I Can Be Your Hero, Baby

My kid was tossing around his baseball in the house tonight, which he does ad nauseum these days. This time it was after dinner, when he was supposed to be putting on his PJs. I was out of steam, as I so often am after dinner, and I must have asked him 42 times to please put the ball away and get undressed. Then all of a sudden he tossed it up, missed where it landed, and completely lost it somewhere in the depths of our living room. He looked for it for about 12 seconds before declaring that he needed me to find it. I searched to no avail before letting him gently know that I didn’t think we had time to look hard before bedtime, and I’d look more before morning. Because he is truly obsessed with baseball these days, this sent him into a worried tizzy, thinking his ball was lost forever, his 5-year-old brain fully believing that our carpet had swallowed it into the black hole below our couch. Not easily bearing his distress, I fed him a popsicle and kept looking, and looking. And looking. Twenty-odd minutes later I extracted it from a hidden spot behind our couch, triumphantly. He sheepishly thanked me and hugged me several times and my Heroic Mama status was returned.

I have a lot of parenting moments that consist of me letting myself know what a bad job I’m doing. So, considering my usual M.O. of parental self-contempt (which seems to be the M.O. of so many working mamas – at least I’m in good company) the moments of patting myself on the back are substantially rarer. True, part of the reason behind that is the impossibly high bar I set for myself; the other part is the pervasive cultural narratives about all the things I’m supposed to be to them.

My son (the baseball fanatic) is just learning to read, so the whole family is even more into books these days than we usually are. I couldn’t be happier since I secretly want them to be avid book lovers, as I’ve always been. But, something’s been nagging at me as we return to classics that I still adore, and crack open new ones that we fall in love with together. There’s a stock character that seems to recur no matter how new or old the story – the Heroic Mama.

The Heroic Mama is sometimes just there as the central caregiver, to read the bedtime story, or make sure the child has a hot dinner, or a warm bath. In many books, she’s the only parental presence – any other paternal figures are apparently not significant enough to the story (or to the protagonist child) to mention. Sometimes the Heroic Mama is the Fixer, the only one who can make whatever it is better. Sometimes she’s the Sage, dispensing calm wisdom or soothing reassurance. Other times she’s the Gentle Enforcer, with a balanced and non-yelly approach to discipline, which works every time.

Owl Babies by Martin Waddell

When we read beautiful books like The Snowy Day or Windows, I let the absence of any other family members go unmentioned. When Blueberries for Sal or Owl Babies are the chosen stories, I put on my fun voices and brush aside the annoyance that the kids (and bear cubs and owlets) in the stories are so utterly dependent on their mamas being within sight at all times – but seriously y’all, why can’t Daddy Owl babysit while Mommy Owl is out looking for food? Even in our beloved new favorite Sometimes I’m Bombaloo, her mommy is the one helping little Katie Honors lick her wounds when she calms down after a tantrum. I’m just gonna hope that Daddy is busy doing laundry, or her other Mommy is off conducting brain surgery, and those details just didn’t make the editor’s cut.

This is what my feminist mama brain asks itself when we read: Where is everyone else in this kid’s life? Obviously, this doesn’t happen in every book, and admittedly, our home library is pretty heteronormative which is probably part of the problem. Hey, single moms by choice are also a new normal, but I have a feeling that’s generally not the default family structure in an author’s mind when omitting other parental influences. I could count on one hand the number of books in which there’s a paternal figure but no mention of a maternal one; in fact, I’m having a hard time thinking of a single story we own in which that’s the family scenario. Heroic Mama is a cultural icon, and is the bedrock upon which so many of our impossibly high standards for ourselves, and for the mothers around us, are built.

I don’t want to lose these stories from our lives, but do they have something to do with the fact that when my son hugged me for finding his ball, I hugged him back and whispered, “I always want to help you fix things that are bothering you…”?

Here’s the real sticking point, though: for a mama who otherwise is often made to feel like I’m not measuring up (which my feminist brain is also aware is not all in my head – thank you, America) the Heroic Mama tropes at least paint a picture of me that reassures them I will always be there, even when I’m not always there. While the rickety pedestal they set up is unnerving, it’s also sometimes a welcome maternal ego stroke. When, after the owl babies have been fretting the whole book about where their mother has gone, and they all close their eyes and wish together that their mother would come, she appears with the line:

“AND SHE CAME. Soft and silent, she swooped through the trees…”

…back to her kiddos – I get goosebumps every time.

She’s their superhero. She literally descends on them like Batman while they squeal with relief and delight. Every parent wants to be their kid’s hero at some point, and we certainly don’t hold this esteem in the eyes of our children forever. I remind myself constantly that this adoration is fleeting, so I should revel in it. Grab onto it and store it up for when my kids are teenagers, embarrassed to be seen with me. These seemingly anti-feminist narratives might actually be doing me a service in some ways – while unquestionably doing my husband no favors. He is the Daddy Owl that babysits when Mommy Owl goes out to dinner with her Owl college friends, and drinks a lot of red wine and overspends the “dining out” budget for the month. Maybe my problem with these depictions is not so much the pressure they put on me to be all these wonderful things, but the non-existent expectation they place on him. He is so frequently given no representation, so he needs to build his hero status from scratch.

I suppose considering the many narratives missing from the dominant stories in our culture, giving men (hetero, cis men at that) more representation is not what I’m arguing for. I don’t think I’m arguing for anything, really, because while the stories that uplift a mama’s role in her children’s lives sometimes feel like they are deceptively incomplete and wildly simplistic, they are also reminding us how important mothers are in the stories of us and our world, and no part of my feminist brain would dispute that. Do I want that to be the sum-total of what I am expected to measure up to, as a mother? Heck no. But, do I actually want to give up the possibility of my kids seeing me as a hero, a fixer, a sage, and a gentle enforcer – even for a few more years, and even if I’m not really any of those things? Selfishly, also heck no.

They’ll have plenty of time to discover how disappointingly human I am once they’re old enough to read their own books, and the ones about owls and bears begin gathering dust on our shelves.

Until then, I’ll take what I can get.

 

It’s Because of her Gender: A 2020 Plea to My Fellow Dems

I miss writing. This is maybe the longest I’ve gone between posts since starting this blog. If someone were to have visited in the last few months, they would have assumed I’d hung up my spurs. But not so. Life with two barely school-age children has indeed gotten more hectic, but as we approach another intense election season, my stress level is rising and my wheels are spinning.

I wrote my first poem the other day in probably years; it was the day of the El Paso and Dayton shootings. Nothing like mass violence, blistering rage, and fear for your children’s future to kick those creative muscles into gear. I remember when all it took was the boy I liked not noticing me in class. I miss that being all it took. I keep trying to convince myself that every generation has an apocalyptic moment, but I was literally coming of age when 9/11 happened nearly 20 years ago, so…

Maybe this is more than a moment.

Somewhere in between then and now we managed to elect Barack Obama as President, twice, but at this point all that feels like a fever dream.

 

 

 

 

*****

I watched the Democratic debates this summer. Did you? No? It’s okay: I’m the only one I know who did, except for the guys on Pod Save America.

Everyone I’ve talked to seemed to just watch the clips afterward, the ones the media decided were the most newsworthy, the best applause lines, the best zingers. Most people I know, even the very politically conscious ones, preferred reading or watching all the post-debate analysis to get a sense of who is pulling ahead, or failing to meet expectations. I think most people around me, and I count myself among these (and yes, most people I know are Democrats because I live in Brooklyn and yes, it’s the biggest bubble in the world), are impatient with the clown car theatrics and would just appreciate some of the “never-gonna-happens” getting out of the way so we could focus on the real candidates. Until then, there is undeniably a lot of nonsense on that stage.

But a lot of folks I know are not looking into the actual substance of the candidates to make their decision about who to vote for in the 2020 Democratic primary, anyway. A lot of folks, especially those in my parents’ generation (Boomers, I’m lookin’ at you!), are nearly laser-focused on electability, as though that descriptor automatically implies best person for the job. I find that terrifying, and I’ll tell you why.

Because it seems to me that for that enormous generation, many of whom identify as liberal, and for many people outside that generation, even in my own (I’m a GenXer, the Jan Brady of generations) – electability is code for Joe Biden. And Joe Biden is code for white-haired, white-toothed, white dude.

I’m terrified that 2016 has us all terrified. And not like in a motivated way.

We’ve had a collective shock that we’re barely over, the worst case scenario came to fruition, the dark underbelly of our nation made itself at home in the White House, and all because we took for granted the most qualified candidate to ever run for President who happened to be a woman. And I will admit, sheepishly, that when we were barely starting this primary season and hardly anyone had announced their candidacy but everyone was talking about who would, my first instinct was a survival instinct: I don’t care anymore about electing a woman I just want someone to get us out of this mess please just get us out of this mess whoever you are even if you’re Bernie Sanders.

I didn’t vote for Bernie. Partly because I didn’t think he was as electable as Hillary, but also because I really wanted to support our first woman candidate. Which is the first sign, to me, that I don’t know the first damn thing about electability and neither do most of us.

What we’re saying when we say we just want to nominate someone who is electable so they can beat the incumbent autocrat is that it probably won’t be a woman, because we all just proved to ourselves and each other that a woman can’t be elected. Yet. That we’re not ready for it. We certainly haven’t better prepared ourselves since then, as we…let’s see…swept aside the credible testimony of a traumatized woman and allowed a sex offender to take a Supreme Court seat…began stripping away every woman’s right to abortion in this country…oh yeah, and basically didn’t pay attention to the latest woman to let us know that our President raped her. No, our track record of supporting women as a country has not lately seen much improvement.

And what we’re saying when Joe Biden leads the polls not because of his strong messaging or his clear vision but because we all know who he is and he seems like a good guy even with that questionable voting history but those were different times and he could probably do the job and he fits the profile and Obama dug him so he’s probably the most electable – what we’re saying is that, as former Obama strategist Dan Pfeiffer said in the most recent episode of PSA,

“we’re not playing to win, we’re playing not to lose.”

The truth is that I watched the debates because I needed some way of figuring out who I cared about. Before then, I didn’t have the first clue. Mayor Pete was someone my millennial friends were talking about, and K-Gilly is from my state and I liked her well enough, and oh there’s Bernie again, and what seriously, now DiBlasio’s running?? I think most of our party may still be in that headspace.

The other truth is, friends, that Elizabeth Warren (and, in the first one, Kamala Harris) owned those debates. I’m not saying that as someone who went in supporting her, because I didn’t feel strongly one way or another, and I’m clearly not the only one who thinks so considering since then Lizzie’s eclipsed Bernie for second behind Biden. She’s done that despite the fact that so many Democrats are still scared out of their pants to vote for a woman again. Democrats who are women themselves, even. Democrats who just want to vote for whoever is going to beat Trump.

What terrifies me is that’s simply not what wins elections, especially ones riding on bringing out a lot of latent voters. Vision does. Strong messaging does. Those were things that we hate to admit Trump had when he won but he did. They were horrible visions and terrible messages, but they were there, and they were clear. They were so simplistic and feeble-minded that they were clear as day to much of America, and even convinced some people who voted for Obama. (That I still don’t understand btw, and if you are one of those people, can you message me so we can talk and I can wrap my brain around how that works?)

Warren has all the goods, people. Her vision may not be everyone’s ideal, but it’s strong, she’s crystal clear, and she’s the smartest person in most rooms. After debate #2 I did some reading and listening, and now I’m hooked. But, I worry that all those people in my party who rest their laurels on electability will overlook all of her strengths because of that residual fear. Because of our collective trauma as citizens of the country that somehow elected Donald Trump. Because we don’t have enough faith in ourselves to take a risk on another woman, even if that woman is the most dependable, inspiring candidate we have.

My Democrat, Boomer comrades: you might say she’s a risk because she’s too progressive or because of Medicare for All or because she’ll seem like an elitist law professor to middle America or because because because. She’s certainly less divisive than Hillary, and has a cleaner record. But if you call her a risk in one breath and say you’re voting for Biden or Bernie in the next, don’t tell me it’s because of her policies. Just admit it’s because of her gender.

I believe that the more honest we can be about what’s scaring us, the easier it will be to overcome; I actually wouldn’t fault anyone for admitting that they’re so petrified of another loss that they’re letting pervasive, internalized sexism guide their position. We just have to overcome that fear to win this thing. If we let our fear of losing again be the central motivating factor in the voting booth we will seal our fate. If we vote for something, or someone, and not just against the current occupant of the Oval Office, then and only then will we have a shot. This just isn’t the time to play it safe; we can’t purely strategize our way out of this shitstorm.

So, while none of this is particularly groundbreaking commentary, this is officially my (first) plea to the 33% of Democrats who currently favor Biden because you’re worried that no one else can get the job done: please vote for who you believe in. Doesn’t even matter if it’s Warren (I’m just betting that if you really pay attention, it probably will be, but maybe not). Hey, maybe DiBlasio’s speaking your language. I would certainly respect a Kamala vote, or even Buttigieg. WTH, vote for Marianne Williamson if she stole your heart. (Really? But ok.)

But please please please vote by your belief system, not by your fear.

Imagine what this country’s government would look like if everyone who could vote took their actual belief system to the polls. Maybe this makes me impossibly naive, but I kind of want to live in that country.

 

(Also, to be clear: whoever we do nominate, even if for the wrong reasons, I’ll campaign my tuchus off for them.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this post are my own and not those of my employer, TCG.

What It Sounds Like When A Woman Finds Her Voice

I have a profound memory from graduate school. I got my degree in performance from a (then) esteemed institution, and one of the most frustrating and fascinating classes I took in my two years there was Voice class.

Via Giphy

Back in undergrad, we drama majors secretly called Voice class “Breathing for Credit” because it felt like woo woo work, or the stuff of a Christopher Guest film about actors: a lot of strange facial contortions, jaw massage, and dramatically audible exhales. Once in the realm of the Masters however, Voice class took on a new level of seriousness. The phonetic alphabet is no joke, y’all. I mean, I choreographed and performed a dance solo to the iambic pentameter rhythm of my favorite Shakespearean soliloquy in my first few weeks of class. We were not dicking around.

I think it was in my second year when we did an exercise in which all the women in the class, one after the other, stood before the rest of us and…how do I say this?…found her true voice. By that I mean, our professor had to coax it out of us, slowly, one by one, coaching each of us to reach a depth none of us had consciously ever tapped into. And the profound part was that every single one of us, when we finally found it – when our true, deep voices emerged and hit a certain pitch – we each felt it in the cores of our bodies, were momentarily surprised, eyes widening, and then…cried. It was biochemical. Our eyes welled up as soon as we accessed our authentic sound. Not only that, but each one of our authentic sounds was commanding. It demanded attention; it silenced the room like a record scratch. The rest of the class couldn’t help but listen, captivated.

I have thought about this a lot since then. I watched every one of my women classmates discover a part of herself that she’d been socialized to bury deep within her own body. It was as though we’d each tapped a power that we didn’t know we had, and were at once frightened and strengthened by it. It was the rush of a superhero discovering their superpower.

It makes me think of another memory: the time, before grad school, that I was out in the city by myself much later than I should have been, and I was followed off the subway by a lecherous stranger who trailed me down a dark street. I didn’t realize the normally bustling block was so empty until I felt his hands groping at the back of me, and then my eyes quickly darted around and I realized I was alone. That’s about when the animal instinct kicked in; it was fight or flight, and flight didn’t seem possible as he began to corner me against a wall. Swatting his hands away, I said “Get the f*ck off me, ” in a voice full of panting breath. I don’t even know if he heard that one. Then something arose out of me that must have been my voice but honestly, I felt disembodied in that instant, and I repeated the command with a new kind of force. “GET THE FUCK OFF ME.” It was loud. It was deep. It was monstrous. I think my eyes were closed as I released it, because when I opened them, he was hastening away. Little blond twenty-something me unleashed a primal roar that I didn’t know was somewhere inside, and it was frightening enough to send my would-be attacker (who had towered over me) running down the street. My voice was the only thing that transformed that moment from one of violation to one of empowerment.

These memories rattle around my brain a lot, especially these days. I was recently visited by my friend Samara Bay, a dialect coach to the stars (literally), and she’d just come off a visit to her alma mater where she’d given a talk at a convening called She Roars: Celebrating Women at Princeton. The talk was called “She Roars and People Listen: Using Your Voice to Get What You Want.” They’d been expecting maybe a couple dozen people, but she had more than a couple hundred people sign up, and they had to move it from a small meeting space to one of the larger auditoriums. She packed the house, and then brought it down. Turns out this is something women are getting more curious about, and those of us with training and know-how about how to use our voices (ahem, theatre people) are a step ahead, often without knowing it.

It’s timely, considering how many women are pouring into the political arena, and how much we’ve heard the voices of some of our most prominent women leaders criticized and picked apart along with everything else about their demeanor. We’ve been over the fact that we rarely talk about the voices of men, but women are harped on in the media for their “shrillness” or their “vocal fry.” (Think about that as you check out Artist Campaign School, a jointly sponsored program training artists to run for office.) It’s yet another sad double standard, and another marker of a tipped-scale system in which women have a hard time getting it just right.

Rebecca Traister talks a lot about this in her new, engrossing book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. On the subway, I read the part when she starts to unravel how women have traditionally been made to feel that their anger is problematic or illegitimate, and my heart starts to pound like someone is about to tell me the secret of my life. She begins hinting at her eventual thesis: that not only is women’s anger a healthy thing to unleash,  but it can be the ultimate source of our power. And that makes it really, really scary to pretty much everyone, including us. We’ve been taught for so long to not be too forceful; that feeling anger behind closed doors is one thing, but showing it in public is entirely another. That we must measure ourselves, lest the smallest dose of exhibited rage label us as hysterical. My eyes fill with tears as I read this, as a woman who’s always been called “intense”, “aggressive”, or “contentious”. So, you mean my simmering fury is not a character flaw, but potentially a source of strength? That it isn’t something to be ashamed of but to embrace, and to find its way to a collective fire with other women’s voices, at which point magic things might happen?

Traister acknowledges that not all women have the privilege to experiment in simply expressing their fury when it calls to them. Black women’s anger isn’t given an inch of grace in any mainstream corner of our society; even Michelle Obama couldn’t so much as raise an eyebrow without some rag pinning her as an angry Black woman. (And if you’re skeptical, maybe Google “Serena Williams 2018 U.S. Open” as another example.) Brittney Cooper, author of Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, said this on NPR the other day:

“Whenever someone weaponizes anger against Black women, it is designed to silence them. It is designed to discredit them and to say that they are overreacting, that they are being hypersensitive, that their reaction is outsized.”

I think about what “finding your voice” means for every kind of woman. I think about my dear friend who for a long time lived as a man, but eventually let us know that she was in fact a trans woman, and has been publicly telling the story of her journey into a new, self-actualized life. I learned from her that she would be unable to rely on hormones or any kind of pharmaceutical help to transition her voice along with the rest of her, so she has to retrain her old voice to match her new body, and her true identity. For this friend, it wasn’t a depth, but a lightness she needed to find; a lightness even that makes it hard for her to project sometimes, to make herself loud. I think about how my friend will learn to find her true voice, and eventually, express anger with a vocal quality that will probably be soft and contained, no matter how much fire is raging inside her.

Something about all these learnings and memories makes me think that when a woman finally finds her true voice – not in a metaphorical way but a literal one – she is at that moment also allowing herself to feel her true rage, and that rage is a glowing light in the center of her somewhere, not a toxic substance to rid herself of, as she would have been made to believe. When all of us in that Voice class, the moment we heard ourselves and knew that we’d just made a sound that was our full, complete, individual voice – I think we all briefly dipped into a netherworld of festering anger. And if our voices are the most powerful conduit for our anger – the vehicle by which our superpower can most potently be felt – we need to begin to let it all rise to the top together. Like superheroes learning how to control their newly discovered gifts, it will be a little messy at first. We’ll get it wrong sometimes. We’ll blow open a wall where we were just trying to burn a small hole. We’ll scare people. We’ll scare each other. We’ll cry a lot. We’ll want to put the lid back on.

But once I heard that animal sound come out of me at a threatening presence on the street, once I heard my own real sound come out in front of so many other women hearing their own real sounds, I think I knew that there would be no putting that particular genie back into the bottle. It was just a matter of better understanding it.

Mary Beard’s scholarly series of essays on Women and Power are a helpful guide to this process of understanding, tracing back the need to silence women to stifle the threat of their power by centuries, up through today, effectively drawing comparisons to the haters of ancient Greece to the trolls currently harassing Beard herself on Twitter.

I call this picture “The Day Nina Found Her Voice.”

I think about what “finding your voice” means for my daughter. My two-year-old Nina has a naturally loud voice, and has not yet been socialized out of using it at its fullest. One meaning of the name Nina is ‘mighty warrior’, and she does not like to be shushed. When she gets especially frustrated we’re trying to teach her to “use her words” rather than scream, or hit, or bite. (Oh yes, two-year-olds of all genders have no qualms about displaying their rage by clawing the face of the person who just snatched their toy… more evidence for anger being a natural state of being?) And while we’ll continue to teach her not to lash out with her body, or her teeth, writing this makes me want to allow her, and even encourage her, to rage with her voice. We were all shushed while growing up, particularly little girls with sharp tongues or lung capacity, who, as these fierce authors tease out in great detail, will only continue to be told to shut up throughout their lives in one form or another.

What would the world look like if the sound of a little girl screaming at her big brother was a positive sign of vitality, or an encouraged step toward finding the mighty warrior within her?

What would it be like if we just said, “Yes, we hear you, we love you, we know why you’re screaming, and you can scream as long as you need to. In fact, it feels good to let it out, doesn’t it?”

 

I have suckled the wolfs lip of anger and I have used it for illumination, laughter, protection, fire in places where there was no light, no food, no sisters, no quarter. We are not goddesses or matriarchs or edifices of divine forgiveness; we are not fiery fingers of judgment or instruments of flagellation; we are women always forced back upon our woman’s power…
We use whatever strengths we have fought for, including anger, to help define and fashion a world where all our sisters can grow, where our children can love, and where the power of touching and meeting another woman’s difference and wonder will eventually transcend the need for destruction.

-Audre Lorde, The Uses of Anger

 

Stop Apologizing to the Men. They’ll Be Fine.

A couple of weeks ago I got my regular installment of the NY Times’ “On Leadership” newsletter, and the first line was this: “The #metoo movement claimed perhaps its most powerful figure yet, as CBS announced Sunday that longtime chairman and chief executive Leslie Moonves would resign amid allegations of sexual misconduct.”

My hackles were raised before I got to sentence two. Did anything in there piss you off? Because I’ll tell you what I saw. I have beef with the ‘claimed’ language four words in. Yeah, it’s not even close to the first time verbiage like this has been used to describe the consequences that befall a man in power in the wake of #metoo revelations. But when the Times uses it in their opener, I get worried about how pervasive that language is becoming.

Hurricanes claim people’s lives. Earthquakes and fires. Mass killings and other horrifying devastation. When we use the same language to describe what happens to an offender when some form of justice is achieved, it feels to me like we are equating an empowering social movement with disasters that take the lives of innocent people. That last part is important. That false equivalency belies the most dangerous undercurrent of the #metoo backlash: the suspicion that many of the ‘fallen’ men are innocent (or at least, innocent enough), being picked off one by one by a mob of reckless witch hunters.

I’ve been in more than one room at this point, filled with dozens of people, that raises the issue of the #metoo movement and sexual misconduct in the theatre field. Pretty much every time the discussion opens up, one of the very first concerns mentioned, by people of all genders, is what will happen to the lives of the accused. Do we really want to see meaningful careers torched because of a personal transgression here and there? Without so much as an acknowledgment of the countless survivor lives and careers ruined, the conversation begins with a presumption that #metoo is a threat more than a tool for social change, out to get people who don’t deserve to be gotten. Somehow in these conversations the aftermath is given more weight than the precipitating harm, and until some wise person mentions that we might want to center the damage done to the victims, the natural tendency seems to lean toward anxiety that the movement is getting carried away, and undeserving decent people are getting swept into the floodwaters.

Until this morning, I hadn’t felt truly angry about the political dumpster fire that is our country in awhile. Mostly, because I won’t let myself. Some time ago I began to break the promise that I made to myself after the 2016 election that I would stay highly engaged, and I wouldn’t normalize, and I would continue to fight and make noise. I’ve been able to stay true to the last piece, but that looks different than I thought it would. It turns out that the best way for me to fight in any kind of resistance is not to make a lot of signs and retweet a lot of hashtags, but to read, to vote, to raise my kids with integrity, to listen to smart people debate the issues I refuse to be mired down in, and to pour myself into my work with a renewed devotion to equity—because the work I do has the potential to influence a great deal of people, in its own way. But personally, I haven’t stayed engaged in the day to day drama. There’s too much of it, and it’s becoming harder to tell substance from diversion. So, I do whatever I can to avoid images or sound bites of the man we’re supposed to be calling President. I never speak his name at home, and I buckle down into my artistically-driven, community-building, sometimes incredibly depleting work, tickling my kids and hoping that the next two years goes by quick and without the entire geopolitical system as we know it imploding. It’s not particularly honorable, but it’s how I stay healthy.

This morning, as I walked out of my therapist’s office, I put my headphones on and clicked the NPR livestream of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony. As soon as I hit play, I heard the question a Senator asked of her about what she remembered most from the assault on her in 1982, by the worm of a man now nominated to occupy the highest judicial seat in the country.

“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter…”

It was the first time I’d heard her voice. It was light, nervous, and as she talked, audibly shaking with decades of trauma. She described the feeling of the two boys laughing together at her expense, as one of them—the one in the middle of a job interview process to share a bench with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan—grinded into her and groped her like she was a blow-up doll.

I know that indelible feeling, and so do you, if you’ve ever experienced humiliation and been temporarily stripped of your humanity by someone who is exerting power over you, just because they can. Remember when that happened? For some of you, remember all the times it happened?

They don’t. The old white ringleaders of the circus that is our government. The weaselly liar in the hot seat. Those people were by and large born into a wonderland of privilege and sent on the yellow brick road to power, shrouded in beer-stained, monogrammed sweater vests before they left middle school. This is not a feeling they can access. This is not a truth they can comprehend, because it’s never been theirs. Oppression has always been someone else’s problem. And so they may actually believe her (because really, who doesn’t) but they just don’t care.

It’s all of this that brought my anger back to me this morning; the kind of rage and disgust I felt when I nursed my newborn daughter the morning after He Who Shall Not Be Named was elected and thought about the 51%. I sucked in my tears as I listened to Dr. Ford talk through hers. And as today went on and I listened to more than one Senator apologize to Brett F*cking Cavanaugh for the way he’s been treated, to Lindsay Graham’s remorseful, unhinged tirade about the “hell” that Cavanaugh’s been through for a whole two months, and the perpetrator himself talk about how hard this has all been on him and his family, I nearly ordered an American flag on Amazon just so I could burn it.

I’ll meditate through it all in the morning. I’ll stretch. I’ll breathe deeply. I’ll focus on getting my kids to school. I’ll try not to be too distracted to get my work done.

And somewhere in there a sexual predator will be approved to the Supreme Court. Joining the sexual predator in the White House. And Al Franken will be off fishing somewhere. While Louis CK wanders into another comedy club.

No news outlet will need to publish an opening sentence like “The #metoo movement claimed another soul in the highest profile he said-she said showdown since Anita Hill made history.” No man will lose his life tomorrow. No hashtag will leave scars on the psyche of a traumatized judge and his brave family. No enraged and fragile Senators will need to bring down a firestorm of indignation at the mistreatment of a good, decent man (according to 60-something of his drinking buddies). Dr. Ford may continue to receive death threats until she disappears into the quiet life of an historical artifact, but that will seem an adequate cross to bear. A couple of years from now, millions of women around our country may lose access to legal abortions, but hey, at least we will have done the right thing by the poor guy who never saw the witches coming.

I hope I’m wrong. The margin is narrow, so justice is still within reach. But I’ve made the mistake of presumptuous optimism before, so I’m gonna err on the side of history when I place my bets on this one.

And while we wait for the hearings to happen and the decisions to come in, do me a favor and read this story that my organization’s magazine put out about where several public survivors are now, and what it cost them to do what they did in pursuit of justice. And then take a guess about how many times someone with power apologized to them.

 

 

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this post are my own and not those of my employer, TCG. Also, I want to  acknowledge that not every perpetrator of sexual violence and misconduct is a man, and not every survivor is a woman.

Opening Up, or What If I Raised My Kids Without Gender?

It’s safe to say that I’ve done more thinking about gender – mine, and other people’s – in the last year than ever before in my 40-year-old life.

At work, I’d taken on an informal gender equity initiative with some women colleagues, stimulating regular discussions about gender representation across our theatre field. I’d attended an all-women leadership summit in the fall, and helped to facilitate conversations around gender and intersectionality. I’d co-launched a women’s affinity space in my office. I’d written articles for supporting parents at work, regardless of gender, but in service of gender parity. I’d flown to California for a conference in which I joined a session focused on what the speakers called “trans competency,” which was shorthand for “learning how to be truly inclusive of trans and gender non-binary people.” And somewhere in there, #metoo and Time’s Up exploded into the headlines, and my department became responsible for our external professional development programming addressing sexual abuse and misconduct across our industry on a national level. Which, of course, has led my winter and spring to be consumed by even more conversations about gender, power, and the privileges and challenges that befall everyone on the gender spectrum.

So yeah. It’s been no small part of my day-to-day.

Dirty, splashy, 21-month-old Nina

Then there’s the less intellectualized, more intuitive feelings about gender that have accompanied the birth of my daughter. Namely, I’ve been disinclined to dress my daughter in pink from the beginning, and have asked her grandparents not to buy her pink clothes. (I won’t even get into the exchanges I’ve had about not piercing her ears as an infant, which is customary in my in-laws’ culture.) I admittedly haven’t gone full gender-neutral when it comes to her wardrobe – all my resistant energy has for some reason been focused on pink. The pervasiveness of fuchsia frilliness and ballerina tutus and bedazzled Disney princess pajamas in the little girls’ section of most stores is just a little barfy to me. We’ll probably fall victim to the fru-fru phase at some point, but in the meantime, I’ve tried to keep it at bay. So, while this probably has nothing to do with what she wears at 21 months (today!), Miss Nina has turned out to be quite the rough-and-tumble, skinned-knees, dirt-and-sand type of girl, which gives me great joy. And when her brother announced that his favorite colors were pink and purple, I smiled with some kind of norm-defying satisfaction. In his first years, I’d avoided sports-focused onesies, and anything that said crap like, “Daddy’s Little Dude.” But most of his clothes have been inherited, and there we found ourselves, on the road to “overgendering” our first kid; now all he wears is blue. I was determined not to go down this same path with our second. Her autonomy about her own definition of – and relationship to – womanhood, femininity, and gender at large has been a sticking point for me.

With all of this backstory, you can imagine how I did a doubletake the other day when I heard my beloved weekday morning radio host interviewing parents who were exploring something they called “gender creative parenting.” The segment was inspired by a recent article in The Cut, “It’s a Theyby! Is it possible to raise your child entirely without gender from birth? Some parents are trying.” by Alex Morris. After listening to some of these parents, and the article’s author, describe this practice, I immediately Pocketed the article, and read it on the train on the way to work.

I’ll let you read it for yourself, but essentially there’s a movement of parents gaining momentum, who are focused on not gendering their child from birth. Meaning, they don’t identify or attribute meaning to the anatomy of their child  (“anatomy” is used very consciously, I learned, because “sex” is so intertwined with gender expression in our culture) until their child is old enough to opt into their own gender identity, which usually happens by preschool age. As the title implies, these parents generally use they/them pronouns for their child, and do their best to remain neutral on the gender front in all settings – including, in a lot of cases, trying to get their daycare on board, and getting into relationship-threatening fights with family members.

I admit here, not proudly, but humbly, that– even as someone who is accustomed to giving my gender pronouns in meetings – my first reaction to this idea was one of skepticism. My own interest in gender autonomy falls so short of this lifestyle – it is awe-inspiring and radical, to the point of almost being intimidating. I’m sure a lot of people roll their eyes when they hear about gender creative parenting. There’s probably an episode of “Portlandia” dedicated to it. I mean, a Theyby? Isn’t this a little over the top, even for liberals?

Listeners called into the radio show as I got dressed that morning. I casually counted how many of them began with something like “I’m as progressive as they get, Brian, you know, I voted for Bernie, BUT…” before they offered some explanation for why this was where they drew the line in the sand. One woman insisted that this was just another ideology these parents were enforcing on their children, to replace an existing ideology that they didn’t care for, but that it was still introducing a rigid belief system to your household and family about which your children have no real choice. I paused to consider that.

The author of the article noted that most of these parents have heard some criticism like this, as though they were inducting their children into some kind of cult. Rather, they insist, this is an opening-up, and as close as they feel they can come to real liberation from potentially damaging societal constructs. The whole basis of the movement is that gender is socially constructed (so, if you don’t believe that, there’s little hope of you sympathizing with them). The shared goal of these parents is “to create an early childhood free of gendered ideas of how a child should dress, act, play, and be.” And, isn’t that the same basic theory that underscores my distaste for pink clothes – just demonstrated with a kind of purity, and a lot more commitment?

Another point made in the piece was that someone’s gender, in nearly every society on earth, is probably the biggest determinant of their future, outside of family wealth. (I’d argue that race should be on this short list, but you know, splitting hairs.) I think about the stat I often hear echoing through my work: the average life expectancy of a trans woman of color in America is 31. The sad truth of present-day America, especially with the clowns currently running it, is that if you are someone who outwardly identifies outside the gender binary in this country, your safety is automatically in jeopardy, and your psyche is in for a beating.

As the article goes on, “For [these parents], society’s gender troubles cannot be solved by giving all children dolls and trucks to play with or dressing them all in the color beige; the gender binary must not simply be smudged but wholly eradicated from the moment that socialization begins, clearing the way both for their child’s future gender exploration and for wholesale cultural change.”

They want a clean slate. And as a cultural change, this is clearly not going to happen overnight. I think this comment in the response thread encapsulates a lot of what I heard on the radio show, and a lot of what these folks hear every day: This strikes me as monstrous egotism on the part of these parents. To impose something as fundamental as “deciding” on your gender, on a developing child, is the height of arrogant progressive egotism. How much damage will this child suffer as the result of “their” parents’ experiment? This is the obvious end result of the transgender bandwagon, and I fully support transgender rights and dignity. But relegating gender to a choice is pointless, precious and selfish in the extreme. Choose the kind of person you want to be. Let nature continue to play its role.

If I was going to get on my quasi-activist soapbox, I’d point out the cis fragility dripping from these words, but those of you who might be agreeing more with that commenter than these parents would probably stop reading right now if I said that.

Did you?

No?

Cool, thanks.

My response to my own initial discomfort is, what if I take a side road and simply approach this idea with curiosity and compassion? When marriage equality was the hot topic, I remember thinking that, even if someone was morally opposed to two people of the same sex tying the knot, what the hell do they care what other people do with their family lives if it’s not hurting anyone? It’s just not any of their damn business.

And if were to make it my business, as conservative America is wont to do, citing the possible damage to the children at hand (have you noticed how all bigoted ideologies rest their laurels on saving the children?)…well, let’s look at that. What is more damaging: raising a child to be as unaware as possible of the constraints of their gender identity, as determined by their sex, so they might discover for themselves what they like and who they want to be? OR raising a child, like my son, in a typical gendered environment, and then contending by preschool age with the emergence of play gun-shooting and aggressive friends who “hate girls” and think he should too?

I look at the difference between my kids, determined by just a small amount of extra effort to protect her gender autonomy, and I think these radical hipster parents may be onto something. (And if you think I’m making assumptions about their hipsterism, please note that the two most talked-about kids in the article are named Scout and Zoomer. Carry on.)

So many of us have lately yearned to be liberated from overly binary systems, each end of which seeming dangerously extreme. So what is it about freeing ourselves from the duality of gender that pisses people off so much, even self-identified progressives? What is it about the pull of expected gender roles that defies even our politics? Would this world have so many school shootings, or #metoo, or Donald Trump, if we’d all been free from our genders for the first years of our lives?

I don’t have an answer, but these are questions worth thinking about.

I’m not going to go full gender creative on my family. Besides that I kind of missed the boat, and not for lack of empathy for the people trying it out – I’m just not there yet. Really, if I’d known this lifestyle choice was a thing before I had kids, would I have adopted it? It’s unlikely. I know, at 40, that I’m not a radical. I also know that it will take the rest of my life, and then some, to unlearn the many destructive systems that I’ve been socialized into.

Yet I can’t help but hope that someday – maybe by the time my kids have kids – this kind of “opening up” won’t seem so radical at all. And maybe my first grandkid will be a theyby named Freedom.