Pause. Take a Breath. And Choose a Child’s Life Over Irritation.

I’m taking my own advice many times as I write this. It’d be entirely too easy to be accusatory, snide, and even downright rude when discussing food allergies and the classroom. I could quickly fall into my own emotional reactions and simply pen a piece that would only serve to anger the parents I’m trying to reach (though would definitely get some rousing applause from the parents who can relate). So I’m pausing. I’m breathing. I’m repeating.

Peanuts.

No other legume is so hotly discussed, so feared, almost legislated as the peanut. It is the stuff of lunches, candy bars, cookies, and dreams. It’s a cheap protein, an easy meal, a no-bake staple. Creamy, crunchy, mixed with chocolate… there really is no way to ruin peanut butter, AMIRIGHT?

It’s also absolutely deadly when combined with many, many children.

This is the time of year when millions of children are headed to school, many for the first time. Backpacks are being bought, teachers are being met, and, in some schools, policies are hitting parents smack in the face: no peanuts allowed.

Not every school is nut-free. Not every class is, either. But my plea is to the parents who find themselves surprised by this news: Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over this irritation.

I live in Texas, where the phrase “try and stop me!” was basically born. We’re a stubborn, proud, independent bunch, and we instantly bristle at any rule by nature. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Yes, it’s frustrating. Believe me, the parents of the allergy kids are frustrated, too. They dream of pb&j lunches, peanut butter candies, and Cracker Jack. You’re not alone in scrambling to find equally easy and affordable lunches to send, it’s hard for sure. But pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

I know, I know, back in our day kids didn’t have all these allergies and rules. We ran the streets and ate whatever we wanted and classrooms were filled with treats of all kinds, with nary a sign warning you to turn back if you carried forbidden candy. Research is ongoing as to why food allergies are on the rise, but I promise you this: anaphylactic reactions are not made up and they aren’t for attention. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Yes, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are the favorites of MANY kids. Yes, there are some kids with sensory or other differences who will only eat peanut butter sandwiches. Their parents will work out those situations with the administrators and find a way to keep everyone safe and fed. Not everyone likes turkey and not everyone can afford a lot of alternatives. I offer complete empathy, I know. But pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Oh yeah, I saw that meme, too. The one with sea turtles from Finding Nemo that have absolutely no relation to the statement comparing peanut butter sandwiches to vaccines. I’ve seen it a lot. It gets a lot of shares and likes, because again, people don’t like being told what to do and don’t like feeling as though their parenting choices are being taken away from them. But if you stop and think about it, parents don’t like having their children taken from them, and that’s exactly what an exposure to peanuts could cause for some. Death. Real death. Not a meme, not a grasp at straws to connect two hot-button topics and feebly justify risking an innocent child’s life. An actual process that begins with peanuts and ends with a dead child. I won’t even delve into the fallacy of the “argument”, but will point out that a family’s choice whether or not to vaccinate is not the same as fluke genetics and how parents are afforded no such freedom of choice when it comes to food allergies. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

No, they can’t just send them all to a special school. Life-threatening allergies are recognized by the federal government as a disability, so accommodations must be made just as dyslexia or the need for a wheelchair would require. You can’t ship off all the kids who need hearing aides or insulin. You can’t demand that the kid with vision problems be moved behind your child so they can be closer to the front because they like it so much. There are needs, plans are made, and life goes on. Food allergies are no reason to ostracize the poor child who can’t control their reaction… or at least ostracize them any farther than already sitting them alone at a table in the farthest corner of the cafeteria. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

You’re not wrong to be irritated. You’re not wrong to be frustrated. You’re not even wrong to not fully understand it. You are wrong, however, when you know the risk and choose to break the rules, anyway. You are not wrong for wanting to send peanut butter. You are wrong for knowing that sending peanut butter will result in the grave injury of a child. You are wrong when you weigh the life of the little girl your child sits next to and decide the Nutter Butters are worth her life. You are wrong when you see your child’s disgust at yet another ham sandwich and decide you’d rather them witness their friend stop breathing, instead.

Pause.

Take a breath.

And choose a child’s life over irritation.

No one is saying it’s easy to leave peanuts out of the classroom. No one is shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Oh well.” Your frustrations are heard, they are real. But so is death. And death will always be more important than frustration. Always. If you have any response other than agreement to that, then please find another school for your child to attend.

Maybe you’re a parent whose school is not nut-free, but your child’s class has a student with a life-threatening peanut allergy. What a disappointment, I know. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Seatbelts are irritating. They rub your neck wrong and come across your chest at weird angles. Sometimes they lock up right when you’re reaching forward to change the radio station and you feel trapped! But they’re there for a reason – to keep you safe. It’s easy to forget how necessary they are when they’re rubbing and twisting and inexplicably pulling your hair, but should you ever find yourself saved by one, you look at the simple strap with gratitude and don’t mind the irritation.

Allergy rules are irritating. They make lunches and parties and snacks difficult. They change your plans and cause some uproar in routine. But they are there for a reason – to save a life. Did you know that peanut oil can remain on the skin for up to four hours, even after washing hands? That’s why you can’t sneak it into your kids’ lunch. Did you know that simply being in the same room as someone eating a Snickers can cause an anaphylactic reaction that leads to permanent brain damage or death? That’s why you can’t bring them for all but the allergic kiddo.

Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Go ahead, mourn peanut butter. You’re allowed to be disappointed. I’d ask that while you are examining your feelings towards Jif you explore what the other side may look like – how terrifying it must be for the parents of the child who is the cause of this policy. Man, they can’t even eat peanut butter at home. Not on the weekends. Not after school. Not at all. Those articles all over Facebook sure did make it sound like those EpiPens he carries are pretty darn expensive. I bet all the birthday parties they go to are scary. They must have spent a lot of time communicating with the school and coming up with an allergy action plan in the event of accidental exposure. They must be scared beyond belief knowing that their child’s life is in the hands of the parents packing the other kids’ lunches. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

When my daughter was 4, yes, only 4, the parent of another child in her preschool class called her a “weak @$$ kid”. An adult man said this of a 4-year-old child who still needs straps on her flip flops to keep them on her feet. He’d just been told that the preschool class his daughter was about to start was in a nut-free room, and no peanut products would be allowed. Even after the immensely patient teacher explained that he would rather pack a different lunch than for his child to have to witness an anaphylactic reaction, he expressed his displeasure and frustration at the “weak @$$ kid”. My blood is boiling now just remembering it, and if I hadn’t been speaking so loudly I would never have heard my own words over the rush in my ears as I spoke up from behind him. No, she’s not weak – she’ll die. She did not ask for these food allergies, science cannot yet tell us what caused these food allergies, and she can actually die from these food allergies. I sometimes wonder if he still thinks about that moment, when he got caught name-calling a helpless preschooler because he didn’t like having to pack a different lunch. I wonder if he realized the weight his irritation carried when it came to an innocent child’s life and death.

Pause.

Take a breath.

And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Please accept my apology, I do recognize and sympathize that not bringing peanuts to school is difficult. I say that without an ounce of sarcasm, it really is tough. I am sorry for the inconvenience these policies cause, truly. But I will not ever – and I suspect you would say the same – ever apologize for keeping my child safe. If you find yourself at the end of this very long post and still have thoughts forming that begin with, “But…”, then please talk with your school administrators about how you can be either transferred to another classroom or another school without peanut policies. Seriously, it’s the only safe alternative. And if you can know that your rebellion could cause the death of a child and still feel okay with sneaking a Reese’s into your child’s bag, then I’ll be happy to help you fill out the transfer paperwork.

Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Mourning Normal

Yes, yes, I know – “Normal is just a setting on the washing machine.” There’s almost a resistance to the word “normal”, a visual bristling that takes place at the mention of it, especially when using “normal” as a measuring stick or comparison tool. “Normal” isn’t bad, it isn’t better, but it is, statistically, a thing. It’s real. It’s the middle of the bell curve, the average, the typical. It’s what’s to be expected, what’s been planned for. It’s the experience of most, and surprisingly the disdain of many.

It’s also a gift, as I’ve written before.

We grieve a lot of things in our lives – jobs, relationships, deaths, disappointments. Stories that ended before we were ready and stories that continue on in ways we didn’t expect. This is where I find myself today, mourning. Grieving the death not of a loved one, but of a future, of expectations. Coming face-t0-face with the very real differences between what I expected to be “normal” and what is my “actual”.

For some it may be life after divorce. For others it may be life after an accident or illness. Continuing on after the loss of someone incredibly close. Hearing, “It’s a boy!” instead of planning for pink. Being forced to envision your future in an entirely new and different way after the loss of your dream job, or never having landed the position at all. The circumstances are all different, but the feelings remain similar – you had a plan, it changed, and now you’re left not only reeling, scrambling, planning for the new future, but also feeling the aching hole left behind by your original future, the one you’d looked forward to, prepared for. Your “normal” is suddenly gone, and your present is something you never intended or considered. Your present is now, by definition, “abnormal”, at least from what you’d been anticipating.

For me, I’m mourning a “normal” childhood for my son.

We can call it “neurotypical”. We can call it “average”. We can reference the majority of the population and refer to him as an outlier, an anomaly, an exception. What we can’t call him is “normal”, though the life I’d envisioned for him was.

I started homeschooling him a few months ago for a few reasons, and it has been fantastic. We’ve had a blast, I’ve noticed so much relief in him, and he’s absolutely loving it – it’s been a good thing. However, last week a parent from his former class shared a slideshow of moments from the school year… and I lost it. Full on, snotty, ugly, moaning, sobbing cries. Seeing the smiles, the crafts, the parties, the memories – they caused me actual pain. I saw this typical childhood in a typical school and felt the most intense sadness. They were so happy. They were doing what so many other kids their age did. In my eyes, they were easy and normal. Was I romanticizing their school experience, as a friend pointed out to me? Absolutely. Were those experiences things my son was even interested in? No way. Would him being present for those things make him happy? A booming, echoing NO. But I was suddenly hit with such intense grief over the fact that normal hadn’t worked out. It didn’t negate how much homeschooling is working for us. It didn’t lessen my love or amazement at who he is. It was grieving for what ought to have been. Recognizing that my current path had strayed from my intended one, and while lovely, I hadn’t yet let go of my original travel plan. Something was over, and no matter how poor of a fit it was, it brought me grief to know that it had ended, that is was no longer an option.

It’s popped up before, this grief, and I expect it will pop up again. And the thing about it is, it’s okay. It’s okay to grieve. It’s healthy to mourn. Mourning is not regret. Letting go of what might have been is not taking your current reality for granted. Being sad something didn’t work out, feeling the pain of that end is not wishing your present, wasn’t. You can be both sad at what is gone and appreciative of what you have at the same time. The tears that fell over knowing I wouldn’t see my son smiling in those photos did not erase the photos I have of him smiling with me. The tears just fell, and it was okay.

Grieving normal requires learning to think in new ways, retraining your reactions. Not many people start out their journey hoping they’ll abandon their destination and end up somewhere else entirely. The habitual way you think and react and plan has been practiced for a very long time, and now it doesn’t fit with your life. You may mourn normal every time you have to make a hard decision – at the very least you’ll be reminded of it. I once heard a beautiful analogy relating to the parents of special needs children that I feel fits so well to many, many more situations:

Imagine you’re planning to move to Paris. You pack your chicest clothing, research the museums, the language, the culture, the food, the rues. You tell everyone where you’re going and you imagine your exciting life once you get there. Only upon exiting the plane, you find that you’ve somehow landed in Holland. Huh?! Holland is not Paris. You’re shocked. You’re sad. You’re completely unprepared for Holland. You don’t know the language. You don’t know the customs. You know nothing about the food, the maps, the people. Your clothes are wrong, your plans can’t happen, yet here you are. You are now in Holland, for better or worse. You long for Paris, you may even declare intense hatred for Holland simply because it isn’t Paris. But slowly, slowly, you being to learn about your new home. You absorb the culture, begin to assimilate. Holland doesn’t have the Eiffel Tower, but it does have windmills, and tulips, and it’s very peaceful there. Your friends come to visit from Paris and don’t understand it, but you go to visit them and find that Paris is loud, crowded, and a little smelly. You grow to love Holland, despite it never having been on your radar, and you appreciate your new life for what it is, find peace where you are, and are happy. Holland is never going to be Paris, but that’s okay.

Here is something I must stress, whatever normal you are mourning – GRIEF IS NOT GUILT. Feeling sad about the sudden change in your future does mean you are responsible for it, it does not mean you caused it, it does not mean you can change it. No matter how strong your feelings are, they cannot reverse anything. Do not trick yourself into feeling guilt over your situation or guilt for your grief. Feel your feelings. Identify your feelings. Accept them, work through them. You can change the way you think, but you must embrace how you feel in order to move forward. Assigning yourself guilt is not a punishment for experiencing grief.

Find someone you can talk with about your feelings. It may take a few tries and you may only find one person, but keep trying. People will say stupid things. I’ve written before about how we often attempt to measure the pain of others – it will happen. You will hear dismissive comments about the things you DO have that you SHOULD be grateful for. Don’t allow them to shame you into guilt. Don’t allow any statements that begin with “At least…” to bury your feelings. You know that being sad over what isn’t to come does not mean you are not grateful for what is. The thing about winding up in an unknown foreign territory, metaphorical or otherwise, is that it is terrifying. Sometimes you have no idea what to expect. Sometimes you DO know, and that’s even scarier. Change is hard, unexpected change is harder. But finding someone who can listen will at least mean you aren’t alone.

Mourning the end of your marriage doesn’t mean you want your ex back. Grieving the diagnosis your child received doesn’t mean you love them any less. Crying because you got a boy doesn’t mean you wish he’d been a girl. Remembering life before kids isn’t overlooking or disregarding the miracles that they are.  Missing your old home doesn’t mean you wish you hadn’t moved. It’s grief, it’s an end, it’s saying goodbye to what you thought your future would be as you learn what your new present is. It’s part of the process of letting go of what was “supposed to be”, what was your “normal”, and finding yourself in uncharted territory. Mourn that normal. Multiple times. And while your tears are still wet on your cheek, tell someone you trust how you’re feeling.

Whenever I feel inspired to write a post here, I typically write down some notes in a journal I keep. I think about it for a long time, I pray, I research when necessary. I have dozens of posts just waiting to be written, with rough ideas and random thoughts jotted down. But this post was different. I kept trying to make the time to sit and pray about it, to ask for wisdom. I was waiting for a time when I felt absolutely joyous about the current state of abnormal we’re in, so that I could offer some hope from the other side perhaps, so I could have a cute little sign-off, something to share that would inspire, lift, encourage. But it never came. Every day since that slideshow has been hard. Tomorrow will probably be hard, too. I began to feel very discouraged at it all. Why wasn’t it getting better? Why wasn’t I feeling more hopeful? Was I the world’s biggest hypocrite for wanting to talk about mourning normal and feeling this way? It hit me today – I was waiting for normal to return. I was waiting for this state of abnormal to stop being so abnormal so that I could write about it. I wanted it to feel normal while I discussed how it wasn’t. And so I grieve again, because mourning normal isn’t a period you go through, it’s a change in your lifestyle. It’s not a season, it’s a shift. Despite all my words, I still wanted normal to come back, and it just isn’t going to. And that’s sad. And that’s okay. I know over time this abnormal will become my new normal. I know over time I will feel that punch in the gut become softer and softer, with fewer and fewer blows. I know that we have made the right decision. But today, right now, in the middle of the sadness and fatigue and tears and doubts, I am sad. Not regretful, not ungrateful, I am in mourning.

Welcome to Holland.

 

 

My Child Didn’t Take a Standardized Test Yesterday So Now He’s Basically Doomed

Across my great state yesterday, 4th and 5th graders gathered into hushed classrooms with bellies full of protein-packed breakfasts and sharpened pencils at the ready. Children in younger grades had their chairs removed from their desks so that the scraping sounds wouldn’t distract students rooms away, and parents were barred from visiting the campus: it was the first day of standardized testing in Texas.

My 10-year-old woke after a good night’s sleep, ate a big breakfast, and settled in with the book of his choosing. He played with his siblings, created with Legos, and even ASKED for veggies with his lunch. He had a great day… but was not at school. I opted him out of the test.

Being a 4th grader, he’s an old pro at the STAAR, the standardized test for Texas students. He’s taken the math and reading tests before (and totally crushed them, but that’s just the mom in me needing to brag on him). He wasn’t worried about the tests and he knew they didn’t define him as a student. He was proud of both his regular grades and his previous scores and shrugged off the idea that standardized testing was stressful.

Until it became stressful.

At the beginning of the school year his teacher bragged on his writing (insert proud mom puffing her chest out here). She was very excited by his ability, his creativity – he was a good writer. We began getting examples of what the STAAR test expected in a composition, and it was clear that my boy was doing well and would score high. He could use some tweaking to get the highest possible score, but that’s what school – and the next few months – were for, helping him grow as a writer and hone his skills.

To save you the novel it would require to share all the details, it became a nightmare right after winter break. The students – 9- and 10-year-olds – were writing a new paper every day to prepare for the writing portion of the standardized test. A paper a day. Each time with a new prompt that required new creativity yet had to follow the same formula. If a child didn’t finish they were made to miss recess to keep working on their paper. The paper that was just practice. If they still didn’t finish they would have to take it home and finish it, because a new prompt awaited the next day. It started taking longer and longer for him to finish. He’d come home exhausted, in tears, stressed over not finishing a paper that was just practice, a paper that’d be thrown out in the morning so he could start all over again with another. Despite our encouragement and praises – from his parents and teachers – his self esteem took a huge hit. He felt like a terrible student that he couldn’t finish quickly. He felt like he had no ideas because it took him so long to come up with yet ANOTHER creative paper. He allowed his worth to be dictated by this repetitive practicing and completely ignored the A’s he made in all of his regular schoolwork. He has a tic disorder that only appears when he’s stressed or ill, and his face was so overtaken by tics that he struggled to make it through a sentence at times. My boy was broken. His writing suffered. Where he’d started the year bringing home papers with high grades and excellent imagery, he began handing over papers that were not finished, that were pieced together according to a formula, that had no vision, and that weren’t even a shadow of what he’d been capable of before. He handed these to me with his head down, because he knew it, too. My 10-year-old was burned out. In the 4th grade. He was exhausted, spent, suffering. I felt like a failure as a mother for having allowed it to happen, for having bought into the “Suck it up, it’s just a test” line. Not all kids respond this way, but mine did, and I had to remind myself that I am his parent, not the school district, and not the businesspeople making millions off of the test.

So I opted him out.

We spent the day together like rebels – one homeschooled kid, one kid opted out of standardized testing, and one too young to be a part of any of it. We got stares. We got smiles. And we got a lot of questions. When it became clear just how very many parents were not aware that they could opt their children out of standardized testing, I took it upon myself to post on Facebook about it. The only city in Texas that has a formal opt-out policy also has the highest percentage of families who opt out, so I decided to get the word out, as it seems the more empowered parents are the more action they take. I don’t judge those who sent their kids to school, I don’t think all kids are being damaged by the process, I just wanted to make sure parents knew they had a choice.

And, apparently, I wanted to make sure my son never succeeded in life.

There were a few comments – and some surprising “likes” on those comments – that expressed concern over his college career and his character as an adult. Yes, my 10-year-old. Who is in 4th grade. Whether those comments came from a place of well-meaning, judgement, or just being wholly ignorant, I would like to address the sentiment and make a few things clear.

He is 10. He’ll only be 10 for 6 more months, and then he’ll be 11. He does not need to be prepared for college right now. Because he’s 10. He may not even choose to go to college. But whenever that decision comes, it’s the better part of a decade away.

Not taking a standardized test does not teach a child not to take tests. They take tests all year long. They have homework and projects and book reports and quizzes, too. They must complete those and show mastery of the content. Not taking this one standardized test didn’t teach him that it’s okay to wimp out on something that’s too hard and it didn’t create a habit of avoiding tests. It was a standardized test that, at his current grade level, does not affect his grades. He’ll continue to take tests over the material he is presented throughout his school career despite having missed this one.

The idea that a single test is an indicator of future character is absurd. My job as his parent goes a lot deeper and longer than a single test. Me standing up for him when something gets to be too much does not teach him he doesn’t have to deal with hard things – it teaches him that his parents support him. It teaches him that it’s okay to say “no” to something that isn’t good for you. It teaches him that sometimes when everyone else is doing something, that doesn’t mean you should, too. It teaches him that he can come to us when he’s faced with another hard issue, and it teaches him that he can trust us to help him through it. Not taking one test out of hundreds will not make him a flake, it will not relegate him to a lifetime of looking to mommy to fix his problems, and it does not render him powerless against difficulty. Character is an ongoing education in our home, one that gets a lot more time and attention than a single standardized test.

It’s “just a test” to you, but your experience only counts with one person – you. There really are children with anxiety disorders. There really are children with the inability to write what their brains tell them. There really are kids who can’t sit still for 4 hours. There really are kids who don’t understand the instructions. There really are kids who can’t see the instructions. There really are kids whose stomachs growl with hunger. There really are kids who have failed to meet the requirements multiple times and are terrified they’ll be held back a grade. There are countless children – identified and otherwise – who have an entirely different experience when it comes to standardized testing, who approach the packet with hurdles already placed before them. Your great fortune in overcoming nerves or never knowing them at all does not dismiss their very real experiences.

This is not 1997. The tests aren’t what they were when I took them. They’ve gotten harder, are riddled with grammatical and grading issues, and come with millions of unseen strings that tie teachers’ jobs and salaries to students’ performance… on ONE test. The stakes are higher, the tests are harder, the prep is more intense, and it is comparing apples to dragonfruit when we try to compare our own standardized testing experiences to those of children today.

Nobody really asked you. That was harsh, wasn’t it? Sorry about that, but it’s true. At the end of the day, no parent needs the permission of another or the blessing of your opinion to decide if they want to opt their child out of a test. Really. You don’t have to like it – they didn’t ask you to. You don’t have to agree with it – you’re welcome to send your kids with their number two pencils to take any test you wish. You’re more than free to feel passionately – and I pray you DO! But your passions are not my guide, and I’ll raise my child how I see fit, thankyouverymuch.

Standardized testing has nothing to do with college. Nothing. Colleges don’t request STAAR scores. To my knowledge there are no scholarships offered based on STAAR scores (especially to 4th graders). Are there tests in college? Sure. There are also tests in elementary, middle, and high school, all covering the material that was taught… like college. In fact, those tests are much more like the ones college students will face than a STAAR test. Valedictorians aren’t chosen from STAAR scores, standardized test scores don’t get you extra cords at graduation, and I really hope there are no fraternities that base membership on a 4th grade writing test. I don’t even think Jostens has a STAAR logo you can put on your senior ring…

The same people who are saying it’s only a test are the ones making dark predictions about the weight of the test. If it’s only a test, then what’s the big deal about missing it? If it’s only a test, it can’t possibly determine what type of adult he’ll be, right? If it’s only a test, then there’s no way his college career will be completely derailed by it, right? If it’s only a test, then it’s nowhere near as important as my SON, and I choose him every time. And if you think that “just a test” dictates the entire academic future of a child, then what is the purpose of school? It can’t be something that’s both easily shrugged off and fatefully guiding us at the same time.

At the end of this very long post, he’s still only 10. He loves his Rubik’s cubes, drawing on graph paper, playing board games, wrestling with his brother, laughing at movies. He’s growing taller by the day and thinks the little blonde hairs on his legs are very manly. He snuggles me on the couch, his table manners are questionable, and farts are the funniest thing in the world to him (though I’m pretty sure that’s not age-specific). He’s 10. He’s still a boy. There is no need to prepare him for adulthood, for college, right now. There is no need to push him beyond where is healthy for him to go. There IS a need to stand up for him and protect him from what’s not okay, from what’s harmful to him. He has the rest of his life to be an adult, I don’t need to push him towards it when he’s just barely reached double digits. Not that standardized testing has anything to do with being a functional adult, only that there is no need to push him towards something that will happen eventually, anyway. Missing this one test does not disqualify him from future success or doom him to a lifetime of watching old 90’s FOX reruns in the dark while eating potted meat from the can. He’s 10. We live in a developed society that allows him to be 10 and not worry about tilling fields or getting the black lung down in the coal mines. He’s not being prepared for adulthood, he’s being allowed a childhood.

At the end of the day, he went to bed. He wasn’t fearful about his future, I didn’t get any recruiters calling to cancel their visits, and knowledge didn’t tumble out of his head. He didn’t take a test. A very expensive stack of paper sits in a box, leftover because he wasn’t there to break the seal on it. The world will keep spinning, he will keep learning, and everything will be okay. I don’t regret our decision – in fact, I feel more sure of it than ever. We will face tomorrow – and any other tests, academic or otherwise – how we faced today: together.

How to Treat Fat People

Airplanes, buses, trains, movie theaters – there are endless places where you may find yourself seated next to a fat person. I’ve talked about it time and again here – I’m a big woman. Plus-sized. Curvy. Overweight. I’m fat. We as a nation tend to shy away from using the word “fat” when we’re describing someone we love. We flinch at it, it makes us uncomfortable, we dismiss the word and tell them that of course they’re not fat. Just big. Or plus-sized. Or curvy. “Fat” carries with it a negative connotation, it’s used in comments sections to put people down, dismiss them, describe them, always in a bad way. It’s just something on a person’s body, literally everyone’s body, just in different amounts. Like freckles or hairs. But because weight is hard to hide and obesity is rising, I feel compelled, as a fat person, to offer the world this in-depth guide from the inside on how to treat someone like myself, a fat person.

Step 1: Treat them like you would any other human being.

That’s pretty much it. Taking up more space does not mean they’re worth less.

While I get the occasional creepy Facebook message from guys who fetishize big women, I also get to see the thousands of comments every day all over social media left by people who are disgusted by fat people. Their actual words, they’re disgusted. Why? Because a human being dares to look differently than they’d prefer. Do you want to date or marry every person you’re kind to on a daily basis? The person you held the door for, are you harboring a deeply-rooted love for them? Did you profess your feelings to the person you smiled at across from you at the restaurant? Have you entered into long-term relationships with every stranger you’ve encountered without turning your nose up in disgust? No? Then why do people have to make themselves attractive for you to be nice to them? Why must someone conform to your physical ideals to not be reviled?

They don’t.

If you think your lower numbers on the scale or higher numbers in the gym make you a better person – or worse, assign you more worth – then the problem isn’t my weight, it’s your heart.

“Ah, Jen, I’m glad you brought up the heart. Obesity is so bad for you – ”

I’m gonna stop you right there. This is not a post to celebrate or encourage obesity. This is not a post where I justify my weight. Search it line by line, and you will find no excuses, justifications, or fact-ignoring celebrations. This is purely and entirely about treating people with kindness. If you react with anything that resembles a, “yeah, but…”, then you don’t get the point and should start back up at the top. Repeat as many times as necessary.

But since we’re on the topic, I’ll let you in on a little secret, something we keep hidden deep in the bowels of Lane Bryant – fat people do not have to justify their choices to you. Ever. Period. Not caloric intake. Not activity levels. Nothing. Overweight people are not dumb. They are not ignorant to the medical research on obesity any more than they are to your stares and snickers. (Yes, the snickers pun was intentional.) Every single time a fat person visits a doctor, for literally any ailment, they must first spend at least 20 minutes going around and around with their doctor over their weight. Truly. Got a headache? Well if you’re fat, good luck getting your doctor to look past your waistband. There is no greater population of people that must justify their right to be heard by a doctor. So we get it, we’ve heard it, extra weight is hard on your body. No one person in an internet comments section is the messiah of skinny news, you will not bring to them the sudden realization through your “concern” that losing weight would be healthier. Suggesting diets is not helpful. Asking an obese person if they’ve tried exercise is a lot like asking a person struggling with infertility if they’ve tried conceiving. Messaging someone about a miracle product you’re selling is just plain rude and bad internet etiquette. And heck, if you’re really so concerned about someone dying sooner, then be NICE to them with the little time they apparently have left. Shaming anyone for something on their body isn’t just cruel, it shows an incredible lack of intelligence. Really, the most obvious thing about me is the only thing you could think to talk about? Teach your kids to see the person and not the size, to describe people as, “That man in the blue shirt,” instead of “that big fat guy over there.”  They’ll be better friends – and writers – for it. While we’re on the topic, please don’t teach your children that eating too much will cause them to get fat. That’s really not the whole truth. Genetics, conditions, hormones, medications, injuries, depression, and yes, food choices, can all play a part in the amount of jiggle in someone’s wiggle. Diet and exercise are not secrets that have been kept from fat people. Most of the fat people I know diet and exercise more than the average-sized people in my life. Keep your regiments to yourself and don’t assume that just because a person looks a certain way that they aren’t working on it – or even that they don’t want to look like that.

J.K. Rowling said once, “Is fat really the worst thing a human being can be? Is fat worse than vindictive, jealous, shallow, vain, boring, evil, or cruel? Not to me.”

While there is more of me, there’s also more to me. I have two degrees, and graduated with a 4.0 GPA. I have three kids. I can quote a mind-boggling number of movies and every episode of Friends. My husband is my best friend. I get really excited really easily. I used to want to be a professional whistler. I love to laugh, write, create. I love costume jewelry and leopard print. I can sing the 50 states song in about 40 seconds. I’m terrified of aquatic plants. I am certified to SCUBA dive down to 60 feet in open water, and want to someday swim with sharks. I play the trumpet. In high school I sang with the men’s choir at UIL competition – and the women’s. I’m an insomniac, a history buff, true-crime fanatic, and a friend. I’m not the most interesting person in the world, but the outside of me does not even come close to how much more there is of me on the inside.

Do I have thyroid problems? Hormonal imbalances? Injuries, medications, genetics, or snacking habits that have led me to become overweight? I don’t have to tell. I don’t have to justify my size. For a long time I have, and out of insecurity I sometimes still will, but really, no one, from the petite to the pudgy, has to justify their size to you. To anyone. No one’s meals, no one’s choices need your approval. My weight does not define me, but your words do clearly advertise who you are. No one, not the most morbidly obese person in the stretchiest of pants with the biggest of plates, deserves to be treated with any less respect. You don’t have to marry them, you don’t have to date them, you don’t have to befriend them, but you are not entitled, ever, to elevate yourself over them with your disgust.

Treat everyone kindly. That’s really it.

Happily Ever After and Gestalt Theory


“Jennifer. There’s an egg in that picture.”

I know, I know. Bear with me. It’ll be explained soon, I promise.

 

I have been married for 11 1/2 years. I am in no way an expert, I don’t have it all figured out, but I am happy and I love my husband more today than I did 11 1/2 years ago when we began our journey into happily ever after. Cinderella dancing with her prince was our cake topper, we handed out glass slippers filled with candy, and played “So This is Love” at the wedding – when I say we were beginning our happily every after, I mean it. I grew up, like many of you, on Disney movies, love stories, princesses being swept off their feet by the handsome princes, romance, beauty, and musicals that always ended with the perfect couple living happily ever after. Also like many of you, I grew into an adult who had to face the harsh reality that there’s a lot of stuff not shown in those favorite classics. Whose castle did Aurora and Philip move into? What about their controlling parents? Did Cinderella have extreme PMS? Did Aladdin ever deal with insecurity over Jasmine bringing home more money than him? Did Snow White have some pretty gnarly morning breath after she woke up? Did any of them gain weight? Struggle with infertility? Have to squash an uprising in the kingdom? Were they separated by war? Really, what ACTUALLY happened after “happily ever after” scrolled across the screen?

A lot of you are married. You’ve begun your own happily ever after. You’ve faced the reality that you couldn’t anticipate – the arguments, the bills, the little nuances and quirks that grow ten times in size when you live with someone. You’ve had in-laws get into your business. Some of you have had strangers get into your bed. You’ve found yourself in the trenches and have begun to think of marriage as a warzone more than a fairy tale. Marriage is work, that’s for sure. It’s not a secret that a relationship requires communication, compromise, and naps. The further you get from the day you began living happily ever after, the less you think “happily ever after” is even real.

Here’s where the egg comes in.

One of the summations of Gestalt Theory of psychology is by Kurt Kaffka, who said, “The whole is other than the sum of the parts.” Often it is quoted as “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” Either way, here’s what it means – the pieces of something are not what it is. If you take an egg and crack it open, you have a yolk, an egg white, and an egg shell, all sitting before you. Totaled up, the sum of the parts are an egg. Yet the pieces of an egg are not the same as holding an intact egg in your hand. The egg you hold in your hand and the egg pieces that lay before you are, actually, two different things. It seems sketchy until you need an egg to bake with, then you realize the difference. While what makes up the egg before you is all present, it is not the same – nor does it have the same worth – as the egg as a whole. The whole (the intact egg) is other (different) than the sum of its parts (the broken egg, shell, yolk, and egg white). Here’s how it applies here:

Marriage is the whole. Happily ever after is the whole. Unemployment, cancer, foreclosure, infidelity, bankruptcy, deployment, infertility, boredom, selfishness, kids with special needs, surgery, depression, hormones, toilet seats, dirty dishes, addiction, fatigue…. those are parts. Whatever you have faced together in your marriage, those are the parts of it. They are not the whole. Marriage that faces the strain of miscarriage is not exempt from happily ever after. Marriage that bends under the weight of financial ruin is not prohibited from happily ever after. Marriage is much, much more than the sum of the parts. Marriage has mountains to climb, but it also has beautiful views from the top. Marriage has hand holding on the couch, Netflix binges, laughing over dinner, inside jokes, snuggles, cuddles, tickles. It has memories of who you were when you met and memories you’ve made together since. Marriage is a promise, not a circumstance. Marriage, as a whole, is greater than the argument you’re having now. Happily ever after is the whole, it’s the combination of the laughs and memories and kisses and fights and resentments and bills and exhaustion, and knowing that beyond this moment, beyond this hard, hard time you’re facing, you still love your spouse. Yes, they’re a butthead in the moment. Yes, living in a small apartment while pinning ideas for a large home is hard in the moment. Yes, not seeing your plans come to pass is crushing in the moment. But beyond this moment, you love your spouse. Beyond the pain, on the other side of it, you love them and they love you. That’s the whole. That’s the happily ever after. It’s not letting a day, a month, a season define your marriage because it’s only a day, only a month, only a season.

Not once was I shown debt-free ever after. I’ve never heard of a princess who lived healthy ever after, employed ever after, fertile ever after. What we wanted was happily ever after, and at the end of the day, when observing the whole, that’s exactly what I have.

I know, I know. There are some who will look at me and say, “Oh, Jen, you young whippersnapper, 11 1/2 years is nothing.” Some will say, “Wow, Jen must be pretty old to have already been married for 11 1/2 years.” Guess what? It doesn’t matter. I don’t live “comparatively ever after”. I’m not concerned about living “happier than…” ever after. It’s my husband and I, just us, and our happily ever after isn’t determined by the happiness going on around us. We’re not happier because we’re not facing what someone else is, and we’re not unhappy because someone else is having an easier time. Our marriage, between us, is about happily ever after, every day. We’re not in a contest, we’re in a covenant. And we are proud of our 11 1/2 years, we’re excited by them. We can smile and laugh and celebrate not because we haven’t faced some hard times. We’re not rich. We’re not famous. I don’t weigh what I did on our wedding day. We’ve walked through some dark valleys and some hot fires, and I’m not so naïve as to think they’re all behind us. But I know I’m not alone. I know that whatever has happened and whatever awaits is not the whole of my marriage. I know that a chapter isn’t the whole story and the pieces are not the same as the whole. And I know that deep in the mud, covered in tears, with hurt feelings and disappointments and insecurities abounding, I will still be in love with him, he will still be in love with me, and the whole of us is greater than that momentary piece.

So I encourage you, friends, take a step back and observe the whole. Don’t hold on to pieces and call them the sum of your marriage. Don’t think that because you’re unhappy right now you won’t ever be happy again. Don’t get caught up in the idea that it being difficult means it’s not right. Don’t misunderstand and believe that happily ever after means happily every day after. It means ever after, in a continuing line, you can observe the journey and see, as a whole, that it is a happy one. Your very own, very real happily ever after.

What It’s (Really) Like to Have a Gifted Kid

What It's (Really) Like to Have a Gifted Kid

 

I know, I know. You probably rolled your eyes at the title. I did, too, if we’re being honest. The term “gifted” is what does it. It has an elitist air to it, seems snooty, sounds like I’m bragging. But the truth is, most parents of children who have been identified as gifted, those having an IQ score above 130 or two standard deviations above the norm, they aren’t bragging, they’re BEGGING. Begging for help, for understanding, for answers, for a system that will recognize and meet their child’s needs. You see, giftedness does not look at all like you think it does. Some of you know my tale of tears, the years of counseling, testing, praying, dieting, oiling, reading, and sobbing, all to be told that what was “wrong” with my child was giftedness. The years spent searching for a diagnosis, knowing something was different about my boy, knowing he was miserable and hurting, wanting desperately to help and find an answer, but always falling just short of sensory processing disorder, of bipolar disorder, of oppositional defiant disorder, of autism spectrum disorders, of ADHD. Really, THOSE are the labels that came to mind before I had to be told that my child was gifted, and that the behaviors he was exhibiting were NORMAL. Those extremes are what I thought about my child, never a high IQ. I knew he was bright, don’t get me wrong, but bright and the actual classification of “gifted” are two very different things, and what I knew of giftedness was chess champions, piano prodigies, and tiny little adults. My emotional, sensitive, intense child who never slept and always worried couldn’t possibly be a – gasp – genius.

Except that he kind of is.

It’s been a year and a half since we “found out” about him, and every day I learn more about what it means for him to exist in a world that is built for people different from himself. Many days I find myself advocating, emailing, sticking up for him. I’ve been asked more than once what’s “wrong” with him. I’ve asked that myself on many occasions. Some days I have people roll their eyes. Lots of days people feel the need to question or disprove his label. One day I even had someone walk away while I was mid-sentence. There are a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding gifted kids – their parents are pushing them, their parents are bragging, everything is easy for them, they’re perfect kids, they can handle it. One of the most hurtful ones I’ve encountered is the apparent belief that there is some finite amount of intelligence in the world, some IQ pool that kids draw from, and my child having withdrawn more than the others somehow left less for their son or daughter. Those are the people who see him as a threat, who resent him for skipping a grade, who feel slighted that he earned a place on a math team that their child did not. Those are the adults who approach him with the sole intention of proving him wrong, tripping him up, who have made up their minds to blame him for something he cannot help and something he didn’t do. Who make no attempt to understand what it’s really like for him, how scary and overwhelming it is to have a brain that doesn’t turn off, to be able to take everything in but have no idea what to do with it.

People who think giftedness looks like this:

But have no idea it also comes with this:

 

People who assume the school sends us this:

But don’t realize they also send us here:

That’s what it’s really like, giftedness. To exist in a world that doesn’t understand you, that even resents you. To watch athletes be praised for their form of giftedness but to have yours dismissed. A world where a gold medal is earned but a grade skip is bragging. Sure, it can be high grades, athletic achievements, musical gifts and artistic abilities. But it’s also asynchronous development, where “cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences that are qualitatively different from the norm”, to have the brain of an adult, the body of a child, and the emotional stability of a toddler. It’s overexcitabilities, where the brain’s intensity creates disorder-like reactions to stimuli, creates more intense emotions than the norm, more intense physical needs than the norm, more intense everything than the norm. Giftedness is everything inside you going at 1,000,000% and not knowing how to cope, because no one else around you is having the same problem, no one else is bothered, bored. It’s having trouble finding friends because you read so many levels above your classmates but socially are so many levels beneath them, not being able to have peers because they don’t want to talk about politics in the second grade and don’t understand why you hide in your locker when things get to be too much.

It’s sometimes making great grades, but it’s also sometimes struggling with being twice-exceptional – having both a gifted IQ and a learning or emotional disorder. Yeah, that’s a real thing. It turns out there’s a lot about gifted kids that most people don’t know. I share these things not to brag, not to garner sympathy, but to educate, to help. Ever since I first shared our journey to discovering our son’s giftedness, I have received almost a message a week from a friend, or from the friend of a friend, seeking answers, wondering if their child might also be gifted, looking for support once they discover that they are. So I’ll keep sharing, keep talking about it, for the parents who feel overwhelmed and alone, for the parents desperately looking for an answer to their child’s behavior that doesn’t seem “fixable”. I’ll endure the eyerolls and the sighs, the people who think I’m bragging, and I’ll continue to share about how we endure tears on a daily basis, emotions and thoughts that are too big for a little guy to handle, how we are caught in a never-ending race to meet his intellectual needs. I’ll tell about the testing, the never-ending testing, the 504 meetings and the IEP requests, the phone calls from school, the guilt and doubt I face when it comes to school at all. I’ll share about the anxiety, the overwhelming fear I have when he’s walking the halls of school or running on a soccer field, not knowing what will trigger HIS anxiety, what will reduce him to a crying toddler or ignite him to become a raging monster. I’ll tell you about how he doesn’t have birthday parties because they’re too much for him to handle, and he doesn’t really have friends to invite to them, anyway. I’ll write about how embarrassing it is to walk into a school office, knowing how a lot of the adults in there feel about your child, how humbling and remorseful it is to message another parent about what my own has done. I’ll tell of the expensive specialized psychologist we can’t afford and the hour it takes to get to her. I’ll share about how futile it feels to try and find a place for your square peg child in a world of round holes.

I’ll also tell you about how hilarious he is, how he makes jokes far beyond his 7 years and has mastered sarcasm on an expert level. I’ll tell you about how intensely sweet he is, how he snuggles me still and says he never wants to grow up and leave me, how his love literally makes me ache. I’ll write about how thoughtful he is, how he makes crafts and cards for people he loves, includes money, Starburst, or anything else he thinks the person may enjoy. I’ll definitely tell about how creative he is, how his brain works in a way that never ceases to amaze me, how he’s able to see things from a new perspective, from a place you didn’t even know existed, how he’s able to create entire worlds and mythologies with just 10 minutes and his toes. I’ll roll my eyes as I tell you about his love for Star Wars, how he has learned every single fact you never even knew was out there.  I’ll shout from the rooftops about the advocates he has on the inside, the teachers who have helped him AND me, who get him, love him, encourage him, support him, and want the best for him. I’ll marvel publicly at how naturally he picks up math concepts, how he reads novels in a day, his herding-like abilities on the soccer field, how he can identify insects and read Roman numerals and tell you about cultural customs all the world over. I’ll share wistfully about his infectious smile, his giant blue eyes that sparkle with mischief, and his sweet little feet that still have some of the toddler chubbiness left on them. I’ll declare firmly and confidently that I know he has a purpose in this world, and I believe it to be huge.

I love my boy. My gifted boy. My intense, emotional, overwhelmed, creative, hilarious, loving boy. He is not what people think he is. Giftedness is not what people think it is. It is a wonderful, exhausting, never-dull and never-easy experience. And for the last time, it’s not bragging.

The (New) Stages of Grief – and How We’re Doing it Wrong

The (new) Stages of Grief - and How We're Doing it Wrong

Our world is grieving right now. World events, news, relationships, health, wealth, dreams… there’s a lot happening every day to process and mourn. And faster than we can heal, there’s another breaking news story, another blow, and we’re left reeling and feeling all over again. Grief is not new to this divided world – it’s been felt and studied and survived since the beginning of mankind. In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross introduced the world to what are now widely accepted as the 5 stages of grief, basically the 5 steps to how one copes with extreme sadness and loss.

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

These stages aren’t always experienced in this order, and sometimes a person may skip a stage entirely, but in general this is the best way to understand the way that grief moves through us and how we, in turn, respond to it. This does not minimize the experience, rather it is comforting to know that, if nothing else, there is acceptance at the end: You will make it through.

However, at some point in our culture, we’ve begun to rework these stages, tossing out some, renaming others, and really just making a mess of Elizabeth KR’s work. A very powerful, very moving, and very, very destructive step was added and it began to eat away at the other steps, as well as us. It has taken over and assumed the role of trailblazer when we’re faced with grief, leading the way and dictating our actions and reactions from the moment we first hurt. The stages have been whittled down to only the one remaining, distorted stage that doesn’t allow for acceptance on the other side.

Blame.

It’s not a new concept. It’s not always an undeserved one. But it has become the sole obsession of our world when faced with tragedy. Politicians, religion, parents, culture, schools…. Read any single news story shared on social media – seriously, any – and then check the comments. You will find blame. Finger pointing. Assumptions, judgements, name-calling, armchair quarterbacks, “experts”. People who claim they would never have allowed such a thing to happen to them, people who claim such a thing would never have happened if someone else had been in charge. People who blame mothers for accidents and parents for crime.

Blame abounds where pain confounds and comfort – what of comfort? There can be no peace where blame exists. Blame is the exact opposite of acceptance – it is projecting responsibility onto someone else, literally putting your ability to heal into the hands of another person. Blame is justified bitterness. Blame being the opposite of acceptance means that acceptance cannot be achieved, one cannot heal, get over, get through, get better, so long as they blame someone else for their pain.

“But this isn’t my fault!” No one said it was, friend. Sometimes tragedy is just tragedy. Sometimes bad things happen. And never in the stages of grief is “blame” listed as healthy or necessary to the process. Sometimes there’s no one to blame, only feelings to feel, and those feelings are really hard to deal with when you feel alone in them. You can feel powerless, weak, exposed. Blame creates a false sense of justification, of power, as though blaming someone else enables you to rise above the waves of grief with the dignity of someone who should not have to experience them. Blame is a bandage, a temporary fix, an attempt to curb the very real pain without aiding in any actual healing. Blame fuels the fire, makes it easier to feel indignant than hurt. Blame is a poison disguised as a defense mechanism that will, eventually, fill the void with bitterness – something much harder to rid yourself of than grief.

Blaming your husband for your lack of finances, for the long hours he works. Blaming your kids for your lack of free time or loss of happiness. Blaming your friend for the breakdown in your relationship. Blaming your pastor for your offense. Heck, blaming your pastor for religion. Blaming your boss for your career path. Blaming world leaders for tragic events. Blaming parents for their children. Blaming your ex for… well, everything. Blaming an entire group for the actions of one. Blaming society for the actions of one. Blaming God for the actions of one.

As I type, my 3 wild kids are just feet from me, doing one of their favorite things: all out wrestling. Seriously, tripping, grabbing, pushing, rolling, all over the floor, it’s wild and chaotic and they LOVE it. They’re all giggling and smiling and having a blast… until someone knocks a little too hard or a fall is a little worse than expected. It happens, every time, and every time the crying kid is pointing at someone, blaming them, and the guilty kid stands over them, defending themselves. Through the tears, the scratches, sometimes even the blood, they are more concerned with whose fault it is than helping the hurt kid feel better. And always, before I hear opening statements from both parties, I have to remind (force) the accused to get down on the level of their hurt sibling, apologize for them being hurt, and see if they can help. Sometimes it’s an accident. Sometimes it’s on purpose. But no matter what, someone has been hurt and the important thing is to help them. Someone is hurting and needs to heal, and assigning blame has yet to be proven to help.

Sometimes there is someone to blame. Sometimes there is a systemic breakdown and a societal failure. Sometimes imperfect people act imperfectly and really are buttheads. But they still can’t heal you. And blaming them implies that they have control over your emotions, blaming them puts the responsibility for your wellness in their hands. There will be a time for assigning blame where blame is due, but I urge you not to give into the temptation to allow blame to become your first reaction, the only step in your grieving process. Do not allow blame to create a false sense of righteousness in you. Do not believe that your opinion of another is their reality. Heal, friend. Feel. Pain and tragedy are so, well, painful and tragic, that it’s easy to want to avoid them. None of us are immune. That doesn’t mean we’re deserving. That doesn’t mean the person to blame gets away with anything. It means you’re human, and you’re getting through it.

I’m no fitness expert (pause for laughter), but I do know that muscle is built by creating small tears that then heal to be stronger. You go to the gym, do werk, and are sore. You’ve created tiny tears in the muscle that now need the opportunity to heal in order to grow. Feel the burn, some might say. No pain, no gain. Well, at the risk of sounding super cheesy, the heart is a muscle. You have to be able to heal to get better. Blame is nothing you want any part of when it comes to healing. Blame is acid on the wounds, a distraction, and a missed opportunity to care for your self.

So please, the next time something comes across your path that is heartbreaking, pause. Feel the sadness. Allow the grief. Watch Inside Out to see how necessary sadness is to the healing process. Cry. Mourn. Be vulnerable. Don’t judge. Don’t react. Let yourself feel so that you can sooner heal. And get a hug if you can.

 

A Love Letter to People of Color (To Be Read By All My White Friends)

My Dear Friends,

First, let me say that I know I don’t speak for everyone, and I know I’m not an expert on race relations. I get it. I have (mostly) blonde hair, live in the ‘burbs, watch Friends and drive a minivan. I’m super white. I won’t do the thing where I give you my background and tell you about the places I’ve been and the life I’ve lived to try and qualify my statements, to make it seem like I know what you’re going through. Because the truth is, I don’t. I won’t tell you about all the friends I’ve had in an attempt to present myself as an ally. Because the truth is, having friends is not the same as standing beside you and it does not cancel out centuries of hatred. I won’t burst through your mourning with defense or rhetoric, with anything that begins with “not all white people…”. Because the truth is, you hurt, and those words do not heal.

I fear, my beautiful friends, that I’ve been grossly misunderstanding racism up until now. I’m afraid that I allowed my understanding of it to become my definition of it, when in reality they’ve been two very different things. I assumed that because there are no signs separating your family from mine while we eat that racism was a thing of the past. I thought that because I struggled with paying the bills that white privilege was not real. And I reasoned that, while ignorance still runs rampant, my generation had been taught to be color blind… which I again associated with the end of racism.

I’ve discovered, however, that in our earnest to remain color blind, we’ve dismissed the idea of color bias. I’ve discovered, through my introduction and attempts at understanding cultural appropriation, that color blindness was never the goal. Color blindness strips you of your glorious heritage, your sacred rituals and histories. Color blindness makes the assumption that you and I are alike, when we very much are not. Color blindness has led me to believe the lie that because we are equal in personhood, we are also equal in experience. Color blindness caused many to blame the victim before they ever listened to the outcry. Color blindness spurred on #AllLivesMatter. Color blindness, in an attempt to mix this melting pot we call America, instead brought it to a boiling point where everything is in such a rolling turmoil that we’re clashing, banging, picking, blaming. Color blindness told me I was an ally, while all along I was just the stubborn friend who meant well but didn’t know what the heck she was actually talking about.

I reach out to you now, my friends of color who are hurting, who are scared. I was wrong. I was ignorant. So often we associate the word “ignorance” with “stupidity” so we are reluctant to identify with it, when really it means I just didn’t know. I was ignorant. In my passion to declare you the same as me, I was dismissing your loud cries to the contrary. I was ignorant. In my attempts to make sense of your experience, I listened to my own reasoning instead of your words. I was ignorant. In my own firm belief that I was not racist, I ignored the fact that a lot of people are. And a lot of people are ignorant to what racism is. I thought my declarations of equality were comforting to you, but in my ignorance did not see how they drowned you out. I hate it when I’m sharing a story or struggle with someone, desperate for someone to hear, only to have them respond with their own. That’s what we’ve been doing all this time, isn’t it? When we bring up stories of white people in seemingly similar situations, when we spout off our own experiences. We’ve been using our words in an ignorant attempt to relate or explain, when all along you’ve just wanted to be heard.

So here we are, friends, at the crux. Where do we go from here? I imagine you’re tired. Tired of explaining to white people how things are different, tired of answering ignorant questions, tired of seeing your race represented on the news more than primetime shows, tired of being told things about yourself by people who just don’t know. So I will urge my white friends to listen more than they speak, to hear your answers without forming a response. I cannot promise to not ask patience of you as I work around my lifelong ignorance. I cannot promise to always get it right. I cannot promise that things will get better starting now. But I can promise that I will try. I can promise that I hear you now, and I will listen. I can hope that each day will get a little better, that maybe as the roar becomes deafening some will be unable to hear their own ideas over your words. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. I don’t know what will be said next week. But I know I will listen. I will hear you. I will not attempt to make sense of it, because my own experiences can never equate to yours, and because so much of it is just senseless.

 

Image from here.  I have no idea what they say or support, I just needed to use the image!

The Cinderella Mom

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Hey, Mom. I see you, up late.

The kids are in bed, the husband is snoring, and the place is all yours: it’s go time on mom time.

The time has come for you to be who you were long before the kids were there – the writer, the reader, the artist, the seamstress. We spend our days as servants, ragged, worn. But when night falls and the clock strikes, our transformation takes place. Bippity, boppity, boo! The responsibilities of the day and the plans for tomorrow fall away, and for just the slightest of time we’re alone to be us, to follow our dreams, to play among our passions.

Not every night. Some nights all we can manage is a little Pinterest, maybe some Netflix. Some nights end in tears, some end in guilt over how you wish the day had gone, some end on the couch before you mean them to. Heck, some nights don’t seem to end at all because the kids keep coming out of their rooms and asking questions and wanting more water and complaining and tattling and remembering details about a YouTube video from 7 months ago and being the thirstiest person to EVER LIVE. But some nights are magical. Some nights the stars align, the alarm doesn’t taunt you, and the silence is golden. You don’t have a pumpkin carriage, but you have a couch, a desk, a favorite chair, or even just the whole living room floor awaiting you, ready to take you where you’ve been itching to go. There isn’t much time – there never is – but what you have is the stuff of fairy tales, the stuff that holds you over, energizes you, reminds you that you are more than Mom, that you can do more than laundry and shuttling and meal prepping and breaking up fights. You can produce more than milk and fruit snacks. Maybe you work magic with a pair of needles, maybe you paint, maybe you read… maybe you rest. Whatever it is that you do, it is of the utmost importance that you keep doing it.

Whatever it is that you miss about the time before becoming a mom, do that. Did you meet friends for movies? Do that. Did you write short stories? Do that.  Did you sculpt, garden, give yourself pedicures? Do those things. There may never be time to do them every night, or even every week. But there may also be no other time than the magical midnight hour to do them at all. You cannot afford to invest all of yourself into motherhood. You will never see a return on it if you do. Huge parts of you, yes. More than you knew you could give, sure. But you cannot give every part of yourself to raising your children or you will have nothing left when you’re done. And you will be done, at some point. Not tonight, obviously, but someday.

Beyond what is left of you then, the world needs what’s inside of you NOW. You, your perspective, your gifts, your words… they don’t just disappear once you become a mother. You still matter. You have not become a bookmark in someone else’s story, holding the place and marking pauses. Your name may have been changed to Mom, but who you are was not modified, what you are capable of remains.

There’s a quote that makes the rounds, I see it about once a week and the person accredited to it changes as frequently. It says, “Children are not a distraction from the more important work. They are the most important work.” I don’t know that a quote has ever filled me with so many conflicting feelings at once. Yes, this privilege we have in child rearing is great. The weight of our decisions hangs heavily over us every night, the words we speak, the job we do, can ripple outwards who knows how far. We get one shot at raising these people, and it’s a really big deal. But we also only get one shot at being us, and we have more to offer and are more impactful that motherhood alone. Do not misunderstand me, I’m not discounting motherhood and all its glories. I’m saying we’re mighty moms BECAUSE that’s not all there is to us. We were not given talents and gifts and callings and likes and preferences simply to let them waste away once we started changing diapers. You are made up of so much more than mom genes. You have ideas, passions, abilities, and the world needs them. You need to exercise them. And, just as important, your children need to see them. What better way to raise strong young women than to show them what all a woman is capable of? What better way to raise appreciative young men than to show them all the facets of you? Let your kids be in awe of you. Let them see you create, let them know what’s important to you. They see every day how human you are, so give them a glimpse of how superhuman you can be. My kids’ mom takes photographs that hang in peoples’ homes. They sit on chairs their mom painted and sometimes even wear clothes she made (though just washing the store-bought stuff is equally miraculous most days). Show them the stories you wrote that impacted people they’ve never met. Make sure they know about the baby blankets you made that will become heirlooms, or the recipes you shared that feed countless families. Tell them about the job you work at, the kids you teach, the patients you help, the companies you help run, the services you provide. Let them see the stack of books you’ve devoured, show them your art, your hobbies, your contributions, your gifts. Show them YOU.

In my experience, kids don’t appreciate the meals or the cleaning or the folding or the pick up line. They expect it, it becomes mundane. It can do the same to us. And it’s hard, pulling yourself up out of the mundane, the rut. It can be difficult to feel inspired when you’re surrounded by the same mess and chaos and laundry piles that you were in all day. But just wait. Wait for the clock to strike and allow the magic to work. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to work all day, to feel the press and the rush to get home and get everything done for the day, then everything prepped for the next, in a span of a few hours. The temptation to fall fast asleep and rest your brain must be overwhelming most nights. But sometimes, just sometimes, don’t give in. Stay up and do something for you. Transform. Be YOU. Not the employee, not the mom, but YOU. The unique you who existed long before the babies and the meetings and the appointments. Allow yourself to indulge in what brings you joy and dare to feel no guilt for it.

I admit to losing myself when I first became a mother. I won’t go into too much detail now, mostly because I’ve already gone on for so long, but also because I’m saving it for another blog, wink wink. But whatever the details, I was lost. Me, Jen, the goofy, movie-quoting, fashion-magazine-devouring, creative person had become a shell, a robot, someone only capable of carrying out tasks necessary for my baby. I didn’t recognize it at first. I didn’t know I wasn’t fulfilled, and if I had, I wouldn’t dare have voiced it for fear of being judged. But I remember the moment I realized something other than caring for my son was making me happy. I had taken photos of a family friend and was skipping through the house as they transferred onto the computer. Me. Skipping. I don’t do that NOW, and I’m sure it was just as ridiculous to see then, but something was awakening me, something had stirred a part of me I didn’t realize had gone stagnant. I was doing something creative, and I was loving it. Over the years, as with any relationship, my dance with motherhood has had highs and lows. Some days I crush it and some days it crushes me. Some days the monotony so consumes me that I forget what I’d want to do with free time, should I scrounge any up. On those days, on the really hard ones, when you’re so completely overwhelmed that you can’t see past the moment to come up with a hobby, just sit. You don’t have to create anything. You don’t have to cure cancer. You don’t have to have hoardes of fans or followers, customers, influence. But you DO have to take care of you, and just sitting can do it. Maybe that leads to reading a book you’ve been wanting to get to. Maybe that leads to getting an idea. Maybe that leads to you singing a song. Or maybe you just get to be with yourself for a little bit and catch your breath with no one to touch you, to ask of you. Your relationship with you began long before the one you have with your children, and it’s just as important to maintain it.

It can be really hard, having to wait to do what you want, to do what you’re passionate about. It can make you feel unimportant to have to put yourself on the back burner. It can make you feel guilty, to use precious and finite time doing something only for yourself. Find the time. Make the time. Heck, trade, barter, or steal the time. Cinderella had only one night and it was enough to change her. She had a pretty rough day the next day, too, and still it was worth it. You’ve spent so long being the unappreciated attendant and all you want is the chance to have a night of magic… or maybe to get your hands covered in Mod Podge or sculpting clay. You don’t have a fairy godmother or glass slippers, but an adult coloring book could be just as transformative. Make your passions and hobbies a priority, make YOU a priority. Fight for who you are, not what you do. Wait for your moment, enjoy the quiet, and have a wonderful night with yourself. Don’t be a stranger. Be Cinderella. Isn’t that what we wanted to grow up to be, anyway?

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This Blog is Not About You – Which is Why You Should Absolutely Read it

I like blogs. I like reading them. I long for the time to write more of them. I see blog posts shared multiple times a day in my social media feeds. A bunch of them are open letters, which I tend to skip most of, but blogs are an enormously untapped source of information, perspectives, encouragement, and personal journeys. Whether it’s renovating a home or educating on a childhood disorder, there are blogs by anyone and for anyone. They exist to share information, for free, quickly and easily. Yet they go largely unread.

A friend texted me a few months ago, a friend who has children with special needs and regularly shares blog posts pertaining to those needs. She asked if I thought anyone ever read the blogs she shared. I told her, sadly, that there were probably very few who do, because they think it doesn’t apply to them. Not having a child with those particular struggles, they see the title and move on, figuring there’s nothing for them to gain.

After a big news event, there is always an influx of blog posts (especially those open letter ones). Gorillas, guns, Miley Cyrus…. everyone has an opinion, and everyone wants to share theirs. Which is totally fine. They’re as free to share their opinion as I am to share mine. I won’t turn this into a rant about how many of these opinions are about assigning blame rather than dealing with the issue. I won’t. But I will address the issue I take with these opinion pieces: we’re not reading them. We see the title, decide we disagree, roll our eyes and move on. It’s not for us, so we don’t click.

Here’s the problem with that: we don’t learn. When we don’t read anything new, anything that is outside of our own perspective and experience, we fail to grow, we miss the opportunity to learn how we can support someone else. We cannot be so arrogant as to believe that our perspective is the only one and our opinion may as well be fact.

A major part of blogging for me is the catharsis that comes from giving my thoughts words, sharing my experiences, and hoping that someone else who is in a similar situation can find some encouragement in at least knowing they’re not alone. But another reason I do it is in the hopes that someone will read my words, stop, and think, “Wow, I had no idea that’s what it was like.” I want to educate others on topics that are important to me, topics that I don’t see discussed. When my friend shares a blog about children with mitochondrial disease, I read it. I can’t relate to it, but it helps me understand her struggle a little better. When my friend who lives in Australia shares links to the political happenings in her part of the world, I read them. I can’t vote down under, but it helps me gain an understanding of her beliefs, and keeps me abreast of world issues. And far more sensitive, when my friends of color share blogs about their experiences, about what it means to be black in America or the discrimination they face because of their religion, I READ THEM. And you know what else? I really, truly, learn a lot from them.

Unbeknownst to me, I grew up in a bubble. I was surrounded by people who believed similarly to me and lived similarly enough to me. I came of age at birthday parties where I was often the only white girl, and since I truly didn’t see color and my friends didn’t seem to mind my lack of it, I thought racism was dead. Because we got along I assumed we had similar lives and nothing was different for us. I live in a town now that is pretty devoid of melanin, but my feelings never changed, so when the term “white privilege” first started popping up I rolled my eyes. In my bubble, there was no such thing. Then a friend of mine, a brilliant sociologist, shared a blog that I thought I at least should check out. I gave a deep sigh at the title and prepared myself to come up with a biting defense, but the words were so…. true. I wasn’t racist, but my experience as a white woman was far different from that of a woman of color. I could not presume to know what it was like to grow up not seeing people like me on TV. I’ve never gone to a doctor’s office and been unable to communicate my symptoms because no one spoke my language. I get stereotyped and people make assumptions about me, but that doesn’t mean we’re the same. Equal as humans, yes. But our experiences are not the same, and me dismissing that fact was never going to help anyone. Not agreeing with it doesn’t make it go away, and acknowledging it doesn’t make me a racist. In discussing parts of the Black Lives Matter movement with a very dear friend, who is black, I went from annoyance to understanding. No one was saying other lives didn’t matter. No one said Black Lives Matter More. They just were saying, “SEE us. ACKNOWLEDGE us. REALIZE that our experience is not the same as yours.” Because every time we dismiss the notion, we tell them that black lives, in fact, do not matter. I’m not here to discuss riots or shootings, only people. People who are trying to tell us something that we are too entrenched in our own beliefs to listen to. Admitting that our experiences are different is not admitting to being a racist. It’s listening to someone and expanding your horizon. It’s caring about someone else and doing what you can to make sure they know they’re heard.

Your friend who shares a personal post about the struggles of parenting a child with autism – read it. You may not be dealing with special needs in your home, but it will never hurt you to learn what her experience is like. Did you realize how much she spends on therapies? Did you realize how many different therapies she schedules? Were you aware that some schools have no programs in place… or that some states will pay for private school if your district cannot meet the child’s needs? Do you know how little sleep she gets and how badly she needs a pedicure date? Do you know what a big deal it is that her son finally took a shower without screaming? It doesn’t apply to you, but learning these things sure do help you in empathizing with her, in understanding more about her experience. It cost you a few minutes to be a better friend, and she’s better for having someone who hears her.

Your cousin shares ANOTHER link to homeopathic treatments, or FDA conspiracies, or essential oil cocktails. Read them. They are sharing because they are caring. They genuinely believe they can help people, they have seen a change in their lives and want others to experience it. You don’t have to give up your ibuprofen, but you could stumble upon a nugget of information that could boost your energy, or give a name to a symptom you’ve been experiencing, or help you find an entirely new way to treat an ailment that you’re tired of dealing with. Just like when someone blessedly shares some glorious cheesy bacon chicken something or other recipe, they see something great and want to share it with others. They say, “This is AWESOME, I have to make sure everyone knows!” You may think they’re off their rocker, and sometimes they may be, but they want to help and are offering you tools to try something new.

There’s that post again, the one about foster kids sleeping on the floors of offices. I don’t have foster kids, so I don’t need to read it. Except that children need homes, and you may be the one to offer it. If nothing else, understanding their heart-breaking circumstances can give you a new purpose in your prayer or giving. You may have thought foster kids just slept in bunk beds and carried everything in their backpacks. You may have thought it looked like Annie. But when you take the time to read about the plight of these children who did not ask to be in such dire straits that an office floor is preferable to home, your heart can grow. Those kids deserve to be known about. Clicking the link won’t get you a knock on the door with unruly teenage foster quads, but it will offer you a look into a life you know nothing about.

Your friend posts a blog entry that is going viral, you’ve seen it a few times already, and haven’t read it a single time because of the title. It’s political, and you can already tell you won’t agree. But let me challenge you – how do you know you won’t agree? Unless you read the words, unless you take the plunge and consider another perspective, how do you even know that your opinion is truly yours and not just a collective opinion formed by the people you surround yourself with? Until you’ve seen all the sides, how will you know which one you land on? One of the reasons we send our children to – gasp! – public school is because  I want them exposed to different people, different songs and ideas than they’d get at home. I want them to come home and talk about them with us, so that they can form their beliefs and KNOW WHY they believe them. I don’t want my children to blindly follow my opinions, I want them to think, listen, and form their own. So I challenge you, friend, read that blog. Read it even if it makes your blood boil. Know what’s going on beyond your own bubble, beyond your own viewpoint. You don’t have to agree with it. You don’t have to enjoy it. But challenge yourself to test your opinions against the perspectives offered by others. Because we do all have different perspectives. We all have our bubbles we’ve grown in and the internet has given us the amazing ability to pop them. Sometimes it’s shocking, sometimes it’s enfuriating, but sometimes it’s enlightening. Get out there and LEARN. Funny enough, the more you learn about another opinion, the more educated it can make you about your own.

I hate stereotypes. I hate assumptions. I hate being lumped together with a group of people based on the way someone else views me. The longer we resist learning about the experiences of others, the more we allow stereotypes to perpetuate. Having a child with autism isn’t just a kid who rocks back and forth and won’t look you in the eye. Having a kid with severe allergies doesn’t mean she has to live in a bubble. Having a gifted child does not mean the day is full of chess and math (I mean, there’s chess and math, but there are a lot of struggles that come with it, too). Having a parent with an illness doesn’t just mean a retirement home is in order.  Being black today is not the same as being white today, and ignoring that fact won’t make it change. A lot of posts about modern feminism aren’t for me, but I’ve learned a lot of facts that are. I’ve read new perspectives and theories and my mind has been opened to learn. People need and want to talk about what they’re going through. All they’re asking is that we listen.  Not every movement is one I want to join and not every political party is one I want to jump on board with (seriously, there are NO parties for me to claim now). But I can still learn, educate myself, consider other perspectives and strengthen my own position.

It’s hard having a newsfeed with so many differing ideals.   It’s hard to see those memes you hate and statements that sting. It’s hard to see yourself lumped into a group who someone just made a joke out of, and it can make you pretty rage-y when disrespect is paid towards a topic you are passionate about. But we’re also adults. I hope I never find myself back in my bubble, sealed up with only people who agree with me and concerned only with things that relate to me. My wonderfully diverse group of friends have introduced me to countless ideas, shows, songs, foods, perspectives, struggles… all because I was willing to read them. I still know who I am and I still know what I believe. I have not been swayed to join any dark sides and my head did not explode from reading about a presidential candidate I’m particularly fearful of. Debates have happened, and we’ve all survived. I don’t unfriend anyone for disagreeing with me, and I’m delighted that most of my friends don’t, either. We’re all so much bigger than one topic, anyway, it’d be a shame to lose out on what else I could learn from them just because we disagreed on an article. Surround yourself with like-minded people, yes… but be open to considering far different-minded peoples’ perspectives, as well. Just read the stuff. Learn the stuff. Be prepared to be wrong sometimes, or at least lacking in knowledge. Embrace your friends’ experiences. Take an interest in something other than your immediate surroundings. Push yourself to take it in, then prove yourself as an adult by loving them all anyway. The people with differing opinions, the people who are in very different places from you, the people who don’t share your beliefs and the people who bash your beliefs – love them anyway. They don’t have to agree with you, either. Though, hopefully they’ll have read this blog and will and least respectfully consider your stance.😉  In this age, in this climate, in this election year and this country constantly divided by one thing or another, be the one who is big enough to reach over. Don’t let yourself be part of a split. Don’t let your friends’ experiences go unnoticed. Read. Learn. Consider. And then move on and have a great day. Because it’s not about you. It’s about a better, more considerate, more educated, more sympathetic you. Go you.