Friday, July 11, 2014

In Response To "10 Things I Wish I Knew About Raising Boys"

A number of friends have posted this link on Facebook recently -- 10 Things I Wish I'd known about raising boys -- it's definitely not the first of its kind to get passed around or written about. In short the author discusses 10 things about raising boys: planes, trains, & autombiles, boys don't stop moving, clothes shopping will be a piece of cake, his fascination with his penis starts sooner than you think, roughhousing is innate, you'll probably make a trip to the emergency room, pee will be everywhere, you'll learn not to compare your boy to girls, the goofiness starts early, and boys adore their moms.


I know that this is the experience of many mothers. Mothers of boys AND girls. I'm not trying to "shame" the women who have posted this -- my friends who have are mothers of boys who definitely fall under these listed items. However, I wanted to give a voice to the mothers, like myself, who have a boy who doesn't.

Although my son loves trains and cars, he also loves his Rapunzel doll, his play kitchen, and cuddling with/swaddling his stuffed animals. Although he's an active kid, he can sit down at a dinner, he loves to draw and color at his little table, and loves to sit and do arts and crafts. He is very picky about his clothes -- the colors, if they match, what characters are on them. He definitely plays with his penis, but I've seen plenty of little girls (including myself when I was younger) explore themselves as well. Toddlers are figuring out their bodies! It's awesome! 

"Roughhousing is innate." I think this is the hardest one for me because my son is not a rough houser and it's been interesting to watch when other boys walk up to him and push him to signal that they want to play, or older men pretend to scare him and tackle him while trying to relate to him. All this causes is crying and fear. What's really interesting is that I was the opposite as a kid. I would growl and tackle people to show them that I loved them. I had wrestling matches with my little brother. Even now, I love roughhousing. My kid...not so much.

I won't go through all ten things. I just wanted to point out that sometimes it's posts like the one linked above that help perpetuate the essentialism of gender. Just because my kid has a penis, doesn't mean he wants to tackle people or doesn't know how to control his bladder or loves yelling and screaming. Some boys love that -- that's great. Some girls love that -- that's great, too. I wish posts like these would be more along the lines of "10 things I wish I had known about raising my boys." We try so hard to put kids into two distinct categories in regards to their gender, when our children might end up identifying as trans* or neither gender or somewhere in between along the very long spectrum of how people relate to the world and want to express themselves in regards to how they look, how they act, what they enjoy...the list goes on.

I think, early on, not giving boys boundaries, saying "boys will be boys" when they are mean or hurtful, steering them away from things our mainstream culture says are "feminine," is part of what gives men the sort of entitlement they feel later on in life. It's not teaching them about consent. Soraya Chemaly has a wonderful article about "The Problem with 'Boys Will Be Boys'" if you want to read more about it.

Again, I'm not "slamming" the mothers who relinked this post, or the mom who wrote it. Maybe what she wrote really is your experience. But, I want other moms out there who are thinking, "that's not my boy" to please know there's another mom right here who has a boy she's raising to be who he is...not what society tells him a "boy" should be. I'm hoping this means I'm raising a person who is kinder, empathetic, compassionate, and takes responsibility for how his actions affect other people. We should be teaching all of our children that, regardless of their sex. 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Sometimes the Pancake Mix is on the Floor: Learning to Cut Myself Some Slack

Today was one of those days. The beginnings of a sneaky hate spiral day. Technically, it probably started last night when it took two and half hours to get Liam to bed, but that's a different story.

Today, it began with pancakes. Thanks to Despicable Me 2, Liam has had an obsession with heart shaped pancakes lately. We had heart-shaped pancakes for dinner last night and again, I made them this morning. But, what should have been a major sign to just stay home under the bed all day, was when we had super mega toddler meltdown over the fact that this batch only made four pancakes.

How dare I only make four heart-shaped pancakes when yesterday's batch made six. The unforgivable injustice began the spiral towards not wanting to wash hands, or brush teeth, or gods forbid put clothing on. Preschool?! Though we do that three days a week, Liam was determined today would not be one of those days. Between many tears, lots of screaming on his part, and finally a last-ditch effort on my part to pretend to be dragons, to which I earned a "Mom, you are frustrating me right now," we finally made it out the door. When we arrived -- my hair unwashed, clothing askew, him with puffy eyes and face from crying -- even his teacher asked, "rough morning?"

I, naively, assumed the afternoon would be better. But then, the cat got spooked while Liam was holding him and scratched his legs and face. There was lots of hugging and band-aiding and crying. "I don't like Rory anymore!" Liam yelled at the cat. So, we put a movie on so he could nurse his wounds and I could cook dinner, but movie-watching was filled with randomly yelling "OW!" in between crying over concerns of Toothless the dragon (although he's seen this movie and knows how it ends. *spoiler* Toothless is fine).

Long story short, I ended up burning myself, not getting anything done, haphazardly folding laundry that's still sitting on my kitchen table, and Liam finally, finally being okay up on the kitchen counter with me while I attempted to wash some dishes.

And then he decided to dump pancake mix all over himself, the counter, and the floor.

This was my moment of decision making.

Inside, I wanted to cry, curl up into a ball on the floor and close my eyes. I thought maybe the "under the covers" theory of monsters (if you're hiding they can't be there!) could maybe work with toddlers, too. I wanted to cuss and stomp my feet. I wanted to throw a mom tantrum.

But, I didn't.

I gently took him off the counter and brushed him off. Nicely asked him to be more careful next time with the pancake mix and then asked if he wanted to make some pancakes.

So, it turns out, today was a triumph. Sometimes, I need to remind myself that (especially on days like this) not blowing up on my kid or giving in to my temper means that I've done just fine.

Yes, there are mac n cheese noodles in the carpet and pancake mix on the counter and unfolded laundry in the dryer and trains attempting to break ankles on the floor and the dishes aren't done. But on these days, rather than giving in to the stress or letting it overcome all of my emotions, which I've been known to do in the past, I've just got to think about what I have done...what has gone well.

Despite this kind of day, at the end of it, I've got a toddler cuddling with me on the couch, saying, "thanks for being my mom."

And tomorrow is another day to try and try again.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"Mom, Put On Your Ears": On Paying More Attention

Sometimes when I'm having a hard time falling asleep, I'll start writing blog posts in my head. As made obvious by how infrequently I post, 9 times out of 10, this helps me fall asleep because I'm even boring myself. There are those rare occasions, however, where something sticks and then I actually have to get up out of bed and type it out. Tonight is one of those nights. (And I'm hoping after getting at least this off my brain, I'll have an easier time falling asleep when I head back in to my snoring preschooler).

Liam and I were driving to the store today. I was running through the grocery list in my head, while simultaneously trying not to sing along to "Let It Go," thinking about my to-do list to get ready for celebrating a friend's wedding this weekend, and going over my student conferencing schedule for the next day. Though I hate to admit it, I was doing all of this thinking while Liam was talking to me. In my defense, he was reciting the same lines from Leo the Lightning Bug that he had been saying since we left preschool twenty minutes before, so I thought I was in the clear. But then, from the back of the car, I hear

"Mom, put your ears on."

At first, I had no idea what this meant. Luckily, I'm in the my-kid-is-totally-a-mini-human-being-and-can-articulate-himself-pretty-well stage, so I flat out asked, "What does that mean?"

"You need to listen," he said.

And then he proceeded to pull out the mom trick of whispering his next sentence to make sure I really was, indeed, listening to him.

Though a funny moment (and a later funny Facebook status update) at the time, I really started to think about it while attempting to fall asleep next to his snoring. Liam reminded me today that with the craziness of the end of the semester, news of a new summer course, both exciting and tragic things happening in life, I've not been a very good listener lately.

Sometimes, we can take our kids for granted.

Liam is my constant. He's there (most) every morning when I wake up and (most) every evening when I fall asleep. If I'm not at work and Liam isn't at his dad's house, I'm with him. He's there for stories and dinners and breakfasts and play time and breakfast-for-dinners. He's there when I'm happy, when I'm frustrated, when I'm sad, when I'm tired, when I'm excited -- all of it. And, with not even being four yet, I'm still in the stage where it feels like he always will be a constant. But, the kicker is, he won't.

Right now, I'm his best friend. Right now, he wants to tell me everything, in excruciating detail, that happened at preschool. He'll tell me all of his fears. He'll share all of his joys with me. I get the tears and the laughter. The tantrums and the living room dance parties. But it won't always be like this. Now, I'm not mourning that eventuality -- my whole goal as a parent is to create a responsible, compassionate, functioning ADULT who builds his own life outside of my home -- but that I need to spend more time focusing on the Liam I have now.

I remember when I was pregnant and first had Liam, my thesis advisor told me, "Don't blink." I remember thinking, probably too harshly and jadedly, that those words were some sentimental "mom stuff" I would never feel. However, I blinked and now Liam is four. I'll blink again and he'll be eight. I'll blink again and he'll be a teen. And so on and so on and so on.

So, I'm going to start to try and focus on putting my ears back on. On making my time with Liam, my time with Liam.

Damn, I never thought an almost four-year-old could teach me so much.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

On Divorce: The "You Just Didn't Try Hard Enough" Myth

In late December, my (then) partner and I decided to get a divorce.

The reasons for the divorce are complicated and their own story, one that is between my ex-partner and myself. The Cliff Notes are that for a myriad of reasons, not being together as a couple anymore was the best decision for our family. There were issues on both sides, no one is to blame, and we had A LOT of very important, mature conversations that, frankly, should have happened long before a wedding. A few weeks after my ex moved out, our three and a half year old kid looked at us and said, "thank you for not fighting anymore." I think that explains enough. 

What I feel the need to write about are the reactions. I didn't know what to expect from friends and family (and, as I was soon to find out, strangers). I had kept many of my relationship "issues" away from family, not wanting to harm our image as a couple should we work things out, so it came as a surprise to some of them. Though, for the most part, family and friends (especially) have been supportive, there is a certain rhetoric around divorce that really started to bother me.

"Marriage is hard. You just need to try harder."

I understand where this statement comes from. We live in a culture of seventy-two day marriages, marriages for money, marriages for fame -- there is this idea that marriage isn't taken "seriously" anymore, or that committed relationships in general aren't taken seriously anymore. However, the "marriage is hard" argument has become overused, and when dealing with someone who has tried and tried and realizes that their family is heading down a dark path and divorce is the only way out, a very hurtful and damaging statement.

Marriage IS hard. It's hard living with someone, communicating with someone, making your needs and desires known, sharing a life -- talking about finances, the "boring, adult" stuff. All of that is hard. And marriage takes compromise. It takes each person waking up every morning and choosing to make the relationship work. However, compromise is different than sacrifice. What I found myself doing was sacrificing fundamental parts of myself to try and make the relationship work. I don't blame my ex for this, I did that to myself, but I somehow had lost myself in an effort to do the "right thing" and all it did was hurt my partner and my son. And "hard" is different than "difficult" or a "constant uphill battle." Yes, there will be arguments and disagreements, but every day shouldn't be a battle. Every day shouldn't feel like either walking on eggshells or trudging through a foot of mud. 

Had I realized that earlier, I would have saved us both a lot of pain.

When I first started telling people about the divorce, a lot of response I got was that "choosing love" idea. But it takes two people for a relationship to work. It takes trust, communication, openness, and honesty -- things my ex and I had lost or never had. 

Divorce is an incredibly personal, difficult decision. And, what it comes down to, is that no one, but the people in it, knows the dynamics of the relationship. When we first made the decision, I had my week of crying, of freaking out, of feeling lost. But then I gathered myself up and starting working towards making the best life I can for myself and my kid. Many people took my pragmatic, positive attitude as either not caring or the divorce being solely my decision. If I've learned anything from becoming a mother, and now going through a divorce, it's that I can't control how other people act or what they say, but I can control how I react and how those things make me feel.

I know there are a lot of people out there who are disappointed in me. Who maybe think I didn't try hard enough. But, over the last few months, I have felt a sense of relief, of a weight lifted off my shoulders. I've been a better mother -- more patient and understanding. My kid has had less emotional breakdowns at school, has been a better listener, and has overall had a more positive attitude. That tension in the home is gone. I would rather my kid have two parents that are separated, but happy, than parents who try to stay together "for the kid" and spend their relationship miserable and fighting.

Now, instead, we are attempting to co-parent from separate households -- both still very active in our son's life. My ex may not be my husband anymore, but he always and forever will be our son's dad, and we will always be our son's parents. And he still is, as he always has been, an incredible father.

So, yes, I've become part of a statistic. But I'm learning that it's okay for me to do what I know is best for my family, despite what others think. It all goes back to that old metaphor about putting on your own oxygen mask first. I don't think that's selfish. If I am going to be a good mom (and eventually a good partner again), I need to make sure I'm taking care of myself, too -- that includes physical, emotional, and intellectual needs. 

I know I'll hold a stigma -- maybe only for a little while, maybe forever -- but I have learned more about myself, love, and relationships over the past four years than I ever have in my life. For that I am thankful. 

And I know that if a friend ever comes to me in the same situation, I won't fall back on "marriage is hard," or "well, did you try?" or "love is a choice." Instead, I'll offer support. I'll be someone to listen. I'll help with a new budget, or childcare, or going out for drinks -- whatever that person needs. The best response I ever heard was, "I'm sorry this happened to you. What can I do to be supportive?"

Monday, July 23, 2012

Unlikely Souvenirs: Lessons I Learned In Portland

Funk and I received the super generous gift of a surprise honeymoon from his brother and his brother’s husband. The conversation went something like this:

J: So, we’re sending you on your honeymoon as a wedding gift.
Me:  (Faints)
J: And it’s going to be a surprise.
Me: (Faints again)

So, the night of our wedding, sitting in the middle of an Irish Pub, Loren and I opened up our “honeymoon box.” In it were airplane tickets, some spending money, and two travel books. We were leaving for Portland, Oregon in the morning.


I had only driven through Portland before – well, technically, I slept in the state university student union on a road trip to Washington – and I couldn’t wait to actually explore the city. Minus the throwing up and getting sick for the first day part (adrenaline crash, anyone?), I was not disappointed in the least. From the moment I stepped into the airport – those fancy toilets that conserve water! Easy, amazing light rail! Recyclable products everywhere! – to when I walked through the city – vegan options on every menu! Awesome vintage stores! POWELL’S BOOKS! – I was in love. I shot off a text to my brother-in-law professing my love for the city and he warned me I couldn’t move there. So, I decided to pay close attention and figure out what about Portland I could bring home with me. Here are a few of the lessons I learned (in list form, because I love my lists):

1.       Portable glass Tupperware for take-out: It’s the small things that count when it comes to being nice to the planet and this is one I saw everywhere in Portland. Food truck time? Bring your own dish. Know you can never finish that vegan hash from the corner bakery? Bring your own Tupperware. Have a routine of a black coffee every morning? Bring your own mug. It’s so simple and so easy to do.

2.       Make public transport work for you: I know, I know… public transport in the Los Angeles area SUCKS. It does. But do a little a research and find out what types of public transport are in your community and how it can work for you. Here, even if I just take the bus to town (I live on a college campus) and ride my bike to the grocery store and back, it’s saving me gas and getting my jeep off of the road for 15 miles (plus, it’s exercise!). Another thing I have to remind myself is that my own two feet are great public transport. Again, every little bit helps. 

3.       Bring reusable bags everywhere: Reusable bags are really catching on (to the point that Long Beach even has a law banning plastic bags!) and it’s really great. But even I forget to bring reusable bags to places other than the grocery store. In Portland, I saw the bags everywhere – in grocery stores, clothing stores, bookstores, toy stores, restaurants, tattoo shops – anywhere people knew they’d need a handle and a sack to help them carry something a reusable bag was there. So, I’m going to tuck mine into something I never forget at home – the diaper bag.

4.       Farmers’ markets are the bees’ knees: Farmer’s markets are everywhere in Portland and had delicious, locally grown, fresh food. And guess what? Camarillo has a local farmer’s market on Saturday mornings (and if you don’t live in Camarillo, I bet your city has one close by, too). The Camarillo focus is definitely food but other cities focus on art and culture as well. The market by my mom’s house in Long Beach even has pony rides and games for the kids (plus $2 hummus and fresh pita straight from the hands of the family who makes it). Really good stuff!

5.       A simple reminder:
The biggest lesson I took home from my honeymoon wasn’t a specific tip or hint. Instead, the lesson was something that happened gradually over the five days we were there. So many times, I found myself saying, “Oh! I wish we had this in California!” After irritating both myself (and, I’m sure, Funk), I realized I needed to stop complaining and start making things happen. In my “Rachael world,” I sometimes feel like it has to be all or nothing – I sit down to a blank page and will-write-a-novel-right-now-or-die or I want to sweep through and make-all-the-things-sustainable-and-green-and-awesome-this-week! But then I took the advice I always give to my students who are daunted by the large task of writing a paper; make a list of what you want to do, or free write about it, or make one small change to your writing habit. Make the task manageable. So, that’s what I’ll begin. I can make a small start by remembering my reusable bag, or by bringing Tupperware out to dinner, or riding my bike instead of driving to town.  All of these “small starts” will eventually add up to me living the life I want to live in my own head, the life where I’m making conscious decisions about how my actions affect more than me, where I’m practicing what I preach, and am trying to make some sort of change so that I leave a better place here for my kid.

So, thanks Portland, for these unlikely souvenirs.(And delicious vegan doughnuts...)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Child Autonomy: I’m Vegan But My Toddler Isn’t

I’m very interested in children’s autonomy – their ability to make their own decisions, choose their own actions, and control their own behavior – and how we, as parents, interfere with or inspire those choices. The questions of how much to “control” versus “inspire” has been a huge question for me, especially when it comes to food.

I’m a vegan. Or, putting it in a way that is more comfortable for most people (the term “vegan,” I have sadly come to learn, has lots of negative connotations or preconceived notions about it but that is for a different blog post), I eat a plant-based diet. I do not eat any animal products at all (yes, this means cheese and other forms of dairy, fish, meat, and eggs). I do this for a variety of reasons ranging from health, to ethics, to morals, and to the environment.* Again, I could write a whole blog post about the reasons why I am vegan but that isn’t the focus of this one. What is important here is that a vegan, plant-based diet, is what works best for me physically, emotionally, and intellectually. 

The most popular question I get after “How do you get your protein?” (easy peasy) is “Well, is your kid vegan?”

No, the droidlet is not.

Now, this isn’t because you can’t raise a child vegan (because you TOTALLY CAN and it’s TOTALLY HEALTHY) but for a variety of reasons I am still exploring for myself. One part that plays into the droidlet’s meanderings into meat is because my partner, his dad, is not a vegan. I’m very adamant about making ONE meal for my family at dinnertime that the droidlet, even at two, eats. This means, though, that Funk sometimes cooks meat to add to the vegan dish I’ve prepared. When droidlet wants to try it, I don’t stop him.

What I eat and put into my body has been a very conscious decision I have made that has included much research, study, and decision-making. All things I want droidlet to do for himself some day. Just like I am not pushing one religion on droidlet, I’m not going to force one food philosophy on him either (and no, this is not a dig at other vegetarian or vegan families – that totally rocks that you’re all experiencing it together, it’s just not for my situation). Now, does this mean I’m going to let him eat McDonald’s every day? Hell no. Does this mean I’m going to let him eat a ton of processed food? NO. Ice cream for dinner every night? Um, no.

What this means, is that I’m going to model healthy eating habits and make available a variety of healthy foods to my son. I’m going to show him that plant-based dishes are delicious, fun to make, and help make our bodies feel good. But I’m also going to give him autonomy. Allow him to choose chicken if he wants it (of course, hoping it is local and grass fed). 

Will I be thrilled if the droidlet decides to be a vegan one day? Of course!! But, I will never berate him for not eating like me. The goal is to teach him that what we put into our bodies matters. To teach him how to make healthy choices and where they are available. To teach him about locally grown, fresh food.

I’d like to think I’ve already planted the seed with our CSA box. Every week, he screams and jumps to open our vegetable box to see what we got and is stoked to try out new vegetables and fruits we’ve never had before. Just a small box is showing him that supporting local agriculture is fun, that healthy food is both visually appealing and delicious, and that food is something that brings our family together. Just like with so many other things in life – morals, values, relationships – I hope that I’m arming the droidlet with the best information and experience I can so that when we unleash him into the world as an adult, he can make the decision that is right for him

*My Composition Professor self is nagging me for a disclaimer -- these links are very simple and easy to read sources that are usually linked to some sort of vegan advocacy cause. Because this blog post is not trying to persuade people to become vegan or defend my own position as a vegan, I haven't equipped the sources from long, scholarly articles. These links are purely for informational purposes should any readers want a little more detail. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Being a Mom Made Me Better At My Job

As I was approaching my last year of grad school for my Master’s in English, I had been dating an awesome, goateed, tattooed locksmith for a few months. That Christmas, as I was choosing my thesis advisor and getting ready to embark on the challenge of writing a full short story collection, my body started to feel a little weird. What I thought was nerves over the impending thesis, we came to find, was actually our little droidlet beginning to grow. Surprise! The following August, my son was born.
I took a semester off from my program and went back five months later to complete one last class, my entire thesis, and teach the last class of my Teaching Associate’s career. And, somehow, I finished. This past May, the droidlet and his dad cheered my on as I walked across that stage and officially became a Master of English (I just pictured myself as a Jedi. Heh.).
Luckily, I got hired right away, as an adjunct faculty member for two different colleges. This meant I went from having a breezy summer hanging out with my son to teaching five classes, four days a week.
At first, I was very, very scared I wasn’t going to make it. However, now that I am charging into the second semester of this schedule, I realize that being a mom has actually improved my skills as a professor.
Before, when I was teaching as a Teaching Associate, I would do something like stay up all night playing Lord of the Rings Online or watching Dr. Who episodes on BBC America and then the next day realize “holy crap, I have 25 essays to grade before tomorrow!” Then, a caffeine-out eight hour shift at a local coffee shop would commence the next morning. Though I rallied at my students about procrastination, I, myself, was a procrastinator. Now, with little guy, I literally cannot do this anymore. Much to my free-spirited, spontaneous chagrine, I was forced to start managing my time and it’s improved my life. I now have scheduled times to grade and do work, where I am only focusing on my students. This means, that when I’m with my son it is all about him. Before, the priorities in my life would get handled when I thought of them (or remembered) and now, I’m making a conscious effort to get everything organized.
Before the droidlet, I didn’t really have boundaries between my home life and my “school” life.  I would  answer emails at all hours of the night, accept late work from students without giving them too hard of a time, easily reschedule appointments, and always keep their essays out and ready for feedback. Now, I’m much more effective in my teaching and interaction with my students. I still have my open-door policy, open communication, and support. However, now, I have more structure. I make it imperative for students to make and keep consistent appointments.  My students know I won’t be staying up ‘til 11 to check emails, so we handle issues during my office hours or after class. I’ve established a clear boundary of when and where we can discuss work which allows my students the academic and individual support they need while allowing me to come home, confident that I’ve done my job.
Having the droidlet while working has also forced me to not be so hard on myself. When I first began teaching, I was wracked with the “mama guilt.” I felt guilty for being happy at school even when I was away from him. I felt guilty for being gone eight hours a day four days a week. And the guilt was double edged. I’d then feel guilty at home chasing him around and reading books while a stack of papers burned a hole in the back of my head from my briefcase. I felt guilty just snuggling on the couch after he had fallen asleep for a nap because I could be lesson planning. And then the guilt even started to slip into my relationship with my partner. There was guilt over falling into bed with hardly a word to him because I was exhausted from my new schedule.  Guilt that our apartment was never clean. Guilt. Guilt. Guilt.
The problem was that I was trying to do everything. Be the most amazing professor my students ever had, be super mom, be the perfect partner, do all the laundry, wash all the dishes, feed all the snakes, clean the whole house, “no thanks, I don’t need help, I totally got this” – when I definitely did not have it.
Then, one night, I asked my partner if he could cook dinner three times a week. He was stoked. Then, I started taking the droidlet to the park more frequently (being out of the house makes me less likely to clean or want to do work). Then, I started to schedule time at school to actually benefit my students in an efficient and effective way. I started asking for help – swapping lesson plans with other professors, having mini “dates” with my colleagues where we could voice frustrations and achievements so that when I got home I could talk with my partner about his day. All of these little “yes, please, I need that” completely changed my life around.
My son has taught me so many things. One of the greatest – that has helped me be a better partner, professor, and mama – is to be able to ask for that little bit of help. And I’ve come to realize, people are more than willing and happy to give it.