Get Up, Stand Up…

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This morning, I smiled and nodded and let some homophobic comments pass right by me in a schoolyard conversation. I feel disappointed in myself and curious as to the cause of my inability to speak up. I have spent all day considering ways I might deal differently with a similar situation in the future.

This is what happened…

I was joking around with some parents after the drop off. We were having a “cute stories” moment, talking about our little boys liking to dress up in girls’ clothes. Tariku likes to put a toy airplane in his hair and pretend it’s a tiara- that kind of thing. One of the dads piped up with: it’s fine when they’re seven as long as they’re not still wearing dresses when they’re seventeen. “I mean, that’s just not okay,” he said.

And that’s when I said…nothing. I said nothing.

I should have said, I’d be thrilled to have my son in a ball gown at his wedding if that’s what makes him feel good about himself and happy in his own skin. That is the truth.

So why didn’t I?

When I imagine being confronted with racism or sexism or homophobia etc, I think that I would always stand up to it, that I would always do the right thing, no question. In reality, we are often in situations with a great deal of social pressure. We are taken off guard. We want to be liked. We don’t want to make other people uncomfortable.

I feel like an outsider among the parents at pre-school and I am honestly often self conscious about T’s wacky behavior. When we arrive for drop off, most of the kids are sitting nicely, waiting with their parents, while T is running around, hollering and leading dance parties on the playground. I’m conscious that we’re different. The fact that I look like I fell of the side show carnival train doesn’t help. It makes me try extra hard to fit in. I think my desire to be socially accepted at the school is one factor in my silence.

Another factor is practice. It can be helpful to think situations like this through before we get blindsided with them. When I was first walking around in the world with Tariku, it used to be a lot harder for me to speak up when people said boneheaded things about adoption or race. Now I’m more experienced and I have a handful of standard responses that allow me to speak my mind in a way that doesn’t generally create a confrontational dynamic. I rarely wind up in the car later obsessing about what I might have said.

I’ve been thinking about the standard narrative of Rosa Parks. I was always told that she was tired from work one day and refused to move to the back of the bus. The reality is that she was a trained civil rights activist and that her refusal to move was a planned act of civil disobedience. We could all benefit from a little training, from a little practice. Perhaps on all of those back-to-school nights that we spend looking at their macaroni collages, we could take ten minutes to have a conversation about diversity.

Whether or not it’s incorporated at an institutional level, this does remind me how important it is to keep an open dialogue about these issues at home.

I’m going to a parent meeting at the school tonight and I’m going to bring up the idea. Because, as I would say to T when he screws up, “We’re gonna do better next time!”

Wish me luck!

This is How I Begin

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The night before last, I dreamed I was rushing through a hospital to see a friend of mine, who recently died of breast cancer. I was in a hurry to get to her so I could say goodbye. When I arrived, she rose to greet me and she didn’t have any hair, but otherwise she looked like her old self, her body healthy and strong. She looked happy. She hugged me. And then we began to dance.

I woke with my face wet with tears, but grateful to have seen her again, even if only in dreams. I felt that she had brought me a message about my body and time and the preciousness of it all.

That morning some girlfriends and I took our kids to the pool and I brought the message with me in my bones. I spent the day happy to have my legs stretched out in the sun, charmed by my wonderful friends, awed by the adorableness of our kids (even as they basically assaulted each other in the shallow end). When it came time for lunch, I sat there in my suit on a lounger and ate a Cobb salad and not once did I think, I should really put that sarong back on. Because I have been on this planet long enough to confidently know that no one is thinking about the size of my ass except me.

Phew, good thing my self-absorbed, self-conscious, self-loathing, weight-obsessed days are over and done with…

Yeah, right. Well, at least I had a morning of reprieve.

Every time I talk about body image issues, I can preemptively hear the charges of “first world problems” being leveled at me. It’s a popular argument these days and I’m not convinced it’s a useful one. Its intention is, of course, to shift our perspective for a moment, to make us less whiny and more grateful. Instead, it often shames us for having a feeling about anything other than the genocide in Darfur, which is simply unrealistic and not at all helpful to people who are genuinely in pain, whatever the cause.

Last week I sat down in a Macy’s dressing room and cried because I was so desperately sick of hating myself. I can’t remember a time I didn’t feel like someone made a mistake when they made me- the wrong shape, the wrong size, clumsy, thick. This bizarrely distorted lens is reserved for use only on myself. When it comes to other people, I have an expansive view of beauty, both physical and not.

The self-hatred isn’t constant, but it is always lying in wait for a window of opportunity. I can be going along my merry self-accepting way, when a moment of social anxiety, a rejection or even just a hard morning, will trigger a full-force flood of poison and the conclusion is always this: I am so ugly that I don’t deserve to be alive.

Of course I don’t consciously believe this. What I consciously believe doesn’t matter. What I actually look like doesn’t matter. My politics don’t matter. It is illogical. It is, in fact, ridiculous. I believe it has its origins in having too high a premium placed on physical beauty when I was a child, in having been inappropriately sexualized at an early age, in feeling out of control. Somewhere, I blame my own body for the injury it has sustained.

But frankly, at this point in my life- a grown woman, a writer, a mother- I don’t give a shit about the origins of it anymore. I simply want it to change. With the rest of my time on this earth, I want a different experience of my body. I want a life in which I don’t cry in dressing rooms anymore.

I don’t know how to make that happen. If it was a matter of just deciding to change my perspective (please don’t tell me to read The Secret), it would have happened long ago. If it were a matter of meds or therapy or yoga, believe me, I’d be golden by now. To whom do I go for help with this one? God? My therapist? My dead friend? Walt Whitman?

This is not a rhetorical question. I am asking you, the women in my life, how did you learn to love yourself?

It’s hard to conceive of tackling a problem that lies deeper than conscious thought, deeper than words. But all the change I’ve managed to effect in this life thus far has started with noticing. This, giving voice to the beast, is how I notice. This is how I begin.

My Baby

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I think every mother with an African American son was gut punched by the Trayvon Martin verdict. Every time I looked at my baby yesterday, I saw an image of him as a teenager. I kept imagining him with all the baby softness gone, replaced by that vulnerable swagger of the boys who ride skateboards on the sidewalks in front of the mini-mall around the corner. Several times, I had to turn by back to Tariku at the museum, so he wouldn’t see me crying for Trayvon’s mother.

Parenting is living in a constant state of delusion, somehow tending to the minutia of daily life and not thinking about the fragility of our children’s lives. We shove it out of our consciousness, because we need to make sandwiches and do dishes and get through bath time. If we were constantly contemplating the worst that could befall our kids, we’d just stand there breathless with our arms around them. We’d never let them go. But the truth is that at some point you have to let them go to the store to buy Skittles on their own. And when my son walks out into the world, he will face different dangers and prejudices than that of his white neighbor.

The Trayvon Martin tragedy has brought the oppressive sterotypes confronting people of color to the forefront of a national dialogue. My initial response has been intensely personal, of course, but it’s important to allow that emotion to propel you into the game. Emotion has to be balanced with action. I was heartened by the protests yesterday. These students inspire me.

I love this post at Rage Against the Minivan, because it details specific action steps you can take if you want to be part of the solution. Acknowledge your privilege. Diversify your life. Don’t be afraid to get in the conversation. Notice when you’re making assumptions based on race. Confront the assumptions and stereotypes of others.

My heart breaks for his mother. Over and over, it breaks.

Sexy Mama

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First of all, do yourself a favor and never google the words “sexy” and “motherhood” together. Ew. I discovered this as I was meditating on motherhood and sexuality after a Palm Springs weekend during which I spent about seven hours standing in waist deep water at the bottom of a water slide with a group of decked out moms with Eastern European accents, sexy swimsuits and full faces of makeup.

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These ladies were wearing gold belly bracelets and absolutely rocking their completely normal not-at-all-perfect mom bods. And they had kids hanging off each limb, same as the bedraggled-looking moms in mumus. It seemed, well, fun. I’m not exactly one to wear a belly bracelet, but I did appreciate the sentiment and I allowed it to inspire me to go put on a little lipstick and stop feeling like I had to don a full-length potato sack every time I stood up from my beach chair.

The de-sexualizing of the mother in this culture isn’t just something that’s done to us by our partners or by the media, we do it to ourselves. I definitely did for a few years there. I don’t believe it’s only because we’re tired and we don’t have time to get to the hair salon. Moms have innate guilt about “selfish” pursuits and getting sexy has nothing to do with our kids, so it gets dropped to the bottom of the to-do list. Also, much of our need for human touch is fulfilled by our children. It’s easy to wake from the oxytocin baby haze and realize that we aren’t connected with our erotic identity at all anymore.

I recently read a terrific book called Mating in Captivity, by Esther Perel. It’s about reconciling the erotic and the domestic and I would say it’s a must if you’re in a committed long-term relationship. Here is the TED talk, in which she asks the crucial question, “”Why does sex make babies and babies spell erotic disaster in couples.”

Obviously, I’ll never again be the sexy single gal who went on a first date with my husband ten years ago, but I’ve committed to making sure that I’m evolving into a more confident and alive sexual being, not less.

The Dignity of a Funny Costume

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The other day we went to a neighborhood BBQ. The girl across the street, who is a bit older than T, came over earlier in the day and convinced him that all the kids at the party would be wearing costumes. He insisted on dressing like a triceratops, of course.

You see where this is going, right? We arrived and he was the only one dressed up. My stomach dropped. When things like this happen to T, it triggers deep memories in me of being made a fool of as a child. I get really angry, mostly about my inability to protect him from these sorts of experiences.

A friend of mine turned to T and said, “Oops! She tricked you!”

Under my breath, I said, “Well don’t tell him that if he hasn’t figured it out.”

He was like, “What? OH!”

He got it. He stood in the doorway in his big green costume, looked around and let it register for a moment. Then he smiled his huge Tariku smile and said, “I don’t care because I’m SCARY! ROAR!”

He kept that outfit on the whole night. He roared and danced around and got everyone screaming and laughing. He’s been displaying a real knack for physical comedy lately. Scott says he’s like a little Charlie Chaplin. He stands in front of the mirror and does little dances, talks in silly voices, makes funny faces.

Tariku instinctively knows that being the one stuck in the dinosaur costume makes you the fool, yes, but it also can make you the star if you play it right.

When he finally got too hot in the costume, he took it off and lovingly brought it to me to hold, saying that he didn’t want to put it on the floor where people could step on it.

I thought he handled the situation with tremendous dignity. I felt so proud of his fierce, funny soul.

And I love that he thinks this costume is scary.