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Dear Santa, You Suck

I was 5 when I figured out the Easter Bunny wasn’t real. It wasn’t that I failed the suspension of disbelief–it was that I noticed the Easter Bunny had the same handwriting as my aunt that year. In my usual, filterless way, I started to announce my observation, but my mom clapped a hand over my mouth and dragged me toward the bathroom like she was making off with the Lindbergh Baby.

To her everlasting credit, she didn’t lie to me. I asked if EB was real; she said no. I remember scrunching up my face, heaving a sigh, and saying, “Santa too?” She nodded silently, then issued the death threat to end all death threats if I wrecked the “magic” for my sibs and cousin. I got it, and we left the bathroom as co-conspirators. In the years that followed, ones of poverty and divorce, I knew that magic didn’t put presents under our tree. I knew that my brother’s Cabbage Patch Kid and my sister’s Barbie Dream House didn’t come from a workshop–they came from year-long savings and a tiring wait in line at the toy store. And I liked the thought of my mom sitting down to eat some milk and cookies after we’d all gone to bed on Christmas Eve. I knew she’d earned it.

When the Darling Husband and I set out to have children of our own, we thrashed out a lot of our game plan far in advance. One of those things was Santa, and the conclusion we reached was that we would never actively lie to our kids about the fat man’s existence. But we’ve done a whole lot of evasion and omission over the years. When they ask if Santa is real, we ask them, “What do you think?” When they ask how Santa knows where to find us when we travel, we ask them, “What tools would you use to find someone?”

This year, though, I’ve really had it. There are so many things about the Santa tradition that piss me off. Let’s leave alone for the purposes of this discussion the whole creepy, stalker, NSA-level spying, remorseless housebreaking aspect. “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” should be giving kids nightmares, and making parents peruse home alarm systems instead of Brookstone catalogs.

My first objection is that Santa compliance is mandatory for American kids. Nobody knows how to leverage peer pressure like grade-schoolers, and woe betide the kid who has to explain why Santa doesn’t visit their house. Maybe it’s because their family celebrates Hanukkah or Diwali instead. But maybe it’s because they don’t have money for presents. Kids are quick to point out that how much you get from Santa is an indication of your worth and goodness. No presents means you are lacking as a person, and kids internalize that message along with the holiday mythology.

My second problem with Santa comes from his whole Modus Operandi. To get presents from Santa, you fill a letter with all the things you’re wishing for, stick it in a mailbox, and wait for your wishes to arrive. We don’t write Santa letters in our house, but the grandparents are quite the sticklers about wish lists. This process always begins with the paralysis of choice: they’ve been told all year long not to ask for things we can’t buy, but now they’re supposed to summon up all the things they’ve wished for in the last 12 months? We’ve tried to mitigate some of the stress by constructing categories, explaining that they should have things that are cheap, medium-priced, and crazy-go-nuts over-the-top. I’ve wished for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle for the last 20 Christmases; my brother politely requests the Eiffel Tower every year. Recently, we’ve moved to a “Wear/Read/Play” model, which seems to function even better.

My third complaint is that Santa requires no gratitude. Since everything the man in the suit brings is magically constructed (apparently for free) in his workshop, and you get what you deserve, why be thankful? If Santa gets all the credit, kids don’t have any reason to think about what it costs for their loved ones to make those presents appear. Why is money so tight in November and January? Why does Mom look absolutely thrashed by December 26? As much as kids understand that a poor showing from Santa means that they’ve been bad, parents understand that if they don’t give enough presents, they’re failing a part of the parental contract laid out by society.

So that’s it, fat man–I’m cutting you off. This is the last year you get all the joy and none of the blame. I’m not falling for the line that taking away Santa will “deprive my children of a sense of wonder.” You know what they can feel wonder for? Real things, like nature, the cosmos, the infinitely woven tapestry of story and life that surrounds them. Instead of watching the NORAD website for Santa’s supposed location, we’ll bundle up and look at the cold, clear night sky.

When my kids get the things they want for Yule, they’ll know it’s because their parents worked hard, and that every gift cost real money that someone had to earn. They’ll learn the joy of giving by seeing and understanding why we’re happy that they’re happy with their gifts. The holiday magic will come from family stories and traditions, from the candles and songs on the darkest night of the year, and from the Time Lord with a Christmas special that we can feel good about our kids believing in.

A World of Hate

I knew Griffin had a bad day by the way he walked in the door after school Monday. Slow shuffle, hangdog expression, sad sad puppy eyes. “Rough day?” I inquired gently. He nodded, took his folder out of his backpack, and handed it over without a world.

I wasn’t surprised by the discipline slip. But I was absolutely flattened by what it said: “Griffin called another student the ‘n-word.’” I felt a wave of horror and nausea that it’s difficult to describe, which can’t be anywhere close to  how it feels to be on the receiving end of that slur.
“Griffin,” I demanded, “what n-word did you call someone?”

Eyes filling, lower lip trembling, he sobbed out, “NOOB!” before dissolving into a mass of tears and remorse in my lap.

I had to restrain my reflexive laughter in that moment, but I held him away from me for a second. “You said noob?! That’s what this is about?” He nodded, and collapsed against me again. I stroked his hair, and told him we’d get this straightened out, that “noob” isn’t really a bad word, though calling anyone any name isn’t a nice or friendly thing to do.

I went on to question him from a half-dozen oblique angles over the next half-hour, trying to figure out if he even knew the actual n-word. The kid isn’t above trying to lie to save his skin, but he’s pretty terrible at it, and the look of blank incomprehension at my suggestions were more telling than anything he might’ve said.

Finally, I asked him quietly, after a long silence, “Griffin, have you ever heard the word ‘nigger’ before?” He frowned and shook his head. After a few quiet moments, he asked in a whisper, “Is that the bad n-word?” I nodded and said, “You cannot ever, ever say that. It’s the most hurtful word there is.”

I got in touch with the school, seeking resolution. The staff and teachers there are outstanding, and they know the DH and I as the first line of enforcement when there’s any kind of behavior issue. We’ve been unfailingly cooperative, and they’ve been unfailingly kind and loving toward our kids. When we went in to talk this over with the principal and the cultural specialist, I expected that they would’ve found what we did.

But they said they’d questioned the kids present at the incident, and several of them said that Griffin did, in fact, use the real n-word, including one of Griff’s buddies, an African-American kid who couldn’t even say the word aloud when asked.

There is nothing about this incident I don’t hate to the core of my being. I hate that I cannot reconcile what I saw in Griffin when I talked with him about the name-calling, and what the school’s investigation found. I hate having to mistrust his narrative. I hate that I don’t think this will be able to be one of those funny stories we laugh about in the decades to come.

I hate that I was forced to speak a word to my child that I would never, ever say for any reason. I hate that someone might have already introduced him to it–maybe through a YouTube video of game play, maybe on the schoolyard.

I hate that I have to talk to a seven-year-old boy about racism in specific terms. I hate that the fact that he has more friends of color than white friends apparently didn’t protect him from this kind of violence. I hate that he may have made one of those friends aware of his own race and the sickness of heart that comes with it.

I hate that my personal and our family’s real lived values about equality and kindness frankly don’t count for anything in this situation. I hate that this happened in the middle of the most intensive racial equity work I’ve ever engaged in, work that’s made me feel like a soft, naked thing in a world of hedgehogs with quills of bias and bigotry and privilege that constantly draw blood on my aware, exposed heart.

I hate that I don’t know how to be a good parent in this situation. I hate that apparently, I haven’t known how to be one for longer than I imagined.

Oct 5, 2013 - Domestic Engineering    3 Comments

Pink & Ginger: The Secret of Our Success

Today is my 17th wedding anniversary with the Darling Husband, so I thought it would be fun to do another installation of Pink & Ginger, in which we talk about what’s made this partnership work for so long.

You can read more about our backstory elsewhere on the blog, but we’ll start at the beginning here:

 

 

 

Worlds' End screen

The Worlds’ End Bar on AmberMUSH, where the DH and I first met. For real.

ProfBanks: ‪So, Mr. Banks, when did you decide you wanted to marry me?

 

Darling Husband: Oh good, we’re starting with the easy ones.

 

It’s a toss-up between the time you killed my character on AmberMUSH with random dice rolls, and when you sent me that first mix-tape that was totally spot-on perfect.

 

But like every relationship’s beginning it’s the sum of all of its parts. Kind of unfair to single out.

 

PB: I can’t remember the exact day, but there was a point in the fall of ’95, when we were making plans for your visit, that I turned to Mari and said, “Hah, wouldn’t it be funny if I came back from Scotland married?” She looked at me like I’d lost my mind, but the little flip-flop in my stomach told me that, if you asked to elope, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

 

CandJFranceBirthday

DH and me, celebrating my 21st birthday in France, in all our ’90s splendor.

 

PB: I’m sure it must’ve been like watching a bizarre, incomprehensible rom com unfold over the year. Add that to the generally weird experience of living abroad with a group of Americans (and Dutch), it had to have been the best entertainment around.

 

DH: Plus the unpredictable hours and time differences! From time to time, there was the additional worry of, “Holy crow, she’s a million miles away in France. If anything were to happen, how would I get there in time?” There were a couple of occasions like that.

 

PB: I remember some of those. Honestly, though, I wonder sometimes whether we’d have moved along so quickly without that 12-hour time difference. It really greased the skids for what was probably inevitable, but never easy.

 

Do you ever think about how our relationship would’ve been if we’d had something like Skype? Or even just Internet with pictures?

 

DH: I imagine the outcome would have been quite different if we’d had Twitter. I see this with a lot of romances and couples nowadays. And not being able to constantly know what each of us were doing was probably a good thing, too.

 

PB: Well, actually, Twitter strikes me as much closer to what we DID have.

 

DH: I suppose. Maybe I’m talking about always-available smart phones.

 

PB: Oh that. Yeah, even just today’s long distance rates might’ve kept the urgency levels for being together lower.

 

So, what’s the best thing about being married to me?

 

DH: The absolute best thing is knowing that we have our own culture and shared intellectual & emotional space that nobody else has. It’s a hybrid that started up in the days of MUSHing and exists now with a thousand little in-jokes, references, interests, and hobbies. Even though we don’t do the same things all the time, I never get the “why does she do that?” thought that comes with, say, not understanding why you like Prince so much.

 

 

 

When DH makes fun of my love for Prince, doves cry.

 

PB: The Prince thing is easy—it’s because Purple Rain is the best thing ever. But yes, we’ve built this whole world and language and symbology that I find hilarious on a daily basis. And while I value that immensely, I also want to say that I appreciate the fact that we work pretty seamlessly as a team, and we’re rock solid when we do. I often feel like circumstances are overwhelming, but I never doubt that we’ll make it through.

DH: Yes. I think that’s emblematic of this shared life, though. It’s the foundation for why we can relax enough to enjoy that. Sometimes things are incredibly stressful for one or both of us, but I know laughter isn’t too far away—and if not laughter, at least a firm set of the jaw and a desire to kick some ass.

 

PB: “A firm set of the jaw and a desire to kick some ass” should be on my business card.

 

What’s one weird thing I do that you kinda love?

 

DH: There are a ton of things. One of them is the weird voices and sounds you do that accompany watching or acting out things. “Wahoo! Wahey! Whoopee!” as you watch cat fail videos, for example. It’s like you narrate life in a fun way.

 

 

DH with a sock puppet of the Serpent of Chaos that I made for his birthday. Don't try to explain it.

DH with a sock puppet of the Serpent of Chaos that I made for his birthday. Don’t try to understand it.

PB: It’s hard for me to choose, but I’d say I’m pretty enchanted after all this time by the Closet of Random Weirdness you can dial into. Nobody else does that quite like you, except maybe Eddie Izzard.

 

So, is there a quality about yourself that you think has been essential for building such a strong marriage? I know it’s not what you thought you were signing up for when we exchanged rings.

 

DH: I’ve said this fairly often in the past, but it’s a combination of being fiercely loyal and having a lot of willpower. That’s not to mean that sticking with you has required a force of will, but I’ve chosen to invest in something I believe has value and worth and is greater than myself, and so I will move heaven and earth to ensure that it’s held up.

 

I hope this also comes out in my parenting and my job, too, but really I think my surprise at anyone asking how I can be married for this long comes from “Well, what else did you expect me to do?” I made vows, I made a promise, and I entered into it willingly and without an expectation that it would always be roses and leafy garlands.

 

PB: Yeah, but fibromyalgia and a house full of neurodiverse people and a cat that’s determined to rid you of the ginger caterpillar on your upper lip? I can’t even say how many people would’ve run the other way.

 

DH: I suppose it’s a good thing I’m not those people? I mean, I’d be a sad dude. Plus nobody ever knows what’s going to come along. I think my whole life with you has been one of discovery in spite of the setbacks to health, finances, or geography.

 

PB: Well, with all the other baggage I’ve unwittingly brought into this relationship, I think the one thing that I have that makes it work is flexibility. That sounds weird, considering how often I freak out when things don’t go the way I wanted them to, but where it’s important, I’m pretty good at just rolling with it.

 

DH: Nobody could ever accuse you of being static. As a teacher, I think you appreciate the importance of always learning. You read a hundred times faster and more often than I do. It’s alarming, and it’s a thing I wish I was able to do. I think that part of my brain likes to just shut off. Or else it’s what my Mum always warned me would happen if I read too many comic books.

 

PB: Nonsense. I’ve always taken refuge in books and learning, not to say at all that you haven’t. But as much focus as I can summon for that, you can actually focus on a single project in a way I find difficult. I can’t turn off the multitasking enough to lay down a good stretch of track like you do. Plus, it helps that you’re ridiculously creative, so you just unspool ideas like no one I’ve ever known.

 

DH: It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s possible to get caught up in a rat’s nest of ideas and connections that I get the creative equivalent of falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole. I think this is at least part of why my time management sucks so bad. I’ve got to get on top of that. Maybe I should start making lists like some of our efficient friends do? Only, I think I’ll probably just ignore them.

 

PB: Luckily, though, your time management doesn’t really have a giant effect on our marriage, except for the stress that it causes you. Honestly, I can cope with it by flexing stuff around it. No biggie.

 

So what’s the most annoying thing I do?

 

 

I’m not saying I’m like this in the kitchen, but kinda yeah.

DH: Probably how you can create amazing dishes, baked goods, or other food and leave the kitchen a titanic mess. Which you say you will clean up, but I usually can’t stand it long enough before I end up doing it. So, on the spectrum of annoying things spouses do, that’s pretty low.

 

PB: That’s true, though I’d like to make a plea that my mess wouldn’t be as big if I had more counter space. Don’t ask me how I think that would work, but I’m sure it would help.

 

DH: We would likely find a way to cover every surface in something, eventually.

 

PB: Face it: If it weren’t for you, we’d soon be snowed under completely by dirty dishes, homework, books, and crap. I’m so grateful for your willingness to pick up my slack on physical chores.

 

There aren’t too many annoying things about you that I can’t attribute to my hyper-tuned autism senses. And you always turn over to stop snoring when I shove your shoulder in the night, so that’s not a big thing.

 

Ironically, I think the most annoying thing is also the thing I most envy, which is your ability to filter out everything going on around you and get lost in what you’re doing. I’m completely unable to ignore the noise and motion of the kids, so I get frustrated sometimes that you don’t notice when I’m struggling to get them to do something. We’re so lucky that you can stay calm through that, though—I sure can’t.

 

DH: When it gets particularly annoying, it probably looks like I’m not paying attention. Which of course is totally an illusion, because I know what’s happening around me at all times.

 

PB: Bah, I say. Bah. All the bah.

 

DH: So do we have the secret to a successful marriage here?

 

PB: I don’t know what a secret it is. We laugh, we work together, we’re honest, we cover each other’s weak spots, we tolerate, and we make room for new ideas, priorities, and experiences.

 

DH: Plus we have these kids.

 

PB: Right. How weird is that.

 

If we could celebrate our anniversary in any way, with money as no object, what would you want to do?‬

 

DH: Fly back to Scotland. Spend time in Aberdeen again, then this time go the rest of the way up, and take a boat across to Ireland. Revisit places we were at before. Follow up with another New Zealand trip, or one to France, or Rome.

 

PB: With or without the kids?

 

DH: You know, if we could fly them in after a romantic weekend, that would be OK. But if money were no object, I’d drop them in the lair of a grandparent or two and ditch.

 

PB: That sounds nice. I’d even be content with something closer to home, like being able to buy ourselves really swanky clothes, then go out for a fancy dinner and a show of some kind, then spend the night in a comfy hotel.

 

DH: Yeah, those are the anniversaries I like. Just recognizing them with alcohol and time together.

 

I make us sound like drunks.

 

PB: Which is funny because I’ve never been drunk.

 

But since money is the only object we lack at the moment, what would you like to do tomorrow?

 

DH: We’re going to go out and get an early bite to eat before catching a 7:10pm screening of Don Jon, of course.

 

PB: Yeah, I could be down with that. You do know how ridiculously lucky I am to have had you for the last 17 years, though, right, Mr. Banks?

 

DH: Right back at you, sweetheart.

 

CandJWedding2

 

 

 

 

Apr 19, 2013 - Domestic Engineering    No Comments

A Blessing At Bedtime

It’s been an enormously trying week. I think The Onion best expressed the sheer exhaustion from what seems like a year’s tragedy, horror, and disappointment, at home and abroad, all packed into this short stretch of time. And while I have Many Thoughts on a variety of topics, none of them seem as important as this one.

I’m not a good sleeper, and neither are my sons. Whether it’s difficulty settling down their racing minds at bedtime or waking up from nightmares, they often need comfort and calm at bedtime. When I’m the one to do that, this is what I tell them. Maybe it’ll bring you comfort too.

*****

Everything is all right, my love. You’ve had such a long day, and you’ve been busy from one end of it to the other. You fill the walls of every single minute with such sound and activity, you wear me out just watching. But now, you’re done. There’s nothing else you have to do. Just rest.

Even if you can’t see Her, the Moon will be high above, all night, watching over you and me and everyone we love. She shines down that gentle light that lets us see where we’re going, but still enjoy the stars. I’ll be watching over you too, and Daddy, just like the Moon. Even when your eyes are closed, and all you can see are your dreams, we’ll be always be there.

The house is locked up tight and safe, and we have everything we need. Everything is settling into place for the night.  All the games are played, all the words are read, all the songs are sung. There’s nowhere else you have to be tonight but right where you are. The only thing you need to do tonight, until tomorrow morning when you’ve had enough, is rest. And the only place we have to be in the morning is nature. And nature is never in a hurry. So just be still now, darling. I love you.

Fear of an Blank Parent

Because it is my highest aspiration to be a troublemaker, I’m setting out today to problematize something we all take for granted. I want to argue that the gendering of parenthood does very little good, and no small amount of harm.

This post springboards off posts by Amanda Valentine and me about the media portrayals of men and fathers as bumbling, hapless idiots who are as likely to diaper the Thanksgiving turkey and put the baby in the oven as watch the football game afterward. It also relates directly to the historic cases about same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court this week.

My point is very simple: there is very little difference between the duties my husband and I assume with regard to our children. And since the earliest days–specifically, since I stopped breastfeeding them–the differences in parenting caused by our genders have been vanishingly small.

As parents, we make sure they wash, dress, eat reasonably well (at least over the course of a week, if not each and every day). We send them to school, help with homework, take the inevitable phone calls that come from sending two active, intelligent boys to school every day. We monitor their media, we break up arguments, we cause arguments, and at the end of the day, we tuck them in at night with kisses and dire warnings against getting out of bed again for anything short of a fire.

Absolutely none of these things, or the billion other duties and blessings that comprise parenthood, depend on our biology.

The division of labor that takes place between modern co-parents comes from the frank assessment of one another’s particular strengths and struggles. I crack the whip over homework and science fair projects because I am an educator, not because I am a woman. My Darling Husband does more of the day-to-day housework because I am disabled, not because he is a man. Nor does this indicate I am a failure as a wife and mother, or that he is a weakened, hen-pecked husband and father. Someday, our boys will require The Talk (or to be more correct, The Talks); I honestly have no idea who’s going to give it. I hear the DH has a leg up on me in the visual aids department.

In one of the early hearings on the same-sex marriage bill currently under consideration here in Minnesota, the measure’s opponents brought out an 11-year-old girl to testify against the idea of marriage equality. (You may have also seen her on the steps of the Supreme Court this week; she’s one of their star witnesses right now.) She told the legislators that she loved her mommy and daddy, but that under this bill, some children wouldn’t have a mommy or a daddy, but two of one. “Which parent do I not need, my mom or my dad?” she asked the committee.

And I finally understood why fighting same-sex marriage matters so much to many of its fiercest opponents.

In their world, mothers and fathers do different things for the children. Fathers can’t do mothering, and mothers can’t do fathering. If a single mom or a pair of dads raises a child, there is work being left undone, and the child can’t help but suffer for it. How could anyone possibly be in favor of only half an upbringing?

The gendering of parenthood not only diminishes the power of what parents of both sexes do for their children everyday, but it also confuses the living heck out of some people. When you see signs decrying the erosion of “traditional marriage,” they’re not just talking about divorce and same-sex couples–they mean me and my oh-so-traditional marriage, too.

Even though I’m married to a spouse of the opposite gender, we’re destroying traditional marriage too, by sharing the work–the hardships, the effort, the joys, the rewards–of creating a new family. We’re also undermining the institution by teaching our children (made in the traditional “When a mommy and a daddy love each other very much…” biological way) that moms and dads cook dinner, attend school conferences, travel for work, and tell them to turn off the iPod at bedtime. For the most part, we’re interchangeable.

And our evil scheme is clearly working. They accept their friends with two moms, or one mom, or a dad and a grandma without so much as a bat of the eye. If I had a dime for every time they called the wrong one of us “Mom” or “Dad,” we could afford a bigger apartment. To them, “Mom” and “Dad” are just names to help differentiate between whose attention they’re demanding. It’d probably be easier on us all if there were a random name for “Whichever of you can help me first with what I want.”

My sons are growing up healthy and happy with two loving parents. They’d be no less loved if only one of us were around, or if we were both the same gender, or no gender at all. That’s not how love works–it’s not a zero-sum game.

And when you think of it like that, it’s pretty hard to see two loving, married parents eroding anything about our future.

Kids and Consent

A middle school near here had a lockdown today. Not a drill, an honest-to-goodness code red lockdown. I saw the news flash over Twitter that there were reports of shots fired. My heart stopped for about a half-hour. It’s not the school of anyone I know, but it’s close enough to my son’s age to fix in my mind’s eye until police reported the all-clear.

Turns out, it was a 12-year-old boy who called 911 with a locked cell phone (it would only dial an emergency number). It was a prank. A middle-school-aged boy thought it was funny to tell an operator that someone was firing a gun in a full school on a Wednesday morning, three months after the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Over 900 students, teachers, administrators, and staff were on lockdown for hours because nobody told a 12 year old never to ever call 911 as a joke, or if they did, he didn’t absorb the lesson.

And now he’s sitting in a jail.

Two other young men are sitting in a jail tonight, too, and will be for at least the next year of their lives, contemplating the horror they wrought on a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio. They didn’t learn the meaning of the word “prank” either. They violated her body and her privacy because they thought it was funny.

How are we failing so completely to teach kids not to make decisions like this, or excuse them as humor?

I certainly don’t have all the answers; I probably don’t even have any good ones. But I want, for a moment, to explore the idea of consent as it relates to children. The current discussion around rape prevention in feminist circles focuses on the word “no” as insufficient, because the responsibility to say it still rests on the victim. If we teach kids that “‘no’ means ‘no,’” but if the victim is incapable of saying “no,” those kids with their miraculously literal (and literally miraculous) minds will understand that no one’s going to stop them.

And not too long from then, they’ll be adults who think no one’s going to stop them. This isn’t a slippery slope; it’s just time elapsing.

I’m the big disciplinarian in our house, and I draw a pretty strict line for my boys to toe. It’s not that the Darling Husband doesn’t have expectations as high as mine, but I think I’m more concerned about them following invisible social strictures, because I had to work so hard at their ages to just figure them out. Part of my mind still thinks I can save my kids the trouble I had by telling them how to maneuver, but I know that’s not the case.

More important to me, though, than whether they’re thoroughly civilized is whether or not they can make a good decision when left to their own devices. When I’m there, I can tell them the processes and rules. When I’m not, I need to know they’re capable of reaching the same conclusion. And just telling them over and over isn’t enough. The trick is, I have to let them do things and make mistakes to convey this lesson. And we parents aren’t very good at allowing a child to make decisions for themselves these days.

The whole endeavor of childhood is currently an exercise in coercion and control, rather than consent. It starts early: mothers who may not have much choice about whether or how to be pregnant or give birth seek to reclaim control by exercising their choice about issues like circumcision and vaccinations. We turn day care and school choice into a major undertaking that continues to be pushed back further and further into infancy–it seems inevitable that parents will consider which schools are accepting applications before attempting to conceive–rather than waiting to see which environment best suits the child’s personality. School attendance and activity is mandatory, with little or no flexibility for the majority of students. Parents who juggle complex schedules don’t consult children about when (or even whether, sometimes) to have lessons, homework, dinner, or bedtime, passing on the lack of control they may experience in their work and social environments.

Parents obviously want what’s best, but the simple fact is that almost no one bothers to obtain a child’s consent for anything. When they do, it often conforms to the illusion of choice, which is a helpful vehicle in speeding through more fundamental objections. Which jacket do you want to wear, red or blue? It’s shower time; here, choose your shower setting and temperature, the color of your towel. Would you prefer carrots or peas as your dinner vegetable? “No” only gets you a restatement of the choices or a deferment, rarely a conversation about why they’re objecting. That’s not surprising; “no” is a powerful word, as kids discover early on, and in a world where they’re so powerless, they often use it without checking to see if it’s really needed, just because it gets a reaction.

I’m not proposing that parents be completely permissive and let their kids boss them around, or be rude, or break all the rules. And I’m certainly not going to relinquish my control as a parent to make judgment calls that keep my kid healthy, safe, or in line with a program that benefits everyone in the family. Sometimes, you’ve just got to take one for the team, and I’d like to think I do a decent job explaining to my sons why that decision is necessary at that time, and when they might next make a decision for themselves.

But if taking a shower or eating vegetables or doing math homework is always a matter of when, not if, even when the child has legitimate objections, is it any wonder that our kids don’t know that they can say “no” to a child molester or abductor? What good has it done them before to say “no”? And why should they listen to someone else say “no” when it’s never worked for them when they didn’t want to do something. Silence isn’t the same as consent, but neither is age a replacement for asking.

Mar 18, 2013 - Domestic Engineering    3 Comments

From A Mother of Sons

BoysHugging

When the ultrasound tech asked if we wanted to know the sex of our second child, we said yes. We’d already decided with our first son that the advice that made the most sense was that which suggested that we’d mourn the child who didn’t show up if we waited until birth to find out. I’d been so sick with both pregnancies: 20 hours a day for 5 1/2 months with the first one, and 24 hours a day for what would end up being 7 1/2 months with the second.

I still had hopes of joining the great matriarchal line of my family with a daughter of my own, and I’d been suffering badly with this pregnancy. So when it didn’t even feel like the tech had touched the ultrasound wand to my belly before she announced, “It’s a boy,” I burst out crying. “No, no! He’s okay! Everything looks fine!” she said in a frantic rush, as if she’d never before had a wildly hormonal woman on her table.

“I’m not worried,” I said, waving at the Darling Husband for a tissue. “It’s just another goddamned boy!”

It took me several years to come to peace with the fact that I am, for better or for worse, a Mother of Sons. All my dreams of braids and warrior women and Girl Scouts were exchanged for a clothing section 1/3 the size of the girls’ one and a future of ripe smells and gross habits.

Where I found that hard-won peace, though, was this: I was born to raise sons who are ready to be good men in this world of ours. And they’re amazing so far, if I do say so myself. The people they are have already changed how I feel about so many things, much like Ohio Senator Rob Portman has been changed by the experience of raising a gay son, as we learned this week. And if who we know changes who we are, I’m sure they’re changed by knowing a mother like me. (If only other men would have the transformative experience of knowing a woman….)

Especially this week, it feels like the next generation of men has a great deal to correct for their forebears. So this is my promise to the world, ten years after I began this great endeavor of mothering boys:

I am raising sons who will know that the best way to stop rape is to not rape.

I am raising sons who will wonder why anything would fail the Bechdel Test.

I am raising sons who will believe that consent of every kind is an inalienable human right.

I am raising sons who will stand on the side of love for everyone.

I am raising sons who will know that a mother has a woman’s body and everything that goes with one.

I am raising sons who will not be grossed out by breastfeeding.

I am raising sons who will be capable of comforting without fixing.

I am raising sons who will know how to take criticism and blame as easily as credit.

I am raising sons who will value their own bodies as much as those of others.

I am raising sons who will prefer their romantic encounters in the 1st person plural: “We,” not “I.”

I am raising sons who will leave the damn seat down and dry.

I am raising sons who will know the pleasures of folding warm laundry and cooking for loved ones.

I am raising sons who will understand that all bodies should be as varied and valued as all minds.

I am raising sons who will treat the names and images of fellow humans with as much care as their own.

I am raising sons who will reject carelessness that approaches maliciousness.

I am raising sons who will derive power from the happiness, not control, of others.

Show and Mattel

I know the Internet is designed to inspire fury. That hasn’t been the majority of my experience with it, but lately, it seems determined to correct my underestimation of its rage-inducing qualities.

So before I proceed with this post, please go read this article about why Mattel thinks moms don’t “get” toy cars. Go ahead–I’ll wait for you.

Thanks for taking the time to do that. You may or may not be seething with anger right now. If you’re not, that’s okay, but I’m going to explain why I (and several other mothers I know) are. Let me put on my sherpa hat.

PROBLEM #1: THERE’S A VP AT MATTEL FOR “BOYS’ TOYS AND GAMES.” I’m the mother of two boys, and I’ll be the first to say that they play with different toys, in different ways, than many girls would. Griffin was about nine months old when he distinctly said “Vroom” to a squishy car toy which none of us had yet bothered to introduce to him by name or sound.

But I’ve been told I “play wrong” for a girl since I was two years old. Imagine that: TWO YEARS OLD. That’s the year I saw Star Wars on a drive-in movie screen and was hooked for life. All my friends in preschool were boys, because they would play what I wanted to. In sixth grade, my teacher introduced me to games of war and strategy, and I was hooked once again. I went on to be the only girl among 23 boys in the Strategy and Tactics Club in high school, and I was very happy there. I never felt left out or isolated because I was doing what came naturally to me.

Even as an adult, I’ve mainly played games with men, but the many women gamers I’ve played with over the years were as viciously cutthroat as they needed to be to succeed. If anything, we were more terrifying because we collaborated to do awful things, and we needed to set down our needlework or knitting to wipe out whole parties of monsters or even the roof of a building once. “Knit one, purl one…natural 20…I kill it. A lot.”

There’s no such thing as “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys.” There are just boys and girls who play with toys. Whichever ones they pick, they’re doing it right. It’s okay to appeal to some of the differences between the genders, but the pink-and-blue-washing needs to stop NOW. If you want to see how a company can tailor toys for greater appeal and accessibility to one gender or another, consider the upcoming “girls’ line” of Nerf toys, which feature ergonomic adjustments to make them easier to use, as well as styles that correspond to popular culture models like Katniss and Merida. Disney should follow their advice with the Marvel line–I know a whole lot of girls and women who will happily fork over for some good Marvel toys, games, and apparel.

PROBLEM #2: HE FELT THE NEED TO EXPLAIN TO A ROOM FULL OF MOTHERS WHY THEY WERE DOING THEIR JOB WRONG. There are many ways mothers do do their jobs wrong, and society isn’t shy about telling us so. We know we’re not perfect, but unless you’re the sort of mom who’s likely to end up in court, you’re trying very hard to do your best. The days of the pretty moms who won’t lie down on the floor in their crinolines and frilly aprons to play with kids of both genders are past. I play with my boys, and I play hard. I certainly don’t need a toy executive to tell me how to make my kids happy or have a good time.

Moms are bad enough on themselves and each other. Tiger Moms, Princess Moms, Geek Moms, Stay-At-Home Moms, Working Moms…we’re all being told we’re doing it wrong, that our kids will end up in therapy for sure if we don’t buy them the right things and hover over them like paranoid black helicopters every second of the day. Petersen’s voice shouldn’t be in this discussion at all, let alone lecturing a room full of “mommy bloggers,” whatever the hell that sexist, reductive label means.

PROBLEM #3: HE THINKS THERE’S ONLY ONE WAY TO PLAY WITH TOY CARS. This one particularly burns my ass, because I know from experience that he’s wrong. When I was a kid, I played with toy cars by lining them up in perfectly symmetrical, parallel rows, sorted by shape, size, and color. Then my sister would walk through the lines like Godzilla, kicking them to kingdom come. And then I would line them up again in different patterns. I picked my favorites by the way they felt in my palm, my closed fist.

I realize that much of this comes from my autism. But I know I’m not the only one who didn’t play smash ‘n crash all the time. In fact, most of the boys I knew didn’t play with their favorite cars at all–they set them on a high shelf where they’d be safe and beautiful. Petersen’s model of play is a marketer’s one, not a player’s one. If you smash your cars all the time, your parents have to buy you new ones all the time. Planned obsolescence is not a game.

PROBLEM #4: HE DOESN’T UNDERSTAND WHY KIDS WOULD RATHER PLAY WITH OTHER TOYS. Finally, Petersen doesn’t understand why toy cars are less relevant today. The problem lies in a few areas. If a kid wants to pretend with cars these days, why would you want to drive a four-inch replica across the berber carpet when you can boot up the XBox or Playstation or 3DS and actually feel like you’re driving a real car? Why play with a pre-made car when you can build your own models?

Cars have the same problem I see occasionally with “action playsets”: they’re single-use toys. There are only so many ways you can play with a toy car, or with the Spiderman 3 Sandstorm Action Playset. You basically get to recreate one storyline, and then you’re done. The reason action figures and dolls are more popular is because you can tell infinite stories with them. An imaginative kid (i.e., all of them) doesn’t even need every action figure, because one character can be many characters. LEGO offers another solution to this problem by offering single-use builds with infinite rebuilding potential. Who wouldn’t rather play any story you can think of, rather than “They drive somewhere. Along the way, they crash into something”? According to child development expert Penny Holland, single-purpose toys are far more damaging to our kids’ minds than toy guns. Think about that for a second.

The graph in the Bloomberg article suggests an even more interesting quandary to consider: There’s a gender gap in board games too. According to their statistics, 46 percent of girls between ages 6 and 12 list board games as their favorite toy, as opposed to only 33 percent of boys. I’d be interested to know which games girls are playing, because we’re past the days of the Barbie Dreamdate Board Game (which I played, I’ll have you know, and ended up marrying Poindexter in real life). 

Board games aren’t even strongly marketed, as far as I can tell, for one gender or another. RPGs (tabletop, video, and online) are, though, and I’d be interested to see a more nuanced breakdown of a wider variety of games. I’d also like to know whether the gender gap among young girls and boys who play board games correlates to the education gap–there may be room for board games to help boys catch up on certain academic and social skills that they aren’t getting enough support for in schools that have to teach to the test.

All this fury has direction. We don’t have to settle for executives trying to sell our kids crappy toys. We know what our kids like, and we should put our money where their preferences are. Play has the capacity to teach and to heal, as well as to entertain. As parents, we shouldn’t settle for anything less.

Witchin’ in the Kitchen

I wrote this essay almost 15 years ago, deeper in the dark of winter than I am right now. But at a friend’s request, and because every word of it still rings as true today as it did when I wrote it. The only thing that’s changed in all this time is that I’m a better, more inspired cook than I was when I was just starting out. I’ve delved into ethnic cuisines, and I’ve learned to trust my senses and my reading skill when combining ingredients. That’s another kind of magic: the confidence that comes with age and practice. But that’s a different blog post.

*****

The time for ritual is at hand. I stand in the place of my power, tools of the magic I will work laid out before me– silver, wood, and steel. Fire and water are at my command, earth and air held back by my will. In this time, I will draw on the forces of creation, shaping elements. Here, I am an alchemist, a hand of the goddess herself.

For I am a kitchen witch.

I embrace this title proudly, despite lingering associations with the silly wizened dolls on brooms available at most craft fairs. As a name, it covers it all–my faith, my pleasure, the locus of my greatest power. No hallowed circle, no standing stones could imbue me with more strength or more possibilities. One friend firmly maintains that, when it comes to the Craft, if I can’t do it with Morton’s salt and a wooden spoon, it can’t be done.

While I am not so bold as to commit to such a statement myself, the power of the kitchen, and what it summons and creates, is not to be denied. Though I began down the path of Wicca in solitude, I learned the magic of cooking as all good magics are best learned : at the elbow of a wise and laughing grandmother. The rules were simple. Wash your hands. Clean as you go. Read the whole recipe before you start. Measure with care. And, most importantly, share the joy as often as possible–that’s why there are always enough beaters and spatulas and bowls for everyone. If you abide by that last rule, no spills or scorches can spell failure. Just vacuum up the oatmeal, wash the egg out of your hair, and laugh about the fun you had.

I know, it doesn’t sound much like the holy tenets of any faith, or even much of a New Age philosophy. But the results simply could not be missed. Even as a child, I recognized the phenomenal power of what we created in that tidy sanctuary of counters and appliances. We’re talking full sensory miracles here, folks. The smell hits you when you walk in the door, enveloping you in a warm blanket of knowledge that, here, you will not go hungry. Someone cares enough to spend time and energy to refresh and nourish you. That simple understanding, at the most primal level, cuts loose the weight of the world, letting your spirit rise. The sight of flushed skin and flour smudges brings light and laughter, and sneaky little dips into aromatic steam and unfinished delights allow you to keep a greedy secret that heightens anticipation. All these things seal the feeling of community as you finally join in the simple pleasure of sharing tastes, sensations, and satisfaction, even if only with one other person. No wonder “communion” takes place with food in so many religions.

But I have to be honest about something, and it’ll probably blow the lid right off any sort of “kitchen witch mystique” I may have managed to build. I am no gourmet. I’ve never taken a cooking class. Those brownies which my friends and co-workers steadfastly maintain are the best they’ve ever tasted? Betty Crocker, Fudge Supreme, $2.49 with coupon. That chili whose aroma wafts out like tickling fingers when I open the door on a cold winter night, drawing my husband in all the quicker? Packet of spices, canned beans and tomatoes. Simmer on low for 20 minutes. That’s it. And I’ve never made a secret of it.

The rave reviews continue, with every potluck dish and party treat. Is it because I always stir clockwise, letting goodwill flow into the smooth batters and sauces? Most likely not. And I’d feel terribly silly if I sprinkled water and invocations over my electric oven to ward off burnt bottoms or mushy middles. My power as a kitchen witch, so far as I can tell, comes solely the enjoyment I take in doing something simple that will produce happiness in others. As I skim my finger down the well-worn page of my favourite cookbook, I’m already thinking of the smiles and hums of pleasure that my “magic potion” will summon into existence. As I clean shortbread dough from my utensils and fingernails, I can already hear the surprised exclamations of delight ringing in the doorway as visitors first hit that gorgeous wall of aroma. And hours later, after the cupboards are closed and the counters are clean, I can still smell the lingering scent of crushed herbs and sweet essences on my fingers, and I fold them beneath my nose and breathe prayers of thanksgiving for the chance to bring joy to those I’ve fed.

So I may not always remember all the poetic invocations when I call the Watchtowers in a Circle, but I remember the favourite food for every loved one in my life, and most of the recipes. And so I might be dreadful at keeping a proper herbal grimoire stocked–my spice racks are the envy of all who survey. I consider myself well on the road to the Lord and Lady’s wisdom, because I know the seat and value of a generous, abundant power within myself, one of the greatest signposts on everyone’s spiritual journey. And when I get there, I’ll be sure to have a dish to pass.

Closing Arguments

I’ve been working on the campaign for marriage equality here in Minnesota since March, and as I’ve written before, it’s the most fulfilling political, social, and activist project I’ve ever worked on. I’m a total addict to the amazing people and experiences I encounter every single time I put in some time, and I’m going to crash hard on November 7, even if we manage to win. I’m already getting the shakes. Last night, I asked my friend and co-trainer Scott, who works in politics for his day job, for a new campaign–I’m lining up a new dealer once Minnesotans United for All Families skips town.

MN United has built a campaign unlike any other, rejecting the messages and tactics that have failed in 30 states where anti-marriage amendments have gone up for a popular vote. While talk about the rights and benefits that attach to marriage, and how the denial of those rights amounts to separate-but-equal discrimination on par with civil rights fights of the past, are important to many supporters of marriage equality, they aren’t generally persuasive for people who are on the fence about gay marriage. So we’re having personal conversations with voters, using our own life stories, to make it clear that marriage is about love and commitment, no matter the gender of the partners. These stories are powerful, and they change hearts and minds and votes.

Only four days remain until the election, so I’m going to share the core of the conversations I’ve been having with you today. If you’re in one of the four states voting on marriage equality, I hope that this strengthens your resolve if you’re a supporter, and opens your heart to the conversation if you’re still undecided.

Our first walk as Mr. and Mrs. Banks, 5 October 1996

I find this amendment personally hurtful on so many levels. I have the great good fortune to be married to the love of my life, despite the astronomical odds that we would ever find one another on opposite sides of the world. And for the last sixteen years, we’ve had each other in good times and bad. I’ve rejoiced in the affection and the support and the million inside jokes and shorthand references that weave us closer, and I’ve buckled with relief into that tightly knit fabric of partnership in the times of crisis and grief. I think marriage is the best game in town, and I devoutly wish the same celebration and endorsement for every loving, committed couple who lean into the unknown future together.

All of this hinges, though, on one critical fact: my beloved was the opposite gender. When we fell madly in love, we had many obstacles to overcome so we could be together, but the legal right for me to marry him and secure his immigration status so we could start our new life together was not one of them. We obtained a K-1 “fiance” visa that allowed him to enter the country and get on the fast track for a green card by submitting evidence of our marriage. We went through the separate interviews to assure our marriage wasn’t a scam.

But I’m bisexual. There was no guarantee that my soulmate would be a man. And if he weren’t, the last sixteen years–all the love, all the progress, all the family we’ve built–disappear. That one thought blows through my gut like an icy wind and fills me with unbearable sorrow. I cannot imagine the pain and devastation of being told I couldn’t marry and be with my beloved.

And I look at my amazing, difficult, brilliant, gorgeous, perfect sons, and I marvel even more. We didn’t have to submit any applications or pass any interviews before we decided to conceive them, and not once have we ever had to fear that they would be taken away from us. We’re far from perfect parents, but no one has ever questioned whether we’re the best people to raise them. It’s assumed that they’re safe and happy and healthy and loved, and there’s no awkwardness when I introduce their other parent at school events or church functions.

Believe me, all this “traditional”-ness is positively mortifying to a weird, eclectic nonconformist like me. Frankly, it’s embarrassing. We didn’t set out to create a “traditional” family, and we’ve done everything in our power to the least traditional traditional family around. But we are very aware of our privilege, and there’s no reason in the world it should be reserved to our narrow demographic.

Marriage is an important but limited part of how I envision family. I’m a child of divorce, and even as an eight-year-old, I knew that my mother and father weren’t working out. I knew that marriage stood in the way of being our best selves, and I told my mom often as a kid, then a teenager, then an adult, that she made the right call. That divorce didn’t dissolve the ties of family, though–I’m still close with my father’s family, and I kept my birth last name as a second middle name when my stepdad adopted us years later. But I also watched my grandparents’ marriage, which started with my grandma saying, “I’ll marry you so I can get out of the house before I kill my sister. But if it doesn’t work out, you go your way, I’ll go mine, and no hard feelings.” It lasted 62 years.

We teach our sons that families come in all shapes and sizes. Of course, we didn’t have to work too hard to teach them this: they already knew it. They have friends who have a mom and a dad like they do, and friends who only live with their mom or their dad, or travel between their parents’ houses. They know friends who live with extended family, or foster parents, or adoptive families. And they know friends with two dads or two moms. All they care about is that their friends are as loved and secure as they are.

So I’m voting no.

I’m voting no because I treasure my marriage. No other word in our language and society so completely sums up the lifelong commitment and enduring love that I share with my partner, and it hurts to imagine being told that we didn’t qualify for that word by something we couldn’t change or improve. My marriage is strong, and no married gay couple down the street, arguing about bills and chores like we do, makes that less secure.

I’m voting no because I hold my sons in hope and love. I feel that they’re better people because we’ve taught them that every person is worthy of the same dignity, no exceptions. My dream for my boys is to dance at their weddings, and the only thing I care about is that the person they marry loves them as much as I love their father. I’m going to dance, it’s going to be Bad Mom Dancing, and it’s going to live on in infamy on YouTube, to forever embarrass them, like every good mom should.

I’m voting no because my understanding of the world’s faiths teaches me that the most universal truth among humans is to treat one another the way we would want to be treated. Whether it’s the Judeo-Christian Golden Rule, or the Confucian Silver Rule, this is held as a central tenet. We rarely follow the ancient scriptures that prohibit same-sex partners on other subjects; we acknowledge that they’re historical documents, and that society’s values have evolved since they were written. I want my church to have the religious freedom to marry gay and lesbian couples as our faith embraces as equally entitled.

I’m voting no because I’m a historian. I can see that the institution of marriage predates the Bible and that it began as an economic transaction to link families and secure heredity. It was not always a sacrament, and it was not always available to every heterosexual couple. It hasn’t “always been” any particular way. Marriage for love is a damned newfangled idea, relatively speaking. If you married someone not from your hometown, you’re already breaking “traditional” convention, let alone someone of a different church, faith, ethnic group, or race.

I’m voting no because I’m a teacher and a parent, and the health, safety, and wellbeing of every child matters to me. I can’t imagine the horror of waiting to know how the state where they were born is going to vote on whether they and their families are welcome. LGBT youth are so fragile already, under siege in schools and churches and media, and it’s a sacred trust we are given to show them that they can aspire to fully participate in society and experience the range of human love. I have great confidence that other teachers will continue to teach age-appropriate lessons, and that as parents we still have the greatest power to teach our children about morality.

I’m voting no because I’m a patriot. I believe in the founding principles of our country, especially the purpose of our constitution as a document that secures personal freedoms and limits government intrusions. The constitution should never be used to carve out a segment of the population and deprive them of the same liberties as others enjoy. And we certainly shouldn’t be putting rights up for a popular vote. Ideological conservatives have made some of the most persuasive arguments along these lines.

I’m voting no because I’m an optimist, and I believe our society is moving toward a broader, more inclusive understanding of one another. The less we allow race, gender, faith, class, and sexual orientation to cloud our vision of a common humanity, the more we will recognize that we all want the same thing. We’ve got a long way to go on all of those issues, but we can (and should!) work on them simultaneously. I reject the arguments of fear, division, and misunderstanding, and I put my hope in the journey we’re on toward life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

 

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