Tagged with " parenting"

He feels your pain

We were in our local movie theater at 9:30 a.m. this Tuesday, because it turns out that’s the cheapest available time to see a new release movie like The Amazing Spider-Man. I’ve had my reservations about the idea of a franchise reboot so soon on the heels of the last interpretation, but ours is a deeply geeky household, so a new superhero movie was required viewing.

I’d be curious to know how many people in modern American society are unaware of the basic plot of Spider-Man’s origin story: hopeless nerd gets bitten by modified spider, gets spider’s powers, fails to use them for good when he can, consequences lead to tragedy, becomes a vigilante hero as an attempt to atone for his failure. Certainly, it’s a story Connor and Griffin know backward and forward–like their father, they’re walking superhero sourcebooks.

But when tragedy strikes, as expected, in the movie, suddenly I’ve got a sobbing pile of six-year-old on my lap. His bony little shoulders are shuddering, and hot tears soak my collar. I stroke his hair and whisper to him that it’s okay, he’s safe, and I know it’s sad, but it’ll get better, until he slowly uncurls and starts watching again. He doesn’t leave the shelter of my arms until the credits begin to roll.

And this isn’t the first time this has happened recently.

It happened when we went to see Chimpanzee at our favorite bargain theater last weekend. It happened when Claudia and Jamie spent their first lonely night in the Met, as I read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It’s happened at a variety of TV shows and movies at home.

He starts by telling me, “I don’t like this show/story/movie.” He’s tried to leave the room once or twice, or pick up the DS or iPod for a few minutes of gaming, but mostly, he comes to me and cries. I’ve asked him what’s wrong (though I knew the answer), but he’s only ever once given me a straight answer. “This hurts my heart,” he told me.

The characters’ losses are his losses. Their grief is his grief. Their loneliness and pain, his too. When their hearts hurt, so does his. And, not surprisingly, he doesn’t like it.

To be perfectly honest, this is the first time I’ve really had to deal with this in my decade of parenting. I’m not saying that my boys haven’t felt things deeply before–far from it. The difference with this, I think, is that, instead of the rushes and waves of emotion coming from their own experiences, Griffin’s heart hurts entirely out of empathy, and I haven’t really had to guide a kid through that until now.

I’ve written before about the intensity of feeling Connor experiences. The emotions of both boys are written in the air around them, in big vivid splashes, glowering clouds, and joyful sparkles. They both wear their hearts on their sleeves, and invest their emotions in the people and things that they love. They feel injustice acutely, and react with compassion.

But for better or for worse, empathy is tricky for autistics. It comes from the mind–from knowing and understanding the other person’s situation–as much or more than it comes from the heart. Empathy has to be learned, as much as any other social skill. It may even become reflexive.

Art by Jim Hill.

I’m having to go back to my earliest years to connect with Griffin’s hurting heart. I got carried away by torrents of emotion at some of the first movies I ever saw. I was younger than two years old when Disney’s Snow White was back in theaters for the periodic re-releases that preceded the availability of home video technology. As the Evil Queen transformed into the Witch (so the story goes), I turned to my mom and grandma and announced very clearly, “I want to go home.” They shushed me, and I repeated again, more loudly and firmly, “I WANT. To go. HOME. NOW.” They took the hint, and I was considerably older before I saw the rest of that movie. When I saw Pete’s Dragon, I was carried from the theater, screaming and crying, as if Elliott was flying away from me personally, not Pete. And I sobbed my little heart out when Baloo the Bear was struck down by Shere Khan in The Jungle Book.

These stories hurt my heart horribly, and not in the way that pre-teen girls sometimes seek out, enjoying the rush of florid emotion that makes them feel more mature. Over the years, these experiences grew into funny stories my family told about what a queer tiny adult I was, burying the memory so deeply that when life hurt my heart that deeply again, I didn’t have that experience–or more importantly, the recovery that followed the pain–to call up for solace.

So I’m holding Griffin’s hurting heart ever so carefully, each time he hands it to me. I’m not going to tell him that it’s just a story, it’s made up, that he shouldn’t feel sad. Stories are practice for real life. I’m doing him no favors by protecting him from sadness and loss; it’s not good mothering to build a bubble of pure happiness and safety around a child. But if I let him explore that feeling, know that it’s valid, and emerge on the other side from the safety of my arms, maybe he won’t run from or swallow the pain when it inevitably comes later.

A Walk in the Woods

My kids talk a lot. It’s not exaggerating to say that 11 of every 12 hours they’re awake, they’re making some form of verbal noise. They hum, they play, they tell stories, they crack jokes, they argue, they ask for things, they say “Mom” or “Dad” a hundred million times.

The nonstop verbal flow is both blessing and curse, as you might expect, and it’s hard to remember the days when we couldn’t wait for them to start talking. Of course, there are times when I wish they could practice silence, apart from the general stress of constant noise. Especially when I take them out on nature walks, I try to convince them that there are things to be quiet for, things that only make themselves apparent when the animals and insects forget that people are present.

This rarely works, though–like a lot of folks these days, I think the quiet scares them. With Connor, I can tell there’s a sensory angle, so I try to be sensitive to that. But in Griff’s case, he tends to wax philosophical while we’re out in nature, and for all that silence would be nice, I don’t want to quash his impulse to question things.

And, sure enough, when we went out to pick plantain weed so I could make more of the all-purpose herbal salve we use instead of Neosporin, the shortest of the short ones was full of questions. “Do cats feel wind?” “Does God know we’re picking plantain?” “Is Batman Poison Ivy named for poison ivy, or is poison ivy named for Poison Ivy?”

I face competing interests when the questions start flying. On one hand, I’m a smartypants–I know a lot of stuff, and I like to give answers. On the other hand, I want my kids to learn to think critically for themselves, which requires not giving all the answers right away. I try to use my teacherly instincts to know which questions deserve a quick, factual answer, and which deserve to be reframed and teased apart so we can come to an answer together.

In short, what this means is that my answer to a question is frequently “What do you think?” or “Why do you ask?” This is not cheating, or doing a disservice to a curious kid. It gives them space to continue the conversation, to wonder out loud, to live inside the question for a bit longer.

Many parents get so freaked out, when conversation turns to the big questions, that they shut down right away until they have a chance to consult parenting books and blogs for “official” answers from the “experts.” But by the time they’ve equipped themselves with that information, the moment of the question has come and gone, and the kid has one more experience in his head that says adults don’t have the answers he’s looking for.

I took the boys to the Real Pirates exhibit at the Science Museum a few months ago. I’d been warned that the first third of the exhibit was about the Atlantic slave trade, without which there wouldn’t have been much piracy in the Caribbean or anywhere else, so it didn’t come as a total shock and I was ready to exploit the educational opportunity. When we came to the diagrams of how slaves were stacked like cordwood for the crossing, I knelt down at their level and we talked about what kind of ideas a person has to have before they can think someone should be enslaved to work for them. We talked about difference, and race, and values, and empathy, while no fewer than two dozen other parents stiff-leg-marched their kids past the whole slavery section, voices ringing with uncomfortably faked brightness: “C’mon kids! Let’s go see that pirate treasure! Won’t that be fun?”

If I were that kind of parent, I wouldn’t have kids who ask me questions. Griffin wouldn’t ask me the name of every plant and every star in the sky. Connor wouldn’t ask me, on a long drive, what kind of parents Osama bin Laden had. Maybe these sound like horror stories to some of you, whether you’re a parent or not. These conversations leave you open to questions you can’t answer, and saying “I don’t know” feels like a catastrophic failure, a loss of authority that can never be recouped.

The greatest gift you can give a child, whether it’s yours or someone else’s, is the freedom to question and not know the answer right away. It teaches them to balance the uncertainty of life with the joy of mystery, and it opens the door to more learning, more participation, more citizenship, more action. Take Rainer Marie Rilke’s advice from Letters to a Young Poet:

“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language… And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer…”

The least of these, my children

So, you might’ve heard a little something about the Supreme Court today. In fact, you’re probably sick of it by now.

Me, I’ve been waiting on Monday and Thursday mornings for almost three weeks for this ruling. With the state of my health and my son’s, our total family income, and my husband’s job, it’s pretty clear why I would be in favor of the Affordable Care Act (the real name for Obamacare, in case you’ve forgotten). We’re already beneficiaries of state-funded healthcare, and I’ve elaborated at length on why it’s so critical for me and my family.

I’m not going to go into detail today about the other mothers, college students, workers, grandparents, and desperate people for whom this ruling is the first ray of hope in a long, bad time. Instead, I’m going to show you the one reason I’ll sleep better tonight.

This is Griffin. He turned six in April. You can see that he just lost his first tooth. I don’t write about him as much as his older brother, but that’s my failing, not his. He’s weird, he’s wonderful, he’s so adorable it makes me spit.

And he’s perfectly healthy.

But because his mother has a history of fibromyalgia, Asperger’s, and depression, his brother also has Asperger’s, and his father has genetically high cholesterol and needs hella-strong glasses, I’ve worried every day of his life that, when the time came for him to go out into the world on his own strong legs and his own mighty soul, he wouldn’t be able to get health insurance. Despite his own good health, despite his own boundless energy, my own limitations might deprive him of that security.

And today, I don’t have to worry anymore. That’s what this decision means to me. That’s why I danced and cried in my living room at 9:15 a.m. CDT as the tweets scrolled up my screen and reporters scrambled on the steps of that majestic building.

If you don’t like this decision, if you feel it lessens your freedom, I frankly don’t care. Because tonight I’ll sleep sounder knowing that both my boys will have access to the care and security that good, steady healthcare brings.

Jun 16, 2012 - Domestic Engineering    1 Comment

What I Didn’t Know 10 Years Ago: Friday Night Lists

Next Tuesday, my eldest son will be ten years old. This is unimaginable to me, and must therefore be false. As part of my effort to grapple with this harsh reality, here’s today’s installment of Friday Night Lists:

10 Things I Know Now That I Didn’t Know 10 Years Ago

YEAR 1 — Leave the diaper on until the last possible second, unless you feel like a visit to the Bellagio.

YEAR 2 — Birthday cake and banana make awesome, all-natural punk hair product.

YEAR 3 — Parents who disapprove of a Jon Stewart-themed 3-year-old birthday party because The Daily Show is on at 11.00pm EST don’t understand DVRs.

YEAR 4 — If you think 4-year-olds can’t come up with sophisticated rhetorical arguments why they should be allowed to stay up as late as their newborn brother, you’d be wrong.

YEAR 5 — When your kid asks you “What’s the Ring Cycle?” ask “Why do you ask, honey?” before launching into a 20-minute lecture on Germanic folklore, opera, and Looney Tunes. Because he may just be mispronouncing “rinse cycle” after hearing it in the Chipmunks movie.

YEAR 6 — The key that turns the lock in your child’s mind may unlock yours too.

YEAR 7 — Imaginative children sometimes change religion after a really good book. Be open to it.

YEAR 8 — Summer is the best time of year, because kids can just grow right out the bottom of their shorts and you don’t have to worry about pant length until school starts in the fall.

YEAR 9 — If your kid tells you he wants to die and tries to hurt himself, he’s as serious as a heart attack. Listen to him and get help.

YEAR 10 — Wishing for a son like Calvin (of & Hobbes fame) is both a best and worst case scenario, because you might actually get one. (Or two.)

My boy, after a hard day. SuperTiger is always beside him as he sleeps.

Jun 3, 2012 - Psychology    1 Comment

My Own Worst Enemy: Reverb Broads Summer #2

Summer Broads 2012, Prompt #2: What gives you nightmares? (by Kassie at Bravely Obey)

I don’t have a dream life–my dreams have a me life.

I have incredibly vivid dreams, many of which I remember the next day. They’re always in color, sometimes in French, and though I’ve heard that it’s impossible to read in a dream, I regularly do. People from every period of my life crop up, usually in logical groupings, though occasionally we get the sweeps-week, special-guest-star episode where they mix in interesting ways. A lot of this probably comes from the very vivid visual style of thinking and remembering that’s not uncommon among autistics.

Sometimes, I dream things that happen. I won’t say they’re “psychic” dreams, but they’re not quite deja vu either. There’s actually a tradition of this on my maternal side, going all the way back to my great-grandmother. Sadly for everyone else, I almost never dream something helpful in advance. It’s mostly just situations, fragments of conversation, or groupings of people interacting. I’m sure it sounds loony, but there it is.

Nightmares, though…nightmares are something else entirely. Sure, I had bad dreams when I was a kid. My grandparents took me with them to see The Elephant Man in the theater while they were waiting for their car to be serviced, and I still can’t see a picture of John Merrick or hear the voice from that movie without it triggering a mountain of anxiety. I also had my share of bad dreams from the second half of Gremlins–don’t let the cute fuzzy mogwai fool you, it’s a horror film!

But I don’t actually have nightmares–I have night terrors. I can’t wake up from them unless someone does it for me. I never do the sit-bolt-upright-and-scream thing; that would be a lovely change of pace. Instead, I’m just stuck until the dream decides to wind itself down. Most commonly, they’re violent as hell, and I’m just trying to stay alive.

I also have recurring nightmares. The worst stretch of those was the summer after I graduated from high school. The dream began with me waking up in my bed, looking down over the footboard at the shade-covered window. Every night, I saw the shadow of a man cast against the shade, then watched his silhouetted form duck under the windowframe, and enter my room. After that, it was different every time. Sometimes he came over and choked or stabbed the life out of me in my bed. Even worse were the nights he walked past me, and I heard him kill my family, one by one. Sometimes I fought, sometimes I froze, but I could never stop him.

And when I finally woke, my first sight was the shade-covered window across from the foot of my bed.

I had that dream every single night, unless I went to bed after 3.30 am. If I had it, obviously, I was done sleeping for the night. I spent a great deal of time that summer running away from that dream. When I went off to college, it ended, and it never revisited when I came home after that.

Finally, someone who thinks as visually and has a vivid imagination that never takes a day off is bound to have waking nightmares, and I’m no stranger to those either. Mostly, I just chase down a full thread of a passing horrible thought, without meaning to, like fast-forwarding through a video. They’re mercifully short, but they can derail my day just as surely as a sleeping nightmare. My kids getting hurt, our fragile home economy collapsing under catastrophe, or just the black hand of depression holding me down by the throat again. Life can be pretty dark, even before you turn out the lights and close your eyes.

May 31, 2012 - Social Studies    15 Comments

Walking the Talk

I’ve been trying to string these observations together for three days now, and failing utterly to find a single narrative thread. But I really feel the need to get these ideas out there. So, instead of a coherent blog post, you get a bunch of random thoughts about the complexities of race relations. My apologies.


Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed and me, May 2012

I’m thinking a lot about race these days. Part of that is deliberate. I took part in a study group about the racial history of my religion, Unitarian Universalism, at church, in anticipation of a weekend visit by the foremost historian of the African American UU experience, Mark Morrison-Reed. We read his book, Darkening the Doorways, and discussed everything from white privilege, to assumptions about what black visitors to our church would find welcoming, to outreach efforts to walk the talk on multicultural engagement.

The accompanying workshop, and the extended conversation for the group of us, was difficult and painful, but soul work really should be. The first principle of our faith is that we honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but we’ve been unsuccessful more often than successful at truly embracing real diversity in our church homes. We’re so much more comfortable going into communities of color for a day of service–us doing things for them, not with them–then returning to our monochromatic congregations on Sunday with the glow of righteousness.

The main conclusion we came to that day, with Mark’s help, is that communities of color are used to people coming and going. What they’re not used to is people staying. Volunteers paint buildings and plant gardens. They don’t come back to touch-up or weed. It’s the same with political work. Don’t just show up for the march–come back for coffee, stay for dinner. Don’t just make speeches–ask what they want, and listen as long as they want to talk.


I’m not colorblind. My stepdad says he is, with ridiculous statements like, “I don’t see race” and “There’s no such thing as black and white–we’re all cocoa, vanilla, cream tea, cinnamon.”  It sounds delicious, but it’s hard for me to reconcile this kind of obliviousness with his history as a young white man who stood up for civil rights in the ’60s. He even attended Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. To me, this is blindness, not color blindness, and it diminishes the real struggle people of color have had and continue to have in America. Is this a relic of that generation of liberal speech on race? Did it sound as insensitive in the past as it does now?


I see race because I see patterns. As a kid, I was curious about things like melanin, epicanthic folds, and naso-labial shapes. But I was far more fascinated by the differences than worried about them. I noticed that people of different ethnicities smelled differently, and I wanted to taste the food I scented on their clothing and in their hair. I collected dolls dressed in the native costumes of different nations. I spent hours in a Chicago-area children’s museum, acting out family life from Fiddler on the Roof in the kid-sized Jewish home, and making tortillas and touching all the weavings in the Mexican home. And my mom tells me that, around the age of 2 and 3, I would babble incessantly in some weird language, then sigh in exasperation when she told me to stop talking nonsense. “*Mo-om*, it’s not nonsense,” she says I said, “I’m speaking French.” To this day, she wishes she’d known someone who spoke French, to find out if I actually was.


I worked in a record store at the last year of my undergrad work, in Lawrence, Kansas. I loved my job, but I’d watch the kids who browsed a little too long in the Rap/R&B section. The white boys were so stupidly obvious, all I had to do was walk up to them and ask them how I could help to get them to mumble nervously and quickly leave the store, their shoplifting plans foiled. When it was young men of color, I’d watch them, then deliberately turn away, telling myself it wasn’t fair to profile them thus. After they left, I’d do a quick check of the section, and when I found neatly razorbladed magnetic tags or plastic wrappers stuffed into the corners of the racks, I was furious and hurt. I hated that they reinforced the negative stereotypes, justified my profiling, and made me feel racist and ashamed.


I just read a book by John L. Jackson, Jr. called Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness, in which he makes a compelling case that, in the wake of the advances at exterminating de jure (in the law) and de facto (in reality) racism, all the remaining ambivalence gets internalized into what he calls de cardio (in the heart) racism, which isn’t even always conscious, and will be much harder to stamp out. Jackson posits that, if people on both sides of the color line can’t trust people to speak the truth about race, they come to mistrust everything they say about race, leading to deep racial paranoia.


The book taught me about the propensity to believe in vast conspiracies, based on this fundamental mistrust, and the books and music who advance these theories in the black community. I felt about a dozen questions and observations snap into place, finally in context, with each chapter. And his theory confirms my suspicions about the direction public attitudes about LGBT folks are headed, as it becomes increasingly less acceptable to openly discriminate. In this way, among so many others, we have to acknowledge that civil rights are civil rights are civil rights.


Few things make me as frustrated or embarrassed as seeing white people co-opting pieces of other cultures as their own. Purely Euro-American people drumming in sweat lodge retreats at expensive resorts. Suburban soccer moms who say they understand Latinos because they’re sending their kids to a Spanish-immersion private school. Kids putting on the swagger and language of inner city culture, without having to suffer any of the doubt and fear that comes with walking through gated communities while black.

A few years ago, I heard someone ask, “Why is cocaine so addictive and damaging, when South Americans chew coca leaves for years and never suffer ill health?” The answer is simple. Because when you take something out of context–extract, distill, purify–you may amplify the parts you want, but you lose hundreds of organic compounds that balance and mitigate the downsides in ways we don’t even fully understand.

Culture works the same way. When you sample ideas and practices out of context, you may feel enlightened and energized by your new, hip, exclusive experience, but you’re missing the point, and denigrating a culture that’s richer than you even know. Admire Native American spirituality? Learn about rez life. Like to sing African American spirituals? Learn about the black experience of Christianity and liberation theology. Do the work, and learn the context.


I’m not trying to “put on” blackness, with all these inquiries into race lately. I want to understand a culture that is, in so many ways, hidden in plain sight. I want to understand how people of color experience the same things I experience, each of us through our different lenses. Those lenses are ground by things like dinner table conversations, schoolyard lessons, the looks you get (or feel) walking down the street, and how it feels to stand on thresholds real and metaphoric.

I’ve experienced the world through the lens of white privilege; I know that deep in my bones. I don’t feel guilt, but I do feel regret. I’ve also experienced the world through the lenses of being female, being autistic, being liberal, being curious. I want to hear the voices, and I have a deep desire to reach across that divide, as much as I would be welcomed, to speak to and embrace the common humanity of us all. I’m not satisfied with the boundaries others tell me are “safe.”


I am happiest when my world is diverse. And I want my boys to grow up thinking that friends come in every shape, gender, color, physical ability, and personality. When they were younger, I took them to the parks where the immigrant families came for day trips, up from Chicago. A lot of the locals in our lily-white resort town told us to avoid them on weekends, but I wanted my sons to smell different cooking, hear different languages, and play with every kind of kid. So many families welcomed my wild, gregarious sons, and seemed delighted with the mingled laughter and fun of their children and mine.

When they ran over to ask if they could play with a new friend, I asked them to point out at least one of the kids’ parents. They would point vaguely, eager to return to the game, and say, “His dad is the one in the green shirt” or “His mom has long hair.” I would follow their little pointing finger, and as often than not, the man in the green shirt was also black, or the woman with long hair was dressed in a sari. But those things didn’t register as different enough to remark upon, and skin color was irrelevant, next to the possibility of a new playmate.

Am I wrong to be proud of that? I don’t want to seem self-congratulatory. But teaching values to kids is such a fraught proposition, and the way they treat others–especially perfect strangers–is one of the real litmus tests for whether your lessons are sinking in. They’re a big part of why I want to expand my circle of friends and contacts to include more people of color. The indifference to difference doesn’t last forever. It’s time for me to put my body and heart where my values are, for them to see.


Lace ‘Em Up

When I hear about a rally or a march or campaign that stands for something I believe in strongly, I say, “Uh-oh. Time to lace up my Protesting Boots.” This is not an idle statement, nor a clever euphemism.

These are my protesting boots. I bought them at Shelly’s of London. They’re actually Tank Girl boots. There aren’t laces in them at the moment because they were needed for a science experiment, but note the speed-lace loops.

They’re not pretty boots–I didn’t buy them to be pretty. They’re scuffed, and the little metal teeth on the toes are rusty. But they’re padded, and comfy, and heavy, and just right for kicking ass. I love my Protesting Boots.

I’m not really sure where my mile-wide activist streak came from. I come from a family of selfless volunteers and helpers, determined to contribute to any and all communities of which they’re a part. My grandma taught Red Cross first aid and gave swimming lessons to disabled children, when she wasn’t running inner-city Girl Scout troops. My mom was PTO president and ran the Sunday School program at the church I grew up in. Now, she’s a dedicated member of the 501st Legion (TR7084, Florida Garrison, Makaze Squad), and despite two artificial hip joints, she troops at every fundraising march to which they’re invited. (My stepdad and brother are also members.) Most of their commitments come from genuine Christian charity and human compassion, the spirit of which I’m immensely grateful to have had modeled throughout my formative years.

But none of my immediate family is particularly activist, or politically inclined. The first real activism I engaged in was a fight against the school board, to keep them from moving our beloved band director from high school to elementary after he returned from his sabbatical (during which he worked toward his Ph.D. in trombone performance). We got our parents all worked up, and we packed the meeting room the night they were supposed to consider teacher placement. But just before they started in on the topic, they announced that they’d reconsidered, and Don would be returning to the high school the next year. We were relieved and excited, but humming with the unspent fight we’d girded for.

My first real experience protesting was against the First Gulf War. In fact, I ran all the way home from the college protest meeting to tell my parents to turn on CNN because they’d started bombing Baghdad. I was one of a small group of students at my school who got in trouble for refusing to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance, if only because we couldn’t see how we were being disrespectful to a flag that they thought was fine to sew onto all the disgusting, sweaty athletic uniforms, or to fly over battlefields where we had no business being.

Later, the school tried to crack down on boys wearing of cutoff t-shirt sleeves as headbands. (It’s a skater thing. It’s probably on Wikipedia, or in the Smithsonian, by now.) Targeted at friends who were routinely threatened, even beaten, by jocks who called them every homophobic slur you can think of, I naturally took exception. A bunch of us invoked Title IX, took it to the administration, and organized as many girls as we could into wearing them too. Such a silly small fight, but as I look back now, I see the pattern developing. My stepdad actually understood this piece of me better than anyone else; he’d flirted with Quakerism, and was at the March on Washington for civil rights to hear Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream.

In my adult life, I’ve volunteered for numerous causes, if only because I have more time than treasure to support the campaigns I believe in. I gravitate toward issues of human rights, free speech, justice, and democratic (little d) freedoms. I canvassed so much in 2008, with 2-year-old Griffin in his stroller, that every time I reached for my purple clipboard with all the campaign materials and lists on it, Griff would groan, “NOOOOO OBAMA!”

But the single greatest protest experience of my life was the 2006 March for Women in Washington, D.C. I went with a group of friends from grad school, and it was the very first night I’d spent away from Connor, who was nearly two. I have only the vaguest memory of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Cybill Shepherd, speaking on the National Mall, but what’s indelibly etched into my most 3D, high definition, full-sensory memory is walking down the dotted line in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, holding high a sign that said, “Pro-Choice, Pro-Child.” Because I was, and am, and in that electrifying moment, I was more sure of my own power and identity than I’ve ever been, before or since. I owned that street. I could change policy, I could influence outcomes, I could stand for the silent. I was mighty.

And once you’ve had that drug, once you’ve danced at the victory party, once you’ve cried as election results rolled in, you just can’t get enough of it. Currently, I’m working as a team leader in Saint Paul for Minnesotans United For All Families, the organization fighting the proposed amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriages. It’s going to be a lot of work between now and November, on top of the other political work I’ll no doubt take on, but I can’t imagine writing injustice into the permanent guiding principles of any state or country.

I wrestle with being the parent and the activist. My heart aches for the tiny children I see holding horrid, hateful signs they couldn’t possibly understand at funerals and Planned Parenthood locations. Sure, I gave my 2 1/2 year old a sign that read “Bush Is Scary, Vote For Kerry” at a rally in 2004. And when a MN state legislator slammed Neil Gaiman for “accepting” a 5-figure honorarium from a community library for doing a book talk and signing (“accepting” is in quotes because he turned right back around and donated it to a library support organization, as he often does), I didn’t give my family any choice about whether we’d go to the Read-In for Civility on the capitol steps. But I want them to grow up with their own priorities, their own causes, their own voices.

I want my kids to grow up thinking it’s worth the effort to stand up, be heard, and work for values they believe in. I want them to grow up knowing that it isn’t acceptable for one group to oppress another, or to silence a voice just because it disagrees with someone powerful. I want them to open their hearts, to make themselves vulnerable, by caring about the fate of humanity and the planet. If their values don’t always match mine, I’ll talk to them to find out where they’re coming from and make sure they’ve got all the information to make an educated stand, but I won’t make them back down. They have the same rights I fight to ensure for others.

And some day–maybe soon–I’ll take them shopping for their very own Protesting Boots.


Apr 11, 2012 - Domestic Engineering    4 Comments

Singles Weekend

Convention Season has started in Geekland–though it never really ends, just takes a brief winter breather–and that means that the Darling Husband is in high demand. This is nothing to complain about, and I generally see the exertion of multi-day stretches of single parenting as the price I pay to have him so flexible the rest of the year. Some stretches are better than others, and there’s always a day in there somewhere that doesn’t exactly show any of us at our best. But we muddle through pretty well, for the most part.

Here’s how these weekends usually go:

DAY 1–Darling Husband departs with hugs and kisses early in the morning. Kids are at school, I’m at work. I have to leave a little early to be there when the bus drops them off, but that’s like a little vacation. I sit out in the sun while they play on the playground with friends, maybe do a little reading between general referreeing. I ask what they want for dinner. They say McDonalds. I playfully swat that idea, and we all pile into the car, go to the grocery store, and get ingredients for me to cook dinner. We munch on pasta carbonara or a casserole while watching Cartoon Network. They get ready for bed without a fight, and I tuck them in with a story and a kiss. I watch a documentary with a glass of wine, and go to bed relatively early, but read a few chapters of a trashy novel before sleep.

DAY 2–Boy, that alarm goes off early. Good thing I got a decent night’s sleep. I bulldoze the kids out of bed, dump them in the shower to general protests, and get them out the door to the bus. I find the missing jacket they swore was nowhere lying in the middle of the living room floor. I drop off a forgotten sheet of homework at school on my way to work. I’m yawning by 2pm, but there’s no time for a nap before the bus arrives at 3. I bring a book to read on the playground, but I CANNOT STAND THE SCREAMING. I retreat inside, and break up fights through the window screen. I pull them off the playground to run a few errands; there are many tears and recriminations. I ask what they want for dinner. They say McDonalds. I say fine, whatever, just use your inside voices. I catch them eating french fries off the carpet and wiping ketchup on their pants. More protests at bedtime–“I’m not tired! My show’s not done! We don’t have school tomorrow!”–until I’m the one who’s yelling now. I do not care that you don’t have school. I do not care that your show isn’t done. I do not care that we didn’t read a story. Get in bed and give me ten freaking minutes of silence, would you? I skip the documentary, maybe get a few pages of my book before sleep. Kids call me into their room at 2-hour intervals all night for essential services as covering and restarting music. Unfortunately, they never need these things at the same time.

DAY 3–No alarm set, but then again, no alarm needed. The sound of arguing awakens me earlier than the birds get up. Control of screens suddenly needs a UN peacekeeping force. I settle the fight, and try to go back to bed, but if I have to say more than a yes/no, my brain boots up to day speed. No more sleep for me. I watch the red light on the TiVo box that says fascinating news shows are taping; they watch another Phineas & Ferb marathon (things could be much worse). I’ve planned to take us out to a museum today to kill time. I feed them breakfast and pack many snacks, to avoid exorbitant museum food prices. I give the kids a long leash because I’m too tired to keep up, but I still feel like I got dragged around the block by a pair of St Bernard’s. I’m just glad I don’t have to break up any fist fights in the pirate exhibit. The exit, however, is through the gift shop. This should be outlawed. I consider myself lucky to escape with an exhibit book, though I play the parental version of Whack-A-Mole in which I yank an overpriced “science” toy out of a child’s hand every time they say “MOM!” I apologize to the actual parent of one of the kids from whose hands I take a toy. I reach around while driving home to tickle and pinch the kids so they don’t fall asleep. I don’t ask them what they want for dinner. They get macaroni and cheese. They also get to stay up later because I’ve fallen asleep on the couch while they ate. They wake me up to tuck them in, and I stagger off to my own bed.

DAY 4–I wake up hurting before the sun comes up. Kids are sleeping soundly, so I take painkillers and figure I’ll catch up on news shows I’ve taped. Alas, one kid rises 20 minutes after me, so I surrender the TV and try to read. The other kid sleeps in until 9, at which point I ask if I can go back to sleep for a little while. Sometimes this works, and I get another hour of rest. Sometimes this does not work, and I end up yelling at them through my bedroom door until I give up. They ask where we’re going today. I say nowhere–all my money and energy is gone after yesterday. They cry and call me the worst mom ever. They wish Daddy was home instead of me. I cry and say I wish that too. I feed them fruit snacks and graham crackers for brunch. They spend a few hours running back and forth between apartment and playground in random and irritating patterns. One kid does something incredibly dumb/dangerous/dumb outside, and I am forced to put on a bra and non-pajama pants and go outside and watch them. The sun melts a little of the pain in my back. The look I give the kids when they get close buys me a little time to read. I say a little prayer to the makers of ibuprofen and Xanax. I feel better; they get tired. I ask what they want for dinner. They say McDonalds. I make them spaghetti. They say, “This isn’t McDonalds.” I say, “This is all you’re getting.” I remember they haven’t showered since Day 2. I cannot care. I send them to bed early under the pretense of “school night.” Daddy comes home late. I give him a kiss and go to bed, where I stay for much of the next day.

RESULT: No hospital, no Child Services, no overdrafts, no corporal punishment. I declare victory.


I attended my first caucus in February; I’d only ever voted in primary states before, so I was keenly interested to see what this approach to local politics had to offer.

What did I get from it? I got elected precinct chair. I also got acute pancreatitis. (Okay, caucusing didn’t give me that–a gallbladder full of gravel did–but I was permanently scarred. No, really.)

As a result of the political events of that night, I also had a delegate’s seat at the Democratic, Farm, and Labor (DFL) party’s State Senate District Nominating Convention on Saturday. What I didn’t have on Saturday, though, was a babysitter, so with the Darling Husband guest-of-honoring it up at a convention in New York, I had convention credentials, two sons, and only one option: these poor kids were about to get a Saturday morning, non-musical lesson in civics.

I’d have just stayed home, but between the caucus and the convention, the new redistricting lines were announced. The new State Senate district boundaries put two long-time Democratic politicians up against one another, and I suddenly found myself being courted like I haven’t been since the DH slipped those emeralds on my finger in Aberdeen. Mailings, phone calls, invitations, even a house visit! I knew my vote would really count, win or lose, so ditching wasn’t an option.

Connor (L) and Griffin (R) at our little bastion of non-political entertainment at the MN DFL SD66 nominating convention. Note the balloons on the rows of seats behind them.

We went loaded for bear–computer, DVDs, iPhone, books, toys, and a host of questionably healthy snacks–and I’m going to tell you up front that the boys were outrageously, unexpectedly, refreshingly well-behaved. Really, I couldn’t expect better from any kids their age in similarly boring circumstances. About halfway through, Connor decided he was happier over by me on the convention floor. I explained what was going on, answered some of his questions, and he listened for a while. Eventually, we started playing Squares, which was far more consuming than the parliamentary maneuvers. Sadly, I did about as well as my favored candidate that day.

The different wards and precincts were arranged in rows of chairs, with balloons on the ends, marked with the appropriate numbers (we were in Ward 4 Precinct 13, so our balloon read W4P13). As with everything that requires people to sort themselves into appropriate groups, things immediately got confusing when delegates were required to take their seats. They counted off each precinct, and though the row in front of us was marked W5P3, it became apparent that no delegates from that precinct were in attendance. Connor happened to be seated in the chair to which that balloon was tied, and the woman running the convention indicated that the balloon should be taken down, to avoid any further confusion about that precinct.

I’ll let Connor take the story from here:

I asked if I could have the balloon. She said yes, but I shouldn’t take it out of the room, so it didn’t cause a fire hazard. [Mom: Balloons are fire hazards? Connor: No, it’s not; it just sets off the fire alarm. Mom: Oh. Huh.] The lady next to Mom had a Swiss army knife on her keychain, and she helped me cut it loose. 

Exhibit A: The Balloon, tied up in quarantine.

I took it over to show Griffin, when two sergeants-at-arms came over and stopped me. A nice woman said, “Don’t go out of the room with it.” I said, “I’m not going to take it out of the room.” Then she said, “Okay, but still, I don’t want you walking around with it.” Then the other sergeant-at-arms said, “Either give it to us, or pop it.” So I said, “But the people said I’m allowed to have it.” The nice lady asked, “Who were they?” I said, “They’re the people on the stage. My mom said it was okay.” Then the man said, “Are you arguing with me? Give us the balloon.” So I gave it to them. I felt very sad, like I didn’t have any power at all. And the worst part is, they didn’t do anything with the balloon! They just tied it up to a pole! 

Exhibit B: The Sergeant-at-Arms (not the nice lady, the other one)

I came over to tell Mom and the other people in her precinct. They all said that that wasn’t fair. I said this convention was ageist, and they said I should go to the microphone and ask if the DFL platform was anti-fun. I think they were joking. But Mom gave me her phone and told me to take pictures, like a reporter, and that we would tell the story on her blog. That made me feel better, because I was, like, “Now everyone will know about this! Everyone will remember this day as BALLOONGATE!”

I’m pretty sure we need a Schoolhouse Rock episode to explain this travesty of justice.

Mar 24, 2012 - Domestic Engineering    No Comments

The 3 Ss

I’ve got two anecdotes, neither worthy of an entire post, and both in danger of being forgotten if I don’t record them while they’re still in my memory. One’s sweet, one’s surreal; both are short–perfect for the weekend!

I went with Connor to a friend’s birthday party last weekend. We’re officially at the stage–and in a neighborhood/income bracket–when parents hold their kids’ parties away from home. The Cold War of Escalating Birthday Parties is in effect. This one was at a suburban community center that houses a mini waterpark. There’s only one waterslide, but it’s got lights on the inside of the tube, and you get to choose the music that blasts inside while you swirl your way down (needless to say, The Star Wars theme was most popular with this group).

Places like this, and bowling alleys, and skating rinks are high-stimulus environments, and sometimes the combination of excitement from the celebration and the sensory overload can overwhelm Connor and leave him vulnerable to sudden bursts of unexpected emotion and/or behavior. I’ve made it a practice to go along and hang in the background, lend a hand to the parents if needed, and just be there in case he needs help finding his balance again. It helps that I read to his class and chaperone their field trips, so I’m known as one of the “fun moms” and my presence is generally considered an asset by the other kids.

On the way into the building, I told Connor that I would be trying my hardest to stay out of his way and let him handle things on his own, but that if he felt like he was moving out of “the green zone” (green=good), I would be there as a safe place he could come to decompress. He looked at me funny, and said, “You’re a safe place? You mean, you’re a building?” I started to make a self-deprecating joke about being as big as a building, but he cut me off as he continued. “You know, you kind of are a building,” he said. “You’re a library! I mean, you read tons of books, and you read to me and Dad and Griffin, and you know tons of stuff about everything, so yeah…you’re a library.”

I was completely gobsmacked. I looked down at him and said, a little choked up, “You know, that may be the single best compliment I have ever received from everyone ever, kid.” Then I decided to lighten the mood. “You know how else I’m like a library? I’m always telling you to BE QUIET!” He laughed, then ran ahead to join his friends.

Footnote: The Darling Husband’s response to this story, when we got home later, was this: “Oh, I would’ve said you’re like a library because you inexplicably close up some nights at 7.” Har har, Funny Guy.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, here’s what woke me up this morning. Griffin always shares his dreams with me in the morning cuddle time, and since I’d been allowed (and actually managed to sleep in), he snuggled his way under my arm when the DH gave the go-ahead. I asked what he’d dreamt, and this was our exchange.

Griffin: I dreamed about Clifford. Polka dots.

Me: What about polka dots? He had polka dots?

Griffin: Yes!

Me: Huh, polka dots. What did he do with his polka dots?

Griffin: He went to the hopsital*!

Me: What did they do at the hospital about the polka dots?

Griffin (said like I’m the biggest idiot in the world)Moooooom. YOU know.

Me (utterly confused): No. No, I don’t.


*spelling reflects his pronunciation. Yes, we’re still at the “hopsital” and “pasketti” stage.