I know that we react to the world based on a lifetime of experiences. We form our conclusions depending on who we are and who we have been.

I suppose that many women are still trying to determine what their places in society should be. To attempt to create a one size fits all way of doing things is ridiculous. Neither do we need to destroy the men who live beside us with insults and slurs that demean them. Ours is not so much a fight as a process of discovery. Each girl child should be encouraged to approach life in a way that feels right. She should understand that men need not be her enemies. There is good and there is bad in both sexes. We must teach our daughters and granddaughters how to discern who is who, and that it is always okay to have personal beliefs and preferences, even when they diverge.

I like being a hybrid. I like being independent. I have had a very happy experience as a woman because the people closest to me have allowed me to be the person that I choose to be. In turn I hope to always honor the choices that my “sisters” decide are best for them. True feminism demands that we understand that there is no one pathway, and our quest is doomed if we demand that it be so. Our journey has to include a wide range of views and the other half of the human race known as men. Our power will come only when we see ourselves as individuals with all of the rights that such and idea implies.

Praying For Her Happiness

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She came to school wearing a lady’s wig. At first I thought it was a silly prank that she was pulling because the brunette bouffant swallowed her tiny face. Still she looked beautiful with her blue eyes staring from beneath the fringe of bangs that were so long that they touched her eyelids. When the students in my class began to taunt her tears welled up like raindrops on an azure lake. That’s when I knew that something was terribly wrong.

I took her gently aside and asked why she was sporting the strange headpiece. She whispered that she had to do so because her own hair was gone. We found a private area and she lifted the wig to show me her shorn head. It had been shaved all the way down to the scalp. She explained that her mother had found nits in her hair and became enraged that she had brought such foul creatures into the house. Before the girl knew what was happening her mom ordered her into the backyard and soon met her with an electric razor, ranting her disgust all the while that she removed every last shred of hair from the child’s scalp.

When the girl cried and asked her mom how she would be able to face her classmates she was told that she had brought the embarrassment upon herself. Eventually the mother calmed her irritation just a bit and brought out the wig, insisting that the girl cover her shame with the ridiculous head piece. The little child sobbed as she told me her story. She mentioned over and over again how much she loved her parent and that she didn’t want to cause anymore trouble. She just wanted to go back to the classroom and face the music from her peers. She maintained that she would be just fine and that her hair would soon enough grow again.

I was her teacher and had to report the incident to the principal and the school nurse. We learned that this was not the first time that the mother had targeted the sweet child with abusive behavior. For some reason she was the unloved one among her siblings. In spite of her sweet nature and her attempts to please, she was often harangued with guilt trips that outlined her faults. She was compared unfavorably to her sisters and made to believe that she was somehow unworthy of praise and love.

I cried about this child. I lost sleep worrying about her. There was little more that I was able to do than to emphasize to her just how truly wonderful she actually was. I was careful to show her the kindness that seemed to be lacking in her home. Unfortunately she was one of many children in my class that year who were living in abusive situations. Even the nurse’s report to CPS did little to change her circumstances. The social workers were overworked and bound by rules and regulations that prevented them from making truly setting things right.

I’ve found myself thinking about this little girl for decades. She would have been about ten years old back then which means that she is now a woman in her forties. I hope that things turned out well for her, but I fear what might have happened. She was beautiful and brilliant and as sweet as can be, but for whatever reason her mother found her lacking. She acted as though she took the abuse in stride, but in truth she was always a bit anxious as though she was always waiting for the next insult to land. She was apologetic just for being who she was.

I worry that she went from the frying pan into the fire. Perhaps she landed in an abusive situation with a man. Nonetheless I prayed that in some wondrous miracle she finally realized her own worth and managed to heal herself. I’d like to believe that she eventually became strong enough to understand that she had never been the problem. Many people have overcome such backgrounds, and she certainly had all of the natural talents to do so. Still, I know all too well how constant denigration can erode self esteem to the point of creating permanent scars.

In my career I witnessed such sadness far more than I might have wished. I always wondered what makes a parent despise a child. In all probability the mother had been somehow abused herself. Maybe she suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness. Perhaps she was simply overwhelmed by circumstances. Maybe she was just mean.

We never know exactly what to do in such cases. Children seem to love their parents even when the parents are unnaturally cruel. They prefer taking the verbal or physical beatings rather than being separated because their reality is so devoid of love. Knowing that such things are all too often commonplace was the the most difficult aspect of my time as a teacher. I grew to love each of my students and felt protective of them. When they were still overwhelmed by poverty, ignorance, or abuse I found myself wishing that I had some wonderful power to change things for them.

I have several unimaginably compassionate friends like Chrystal and Fran who serve as foster parents. I have watched them shower children with kindness and love. They have gone out of their way to welcome little lost souls into their families. They provide a refuge and a place of hope. I admire them so, because I know how difficult their roles may sometimes be. They are true angels who sacrifice physically and emotionally to help someone else’s child, even knowing that just when they become attached the little one may be returned to a questionable situation. Theirs is a goodness that I applaud, for instead of only hoping and praying they are actually doing something to ease the pain of such kids.

There are many children who are confused and battered and unloved. Perhaps if more of us were like my friends we might save them from the horrors that blight their childhood and no doubt influence their lives as adults. Whenever the image of the beautiful little girl with the absurd wig comes into my mind, I wish I had done more and I pray that she is finally happy. Most of all I hope she understood that I believed that she was wonderful.

It’s A Sin To Kill A Mockingbird

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Over the summer I reread To Kill a Mockingbird along with my grandson, Eli. Much as Scout and Jem grew emotionally in the course of the story, so I realized how differently I saw the novel more than fifty years after I first eagerly turned its pages. Even though I was in high school at the time of my first encounter with the tale, I was still quite naive, innocent and filled with ideals. I have seen much and learned much in the five decades that have passed and I suppose that while I still lean toward optimism, I understand that I must admit to a bit of cynicism in judging society’s progress with regard to justice and equality. Like Atticus I see the evil that exists in the world, but I am still convinced that on the whole there is far more good than evil.

Atticus tells his children that it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, an guileless creature undeserving of harm. So too do I believe that it is up to us to protect the young, the weak, the sick and the blameless souls in our midst. I suppose that I was drawn to teaching because I saw it as a way to strengthen our youth by providing them with skills that would allow them to navigate through the contradictory aspects of human nature. It is often difficult to conceive of a world that fosters the gentleness of a Jimmy Carter also spawning the pure evil of an Adolf Hitler, and yet the reality is that we do indeed have the good, the bad and the ugly among us.

It is difficult to know when it is time to introduce our children to the underside of society. As parents and educators we so desire to shield them from unpleasantries. We monitor their friendships and activities. We are careful about the programs that they watch, the language that they hear. Ultimately the time comes when even our best efforts are not enough to shelter them from reality. They will encounter a bully or hear a racist utterance. They will be hurt by unkindness or the blows of violence. They will see things that are foreign to their natures. We will be bereft when we see them hurt. It makes sense to slowly introduce them to certain truths, but it is a balancing act to do so without frightening them, killing their spirits.

I found sharing this powerful book by Harper Lee to be a profound way to touch on topics that were somewhat foreign to my grandson. He understood the concept of bullies. He had seen ugliness at school, but his life has been mostly untouched by even hints of racism. He was curious about a time in history that I had seen firsthand when the black race was treated almost as being inhuman. He listened intently as I spoke of the separate water fountains, bathrooms, schools, neighborhoods that were the norm. It was almost unfathomable to him that such conditions existed and were even embraced by a significant portion of the population. When we read about Tom Robinson, the unfortunate black soul falsely accused of raping a white woman, Eli was certain that the evidence would clear him. He was literally devastated when the final verdict was read. It was an eye opening experience told in such a powerful way in the pages of the remarkable book.

We hear about the parents of black children having “the talk” with them about the dangers that lurk due to a residue of racism that sadly still exists in some quarters. I suggest that each of us needs to have a conversation with our youngsters to discuss the inequities that they may encounter either personally or in others, and to help them to determine how to react when they see such things. Just as Atticus helped to develop a moral foundation in his children, so too must we speak of even difficult things with our kids.

We don’t have to throw everything at them all at once, and often we can use literature or movies or experiences to convey the important information that we want them to learn. We have to be willing to take the time needed to allow for questions that might be difficult to answer. Above all we must be honest and gentle. It is far better for our children to learn about injustice, inequality, trust, loyalty and values from us than from a tragic incident that may rock their sense of security and confidence. We can slowly build up their principles and their knowledge of the world without frightening them in the process.

Our best method is to be like Atticus, adults who model what it means to have unimpeachable character. We must always remember the maxim that what people believe is what they do, not what they say. Our children are monitoring our every move and imitating the behaviors that we model. They will learn as much just from seeing us interact with our fellow humans from day to day as they will from listening to our advice.

Guiding our children to be unprejudiced, just, and kind is hard work, but in making the effort to be good examples we ourselves grow and become better people. When we realize that those little eyes are constantly looking to us we try harder, simply because we love them and want the best for them. We don’t have to be perfect. Our kids will learn as much from our admission of mistakes as from our best moments.

Senator John McCain died shortly after I had finished To Kill a Mockingbird with Eli. Somehow I found myself thinking about his life and how he had shown us all how to live. Then I read his final letter and I was as moved by his words as I had been by Atticus Finch. In that letter are all of the elements of a life well lived, so herewith is his message to us all:

My fellow Americans, whom I have gratefully served for 60 years, and especially my fellow Arizonians, thank you for the privilege of serving you and for the rewarding life that service in uniform and in public office has allowed me to lead. I’ve tried to serve our country honorably. I’ve made mistakes, but I hope my love for America will be weighed favorably against them. I’ve often observed that I am the luckiest person on Earth. I feel that way even now as I prepare for the end of my life. I’ve loved my life, all of it.

I’ve had experiences, adventures, friendships enough for ten satisfying lives and I am so thankful. Like most people, I have regrets but I would not trade a day of my life in good or bad times for the best day of anybody else’s. I owe the satisfaction to the love of my family. One man has never had a more loving wife or children he was prouder of than I am of mine. And I owe it to America to be connected with America’s causes, liberty, equal justice, respect for the dignity of all people brings happiness more sublime that life’s fleeting pleasures. Our identities and sense of worth are not circumscribed but are enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves.

Fellow Americans, that association has meant more to me than any other. I lived and died a proud American. We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic. A nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are blessed and a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world. We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. We have acquired great wealth and power in the progress. We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been. We are 325 million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates.

But, we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country, we’ll get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do. Ten years ago, I had the privilege to concede defeat in the election for president. I want to end my farewell to you with heartfelt faith in Americans that I felt so powerfully that evening. I feel it powerfully still. Do not despair of our present difficulties, we believe always in the promise and greatness of America because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit, we never surrender, we never hide from history, we make history. Farewell fellow Americans. God bless you and god bless America.

Consider sharing this letter with you middle schoolers or high schoolers. I think that they will understand what Senator McCain was trying to say. It will be a great way to begin important dialogues with them.

Save the Children

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When my mother was only three or four years old her mother had a mental breakdown. The full details of the event are sketchy, but the certainty of what happened to my mom is very clear. The little tyke loved her mama and felt safe with her. When medical personal came to the house, restrained her mother, and then drove away in an ambulance the child that my mother was felt confused and betrayed. This event had a lasting impact on her that was so traumatic that it haunted her the rest of her life. She often spoke of the disdain that she felt for her father whom she held responsible for what she viewed as the imprisonment of her mom. She insisted that her mother had been a good woman who did not deserve the horrific treatment that befell her. Unlike her older siblings she was never able to accept that her mama had been very sick and in need of treatment. She had been so very young when she was torn from her mother’s loving care that it impacted the very essence of her thinking. The scars left by the separation never healed.

My youngest daughter endured a similar situation that was less dramatic but nonetheless frightening to her. When she was not yet three years old my husband contracted a fungal disease that required hospitalization and a long regimen of chemotherapy. Our family was thrown into a kind of chaotic state when we learned that the disease was often fatal. We spent months in a new routine of hospital visits and uncertainty. Years later my girl endured a bought with severe anxiety and depression. Her psychiatrist asked what had occurred at around the age of three that had seemingly caused the her to have an enduring sense of uncertainty and fear. He noted that something had so affected my daughter that she had buried deep seated emotions that were finally coming to the surface and causing her despondency. It was shocking to learn that something that had happened more than a decade earlier that was seemingly resolved had such a profound affect.

Young children see and hear and feel far more than we sometimes know. They are aware of what is happening around them to a larger extent than we imagine, but they do not always have the capacity to interpret the interchanges with their environment, particularly when the security represented by a parent is taken from them. They are unable to fully express the need for the warmth and love of a mother or father that is so essential to their healthy development. It is critical that they have all of their most basic needs addressed, and there is generally no better person to do that for them than a parent who genuinely cares for them. So much of the basic personality is formed during early childhood and every event plays an important role in development. As children we all cling to our parents and look to them to supply our most essential needs. When that relationship is suddenly severed children lose all sense of safety. Unless they are carefully counseled and loved the event will have a lifelong impact.

My father died when I was eight years old. People often marvel that my memories of the days following his death are so crystal clear. I am able to vividly recall people, conversations, the weather, and most of all my own jumbled feelings. I was far more aware of what was happening that the adults around me ever imagined. That being said, without the maturity of adulthood I am certain that I often misinterpreted my situation, and not in a good way. I became a fearful child, someone unwilling to take risks. I was afraid of people and life. It would take me twenty or more years to overcome the shock and awe of the sudden loss of someone that I so loved, and I became a somewhat neurotic and sad little girl. It was only through my study of childhood development and my association with truly caring people that I was able to eventually lay all of the demons that had so haunted me to rest.

For these reasons I am both appalled and concerned for the welfare of immigrant children who are currently being separated from their parents. I realize that we have laws, and the adults who come here illegally are breaking them. In that regard there are many needed discussions regarding the issues, but it seems certain to me that taking children away while their parents are being processed is deeply wrong. The consequences of such inhumane decisions will impact these little ones for decades. The trauma that our government is inflicting on them is morally untenable, as anyone familiar with children understands. In spite of efforts to provide food, beds, education, games and other such amenities to care for them the one thing that the little ones require is missing. They must have their parents to feel secure. What we are doing is so egregious that we simply cannot justify the actions with by quoting laws or even the Bible. We must know that we are bending the truth and God’s word when we attempt to do such things.

I love my country and believe in its innate goodness. It has of late been overtaken by an incivility that is toxic. There seems to be an attitude that winning is more important than being just. The good people in our midst are being pushed aside by bullies, and the ideals of honor and respect are all too often being eschewed by those who insist on all or nothing in their political dealings. As citizens we must join together in the common cause of decency, following the lead of heroes the world over who insist on standing for what is right rather than what will make them popular. We must end the ugliness by demonstrating our best natures. Now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of our country. We can no longer allow tactics that so scorch the earth. If we don’t save the children of the world regardless of the circumstances we are doomed to a dark future. Our best hope is in finding our natural goodness again and doing what we know to be right.